Since its inception in 1975, the Glimmerglass Festival has grown from a small summer stock opera in rented digs in a local high school auditorium to a state-of-the-art theatre on beautiful Lake Otsego in New York’s Cooperstown.
It’s a jewel on a glass-like lake that attracts both internationally ranked artists and devoted audiences. Operas and singers are heard and often picked up to become part of seasons in major opera theatres around the world. Happily, though, Glimmerglass has kept the exuberance and playful quality of a summer camp for music-theatre artists and lovers of the form. There’s a hands-on feel here that keeps the work and the whole experience of the place relaxed.
It’s a heady mixture, nonetheless, with its impressive roster of A-list singers who mingle with a swelter of thirty-or-so young artists who come here to “cover” big roles. For the emerging artist, it’s an opportunity to get lots of coaching, work with major stage and music directors, and sing in afternoon concert series and operatic ensembles, while gambling on the opportunity to step into what may be a break-through featured role. (During our visit, two singers got to step up and go on in major roles.) With a five-week rehearsal schedule for opera, the festival provides an opportunity for all the singers to go into greater depth and detail in preparation for a role. The audience as well as the productions benefit from this commitment of time.
The campus is comprised of barns and tent-like pavilion structures that offer picnic spaces and other social gatherings where volunteers and audience members bump into each other and talk with artists. On our first evening, I had the opportunity to stroll to a pre-show event alongside the charming British conductor David Angus, who “winters” as Music Director of the Boston Lyric Opera, and chat with three lively and enthusiastic Young Artists in the program (passionate tenor Dominick Rodriguez, newly relocated from Minnesota’s Twin Cities; Baltimore’s own Yoni Rose; and singer-dancer Katherine Henly from Utah). I also found myself sitting at supper next to the lovely and gracious Betty Eveillard who, it turned out, is the Chair of the Glimmerglass Board of Trustees.
Francesca Zambello, Artistic and General Director, presides over all the events. She greets and shakes hands with audience members at the door, stands in front of the stage to introduce the evening’s offering, and everywhere makes a pitch for donations. After the shows, she runs “question and answer” events with an authority that brings discussion constantly back into focus if audience members get off track. “Is that a comment?” She’ll interrupt a ramble. ‘This is a question and answer event. Do you have a question?” If this is a preview of Zambello’s style – she was appointed Artistic Advisor this spring – Washington National Opera will be blessed by having a very present and committed leader, not afraid to step up and “do the dirty” by asking for support.
Zambello also has a keen sense of putting together a season. Glimmerglass Festival presents four or five shows each summer, totaling forty or so performances presented in repertoire. Zambello likes to program operas representing different centuries and styles. She tries to find at least one piece that hasn’t been done for some time and deserves another look. (This year it was Cherubini’s Medea.) She always includes one American Musical Classic which this year featured Annie Get your Gun starring guest artist Deborah Voigt, better known for heavy-duty opera roles in Wagner and the like. Zambello has also made it known that she is passionately committed to assisting in the development of new opera for a new century.
On our first evening at Glimmerglass, as the house lights dimmed, the barn-like walls slid mechanically to close off the view and, as if gathering and hugging the audience into itself, brought us all together to focus. It seemed a beautiful entrée to a one-of-a-kind event.
Luigi Cherubini and Franoçois-Benoît Hoffman
Sadly, the festival did not have an auspicious musical beginning for me. Conductor Daniele Rustioni tore furiously through the overture to Medea with an almost rabid working of baton and boyish flipping of hair that looked trimmed for the job, it had such a life of its own. But despite his efforts and those of his lean but solid orchestra, the work soon started to labor. The staging of a first scene was confusing. A woman played hide and seek with children by pulling the covers off a platform and awkwardly climbing beneath them. I had to remind myself that this was Jessica Stavros, who had stepped in to play Glauce, the daughter of Creon, for whom Jason was prepared to throw over his wife, Medea, in order to make a calculated political alliance. Stavros suffered from a shrill tone, perhaps due to nerves. The character had neither the gravitas of Medea nor the sprightliness of the princess, her rival, and there wasn’t enough chemistry there between her and Jason. The opera initially seemed to falter.
