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Glimmerglass Festival 2016

Latest Edition Shows Chorus Becoming Major Asset 

Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Seen August 12-14

As always, this summer’s season provided high-level solo and ensemble performances, but it also demonstrated the steadily growing strength of its musical core—especially the chorus, under the leadership of David Mooney.

From this aisle seat, special pleasure was enjoyed from Rachele Gilmore in The Thieving Magpie, Jamie Barton in The Crucible, and Luretta Bybee in Sweeney Todd, and they are far from the only ones.

Then there was dance-choreographer Meg Gillentine as Magpie. She didn’t sing a note but almost stole the show, except that no one can do that from Miss Gilmore.

Here’s a rundown, in the order in which I saw them on a very hot weekend in August:

The Thieving Magpie (1817) by Gioachino Rossini, libretto by Giovanni Gherardini, is a comic story with a near-tragic trajectory: the main character, the maid Ninetta, comes perilously close to death over the loss of just three pieces of silverware. As the title makes clear, the real culprit is the family’s pet Magpie. But the evidence under which the innocent maid is convicted is very similar to “proof” under which untold numbers of real-life people are found guilty.

The story is a complex web of frustrated, unrequited or genuine love. Jealousy, vindictiveness and the usual elements of opera all figure in the action.

The center of the story is Ninetta. Though just a servant, she is the love interest of the son and heir of the wealthy Fabrizio Vingradita family whose patriarch is all in favor of their marriage. Rachele Gilmore, as Ninetta, is on stage and singing nearly at all times, giving her ample opportunity to display the full range of the colors and expression her clear, lovely high soprano produces.

As for the Magpie, she began charming us long before the curtain opened as she interacted with the audience as we were being seated, especially by teasing the men. On stage, she was ever-present and free to “fly” around the house. She tried, with little success, to influence the human characters to avoid danger, but she picked up shiny things—like silverware—despite seeing the trouble that caused. When you’re a magpie, that’s what you do. Oh yes, and she is beautiful.

Ninetta is in trouble because the lady of the house suspects her of taking two missing spoons. The trouble grows when a fork later joins the missing spoons. The trouble truly blossoms when Ninetta’s hot-headed father appears. He’s deserted from the army after a fight with his captain leads to a death sentence. Naturally, there’s silver involved. He’s got three pieces engraved with the family initials: he’s Fernando Villabella. Dutiful daughter agrees to sell them and leave the money for him to pick up in a hollow in a tree.

Ninetta gets further damaging “help” from another servant, the comic character Pippo (Allegra De Vita) who says she saw Ninetta sell something to a travelling peddler, presumably expecting it not to be the missing items. The peddler is found, but he can’t produce what he bought from Ninetta because it already has been sold. He does remember that the pieces of silverware carried the initials FV. Proof enough. Naturally, it all works out. Pippo eventually saves the day by finding the missing pieces in the Magpie’s nest.

Dale Travis, as the trouble-bringing father, and Musa Ngqungwana as the mayor deserve special mention. The mayor offered to free Ninetta if she’ll be his lover. She’d rather die.

Peter Kazaras directed and Joseph Colaneri directed. The production will be broadcast Nov. 5 over WQXR in New York and many Public Radio stations.

La Bohème (1896). Music by Giacomo Puccini; libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa: Since it is by Puccini, you know the music is beautiful. And since it is one of the most popular of all operas, you know the story. It is the lives of artistic bohemians in Paris, their tempestuous loves and the death of Mimi.

The performance I saw needed a few minutes to establish the mood since the story opens on Christmas Eve in Paris, and the bohemians are bundled against the cold in the unheated garret. However, inside and outside the theater it was around 90 degrees so general director Francesca Zambello made the decision to experiment and leave open the huge sliding doors that close the screened sides during performances. Since it was a matinee, outdoor light made the super titles barely visible, it was hard to imagine the characters on stage being cold, and the lack of solid walls seemed to affect the sound balance between the orchestra and the singers.

Soon, all such issues were forgotten as the action progressed and the first arias were reached.

The bohemians are: Marcello, a painter, Hunter Enoch; Rodolfo, a writer, Michael Brandenburg;

Colline, a philosopher, Rhys Lloyd Talbot; and Schaunard, a musician, Brian Vu. After humorously disposing of their landlord, who futilely had tried to collect some rent, the men descend to the street to join the holiday festivities, using money Schaunard had just brought in from giving music lessons.

