‘American Tragedy,’ In Trimmed Form, Still Lacks Edge

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The Glimmerglass Festival is presenting a new production of Tobias Picker's 'An American Tragedy.'  (Production photos by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival)
The Glimmerglass Festival is presenting a streamlined revision of ‘An American Tragedy’ by Tobias Picker and Gene Scheer.
(Production photos by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival)
By George Loomis

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Since Francesca Zambello took over the Glimmerglass Festival in 2010, she has built audiences by stressing the attractions and beauty of the surrounding countryside. Now, two of the festival’s current productions reflect the geography.

Happy days: Roberta (Vanessa Isiguen) with Clyde (Christian Bowers).
Happy days: Roberta (Vanessa Isiguen) with Clyde (Christian Bowers).

The incident on which Theodore Dreiser based An American Tragedy took place in Cortland, 80 miles from the festival’s home. Its current revival of Tobias Picker’s similarly-titled opera is the first by a professional company since the world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005. At that time Zambello, as the production’s director, spoke favorably about the new work: “The opera has a strong narrative with very human characters set in the context of powerful social, religious and ideological issues.” Critical reception, however, was unenthusiastic. Now, as general and artistic director of Glimmerglass, Zambello has given the opera a second chance in an admirable production by Peter Kazaras with a cast of able singers from the company’s young artists program.

Undoubtedly, in her capacity as director, Zambello was able to identify elements of the opera that might not come across to someone in the audience. But, ironically, in revisiting the opera here on July 31, it seemed to me that those social, religious, and ideological issues were either ignored or so understated as to be of little effect. In a way, you could hardy expect otherwise when a long and complex novel like Dreiser’s classic 1925 work is boiled down to serve for an opera that, in the revised version performed here, has less than two hours of music.

'American Tragedy' composer Tobias Picker (Harry Heleotis).
Tobias Picker (Harry Heleotis)

Part of the problem – but only a small part – may stem from Picker’s decision to cut some 18 minutes from the opera’s beginning, which established that the protagonist, young Clyde Griffiths, was the son of a minister: This would at least have alerted the listener to the religious issue. In any case, the impression is that the librettist, Gene Scheer, extracted the plot from Dreiser’s novel and left most of the larger issues behind.

Clyde moves to the fictional town of Lycurgus, N.Y., to take a job in his uncle’s factory, impregnates a worker named Roberta, attracts the attention of the more socially prominent and desirable Sondra, and finds he has a dilemma. It’s all so predictable – Roberta’s desperate pleas for Clyde to marry her, the growing promise of his relationship with Sondra, the “accidental” drowning of Roberta in a boating accident – and, sad to say, so very dull.

Musically, it fails to stir as well. Along with fleeting allusions to music of the twenties, there is a lot of Hollywood in the essentially tonal score but little melody. The orchestral writing is hyperactive yet often signifies little. Occasionally, the opera shows some theatrical life, as in a church scene when Clyde, Sondra, and other congregants sing a hymn spiced with dissonance while Roberta surreptitiously turns up in back. This at least creates suspense, because you don’t know what she is going to do (not much, it turns out). But generally, the opera simply marches to its grim conclusion, which finds Clyde in the electric chair for causing Roberta’s drowning, despite insisting it was accidental.

Lovers' triangle - Cynthia Cook as Sondra, Christian Bowers as Clyde and Vanessa Isiguen as Roberta in An America Tragedy at Glimmerglass 2014.
Love triangle: Cynthia Cook as Sondra, Bowers as Clyde, Isiguen as the desperate Roberta.

Director Kazaras sometimes represents the love triangle graphically by placing Sondra on one side of the stage, Roberta on the other, and Clyde in between. Taking a cue from the factory, Alexander Dodge’s sets depict wrought iron stairs and platforms while a multitude of shirts (the factory’s product) dangle from above. George Manahan conducted  with authority, but the playing sometimes sounded fuzzy.

Elvira (Patricia Schumann) is unstintingly supportive of her son, Clyde.
Patricia Schumann, a jolt of energy as Clyde’s supportive mother.

Baritone Christian Bowers sang cleanly as Clyde and conveyed the anguish of his situation. Vanessa Isiguen sang Roberta with a strong, well-rounded soprano, and Cynthia Cook was a vocally and visually alluring Sondra. Along with making other adjustments, Picker rewrote Sondra’s aria in praise of New York, but the new version is nothing special.

The veteran Patricia Schuman emerged toward the end as Clyde’s mother and his only source of support, giving the performance a jolt of energy in the process. Given the omissions at the start of the opera, her frequent references to religion seemed odd. But her stunned conclusion that it was murder after all – following  Clyde’s belated admission  that  he could have saved Roberta – provided one of the opera’s few poignant moments.

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For her new production of Strauss’ Ariadne in Naxos, as Glimmerglass calls the work, Zambello moves the opera to the present and into an upstate New York barn in the fictional town of Naxos. (New York already has an Ithaca, Utica, and Troy, so why not a Naxos?)

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta in the Glimmerglass production of Strauss' opera.
Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta in the Glimmerglass production of Strauss’ opera.

The unseen richest man in Vienna, host of a post-dinner entertainment, is now apparently a gentleman farmer, though given the rough and tumble action, the word “gentleman” is used loosely. At the start of the Prologue performers and crew run through the audience, some bearing live animals, as frenzied preparations for a rehearsal are underway. Kelley Rourke’s contemporary English translation for the Prologue and comic scenes, with references to such things as production standards on the Jersey Shore, adds to the high spirits.

Wynn Harmon, in supercilious form as the Major Domo, brought a degree of order, but Zambello’s production was easily the liveliest Ariadne I’ve seen. It was a wonder that the Music Master and the Dancing Master (Adam Cioffari and John Kapusta, both excellent) brought the Opera, with its mandated blend of comedy and tragedy, to the stage at all.

Catherine Martin is a female Composer at Glimmerglass.
Catherine Martin is a female Composer at Glimmerglass.

Zerbinetta, the star comedienne, tells the stuffy opera seria participants to trust her talents for improvisation, and the Opera has just that quality here, with characters from the Prologue remaining on hand to help the production go smoothly. When the comic quartet tries to cheer Ariadne up, they go all out and even get results. Back in the Prologue, the high-minded Composer, normally a young man played by a mezzo-soprano, is here a woman, which gives a new twist to the Composer’s sexually charged encounter with Zerbinetta, yet the moment proves as affecting as ever. Both Troy Hourie’s sets and Erik Teague’s costumes are motley, colorful, and over the top, but the sets take on a welcome simplicity by the time of Bacchus’ arrival.

Christine Goerke is Glimmerglass' star as Ariadne.
Christine Goerke does a star turn as Ariadne.

Glimmerglass’ star of the summer, Christine Goerke, seen reclining against a bale of hay, was a memorable Ariadne. Her huge voice, sounding vibrant from top to bottom, was largely purged of coarseness and under sure control. Only once or twice did she push it beyond acceptable limits, and the richness of her middle and lower registers are things to wallow in. Rachele Gilmore offered a vivacious, securely sung Zerbinetta. Catherine Martin, in bright but sometimes harsh voice as the Composer, appeared to preside at the piano for the Opera, with Zerbinetta often sidling up to her on the bench.

Corey Bix was an effective Bacchus, though no match for Goerke in their duet, and Carlton Ford sang the Harlequin’s serenade beautifully. Strauss’ chamber-sized orchestra, sensitively led by Kathleen Kelly, sounded especially fine in the intimate Alice Busch Opera Theater.

George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.