Two giants were in fulsome display at Glimmerglass Festival on Saturday, both alike in dignity: the notorious RBG (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and Roman Republic’s own Cato the Younger. Both stand as well-deserved heroes and staunch defenders of their respective republics.
The afternoon with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg continued a tradition and expanded her repertoire in a devised program called “On Opera and the Law.” In the evening, the premiere in this hemisphere of the newly resurrected opera Cato in Utica proved a stunning production that will be a work I shall remember for many years to come.
It would seem I have been following the “Little Justice” up and down the east coast recently, from attending the wedding of dear friends John and Tony at the Supreme Court where she officiated to her program a week ago at Castleton Festival in Virginia and now this weekend at Glimmerglass Festival. This was Justice Ginsburg’s fifth year presenting her program. She may be opera’s most popular supporter and, this Saturday, she did not disappoint.
The format stays the same; the content differs. From a podium to one side of the stage, the Justice introduces key plot points and legal issues in operas, followed by arias and scenes sung by the young artists in the summer program. The unusually high caliber of singing and acting in this the fortieth anniversary of Glimmerglass Festival was much in evidence.
On Opera and the Law
July 18, 2015
7300 State Highway 80
Cooperstown, NY 13326
This event has ended
Details and Tickets or call (607) 547-2255
Justice Ginsburg began by introducing her favorite opera, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, where she honed in on le droit de seigneur or the feudal law of a master’s right to a “first night” with an indentured bride, a law she points out was in evidence to the beginning of the eighteenth century. Vanessa Becerra was every bit like Ginsburg’s description of the character Susanna “as savvy as she is adorable,” and the soprano was well matched by Rhys Lloyd Talbot. Their scene was a total delight.
Nathan Milholin sang an aria from Wagner’s Das Reingold and displayed both voice that showed promise for heroic German repertoire and the physical presence necessary to fill the shoes of the great god Wotan. Christian Bowers is already a fully accomplished performer as evidenced this past season where he played Stubbs in Moby Dick and the pilot in The Little Prince in Washington National Opera productions. Bowers “left it all on the stage,” singing Rodrigo’s death scene from Don Carlo.
The Justice uncharacteristically caved to popular vote by bringing back a scene from Bizet’s Carmen, introducing what she calls the “plea bargain” scene. Kristen Choi conveyed both a grounded independence and a most seductive charm while Marco D. Cammarota demonstrated bureaucratic steeliness that succumbed to passion. I’ve never been more convinced then by this smoldering rendition of the scene that Cammarota should have been exonerated by plea of temporary insanity due to temptation by a seasoned seductress.
The Justice introduced the contentious issue of capital punishment, through a scene from contemporary composer Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. The Justice reminded us that since 1976 more than one hundred death row inmates have been exonerated – too late – and reflected whether the death penalty is in itself unconstitutional. Though there are seven states still holding executions, the number has continued to diminish, and Ginsburg thinks it’s a matter of time. Julia Dawson sang the role of mother, originated by the great Frederica von Stade for whom the work was created. Dawson’s voice type is a difficult one to manage but she created what was, for me, the most moving scene of the afternoon. She knew how to reach into every mother’s heart-wrenching experience with her final line, “Will you call me later?”
Ginsburg also brought us into the topsy-turvy world of Gilbert and Sullivan, who in The Mikado treated the laws governing executions in a wholly different, satirical tone. She also introduced through Menotti’s The Consul what felt like a very contemporary look at the legalities surrounding refugees and displaced persons. The afternoon ended with Virgil Thompson’s and Gertrude Stein’s The Mother of Us All and a tribute to the early suffragette heroines and Susan B. Anthony’s pioneer work that forged the much delayed 19th Amendment.
Rexford Tester, Maren Weinberger, Courtney Johnson, Hunter Enoch, Zoie Reams, and Raquel Gonzales gained stage experience and showed their growing abilities in these works, though, to quote from Ms. Stein perhaps there was “not enough there there” for us to appreciate fully the works or the performances.
At the end, Justice Ginsburg brought everyone on stage with “Bravi tutti!” She then generously gave of her time to the audience, answering questions and sharing with remarkable frankness more about not only her love for opera but for the process of struggling with the “genius of our constitution.”