By James L. Paulk
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – This summer’s eclectic season at the Glimmerglass Festival offers a revealing glimpse into the many strengths and minimal weaknesses of this fascinating, quirky, indispensable little company. Located hours from major cities in a rural area near Cooperstown, NY, a small town otherwise dominated by baseball tourism, with a short season (the dates are July 7 to Aug. 25) and a relatively modest budget, Glimmerglass serves as a potent training ground for an army of young singers and backstage apprentices, and it has emerged as a sort of marketplace for opera companies seeking new audience-friendly productions.
Singers from the company’s Young Artists Program comprise almost the entire casts of three of this season’s four mainstage operas (all except The Barber of Seville). The extensive use of young singers, often in leading roles, is less of a problem here than in larger theaters because of the supportive acoustics of the 900-seat opera house. Still, there is less emphasis here on powerhouse singing or marquee artists, and more on strong production values and quality acting.
The Cunning Little Vixen
Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, seen July 21, presents a challenge for Glimmerglass because of the diversity of its audience, where local families mix with jaded sophisticates from New York and across the globe. The latter are likely to prefer a production that touches on the opera’s adult metaphoric subtexts: sexual abuse and awakening, independence, and the cycle of life.
This production by E. Loren Meeker goes in the other direction, focusing on the opera’s cute, clever, kid-friendly qualities. The decision to perform the work in English (in a new translation by Kelley Rourke, the company dramaturg) added to the anodyne feel of the production. Because of the unique expressive qualities of the Czech language, companies in recent years have shied away from translating Janáček’s operas, and this performance proves their point, though it presumably made it easier for young cast members to learn their parts.
As the Vixen, sweet-voiced soprano Joanna Latini led the large cast. If some performers lacked the tonal depth and richness that come with experience, they more than made up for it with convincing stage movement and sheer exuberance. Bass-baritone Eric Owens, the only cast member not from the Young Artist Program or the Youth Chorus, gave one of the finest performances of his stellar career as the Forester, combining natural grace with unnatural vocal power and range. Owens has an uncanny ability to convey emotion. His performance in the opera’s finale, when he wistfully looks back on his experiences and expresses his acceptance of the life cycle, was a tour de force.
The orchestra has improved significantly since Joseph Colaneri became music director five years ago. So it was surprising to hear a number of glitches. But the sweep, shape, and energetic pacing were ideal.
West Side Story
When Francesca Zambello took over as artistic and general director in 2010, she began including a “classic American music theater work” each season, fully staged, with natural singing (no amplification) and full orchestra. This year’s choice, also seen on July 21, is Bernstein’s West Side Story – celebrating the composer’s centennial with his iconic setting of Romeo and Juliet as a clash of New York street gangs. West Side Story’s lyrics were written by a 26-year-old Stephen Sondheim and its book by Arthur Laurents.
Zambello maintains a busy career as a stage director, and she directed this new production. Set designer Peter J. Davison has created a unit set that nicely evokes the tenements of the 1950s and opens efficiently for interior scenes.
Zambello has always had a knack for moving people around, and here she has worked with choreographer Julio Monge to recreate much of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. They must have paid close attention to dance skills when casting, because these kids can really dance, and the effect is dynamite.
Can they sing as well as they dance? For the most part, the answer is yes. A quick glance at their biographies suggests that some had backgrounds in musical theater rather than opera. And you could hear a mix of Broadway belting and operatic singing, which sometimes created minor consistency problems in ensembles.
Still, this was a talented cast, and their youth was an asset across the board. Vanessa Becerra was a winning Maria, full of emotion and life, with a silvery soprano voice and fast vibrato. As Tony, tenor Joseph Leppek sang elegantly, danced gracefully, and had a winning chemistry with Becerra. Amanda Castro, as Anita, was stronger with her acting, saucy and tough, than with her singing, which lacked these qualities. Veteran bass-baritone Dale Travis was outstanding as Doc, the sympathetic adult who tries to keep things from getting out of hand.
Conductor David Charles Abell, a Bernstein assistant who has worked on a critical edition of the score, brought it to life in a zesty, sensitive performance. It all came together on the stage as a wild storm of energetic singing, dancing, and intense passions.
Glimmerglass can be counted on to present a modern work each year, a fine tradition that has endured for decades. This year’s choice, seen on July 22, was Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, a Pulitzer-winning adaptation of Christian Carion’s 2005 French movie, Joyeux Noël. Perhaps the most successful new American opera in decades, Silent Night has already had three different productions presented by 13 companies since its 2011 premiere by the Minnesota Opera, and it will be seen at five new venues in the coming season. Amazingly, this is Puts’ first opera.
