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Voices Carry Droll ‘Sweeney’

Operatoonity.com review: Sweeney Todd presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Saturday, July 9, 2016, 8:00 p.m.
Venue: Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, NY
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
4.0 out of 5.0 stars

4-stars

 

Members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Each year, Glimmerglass Festival organizers solicit suggestions for upcoming seasons. I suggested Sweeney Todd several times in previous years. Granted, once I learned Sweeney Todd was on the 2016 bill, this reviewer’s expectations were off the chart. Imagine operatically trained voices handling a score that can prove daunting to strictly musical theater companies.

And the sublime voices in @GOpera’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s dark and tragic opus Sweeney Todd absolutely thrilled and chilled.

According to the excellent show talk presented by Principal Coach and Accompanist Grant Wenaus prior to opening night of their new production, Sondheim sought to create a music thriller with his grisly Sweeney–something to terrify audiences. Wenaus detailed numerous instances where Sondheim used dissonance, repetition, and irony to create a heart-pounding show.

When I closed my eyes Friday night, the new production was absolutely terror-filled. The accomplished singers delivered many times over.

L to R: Emily Pogorelc as Johanna, Harry Greenleaf as Anthony Hope, Greer Grimsley in the title role, Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and Bille Bruley as Beadle Bamford in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

L to R: Emily Pogorelc as Johanna, Harry Greenleaf as Anthony Hope, Greer Grimsley in the title role, Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and Bille Bruley as Beadle Bamford in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The direction, however, did not.

Director Christopher Alden’s wryly amusing concept didn’t cut it for me. Where was the alarming atmosphere, the mounting panic, and the overwhelming dread Sondheim has so skillfully crafted into the score and the libretto? The audience should be clawing at the arms of their upholstered seats as the story freefalls into the deadliest and most chilling of downward spirals within the canon of contemporary musical theater.

As a bit of background, I am overall a fan of Alden’s work. The Così fan tutte he created for New York City Opera was a “sardonic stunner,” according to my 2012 review for Bachtrack. I also delighted in the Don Giovanni he directed in 2009 for the same company. Surely Don G. has been produced tens of thousands of times since its inception in 1787. Everyone knows the tale. So, a novel approach is welcome as long as it serves the story. I appreciated the wooden-chairs-against-the-bare-wall controlling concept in NYCO’s Don G:

Don Giovanni, directed by Christopher Alden, presented by New York City Opera, 2009.

Production photo from Don Giovanni, directed by Christopher Alden, presented by New York City Opera, 2009. | Photo by © Carol Rosegg

I was looking for–longing for–something fresh and evocative for Sweeney to well serve a contemporary musical not nearly as well known to operagoers as Don G. I expected Alden to bring his A-game. But he trotted out the wooden-chairs-against-the-bare-wall setting again, to the detriment of this production, which merited so much more than Alden’s cheeky minimalism.

Greer Grimsley in the title role Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Greer Grimsley in the title role Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

To its credit, the production starred the marvelous bass baritone Greer Grimsley as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He was everything Sweeney should be–a tormented, demented serial killer fueled by a bitter vengeance for having his modest world stolen from him. His operatic chops rose to the rafters of the opera house while raising the hairs on the arms of audience members. Greer’s interpretation, his immersion into character without sacrificing a whit of vocal integrity, was a tour de force, and one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen at Glimmerglass.

Greer Grimsley in the title role of The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Greer Grimsley in the title role of The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

If there is a more beloved role in contemporary musical theater than Mrs. Lovett, I’d be surprised. In spite of the fact that she turns Mr. T’s victims into meat pies, the audience wants to love her. Mezzo soprano (and real life wife of Grimsley) Luretta Bybee look and acted the role–some fetching costumes were conceived for her by Terese Wadden. Sadly, she was not vocally equipped to sing it. One either has to have an enormous chest range to surmount the break between the alto and soprano notes or a very hearty soprano. Bybee’s vocals got swallowed up between the two ranges and was barely heard over the orchestra numerous times, which was not the conductor’s fault.

Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The balance of the cast, to a person, was just outstanding. As Johanna Barker, Young Artist Emily Pogorelc’s rapturous soprano was perfectly suited to the sweetly virginal Johanna. I hung on her every note from the very first hearkening a caged nightengale in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”

Emily Pogorelc as Johanna in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Emily Pogorelc as Johanna in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Another Young Artist Harry Greenleaf turned in a winsome and winning Anthony Hope. He possesses a rich ringing baritone. With his sandy-haired boyish good looks, he is every inch the ideal romantic lead.

