An American Tragedy
Music by Tobias Picker
Libretto by Gene Scheer, based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser
Conductor George Manahan
Director Peter Kazaras
Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel
Sets Alexander Dodge
Costumes Anya Klepikov
Lighting Robert Wierzel
Projected Titles Kelley Rourke
Hair and Makeup Anne Ford-Coates
Gilbert Griffiths – Daniel T. Curran*
Clyde Griffiths – Christian Bowers*
Elvira Griffiths – Patricia Schuman
Roberta Alden – Vanessa Isiguen*
Elizabeth Griffiths – Jennifer Root*
Bella Griffiths – Meredith Lustig*
Samuel Griffiths – Aleksey Bogdanov
Sondra Finchley – Cynthia Cook*
Reverend McMillan – John Kapusta*
Orville Mason – Thomas Richards*
Naxos in Ms. Zambello’s staging appears to be a fictional town in upstate New York. Theodore Dreiser’s grim tale, An American Tragedy is set in the Greek-name Lycurgus (ironically, the lawgiver of Sparta) N.Y., another fabrication making one believe that upstate New York might be perceived as a birthplace of tragedy, pace Nietszche. Tobias Picker’s original operatic adaption of Dreiser’s novel was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and premiered in 2005. Francesca Zambello directed this version which was fairly well received. Since then, both Mr. Picker and librettist Gene Scheer have been steadily revising the original, mostly by broad-stroke cutting. In celebration of Mr. Picker’s sixtieth birthday, this latest edition premieres at Glimmerglass this season, again under the aegis of Ms. Zambello and directed by Peter Kazaras. The essay in the program provided by Thomas May give strong hints as to the intentions of the current revision. Giving us these clues is sensible since many of us (myself included) never saw the longer 2005 production. Dreiser’s tale is based on a lurid real-life murder in 1906, People v. Gillette. Chester Gillette (Clyde Griffiths in Dreiser’s novel), a worker in a skirt factory in Cortland, N.Y. (about two hours west of Glimmerglass), killed another employee, Grace Brown (Roberta Alden in the novel), who he had impregnated.
The events leading up to the crime are not inherently dramatic. Gillette, ill educated and poor, had come from deeply religious parents who followed the Salvation Army throughout the West Coast during Chester’s youth. During the period of Gillette and Brown’s infatuation and conflict, which spilled over into their workplace, Gillette became increasingly resentful towards Brown, especially after she revealed her pregnancy. Her entreaties for support, responsible behavior, and even marriage, were only met with his philandering with a wealthy woman in his uncle’s circle of friends. Brown, who quit the factory to return to her parents’ home, ultimately returned to Cortland after learning of Gillette’s other romantic interests. It was then that Gillette promised Brown a vacation in the Adirondacks and a boat ride on Big Moose Lake. It was there that he presumably drowned Brown. Gillette was convicted, tried and executed. In the novel and especially in Picker’s opera, Clyde is not-portrayed as a cold blooded killer, but more as a victim of his circumstances. A lust for both sexual liberation and a leap in social status, lead him to contemplate murder. In the end, after a quarrel on the boat, Roberta accidentally falls overboard and the cowardly Clyde allows her to perish. Picker’s eclectic style, combing the rhythmic drive of minimalism, the sparse period harmony of Weill, and a Carter-like multi-metric contrapuntal texture, is extremely effective. He does not shy from overtly tonal climaxes and always attempts to make the melodic lines singable and appealing. The vigorous opening is not easily forgotten as it appears before Clyde’s tragic journey and repeated after the crime, heralding his ruin. Clyde’s social station is noted in the staging, both at the beginning and end with the three main characters (Clyde, Roberta and Sondra) on pedestals of differing heights: wealthy Sondra highest with Roberta lowest. In a succession of scenes the opera charts Clyde genuinely pursuing Roberta as easy game, but also falling for Sondra’s desires and blandishments. At cousin Bella’s party, Mr. Picker’s music evokes a Adams-like fox trot as Clyde’s moral unwinding and encumbrance is punctuated by sharp and jagged melodic ostinati. As Act I closes, Roberta is pregnant, Clyde fears for his job, and Sondra is on his horizon. Early in Act II, the stage is festooned with a ghostly lattice of shirts (skirts become shirts in Dreiser’s novel) depicting the factory, Roberta, in a poignantly written aria, has accepted departure from Lycurgus to return home to her parents. It