It has been three years since David Shengold last made the drive out to Glimmerglass to report to Intelligencer readers [here]. It was Michael MacLeod’s last year as artistic and general director there and Shengold described his residency as a “largely caretaking role vis-à-vis the company’s legacy.” At the time there was a great hope for a turn-around. For the 2011 season, Francesca Zambello took the reins and since, the company has changed in many ways but most importantly, it has survived. In an era of bankrupt orchestras (and cities), the “staycation” movement, and a general cultural austerity, Zambello has managed to maintain a festival of more than 40 summer performances in a town of under 2,000 people and over three hours distant from a major metropolitan area.
In her time there, she has created a community around the opera festival that is rapidly becoming an institution. The young artists program, which has been around since 1988, is now augmented by an artist in residence program that features some of the world’s most renowned singers. In 2011 it was Deborah Voigt, in 2012 Eric Owens, and Julie and Nathan Gunn (who performed for the Celebrity Series just last March [BMInt review here]) are sharing the position for 2013. Zambello is also working with the Fenimore Art Museum creating “The Festival of the Romantics,” a combined exhibition of period art literature and music. She is involving the local schools in her productions and even bringing performances to the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is the good news.
However, beginning in 2011, Zambello also altered the four production format by dropping one of the operas for a historical American musical. In 2011 they did Annie Get Your Gun, in 2012 The Music Man, and currently they are producing Camelot, which is, apparently, the highest selling production this year. Although as a genre the American musical is gaining acceptance in the country’s most elite institutions (even the Ivy Leaguers are studying it) Zambello strikes a defensive pose when asked about the inclusion of a musical, telling the Syracuse Post-Standard that “I have to always remind people that’s our opera. We invented that art form, it’s [our] music art form. It comes from Europe and jazz and vaudeville,” she says. “That’s what makes musicals.” Further, she argues from a financial point of view that the musical helps “boost the audience, [and] that helps to pay for the more esoteric works. We need that now, we need to have the musical in there.”
Overall, her attention to financial details has resulted in some interesting and effective decisions. No opera will be more than three hours long, or demand two intermissions. A decision that is likely the result of both her summer audience’s patience and the Glimmerglass Orchestra’s overtime policy, which begins at 90 minutes. It is notable that the Glimmerglass Orchestra has not had a contract since 2010, a policy likely to change with the hiring of the new musical director, Joseph Colaneri. In all, her approach is a broad aesthetic and popularizing ambition measured by a pragmatic attention to financial considerations. Historically this is a difficult line to walk in opera and can manifest itself in different ways in individual productions.
This year, I attended Glimmerglass’s yin-yang double-header productions of Guiseppe Verdi’s Un Giorno di Regno “King for a Day” (1840) and Richard Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer “The Flying Dutchman” (1841) on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and evening. Celebrating what is likely the most important anniversary in opera, the 200th birthday of both Wagner and Verdi, these two productions perhaps went further in juxtaposing the Italian and German national styles than they did their individual composer’s styles. This is mainly because the first work, Verdi’s relatively unknown comedy, was written before his own compositional voice had developed. Even after this production cut many of the repetitions from the score, what remained still brimmed with primo-ottocento conventions, including the standard accompaniment, predictable cadenzas and even a groundswell. As a Verdi opera, the work is problematic, but as a work from a contemporary of Rossini and Donizetti, it has its merits.
In the action, Belfiore (baritone) is impersonating the King of Poland during a visit to the home of Baron Kelbar (bass), who is currently preparing for the double marriage of his youthful niece Marchesa (soprano) to the elderly Count Ivrea (tenor) and his daughter Giulietta (mezzo soprano) to the greedy La Rocca (bass). Giulietta is actually in love with La Rocca’s nephew, Edouardo (tenor), and Marchesa is in love with Belfiore, although she thinks he has been unfaithful. Of course, as the opera progresses, all of this confusion deepens before it reaches the obligatory lieto fine.
