Opera Old, New, Borrowed, Blue: Glimmerglass 2019

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Blue
Music by Jeanine Tesori/Libretto by Tazewell Thompson (world premiere)


Kenneth Kellogg
, The Father
Briana Hunter, The Mother
Aaron Crouch, The Son
Gordon Hawkins, The Reverend
Ariana Wehr, Girlfriend 1/Nurse/Congregant 1
Brea Renetta Marshall, Girlfriend 2/Congregant 2
Mia Athey, Girlfriend 3/Congregant 3
Camron Gray, Policeman 1/Congregant 1
Edward Graves, Policeman 2/Congregant 2
Nicholas Davis, Policeman 3/Congregant 3

Production
John DeMain, Conductor
Michelle Rofrano, Assistant Conductor
Tazewell Thompson, Director
Ellen Jackson, Assistant Director
Kevin Miller, Principal Coach/Pianist
Anna Betka, Assistant Coach
Kathryn LaBouff, Diction Coach
Donald Eastman, Set Designer
Jessica Jahn, Costume Designer
Robert Wierzel, Lighting Designer
Samantha M. Wootten, Hair & Makeup Designer
Cassie Williams, Associate Hair and Makeup Designer
Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles

Kenneth Kellogg, Aaron Crouch, Briana Hunter in the opera Blue. Photo by Karli Cadel

The much-anticipated world premiere of Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson’s opera was certainly controversial but perhaps not in the manner expected.  Any account which portrays the killing of a black youth participating in peaceful protest by police drops an all-too-familiar gauntlet of expectation.  The essential artistic task is to seek timelessness amid the clatter of contemporary social outrage and reaction.  Finding those universal themes in daily tragedies is a prime coping challenge.  Unfolding such difficult problems with music, prose, and theatre, and thus helping us understand our pain for some lasting solace, is the ultimate pursuit of art.  

Mr. Thompson’s approach left us with a sense of indeterminacy. Noting the way humans withdraw inwards to find sentience, stability and continuity, one is not necessarily compelled to seek closure with a simple point of view or social narrative. Here, for example, the race of the killer is not revealed, thus creating a mask behind which potential racial themes might or might not lie. Contemporary reactions to deaths of black youths at the hands of police are contentious.  The youth in Blue was himself the son of a black officer which adds another counterbalance by which a neutral point of view becomes almost inevitable.  

Some may have come away feeling that Mr. Thompson’s libretto was a “sellout,” not decisively positing a distinct point of view. Perhaps he was slyly hinting that such events are never as simple as black and white. Back at the hotel, a fellow attendee thought the work “heavy handed” and avoided some difficult questions. There is no question that the sum of music and text was painted in large clearly shaped gestures, but such is the usual case in operatic legacy. Proffering difficult questions and avoiding any canned exegesis is consistent with, I think, most great opera.  For example, think of the two endings to Mozart’s Don Giovanni:  one musically riveting and morally uncertain, the other tying frivolous and sarcastic bows with the story’s moral loose ends. Tragic events aren’t the only tropes of timelessness in Blue.  The scenes of the Mother’s girl-friends, ribbing about her new “Man” were as universal as the Man’s police buddies comparing notes on virility and bedtime scorecards.  

Tazewell Thompson allows the phenomenon of the Son’s death to fall upon the floor like a drop of mercury creating a shattered chaos of orbs in motion.  The Reverend, in one near bellowing  vocal outburst, releases his heart. The Mother’s almost unbearable heartbreak was, likewise, almost supernal. The Father, now a man morally broken to the point of almost committing murder himself, has effectively liquidated the rational socializations that have allowed him to pursue his career as an “Officer of the Law.”  Flashbacks to comfort “soul food” and simple religious bromides  somehow salvage the family from complete dissipation.

Ms. Tesori’s score is full of sensitivity, lyricism, color, and most importantly, a sense of nobility.  Baroque-like “grounds,” whose timeless sequences that have been part of our musical heritage from Purcell through Wagner, played their role in conveying both the act of ritualizing our grief and the release of pain in the assuring repetition a harmonic patterns.  The familiar black Baptist “Reverend” stereotype is reconfigured as priest of the Latin liturgy:  the significance of the Son’s death befits the figural sounds, images, and language of such a hallowed tradition.

What should have happened after the Son’s death? Once we grieve in our own ways, what is familiar is grasped.  Mr. Thompson eludes the manifestations of anger and retribution that has become part of the social problem’s vicious cycle.

