Glimmerglass Festival – Summer 2015

My blog took a short break while I ventured north to attend the Glimmerglass Festival near Cooperstown, New York.  My regular opera-going companion and I have been going to Glimmerglass since 2010, when we went up specifically to see Anthony Roth Costanzo in Handel’s Tolomeo.  We were impressed enough to return the following summer for several operas, and over the ensuing years it has become a regular summer highlight.  We go for one of the “escape” weekends when one can take in all four operas in repertory in a short period of time.  Also, after moving accommodations around the first few years, we settled on the Limestone Mansion, a bed & breakfast in Cherry Valley, NY, in 2013, which so enchanted us that we returned there last year and this and have made our reservation for the same weekend next year – the first escape weekend in August.

Glimmerglass’s Artistic & General Director, Francesca Zambello, has established a flexible pattern for the programing.  There is usually at least one American musical, at least one major standard repertory opera, sometimes one experimental program that might include a modern opera, sometimes one revival of a very early piece from the Baroque period, and occasionally an opera a bit outside the standard repertory by a major composer…  It varies, but that’s the point: one goes 4 days in a row and experiences a wide variety of experiences.  If one can stand a double-header, the programing is set up so that one can come just for Friday-Sunday and hear all four operas by attending a Saturday matinee, since they repeat the Thursday night opera on Saturday afternoon.  We tried that once and found it a bit too much.

This year the musical was Candide (music by Leonard Bernstein), the core standard repertory opera was The Magic Flute (music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), the Baroque opera was Cato in Utica (music by Antonio Vivaldi), and the wild card was Macbeth (music by Giuseppe Verdi).  Actually, recent major revivals have edged Macbeth into the active repertory to the extent that the usual formula was slightly broken by presenting both Magic Flute and Macbeth in the same summer, and I did miss the kind of modern program that has proved enticing.  (Last summer, for example, we had Tobias Picker’s opera of An American Tragedy.)   Next year’s festival will touch all the bases except Baroque: Puccini’s La Boheme for the core repertory piece, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd for the American musical, Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) for the major composer’s work from outside the standard repertory, and Robert Ward’s The Crucible (based on the Arthur Miller play) for the modern American opera.  I’m already looking forward to next year.

But back to this year….

Our first opera of the festival was Candide, on Thursday, August 6.  The unusual feature of this production was the restoration of much music that had been cut over the years in the various revivals and reconceptions.  The piece was originally presented, without great success, as a Broadway musical in 1956.  It closed after a few months, but the original cast recording became a cult hit due to the catchy tunes and witty lyrics, which worked just fine in isolation from the unwieldy book.  After resting on the shelf for a while, the piece was plucked from obscurity for a series of revivals, during the course of which Bernstein approved cutting, restructuring, reconceptions of the book, etc.  I had last seen it in a production by the late lamented New York City Opera.  Glimmerglass borrowed the version used more recently by the Royal National Theatre of Scotland, which reorganized things a bit (especially in the second half) and restored material that I had never heard before.  The result is that I, who thought I knew this piece very well, was confronted by several startling differences in the plot and repurposing of some of the music.  Did it work?  I thought it was pretty effective.  If I was coming to it with no knowledge of prior productions, I might not even notice anything amiss.  But one of the recurring complaints about Candide applies to this production as to the others; nobody has really solved the problem of the second act and closing.  This is a show that starts strong but tends to peter out a bit dramatically, almost no matter what you do with it.  Bernstein did not write a rousing finale.  It is a moving finale, but not a rouser.

The performance I saw and heard was exemplary.  Joseph Colaneri, who gave an excellent pre-performance talk, conducted with a sure hand, and he had an excellent cast to work with.  David Garrison particularly stood out as philosopher Voltaire (upon whose satirical novel the work is based) and Dr. Pangloss, the ultra-optimistic philosopher/teacher who is a main target of Voltaire’s satire.  Andrew Stenson and Kathryn Lewek were impressive as Candide and Cunegonde, with Lewek particularly outstanding in her star-turn aria, Glitter and Be Gay.  Marietta Simpson clowned wonderfully as the Old Lady.  Martin, a character I don’t recall from previous incarnations of this work, was played by Matthew Scollin in a truly standout piece of comic acting.

On Friday night we had The Magic Flute, and here I thought that there was a bit of a dramatic misfire.  The piece was conceived by Mozart and Schikaneder as a comedic parody of Masonic rites, but not really satirical in any cutting sense, more like a battle between darkness and light, with the Masonic philosophy actually triumphing in the end, although with shifting allegiances along the way.  The piece is set in a mythological time, with dragons, birdcatchers, trials of fire and water, etc.  The concept adopted by Glimmerglass was odd and a bit puzzling.  The young hero, Tamino, is first seen during the overture as a young businessman in a modern urban setting, wearing a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase, caught up and bit exhausted by the hurly-burly of the city through a pantomime of running about the stage into and out of crowds of similarly garbed modern city folk.  Somehow in the transition from overture to first act, he finds himself in a deep forest, still wearing the business suit, soon doing battle with forest goblins and being fussed over by ladies clad in evening gowns or something akin.  The setting, we are told in the program book, is the forest country of central New York, the world of James Fenimore Cooper (whose family settled and named Cooperstown), and perhaps Sarastro, the chief wizard, and his minions are actually Native American tribe members.  But they are not garbed as Native Americans.  Instead, Sarastro seems to be clothed in a long white laboratory coat with big pockets, and his minions are somewhat similarly garbed.  Although there is some suggestion that Native American rites substitute for the quasi-Masonic rites of the original, it is not clear in the staging and costuming. It is all a puzzle.   Since the opera was conceived as fantasy, I guess anything goes, but plunking Tamino into the middle of this in modern American business attire (although he does lose the jacket from his ensemble for a while) is strange.

