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The 2014 Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown, New York

Posted on: August 11th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I’ve just returned from a weekend in the Cooperstown, New York, area, where I attended three of the four main stage presentations of this year’s edition of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival.  Glimmerglass takes it name from Lake Glimmerglass in the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fennimore Cooper.  Cooper, whose family gave its name to Cooperstown, was thinking of Otsego Lake when he created the fictional Lake Glimmerglass for his tales of Indians and settlers in colonial America.  So the Festival, now situated on a large lakeside plot just north of town, is appropriately named.  The operas are presented in a beautiful, intimate theater, large enough to support a decent-sized orchestra pit, with excellent acoustics and sightlines everywhere in the house and comfortable seating.  It is a prime place to hear opera, and the standard of performance and production values is usually very high.

And so it was this year for the operas I attended: An American Tragedy, Ariadne in Naxos, and Madame Butterfly.  The usual formula at Glimmerglass in recent years has been to present at least one very mainstream standard repertory opera,  one classic American musical, and two works outside of the standard repertory, either due to their modernity, antiquity, or obscurity.  Butterfly was our standard work, An American Tragedy our modern work, Ariadne the novelty of a not-so-frequently performed work by a major operatic composer, and the classic American musical this year was Carousel.  Having seen the recent NY Philharmonic presentation of Carousel, I wasn’t interested enough to cram a fourth program into my weekend.  One a night from Thursday through Saturday was enough for me.  Glimmerglass helpfully schedules the operas in such a way that one can see the entire run of four operas in a weekend, if one desires.  (That could be done this past weekend by attending Ariadne on Friday night, Tragedy on Saturday afternoon, Butterfly on Saturday night, and Carousel on Sunday afternoon.  I did my trifecta by seeing Tragedy on Thursday night.  The only night the theater is usually silent is Wednesday night.)

Glimmerglass brings together an ensemble of talented central New York professional musicians who constitute a high quality orchestra, they bring in experienced conductors of the repertory in question, import a combination of established professional opera singers and talented folks at earlier points in their careers, the youngest of whom are apprentices in the Young Artist Program who get to perform together with the pros, and attract top people in the various production crafts.  Usually there are a few reasonably “big names” from the opera world on hand.  The most prominent this year was Christine Goerke, who has made her mark at the Met and several other major companies, appearing as the Diva/Ariadne in the Strauss work.  Ryan McKinny, who made a big splash last season in the title role of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, sang Billy Bigelow in Carousel.  Beyond that the singers were less well known, but were all well up to their parts with only minor exceptions.  One could be well-satisfied with the performances.

The actual facility, while handsome, is not really capable of the kind of spectacular sets that one sees in the world’s major houses, but Glimmerglass makes up for that with imagination, relying heavily on flies, projections, props, and lighting to create the settings for their productions, some of which are minimalist by modern standards but always adequate to the task of invoking the proper surroundings to communicate the stories of these operas.  I never felt that any of the settings were inadequate to the musical productions.

First up for me this year was An American Tragedy, music by Tobias Picker, libretto by Gene Scheer, inspired by Theodore Dreiser’s novel of the same name, which was itself inspired by a real incident that occurred in central New York early in the 20th century.  An ambitious striving young man from a poor background is given a job in a factory by a wealth uncle, conceives a romance with another factory worker, but then meets a society girl who sweeps him off his feet, unfortunately after he’s gotten the co-worker pregnant.  The result is ultimately a tragedy, the death of the pregnant girlfriend under somewhat unclear circumstances, the prosecution of the young man who maintained his innocence but was convicted and executed.  It’s a very suitable story for operatic setting.  I saw the premiere production of this at the Metropolitan Opera, and was interested to see how it would play out in the more intimate setting of Glimmerglass.  Composer and librettist took the opportunity to revise the score, tightening and cutting by about 20 minutes.  This production was largely turned over to the Young Artists Program for casting, with Christian Bowers portraying the central character of Clyde Griffiths, Vanessa Isiguen the first girlfriend, Roberta Alden, and Cynthia Cook the second girlfriend, Sondra Finchley.  All three were superb, although Bowers lacked the special star power that Nathan Gunn brought to the Met premiere.  (Almost a decade later, I would consider Gunn probably too old for the role today, as Clyde has to be a young, callow fellow.)  George Manahan led a ship-shape performance, and the sets by Alexander Dodge and costumes by Anya Klepikov created the appropriate atmosphere for this intensely dramatic work.  Robert Wierzel handled the crucially lighting, which is such an important component at Glimmerglass. Peter Kazaras, whose singing I remember well from his NYC Opera Days, directed.  Even with the cutting, I found the first act a bit too extended — there is so much exposition to get through, and it is not all engrossing — but the second act struck me as perfect.  Certainly, the piece packs a big punch and the music communicates the dramatic intensity of the characters and their interactions.