Bass Kenneth Kellogg’s robust delivery suited the overly naive Father.  His vocal turnaround to anger and disillusionment after his son’s death was effectively executed.  Mezzo Briana Hunter’s vocal and dramatic versatility captured the Mother’s casual insouciance at the beginning and her volcanic grief in the wake of her son’s death. Exceptional, as well, was baritone Gordon Hawkins, the Reverend; in his scene with the Father after his gush of grief, he fumbles through the empty rhetoric of his church. Here, Ms. Tesori demonstrated her gift for painting agony, lamentation, and the color of her male vocal writing in this crushing scene. The Son’s alternative bearing of blasé overconfidence and predictable fits of social outrage were well captured by Aaron Crouch who found distinction in this “Everyson” role.

In spite of some maudlin moments squeezed out at the end somewhat gratuitously, Blue sports a beautifully crafted eclectic score which balanced familiar modernisms and classically shaped musical idioms when the occasion suited.  In Mr. Thompson’s libretto and direction, Blue has taken a familiar specimen of urban strife and demonstrated that nothing is as simple as it may seem.  Any death defies an ordinary epitaph.

 

La Traviata
Music by Guiseppi Verdi
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave

Amanda Woodbury, Violetta Valéry
Kang Wang, Alfredo Germont
Adrian Timpau, Giorgio Germont
Kameron Lopreore‡, Gastone de Letorières
Jonathan Bryan‡, Baron Douphol
Schyler Vargas‡, Marchese d’Obigny
Wm. Clay Thompson‡, Doctor Grenvil
Lindsay Metzger‡, Flora Bervoix
Bryn Holdsworth‡, Annina
Aaron Crouch‡, Giuseppe
Allen Michael Jones‡, Messenger
Peter Morgan‡, Flora’s Servant

‡ member of the Young Artists Program

Production

Joseph Colaneri, Conductor
Michelle Rofrano, Assistant Conductor
Francesca Zambello, Director
Joshua Horowitz, Assistant Director
Kirill Kuzmin, Principal Coach
Anna Betka, Assistant Coach
Katherine Kozak, Chorus Master
Peter J. Davison, Set Designer
Jess Goldstein, Costume Designer
Mark McCullough, Lighting Designer
Parker Esse, Original Choreographer
Andrea Beasom, Choreography Remounted by
Samantha M. Wootten, Hair & Makeup Designer
Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles

A scene from La Traviata at Glimmerglass 2019. Photo by Karli Cadel.

Having seen La Traviata here at Glimmerglass in 2009 (Concupiscent Consumption), I was eager to see how the Jonathan Miller production a decade ago would fare with Francesca Zambello’s production this year.  As much as I enjoyed Miller’s somewhat conventional but sumptuous vision, Ms. Zambello’s clever rethinking of this classic is more compelling and the production more effective.  Verdi’s painful and delicate opening prelude in E minor musically presages the final act and Violetta’s death. But here, in Ms. Zambello’s conception, we see the frail and febrile Violetta in the sanitorium deliriously reimagining her life with Alfredo.  Thus, the opening gaieties in the salon as well as the ensuing opera, are encapsulated in Violetta’s dreamscape. The lingering fatality of Violetta’s sickness suffuses everything and the images of sanitorium nurses clearing the dead from beds were indeed harrowing.  After the fleeting vision of Alfredo’s encounter, the scene reverts to her sickbed: “È strano È strano” – “How strange, how strange” – the life that has fallen pushed from a vain attempt of love to the edge of death. Her defiance “per l’aride follie del viver mio?” – “for the arid nonsense of my life now” – is seen in this grim context, rather than that of the gaieties of her salon.  Her “Sempre libera degg’io folleggiare di gioia in gioia” – “forever free, I must pass from joy to joy” – is her triumphant death rattle as her nurses gaze on at her ravings.

Amanda Woodbury’s Violetta is on a level with the finest of any interpretation.  Her ample voice easily dwells on high, in the center, and in lower registers: sonically secure, technically perfect, warm, luscious and breathtaking all at once. A voluptuous presence on-stage, her masterful portrayal vividly imbued Violetta with bravura (as in “Sempre libera”) and uncertainty (as in “Ah, fors’è lui che l’anima”).  A voice this singular sets the bar high.  Kang Wang’s Alfredo, while not exactly reaching his partner’s brilliance, showed a sturdiness and warmth and, after some opening stiffness, a suppleness that was nonetheless memorable.  His “Brindisi” did not disappoint.

Adrian Timpau, the Moldavian baritone who premiered here at Glimmerglass in the 2017 rare Donizetti revival,  L’assedio di Calais, was singular as Germont tonight as he was as Eustachio two years ago.  If anything, his voice has become richer and more pliant.  Germont’s character must traverse religious tendentiousness, haughty self-righteousness, but, ultimately, earnest compassion towards Violetta. The complex sequence from “Pura siccome un angelo,” pleading Violetta to restore his family’s sanctity, to his bending at Violetta’s grief, “Piangi, piangi, o misera, supremo, il veggo,” poses a host of subtle challenges.  Mr. Timpau deftly discharged these vocal and dramatic nuances, traversing states of brittle antagonism to that of heartfelt concern. This was certainly glorious drama and music making.  The impassioned but unrequited “Di Provenza il mar,” to which Alfredo rebuffs, concludes the scene in which all principals shined.