Mark Campbell’s libretto is faithful to the movie, which is drawn from a series of actual events around Christmas of 1914, when the WWI soldiers from various nations declared a temporary truce, singing carols, drinking together, even playing soccer. The German Crown Prince, Wilhelm, sent a tenor, Walter Kirchhoff, to sing for the troops. In the movie, he is depicted as Nikolaus Sprink and is joined by his wife, Anna Sørensen. Both sing as part of a Mass celebrated by a Scottish priest for the French, Scottish, and German troops. Subplots include the story of a tortured German officer, Lieutenant Horstmayer; a pair of Scottish brothers, one of whom is killed; and a French officer, Lieutenant Audebert, whose aide, Ponchel, eventually slips away to visit his mother in his home village a short distance inside German territory and is killed while returning.
The potent anti-war sentiment of the film is amplified in the opera. The soldiers endure extreme hardship as generals and businessmen sip champagne in comfort while harshly demonizing their adversaries. Through the truce, the soldiers come to recognize the humanity of their foes: “when the evil enemy becomes human, it’s hard to kill them.” In the aftermath of the truce, as the generals discover what happened, the soldiers are punished.
Puts’ postmodern score is eclectic and highly intricate. There are several major leitmotifs. Though the opera has scenes of exquisite tenderness, Christmas carols, bagpipes, and even a fine example of high classical style, when opera singers perform “in the style of Gluck or Mozart,” Puts is at his best when he depicts the horror of war: extreme dissonance, bursts of gunfire, and harsh vocals all come together to evoke destruction and carnage. The music for the many intervals between scenes is profound.
Sung in English (with a Scottish accent), French, German, and, briefly, Latin and Italian, Silent Night is mostly set as arioso but with great variety. The parts are demanding, but stark intervals and cruel tessitura add to the dramatic power of the singing.
This production by Tomer Zvulun, created for the 2014 Wexford Festival, was most recently performed at Atlanta Opera, which is headed by Zvulun. It is ingenious in adapting the cinematic style of both the movie source and the score. In the opening sequences, moving postcards appear on a scrim, clarifying the locations of fast-changing action, as we see the various sides preparing for war. A three-tiered platform stacks the three armies into cramped trenches and permits us to see them all at once. Singers venture into “no man’s land” (the foreground) for closeups. The acting and stage movement are superbly managed.
Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis was excellent in his moving portrayal of Sprink. Soprano Mary Evelyn Hangley, as Sørensen, sang well but her acting was stiff. As Lieutenant Audebert, baritone Michael Miller sang affectingly of home. Baritone Conor McDonald turned in a scene-stealing performance as his aide, Ponchel. Tenor Christian Sanders portrayed Jonathan Dale nicely. Michael Hewitt was especially strong as Lieutenant Horstmayer.
This is an opera with a large cast, and they acquitted themselves beautifully. Nicole Paiement’s conducting was sensitive and deftly paced. It is easy to understand the striking success of this new work.
The Barber of Seville
I’ve observed another Glimmerglass tradition over the years. With surprising frequency, this is a company that can take a neglected opera, or even a stale warhorse, give it an imaginative production, and turn it into a surprise hit. Something like that happened this season with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, which has acquired a lot of baggage and become a bit too predictable. Every single friend I spoke with came here with low expectations for this one. Boy, were we wrong!
Zambello directed Barber, but she enlisted John Conklin as set designer, and his trademark style went a long way toward making it work. From 1990 to 2008, Conklin was associate director here, working primarily on set design and contributing greatly to the “Glimmerglass look” of that era – whimsical, colorful, and somewhat abstract. In this case, movable painted cutouts featuring drawings of Seville inside a scaffolding proscenium functioned nicely as the backdrop for the action. Figaro got a colorful cart, which served as a portable barbershop, all with a clever cartoon feel. A commedia dell’arte troupe, wearing bright yellow smocks and quirky tall hats, did compound duty as stagehands and chorus and held up signs (“Storm approaching,” etc.). Figaro had a young assistant, played by Rock Lasky, a member of the Youth Chorus. All night on July 23, physical comedy filled the stage, finely choreographed, skillfully performed, and carefully calibrated so that it never went overboard.
From the moment Joshua Hopkins, as Figaro, made his entrance from the back of the orchestra seats, he dominated the stage with his resonant baritone and confident, boisterous acting style. If his pitter-patter was slow, so what? He made up for it with charisma. As Rosina, mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo sang with power and fine bel canto technique, but often overwhelmed her colleagues in the ensembles.
Tenor David Walton as Almaviva displayed vocal elegance and impressive flexibility, but lacked the heft to stand out in a cast of powerful voices. Dale Travis was a stunning Bartolo, with a huge voice and extraordinary versatility, switching to falsetto several times.
As the ensemble sang at the end of the first act, one voice drew particular attention: a gigantic soprano with ringing high notes. This was Alexandria Shiner, from the Young Artists Program, as the maid Berta. Watch this singer!
Colaneri conducted with a fine vernacular feel. This was an unforgettable performance, imaginatively conceived and brilliantly modulated. A Glimmerglass triumph.
Performances of this season’s Glimmerglass operas continue through Aug. 25. For details and tickets, go here.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.