The sad news was released a few days ago: Francesca Zambello, the most innovative opera directors in the world, and who gave the Glimmerglass Festival its greatest years, was ending her tenue after the 2022 season.
For over a decade I’ve covered the Glimmerglass Festival and have celebrated its ascension to an internationally lauded event under the direction of the boundlessly energetic and resourceful Franscesca Zambello. The cancelation of the 2020 season was another of many tragic cancelations of sister opera houses world-wide.
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.
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.
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.
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.