Rodolfo stayed behind to finish a newspaper article he was writing when a pale young woman, coughing from time to time, appears at their doorway asking for a light for her candle which had blown out. She’s a neighbor in their building, but they don’t seem previously to have met. It is love at first sight and leads to Mimi’s first aria: “They call me Mimi, I don’t know why, my name is Lucia.” (At least that’s an English version of the Italian in which the opera was performed.) Except that she is hale and hearty, Raquel González was a perfect Mimi with a delicate but sure soprano with color and a little vibrato in her highs.

In the love duet that soon followed, the two voices blended beautifully.

Rodolfo prefers to stay alone with Mimi, but she convinces him to take her with him to join his friends. There normally is quite a bit of stage business around Café Momus, a parade, a toy seller who attracts a crowd, a chorus of children, and this production had all of that, but it was disposed of in a matter of a few minutes to get on to the next musical highlight: Musetta’s popular waltz song. Played by Young Artist Vanessa Becerra, it is a plum role and she was good, but it calls for perfection, especially in the laugh. Incidentally, this was music inserted at Puccini’s request since he thought it fit, and he already had it in stock, having written it for another setting.

Musetta is Marcello’s former lover, now on the arm of Alcindoro, a wealthy older man, but it is Marcello that she wants. As men know, the woman always gets her way. Alcindoro, by the way, was played by Dale Travis, after a quick costume change from the role he’d played minutes earlier as Benoit, the landlord.

The second part, the last two of the four acts, is as much acting as singing. Rodolfo is staying with Marcello and Musetta at an inn where she is paying the rent by giving music lessons. Mimi appears to talk to Marcello to tell him she is terminally ill. He urges her to talk directly to Rodolfo who is sleeping inside. Depressed over their separation, Rodolfo rarely does much else. She refuses, but it happens anyway. In my view, this section adds very little to the opera, but who am I to question Puccini?

The final act is back in the Paris garret. Both Musetta and Mimi had taken wealthy lovers, but were back on their own. Musetta finds Mimi on the street, desperately ill, who asks to be taken to Rodolfo. In bed in the garret, she sings a reprise of the Mimi song. Somewhat surprisingly, what is perhaps the musical highlight of the act is Colline’s song of goodbye to his coat which he is about to sell to buy some food. Hey, these were very poor times and even an old coat had value.

The conclusion, when Rodolfo is the last to realize that Mimi has died, is the resounding “Mimi... .” that chills audiences every time. Every time.

Audience response was emotional and extremely enthusiastic. It always is.

Joseph Colaneri conducted with his usual attention to the special requirements of each work. E. Loren Meeker, associate or assistant director of several previous Glimmerglass productions, directed with the appropriate light touch.

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. This chilling tale has been a staple of musical theater ever since its premiere on Broadway. But it also has been a regular part of opera company seasons.

Everybody knows something of the story of the London barber who kills customers and of Mrs. Lovett who makes meat pies of the victims. It has been produced many times, there are at least two movie versions and there have been many TV presentations. So I may be one of the few who’d never seen a full production.

The production featured the Glimmerglass chorus, on stage most of the time, as a London mob, as the customers who happily consume the meat pies, as lunatics escaped from Mr. Fogg’s asylum.

The barber, of course, is the central character, but the action is driven by Mrs. Lovett, the owner of the pie shop and inspiration of the mounting number of murders. Mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee pretty much stole the show as Mrs. Lovett. Greer Grimsley was a darkly brooding Sweeney Todd. Both are seasoned opera singers, and since I don’t visit Glimmerglass until well into the season when all four productions can be seen in a single weekend, leads and chorus had their timing finely tuned.

The framework of the story is that Benjamin Barker has returned from 15 years of banishment to the Australian penal colony. During the Victorian Era, many thousands suffered “transportation,” mostly for minor crimes such as thievery. Serious crimes called for the death penalty, for which hundreds of crimes qualified. Often the only evidence was the accusation of an anonymous person, so it was no problem for evil Judge Turpin, who had designs on Barker’s wife, to banish Barker.

