Glimmerglass Festival 2013 – My Annual Visit to Cooperstown

This was my fourth year attending the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY, with my usual theater/opera-going companion.  As we did last year, we signed up for all four presentations, although this time we spread it out over four days instead of trying to cram it all into three days with a Saturday matinee.  One program a night proved an enjoyable, civilized pace, with plenty of variety, leaving us free for rest, relaxation and exploration during the days.  We also abandoned the “tacky motel” routine and decided to splurge on a real, old-fashioned bed & breakfast experience, the Limestone Mansion in Cherry Valley, N.Y., a short drive from the Glimmerglass grounds and a delightful, quiet and comfortable place that is highly recommended.

The Festival has over the years embraced a formula of sorts for composing a varied season.  They will always do at least one “standard repertory” opera, and this year they fell in with the Wagner Bicentennial activity by selecting “The Flying Dutchman,” which we attended on Sunday, August 4 (matinee).  They also try to find a rarely-performed opera by a major composer, and for that they noted the Verdi Bicentennial as well, picking his early comedy “Un Giorno di Regno”, which they performed in English under the title “King for a Day,” although it might better be translated as “A Day as King.”  They always try to do something new, either commissioned or reasonably “newish,” and this year that role was filled with a certified masterpiece, David Lang’s “Little Match Girl Passion,” but they went the extra step of commissioning Lang to write some more music as a prelude for the children’s choir (which has an important role in the Passion).  And, as the Lang piece is not long enough for a full evening’s opera, they devised a double bill, leading off with Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” in a creative combination of singing and dancing.  Finally (although, for us, the first program on Thursday evening) the annual tribute to the gods of Broadway, with Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 hit, “Camelot,” based on the final chapters of T.H. White’s novel, “The Once and Future King.” 

This combination of programs provided something for everyone.  For me there were three special attractions to the weekend: A chance to hear a favorite young countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo, who sang in the Pergolesi piece; a chance to hear another favorite, Nathan Gunn, performing as Lancelot in “Camelot”; and a chance to experience the conducting of a major opera by a neighbor in the building where I live, John Keenan, who led the Wagner performance and gave a fine pre-performance talk.  For all the works, whether performed in English or, in the case of Wagner, German, and Pergolesi, Latin, surtitles were projected above the stage for all the singing.

Glimmerglass rarely disappoints with their productions.  Although the budget and the facilities place some practical limitations on what they can do, they bring imagination to the task and usually devise productions that work artistically.  I think that was true for everything I experienced this past weekend.  Unit sets predominate, with some moving of props, platforms, and furniture and very creative use of lighting to suggest different settings.  The audience needs to bring its imagination, and superior musical and dramatic performances make that eminently possible.  One needn’t spend a fortune on complex sets when something minimalist but functional will do.

Despite Gunn’s participation, I thought the standout performances in Camelot, which was conducted by James Lowe, came from the other leads: David Pittsinger as King Arthur, Andriana Chuchman as Guenevere, and especially Jack Noseworthy, who dominated much of Act II as Mordred, the bastard son who pops up to haunt Arthur and stir dissension that leads to the destruction of the Round Table and the fall of Camelot.  Noseworthy’s sheer energy just blew everybody else out of the water.  Gunn sang very well and with spirit, but this is yet another role where I feel he has matured a bit too much to bring it off convincingly. (I thought the same of his most recent Billy Budd at the Met, as well as his Billy Bigelow at the Philharmonic this past season.  Great singing, but these roles called out for younger folk.)  Indeed, I would have found him more convincing as King Arthur, a role originally written for the non-singing Richard Burton, who basically spoke his way through it rhythmically, although of course Nathan Gunn would have sung through it spectacularly.  Lancelot has to be youthful and brash, and Gunn just looks a bit too mature for that.  I remain a big fan, and always enjoy his singing, but I think he has to give more consideration to the suitability of the roles he is taking.  The show itself has its flaws, with excessive speechifying and preaching, but the music remains prime – lots of solid gold hits – and the performance overall struck me as worthy.

