Glimmerglass 2018: Sense and Centennials in the Field of Dreams.

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In the heat and humidity of July, which was unmitigated in tranquil Otsego county, the Glimmerglass Festival proved, yet again, that opera and musical theatre can coexist and beat the Arts-in-the-Trashcan odds in today’s society. So much of Glimmerglass’s success must be conceded to Francesca Zambello’s untiring, hands-on management and her supreme skill in selection, execution and coordination.

The topic du jour in beds and breakfasts throughout Cooperstown this year is classical opera’s fate in the coming years.  Most opera houses in the U.S. are in dire straits: talk of the Fall of Opera is bruited about the Metropolitan Opera in the wake of administrative cataclysms and scandals; small, independent opera houses are clinging on with white nails suffering from dwindling endowments and audiences.

Making the right choices is critical; appealing both to seasoned opera goers and enthusiasts alike who seek and value live theatre is a challange.   Pairing popular operatic repertory (like The Barber of Seville), with celebratory musical theatre (Bernstein’s centennial and his West Side Story), the uniquely sensual and metaphysical (Cunning Little Vixen) and the anti-war opera Silent Night, written in 2011, based on the film screenplay, Joyeux Noël by Christian Caron of events in the first year of World War I. Silent Night’s revival, besides reflecting the merits of this powerful work, was timed for the centennial of the war’s end in 1918.

Over the past few seasons, the talented Young Artists have been cast in leading roles, as was the case this year. The Young Artists usually shine, but at times there is are noticeable differences the with seasoned professionals.

 

A Scene from the Barber of Seville at Gillmmerglass. Photo Karli Cadel.

A Scene from the Barber of Seville at Gillmmerglass. Photo Karli Cadel.

The Barber of Seville.
Music by Gioachino Rossini, Libretto by Cesare Sterbini

David Walton, Count Almaviva
Emily D’Angelo, Rosina
Dale Travis, Doctor Bartolo
Joshua Hopkins, Figaro
Timothy Bruno *, Don Basilio
Alexandria Shiner *, Berta
Ben Schaefer *, Fiorello
Maxwell Levy *, An Officer
Rock Lasky, Figaro’s Assistant
Francesca Zambello, Director
Joseph Colaneri, Conductor
John Conklin, Set Designer
Olivia Barbieri *, Choreographer
Lynly Saunders, Costume Designer
Robert Wierzel, Lighting Designer
Dave Bova, Hair & Makeup Designer

* Young Artist

Ms. Zambello’s frothy and sparkling Barber was a perfect confection for the summer’s oppressive heat.  Replete with Commedia dell’arte clowns buzzing about, handing the singers props and carrying banners and placards with names, places, and things. This comic conceit was appealing to the eye and a sensual counterpoise to the musical coloratura passages that abound in the work. One of the clowns was a little boy, of six or seven, whose antics stole the show at times.  Clever, as well, was the use of two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs and hand-drawn props and sets which were animated by clown power.  Baritone Joshua Hopkins’s “Largo al Factotem,” Figaro’s opening aria, exacted a balance of joie d’vivre and irony with his suave but gutsy voice.  Almaviva’s role calls for a tenore leggiero: here the power to sustain the devilish coloratura must support the delicate filigree in the exhaustingly high tessitura.  Tenor David Watson has a sweet voice which was not as resonant in Act I, only achieved greater body later on. His “Ecco ridente in cielo” was appealing if not a bit fragile. Bass-Baritone Dale Travis, who appeared in three of the four large productions this year, was as burnished and ideal a Bartolo as I’ve ever heard, or laughed at. He effortlessly navigated the mile-a-minute patter cabeletta which concludes his “A un dottor della mia sorte” Likewise, Canadian Mezzo, Emily D’Angelo was a superb Rosina:  her luscious lows and scintillating highs were a hit of the evening, especially her “una voce poco fa.” Timothy Bruno’s basso was a little light for Basilio in the comically baleful “La Calunnia.” Yet, his overall vocal panache and comedic presence in concocting a “slander brew,” were more than enough to compensate for an occasional lack of vocal darkness.

Ms. Zambello’s production reveled in delight.  Strands of shimmering tinsel represented both fearsome bursts of lightening and the glow of love and marriage in the final scene.  At the very end, we see a quote of Rossini:

“Eating, loving, singing and digesting are, in truth, the four acts of the comic opera known as life”

 

A Scene from Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen at Glimmerglass. Photo Karli Cadel.

A Scene from Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen at Glimmerglass. Photo Karli Cadel.

