in: Reviews

August 18, 2009

Austerity Felt at Good, though Tame, Glimmerglass Opera Festival

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Austerity made its presence felt at Glimmerglass this summer; but it nonetheless proved a good though somewhat tame festival: there was nothing inherently exciting about seeing Traviata, Cenerentola, Dido and Aeneas or even the nominal novelty, The Consul, nor — despite some baffling decisions in Sam Helfrich’s production of the Menotti — much new in the way they were presented. Kevin Newbury’s Cenerentola had an intriguing 1930’s post-Crash look and setting but otherwise was essentially the same frenetic, overproduced mugging-fest visited upon most regional companies when this opera appears. Jonathan Miller again threw off the seemingly gossamer burden of having “renounced opera” (!) to stage both the Verdi — with which he scored a notable local success in 1989 — and a “dramatized concert” of the Purcell. Both proved affecting performances due to strong casting and, doubtless, Dr. Miller’s advice about text and background; but his essential distaste for any hint of the melodramatic made for an excessively polite Traviata and a studiedly casual, irony-afflicted Dido — both played before light, washed-out walls.

For many New Yorkers, Dr. Miller’s rather pastel, clubbable Traviata had the signal virtue of not being the  Met’s Zeffirellian horror. Flora’s guests entertained themselves without fuss, which worked well. The story was told cleanly and enacted very credibly, if with incessant pauses — as if at a naturalistic play, marked tempi be damned — minimizing any sense of forward motion in Mikhail Agnost’s plodding realisation. (Isn’t this company meant to focus on young American artists? And why no women among this year’s conductors or lead directors?) What made August 14’s performance memorable was its lead, Mary Dunleavy, and her touching, romantic chemistry with Ryan MacPherson’s Alfredo. As her voice has matured and darkened, Dunleavy has grown from a fine Violetta to a truly memorable one: she no longer attempts the once-sparkling E flat, but she works in long, well-etched lines with lovely pianissimi and most all the needed graces. Plus, she offers a complete, winningly vulnerable and elegant interpretation: among all the Violettas of my experience, only Patricia Brooks, Nelly Miricioiu and Dunleavy have seemed to inhabit Violetta’s every utterance rather than to “present” their reading of the famous role. MacPherson, tall, slim and ardent, is genuinely a fine actor and musician; his narrow, bright tone sounded rather remote from what I would call “Italianate,'” but he wielded it with dynamic finesse and distinguished phrasing. Malcolm MacKenzie, a highly competent Germont, exhibited a fine, substantial baritone but limited dynamic and expressive shading. Rebecca Jo Loeb made a sonorous, committed Annina.

The next afternoon, Joseph Colaneri’s crisp, detailed conducting welcomely brought the orchestra up to a different level in Cenerentola. No complaints musically here, though Joshua Jeremiah’s worthy Alidoro (styled as Harold Lloyd) went aria-free. The central trio all sang well, though the touchingly piquante Julie Boulianne, commanding a poignant timbre, took most all of Angelina’s coloratura in half-voice, and John Tessier’s fluent, musically sound Ramiro — presented as the boy next door, if the boy next door is the future Edward VIII —  displayed alarmingly anglophone vowel sounds. The palm went to Keith Phares’ Dandini, dapper as Clark Gable, channeling his high-quality lyric baritone with bracing agility. Eduardo Chama, elsewhere an able artist, ran with Newbury’s frenetic, would-be Marx Brothers slam-bang shtick, offering a thoroughly self-indulgent, unfunny Magnifico. When allowed, Karin Mushegain’s Tisbe sang attractively. Jessica Jahn’s spot-on costumes merit praise.

High musical values continued for that evening’s Consul, tautly led by Music Director David Angus. Helfrich — who gave Opera Boston its unappetizing 2008 Freischütz — directed this uneven but enduringly timely “Broadway opera” as if to impress industry insiders already bored with the piece. Andrew Lieberman’s set, full of utilitarian elements evoking Motor Vehicles Bureaus and Eisenhower-era junior high schools, housed all the action and all the participants, so we saw glimpses of their overlapping daily lives. An interesting idea on paper, it furnished some striking images (like the Police Agent listening via headphones Das Leben der Anderen-style) but eliminated the implicit contrast between the beleagured Sorel apartment and the soul-destroying consulate. Everything seemed too bright and colorful; indeed the overhead fluorescent lamps grew hard on audience eyes. Nothing was done to establish where the consul worked, weakening the second act’s grand guignol curtain (Magda didn’t even faint). In the third act Helfrich threw out Menotti’s carefully plotted stage directions altogether, so  that Magda remained in the waiting room, John was not dragged away, no oven was seen or heard: Menotti’s heroine apparently died of a willed excess of anomie.

Kaye Voyce somehow had located the most hideous 1970s garments still extant, dressing Melissa Citro’s tall, attractive Magda as Judy Jetson — though Valentina Freer’s alert, beautifully voiced Anna Gomez straddled punk and Goth styles. The four leads excelled. Citro is a major find, with an expertly deployed Elsa/Elisabeth caliber voice (indeed she’s Freia and Gutrune in San Francisco’s upcoming Ring), warm and secure. Her Magda had nothing of the “Hey, lookame act” quality routinely praised in some leading exponents of American opera, but rather worked a slow burn from average housewife and mother to grieving, eloquent heroine, nailing the difficult scena “To this we’ve come” vocally and dramatically. Leah Wool offered a poised, nuanced Secretary, handsomely vocalized. Joyce Castle — celebrating 40 distinguished years onstage this coming season — made every second of the Mother’s part vivid. (Both mezzos have excellent speaking voices.) Michael Chioldi made an uncommonly strong John, full-voiced and urgent.

Singing incisively, Spieltenor John Easterlin’s disco-ready Nika Magaloff furnished an astonishing display of dozens of brilliantly mastered magic tricks. One wishes Menotti had cut this tiresome character entirely, but Easterlin legitimately wowed the crowd. To Angus and Helfrich’s credit, all the smaller parts told, with Jacqueline Noparstak (Foreign Woman) and Eve Gigliotti (Vera Boronel) showing particularly noteworthy timbres.

Dido and Aeneas (August 16), aptly sung by fine young voices, proved a treat despite some initially scratchy string playing under Michael Beattie and Dr. Miller’s having undercut any sense of stature or tragedy with hands-in-pockets posing and annoying, distracting “bits” involving cameras and cell phones. Beattie’s band cohered when the singing began. Tamara Mumford looked and sounded beautiful, her mezzo boasting both sheen and impact. A good musician, she didn’t seem to “live” her role; why did Dr. Miller allow (or direct) her to address so many lines to the floor? David Adam Moore gym-chiseled Aeneas (made to shrug conspiratorially at the audience while deserting Dido via the auditorium)  combined power and sensitivity. Lovely-voiced Joélle Harvey and clarion countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (both promised alongside Boulianne in next season’s much-awaited Tolomeo) made a world-class Belinda and Sorceress. Having Costanzo and the other witches in “hoodie” sweatshirts amused; their Cockney accents, playing at once to the anglophilia and class prejudices of part of the Glimmerglass audience, did not. ” ‘esperian Shore” and “Rendin’ thowse fair Growves asundah” seem unlikely locutions to my ear. But, thanks to the strong soloists and wonderful choral singing, Purcell triumphed. Besides Tolomeo, next summer at the Alice Busch Theater will witness Tosca, Le nozze di Figaro and Copland’s The Tender Land.

David Shengold, a Philadelphia-based art critic, writes for Opera News, Opera (UK), Opéra Magazine (France), Musical America Online, Playbill, and Time Out New York among many other venues.

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