Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Thoughts on Glimmerglass 2017

At the Alice Busch Theater,
The Glimmerglass Festival
I've been coming to The Glimmerglass Festival since 2011. The Siege of Calais was my 20th opera at Glimmerglass. (It would be 28 had I not missed the 2012 and 2016 seasons.) That doesn't count the operas I was fortunate to see more than once and the additional programs such as Deborah Voigt's Voigt Lessons in 2011 or Jonathan Miller's open masterclass on the last act of La Traviata in 2014. I've seen Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's programs, in which she introduced opera scenes related to the law, more than once, and I've seen Girl's Night Out, a cabaret program of Glimmerglass Young Artists, several times. I've been granted interviews with great singing artists and with General and Artistic Director Francesca Zambello herself. Regular readers will not be surprised to hear again how fond I am of the place. I am quite grateful to Glimmerglass and to the PR Director/Diva Brittany Lesavoy for helping make all of this possible.

This season's programming had a common theme of home, community, belonging. This is plain to see in Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, and The Siege of Calais. Less so in Xerxes, but it's there. That's a theme that's been on my mind a lot lately, probably in part because I'm in my 50s now, but also in part because of a career change in my non-musical life. That's part of why the first three shows made me quite misty at times.

With my new pals Judith Skinner
and Talise Trevigne
Highlight of the festival outside of the operas: Meeting Talise Trevigne, who played Bess in Porgy and Bess, in the parking lot Saturday night. I was pulling in, she was already out of her car and walking toward the theater, and she hugged me through the car window! (Watch for an article based on my interview with Talise and Judith Skinner, who played Maria in Porgy and Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!)

Best food: Lunch Saturday at The American Hotel in Sharon Springs.

More fun food: The Village Restaurant in Canajoharie for delightfully low-brow diner food.

Even more fun food (are you sensing a theme here?): Lunch on the dock at the Blue Mingo Grill, overlooking Lake Oswego.

Lodging: This year we didn't stay at the B&B we'd used many times before, but tried something different with a cabin near Canajoharie reserved through AirBnB. Hubby was a bit wary, having never used AirBnB before, but he wound up liking the cabin more than I did. I think we'll try something else next time we come.

Amusements: We haven't gone to the breweries or wineries this year, but there is still lots to do and see in the area. Dear hubby was finally able to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, while I was otherwise occupied, and we've found lots of cute shops and restaurants. I've added to my collection of dog art. And dog T-shirts. And to my waistline.

Unfortunately, there were no extra programs I could see during my time here. This weekend has been only opera performances. I don't really have any more to say about the opera productions. Sort of a quiet end to my time at Glimmerglass this year.  I expect to be back.

Xerxes at Glimmerglass

The Glimmerglass Festival has created a sumptuous and nuanced production of Mr. Handel's Xerxes (Serse). This opera was innovative in many ways--use of shorter arias and accompanied recitatives to move action forward, inclusion of a comic character, and a storyline that is not as complicated as those of earlier operas. These changes to the opera seria form London knew contributed to the cool reception the opera received in 1738, but also help make it one of Handel's most popular operas in our own time. The story is still convoluted, involving rivals for a maiden's affection, the maiden's scheming sister, and the wacky servant of one of the rivals. Oh, and the fiancée of one of the rivals, disguised as a man. In the end the maiden gets the man she loves and the jilted fiancée gets the man she loves.

John Holiday as Xerxes
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
We were fortunate to see the first and second performances of the Glimmerglass production, and found it up to the high standard we always expect, both visually and vocally. From the very beginning, we were delighted by the clarity and sweetness of the reduced orchestra's playing, skillfully conducted by Nicole Paiment. The opera opened with the familiar aria "Ombra mai fu", bane of many a freshman voice student's existence. With maturity one learns to love the piece again, especially when it is performed by a singer like guest artist John Holiday, Jr.  Mr. Holiday still displays the agile vocal technique, pleasing sound, and very sure stage presence as Xerxes that we so admired two years ago in Cato in Utica at Glimmerglass. His show-stopper aria at the end of the opera nearly brought the house down. Xerxes experiences quite a range of emotion, and Mr. Holiday gave us this contrast with apparent ease.

