Glimmerglass 2017: Opera in Angustiis: Commentaries for our Troubled Times in Stunning Glimmerglass Season Siege of Calais

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Glimmerglass 2017: Opera in Angustiis: Commentaries for our Troubled Times in Stunning Glimmerglass Season

Siege of Calais

Music Gaetano Donizetti

Libretto Salvatore Cammarano

Conductor Joseph Colaneri
Director Francesca Zambello
Sets 
James Noone
Costumes 
Jessica Jahn
Lighting 
Mark McCullough
Projected Text 
Kelley Rourke
Hair & Makeup 
J. Jared Janas & Dave Bova

Cast

Aurelio Aleks Romano
Eleonora 
Leah Crocetto
Eustachio 
Adrian Timpau
Giovanni d’Aire 
Chaz’men Williams-Ali
Giacomo de Wisants 
Joseph Leppek
Pietro de Wisants 
Makoto Winkler
Armando 
Carl DuPont
Edoardo III 
Michael Hewitt
Isabella 
Helena Brown
Edmondo 
Andrés Moreno Garcia
An English Spy 
Zachary Owen
Filippo 
Rock Lasky/Philip Nash

 

Leah Crocetto as Eleanora and Aleks Romano as Aurelio (center) in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production of the American premiere of Donizetti's "The Siege of Calais." Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Leah Crocetto as Eleanora and Aleks Romano as Aurelio (center) in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of the American premiere of Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais.” Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The late Donizetti masterpiece, L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais) is a rarity indeed, even in Europe. Four years after the first performance, L’Assedio was not performed again until 1990.  One hundred and eighty-one years after its premiere in 1836, this Glimmerglass production marked the American premiere.  During its composition, Donizetti had struggled with it and bent operatic conventions to seek performances in Paris. Ultimately, the opera was a tactical failure and Donizetti wound up with two versions, with an unequal number of acts. In preparation for this production, Francesca Zambello and Joseph Colaneri worked on a new performing edition that tightened loose ends and yielded a satisfactory, if not compelling, conclusion.  Some ballet music was lost in the cuts, but dance (to curry favor with French opera goers) would be an awkward addition to the nobility and gravity of the plot. In the Zambello/Colaneri conclusion, the final exculpation of six sacrificial hostages was emotionally and musically heartrending.

When I asked Francesca Zambello, Artistic and General Director, why and how she conceived this production, it didn’t surprise me that the relevancy to horrific current world woes was an important motivator for her.  She said, “We’re in troubled times.”  She has stated that the overarching theme of the festival this year is “Home and Homeland” in which the plight of indigent refugees is cast in relief.

Ms. Zambello has publically stated that the current Middle-East refugee crisis, on many levels, has correlatives that are innate in the Donezetti work which recalls different but similar historical circumstances.  In our time, Calais, backed up with refugees fleeing warring lands and oppressors, became known as the “Calais Jungle” with thousands encamped in desperate conditions.  More recently, the Syrian government’s induced starvation of Aleppo recalls the events centuries before during the Hundred Years’ War. In that fourteenth-century war between France and England, there was a horrific standoff at Calais, the shortest navigable distance between the two countries.  Unable to easily penetrate the fortifications, Edward III attempted to starve the French inhabitants.  At one point, five hundred children and elders were cast away to preserve food for younger, more able-bodied citizens.  Edward offered to spare Calais and end the siege if six burghers would come forward with the keys to the city and be sacrificed. Six burghers did so, and thus the heroic basis of Donizetti’s score.

Nine of twelve roles in this L’assedio were given to Young Artists.  Most notable here was Moldavian bass-baritone Adrian Timpau whose grand and burnished voice was most impressive and captivating. Timpau portrayed Eustachio, the Mayor of Calais, who is torn between his heroic patriotism and the love of his son, Aurelio, who has decided to join his father as a sacrifice to appease the English monarch, Edmond. The gravitas of his voice had a beauty and splendor that colored his ensemble numbers (as in the duet with Eleonora, his daughter-in-law, Le fibre, o Dio m’investe).  The role of Eleornora, sung by soprano Leah Crocetto, is extremely demanding, requiring precipitous “money notes,” like the high D leap in this duet. Ms. Crocetto, a polished, internationally acclaimed soprano, has a warm, earthy voice that was flexible and athletic enough to spring for the highs and flow evenly for her coloratura roulades throughout the evening.

