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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!


Glimmerglass Festival 2013 – My Annual Visit to Cooperstown

Posted on: August 7th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

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!!)