Harry Greenleef as Anthony Hope in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Harry Greenleef as Anthony Hope in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

As the show’s unabashed baddies, bass Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and tenor Bille Bruley, a Young Artist, as Beadle Bamford, delivered star turns. I’ve never seen or heard a more believably tortured or chilling Turpin than in Volpe’s “Johanna (Mea Culpa),” which was effectively if sparsely staged.

Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Two other Young Artists deserve special mention. Tenor Christopher Bozeka as Senor Pirelli and Nicholas Nestorak as his attendant Tobias Ragg, that is until Pirelli’s throat is slit, both contributed immeasurably to the success of the show. Nestorak’s descent into madness as the meat grinder was chilling, despite the bare stage and lack of special effects.

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Nicholas Nestorak as Tobias Ragg in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Soprano and veteran performer Patricia Schuman earned an accolade of her own as the Beggar Woman. I last reviewed Schuman starring in Powder Her Face. From the Duchess of Argyll to a bag lady. What a versatile actress she is!

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Patricia Schuman as Beggar Woman in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

One expects to see clever bits in an Alden show, and there are those, to be sure. However, there is plenty of comic value in the book, sans Alden’s campy touches. So, attend the tale for the voices. And plan to enjoy a glass of wine or two at intermission in case this Sweeney happens not to be your cup of tea.

Sweeney Todd runs in repertory through Friday, August 26. Tickets available at the festival’s website.

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Shimmering ‘La bohème’ Opens Glimmerglass Festival

Operatoonity.com review: La bohème presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Friday, July 8, 2016, 7:30 p.m.
Alice Busch Opera Theater
Music: Giacomo Puccini
Libretto: Luigi Illica & Giuseppe Giacosa
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass Festival mounted a memorable tribute to its founding with a new production of La bohème, the first show the company ever presented in 1975. Those visionaries who believed summertime opera performed in repertory could somehow matter in a New York town only known for baseball would have and most likely adored this season’s opening production.

Filled with spectacle, informed by careful attention to the real Parisian scene during La Belle Époque, the 2016 show succeeded on many levels—for those who desired to wrap themselves in Puccini’s beloved melodies to those with expectations for a beauty and symmetry that Puccini himself envisioned to those seeking abandon in the doomed relationship between destitute young lovers.

Raquel González as Mimì and Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo and Raquel González as Mimì in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Because this production was set in period, it is easier for the audience to accept the show’s many provincialities. Mimi is a seamstress who can only advance herself by foregoing true love and sleeping with a rich man. Musetta and the Bohemians take full advantage of an old coot’s weakness for a slender ankle and stick him with the check. Marcello and Rodolfo both bemoan the fact that women are somehow born to flirt.

Dale Travis as Alcindoro and Vanessa Becerra as Musetta in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Dale Travis as Alcindoro and Vanessa Becerra as Musetta in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

That being said, Director E. Loren Meeker has taken great care to render a La bohème that both suited the venue and that subtly acknowledged some of the most successful stagings of the show. Her vision for the opera invoked a transcendent experience while paying homage to the pageantry of the well-known Zeffirelli version currently in the Met’s classic repertoire.

The Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

While La bohème happens to be my least favorite of Puccini’s operas, Meeker and her production team elevated the show to an unmatched artistic level, and all deserve a hearty bravi. All operatic elements worked in tandem, most effectively during the Christmas Eve festival. The scene opened with a choral celebration, trumpeting the Bohemians arrival in the Latin quarter. The chorus under the skillful direction of Choral Master David Moody and Children’s Chorus Master Tracy Allen together with clever costumes by Erik Teague and choreography by Eric Sean Fogel transported us from a dingy garret to Gay Paree.

David Walton as Parpignol in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

David Walton as Parpignol in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

As the tragic heroine Mimi, soprano Raquel González was ideally suited to the role. She had a shimmering, youthful voice that never lost its sweet tone, even while filling the hall during her first aria “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” when she introduces herself to Rodolfo in his grimy flat. It is important that the audience believe in Mimi as a modest young seamstress with inherent goodness or the role can come off cloying and insincere. She was such a believable Mimi, one sensed the despair Rodolfo must feel having lost her twice.

 "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì"

Raquel González sings “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” in Act I.

