This 2010 season at Glimmerglass, by and large an enjoyable one, marked the fifth and last summer of Michael MacLeod’s regime. The financial profligacy of the previous administration left MacLeod — given the economic downturn — in a largely caretaking role vis-à-vis the company’s legacy. He did curate two fascinating thematic summers devoted to Orphic operas (2007) and “Shakespeare/Non-Shakespeare” (2008). The incoming team of Francesca Zambello and Linda Jackson will surely shake things up; one welcome change from these last two summers will be women directors returning to the scene. That the four operas proved pleasurable is a tribute to former Director of Casting and Artistic Operations Donald Marrazzo, sadly let go along with other staff at Christmas, soon after he completed lead casting and selection of Young Artists. Credit also accrues to Donald Eastman, who designed a reasonably attractive set flexible enough to suit four very different works.
Winton Dean cites 1728’s Tolomeo (August 13) as having the weakest of Nicola Francesco Haym’s libretti for Handel, citing the sham pastoral setting (all of the actants are, after all, royalty) that occasions multiple nature-simile arias unconnected to the plot and adding to its stasis — plus the fact that the plot’s main motor, Tolomeo and Alessandro’s manipulative mother Cleopatra III, remains offstage. Quite a few arias fail to add to our knowledge of the characters singing them, and the composer does not seem even to have attempted creating any changing psychological portraits, as with Cleopatra, Alcina or Grimoaldo.
The opera’s North American professional stage première was undermined by Chas Rader-Shieber’s annoying, derivative, grotesquely supernumerary-marred staging. We began with the shipwrecked pharaonic heir gazing into a fishbowl and a huge plastic swordfish (mascot stolen from an ‘80s Lincoln Center mounting of Comedy of Errors) flown in for laughs from those who would rather not be tasked with listening to the music or words. Rader-Shieber basically mocked the plot, rendering the improbable yet impassioned trivial and smug.
Musically however, things went swimmingly, with Christian Curnyn a welcome, stylish debutant in the pit. Former Young Artists Anthony Roth Costanzo and Joélle Harvey — last year’s stellar Sorceress and Belinda in Dido and Aeneas — returned in triumph to the strikingly demanding Senesino and Cuzzoni roles. Both acted and sang up a storm. Roth Costanzo’s keen musico-dramatic intelligence and gift for sustained line made “Stille amare” the season’s high point; Harvey dazzled physically and vocally as his beloved Seleuce. Almost on their level was Julie Boulianne (Elisa, the role Faustina created). A delightful actress despite horrific costuming and a predictable punk/goth “bad girl” concept, Boulianne showed more metal in her tone than in previous local outings. Karin Mushegain brought earnest demeanor and a nice vocal quality to Alessandro, Tolomeo’s brother and rival; baritone Steven LaBrie, also saddled with a parodic costume, fared solidly as the tyrant Araspe. At the end, after three (3) drops of petals — please may I never see this device again — everyone onstage took off some of their clothes, tra-la.
That evening’s Tender Land shared with Tolomeo the brilliantly calibrated lighting of Robert Wierzel. Aaron Copland’s only full-length opera was an inspired choice for a production utilizing only Young Artists. A rural parable of the price of paranoia (with quite sophisticated and very beautiful music) it couldn’t be more timely in a nation beset with xenophobic angst. Rejected for television due to McCarthy era Red-baiting, the work premiered at New York City Opera in 1953 under Thomas Schippers.
Tazewell Thompson directed his actors well; he got the Copland estate to agree to bringing the whole ensemble onstage for Act One’s overwhelming quintet finale, “The Promise of Living.” This furnished a striking image but betrayed the work’s basic structure: a social act between two deeply intimate acts. Still, it was quite a moving evening, thanks to wonderful, unaffected portrayals of the leading character (Laurie Moss, a farm girl about to graduate from high school and her mother Ma Moss) by Lindsay Russell and Stephanie Foley Davis. Both combined eloquent simplicity with healthy, individual sounds. As Martin, Laurie’s itinerant suitor, Andrew Stenson sang with lyrical sensitivity and crisp diction; he looked too young for the role (surely Martin’s desire to settle marks him as older than Laurie) as did the solid bass Joseph Barron as the grandfather, created by Norman Treigle and requiring more telling low notes than Barron yet commands. As Martin’s devil-may-care buddy Top, baritone Mark Diamond showed some star wattage. Stewart Robertson led with firm control but perhaps too persistently slowly.
The remaining two shows fell to Music Director David Angus. He did better with an effervescent Nozze di Figaro (August 15 ) than with the next day’s decent but hardly “festival” Tosca, though the reduced orchestra played capably enough save for the string colloquy underlying the Cavaradossi/Jailor exchange. One wondered why MacLeod had chosen to mount Tosca in the first place. Lise Lindstrom has made striking Met appearances as Turandot, but her bright, steely tones, though healthy and reliable at the top, did little to illuminate the character’s words or emotions. Adam Diegel, returning next season as Don José, cut a nice figure and took care with dynamics, but to my ears the timbre turns adenoidal when pressure was (inevitably) applied. Lester Lynch tended to bluster and roar as Scarpia, making an undeniable visceral impact and occasionally showing a fine legato that his co-stars lacked. Robert Kerr made a notably strong, uncaricatured Sacristan. Ned Canty staged a logical 1930s “Poverty Row” Tosca, though having a female secretary onstage during stretches of Act II struck me as an interesting failed notion.
Leon Major’s Nozze di Figaro was also transposed, seemingly to an Edwardian Britain (a favored Glimmerglass topos) in which the droit du seigneur was recent news. But the opera worked, due to a fine cast and inventive, well-timed blocking; my main objection was to the omnipresence onstage of Basilio, who witnessed virtually everything, to no evident gain.
Patrick Carfizzi, often the Met’s Antonio, showed how very well he could sing as Figaro; thoughtful recits, too. Mostly, Lyubov Petrova made an enchanting Freni-like Susanna, looking and sounding terrific; but she nearly spoiled matters by inserting tinkly laughs and little ad-libs after virtually every line: is this some misguided Russian notion of Mozart style? Caitlin Lynch’s handsome Countess had a few brittle moments but showed a lovely soprano with good musical instincts. Mark Schnaible (Count) gave a sound performance but needed better Italian. French import Aurhelia Varak looked adorable but sounded chalky as Cherubino, surely a part easily cast from any North American conservatory. Among the Young Artists, Courtney McKeown and Kerr registered positively as Marcellina and Antonio; pure-toned Haeran Hong charmed as Barbarina. Jonathan Kelly played lively, apt continuo, but his instrument’s tone grated. Angus gave us a fine overture, sound pacing and — welcomely — lots of appoggiature and decorations.