in: Reviews

August 12, 2008

Glimmerglass Opera Festival

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COOPERSTOWN, NY — What made Glimmerglass an international operatic destination this year was the rare chance to see onstage Wagner’s second opera, Das Liebesverbot. based (quite loosely) on Measure for Measure. General and Artistic Director Michael MacLeod programmed a season that at first was cagily marketed with the slogan “If music be the food of love, play on!’ deliberately avoiding mention of the Bard of Avon. By mid-season, the company’s website proclaimed: “2008 Festival Season: Shakespeare.” This was rather disingenuous, as only two of the quartet of works presented– the Wagner and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate– derived specifically from Shakespearean works. Giulio Cesare in Egitto bears as much relation to Shakespeare as it does to, say, Strindberg. Why promote misinformation? Those expecting Romeo’s Nurse, Paris, ball and balcony scenes can certainly sort out the differences with I Capuleti e i Montecchi; but people expecting Julius Caesar’s Cassius, Brutus and Portia from Handel’s opera would be as utterly at sea as the Egyptian fleet at Actium. The seasonal theme was reified by the use of one Globe-like unit set (wrap-around balconies and staircases) by John Conklin for all four shows; Conklin varied the scenery with drops and props; some producers coped better than others with the resultant space. Despite a rather wearisome focus on sadistic domination, oral sex and tobacco consumption in the collective Regie, it proved a successful season; among other reasons, for the first time in my 15 years of Glimmerglass-going, all four productions were well conducted and played.
Kiss Me, Kate (August 8) as staged by Diane Paulus displayed much energy and some needless lapses from taste. The “backstage” action was transposed– kind of– from Baltimore in the late 40s to Glimmerglass today, with generally amusing results which helped us forget that the world of pre-Broadway out-of-town tryouts and nightclub circuit dancers is as remote as Ancient Sumer. The superb Lisa Vroman dazzled as Lilli/Kate, both theatrically and with her lovely timbre and phrasing. Opposite her Brad Little was a convincing Fred/Petruchio, with an aptly large personality and a fine speaking voice; as with so many Broadway baritones, his capable instrument showed the unmistakable sign of too many miked Phantoms and Javerts: a dry judder on sustained tones. The second couple disappointed a bit. Courtney Romano, a winning dancer and comedienne, was directed to bray through the music of Lois/Bianca, a role Porter initially envisaged for the coolly beautiful tones of Dorothy Kirsten. Oddly, Paulus directed both Romano and David Larsen (Bill/Lucentio) to be aggressively contemporary in their first moments onstage– and then to drop those mannerisms entirely. Larsen was quite decent, but once one has seen Michael Berresse climb a three storey set on Broadway during “Bianca” the bar for Bill is set high. As always, Porter’s two gangsters (Michael Mott and Bradley Nacht) all but stole the show; Damian Norfleet danced up a storm in “Too Darn Hot”, and many of the company’s young singers got the rare chance to sing classic musical comedy without body mikes. David Charles Abell led with aplomb, though the percussion didn’t really swing.
The next day brought on Bellini and Handel, and much accomplished singing. It’s always a pleasure to witness Capuleti steal over an audience unprepared for its beauty and emotional power. That power came through despite the frequently risible direction of Anne Bogart, who imposed uniform choral movements, encouraged much extra-musical noise and made much use of IKEA-evoking metal furniture: poor Giulietta had to drag and then reposition an iron bench during her entrance aria. Sarah Coburn’s petite heroine looked lovely, and she is one of the finest vocal technicians among young American sopranos: most of her singing was by any standard remarkably beautiful. Two cavils: top notes tend to blare so brightly as to unbalance quiet legato lines, and– though the text was intelligently delivered– Coburn rarely seems to inhabit the words in the manner of a Scotto or Sills (or of another young American in her cohort, Georgia Jarman, a deeply moving Giulietta for Milwaukee in April.) The most exciting performance of the whole weekend came from Emily Righter, a 23-year old Young Artist who replaced the indisposed Sandra Piques Eddy and showed remarkable poise and genuine gifts. A tall, attractive, convincingly ardent Romeo, she displayed a handsome, individual mezzo, good agility, unforced but eloquent chest voice and stylistic confidence: someone to watch. John Tessier made Tebaldo unusually sympathetic, singing with beautiful line and tone, if very Anglo-Saxon Italian. David Angus made an impressive showing in the pit: he was very supportive of Righter, and the tension never flagged.
