Glimmerglass Al Fresco: Opera As Brew Of Sunny Voices, Dicey Weather

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The Glimmerglass Festival performed in a newly constructed outdoor theater. (Glimmerglass photos: Karli Cadel)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — After losing a season to Covid in 2020, the Glimmerglass Festival has reopened outdoors as “Glimmerglass on the Grass.” Despite some compromises and with weather vacillating between chilly rain and hot sun, there was much to celebrate in this imaginatively reconfigured festival, which runs through Aug. 17.

The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson

In The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, seen at its world premiere performance on Aug. 5, the National Negro Opera Company, which Dawson founded in the early 1940s, must perform on a floating barge with the audience seated outdoors on the banks of the Potomac River. But the weather isn’t cooperating. Much the same could be said for much of the Glimmerglass Festival, which commissioned the work and hosted the premiere. The company had faced a dilemma in early March. New York state, hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, had some of the toughest restrictions in the country, and the 2020 season was lost. With indoor performances restricted indefinitely, the only way to make sure Glimmerglass could reopen in the summer of 2021 would be to move outdoors.

Francesca Zambello, general and artistic director, reconfigured Glimmerglass for the pandemic. (Marc Horn)

The company, led by Francesca Zambello, decided to move forward with plans for a newly constructed outdoor stage, together with a dramatically different season. “Glimmerglass on the Grass” featured abbreviated versions of three operas (none lasting longer than 90 minutes), several concerts of opera arias, and a newly commissioned “play with music” based loosely on Dawson’s real-life experiences. Except for a small number of shed-like boxes, most patrons have been seated on an open lawn in squares of up to four people, with neither shade nor protection from rain. Most performances begin at 11 a.m., and some at 5 p.m. Masks were required except in the squares. An earlier plan to require the audience to show proof of vaccination was abandoned shortly before the season opened. Singers, all vaccinated, sang without masks. Many of the early performances (the festival opened July 15) have been held in the rain, à la Woodstock, but while I was there, the problem was the intense heat and humidity and bright sun.

But the Woodstock metaphor only goes so far. In The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, written by Sandra Seaton, Dawson faces the choice of performing Carmen outdoors or in an opera house, but the latter comes “with restrictions on colored seating” (meaning African Americans would have to sit in the back). Dawson refuses “to give up … or give in.” Meanwhile, the company faces financial ruin and musicians have gone unpaid, with the union threatening to place the company on its “unfair list.” Dawson is summoned to a meeting in which a union board member says, “Negroes can’t sing grand opera.” She loses her temper: “I swung at him … slapped him; we wrestled around.” And she was arrested. Dawson sticks with the outdoor venue and is saved as the weather miraculously clears.

Portrayed here by legendary mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves in a searing performance, Dawson comes across as a fierce, temperamental, and ultimately uncompromising impresario. Her role is mostly spoken, but she sings here and there — bits of arias from her past and examples for her young cast — and finally gets a show-stopping aria, “On a clear summer night” by Carlos Simon, who composed the play’s new music.

Searing, singular performance: Denyce Graves in the world premiere of ‘The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson.’

Rehearsals for Carmen become a sort of concert within the play, showing off the cast, all (except for Graves) from the Young Artists Program here. Mezzo-soprano Mia Athey was a dramatically sound Carmen; soprano Victoria Lawal sang Micaëla with nicely floated high notes; and tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes was a promising Don José. Kevin Miller, who is listed as music director, ably accompanied the performances from an upright piano on stage. Kimille Howard’s production focused on moving the actors naturally. For each performance, a simple set — just a grove of trees and dangling strings of light bulbs — remained in place, all mounted on an elegant triangular stage, with massive steel beams but no roof to protect the performers.