Flora’s salon scene sporting gambling, gypsies, and matadors was more respectful of the plot and less gratuitously ostentatious. The dancers were fine and capable given that the choreography seemed to demand little.  Downplaying the flamboyant here was wise as the interplay of the increasing tension between Alfredo, Violetta, and the Baron is not upstaged.  In the final act, closure with the opening prelude is artfully achieved.  The duet, “Parigi, o cara” was stunning:  Ms. Woodbury and Mr. Wang captured the last luster of life with fateful fragility and fervency to the audience suspended in these final moments.

Joseph Colaneri’s spirited and loving direction complemented the fine solo numbers.  Peter Davison’s sets achieved a balance of classic elegance and simplicity:  A sumptuous Flaubertian look wasn’t necessary to convey what Ms. Zambello wanted.  The contrast of vital warmth and eternal stillness, as portrayed in Verdi’s score was captured in every aspect of this great production.

 

The Ghosts of Versailles
Music by John Corigliano
Libretto by William M. Hoffman

Yelena Dyachek, Marie Antoinette
Jonathan Bryan‡, Beaumarchais
Peter Morgan‡, King Louis XVI
Zachary Rioux‡, Marquis/Page
Kayla Siembieda‡, Susanna
Ben Schaefer‡, Figaro
Brian Wallin‡, Count Almaviva
Joanna Latini‡, Rosina
Katherine Maysek‡, Cherubino
Spencer Britten‡, Léon
Emily Misch‡, Florestine
Christian Sanders‡, Patrick Honoré Bégearss
Tucker Reed Breder‡, Wilhelm
Gretchen Krupp‡, Samira
Wm. Clay Thompson‡, Suleyman Pasha
Spencer Hamlin‡, Swordsman/Revolutionary
Tanyaradzwa A. Tawengwa‡, Pursuer/Revolutionary
Noragh Devlin‡, Woman in Hat/Duchess
Teresa Perotta‡, Gossip 1
Abigail Paschke‡, Gossip 2
Simran Claire‡, Gossip 3
Bryn Holdsworth‡, Ghost Quartet
Lindsay Metzger‡, Ghost Quartet
Maxwell Levy‡, Ghost Quartet
Christopher Carbin‡, Ghost Quartet
Charles H. Eaton‡, English Ambassador
Rachel Kay‡, Living Marie Antoinette/Dancer
Joshua Kring‡, Dancer
Jorrell Lawyer-Jefferson‡, Dancer
Jasmine Harris‡, Dancer

(‡ member of the Young Artists Program)

Production

Joseph Colaneri, Conductor
Kamna Gupta‡, Assistant Conductor
Jay Lesenger, Director
Russell Wustenberg, Assistant Director
Christopher Devlin, Principal Coach/Synthesizer
Dmitry Glivinskiy‡, Assistant Coach/Pit Pianist
Katherine Kozak, Chorus Master
Kathryn LaBouff, Diction Coach
James Noone, Set Designer
Nancy Leary, Costume Designer
Robert Wierzel, Lighting Designer
Eric Sean Fogel, Choreographer
Samantha M. Wootten, Hair & Makeup Designer
Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles

 

Yelena Dyachek as Marie Antoinette in John Corigliano’s opera The Ghosts of Versailles. Glimmerglass 2019. Photo by Karli Cadel

The raucous, kaleidoscopic intertextual mash-up of Beaumarchais, Mozart, Rossini, Strauss, and Peter Weiss is grand entertainment.  It is so obsessively referential to other operas and plays that the nearly three hours of puns, parodies and lampoons might be wasted on anyone other than certified opera nerds.  One might believe that William Hoffman and John Coragliano overdosed on Douglas Hofstadter’s reflection on self-reflection, Gödel, Escher, Bach, Michael Zemeckis’ Future franchise films, and von Hofmannsthal/Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. It also seemed that the authors got so virally tangled that the creation itself became risible to its creators.  Self-mockery scores big here: this is chic Marat/Sade with Mozart.

Music and literary critic Edward Said was famous in his harsh dismissal of Ghosts as meretricious. While he undoubtedly found the comic portrayal of near-eastern culture (the characters of Samira and Suleyman Pasha, for example) to be ethnically insulting, there is enough sarcasm strewn about here to make Ghosts an equal-opportunity offender and amuser.