Cunning Little Vixen
Music and Libretto by Leoš Janáček based on a novel by Rudolf Těsnohlídek,
New English Libretto by Kelley Rourke

Joanna Latini *, The Vixen
Eric Owens, The Forester
Alyssa Martin *, The Fox
Zachary Owen *, The Parson/Badger
Dylan Morrongiello *, Schoolmaster/Mosquito
Wm. Clay Thompson *, Harasta, the poacher/Wolf
Kayla Siembieda *, Forester’s Wife/Screech Owl
Katherine Maysek *, Lapak, the dog/Squirrel
Amber R. Monroe *, The Rooster/The Jay
Brian Wallin *, Pasek, the Innkeeper/Boar
Gretchen Krupp *, Pasek’s Wife/Woodpecker/Head Hen
Catie LeCours, Frantik
Maggie Stephens, Pepik
Olivia Barbieri *, Hen/Dragonfly/Dancer
Anju Cloud *, Hen/Dragonfly/Dancer
Lilly Grady, Young Vixen
Michelle Arotsky *, The Cricket/Hen
Rachel Kay *, The Grasshopper/Hen
Emma Novak, The Frog
E.Loren Meeker, Director
Joseph Colaneri, Conductor
Eric Sean Fogel, Choreographer
Ryan McGettigan, Set Designer
Erik Teague, Costume Designer
Mark McCullough, Lighting Designer
Dave Bova, Hair & Makeup Designer
Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles

* Young Artist

This opera is not for a children’s audience in spite of the anthropomorphized animal characters and costumed dancers. Glimmerglass 2018 had other offerings for young listeners, but not this one.  Leoš Janáček’s feral little opera is a deeply metaphysical vision of creation and destruction related as a fable with human and animal characters.  Existential themes of birth, love, sex, parenthood, aging, longing and death are intertwined in this Moravian tale which incorporates as much dance and instrumental interlude as opera.  It’s terribly difficult musically, and although Janáček’s overall style was to mimic the Czech phonemes in musical language, it was heard this year in a fine English version by resident dramaturg and librettist, Kelley Rourke.

The original story, Vixen Sharp-Ears, was written by Rudolf Těsnohlídek, whose shadowy and eerily tragic life could be the basis of its own gothic libretto. The book was, in turn, inspired by Stanislaw Lowlek’s provocative series of illustrations.

Janáček’s adaptation is remarkable for its ambiguity, non-linearity, and blurring the lines of human, animal, and insect “love” as philia, agape, and eros. While the lack of convention is jarring, the story seems intrinsically aligned with the life’s joys, sorrows, and the consolation of regeneration.

Vixen Sharp-Ears is first seen as an orphaned kit, then captured by a forester who keeps her as a family pet.  She quickly emerges as a force of will and female independence. There is savage glee in which she breaks the necks of the forester’s hens who she despises for their domestication.  They are thus “liberated” from the sexual servitude of the rooster, who is killed as well, and from being produce machines. When the Vixen escapes into the wild, the element she naturally craves, she liberates herself and begins her new life out of captivity.  First, she sprays a badger’s sett (another act of sexual will) and moves in as the badger cannot tolerate her musk odor.  This takeover is a prelude to her coming of age and mating with a male fox with whom she bears a family. But even she succumbs to hubris, as she is shot by a human poacher to whom she feels invulnerable.

The story of the humans, by comparison, is sad and melancholic; love, dimly perceived over a moribund life is barely better than love that is lost. The forester, a parson, and a schoolteacher commiserating in a woodland pub seem hopelessly static in contrast to the rest of nature which is always vibrant.  Janáček wanted some of the minor human roles to be paired, with animals and insects. This pairing is frequently ironic, e.g., the Parson with the Badger.

Janáček celebrates the wild; domestication is played to a dirge.  The forester’s leashed dog Lapak bemoans a life without love in the same maudlin way the human males do later on in the pub.  Hens and roosters are abhorrent to the beasts that breed and flourish without human captivity.

The vocal writing is rarely ariose, but the forester is exceptional for his emotive transformations through the course of the tale. From selfishness, through delusion and the mourning for lost objects of love, he has his Wordsworthian moments in recalling a happier past to what he sees now.  No singer is better than Eric Owens in portraying characters undergoing the pain of transition.  Mr. Owen’s portrayal of Stephen Kumalo, in Kurt Weil’s Lost in the Stars brought many to tears in 2012. Mr. Owen’s most reverberant vocal range was showcased here in the forester’s part. In the last scene, Janáček’s score gives Mr. Owens the most radiant passages of the entire work.  Most of Janáček’s other roles require considerable vocal and physical athleticism.  Beautiful Joanna Latini’s performance as Vixen Sharp Ears combined athleticism, lyricism, cynicism, and eroticism, with a paradoxical insouciance.  The secondary roles, so diverse in character and timbre, contribute to the swarm of gaiety, grotesquery, vanity, and self-delusion.  Dylan Morrongiello’s excellent portrayal of the Mosquito/Schoolmaster, showed us an effete and parasitic character being destroyed by love’s vicissitudes. Zachary Owen brought out the irony in both Badger and Parson, characters that are neither viciously tenacious nor particularly sexually quiescent. Menacing and inexorable was William Clay Thompson’s Wolf/Poacher.