Mr. Colaneri obviously loves the score and shaped the sonorous and warm mixtures of brass and winds with great attention.  Some complained that the playing upstaged the singers in the introduction, however I found the catchy march tune and brass outbursts deserving of some domination of the foreground. As a battered and shambled city, James Noone’s scene design and Mark McCullough lighting, while hardly modeled on a fourteenth-century vision, used the familiar tropes of destruction, desperation and conflict familiar in today’s world.

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production of Handel's "Xerxes." Photo Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of Handel’s “Xerxes.” Photo Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Xerxes

Music G.F. Handel
Libretto Nicol Minato & Silvio Stampiglia 

Conductor Nicole Paiement
Director 
Tazewell Thompson
Sets 
John Conklin
Costumes 
Sara Jean Tosetti
Lighting 
Robert Wierzel
Hair & Makeup 
J. Jared Janas & Dave Bova
Projected Text 
Kelley Rourke

Xerxes John Holiday Jr.
Arsamenes Allegra De Vita
Romilda 
Emily Pogorelc
Amastris 
Abigail Dock
Atalanta 
Katrina Galka
Ariodates 
Brent Michael Smith
Elviro 
Calvin Griffin

For  Handel’s Xerxes, Tazewell Thompson attempts to foil the plot’s heavy-handed contrivances with sparse staging, a dark enveloping background, and almost psychedelically colored objects and costumes. In this abstract production, color, shape and design become tropes for the progress of the story.

Interest in opera seria, the bread and butter of Handel’s writing at the King’s Theatre was starting to wane in the mid eighteenth century, and after the theatre’s bankruptcy, the composer had to reinvent operatic entertainment. Following a stroke in 1737, Handel was commissioned to write two operas.    Xerxes was the second of these commissions and premiered at the New Haymarket theatre in 1738. Although it was not successful, it remains today as singular work not neatly described by typical baroque genres. For example, many arias defied the putative “da capo” aria (ABA) structure and were cut to one section speeding along the pace of the opera, and making less demands on the singers.  The character of Elviro, a clearly comic role, also broke the rules of opera seria. Handel was pragmatic here, and felt few compunctions about injecting some of the vaudeville humor typical of the increasingly popular “ballad opera.”

Taking on the story of Xerxes, the romantic intrigues of his court (largely fictionalized), and the monarch’s excesses and obsessions, results in a more comic, almost buffo affair.  A ruler who is obsessed about the construction of an impossible public works project, and who has an egomaniacal penchant certainly has familiar reverberations in our current political climate.  Ms. Zambello reminds us she chose this work some years ago; however, it is impossible not to see the character of Xerxes through contemporary eyes.  Xerxes’ purblind need for control and possession tweets familiarly in our ears. For instance, Xerxes was inordinately fond of a “plane” tree (the Platanus related to the sycamore) he cultivated which becomes an object of obsessional decoration and adoration.  One is reminded of Eric Satie’s joke that a much-beloved gilded staircase was ultimately “stuffed” and kept from any practical use.  Also, building a bridge connecting Asia to Europe across the thirty-mile Dardanelles strait, an impossible feat of civil engineering, was such a disappointed to this historical Xerxes, that in his pique, he went wading and thrashed the waters as punishment.  Handel could not have conceived this opera without doing justice to some comic irony.  However, the plot, which suffocates itself in intercepted letters, misread and misdelivered to a maddening degree, is tolerable only if not taken seriously.  Thomson’s reserved staging is sufficiently underplayed to highlight some moments of hilarity:  when Xerxes bemoans how badly inverted his luck is, the plane tree prop descends from above upside down.  More subtly, the visual pun of rectangular “planes” morph during the course of the opera provide commentary on Xerses’ mood changes. This is especially important in the second half when Xerxes’ egoistic ambitions are thwarted and the very architecture of the city disintegrates to mere Tetris-like shapes.