Allegra De Vita as Arsamenes
Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
Arsamenes, brother and rival of Xerxes, was sung by guest artist Allegra De Vita, whom we also admired in Cato in Utica.  We still love her rich and even sound and her commitment to her role's many conflicting emotions. We believed Arsamenes' love for Romilda, the maiden who attracts these two gents.

The remainder of the cast were all Glimmerglass Young Artists. Romilda was sung by Emily Pogorelc, and her sister Atalanta, who also loves--or at least wants--Arsemenes, was sung by Katrina Galka. Both were made up with long, flowing blonde hair and attired in similar costumes, and did indeed look like sisters. Both were also very good singers, giving us all of Handel's florid and lyrical passages with equal grace. Ms. Pogorelc was all propriety and grace as the virtuous Romilda, while Ms. Galka was all scheming, fiery temperament as Atalanta.

Katrina Galka and Emily Pogorelc
Photo:  Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
The servant Elvino was performed with gusto by Calvin Griffin. We enjoyed his Leporello-like antics and his fine singing. Spurned fiancée Amastris was sung by Abigail Dock with skill and artistry. Her numerous rageful arias displayed vocal range and agility. Ariodates was sung by Brent Michael Smith with sonorous dignity.

Abigail Dock and Calvin Griffin
Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
There is much to discuss about the production. We quite liked the musical direction by Nicole Paiement, and her leadership of the talented cast and the orchestra. We weren't so sure about the stage direction by Tazewell Thompson. Although opera of this period often didn't involve much movement, which would not be very successful now, we wondered about some of the movement included in this production. we found many of the stage movements either arbitrary or heavy-handed. In particular, the frequent movement back and forth, onto and off of the raised platforms on the stage during angry arias didn't really make sense.

Visual elements also concerned me. While we quite liked the costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti and Lighting by Robert Wierzel, the various elements of the scenery by John Conklin and how they operated together confused me. We didn't mind the raised, raked platforms on stage or the backdrops suggesting ancient Rome. But elements of scenery flew in and out for reasons we couldn't discern, often at unexpected angles to the ground.

You might disagree with my quibbles. It has been known to happen. On the whole, however, do we recommend seeing Xerxes?  Of course we do. The singing alone is worth the price of a ticket.

Xerxes full cast, 2017
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Monday, July 17, 2017

Cooperstown under siege!

Three out of four Glimmerglass Festival productions this season have brought me to tears, and that includes the opening performance of Mr. Donizetti's The Siege of Calais (L'Assedio di Calais). (I will see Xerxes, which did not have such an effect, a second time and write about it then.)

Aleks Romano and Leah Crocetto
Photo:  Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
The Siege of Calais is based on events in history, when Britain's King Edward III held the French port Calais, located at the narrowest point of the English Channel, under siege in 1346-1347. When Calais, after struggling to defend its walls for so long, could do nothing but admit defeat, the King promised to spare the town if it delivered six nobles to be executed. (We at Taminophile Enterprises don't think the King would have kept his word, knowing what history shows us about the clemency of British monarchs of the age, but that's beside the point.) The King was convinced by his wife to spare the six, and by extension the town. In the opera this is followed by a happy ending finale with lots of impressive singing by the soprano. This probably didn't happen on the battlefield.

Impressive singing we had in abundance from Leah Crocetto as Eleonora, wife of Aurelio. This is pure Donizetti soprano writing, and very beautifully sung by Ms. Crocetto. We heard her in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia as Elisabetta in Don Carlo. We think this role suits her much better, although she sang Elisabetta well. We'd love to hear her tackle other big Donizetti roles. Ms. Crocetto had a wonderful dramatic and vocal chemistry with mezzo Aleks Romano as Aurelio. We saw Ms. Romano in May at Opera Delaware as Arsace in Semiramide, and praised her singing then. We liked it even more now. Donizetti's duet writing in this opera rivals the great duets from Norma and Semiramide, and the two women sang these duets with precision, skill, and great artistry.