is equally clear that Clyde will abandon her as it is that he will accede to Sondra’s enticements, mainly motivated by Clyde’s handsomeness, and her delusional predictions of his financial success. A striking split-scene trio (Clyde, Roberta and Sondra) is the most effective number in Picker’s score. Sondra offers Clyde a life of sophistication, travel and wealth; Roberta offers the responsibility of being a parent. Roberta returns to Lycurgus while Clyde attends church with Sondra and her family, and tries to expose him to his new paramour. Again, Clyde delivers empty lies, promising to marry her while denying a relationship with Sondra. An eerie duet ensues as Clyde dreams of some release and hatches the plot to invite Roberta to a weekend in the Adirondacks. Ominous music precedes the boat scene and after the capsizing when Roberta drowns, there is a persistent chromatic agitato swarm from the strings – gathering strength in fugal passages, creating a tension that only ceases with the return of the opening passages from Act I. Once Clyde has been arrested and arraigned, his uncle Sam Griffiths wants to wash his hands of his nephew, and in response to a personal plea by Clyde’s Bible-toting mother, Elvira, Sam withdraws his support. Elvira’s plea and lament, magnificently performed by Patricia Schuman, reveals Picker writing at its most vocally adroit. Before his execution, Clyde finally confesses to his mother that he chose not to save a drowning Roberta, an act of passivity and cowardice that characterized his life in Lycurgus.
Most of the cast, aside from Ms. Schuman, were members of the Young Artists Propgram, and, as usual, there is much to praise. Soprano Vanessa Isiguen, Roberta, was completely convincing as the tragic heroine both vocally and dramatically. Baritone Christian Bowers was in excellent voice and able to convince us that Clyde could be regarded sympathetically, albeit with considerable reservation. As the glamorous but selfish Sondra who lures Clyde to a life of sophistication and wealth, mezzo-soprano Cynthia Cook was the perfect foil to the spurned and discarded Roberta. Picker and Scheer’s “final cut” revision elides the entire opening scene detailing Clyde’s boyhood with his mother and placed greater emphasis on the unfolding of the main tragedy. However, Elvira’s startling appearance at the very end, particularly her carrying such a significant vocal part was a theatrically unsatisfactory asymmetry, as it appears like an attempted deus ex machina in a Greek drama. It would have been judicious to have some preparation for her arrival. Maybe Picker and Scheer will continue mulling it over.
“Madame Butterfly” (Madama Butterfly)
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Based on the play by David Belasco and story by John Luther Long
Conductor Joseph Colaneri
Director Francesca Zambello
Sets Michael Yeargan
Costumes Anita Yavich
Lighting Robert Wierzel
Projected Titles Kelley Rourke
Hair & Makeup Anne Ford-Coates
B.F. Pinkerton – Dinyar Vania
Goro – Ian McEuen*
Suzuki – Kristen Choi*
Sharpless – Aleksey Bogdanov
Cio-Cio-San – Yunah Lee
Cousin – Jacqueline Echols*
Mother – Aleksandra Romano*
Aunt – Vanessa Isiguen*
Uncle Yakuside – Christian Bowers*
Imperial Commissioner – Chris Carr*
Official Registrar – Adam Cioffari*
Bonze – Thomas Richards*
Prince Yamadori – Sean Michael Plumb*
Sorrow – Louis McKinny
Kate Pinkerton – Erica Schoelkopf*
In An American Tragedy, Roberta, Clyde’s lover, drowns while he looks on; Strauss’s Ariadne languishes on Naxos pining for death, only to be rescued by her surrender to Bacchus’s love. In Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Cio-Cio-San, a teenage geisha is wooed by B.F. Pinkerton, a Lieutenant in the United States Navy, an original “Ugly American” whose intentions are duplicitous at best. To any modern sensibility, Pinkerton is a real stinker. John Luther Long’s original story, claimed to be based on recollections of Japan from his sister, was arguably lifted in large part from Pierre Loti’s semi-autobiographical Madame Chrysanthème. Long’s story became the basis of the popular play by David Belasco which was subsequently used by Puccini’s librettists. The play describes how romance spanning cultural divides can be sullied and doomed by sheer delusion and arrogance. After the forced opening of Japan to the West by the U.S. Navy, the feudal culture, traditional costumes, art, and design were objects of great fascination. However, after the opera’s disastrous premiere in 1904, Puccini withdrew it and began years of revisions. Today, audiences are most familiar with the 1907 revision first performed at the Metropolitan Opera House.