For this production, Nicole Paiement, a brilliant Canadian Handel specialist, was in charge and kept the pace ahead of the plots’ own snares, without engaging in tempi that would overly challenge the singers.  The sisters Romilda (Emily Pogorolc) and Atalanta (Katrina Galka) are both given wonderful arias with the mischievous Atalanta getting the more sparkling and virtuosic music.  However, the roles of Xerxes and his brother Arsemenes are given some of the most breathtaking coloratura.  Sopranist John Holiday Jr., as Xerxes, had appeared at Glimmerglass before in the title role of Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica. He was brilliant then and a star in the making.  Now, after a few years, his voice has matured and his technique is more inflected with radiant, atmospheric highs and mellow, melancholic lows.  Handel wastes no time in handing Xerxes the most cherished and familiar aria of the opera, “Ombra mai fu.” Performing the majestic “Handel Largo” as the first aria sung, certainly pressures a performer.  Mr. Holiday’s interpretation was appropriately unheroic, being as it is a paean to a “vegetable.” It is soon scorned and mocked  by Romilda in a flute-laced aria, “O voi che penate” (“all you who suffer”), beautifully done by Ms. Pogorolc.   Xerxes brother, Arsemenes, a rival for Romilda’s affections, competes musically as well.  Handel gives some of the finest moments in this mezzo part.  Sometimes performed by a countertenor, mezzo Allgera De Vita was happily cast here, creating a greater contrast to Mr. Holiday.  Ms. De Vita possesses a remarkably flexible voice with a strength and vibrancy in the middle range that equals the power of a counter tenor, and, as well, flourishes in the extremities of the range Handel demands. She was featured last season in the trouser role of Pippo in Rossini’s La gazza ladra.  No better example of Ms. Vita’s artistry was the lament, “Quella che tutta fѐ (“She in all faithfulness”). Performed quite slowly, this short, hushed da-capo siciliano in F Minor, demonstrated how masterful her understanding of baroque music is. The plangent, plucked theorbo imparted a listless yet disturbing color which was reflected by contrasting vocal timbres during the chromatic harmonic changes.  In the return of the “A” section, Ms. De Vita never overdid the ornamentation, and, as a final touch, for perduto ho il core,” she sang the final notes an octave higher, slyly intimating the loss of his affective gravity.  Also notable was the comic buffo, Elviro, bass-baritone, Calvin Griffin. His was a welcomed diversion from the knotty plot and predominance of high tessituras.

Musa Ngqungwana (right) as Porgy in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production of The Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Musa Ngqungwana (right) as Porgy in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.” Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Porgy and Bess

Music: George Gershwin

Libretto: DuBose Heyward, Ira Gershwin

Conductor John DeMain
Director 
Francesca Zambello
Associate Director 
Garnett Bruce
Choreographer 
Eric Sean Fogel
Sets 
Peter J. Davison
Associate Set Designer
Charles Quiggin
Costumes 
Paul Tazewell
Associate Costume Designer
Loren Shaw
Lighting 
Mark McCullough
Sound 
Joel Morain
Hair & Makeup 
J. Jared Janas & Dave Bova
Projected Text 
Kelley Rourke

Cast

Porgy Musa Ngqungwana
Bess Talise Trevigne
Crown Norman Garrett
Sportin’ Life Frederick Ballentine
Clara Meroë Khalia Adeeb
Jake Justin Austin
Serena Simone Z. Paulwell
Maria Judith Skinner
Mingo Steven D. Myles
Robbins Chaz’men Williams-Ali
Peter Edward Graves
Jim Nicholas Davis
Undertaker Calvin Griffin
Annie Briana Elyse Hunter
Nelson Elliott Paige
Crab Man Chaz’men Williams-Ali
Detective Zachary Owen
Policeman Brent Michael Smith
Coroner Chris Kjolhede
Scipio Piers Shannon
Strawberry Woman Jasmin White
Lily Gabriella H. Sam

Porgy and Bess might, for some, be likened to Berstein’s West Side Story and categorized more as musical theatre than opera.

The excitement of the ensembles, in which Gershwin studied Wagner’s Die Meistersinger’s transparent yet wildly contrapuntal ensembles and choruses, musters an excitement and feverish musical propulsion that is seldom felt in many a standard European opera.  Let’s forever say that that Porgy is the great American folk opera, and never mince its stature in the classical repertory. The music is indelible and has become a firm part of the musical canon; we rarely ponder on the sources of recognizable standards as “Here comes the bride,” or “Summertime”: Wagner and Gershwin, quite different as composers and creators, are comparable in creating “hits.”

The tragic and somewhat sordid tale of Catfish Row does not manipulate and expostulate.  Moral and ethical consequences are ingeniously avoided leaving us without an affirming or denying message; occasional flights of lightness, irony and even humor are part of the work’s success, and a testament to Gershwin’s genius.  “Troubled time” was the constant backdrop for poor black communities whose fates were bound to the vicissitudes of nature and the coastal economies in the south.

The large cast in this splendid production delivered first-rate performances:  the lead solo parts (bass Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy, and soprano Talise Travigne as Bess), and the many secondary roles were convincing both vocally and dramatically.