The casting was mainly excellent.  Sean Panikkar, a bright young singer whose work I’ve heard several times over the years, was most engaging as Tamino, and Ben Edquist, a member of Glimmerglass Young Artists for the summer, was also quite engaging as Papageno, showing great chops for comic acting.  So Young Park as the Queen of the Night had some unsteadiness in her big first act aria, but was thrilling for the big second-act star turn.  Soloman Howard was Sarastro, and he really had me with his first notes – a huge but well-controlled low voice deployed with great artistry. He also has a very impressive, dignified presence on the stage.  I did feel, however, that he has not yet grown into the very lowest sustained notes for this part, where there was some straining.  From a dramatic point of view, I also thought he had not quite grown into this role yet.  The usual casting for Sarastro is to use an older man who can is presented as the wise authority figure, and Howard is quite youthful for this part.  I think that in ten or fifteen years he will be ideally cast as Sarastro.  (In the meantime, I thought he made quite a hit the next night as Banquo in Macbeth, a part for which he is already ideally suited.)  The conductor, Carolyn Kuan, kept things moving and coordinated quite well.  If this was not quite the total musical success compared to the Candide performance, I thought it was a worthy performance.

Saturday night presented what I thought was the weakest of the four presentations, Verdi’s Macbeth.  This opera came at the end of the composer’s early period before he wrote the big hits that are now central to the repertory of every major opera house: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata.  As such, it is a transitional work.  Verdi was perfecting his compositional technique as he was finding his voice, but nothing is quite as distinctive or “finished” as it was shortly to become with the “Big Three”.  There is plenty to enjoy, but not enough that is truly memorable.

My biggest criticism of this production is the decision to move the historical period from the time of the actual Macbeth (about 1000 A.D. in Scotland) forward about 900 years.  Judging by the costuming, the setting is somewhere in Europe around 1900, but there was enough inconsistency in the periods of the costuming to raise some doubts.  Victorian-era military costumes, but the servants dressed perhaps in 1920s outfits, and the non-military civilians in a hodgepodge of late 19th century and early 20th century dress.  The settings seemed rather English country manor.  Eric Owens as Macbeth was stalwart and generally large of voice but struck me as a bit uncomfortable in the role.  Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth was controversial.  I thought she was fine; some of the other audience members with whom I spoke were less complimentary.  As noted above, I thought Soloman Howard made a splendid Banquo.  Some last-minute switches had Marco Cammarota playing Macduff — and doing the part quite well — and Stephen Carroll singing Malcolm.  Both men, members of the Young Artists Program, earned their enthusiastic ovations at the end.  Colaneri was back on the podium, but seemed to me less attuned to this opera than to Candide.

We ended our Glimmerglass weekend with Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica, a matinee on Sunday.  Matinees in August at Glimmerglass can be trying.  The theater is not air conditioned.  When it was built, the need for air conditioning was not anticipated, but summers are hotter now than they were a few decades ago, and the atmosphere indoors became stifling by the end of the first half.  The side walls of the theater open up during intermission, and things seemed a bit more tolerable when the program resumed.  But my own reactions may have been affected by the unduly warm theater, as I found the first half a bit soporific.  The second half I found totally absorbing.

The opera was first presented in 1737.  Vivaldi’s operas were not published during his lifetime and the manuscript score and parts for the original first act went missing.  What survives is the libretto for the entire opera (a Metastasio product that was set by several composers during the early 18th century) and Vivaldi’s music for the original acts 2 and 3.  Conjectural reconstructions of the first act have  been performed and published, using music from other Vivaldi works that could be made to fit the libretto, but Glimmerglass decided not to take that route.  Although some extra material was interpolated for purposes of exposition, what was presented was effectively a torso of the original surviving parts from a recently published critical edition.  This is the first time I’ve heard a Vivaldi opera performed live, but I have recordings of many of Vivaldi’s operas as well as recital discs with collections of arias, so I’m familiar with the style.  With that as background, I thought this performance, as conducted by Ryan Brown, lacked the rhythmic crispness and excitement I’ve come to expect from this composer.  Tempi were a shade slower than ideal, I thought, and this is music that definitely benefits from period instruments rather than a modern instrumental ensemble.  So the musical setting was not ideal.  Thomas Michael Allen was suitably brooding and stern as the righteous Cato who ends his life rather than submit to Julius Caesar’s dominion.  Vivaldi wrote important roles — Caesar and Arbace – for castrati, approximated in this performance by countertenors.  John Holiday as Caesar did not overwhelm me with virtuosity, but seemed dramatically engaged.  Eric Jurenas as Arbace made a bigger impression on me.  I’m a bit of a countertenor maven, and for me the gold standards are such as Jaroussky, Sabadus, and Costanzo.  The men I heard in this Vivaldi performance were not in that league.   Megan Samarin was stunningly good as Marzia, Cato’s conflicted daughter.  Allegra De Vita was fine in the pants role of Fulvio, but these days I might just as soon hear a countertenor in that role.

On balance, I thought the Vivaldi and Mozart were tied for second place in my affections when ranking this year’s Festival offerings, and MacBeth came last, with Bernstein’s Candide in this fresh new conception the clear winner.

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