Adrian Timpau as Eustacio
Photo:  Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Apart from these two guest artists, the entire cast was comprised of Glimmerglass Young Artists, as is the casting practice at Glimmerglass. Standouts include Adrian Timpau as Eustachio, mayor of Calais and father of Aurelio, and Michael Hewitt as Edoardo/King Edward III. Mr. Timpau had the vocal heft and the dignity to play the Mayor well. Michael Hewitt, who was excellent as Jud Fry in Oklahoma!, gave us the same good singing and sure-footed stage presence as Edoardo.

Michael Hewitt as Edoardo III
Photo:  Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
We were happy to have Joseph Colaneri in the pit, as he led the orchestra quite crisply through Donizetti's score. Director Francesca Zambello gave the story shape and flow, and made the second act especially moving, but I'm not sure I understood all of her choices. I did not object to the idea of updating the story to a similar conflict in our own time (regular readers take note), and I was OK with the visual concept, but I found the execution by Scenic Designer James Noone and Lighting Designer Mark McCullough a bit busy, cluttered, and dark. Perhaps the excess was to drive home the feel of destruction and decay.

This is a production to see, as a Donizetti rarity and an opportunity to see and hear great performances.

The six martyrs in prayer
Photo:  Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Oh, what a beautiful mornin'

I've been tormenting the hubby all week by singing, "We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand...." Poor lad, he was completely innocent to the wonder that is Oklahoma!, the revolutionary 1943 musical by Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein. He now knows why I love the show so much, for we saw The Glimmerglass Festival's new production on Friday night. The Glimmerglass production, by Director Molly Smith, Conductor James Lowe, Designer Eugene Lee, and Choreographer Parker Esse (using Agnes DeMille's original dances) was charming and witty and sweet and touching and a hundred other ways to say terrific.
Curley (Jarrett Ott) and Laurey (Vanessa Becerra)
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The cast was very strong across the board.  Guest artists Jarrett Ott and Vanessa Becerra gave us a very sweet but strong Curly and Laurey.  I was charmed by their chemistry together and the way each could easily hold the stage themselves. It is easy to forget how very young these characters would have been, but in Mr. Ott and Ms. Becerra we saw the youthful passion and uncertainty that make Curly and Laurey so likeable, as well as the maturity required for the lives they've led. The two were both wonderful singers--not a trace of the familiar "opera singer slumming in musicals" delivery we sometimes get--and were a pleasure to hear. While each song was lovingly delivered, I was especially touched by "People will say we're in love" and "Oh, what a beautiful mornin'."

Guest artist Judith Skinner as Aunt Eller was tough and funny and warm and endearing, and I was impressed at the way this trained singer--her bio lists both musical theater and opera credits--projected in her low voice without being harsh. Glimmerglass 2017 Artist in Residence William Burden brought Andrew Carnes to life in a way that was comic but not caricature.

Aunt Eller (Judith Skinner), Will (Michael Roach), and the boys
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
All the rest of the cast was comprised of Glimmerglass Young Artists.  Emma Roos as Ado Annie and Michael Roach as Will Parker were all charm (a word I will probably overuse in this article) and energy, and together on stage they were delightfully funny. Both artists' bios list impressive musical theater credits, and we expect a bright future for them. (We do wish we could have heard Mr. Roach a little better when singing with full orchestra.) Michael Hewitt's Jud Fry was tormented and vindictive, but also human. He gave the role the dark vocal color and vulnerable interpretation it needed. Peddler Ali Hakim was given comic appeal by Dylan Morrongiello.

Curly (Jarrett Ott) and Jud (Michael Hewitt)
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Oklahoma! was the first collaboration for Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was a remarkable accomplishment for its time in the use of songs and dance in telling the story rather than embellishing it. Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times that the show's opening number, "Oh, what a beautiful mornin'", changed the history of musical theater: “After a verse like that, sung to a buoyant melody, the banalities of the old musical stage became intolerable."* Underneath apparently simple melodies lie recurring musical themes and details that are descriptive of the text and the wide-open spaces so loved by the people of Oklahoma Territory. It should surprise no one who really knows the show and its place in history to learn that it received a special Pulitzer Prize in 1944.