From his very first note Rodolfo, tenor Michael Brandenburg exhibited a spinto quality with a brightness reminding me of Juan Diego Flórez. Brandenburg’s tenor needed to cut through the orchestra which occasionally overpowered the singers, a problem I never encountered at Glimmerglass in the last several years and hope I don’t encounter again. (One does come to hear the operatic voices first and foremost, Maestro Colaneri.) While González’s appearance affected a perfect Mimi, because of his scruffy beard and lackluster garb, Brandenburg looked more like Motel the Tailor than that of the romantic lead Mimi falls for instantly. He did a serviceable job as Rodolfo, and I would be intrigued to see him in a character role.

Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo

Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo

Rodolfo and his flat mates Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard en scene were another highlight of this production. Though there hijinks were somewhat corny, their vocals soared. Props to all the Bohemians for the lift their vocal and physical energies lent the show. Young Artist Brian Vu was so energetic and gifted his every appearance telegraphed, “I’d like a starring role, please.” A special nod to Hunter Enoch as Marcello, whose baritone could be rich and bright and dark and bristling as the role demanded.

L to R: Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo, Hunter Enoch as Marcello, Brian Vu as Schaunard and Ryhs Lloyd Talbot as Colline in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

L to R: Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo, Hunter Enoch as Marcello, Brian Vu as Schaunard and Ryhs Lloyd Talbot as Colline in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Young Artist Vanessa Becerra rendered my favorite Musetta ever. Not merely a scene-stealing minx with a glorious soprano voice, Becerra was entirely believable at the end of the production, giving comfort to her dying friend. Brava, Ms. Becerra. You were delightful.

Vanessa Becerra as Musetta in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Vanessa Becerra as Musetta in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Though the Bohemians’ clothes are threadbare and the opera is done too frequently, the cast and crew of Glimmerglass’s 2016 La bohème have injected a freshness and a genuine affection into their version. It was as welcome and sweet as a frosty mug of birch beer on a warm summer’s eve.

La bohème runs through Saturday, August 27 in repertory with Sweeney Todd, The Thieving Magpie, and The Crucible. More information is available here.

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‘Butterfly’ soars at Glimmerglass

Operatoonity.com review: Madame Butterflypresented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Tuesday, July 29, 2014
The Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, NY
5.0 stars

five stars

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Exceedingly beautiful, tender, and elegiac, well executed in every aspect. The new production of Madame Butterfly at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown is an elegant, extraordinary show that delivers on all the weighty expectations placed on a beloved Puccini work.

It featured an evocative and versatile set and special effects including a shower of pale pink rose petals …

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

. . . and, later,  a billowing curtain of blood.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

It was a consummate theatrical production under the directorial aegis of the Festival’s Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello, offering a sweeping saga of the powerful tensions between traditional Eastern and imperialistic Western values and culture as distilled through the single act of abandonment of a sympathetic heroine by a blundering American naval officer that drove many audience members to tears as early as the first act and storming to their feet a standing ovation by curtain call.

Amidst hours of artistry, stunning music, and many spectacular voices, it takes some kind of  special performer portraying Butterfly to soar higher than all others and all the other elements, elevating a production to a transformative operatic experience. As Cio-Cio-San, Korean soprano Yunah Lee sang a Butterfly for the ages, worthy of elegy. Lee conveyed power, beauty, and grace in every note, in every gesture, in every facial expression–a living, breathing symbol of that lovely butterfly whose wings are pinned down by Westerners seeking to preserve and enjoy them by killing them.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Everything Lee sang was perfection, from the famous Act I love duet with Pinkerton played impressively by American tenor Dinyar Vanya beginning with Bimba, Bimba, non piangere…

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

…to the opera’s most famous aria Un bel dì, delivered flawlessly. Though the audience knows through Suzuki’s reactions that Pinkerton is not coming back to live with her, somehow Lee has made us believe through her powerful rendition that there’s a glimmer of chance of a happy reunion–even if we’ve seen the show before, numerous times.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

As Suzuki, American mezzo and Young Artists Kristen Choi was first-rate, turning in a nuanced and polished performance beyond her years, totally believable as Butterfly’s loyal maid, who is, if not older, considerably more worldly wise.

