Glimmerglass Festival 2018 Part 2

Silent Night a Surprise Hit Among 3 Operas

Reviewed as seen August 11-13, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

In the 2018 Glimmerglass bill, only one of the four productions was a conventional opera, the familiar Barber of Seville. Silent Night is a World War I drama. The Cunning Little Vixen is a charming folktale overlaid on a major orchestral work, based on folk tunes. West Side Story (reviewed separately) is musical theater. All were effective, though in entirely different ways.

Silent Night interprets a French film based on an actual event, a temporary truce agreed on by the lieutenants in command in a field in Belgium in 1914 during the first Christmas of the war. The three forces are: the invading Germans, the French defending against a coming invasion, and the Scottish, representing Great Britain’s entry in support of the French.

The drama opens with recorded battle sounds so loud and so real one would have thought the theater itself was under attack. The trenches of the three sides were effectively represented by a three-level structure. Taken together, it was clear why the exhausted and dispirited sides were ready to lay down their arms temporarily. They began, very warily, to leave their trenches.

Heart-warming as it all was, fraternizing with the enemy is one of the most forbidden acts in war.

Amid all this, Nikolaus (Arnold Livingston Geis), one of the German troops, is ordered to leave the field to sing at a celebration organized by the crown prince. He’s an opera singer in civilian life, and he is to sing with Anna Sorensen (Mary Evelyn Hangley), his civilian-life love. Although she’s arranging for them to have adjoining rooms with a connecting door, he insists he must return to his unit after the performance. Somehow, Anna is able to come with him. That was fortunate, from an opera point of view, since they are the only singers among the more than 30 cast members on stage.

Music was composed by Kevin Puts and was adapted from the score for the film on which the opera is based. You get the picture: movie music, not opera music. The singing was mostly by the German opera stars during an informal service organized by Father Palmer, chaplain of the Scottish troops.

With their varied backgrounds, communication was difficult. Spoken words were in English, French, German, Italian and Latin with projected English text. In practice, the German singers were able to translate somewhat so dialog wasn’t entirely a mystery.

The second day deepened the drama as some of the men, conditioned to distrust their opponents, are ready to start shooting. He desists when told that one of the Scottish troops is merely trying to bury his brother, killed early in the battle. That leads to an emotional continuation of the truce for a few hours so all of the dead can be recovered from the trenches and given proper burial.

The audience responded in an emotional way to all of this. So did the higher command in the story itself. The whole thing was embarrassing to them, and the three units were quickly transferred to different areas of battle where they wouldn’t face one another.

The Glimmerglass orchestra provided its usual great support. But the conducting of festival favorite Nicole Paiement drew extra applause. She’s just a little slip of a woman, but on the podium she’s a dynamo. The design of the Alice Busch Theater is such that the audience sees little of the orchestra, but the conductor is raised and spotlighted to be in view of both the orchestra and the singers on stage.

Silent Night is a joint production of Wexford Festival Opera in partnership with the Atlanta Opera and Glimmerglass Festival.

The Cunning Little Vixen is a minor comic opera overlaid on a major orchestral work. Both music and libretto are by Czech composer Leoš Janáček. Like most of his work, it is based on Moravian and Czech folk stories and songs. The music is lush and complex, requiring an expanded orchestra that filled the orchestra pit almost to overflowing.

Conductor Joseph Colaneri, as he always does, kept orchestral and vocal forces in order. It was no simple task, as he explained in a program essay on the shifting meters in the score.

The title character was sung and charmingly acted by soprano Joanna Latini. Like most in the casts of all four productions, she’s a member of the Young Artists Program. The lead human character is Forester, sung by Eric Owens. Owens’ bass-baritone is so silky that his character could be hurling curses and it would sound like a love song. There weren’t any curses in this case.

The forester captures a young female fox with the idea that she would make a good companion for the family dog. Young Vixen Sharp-Ears, played by Lilly Grady, a member of the Glimmerglass Youth Chorus, will have none of being tamed and manages to escape back into the forest. Forester makes a half-hearted attempt to recapture her, but she has captured his affection.

Not so with Harasta, a close friend of the forester. He’s a chicken dealer as well as the chief poacher in the forest that Forester is supposed to protect. The forest creatures, led by Vixen, manage to get control of Harasta briefly and scatter the contents of his pack (the fruits of his poaching). But in the end, they are no match for his gun, and Vixen falls dead.

Before that fateful day, Vixen goes through all the stages of life: meeting a male, bearing kits, and finally playing one trick too many.

The English version of the Czech text is by Kelley Rourke. She writes nearly all super-titles for Glimmerglass productions, and seems to be able to translate any language. In her own program essay, she notes that Janáček didn’t use the term “cunning,” not attributing any sort of deviousness to creatures of nature. It was added in a German translation, and it stuck.

The Barber of Seville, with music by Gioachino Rossini, is based on the first play in the Beaumarchais trilogy of Figaro stories. Italian audiences didn’t take to it when it opened in 1816, preferring an earlier version by Giovanni Paisiello. Rossini himself named it Almaviva to separate it from the earlier work, although Barber of Seville was the actual title of the play on which it is based. It was only after Paisiello’s death that the work was renamed.

Audiences then knew what we know today; that Almaviva is a faithless womanizer. Marriage of Figaro, Mozart’s version of the second play in the series, had been in popular performance for 30 years. So it was a real work of art to have us all pulling for the young lovers, and the happy future of Rosina, the love interest of the Count.

Set only a few years later, Rosina is still young and beautiful. But Countess Almaviva is yesterday’s conquest to the count. His interest in “Marriage” is Susanna, a servant in the household and Figaro’s intended wife. Francesca Zambello, artistic director of both Glimmerglass and Washington National Opera, wrote a program introduction for the WNO production, seen and reviewed in May. This time she was the director.

The plot, and the humor, revolve around the efforts of the Count, in various disguises, to sneak into the home of Dr. Bartolo. Bartolo had been Rosina’s guardian (under unexplained circumstances) until she reached legal age. Now she is virtually a prisoner in the Bartolo house until he is able to marry her.

Various interpretations of the opera that I’ve seen tended to devolve into farce. In the Glimmerglass production, Dr. Bartolo remains a formidable obstacle to the end.

Bass-baritone Dale Travis was a strong Dr. Bartolo, justifying the inventive tricks played to defeat him. Tenor David Walton was so convincing as Count Almaviva that he had us believing his vows of undying love. Canadian mezzo Emily D’Angelo displayed her lovely voice, and spirited acting as Rosina.

Figaro is primarily an acting role, but Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins had the chance to display his power in the extended solo as Figaro makes his entry into town, proclaiming that he’s “the factotum of the town.” He made the most of it. A factotum can do any job, and in the time to opera is set, a barber did anything that can be done with a razor, including surgery.

Alexandria Shiner, a member of the Young Artists programs both in Washington and Glimmerglass, was the only carry over between the two casts. As manager of the Bartolo household, she’s a knowing observer of the various machinations, and she got ample opportunity to display her powerful and flexible soprano. Though still a young woman, her body—she’s a big girl—allows her easily to play a middle-aged woman.

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