Suddenly, Medea entered in black hooded robes looking like a wraith, with wild black hair, and a face, when it emerged, craggy with intensity. The show suddenly came to life. Alexandra Deshorties was born to play this role. Offstage, she looked frail and too beautiful to carry the rage and strength required for the role of Medea, often affiliated with the legendary Maria Callas. Onstage, Deshorties’ long arms and expressive hands found an economy of means yet iconic power to express the complexity of this character. When she drew in and wrapped her arms tightly around herself, she fulfilled the aspect of Medea that is the wounded and supplicating foreigner forced ashore into a new culture, then abandoned by her husband. But at times she would draw herself up tall and open those arms like great wings, pointing with an accusatory finger to taunt or to cast a spell, and she became the sorceress and demi-god that is also part of this extraordinary creature.
Hands playing in the air became a kind of motif in this production, each character possessing a unique gestural vocabulary. Creon’s hands seemed bound and lifeless or frozen with bureaucratic squareness. Two shrouded actresses playing silent furies were reduced to pairs of hands that would respond to Medea’s commands and flutter around, at one point wrapping and tugging on Creon’s heart to weaken his resolve and possess him. Deshorties’ arms and hands were painted with hennaed tattoos and magnificently set off by the gorgeous costumes of Joe Vanèk (that in each act became more stunning and daring than the one before.)
Alexandra Deshorties is a true singer actor. Her voice is something so supple, muscular and expressive that she clearly defies the limitations of operatic form. She could be sweetly lyrical as she recalled the tender love shared between her and Jason, but she could also plummet down to sound like a rumbling dragon. She sang with authority while taking certain vocal risks that I think are required in this role but which pushes the boundaries of not only feminine behavior (this is Medea, after all) but a soprano’s vocal health. If something was to be sacrificed, Deshorties was willing to make dramatic expression lead over a conventionally pretty sound.
Each act became more exciting. Jeffrey Gwaltney had stepped into the role of Jason. With broad chest, enormous biceps and square jaw, he inhabited a physicality one could well believe had led the jock Argonauts on their kick-ass adventures. Although up to this evening he had only covered the role, Gwaltney never backed down from the challenge and grew more vocally assured with every moment. Credit is due both to the stage director and the performer, that this Jason is both believable and, in some ways, quite sympathetic. First of all, he’s a guy’s guy, and his scenes with the men make it clear he is more comfortable in their company than playing palace dog to any woman. His political ambition may be in the mix, but the truth is Medea’s emotions are too much for him. He knows that culturally they are too far apart, and he believes he has to move on for the sake of his children, if not for his own sake. Still, his sometime tenderness for her, his fascination, and even his susceptibility to be seduced by her are never in doubt.
Creon, played by David Pittsinger, seen in Washington this past spring as a glorious Emile in South Pacific at the Kennedy Center, opted for a less nuanced and more perfunctory figurehead of a Creon. His singing was measured and correct in this role, but I missed his singing the “extra gear” of which he is capable. There was a beautiful scene played out between him and Medea, when she entices him to give her one more day with her children and, against his will, he acquiesces.
A few final moments were weak to my mind, in some respect a fault of the libretto, originally penned by François-Benoît Hoffman and later Italianized by Carlo Zangarini. I wanted a scene where Creon reacts to Medea’s revenge in the poisoning of his daughter. Surely the King who had allowed Medea one final day which caused such havoc bears some great measure of guilt. Also, the libretto followed the classical tradition of removing the murder of Medea’s children to offstage. At the end of this production, Medea climbed down a trap door to kill her children, and this disappearance seemed to take an inordinate amount of time for such a climactic moment. When she rose again, she had changed costume into a quite curious dominatrix outfit and was covered in blood. (But then when we speak of Medea’s crime of infanticide, can we really quibble about bad taste?)
A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck
Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
David Gwaltney and David Pittsinger were featured again in the following evening’s A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck and both were splendid. This world premiere by librettist Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori had been commissioned by Francesca Zambello with a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation. She had made only one stipulation. “It needs to be about an artist,” said Zambello, who wanted the work to serve as a companion piece to the “Hopper opera”. Zambello would also direct it.