And the list of impressive performances continues. As Sharpless, Ukrainian tenor Aleksey Bogdanov sang the role with uncommon depth and sensitivity.  In addition to substantial artistry, Bogdanov has enormous stage presence and intelligence. Each of his warnings to Pinkerton, “Didn’t I tell you to be careful?” rings more urgent than the last because this Sharpless understands the consequences of Pinkerton’s actions even though Pinkerton himself remains clueless until the final scene of the show.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Tenor Dinyar Vanya was ideally cast as Pinkerton. He has a clear, spinto quality to his voice that one expects of a leading man in a Puccini opera. His infatuation with Butterfly was so believable rendered and his love duet with her to end the first act so beautifully sung, it brought this reviewer to tears.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Though not a singing role, special mention must go to little Louis McKinny, as Sorrow, Butterfly and Pinkerton’s three-year-old son. Somehow, this adorable child understood how critical his role is to the success of the production. He executed his stage directions perfectly, comforting his stricken mother, even remembering to innocently play with the toy boat as he marched offstage, just as he was instructed to do.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Louis McKinny as Sorrow in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Louis McKinny as Sorrow in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The show was conducted by the Festival’s new music director Joseph Calaneri. During the smaller more intimate moments of the show, he conducted his capable musicians as if they were gloved on his hand. But in the initial numbers of the first act, it seemed like both Vania and Bogdanov had to compete with the orchestra to be heard and both have huge voices.

Those who have seen ‘Butterfly’ before might be surprised by the directorial choices in this production. Scenes that have been traditionally set in Cio-Cio San’s village are set in the American Consulate instead. Personally, I found this to be an effective choice in driving home the themes central to the piece, including the intrusion of American military power and influence abroad without an adequate respect for and understanding of foreign peoples and cultures.

Set design was by Michael Yergen and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

Set design was by Michael Yergen and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

So yes, this production offers a different artistic approach, but a winning one, and the work of all involved from the sometimes ethereal-as-butterfly-wings scrims and fly pieces designed by Michael Yeargan to the period costumes by Anna Yavich to the lighting by Robert Wierzel all combined synergistically to splendid effect.

It is an original version and yet one that lifts up the music and conventions of Madame Butterfly painstakingly inserted by the composer and the original librettists that begs to be seen.  There are six more performances of Madame Butterfly at Glimmerglass Festival through August 23. Don’t miss it.

* * *

Every mainstage performance is preceded by a Show Talk beginning one hour before curtain. The Show Talk for Butterfly was given by Director Francesca Zambella and is a wonderful add-on that will enrich your Glimmerglass Festival experience.

 

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odd duck ‘Ariadne’ is oddly satisfying at Glimmerglass

Operatoonity.com reviewAriadne in Naxos presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Monday, July 28, 2014
Alice Busch Opera Theater; Cooperstown, NY
4-stars

 

Ariadne in Naxos presented by Glimmerglass Festival, 2014 | photo by Jessica Kray

Ariadne in Naxos presented by Glimmerglass Festival, 2014 | photo by Jessica Kray

To put it plainly, Ariadne in Naxos is an odd show. It’s a mashup of German slapstick that is not nearly as funny to Americans as Germans think it is and obscure if not obsolete homage to Greco-Roman mythology. So, why not do something completely unexpected and set the show smack in the middle of the Great State of New York? On a farm. Did I mention in a barn…with live goats and chickens?

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Glimmerglass Festival’s new production of ‘Ariadne’ (music by Richard Strauss) employed an English adaptation of von Hofmannsthal’s original libretto by Kelly Rourke for most of the show–the second half “real” opera scenes were sung in German. Again, another interesting twist that worked.

The premise is silly. Two different classes of performers have been invited to this New York farmstead to perform both an opera and a burlesque. After arguing over which portion of the entertainment will go first, at the last-minute they are told that they have to combine both styles in one show, which comprises the second act.

Director Francesca Zambello made other signature choices that stamped this new production as hers besides the barnyard setting and English/German libretto: the diva played by Christine Goerke was riotously comic as the Prima Donna in the first act, mugging unabashedly for the audience:

Christine Goerke as Prima Donna in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Christine Goerke as Prima Donna in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The burlesque troupe was attired and comported themselves like a hip hop gang:

L to R: Gerard Michael D'Emilio as Truffaldino, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

L to R: Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The temperamental Composer sung by Catherine Martin was in trousers, but it was no trouser role. Nor did she play it “straight” since she winds up in a girl-on-girl relationship with Zerbinetta played by Rachele Gilmore.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta and Catherine Martin as Composer in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta and Catherine Martin as Composer in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

It was also the most sexualized version of  ‘Ariadne’ I’ve ever seen, with the burlesque troupe doing more twerking than you’ll likely find in a Rihanna video and Zerbinetta strutting her stuff in skin-tight leggings held up by  a garter belt, while fanning herself with black ostrich feathers.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

All distinctive choices that, strangely enough, all made this show succeed in a unique way.