Friday night it was Ariadne in Naxos, music by Richard Strauss and libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, present in an English adaptation (in part) by Kelley Rourke.  This is a two part opera.  In the first part, we are “backstage” for the goings-on at a wealthy man’s estate where preparations are taking place for an evening spectacular.  The host is having a big dinner party to be followed by live entertainment, a specially-commissioned opera featuring a leading diva.  But as the performers are assembling, the major-domo informs them that a decision was made to bring a troupe of popular artists to perform as well, and that due to the timing of the dinner and the evening fireworks, the two performing groups would have to combine and merge their presentations.  Consternation breaks out, as one can imagine.  Glimmerglass presented this first act in English, and transferred the setting from the Vienna hills to the hills of Central New York, the musical production being presented in a barnlike structure which provided the unit set for both acts.  In the second act, we see the merged presentations.  In this performance, highlighting the differences, the opera is performed in German while the more popular ensemble sings in English — except for a few lines when they don’t!  Francesca Zambello, the artistic director of Glimmerglass, directed, with sets by Troy Hourie, costumes by Erik Teague, and lighting by Mark McCullough.  Christine Goerke was splendid as the Diva/Ariadne, but the real scene-stealer was Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, the leader and soprano of the popular troupe.  Catherine Martin was excellent in the “trousers” role of the Composer.  Corey Bix, who sang the part of the operatic tenor and Bacchus, seemed to have too small a voice to be paired with Ms. Goerke, however.  A liberal sprinkling of Young Artisst Program members were sprinkled through the cast, prime among them Carlton Ford, the Harlequin, and Adam Cioffari, the Composer’s harried Agent.  This was the most “fun” production of the three operas.  I’d seen Ariadne at the Met, long ago, but it did not then make much of an impression on me.  This performance, skillfully conducted by Kathleen Kelly, really caught and held my attention, aided undoubtedly by the excellent pre-performance talk that she gave an hour before the curtain.

Finally, on Saturday night, Madame Butterfly, music by Giacomo Puccini and libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on a play by David Belasco and a short story by John Luther Long.  This is the familiar tale of the American naval officer who upon arrival with his ship in Nagasaki contracts with a marriage broker to marry a young Japanese woman, whom he then abandons with promises to return when his ship leaves.  Unbeknownst to him, his wife is pregnant.  Although the marriage broker tries to persuade her that the marriage is done after the officer, Pinkerton, is gone, Butterfly refuses to believe this, instead clinging to her love for Pinkerton and his promise to return, through three long years and the birth of their son, fending off suitors, etc.  Finally, Pinkerton’s ship does return, but he has married an American woman (who accompanies him), oblivious to the fact that he is a father.  Butterfly patiently awaits for him to come and rejoin her, and is desolated  to learn that he has married.  He is desolated as well when he comes to understand the situation.  Upon learning about his son, he persuades his wife to take the boy back to America.  Once she has confronted the truth, Butterfly kills herself.  Quite the tragedy!  And if well done, leaving the audience aghast at the end. . .  The opera was a failure at its first performance, but as subsequently revised by the composer has become part of the core repertory of major opera houses and an audience favorite.  Puccini’s music has become so familiar that audiences could probably sing along with some of the most famous arias (but one hopes they don’t)!  Yunah Lee was spectacularly good in the title role, and Dinyar Vania was an effective Pinkerton, although I don’t think quite in her class.  The Young Artists Program yielded excellent supporting players as Goro, the marriage broker — Ian McEuen — and Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid — Kristen Choi.  Perhaps the most sympathetic character in the opera is the American counsel, Sharpless, who was ably sung by another Young Artists Program member, Aleksey Bogdanov (who also contributed an excellent performance as the rich uncle in An American Tragedy).  Unlike most standard productions of this opera, the first act was first set in the American consulate, although ending in Butterfly’s mountain house; the second also divided between the consulate and the house.  Minimalist sets, with the settings being created largely from props, flies, and lighting design, but most effectively so. . .  Ms. Zambello directed, with sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Anita Yavich, and lighting by Robert Wierzel.  Glimmerglass musical director Joseph Colaneri led the splendid performance.

Each of these operas was so very different that it is difficult to single out a favorite, but I think at the end of the weekend that Ariadne had made the biggest impression on me — probably because it was an opera I hadn’t really appreciated in the past but that now looms much larger in my estimation because of this excellent production.  But all three were terrific.  It is such a big loss for NYC that the old Glimmerglass-NYC Opera connection was broken as NYC Opera reduced its scale of operation and then went out of business entirely, since transfers of productions from Glimmerglass back during the years when Paul Kellogg directed both companies were frequently highlights of the City Opera season.  It would be great if somebody in NYC could re-establish the connection so these excellently conceived productions would have a wider audience.

In the meantime, however, if you haven’t given it a try in the past, think about Glimmerglass for next summer.  The festival runs from July 10 through August 21, and the schedule includes four great works: Mozart’s Magic Flute (for which this opera house is the perfect size), Verdi’s MacBeth, Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica (a real novelty!), and Bernstein’s Candide – presumably the opera house version.  I’ve already booked!