Conductor John DeMain, who, for decades has been specialist in Porgy, never lets his three hundred fifty (and counting) interpretations burden a less-than-inspired performance.  His lauded tenure with the Houston Grand Opera, garnering awards world-wide, makes him one of the most informed experts on this work. It was his baton that led of the historic 1976 revival with HGO making a convincing case for the opera in the canon.   It sparkles right from the opening surge of strings to a syncopated ostinato which introduces the rest of the orchestra.  Porgy and Bess and its revival are further linked to the Glimmerglass Festival by long-time Board Chairman, Sherwin M. Goldwin. He was former director of The New York City Opera, produced the Houston Grand Opera version, and later led a successful run on Broadway.

Talise Trevigne as Bess and Frederick Ballentine as Sportin' Life in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production of The Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Talise Trevigne as Bess and Frederick Ballentine as Sportin’ Life in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.” Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

After the extroverted opening, we hear Clara, wife of fisherman Jake, singing “Summertime,” the wistful melancholic aria, an ironically hopeful lullaby to her baby.  Perhaps based, again with some irony, on the spiritual, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” the intoxicating rocking of two chords insinuate the mother-child bond.  Jake will perish in a storm, but survivors will somehow mend their lives.  Clara was dreamily sung by soprano, Meroë Khalia Adeeb, a Young Artist. Mr. DeMain brought a sensuous transparency blending in the chorus and solo reeds. The role of Sportin’ Life is one full of mischievous ambiguity: as a drug peddler who ultimately ruins Bess’s life, his cocky caricature draws sympathy and revulsion. In a vivid portrayal, tenor Frederick Ballentine Jr, a Young Artist alumnus, brought his vocal and physical agility to the role.  Last year he shined in The Crucible, portraying Reverend Parris. Here, of course, he strikes a very irreligious figure. The sarcastic anti-Bible screed, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was done with a perfect blend of humor and malice.  Baritone Norman Gossett, a tall powerfully built man with an equally imposing voice, was the opera’s antagonist, the wicked stevedore, Crown.  As a woman abuser, rapist, murderer, he is certainly one of the most malevolent figures in opera.The role is challenging both physically and artistically.  Mr. Gossett’s voice was always richly hued even after the staged violence.  Mr. Ngqungwana had the lower earthier register which was ideal for the quiescent bighearted man that has nothing to lose by being Bess’s protector and “man.”

Porgy’s passage from a proud beggar, forgiving all those who mock him, to a flawed shield for Bess, is the most fascinating aspect of the opera.  Porgy’s gracious poverty uttered in “I got plenty o’ nuttin’” and his commitment to Bess, “You is my woman, now,” presents a man changed through the act of compassion.  After Porgy kills the abusive Crown in a fight, Porgy’s transformation continues as he breaks free from the confines of rural South Carolina to seek the fleeing Bess.  While the opera makes no predictions about an ultimate union of the two, Porgy is no longer a “crippled” beggar in Catfish Row.  Mr. Ngqungwana’s Porgy was deep and nuanced.  I was a bit bothered that his limp, excessively active, seemed to be the on the reverse side from the lame leg.  However, his stage presence was commanding, and his rich delivery excelled throughout.  Talise Trevigne, an outstanding Bess, shined in the duet “I loves you Porgy.”  The role is as difficult vocally as the character is complex and troubled.  Ms. Trevigne’s sultry voice was a pleasure. However, the character of Serena is given the most anguished lament, “My Man’s Gone Now,” unforgettably performed by soprano Simone Z. Paulwell.

Ms. Zambello’s vision of the work emphasized the very public life of the stevedores and purveyors in Catfish row:  visually, much was realized in a lattice which encompassed the height and width of the stage. The lighting was critical in emphasizing the centers of attention.  For the deadly storm, lighting director Mark McCullough’s wizardry conjured terrifying effects as the South Carolina coastal lattice of dwellings was nearly carried off. It is Ms. Zambello’s remarkable production with the San Francisco Opera (which featured Eric Owens) that served as a basis for the look and feel of this production, which was appropriately scaled for the much smaller Glimmerglass stage.

Judith Skinner as Aunt Eller (left) and Michael Roach as Will Parker (center) with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Judith Skinner as Aunt Eller (left) and Michael Roach as Will Parker (center) with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Oklahoma!

Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II.