While the play draws welcome attention to Dawson (always referred to as “Madame” Dawson in the play), it doesn’t tell us much about her. Her company was originally founded in Pittsburgh where there is a movement afoot to preserve her home, which also served as the opera company’s headquarters. The company was apparently not the first African-American opera enterprise in Pittsburgh, but it seems to have achieved more than its predecessors. It is helping to pave the way for African American singers to establish careers in front of mixed audiences, an opportunity that had been denied Dawson. The key events of the play (Dawson’s physical fight, her jailing, and the weather miracle for the “make or break” concert) are apparently apocryphal. According to Seaton, “While the specific situation of the play is fictionalized, it is representative of the obstacles Dawson faced.” Since Dawson was almost totally forgotten, it might have been useful to provide the audience with more background on her via the virtual program. That said, this was a strong work, made vivid by Graves’ singular performance.

Songbird

If Dawson serves as a Glimmerglass metaphor about the hazards of moving opera outdoors, Songbird (seen Aug. 6), with its portrayal of starving singers, suggests a broader parallel with the fate of artists left adrift by the pandemic.

Isabel Leonard, left, and William Burden, foreground, with members of the company in ‘Songbird.’

On paper an adaptation of Offenbach’s La Périchole, cut roughly in half (75 minutes) and set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras in the 1920s, Songbird did not sound especially promising. But Glimmerglass has a long tradition of smart productions of operettas and neglected works, and this one is simply superb. The big innovation here is James Lowe’s imaginative adaptation of the score for a jazz band. Who knew? Offenbach’s tunes come alive, retaining enough of their French character to suit the New Orleans setting. Lowe, who also conducted, kept things moving along with an infectious energy. This year the orchestra is next door on the opera house stage, with the sound piped over and skillfully mixed with that from the miked singers. Despite the separation, Lowe held things together nicely.

The production, by Zambello and Eric Sean Fogel, featured lively costumes and first-rate acting. What carried it aloft was the deft choreography, which made this almost a dance-opera. The adaption of the text (by dramaturg Kelley Rourke, with Zambello, Fogel, and Lowe also credited) included a few too many puns, but was mostly efficient.

Isabel Leonard portrays Songbird (Périchole) with a darkly colored, flexible lyric mezzo-soprano sound that opens up as the evening progresses. She is a marvelous singing actress, and here she shows a full range of emotions. Tenor William Burden sings as her love interest, Piquillo, with honeyed tones and daring, ringing high notes. The rest of the cast, drawn from the Young Artists Program, sings, dances, and acts with finesse.

Sprightly and totally charming, this was perhaps the hit of the season, with a great cast, a clever production, and a really smart adaptation of the score.

Il Trovatore

Il Trovatore (seen Aug. 7) is much more of a straightforward presentation of Verdi’s opera; but with less in the way of carefully choreographed stage movement it is essentially semi-staged (Zambello and Fogel co-directed this one as well). The cuts (running time was sliced roughly in half, to 90 minutes) did surprisingly little damage. But somehow, without other distractions, the musical compromises were more noticeable.

‘Il Trovatore’ featured Raehann Bryce-Davis as Azucena and Gregory Kunde as Manrico.

Conductor Joseph Colaneri, the festival’s music director, took things at a slower and more cautious pace than would likely have been the case with a full-length production, and with a less vernacular feel than we usually get from him. There were occasional coordination problems between the remote pit and the stage. The absence of a big Verdi chorus takes a toll. The biggest problem, to my ear, was that balances seemed off. The high strings were barely audible and the orchestra sounded mushy, with little articulation or presence.

Still, there’s something thrilling about Verdi, especially for those (like me) who had not heard a live Verdi opera since Covid arrived. And the singing was superb. The shrinking of the opera left the Azucena role almost intact, making her more the focus. Here she was ably portrayed by Raehann Bryce-Davis, who displayed a big warm mezzo-soprano, peerless legato, fine phrasing, control throughout her formidable range, and considerable charisma. She is a singer to be reckoned with, and this is a role that fully exploits her gifts. Tenor Gregory Kunde was a stentorian Manrico, but his top notes were a bit strained. Soprano Latonia Moore sang as Leonora with a lovely tone. Baritone Michael Mayes delivered a savage, almost feral performance as Count Di Luna.