I could write for days about Oklahoma! and the glorious production at The Glimmerglass Festival. Instead, I will just tell you to go see it and prepare to be amazed.

Oklahoma! at The Glimmerglass Festival, 2017
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

*It is not uncommon for ladies (and jaded opera bloggers) to swoon when someone as handsome and charismatic as Jarrett Ott delivers the song.

Friday, July 14, 2017

When God make cripple, He mean him to be lonely

I was fortunate to see the second performance of Porgy and Bess at The Glimmerglass Festival on Thursday evening.* I've always been a big fan of Glimmerglass and its Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, and I call this another riveting operatic experience and a triumph.

Porgy's got plenty o'nuttin'
Musa Ngqungwana with Justin Austin as Jake
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
First I must praise the amazing performances. South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana portrayed Porgy's heart-wrenching loneliness and repressed anger, his sweetness and longing, with sincerity and depth. His singing was resonant and full and tender and loving. His chemistry with the Bess of Talise Trevigne was a delight. Ms. Trevigne has graced these pages before, including descriptions of this (link) performance of Jemmy in Guillaume Tell at Caramoor and this (link) performance of Ophelia in Fort Worth. Her Bess was lost and wild and vulnerable and lonely, a perfect match for Porgy. She sang the role just as beautifully and expressively as we expect, and looked as sexy as Bess should.

Bess struggles to free herself from Crown
Talise Trevigne and Norman Garrett
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The entire cast were excellent. Meroë Khalia Adeeb's "Summertime", Clara's lullaby that opens the show, was shimmering, and Simone Z. Paulwell's "My man's gone now", Serena's lament after her husband is killed, was hearbreaking. Norman Garrett was menacing in voice and character as Crown, and Sportin' Life was given the appropriate balance of court jester and evil blood sucker by Frederick Ballentine. Ms. Adeeb and Ms. Paulwell are Glimmerglass Young Artists, and many other roles were very well performed by other Glimmerglass Young Artists. Guest artist Judith Skinner gave ample volume and character to Maria. (We look forward to seeing Ms. Skinner as Aunt Eller in the concurrently running Oklahoma!)

Visually, this production is stunning. (Sets by Peter J. Davison, Costumes by Paul Tazewell, lighting by Mark McCullough.) One is struck from the beginning by how much this Catfish Row looks like a prison, with two tiers of doors that resemble cell doors. Interiors were represented by set pieces that rolled in and out smoothly. Kittiwah Island had the feel of a dilapidated seaside amusement park. Costumes were also beautiful--drab tones for everyone except Bess and Sportin' Life, although Bess dressed much more conservatively when she was living with Porgy. Everything period-appropriate, nothing surprising. Lighting effects both subtle and dramatic were very well done. And once again I praise the choreography of Eric Sean Fogel.

Conductor John DeMain has a very long history with this work, so one wondered why at times he seemed at odds with the orchestra, seeming to struggle to bring them to the brisk tempi he wished to use. It could be because this was the second performance of the season, and six days had passed since the first.

It seems almost compulsory to discuss Porgy's history and its reception politically and socially. Based on DuBose Heyward's novel and play Porgy, the opera premiered in 1935 on Broadway, and had varied success in subsequent revivals, including worldwide tours sponsored by the US Department of State. The work fell out of favor in this country for decades, with some groups and individuals criticizing the story's racial stereotypes. A 1976 Houston Grand Opera revival (also conducted by John DeMain) was influential in bringing the piece back into the public eye. Separate 2006 and 2011 adaptations called The Gerswhins' Porgy and Bess sought to adapt the work for the conventions of the Broadway musical. (Stephen Sondheim publicly criticized the new title for discounting DuBose Heyward's role in creating the opera.) The current production is a new production, faithful to Gershwin's conception of the piece as a folk opera.

Once again, I call this a triumph, and I highly recommend seeing it if you can get a ticket. Many performances are sold out, so that might be difficult!

The picnic on Kittiwah Island
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

*This is the third production I have witnessed--it's not that common to have seen even one. The other two were at Charlotte Opera and Greater Miami Opera, as the two companies were called in the Dark Ages.