Much credit goes to director, E. Loren Meeker, choreographer, Eric Sean Fogel, and set designer Ryan McGettigan for combining physical engagement and visual wonder.  The scene in which the Vixen is shot, was sheer wizardry thanks to  Ms. Meeker and  Mark McCullough’s lighting: the instance of death is magically “super positioned” in red light over a blue hue of the observer’s viewpoint.   Conductor Joseph Colaneri’s clarity and depth of understanding made for a triumphant and unforgettable reading.  The orchestra never sounded better even with the tortuous and uncomplimentary ranges which Janáček typically peppers his score.

 

A Scene from West Side Story at Glimmerglass. Photo Karli Cadel.

A Scene from West Side Story at Glimmerglass. Photo Karli Cadel.

West Side Story
Music by Leonard Bernstein,
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Joseph Leppek *, Tony
Vanessa Becerra, Maria
Amanda Castro, Anita
Brian Vu, Riff
PJ Palmer, Action
Conor McDonald *, Snowboy
Tyler Whitaker *, Baby John
Tucker Reed Breder *, Big Deal
Michael Hewitt *, Diesel
Andrew Ryan *, A-Rab
Spencer Britten *, Gee-Tar
Shane Bray, Juano
Anju Cloud *, Anybodys
Rachel Kay *, Graziella
Joanna Latini *, Velma
Maria Noto, Clarice
Molly Bowen, Pauline
Christina Bourassa, Minnie
Corey Bourbonniere, Bernardo
DJ Petrosino, Bernardo
Schyler Vargas *, Chino
Matthew Steriti *, Pepe
Jawan Cliff-Morris *, Indio
Brian Wallin *, Luis
Michael Pandolfo *, Anxious
Giovanni Rivera-Litz, Nibbles
Tesia Kwarteng *, Rosalia
Brennan Martinez *, Consuelo
Olivia Barbieri *, Teresita
Kresley Figueroa *, Francisca
Michelle Arotsky *, Estella
Bella Zonderman, Margarita
Dale Travis, Doc
Zachary Owen *, Lieutenant Schrank
Maxwell Levy *, Officer Krupke
Wm. Clay Thompson *, Gladhand

Francesca Zambello, Director
David Charles Abell, Conductor
Julio Monge, Original Choreography reproduced of Jerome Robbins
Eric Sean Fogel, Associate Director
Peter J. Davison, Set Designer
Jessica Jahn, Costume Designer
Mark McCullough, Lighting Designer
Dave Bova, Hair & Makeup Designer
Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles
Katherine Kozak, Chorus Master
Grant Wenaus, Principal Coach
Kathryn LaBouff, Diction Coach
Louis Lohraseb *, Assistant Conductor
Katrina Bachus, Assistant Director
Michael Lewis *, Assistant Coach

*Young Artist

Although West Side Story is the most enduring work of Leonard Bernstein, and festivals world-wide are celebrating the centennial of his birth, any revival presents challenges.  In our current time, the gangs of New York differ ethnically and racially from what Bernstein and Sondheim knew in 1957.  Ms. Zambello might have updated world of the Jets and the Sharks, but she chose to preserve much of the original with the barest of changes.  Certainly, in Maria’s “I feel pretty,” no contemporary audience will know that the word “gay” once primarily denoted a festive mood rather than a sexual orientation.  So, some touch-ups to the libretto were also in order.  Furthermore, it seems unavoidable not to mention Puerto Rico’s current infrastructure and economic crisis in some of the passing dialog and lyrics.

Ms. Zambello’s choices here, as well as those she makes in the Rossini, seem less controversial than when she arrived at Glimmerglass in 2012 and in her work of late.  The success of the original Broadway production and of the subsequent award-winning film, imparted lasting impressions which are inexorably linked to the music.  Thus, it was wise keeping cell-phones and other obvious references to our current culture out of sight. Yet, the Romeo and Juliet inspired story, as Ms. Zambello asserts in the programs, in spurning deadly rivalries, becomes, as well, another contemporary commentary on the refugee crisis: “There’s a place for us,” the lyrics go.