The next night, we had Verdi.  “Un Giorno di Regno,” only the second of his operas to be produced, and a flop that was quickly withdrawn and revived only in modern times, was his first attempt at comedy, not to be tried again until his final work, “Falstaff,” more than half a century later (and with a much better book as inspiration).  Does it work as comedy?  Putting it in English helped, but I thought most of the comedy came from slapstick and staging, not from the text or music as such.  The music proved a melange of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, as the young Verdi had not yet found his individual voice, although there certainly are the intimations of that voice, which would more fully emerge in his next opera and first real hit: “Nabucco”  (which was spectacularly revived at the NY Metropolitan Opera several years ago).   For casting, Glimmerglass drew heavily on their young artist residential program, including the leading role of Belfiore, the Polish nobleman posing as the king (since the actual king, an expected guest for the wedding festivities of Baron Kelbar’s daughter and niece, could not attend due to diplomatic obligations), performed with great flare and artistry by Alex Lawrence who, except for a prior Glimmerglass stint in 2011, has so far made his career mainly in smaller European houses.  An announcement prior to the curtain asked for the audience’s indulgence because Lawrence was not feeling well, but there was no sign of that on stage.  Of the rest of the cast, the real standout by my reckoning was Ginger Costa-Jackson, singing the Marchesa (Belfiore’s old flame who has her suspicions about this “king”) — and her biggest moment was singing while holding a very well-mannered little dog, who seemed very attentive to her!  Joseph Colaneri, who runs the opera program at the Mannes School and has been announced as the new Musical Director for Glimmerglass, led an energetic performance that, we were advised, had been carefully cut to avoid the longeurs typical of early Romantic Italian opera.  As it was, I found the first act a bit too long.

The double bill of Pergolesi and Lang was the event I had been most anticipating.  Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater”  is a favorite – I have several recordings, including one with two countertenors (count ’em, 2!!).  On this occasion, Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, covering the alto part, was partnered with soprano Nadine Sierra, who has been working her way up mainly through U.S. regional houses and did a wonderful job on Saturday night.  Perhaps it is an unfair comparison, but a true countertenor can sound so much more powerful than a soprano, and when Roth Costanzo made his first entry, the power and breadth of his tone tended to put Sierra’s more narrowly-focused sound at a slight disadvantage.  Over the course of the performance things evened out quite a bit, however, as the successions of solos and duets built to an emotional climax and the two soloists blended well when that was called for.  I would love to have had a recording of these singers, with the excellent string orchestra conducted by Speranza Scappucci, an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan who has significant international conducting experience with major companies.  The musical performance from all involved was excellent.

The choreography by Jessica Lang, with a talented ensemble of dancers all drawn from the young artists program (and all in evidence in other operas over the course of the weekend as choristers and dancers), was an integral part of this performance.  Unlike a typical concert or church performance of sacred music with two singers just standing in front of a small string orchestra, we had movement from everybody, singers and dancers alike, intermingling about a set that consisted of two large sticks of wood manipulated from above to form various cross-like images at different angles for each movement.  The “Stabat Mater” is made up of a series of brief movements, each setting a line from a hymn that is a long-established part of the Catholic liturgy, reflecting on the feelings, emotions and thoughts of the Virgin Mary as she stands contemplating the crucifixion of her son.  The dances Lang created for this piece attempted to illuminate those feelings in alliance with the music, and I think largely succeeded, resulting in a cross between traditional story-telling ballet and modern dance.  I found it all very effective.   

