Articles by Seth Lachterman
As always, I seek some unifying subtext for the offerings, and this year the quest was, at face value, quite simple: birds. An outdoor avian sculpture and a birder challenge in the program booklets left no doubt of the “theme” intended. However, the degree of suggestion varied from the most obvious (Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie) to the surreal (Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd) and merely suggestive in the others. Rossini's rarely performed dramatic comedy, La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) was the most interesting production this season. While I would never concur with Toscanini's equating Rossini’s talent to that of Mozart (in quality and not merely in youthful quantity), the mix of comedy and high drama certainly had pretensions to some of Mozart’s great operatic moments. Perhaps, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte served as models for the young composer; he even manages some near literal quotes of these works in the second act.
Shakespeare's stygian supernatural tragedy, replete with witches, paradoxical prophesies, grisly murders and ghosts, was embraced enthusiastically by Verdi. He made the following remark: "This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man." His enthusiasm for the play and his own adaptation never waned. The original Italian four-act 1847 score was heavily revised in 1865, the latter version used a libretto in French and was in five acts. This 1865 revision really has the most compelling music for Lady Macbeth and the chorus, the latter carrying much of the weight of the opera. In fact, the choruses throughout Macbeth show Verdi at his most innovative and are on the par with those in his Requiem. Tonight's performance followed the revised version, sung in Italian, with the laudatory reinstatement of “Mal per me che m'affidai,” Macbeth's stunning final aria from the original.
The work progressed from heroic numbers like “Sing to me of Odysseus,” to the blunter plaint, “Face it, he’s never coming home!” Engaging young audiences has become essential for classical music to survive in a world where digital immersion of immediacy of effect raises the aesthetic threshold.
Lucking into one of the first few nice days of a late spring, I attended the annual Glimmerglass Festival kickoff, hosted at Midwood, the secluded Germantown home of philanthropist Joan K. Davidson. This beautiful Sunday afternoon offered the enticements of the summer opera fare in Cooperstown along with hors d'oeuvres and wine. Francesca Zambello, the transformational Artistic & General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, invited several young artists, veteran performers, and composers to further the cause.
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.
Whether by intention or not, each of the three brilliant productions at Glimmerglass this summer feature profligate cads driving themselves and the women they profess to love to suicide, murder, and, in one case a “transformation” for the better. …
When I interviewed Francesca Zambello in 2011 she had just been named General and Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival. Under her predecessor’s tenure, each opera season had a unifying “theme.” Ms. Zambello quickly swore off such yearly festival themes as trite convention. Yet, in 2012, as reported in this journal, one clearly felt the bristling fervency of social activism in every aspect of production. That season was topped off with a provocative interview with Ruth Bader Ginsberg to a packed audience in her thrall at the Otesaga Hotel. There were probably more law professors there that day than music lovers. Her special appearance and the ethical themes woven into each opera production, made for a startling and refreshing season. Aida, Music Man, Armide and most memorably, Lost in the Stars, were narratives, each quite unique, on the ethics of outworn societal patterns in the face of political, moral or economic change.
Should Art be merely an escape or refuge from the realities of our difficult times? In the 1940s, the debate heated and divided artists, musicians and scholars. In Wallace Stevens’s essay “The Noble Rider and The Sound of Words,” the twain are resolved in the idea that art, even “abstract” art can assume the role of social commentary only through innate and ineffable transformations of reality rather than by any explicit agenda dogmatically imposed by the creator. Great art could not be manhandled ideologically. How this solution might apply to opera of the past becomes the task of the director and musicians in balancing the surprisingly diverse elements of the music’s intent, the libretto’s intent, the historical context, and, yes, the composer’s objectives, if any. It is not surprising that Stevens regarded that an artistic creation had its own life apart from the creator’s wishes. Thus, we have the license for interpretation and deconstruction that has become the hallmark of Regietheater in our times.