So much of the vitality of West Side Story is the jazzy, sexy, tritone-infected music, the great dancing and Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics. Bernstein’s music is all his own even when he lifts phrases from Copeland, Beethoven, Bruckner, or even Strauss.    Vanessa Becetta was a lovely and sweet Maria, and Joseph Leppek was a handsome and engaging Tony.  Neither had particularly spacious voices, and their delivery, while sweet and tender, seemed a bit tenuous tonight.  Their polished acting and enthusiasm were adequate compensation.  Brian Vu’s Riff, on the other hand, was vibrant, robust and virile.  Amanda Castro’s Anita was especially winning:  her “America” was the most lauded number of the night. Julio Monge recreated the indelible Robbins choreography, which went a long way in rekindling memories of the great original production.

 

A Scene from Silent Night at Glimmerglass. Photo Karli Cadel.

A Scene from Silent Night at Glimmerglass. Photo Karli Cadel.

Silent Night
Music by Kevin Puts
Libretto by Mark Campbell
Based on a screenplay by Christian Carion

Mary Hangley *, Anna Sørensen
Arnold Livingston Geis *, Nikolaus Sprink
Michael Miller *, Lt. Audebert
Jonathan Bryan *, Lt. Gordon
Michael Hewitt *, Lt. Horstmayer
Conor McDonald *, Ponchel
Wm. Clay Thompson *, Father Palmer
Christian Sanders *, Jonathan Dale
Tim Bruno *, General Audebert
Stephen Martin *, Kronprinz
Maxwell Levy *, William Dale
Kayla Siembieda *, Madeleine Audebert
Dale Travis, British Major
Brian Wallin *, German General

Tomer Zvulun, Director
Nicole Paiement, Conductor
Erhard Rom, Set Designer
Victoria (Vita) Tzykun, Costume Designer
Robert Wierzel, Lighting Designer
Joe Isenberg, Fight director
Dave Bova, Hair & Makeup Designer
Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles
Kirill Kuzmin, Principal Coach
Katherine Kozak, Chorus Master
Kathryn LaBouff, Diction Coach
Ellen Jackson *, Assistant Director
Michelle Rofrano *, Assistant Conductor
Michael Lewis *, Assistant Coach

*Young Artist

Tomer Zvulum’s dramatic vision and staging of the 2011 Puts-Campbell opera was so effectively articulated and executed, the audience was completely transfixed.  At the end, several people commented to me how moved they were by this work.  Mr. Zyulum, who is gifted Israeli-born director of the Atlantic Opera, helped all to focus on the music by structuring and simplifying the human activity on stage.  The story, based on true events, relates an unofficial “ceasefire” on Christmas at the beginning of WWI in 1914. Scot, French, and German troops, voluntarily agreed to cast aside hostilities, albeit with anxiety, embrace and pause to recall something of home life and peace.  Songs were sung, champagne was drunk, and soccer was played.  For this brief moment, before so many were to perish, a last poignant glance of human happiness could be witnessed in the trenches.

The futility of this fleeting peace is projected from three fictionalized stories of German, French, and Scottish troops who partake in this pause.  Nikolaus Sprink (Arnold Livingston Geis) is a professional opera singer, yanked into service and separated from his singing partner and lover, Anna Sørensen. She is able to pulls strings and winds up joining Nikloaus on the front for the holiday.  Scottish brothers (William and Jonathan Dale) volunteered for service along with their parish priest, Father Palmer; a French lieutenant, another enlistee, had left his pregnant wife behind in Paris. These three domestic strands are woven into the fabric of the unique event. Puts’ score is very polished and might be considered pan-stylistic, tonal throughout, with an occasional bow to minimalism. There are cleverly crafted impersonations of eighteenth-century numbers, and Weil-like cabaret music.  Most importantly, Puts writes compelling ensembles, solos, choruses in French, German, English, and Latin. While the plausibility of each subplot might have been stretched, the overall experience was riveting, and both emotionally and musically powerful. Canadian conductor Nicole Paiement’s, outstanding interpretation of the score demonstrated her considerable skill away from her Baroque niche repertory, as was evident last year in Xerxes. In the future, we shouldn’t have to wait for an appropriate anniversary year to revive this compelling and heartfelt work. Perhaps its original realization as a film was a successful model for libretto and staging.  However, young Mr. Puts is clearly one of the most promising opera composers today.

About the author

Seth Lachterman

Seth Lachterman lives in Hudson, New York. 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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