Tesori and Kushner chose to write about the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill and his relationship to wife Carlotta. This opera and the talents gathered to mount the work have created a stunning dramatic story of an American icon. It may also become arguably the first great opera of the 21st century.
Tesori writes assuredly with rich melodic lines charged with rhythmic variety and popular brandishes that include gospel and Irish fiddle influences. Clearly, she has a great ear for the contemporary world of multicultural rhythms and embraces the current “blurring” intersection of opera, popular musical theatre forms, and drama. Kushner’s instincts dramatically can be so damn good, and in this choice of material, his sensibilities have never been better.
Kushner focused the one-act “chamber” opera on an event that had happened in 1951 at the eclipsing of playwright Eugene ONeill’s power, when he and wife Carlotta were both struggling with illness, economic stress, and depression brought on by medications. They had also weathered the recent suicide of a son, and disowning of daughter Oona, who had run off and married that clown, Charlie Chaplin (the last, an event that O’Neill took as a personal insult to himself.)
The O’Neills’ domestic relationship is the stuff of opera. The character of Carlotta seems to have stepped out of one of O’Neill’s famous dramas. Tony Kushner serves up an over-the-top, bigger-than-life heroine, who slings objects and crude invectives at her husband’s head.
David Pittsinger and Patricia Schuman played the couple. Pittsinger, on crutches, created a physicality perfectly suited to portray the older playwright becoming paralyzed by a neurological illness and toppling marriage. His musical phrasing was impeccable. In certain sections, he delivered his unmistakable dramatic power, but it was in the higher lyrical portions of the score that his voice became most achingly expressive. Patricia Schuman’s Carlotta started out blasting vocally as intended, for a lot of her writing has to be delivered “fast and furious.” At times it was just a tad too fast for the amount of words she had to hurl. As the scene went on, she got it dramatically just right, capturing both Carlotta’s exhaustion at having to deal with a mentally crippled, artistic temperament and her fury that her husband seems to have collapsed into artistic as well as emotional impotency.
Francesca Zambello, who directed the work, delivers this story of the O’Neills with great depth and understanding. She brings focus to the event by placing the couple in a crammed, cut-out house painted inside with a cold seascape. Erhard Rom, set designer, places this two-dimensional outline in a world of swirling snow and projected bare-barked trees. The set’s impressionistic style provides a wonderful backdrop to the inner dance of the piece: its swirling emotions pitched against the frozen sterility caused by aging and mental breakdowns.
The plot of this brand new work, A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, is compact and focused. O’Neill’s play, The Iceman Cometh, has just failed. Wife Carlotta is pissed and cold and fights with her husband to turn up the thermostat. Wildly disappointed in his recent play, Carlotta is also frayed from taking care of this ailing and moody man. He feels poor, broken and misunderstood by family and theatre audiences. They exchange insults. She drives him out into the snow. He tries to escape the whole mess as he begins to hallucinate and conjures a popular singer whose recorded songs have served as his panacea. The materialized young girl dances and sings for him then urges him to lie down in the snow before disappearing. Finally remorseful, his wife goes out to find him. Both are rescued and hospitalized. Structured in three terse scenes, the work grabs the audience from its first moment and emotionally never lets the interest waiver.
Lindsay Russell, a Young Artist in the program, has a lovely turn in a gem of a scene as the apparition in the woods who appears to O’Neill. First, it seems she represents the popular singer and flapper come to life from off a record. Then she evokes Oona, the quintessential modern daughter whom the old man morphs into one of his classical allusions. He momentarily casts her as Antigone to his Oedipus, blinded and needing to be led. Finally, she is the kindly but treacherous voice of death, coaxing him to lie down and rest in the snow. The music and text work well throughout the opera, but in this scene it comes to perfection where operatic form blends with popular riffs moving in and out of the man’s lyrical yearnings for peace and a quiet way out.
The final scene featured Jeffrey Gwaltney, whom we had seen step into the role of Jason the night before. In this work, he plays a cop in Marblehead who starts out singing what might seem an unlikely song about filling out an incident report. But as he begins to sing of the couple, his own life, and makes comments about the community around him, his voice lifts and soars. He achieves a full-blown dramatic character, giving this “little man” great depth and credulity. Gwaltney in his solo scene delivers a stunning vocal journey.