The Magic Flute

In recent years, Glimmerglass has featured charismatic bass-baritone Eric Owens in key roles and as artistic adviser and company spokesman, sometimes alternating with Zambello to welcome guests and introduce performances. This season is no exception, and on Aug. 7, I was looking forward to the “Sarastro-centric” reduction of Mozart’s The Magic Flute with Owens as Sarastro. It was not to be. Regulations restrict performances here when lightning is in the area, in part because the tall steel girders of the stage make an attractive target. After 45 minutes of delays, the performance was canceled.

Gods and Mortals

The season features two semi-staged concerts. To the World, which I was unable to see, focused on music theater. Gods and Mortals, seen Aug. 8, consisted exclusively of music from Richard Wagner’s operas, and the cast included some distinguished Wagnerians.

Mia Athey, from left, Emily Misch, Alexandria Shiner, Stephanie Sanchez, and Lisa Marie Rogali in ‘Gods and Mortals.’

It was apparent from the opening of the Act III Prelude from Lohengrin that the sound had dramatically improved after I received an unexpected upgrade to seats directly facing the stage. They are the equivalent of “center orchestra” versus the “side orchestra” area where I had been for the previous concerts. The acoustic difference was striking. The sound system, which had seemed so inferior from the earlier angle, now brought clean high strings, crisp brass, and the kind of articulation that had been missing. Colaneri conducted with plenty of Wagnerian energy and heft, balances were quite good, and the sound system was good enough that you could close your eyes and imagine a live orchestra right there in front of you.

Before the concert, an announcement was made that Owens was “under the weather and begs your indulgence.” But other than a few times when a slight catch could be discerned, he was his usual self: a resonant and assured Wotan as he greeted Valhalla for the first time; then expressive and touching as he portrayed Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde. Owens has acquired a calm dignity that humanizes his Wotan, so to speak, and makes him more sympathetic than ever.

Acclaimed baritone Mark Delavan showed up to sing “Dutchman’s Monologue” from Der fliegende Holländer, the huge size of his voice (like Owens’) — lyrical, focused, and sympathetic — apparent even through the unneeded miking.

The most eagerly awaited performance was perhaps that of dramatic soprano Alexandria Shiner, a 2020 Grand Finals winner at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions whose career has been taking shape via the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program at Washington National Opera, headed by Zambello. She had been cast as Ada, the leading soprano role in Die Feen, Wagner’s first completed opera, in the aborted 2020 season here, and that would have been her first professional Wagner role. She did not disappoint. In “Wie muss ich doch beklagen,” from Die Feen, she displayed the combination of power, warmth, and focus that has so far characterized her singing. She returned for a dramatically potent “Senta’s Ballad” from Der fliegende Holländer, and finally for Sieglinde’s aria “Du bist der Lenz” from Die Walküre, sung with security and elegance.

Fast rising tenor Ian Koziara, from the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, was cast as Arindal, the other lead role in Die Feen, and it was easy to see why. In two excerpts he was self-assured, with a nice bright sound. He returned to serenade Venus (and us) with “Dir töne Lob!” from Tannhäuser, sung vigorously.

Raehanne Bryce-Davis was a radiant, opulent Ortrud in “Entweihte Götter,” from Lohengrin, and a poignant, nicely nuanced Fricka in “So ist es denn aus” from Das Rheingold. Baritone Aaron Keeney, a recent Juilliard graduate and member of the Young Artists Program here, showed promise in the “Song to the Evening Star” (Tannhäuser).

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening came with a very solid “Ride of the Valkyries” by six singers from the Young Artists Program (Grimgerde and Roßweiße got cut). I would not have expected this quality of singing, even with the voices miked, from young artists.

Tickets and further information are available here.

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