The production values were to be savored. A  charming, original, and functional set by Troy Hourie, inspired costumes by Erik Teague, atmospheric lighting by Mark McCullough, fun and funny hair & makeup by Anne Ford-Coates, and comedic choreography by Eric Sean Fogel all combined seamlessly to carry out Zambello’s distinctive vision for the production.

Of course, what would classic opera be without voices of exceptional character? It would be nothing, which is why opera is so very challenging, perhaps the most challenging of all art forms to pull off.

The singers in ‘Ariadne’ were all extraordinary. Christine Goerke exhibited tremendous vocal power and control. Her comic timing as the Prima Donna was so glorious that I missed her Divine-Miss-M spark in the second act while singing the character Ariadne in the legit opera. Jen Houser, Beth Lytwynec, and Jacqueline Echols were a sheer delight as the vocal trio Naiad, Dryad, and Echo, showcasing some of Strauss’s most beautiful and soaring composition abilities in Act II.

L to R: Jeni Houser as Naiad, Beth Lytwynec as Dryad and Jacqueline Echols as Echo in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

L to R: Jeni Houser as Naiad, Beth Lytwynec as Dryad and Jacqueline Echols as Echo in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Despite their twerking or perhaps because of it, the Back-Street-Boys-Meets-Sweeney-Todd comedy troupe of Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio, and Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella were sheerly delightful and outrageously costumed. All happened to be talented singers and actors and captured focus every time they appeared on stage.

Clockwise from top: Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Gerard Michael D'Emilio as Truffaldino, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Carlton Ford as Harlequin in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Clockwise from top: Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Carlton Ford as Harlequin in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

But this show really belonged to Zerbinetta. And it is supposed to the way it is written, despite its being titled Ariadne in Naxos. It is Zerbinetta who has the biggest transformation amidst an 18-minute aria in Act II. Yes, an 18-minute aria, which Rachele Gilmore sung as if she was born to do it. I was stunned to read other critics’ reviews of this show that lacked significant mention of Ms. Gilmore because she makes this show at Glimmerglass. Yes, she is very shapely and attractive and works every single feminine wile God has endowed her with, which, by the way, does not diminish her talent, not one iota. She also has tremendous operatic chops and deserves highest praise for her performance. So, why such stingy reviews for this performer, compadres?

Conductor Kathleen Kelly has a graceful, fluid conducting form on the podium. While ‘Ariadne’ did not constitute the most ideal balance between orchestra and performers that I’ve encountered at Glimmerglass, the singers were overall capably supported. I did notice a few times that singers were struggling to be heard. Some such as Catherine Martin even lost notes, and the conductor needs to be mindful not to overpower the performers and leave them “stranded” during difficult passages.

Several break-out performances and super-solid production values make this an ‘Ariadne’ worth seeing. And I can almost assuredly guarantee, you’ve never seen an Ariadne like this one. Ariadne in Naxos continues through August 23.

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Glimmerglass Festival offers greenery, melody—magic

Glimmerglass Festival

The 2014 Glimmerglass Festival Season kicks off on July 11 with my favorite opera Madame Butterfly

Tucked into the rolling hills of Central New York State, edged into the western tip of Lake Otsego, lies an opera experience—the Glimmerglass Festival—pairing artistry and aspiration, elegance and enterprise, greenery and gravitas.

Nathan Gunn as Sir Lancelot

Nathan Gunn sang Sir Lancelot in last season’s “Camelot”

Like swallows to Capistrano, happy patrons return to Glimmerglass season after season to enjoy professional opera, informative talks and lectures, and a growing roster of programs both educational and entertaining in relaxed, comfortable surroundings.

The Glimmerglass Festival has the humblest of origins. It began in 1975 as the Glimmerglass Opera Theater housed in a local high school auditorium. In the intervening years, it has amassed an impressive number of supporters and abundant resources—capital and artistic. Within one generation it transformed itself into a summertime destination where opera lovers can enjoy the most sophisticated of art forms in an atmosphere of pastoral beauty. In 1988, they added a Young Artists program providing performance experience and advanced training for dozens of emerging singers. That’s in addition to gainful employment for hundreds of professionals who make their living in the performing and classical arts.

