Isolation and loneliness may be detrimental to individuals, but they are sources of sweet woe in “Twisted Apples,” an intimate and evocative chamber opera that opened Thursday at Nautilus Music-Theater in St. Paul.

A three-act adaptation of stories from Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” about small-town life in the late 1800s, the show takes its title from the malformed fruit that pickers leave on trees. With librettist Jim Payne’s deft lyrics floating on gossamer compositions by Robert Elhai, it conveys the secret aches and agitated longings of characters aiming to bust out of their strictures.

Director Ben Krywosz’s unfussy, honest production, with a suggestive set and frumpy period costumes by Victoria Petrovich, subtly transports a viewer to a claustrophobic community where gossip can constrain dreams, and a pastor can spy into a churchgoer’s bedroom from the bell tower. That feeling is reinforced by Nautilus’ tiny space — it’s like having an opera performed in your living room.

An amalgam of one-acts presented over the years at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the show has fine lead actors in Norah Long and Gary Briggle.

In the first act, titled “Answered Prayers,” Long plays an independent-minded teacher who inspires lust in both a married Presbyterian minister (JP Fitzgibbons) and a former student who’s now a cub reporter (Joshua Hinck). Choices, choices.

In the second act, “Untold Lies,” a young farmhand (Eric Morris) whose girlfriend is pregnant discusses his situation while husking corn with an older co-worker (Briggle), who offers advice from his own life experiences with his wife (Long).

And in the third act, which gives the show its title, Long plays a woman who owns a rundown hotel with her husband but is carrying on a thing with her doctor (Briggle).

The music and performances are the winning elements of this show. (Pianist Jerry Rubino leads the small music ensemble.) Long reportedly had been under the weather, but you would never know it. On Thursday, she was emotive and expressive, balancing strength and propriety in all three acts.

Briggle, likewise, was stellar, with a tour-de-force performance in the second act. If the other performers seemed more workmanlike, it’s in large part because they paled in comparison to him and the incandescent Long.

 

rpreston@startribune.com

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Twitter: @rohanpreston