The barber, using the name Sweeney Todd, has returned to seek revenge on the judge and his agent Beadle Bamford, who’d made the arrest. (A “beadle” was a ceremonial officer, usually of the Church or a university, charged with keeping order.) Bass Peter Volpe was a perfect Judge Turpin. Bille Bruley, a Young Artist, was a comic Beadle Bamford.

Barker meets Mrs. Lovett when he seeks a room in her building, and she recognizes him since he’d lived there before he was sent away. She fills him in on what happened next: the judge raped his wife, who took poison as a result, and their 3-year-old daughter became his ward.

One of the first persons Barker encounters in Adolfo Pirelli (Christopher Bozeka), a faux-Italian barber who had come into possession of Barker’s prized razors. Of course, he becomes the first victim after Barker regains the tools of his trade.

Another early encounter is with a seemingly mad beggar woman, played and sung by Patricia Schuman, who has performed character roles around the world. The woman so annoys Todd that he eventually kills her. Naturally, she turns out to be his wife. She indeed had taken poison, but not fatally, and had spent years in an asylum. Her demise doesn’t come until late in the story as her cries of “city on fire” are taken up by the chorus, expressing the chaos of deaths that the situation has devolved into.

One key character, as Sondheim himself had described in preparation for the initial production, is the factory whistle that sounds each time a murder takes place. It had the chilling effect on the audience that was intended. Some elements were way over the top, such as a shower of blood on the wall after some of the murders, but this is a story that really has no top.

What we didn’t know is that the Saturday evening performance was to be the final one for Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett. It was announced Monday morning, a performance day, that she had withdrawn from the role with four performances still to go. Offstage, she has been Mrs. Grimsley for decades. Molly Jane Hill, a Young Artist appearing in The Crucible, took over. She has some fine professional credits, but Bybee’s are big shoes to fill.

This opera will be broadcast Oct. 29 over WQXR and many Public Radio stations.

The Crucible (1961). Based on the play by Arthur Miller, music by Robert Ward and libretto by Bernard Stambler.

This is a gripping drama of the Salem witch trials in the late 1600s, made all the more dramatic by the frenzy drawn from the orchestra by Nicole Paiement, artistic director and conductor of Opera Paralléle in San Francisco.

I happened to see one of the orchestra members and to ask if it had been difficult to play at such a fever pitch for most of two hours. She said it was, “but the music is beautiful.” It is.

The original play was inspired by Miller’s experience with questioning before committees of Congress during investigations of alleged communists in government during the 1950s. The primary goal was to elicit the names of others. That was the case with the witch trials as well. The difference is that communists existed in real life, while witches are a matter of belief. Also, 20 people actually were put to death during the witch trials.

The opera is almost entirely recitative, singing talking, often in anger, frustration or desperation. There is plenty of beautiful music, but limited opportunity for beautiful singing. That opportunity mostly fell to mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, as Elizabeth, wife of John Proctor, a central character. Already recognized as a rising young star, she provided the vocal highlight of the opera in crisp and lovely fashion.

She’s on the Met schedule to play Jezibaba in Rusalka. That’s a major role, but it calls for the character to be made up to look as ugly as possible. Ah, the trials of stardom.

Brian Mulligan displayed his powerful baritone as the martyred John Proctor, both singing and acting. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris was the center of the trial as Judge Danforth. Morris is this season’s Glimmerglass artist in residence.

David Pittsinger, bass-baritone, tried to bring some sense of reason to the community as Reverend John Hale. Already unpopular, Rev. Hale had no success.

All the other roles were filled by members of the Young Actors program. The group playing the apparently hysterical girls was extremely effective. Ariana Wehr was Abigail Williams, the leader of the girls and the former love interest of John Proctor. She played it like a veteran.

Zoie Reams was Tituba, a slave, from Barbados, in the household of Reverend Samuel Parris. She was with the girls whose dancing in the woods sparked stories of devil worship. She was Abigail Williams’ closest friend and taught the girls some voodoo at Abby’s request. Tituba denied making any compact with Satan, but there was some question about that.

Audience response was extremely strong as the tension was at last released.

Francesca Zambello directed. Neil Patel designed the effective scenery. Glimmerglass has, year-by-year, refined scenery designs so that changes can be made almost instantly, usually with the curtain up, and scenery has consistently been effective.

The opera will be broadcast Nov. 12 over WQXR and many Public Radio stations.


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