Abby speaks with Cat Hennessy, a draper forThe Music Man | Photo: William M. Brown/The Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass’s Abby Rodd speaks with Cat Hennessy, a draper for ‘The Music Man’ | Photo: William M. Brown/The Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass is nestled into 26 acres of farmland. The grounds are dotted with a half dozen or more outbuildings including performance spaces, a scene shop, costume barn, wardrobe trailers, and an administrative pavilion. The physical layout of the campus all around you serves as a tangible reminder that it takes a village to produce opera, something we tend to forget whenever we filter our opera experience solely through selected principals’ performances, i.e., whether the tenor hits all his top C’s.

The costume shop wall at Glimmerglass--an organizer's dream

The costume shop wall at Glimmerglass–an organizer’s dream

The centerpiece of the Glimmerglass experience is the Alice Busch Opera Theater, towering stories over the landscape’s rolling hills, with barnlike lines and neutral colors complementing rather than clashing with the natural setting. Inside, however, is housed an acoustically engineered, state-of-the-art theater designed expressly for opera performance that rivals and (in some cases) betters big city venues. The 914-seat theater, which opened in 1987, is the first built specifically for opera performance since the Metropolitan Opera Theater in Lincoln Center was completed in 1966.

Despite the fact that the theater is one-quarter the size of the Met, you still might want to bring along opera glasses if you enjoy seeing close-ups of the performers. The audience seating is generously raked, providing great sightlines and ample legroom but ultimately more distance between the house and the stage. Also, the theater isn’t climate controlled. They use fans to cool things down and blankets to warm you up. It can get unseasonably cold and rainy in Central New York during any summer month, so you might want to bring a wrap or dress in layers.

Before performances and during intermission, festival concessions are available and include hearty salads and wraps (even vegan items), snacks, and ice cream, just outside the theater. Beverages include a range of wines and beers, including local brews and varietals worth sampling. New York State wines are often compared favorably to those grown in the German Rhine. Festival goers may enjoy picnicking on the grounds before evening shows and after matinees. And in the event you forgot your picnic basket, one local restaurant delivers. Whether you buy a meal there or bring it in, you can avail yourself of the plentiful spaces set aside for al fresco dining—from café tables to benches to picnic tables situated under a large canvas tent.

Last season's Gents Night Out at Meet Me at the Pavilion was a tremendous showcase--memorable and fun.

Last season’s Gents Night Out at Meet Me at the Pavilion was a tremendous showcase–memorable and fun.

If you are considering a trip to Glimmerglass, a name derived from James Fenimore Cooper’s description of Lake Otsego in Leatherstocking Tales, plan to spend several days in Central New York. You need at least three to four days to take in all the productions Glimmerglass offers in repertory (for exactly that purpose). Fleshing out this year’s mainstage schedule are a growing number of informative opera events and recitals including “Showtalks” on and around the festival grounds and a new “Meet Me at the Pavilion” series of special performances showcasing this year’s Artist in Residence Deborah Voigt as well as other guest artists. There’s also a world-class museum in nearby Cooperstown—the Baseball Hall of Fame (which includes the American history of cricket)—as well as boutiques, baseball-kitsch shopping, and café- and fine-dining in and around the museum.

If you favor lakeside lodging, hotels and motels line the shore of Lake Otsego, roughly nine miles long from tip to tip. Some lovely restaurants operate lakeside, too, affording scenic views of the lake while dining. Numerous B&B’s in the region are worth investigating. Many are an easy commute to the festival grounds while possessing more charm and actually costing less than more popular chain motels.

Cooperstown, New York, is a charming place to shop or even window shop

Cooperstown, New York, is a charming place to shop or even window shop

Walking shoes are a must for Cooperstown where’s there’s limited parking within city limits but good public trolley service. You may also be more comfortable wearing your Keds  to the opera, too, especially if you’ve trekked to the middle of a shady grove for your pre-performance picnic. Since there’s no dress code at Glimmerglass, people don everything from walking shorts and sandals to shifts and high-heels. However, if you get caught in a midsummer cloudburst, it’s a hike from the parking areas across the front lawn to the theater entrance, so you might want to pack a pair of boots. For those who can’t make such a trek (elderly or handicapped patrons), they offer golf cart shuttle services between the theater and the parking areas.

From the moment you pull into one of the gravel parking lots until the last note the orchestra sounds, literally hundreds of people have worked long and hard, months before you arrive, to deliver the entertainment experience at Glimmerglass. Since they’re all professionals or devoted volunteers, you’re not likely to see them sweat. Unless, of course, you take the free backstage tour. You’ll be amazed at the hours of artistry, the pluck, the pure perspiration that must be invested for every second on stage.

 

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