I spent the past weekend at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival, on the shores of spectacular Otsego Lake north of Cooperstown, New York. I am gradually becoming a Glimmerglass addict. Two summers ago, my concert-going companion and I had conceived a musical crush on the brilliant young countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, after hearing him sing Handel at NY City Opera and Ligeti with the NY Philharmonic, so we got tickets to hear him since a different Handel opera at Glimmerglass. Lured by the next season's program, we got tickets for two operas and spent a weekend there. This year drew us more strongly, and I am just returned from a marathon weekend taking in all four of this season's productions. Four productions in three days is a bit of a challenge, but I found myself constantly engaged by the high quality of the programming and performance, as well as the glorious surroundings.
One would search hard to put together a more diverse collection of operas in one weekend. Friday night we attended "Armide," music by Jean-Baptiste Lully to a libretto by Philippe Quinault based on Torquato Tasso's "La Gerusalemme liberata" (1686). Saturday afternoon, it was Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida," setting a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni based on a scenario by Auguste Mariette (1871). That evening, we attended "Lost in the Stars," originally written as a Broadway musical (1949) but more recently becoming part of the 20th century operatic repertory, adapting Alan Paton's novel "Cry, the Beloved Country" with music by Kurt Weill and book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. Finally, Sunday afternoon, the lightest entertainment of the weekend was provided by Meredith Willson's Broadway musical, "The Music Man." Willson wrote his own book and lyrics, based on his own story developed in collaboration with Franklin Lacey.
Each of these productions was well-thought-out, finely conducted, brilliantly sung by generally young casts (and, where relevant, danced with great enthusiasm by gorgeous young dancers), staged with an eye towards economy yet effectively done incorporating lighting effects, and the first three of the shows were also provided with projected titles (which proved helpful in the quasi-operative Weill for the sung portions, and unnecessary — and not provided — for "The Music Man").
"Armide" in revival was staged in period dress with minimalist sets. As expected in French baroque opera, there was lots of dancing, not just from the corps to ballet recruited for this production but also by several of the principals. Peggy Kriha Dye as Armide and Colin Ainsworth as Renaud, her romantic interest, were strikingly good in a lively presentation led by David Fallis. The swordplay required a fight director — in this case Jennifer Parr. The production was brought to Glimmerglass as a cooperative venture with Opera Atelier, a Canadian company specializing in must of the period, and a continuo of "authentic" period instruments blended well with the reduced pit orchestra. What was particularly impressive to me was the dancing ability of some of the lead singers. Perhaps the most striking was Curtis Sullivan, who played the god of Hatred in Act II.
"Aida" received a "concept" performance with a current-day setting, updating the wars of Egypt and Ethiopia in ancient times to modern conflict between neighboring central African states. A few titters erupted in the audience as a group of military personnel set up laptops on folding tables in the unit set of what appeared to be a semi-bombed out public building with scaffolding, internal dome, etc. The military uniforms were up-to-date tans for the most part. All sorts of contemporary touches proved mostly persuasive, although some friends complained at intermission that the music had been cut at a few points. The center of attention, Aida, was sung passionately by Michelle Johnson, and Noah Stewart was very effective as her Radames. Daveda Karanas's Amneris was adequate, but I felt not quite at the level of the other principals. Eric Owens was absolutely incredible as Amonasro, forceful and very dramatic (and not holding anything back, even though he would be singing the very taxing lead that evening in "Lost in the Stars").
I tend to prefer to see operas presented within the historical setting intended and expected by the composer, but I can accept a historical transfer that is well-carried-through, as I thought this one was. Certainly the powerful drama was well communicated, despite the incongruities of the ballet set-pieces. Certainly the final scene of execution and suicide was persuasively done. The chorus, omni-present in "Aida", was very strong. Nader Abbassi, an experienced conductor from Egypt, led a powerful performance.
We saw a semi-staged presentation of "Lost in the Stars" at City Center Encores a few years ago. The Glimmerglass production was so minimalist that it might also have been characterized as semi-staged, but that's not a drawback in this opera, especially when it is done as creatively as it was at Glimmerglass. Eric Owens as Rev. Stephen Kumalo was overwhelming in his dignity and depth. The entire supporting cast was very strong, with young Makudupanyane Senaoana, carried over from the original South African production on which this presentation was based by director Tazewell Thompson, a particular standout as Absalom, the Reverend's erring son who refuses to lie about his guilt in the mesmerizing trial scene. Well differentiated his cast by reserving the sung solos for the Black cast-member, resulting in casting all the Caucasian leads with actors, but the singing cast and the acting cast blended seamlessly together. John DeMain, who was responsible for the major operatic revival of Gershwin's Porgy & Bess (which so influenced Weill) at Houston Grand Opera, was leading from the pit, as he was on Sunday afternoon in "The Music Man."
I never saw the original Broadway production of "The Music Man," having first become acquainted with the show from the movie version, but I did see the Broadway revival a few years back. I don't think anybody can supplant Robert Preston in my affections as Dr. Harold Hill, but Cooperstown native Dwayne Croft came pretty close, and Elizabeth Futral was brilliant as Marion the Librarian. This was the one of the four shows that had the most realistic period production. Although the program claimed that the copyright holders had given permission to reset the story from 1912 to the 1940s, many references in the script seemed to me to undermine any such resetting – it still felt like a story from the early 20th century. And somehow, for me, as enthusiastic as the production was, I felt slightly underwhelmed by the staging and the rhythm of the performance, which seemed to me just slight less forward-moving and crisp than I would find ideal. Perhaps the problem was competing against memory here, and memory has a tendency to win out.
This is another show where the chorus is important, with many big set pieces incorporating dancing and singing, and these were handled quite well. Many participants in Glimmerglass's young artists program were participants throughout the weekend, but seemed to have the biggest role in this musical — which, after all, has received plenty of high school and college productions and was probably the most familiar piece of the season for many of the younger performers.
I thought it was a weekend well spent. Noah Stewart and Eric Owens were particular discoveries for me, and I'll have to keep track of opportunities to hear them again, as well as Michelle Johnson. And we'll have to plan now to return for next season, whose offerings were listed in the back of the program book: Wagner's "Flying Dutchman"; Lerner & Loewe's "Camelot" (with Nathan Gunn as Sir Lancelot, so this is a definite must-see); Verdi's rarely performed early opera "King for a Day"; and an unusual double bill of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater – staged as a dance piece – and David Lang's fantastic "Little Match Girl Passion" (run right out and get the Harmonia Mundi recording if you don't know this striking piece).
And we capped off the weekend with a sumptuous feast at The American Hotel in Sharon Springs, the best eating in the region…. Reserve far in advance!