We learned in the post show Q & A that Tony Kushner, as is his custom, delivered his libretto late, making the creative team nervous and giving the singers much less time than is normal in the opera world. Singers like to get the music into their bodies a year or even more in advance. We also heard about plans for Kushner and Tesori to expand this work into a tryptich. Perhaps it will deepen. But the compression and possibly even the time allowed created a focus and raw immediacy to the work that I hope will not be lost. A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, as a spare 42 minutes of music and orchestration, is packed with dramatic tension and arresting music. This opera deserves to be seen again and again.
Later That Same Evening
John Musto and Mark Campbell
The companion one act opera, Later That Same Evening, suffered a little in juxtaposition. It was also billed as a world premiere, although Washington audiences may have seen it last year at the University of Maryland’s Opera Studio with some performances at the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery. Leon Major directed both incarnations. Conceptually, it’s promising and serves well an ensemble of singers each getting their cameo scene.
The idea had come to composer-librettist team John Musto and Mark Campbell to bring to the stage some of the illusive but compelling “stories” suggested in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Hopper as theatre is a natural choice. Hopper loved the theatre and he “staged” his compositions carefully, not only framing them with windows and such devices but often suggesting inner dramas that have just happened or are impending. His figures give expression to ordinary people smoldering with unfed yearnings.
The show opens with five of Hopper’s paintings hanging in a gallery, and we are made to understand immediately that this exhibit will coalesce the stories and bring the characters together. I wish more care had been taken in the casting and staging to really portray the angles and moods of each piece. Particularly disappointing was the first couple. Kyle Albertson, on his own, retreated into his paper with a reasonable suggestion of the figure of the man in the painting Room in New York and put across a character restless to escape a loveless domestic relationship. But I got nothing of the ennui and silent, cool contemplation of the woman in the painting who tinkles the piano keys. The best matches to the paintings came later, first Hotel Room brought to life by Lauren Snouffer as the young failed dancer, dressed only in a pink chemise, who decides to throw in the towel and return to Indianapolis. Her fragility and her mixed feelings about both the city and the mid-west she chooses to return to evoke beautifully the caught-between-worlds of so many of Hopper’s works. The final staged “portrait” of Automat resembled both the lines and the mood of the painting. The character had been introduced as the usherette in the theatre scene where the entire ensemble had gathered briefly to watch a Broadway show. In the following solo scene, the singer Lacy Sauter sat alone in an automat, grabbing a cup of warm coffee before going home. She sang of her glamor-less life and brought great poignancy to the expression of loneliness. She expressed beautifully the longings of a woman always looking out and seeing others.
Other notable performances include Patricia Schuman had a lovely scene as an older woman waiting for a date. Her elegance and beauty contrasted sharply with the inner feelings of the woman made insecure by aging, as she struggled to allow herself the right to hope for love. Jake Gardner also did a splendid job as her Portuguese suitor who arrives exuberant and tender all at once, eager at times to sweep her off her feet then backing off wisely and allowing her emotional space. Their little musical courtship was delightful. Tenor Andrew Stenson delivered a fine cameo performance as Jimmy O’Keefe, the rube who gets to see his first Broadway show. His expressions of delight and excitement were infectious and his singing fine indeed.
I have always liked Mark Campbell’s libretti, which in turn can be both witty and poignant. Arias like “Looking in through that window, it would appear the perfect room… It just goes along and along” capture Hopper’s sensibility. However, composer John Musto, whose music has been heard often in the Washington area, hasn’t created enough soaring moments or melodic lines for me in this work. The trio with three women singing got muddy, covering all three of the singers. The audience got no satisfaction from a strong musical pay off when finally the ensemble came together in the Broadway theatre. It became instead a pretend-to-see-the-show silent scene of performers looking and reacting. Much better the “Rain Rain” number that worked almost as a transition with the people dispersing to catch cabs or wander home in the rain alone. The isolation in this scene seemed to resonate artfully with the world according to Hopper.
In this work, Conductor David Angus and Director Leon Major create some very nice musical colors and staged moments. But finally, to me, Later the Same Evening is a better workshop idea than a totally satisfying opera.
Nonetheless, Glimmerglass as a whole offered an unforgettable experience.