Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy at Glimmerglass

There's a reason your intrepid reporter calls himself a bel canto bear. I am not well versed or trained in anything newer than Britten or Poulenc, and that's a stretch. For the most part, I have 19th-century ears. I am not an expert in new music and won't evaluate the musical merits of the opera I saw open at Glimmerglass today, popular current composer Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy, based on the novel by Mr. Dreiser. I am qualified to tell you, however, that it was a moving and intense experience of music theater that I highly recommend.

Christian Bowers as Clyde
and Vanessa Isiguen as Roberta
Photo: Jessica Krayl/
The Glimmerglass Festival
Most should be familiar with the plot of the novel. Ambitious social climber Clyde Griffiths becomes entangled with a factory girl and a socialite. The factory girl becomes pregnant and demands marriage. Clyde considers murder but can't go through with it, but the girl dies in an accident that implicates him, and he's convicted of her murder anyway. An article in the program leaves us to wonder whether the tragedy in the title is the fates of the characters or the economic and social system that brought about those fates.

In spite of my claims above, there were moments I found musically very effective. The church scene, with tenor John Kapusta as the pastor, was very moving and beautiful. There were trio scenes in which the factory girl Roberta and the socialite Sondra sang in parallel lines or unison, regardless of which girl was with Clyde at the moment. In fact, there was a scene in which the lad literally walked across the stage from one to another and back, drawn to both, as the two women sang similar texts in this fashion. Roberta's monologue that opens Act II was quite satisfying, growing in intensity as Roberta's desperation for word from Clyde grows. I also quite liked the chorus of factory women that opened the show.

Cynthia Cook as Sondra
and Christian Bowers as Clyde
Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
With the exception of an excellent cameo by Patricia Schuman as Clyde's mother, the entire cast is comprised of Glimmerglass Young Artists, all of them excellent singers and musicians. Clyde was played with secure acting, solid singing, and very nice legs by baritone Christian Bowers. We began to see the change that desperation and fear bring about in him when he learns that Roberta is pregnant. This young man has the goods to portray the central character of a full length opera, and indeed he was in nearly every scene.

Vanessa Isiguen sang the fiendishly high and difficult role of Roberta Alden easily, and acted the young girl seduced and then turned more and more desperate effectively.  Cynthia Cook sang and acted Sondra Finchley beautifully. We saw her soften from the cynical young girl who thinks she is worldly to the young woman in love.

Tremendous applause is due to the design team, for yet again Glimmerglass has produced a visually stunning show. The constant presence above everyone's head of shirts (set design by Alexander Dodge) made clear the presence of the factory in the lives of everyone, regardless of high or low station. (I do wonder whether the use of a crucifix in the church scene instead of an unadorned cross was a misstep, since the congregation seemed to be Protestant.) The lighting by Robert Wierzel was quite effective. Period costume and  hair/makeup by Anya Klepikov and Anne Ford-Coates were beautiful and perfectly appropriate for what this blogger knows of the period.

Conductor George Manahan led the orchestra and ensemble in the difficult score while also encouraging beautiful phrasing and shaping.  Director Peter Kazaras kept traffic moving well and had many clever ideas.

An American Tragedy runs at the Glimmerglass Festival through August 24. I highly recommend it.

Christian Bowers as Clyde Griffiths
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

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