After intermission came David Lang’s contribution to the double-bill.  He put together a short piece for the children’s chorus that made an appropriate prologue to the longer piece, and then the “Match Girl” itself, an incredible moving meditative work inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale of the poor, abused child, sent out by her unfeeling father on a frigid New Year’s Eve trying to peddle her matches, ultimately lying down by a wall and striking match after match in search of heat, hallucinating her late grandmother (the only one who truly loved her) and expiring in a transcendent finale.  The piece is scored for four solo voices and children’s chorus, and the excellent soloists – Julia Mintzer, James Michael Porter, Lisa Williamson and Christian Zaremba, all participants in the young artists program – also briefly played percussion instruments – bass drum and various bells.  Conductor David Moody stood in an otherwise empty orchestra pit, directing the music on stage with intense feeling.  I thought this was actually a rather overwhelming piece when done in a dramatic staging.  I was previously familiar with the recording, but the impact of seeing it enacted by an excellent cast brought the entire thing up several notches.  The program did not identify the girl from the children’s chorus who enacted the part of the Little Match Girl!  They should have, as she was superb.

Finally, the Wagner on Sunday afternoon.  I am not the biggest Wagner fan.  I tend to find his operas too long, the acts too long, the pace trying to my patience, and so I don’t go very often.  (I saw each of the Ring operas in the prior Met production, but avoided the current one.  I have seen their most recent Dutchman, and was bored to tears.)  But I counted on Glimmerglass to produce a meaningful performance, and ultimately I came away reasonably satisfied.  The opera was originally conceived as a three-acter, but ultimately the composer rewrote it as one long span.  Now, that won’t work for Glimmerglass.  In light of the average age of the audience, an intermission is really necessary, and they ended up taking a break about 2/3 of the way through the one-act version, at a convenient breaking point that worked dramatically.  My typical Wagner problem did occur in the first part – I found myself dozing away once or twice – but after the intermission I found myself totally gripped and attentive to the end as the music and drama just seemed tighter and more urgent. 

The stage was set up to simulate a deck of a ship, but with some flexibility with scrims and lighting and a few props that were pressed into service as Daland’s home.  The casting was prime:  Peter Volpe as Daland, Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman, Melody Moore as Senta, and Jay Hunter Morris (fresh from his Met triumph as Siegfried in the last two Ring operas) as Erik.  All of them were superb, but I found McKinny to be really overwhelming – rather young for the Dutchman, but he had the presence for the part as well as the voice, and he was costumed so as to show off his stunning physique.  Supporting roles were well taken by Adam Bielamowicz (Steersman) and Deborah Nansteel (May), young artist program participants.  The young artists program also supplied the chorus, which did an excellent job, especially with the sailors’ joyous celebration at returning to port, imaginatively choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel.  John Keenan’s conducting was anything one could want, holding together the ensemble and propelling it forward expertly to a really transformational conclusion.  Francesca Zambello’s production was much more effective, in my opinion, than the rather static show I saw at the Met.

I would avoid ending with invidious comparisons, since each of the four productions at this year’s Glimmerglass Festival is superb in its own right.  I was most moved by the double-bill, and perhaps least impressed by the Verdi – the piece itself is rather weak.  We were sufficiently inspired to renew for next year on the spot, although we decided to pass up next year’s Broadway musical, “Carousel,” having seen it enough in recent years (NY Philharmonic, Lincoln Center Theatre).  But we are eagerly anticipating the performance of Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy,” which we enjoyed at the Metropolitan Opera during its premiere year, and we are looking forward to what they will do to reconceive Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and R. Strauss’s “Ariadne on Naxos.”  We also renewed on the spot our reservations for the Limestone Mansion in Cherry Valley.  (Bonus enjoyed by my opera-going companion: a nearby restaurant is the after-hours watering hole for the Glimmerglass performers.  I don’t stay up that late, but he went over on Saturday night and hobnobbed with cast members from the double bill that had just been performed. . .)

 The follow-up to Glimmerglass: We visited my opera-going companion’s sister, her husband and son in lovely Elmira, NY, for an overnight.  We also had an interesting excursion during the day on Friday to Norwich, NY, to check out the Northeastern Classic Car Museum – something fun to do while not at the opera – and, as we always try to do, we had a sumptuous repast at the excellent American Hotel dining room in Sharon Springs before the Saturday night performance.  A Glimmerglass vacation would not be complete without dinner at The American Hotel!!)

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