Opera Theatre breathes new life into ‘Emmeline’

“Wow” factors abound in “Emmeline,” which triggered thunderous ovations opening night, and immediately raised the profile of this inexplicably neglected American classic.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis has transformed this shattering, powerful saga about a 19th century woman’s secrets into a theatrical piece rivaling legendary Greek tragedy. The first full-scale production since its 1996 debut at the Santa Fe Opera, it deserved every “Brava!” from an electrically-charged and visibly moved audience.

Joyce El-Khoury’s bravura performance is truly one for the ages. In her OTSL debut, she conquered the demands of the role with remarkable stamina and heartfelt vocal prowess. She was both tender and tough as Emmeline Mosher, starting out as a demure, dutiful 14-year-old girl forced to work in a textile mill to support her family, then because of an unfortunate out-of-wedlock pregnancy , she gives the baby up. Her life is altered forever.

Twenty years later, she is a resigned adult running her family’s boarding house. She didn’t think it was possible for her to experience love and marriage, but it happens. However, through a cruel twist of fate, she endures devastating shock, suffering and sadness.

Adapted from Judith Rossner’s novel, the libretto by J.D. McClatchy provides gut-wrenching waves of emotion. While taking care of her parents, Emmeline, 34, falls in love with a younger boarder, Matthew Gurney, a railroad worker who wants to settle down with her instead of moving on. Despitethe age difference, they happily build a new life together. Her mother dies, and Aunt Hannah, the only person who knows about the child, arrives. But what she reveals is worse than what Emmeline had feared.

Taken advantage of by an older factory boss when she was a vulnerable 14-year-old, Emmeline’s shame resurfaces, and it’s disastrous. Strong, even as she endures the townspeople’s scorn, we see a rare portrait of a woman who has lost everything but remains resolute.

With two scandalous plot turns, the ickiness is palpable, but not unlike epic origins written centuries ago. And the cast strikes the right tone to convince us how heartbreaking real this is.

Tobias Picker’s dramatic score takes us on a roller coaster ride, shading all the feelings with smart orchestral arrangements -- despair, heartbreak, determination, happiness and anguish.

But it is director James Robinson’s shrewd interpretation that makes it even stronger. He has staged the show with such visual artistry that we are immediately drawn into the austere, puritanical New England world where Emmeline’s tale of woe took place. The superb theatrical lighting by Christopher Ackerlind enhances the atmosphere and mood, too. It’s no coincidence that the scenic design by Allen Moyer evokes tintypes and paintings of mid-19th century American artists, such as Andrew Wyeth. With exceptional period costume work by James Schuette and spot-on hair and makeup by Tom Watson, the cast could have been photographed by Matthew Brady as well.

The staging of the working textile mill interior and the ensemble’s synchronicity is particularly impressive in the first act, and the use of the stage turntable is exquisite throughout the two acts.

Other memorable performances include dramatic contralto Meredith Arwady as Aunt Hannah and Nicole Haslett as Sophie, Emmeline’s friend in the factory, while tenor John Irvin makes a striking debut as Matthew.

With all the elements working together, especially the creative team and leading lady at their finest, “Emmeline” is an unforgettable production that will be talked about for years.

At a glance

What: “Emmeline”

Who: Opera Theatre of St. Louis

When: June 17, 19, 21, 25, 27

Where: Loretto-Hilton Center mainstage, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis

Box Office: 314-961-0644