While hijinks and cleverness abound, Ghosts might be construed as a somewhat cynical work, written at the peak of the AIDS crisis, angrily abasing the gentle conceits associated with romance by the gentility of eighteenth-century codes.  Perhaps it is that Ghosts lacks inspired insight to the human condition that so offended Mr. Said.  As a contrast, Strauss’s Ariadne, asks us to accept the consequences of transiency as a consequence for our seeking absolutes in relationships. Comedy aside, Ariadne has a circumspect message.

Ghosts, though has a twisted braid for a plot.  The singularly unsympathetic monarch, Marie Antoinette, is now a ghost lamenting her doom for centuries after her execution.  The revolutionary playwright Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais, is a ghost as well and has a “fatal” attraction to Antionette.  He will write a new “Figaro” play/opera (being the author of the first two) in which the wily barber/factotum will leverage the sale of Antionette’s diamonds for both a coup de theatre and a way to prevent Antionette from her horrible fate.  Hoffman through Beaumarchais incorporates another plot device: the incendiary “Affair of the Diamond Necklace,” which historically brought great disfavor and scandal upon the ill-fated monarch.  Beaumarchais’s ghost believes that a new opera (a setting of La Mère coupable) with a clever plot twist, will allow Antoinette to escape to America and avoid the guillotine, and thus will set history straight.  In this interior opera, the heroic and resourceful Figaro (a projection of Beaumarchais himself) has the derring-do for this Möbius move.

Much of the play-within sported parodies of Mozart and Rossini: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Abduction from the Seraglio, and, of course, The Barber of Seville. Also, references to Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress abound. Beaumarchais’s actual third Figaro play, La Mère coupable, provides the trunk of Hoffman’s inside-out story.  In this play, the noble Almavivas have troubles after moving to a now politically-charged Paris. Beaumarchais sets the stage for a merging of actual current events (i.e. the Revolution) with lives of his fictional characters.  It is to Corigliano and Hoffman’s credit that this plot is carefully unfolded with ample hand-holding for a potentially baffled audience.

While Francesca Zambello states that a unifying theme of the 2019 season is reflected in rise of the middle class at this time, there’s a bit more here than Vive la liberté: the “terror” released a backlash of anti-Enlightenment philosophers and statesman (like ultramontane, Joseph de Maistre) that provides a mitigation for a brutish social.  Ghosts is biting vision of liberty’s retribution:  persecution for perceived venality and an apocalyptic playing out of Romantics’ lust for their heroes and supermen, no matter how loutish.

Mr. Corigliano is a masterful musician and as skillful an orchestrator as any in the past century.  Exploiting pitch ranges from decumbent and growling lows to whistling and screeching highs using conventional instruments with some electronics, was always arresting.  Most of the solo singers were young artists, and, without exception, were brilliant, enjoying every minute on stage

The spaciousness and visuals of Jay Lesenger’s production were brilliant.  Having seen this year’s Met production of Dialogues des Carmélites, the sounds of the guillotine amid Antoinette (soprano Yelena Dyachek)’s lament which opens Ghosts seemed a sardonic reverberation of the final execution scene in the Poulenc. Ms. Dyachek’s exhibited unfailing control in realizing Mr. Corligliano’s fiercely difficult part.  When the interior opera begins, reminiscent of Strauss’s musical gestures in Ariadne, we hear baritone Ben Schaefer, Figaro, in a witty send off to Rossini’s Largo ad factotum. This patter-infused encomium to his own virtues was sung with as much panache as his lamentation to his luckless lot.  Mr. Schaefer clearly loved this role: his rich, reverberant voice, vivid portrayal, and comic élan were memorable. Tenor Christian Sanders, who appeared last year here in Silent Night was a vocal and dramatic stand out as the nefarious villain, Patrick Honoré Bégearss.

Conductor Joseph Colaneri’s flexibility and endurance were tested tonight. He triumphed handily given the complexity of the orchestral score. The constant juxtapositions of pungent modernity with genteel simulations of the late eighteenth-century Gluckian elegance present challenges to artists and audience alike.  In 2009 the unwieldy original score was reduced when performed by the Opera Theater of St. Louis.  It was this score that Mr. Colaneri adopted for Glimmerglass.  I’m sure it’s great fun for the players to break into a tame minuet after some raucous polytonal yawps.

Regardless of the difficulties of this work, the opera has been steadily revised, revisited, reheard and revaluated.  Co-produced by Château de Versailles Spectacles, this production will haunt the very environment from whence its inspiration.  Perhaps, some day we may be hear Ghosts’s Cherubino-Rosina duet at a recital alongside Mozart’s music.  Whether seen partly as an indulgence for opera cognoscenti or as an earnest affirmation of polystylism, Ghosts is a rare if at times insufferable treat for performers and audience alike.

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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