Between a Barn and Bayreuth: Francesca Zambello discusses her plans for Glimmerglass.
A Season Prélude, Millbrook, New York, April 10, 2011 Songs by Georges Bizet and Irving Berlin Lauren Snouffer, Soprano Eric Schnobrick, Piano
Francesca Zambello’s first season as Artistic Director of Glimmerglass will unfold very soon. Indeed, much in Cooperstown will be transformed by her vision, if not her brand of exciting and eclectic taste. At a gathering in Millbrook, New York, Ms. Zambello, undaunted by a leg cast and crutches from a fall earlier this year, pitched the lineup, and gave a clear and unequivocal justification for the launch of the newly dubbed “Glimmerglass Festival.” Ms. Zambello, who has an infectious sort of down-to-earth enthusiasm, is determined to make Glimmerglass a major draw. No longer merely a season of repertory operas clustered around weekends, the Festival will strive for wider audience appeal, and more lectures and recitals. Promoting Lake Otsego as a destination, it is hoped the rural beauty of the area will attract NYC visitors for long weekend stays.
The Glimmerglass season, reported in detail here, will consist of Bizet’s Carmen, in an “opéra comique” version (with dialogue instead of recitatives), the Cherubini rarity Medea, a double bill of recent American operas, Blizzard on Marblehead Neck (commissioned by Glimmerglass from Janine Tesor and Tony Kushner) and Later the Same Evening by John Musto and Mark Campbell, and Jerome Kern’s Annie Get Your Gun. As Ms. Zambello explains in her interview it will be Glimmerglass’ policy to offer each year a classic American musical in a “historical” performance, that is, with full orchestra and no amplification. Glimmerglass will also offer concerts, new educational activities, opportunities for picnicking on the beautiful grounds, and other amusements in Cooperstown and its environs.
As an opera director, Ms. Zambello’s accomplishments are astonishing: once a protégé of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, she has over two hundred productions to her credit spread over twenty-six years in the major opera houses of the US, Europe, and Asia. Some notable productions include War and Peace for the Opéra de Paris, Peter Grimes for the Netherland Opera; Otello at the Bayerisches Staatsoper; Dialogues of the Carmelites for the Saito Kinen Festival; Boris Godunov for the English National Opera; Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Copenhagen; and, a notable Les Troyens at the Met. Even while she changes hats to be an “Artistic Director” – a role that allows her to oversee and coordinate production – she will mount a new Ring for the San Francisco Opera, as well as a premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier, commemorating the tragedy of 9/11. Ms. Zambello’s work spans the divide between serious opera, and more popular, “crossover” stage and theatrical works. But this flexibility should not be construed as adulteration of her serious mission: indeed, her work in musical theatre is sincere, brilliant and innovative. Her populist résumé includes The Little Mermaid for Disney on Broadway; a musical of The Little House on the Prairie for the Guthrie Theater; Rebecca for Vienna’s Raimund Theater; Aladdin in Disneyland; Show Boat at the Royal Albert Hall; The Little Prince with Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman; a film version of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors for BBC Television; a film version of The Little Prince for the BBC and PBS; and, West Side Story for the floating Bregenz Festspiele in Konstanz am Bodensee What distinguishes Glimmerglass from other summer opera festivals are two strong suits that merit the attention of any opera devotee: first, the extraordinary and selective Young Artist Program which combs the country for the those who are perceived as most likely to benefit from an internship in a real production environment; and, secondly, the hall’s natural, unamplified acoustic suited for an audience of 970 with an ample pit for a full-sized orchestra. The informality of the beautiful rural setting prompted Ms. Zambello to say the Festival seems to her a cross between “Bayreuth and a Barn,” an apt conflation she makes many times these days in interviews. The “theme-based” approach of the past (e.g. “Orpheus” in 2007 or “Shakespeare” in 2008 as organizing elements) is being tossed away in favor of good old-fashioned-American-eclecticism. Bizet’s popular Carmen, directed by Columbia University’s Anne Bogart (co-founder of the SITI Company), will stand alongside the somewhat obscure Cherubini work, Medea, directed by Michael Barker-Craven of Ireland’s Wexford Festival Opera. Ms. Zambello herself will direct both Annie Get Your Gun, the 1940s musical by Irving Berlin, and A Blizzard in Marblehead Neck, a new work composed and conducted by Broadway’s Jeanine Tesori (with libretto by Tony Kushner). Composer John Musto’s Later the Same Evening, inspired by Edward Hopper’s paintings, will be featured with a parallel exhibit of Hopper’s works at the Fenimore Museum. One way to ensure an audience for a professional revival of a relic like Annie Get Your Gun is to enlist some very important talent: Deborah Voigt and Rod Gilfry will undoubtedly draw many to the sixty-year-old Berlin work. Having been born during that decade, I can’t imagine anyone not knowing “Anything you can do I can do better,” but, I’m sure many (most) of non-boomers will need the celebrity lure to be roped in. Undoubtedly there will be those who will complain that Glimmerglass is catering to a crowd bent on kitsch and that even Zambello’s choice is edging on a calculated risk. However, it is likely that Voigt and Gilfry have the kind of appeal that will fill the hall regardless of repertory. Additionally, Ms. Voigt will be the Artist In Residence giving the young artists a singular opportunity to be mentored by one of the finest stage performers of today. Last year, before the summer season, I enjoyed a song recital of Copland and Ives in Greenwich, CT. which featured singers from the Young Artist Program. Once again, a talented Julliard student was featured in today’s recital. Austin, Texas-born soprano Lauren Snouffer performed a collection of rarely heard works by Georges Bizet and Irving Berlin. The selections, delightful in themselves, spoke, I think to the mood of the season ahead. Ms. Snouffer’s gamine bearing belied a very polished technique and musicality. While none of these light works made strong interpretive demands, Ms. Snouffer treated them in earnest and with considerable finesse. Bizet’s Ouvre ton coeur, a Spanish-infusion, seemed an appropriate herald for the Carmen season. Chanson d’avril, a florid and scintillating piece was contrasted with a gentle barcarolle. Ms. Snouffer possesses a brilliant coloratura as was demonstrated in Bizet’s Tarentelle in which a flitting butterfly is likened to ephemeral love. The butterfly subject continued in the opening Berlin piece, Whose Little Heart are You Breaking Now, Little Butterfly?, a work redolent of those sentimental pre-WWI pieces that charm one with such grace. I Got the Sun the Morning, from Annie Get Your Gun concluded the recital. Glimmerglass house pianist Eric Schnobrick, whose versatility was evident in last year’s recital, seemed equally at home with Bizet’s blithe pièces du salon as with Berlin’s Tin Pan Alley style. [For a review of Lauren Snouffer’s warmly received performance of György Kurtàg’s Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova, Op. 17 at the Tully Scope Festival, click here. —Ed.]
I look forward to this year of Ms. Zambello’s re-invention of Glimmerglass. Although she firmly states that she is just building on an existing tradition, it is also clear that she is expected to turn around the sagging sales of the past few years. Her shaking things up is intended to widen the appeal of Glimmerglass and put the festival on an equal artistic footing with any top opera houses here or abroad. How will the already faithful take to Francesca’s Festival? Ms. Zambello is confident she will eat her cake and have it as well.
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