While this work might seem to lurk on the uncomfortable boundary of the overly sentimental and manipulative, its appeal is hard to resist, especially when treated to an exceptional performance. Butterfly is also a risky choice for an opera company; the opera’s great popularity along with ample memories (and recordings) of treasured interpreters of the past invite inevitable comparisons and high expectations. Ms. Zambello’s production this year is conservative in comparison to her radical Aida two seasons ago. However tied to recognizable tradition and calculated, perhaps, to avoid uncharted territory, this production was well nigh perfect. Michael Yeargan’s elegant yet minimal sets were magical; Robert Wierzal — Glimmerglass’s wizard of lighting, shadow and silhouette — complemented the mise-en-scène. Anita Yavich’s costuming seemed just right, and helped unify all visual elements.
However, it was the captivating vocalism of Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San that made this performance memorable. With minimum vocal effort, she demonstrated complete dynamic control, contouring the lines with a fresh, sweet sheen which was never cloying and appropriately restrained. Tenor Dinyar Vania, Pinkerton, started off a bit too forcefully, but in hindsight his puissance suited Pinkerton’s bull-headed persona. By the time of the great duet, Vogliatemi bene, Mr. Vania’s voice warmed up and was well matched with Ms. Lee’s singing which continued to shine in Act II with a plaintive and beautiful Un bel di. There is a sense of impending tragedy as this act progresses, and Puccini’s harmonic vocabulary, infused at times with late-Wagner idioms along with unique pentatonic touches, represents some his finest exotic writing before his last opera, Turandot. Conductor Joseph Colaneri revealed his love for Butterfly in the program essay; certainly his performance seemed warmer and more spacious than in other offerings this weekend.
An effective pantomime staging opened Act III depicting the union of Pinkerton and Kate; flags, paper screens, subtly changing hues and silhouettes all tell the tale. Petals fall, images of a radiant dawn become darkly reddened and foreboding. At the end, Butterfly’s act of Jigaki (the female equivalent of hara-kiri) was tastefully staged. The audience sees crimson silks, Suzuki’s unsparing expression of grief, and finally the child, “Sorrow,” the consummation of Pinkerton’s reckless affections. The co-presence of these elements, particularly Sorrow’s eager embrace of his father holding Butterfly’s limp body, might appear as clichéd histrionics if pacing isn’t perfect. However, these evocations were perfectly executed; it was all stirring, convincing and heartfelt.
Mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi, Suzuki, was one of the wonderful surprises of this production. Ukrainian baritone, Aleksey Bogdanov, was a compelling and sympathetic Sharpless, a role which attempts to mitigate Pinkerton’s negative depiction of Americans.
The dramatic and textual trappings of Madama Butterfly’s story might be too tightly bound to history, tradition, and artifacts of early twentieth-century Orientalism to attract sweeping revisions and Regietheater. As such, Puccini was never the peddler of “high concepts”or abstractions. For operas like Madama Butterfly, directors must find an elusive niche in the edifice of tradition. Ms. Zambello, whose penchant for the controversial and thought bending, has demonstrated how adept a classical dramatist she can be.