Giulio Cesare, set by Robin Guarino in the pre-WW II colonialist era, seemed an odd choice for the usually questing Glimmerglass (every major opera company in America has recently given it) but in the event proved the summer’s most enjoyable production. Laura Vlasak Nolen made a swaggeringly butch Cesare, singing with confidence, fine tone and power– at times too much power. She’ll be an even better Handelian when she learns to avoid (or disguise) extra breaths in runs. Other than occasional shrillness in high, loud lines, Lyubov Petrova sang Cleopatra gorgeously, with full, shining tone and creative embellishments; what a pleasure to hear in the role a non-soubrette not dependent on backup dancers for effect. Of charm there was plenty: a full-blown Hollywood voluptuousness à la Rhonda Fleming or Linda Darnell. Petrova should continue exploring Handelian heroines.
Lucia Cervoni, her handsome Cornelia much put upon by the production, sang attractively, her impersonation perhaps more impressive if one could keep Stephanie Blythe and Patricia Bardon’s recent Met outings in the role out of mind ( I couldn’t). The timbre of Aurhelia Varak, whose diminutive Sesto looked all of 10, came from a different sound world, that of French early music; despite indisposition, she displayed very good style. Gerald Thompson went for broke as Tolomeo- fun if somewaht raucous. Shorn of Nireno’s aria, the other countertenor (Anthony Roth Costanzo) sounded very promising. We lost some great numbers (including “Tutto puo”, “Tu la mia stella sei”, “Venere bella” and “Belle dee”) but David Stern for the most part preserved da capo structures, though– alarmingly– we heard only half of the exultant final duet. His forces played very well, but sometimes– as in “Aure, deh per pietà”, well sung by Vlasak Nolen– one wished for less brisk tempi.
After its disastrous 1836 premiere at Magdeburg, Liebesverbot lay long unheard even in Gemany; New Jersey’s now-defunct Waterloo Festival gave the U.S. premiere, an abridged concert performance in 1983 featuring veteran Donald Grobe as Luzio and newcomer Alessandra Marc as Marianna. But Glimmerglass can claim the first staged American performance– though “fully staged” is not quite accurate, given that over an hour of music and dialogue was– probably wisely– pruned, still leaving three.
Producer Nicholas Muni updated 16th century Sicily to (one gathered) the 1950s; fair enough. Kaye Voyce’s costumes were striking, as were the bright Carnival masks Conklin added to the visual mix. But Muni also rewrote the ending– rather counterproductive in presenting an American stage premiere. (Operatic rarities always attract more revisionism than standard fare- why?) So, for example, Isabella does not pair off with Luzio at the end; no King returns to witness the pair’s triumph over the hypocritical German governor Friedrich who has banned love and pleasure yet lusts for Isabella.
That strong-willed nun’s part was taken (August 10) by Claudia Waite; her dramatic soprano is not conventionally beautiful except above the stave, where she fearlessly poured out high B flats and Cs. Not the youthful stunner implicit in the story, she nonetheless gave a thoughtful, energetic, accomplished performance. Two tenors make demands on Isabella. Ryan MacPherson apparently jumped into rehearsals as her suitor Luzio on ten day’s notice; hard to believe, as the staging revolved around his hip-swiveling, black-clad louche cad, and his musical, highly inflected singing proved very satisfying. Richard Cox sang compellingly as her brother Claudio, whose music evokes that of Wagner’s Erik. Baritone Mark Schnaible brought idiomatic competence–little more– to Friedrich, whose Weberish solo scena seemed endless; the Mariana was in vocal straits. The comedians fared well. Ace basso buffo Kevin Glavin offered a marvelously funny, well-sung Brighella, evoking Oliver Hardy; in its next Shakespearean summer, Glimmerglass must present Glavin in Die lustige Weiber von Windsor. Lauren Skuce’s Dorella and Joseph Gaines Pontio Pilato showed vocal skill and assured comic presence. Corrado Rovaris, an adept bel canto conductor, led an exciting reading; the level of sung German was quite high. Not just a rarity to tick off one’s list, then, but a pleasant surprise enlivening a generally fine summer at Glimmerglass.

David Shengold, a Philadelphia-based arts critic, writes on opera for international publications.

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