ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — "Only the children's voices soothe me," an anguished Sister Aloysius sings at the conclusion of "Doubt," the new opera based on John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
She has just confessed that she is tormented by uncertainty about the actions she has taken to drive out a priest whom she suspects of sexually abusing a child in the school where she is principal. And Shanley makes things just ambiguous enough that the audience, too, is left unsure of the truth.
But of this there is no doubt: The opera, with a libretto by Shanley and music by Douglas J. Cuomo, makes for a gripping 2 1/2 hours of theater. The work had its world premiere Saturday night in a production by Minnesota Opera, which commissioned it, and the enthusiastic audience at the Ordway Center responded with a standing ovation for the cast and creative team.
The loudest applause deservedly went to Christine Brewer, the distinguished American soprano who may have found the role of a lifetime as Sister Aloysius, an old-style disciplinarian whose devout faith does not inhibit her from resorting to devious tactics to defend her values.
On first hearing, it's hard to say how much of the project's success is due to the strength of Shanley's play and how much to Cuomo's musical setting.
The composer, who has written one previous opera called "Arjuna's Dilemma" and is perhaps best known for the theme music to TV's "Sex and the City," is clearly talented. He has an ear for subtle dissonance, and his inventive orchestrations are enhanced by judicious use of saxophone, piano and celeste. Shanley has rewritten a lot of the text to make it more singable and has opened up the play by adding choruses for children and for the churchgoers at St. Nicholas parish in the Bronx of 1964.
Like the play — and the movie adaptation that starred Meryl Streep — the operatic "Doubt" takes its time gathering steam. A series of light-hearted scenes in Act 1 seem to be mainly depicting a culture clash between the rigid Sister Aloysius and the more progressive Father Flynn. Cuomo's music for these early scenes is written in short, matter-of-fact phrases of sung dialogue, and he relies on rumblings in the orchestra to evoke the sense that something is not quite right.