Set in the early 60s and on a slanted stage with hanging oversized picture frames that are ever askew, this fun and colorful production offers a witty visualization of Verdi’s use of convention. It features a paparazzi always hiding behind a bush somewhere, and a chorus with an extraordinary mastery of contemporary dance moves (I think I saw them doing “The Pony,” “The Monkey” and “The Jerk”). Without a doubt, though, the star of the show is Ginger Costa-Jackson’s Marchesa. In one moment she is a rich heiress, in the next a fragile lover, in all a salty, fierce and hilarious character with an extraordinarily rich and vibrant mezzo—her toy poodle Rosina even makes a cameo. Jacqueline Echols, a Glimmerglass young artist, gave a convincing Giulietta in youthful innocence and clear voice. Patrick O’Halloran, another young artist, played a Donizettian influenced Edoardo, the simple boy in love with a remarkable tenor. Finally, as is appropriate for good comedy, I had to wince a little in the third act when the hilarious, elderly and slow moving Count Ivrea (covered by Michael Porter) was bodily shoved across the stage (with his walker) by an impatient Belfiore. For this matinee audience with walkers lined up by the exit, the sentiment seemed to strike just a little too close to home. After a nice dinner break, we returned to the hall for The Flying Dutchmann.
In the last few years, stage directors have revealed a discomfort with some aspects of Wagner’s tale of the eternal wandering Dutchman and his quest for a redemption at the hands of a faithful woman. They don’t like the way the opera is constructed as a gendered opposition between the male outside world of the first act and the inner feminine world of Daland’s house in the second. Even though this was a trope in the era’s operas, modern directors cannot resist presenting Senta and the Dutchman early and together onstage. Glimmerglass was no different, placing the opening and thereby the entire opera within Senta’s dream. When the curtain rises, after a detailed and marvelous rendition of the overture, we impossibly see Senta on her bed, on the deck of Daland’s ship in the middle of a storm. It was a riveting and memorable image despite having forced the two worlds together too early in the evening.
Directors don’t seem to like the three-act format either, choosing to perform it either without intermission, or creating their own, as Glimmerglass has, by bringing the curtain down at the moment that Senta recognizes the Dutchman in the second act. While it is an interesting choice, and it was certainly a dramatic moment when Senta gasped and the curtain fell, it is not without problems. Primarily, it undermined the magical tension that marks the next scene when Senta and the Dutchmen silently gaze at each other. This is a moment that is lost in the intermission and cannot be recreated. Indeed, the dramatic destruction makes the cynic in me wonder if this intermission wasn’t actually chosen simply because it is near the midpoint of the opera and allows the company to avoid musician overtime fees.
These aspects aside, the singing is wonderful. Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman is striking. A subdued character with a steady and powerful baritone, his otherworldly and ghoulish presence is subtle yet disconcerting when it needs to be. Peter Volpe’s Daland is done well, leading his character fluently from the opening’s weary sailor to the smaller, comically greedy man who deals with the Dutchman. Melody Moore’s Senta is excellent. Her voice is first-rate in this difficult role, cutting through the orchestra with an easy confidence even as her character was forced to balance a compassion for Erik with an obsession for the Dutchman. Conductor John Keenan drew a powerful and balanced sound from his reduced pit, shifting and bulging with the boundless sea and a providing a remarkably warm accompaniment to the famous spinning song.
Notably, the women are spinning the very ropes that hang from Daland’s ship. Indeed, the ship’s ropes play an important and symbolic role and they eventually help to entangle Senta in her fateful task. This brings us to the final difficulty directors have with the opera—they simply cannot abide Wagner’s ending in which Senta leaps from a cliff to redeem the Dutchman. Instead it has been akin to a game of Clue trying to guess how she will die next. The English National Opera had her break a bottle and stab herself. Boston Lyric and Northern Ireland had her cut her own throat. At Bayreuth she stabbed herself with scissors and at Zurich she shot herself with a hunting rifle. At Glimmerglass, it is with a garotte on the very bed that we saw at the opening of the opera. Is it all a dream? Did she kill herself for real? Is that even possible to garotte one’s self? These are not questions that should be in the audience’s mind as they hear Wagner’s redemptive harmonies.
Gimmerglass is a fun festival. It gives top notch productions at affordable prices and is an hour closer than New York. If Zambello has had to continue her predecessor’s role as a caretaker of the legacy, she is doing an excellent job. Indeed, this was likely recognized by the board at the Washington National Opera last year when they appointed her as artistic director. Here in Boston we know that it is difficult to predict the future of an opera company, however as I watched Zambello hand out blankets to audience members during intermission on Saturday, it occurred to me that as long as Glimmerglass can keep her, they will be fine.