Conductor James Lowe
Director 
Molly Smith
Choreographer/Fight Choreographer 
Parker Esse
Sets 
Eugene Lee
Costumes 
Ilona Somogyi
Lighting 
Robert Wierzel
Fight Choreography Supervisor 
Joe Isenberg
Hair & Makeup
 J. Jared Janas & Dave Bova
Projected Text 
Kelley Rourke

Cast

Laurey Vanessa Becerra
Aunt Eller 
Judith Skinner
Curly 
Jarrett Ott
Jud Fry 
Michael Hewitt
Ado Annie Carnes 
Emma Roos
Will Parker 
Michael Roach
Ali Hakim 
Dylan Morrongiello
Andrew Carnes 
Makoto Winkler
Ike Skidmore 
Conor McDonald
Cord Elam 
Harry Greenleaf
Ellen Mary
Evelyn Hangley
Fred Edward Graves
Slim 
Andrés Moreno García
Gertie 
Kayleigh Decker

Virginia Mary Beth Nelson
Kate Katrina
Galka
Vivian 
Alyssa Martin
Sam 
Jarrett Porter
Mike Tucker
Reed Breder
Aggie Shanel Bailey
Dream Laurey,
Sylvie Olivia Barbieri
Dream Curly,
Jess Ezekiel Edmonds
Wes/Swing 
Aidan Kahl
Minnie/Swing 
Anju Cloud
Joe 
Joseph Leppek

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s early Oklahoma, while fitting the thematic mold of “home and homeland,” and being set at a time when Oklahoma had transitioned from a territory to a state, is a bit of an oddity.  One associates “noir” with theatre or film that is set in shadowy urban haunts, rarely ever letting a ray of daylight in, and, more importantly, portraying louche or violent characters and situations.  Oklahoma celebrates the sunshine, however, rural insouciance, corn, and good old American values.  However, the underbelly plot of Aunt Eller’s hired hand Jud Fry is as dark as any 1940s Noir film.  Not a simple bad guy, but a furtive, reclusive, he is revealed as a sexually and socially repressed man prone to murder and violence.  The question is begged whether he became depraved by his lack of “fit.” He may be part of the “homeland,” but he isn’t welcomed in anyone’s “home.”  His lack of social grace and brooding nature make him an outcast.  He is creepy, alright, but he’s also subjected to the kind of segregation that more conforming folk subject outcasts to that only deepen their hostility.  Clearly, though, he is not a sympathetic character, even though Michael Hewitt’s broad smile and strong build are attractive and winning.  His darkest trait, a fatal one, indeed at the heart of Oklahoma’s seemingly sunny-side-upness, is that his thwarted sexuality disqualifies him for “statehood,” part of the “union,” and part of the norm.  Jud is a clear and dangerous vertex of the love triangle in this musical. His advances to our heroine, Laurey, turn aggressive, and his churlish bidding for her picnic basket, ultimately concludes with a fight to the death with Curly.

American life can be all about happy endings and tunefulness:  “Oh what a beautiful morning,” and “Surrey with a fringe on top” easily wash away the eeriness of “poor Jud is dead,” perhaps the most musically interesting song of the set.  The irony of Oklahoma is that the sun soaked world allows the strongest to grow and the least of mankind to perish.

Curly, Jarrett Ott, was a complete embodiment of the Oklahoma sunny skies:  a fine actor with a confident voice.  The attractive Vanessa Becerra as Laurey was a perfect match dramatically and vocally.

Kudos to director Molly Smith and choreographer Parker Esse:  the dance interludes, something Richard Rogers is justly f Vanessa Becerra amous for, were just showy enough to delight and, in the surreal dream sequence, to jar us .  Conductor James Lowe got a great sound from the orchestra, and never lingered too long to allow sentiment to have its way.

Jarrett Ott as Curly and Michael Hewitt as Jud Fry in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Jarrett Ott as Curly and Michael Hewitt as Jud Fry in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

 

 

 

 

Seth Lachterman

About Seth Lachterman

Seth Lachterman lives in Hillsdale, New York, which abuts the Berkshires in Massachusetts. While dividing his past academic career between music (composition and musicology) and mathematics, he has, over past three decades written original and critical works on the Arts. His essays have appeared in The Thomas Hardy Association Journal, English Literature in Transition, and poetry in Raritan. As a charter member and past president of the Berkshire Bach Society, he provided scholarly program notes for the Society’s concerts for two decades. Simultaneously, he has been a principal at Encore Systems, LLC, a software and technology consulting company. From 2006, is president emeritus of Walking The Dog Theatre of Hudson, New York. Seth writes regularly for Berkshire Review of The Arts. When not listening to music, Seth Lachterman reads philosophy with a current interest in Heidegger.

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