P.S. Glimmerglass 2015

Playing It Straight for 40th Season; Candide, Macbeth, Magic Flute and a Baroque Masterpiece

Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Seen Aug. 14-16

Glimmerglass Festival celebrated its 40th season by doing something unusual in today’s opera scene: they played it straight. The result was beautiful music, beautifully sung, with no distracting attempts at novelty.

Glimmerglass, like all regional and festival opera companies, gives bountiful opportunity to young artists with just the right mix of established stars and singers recognized as rising stars.

The biggest hits with audiences were Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, with lyrics by a number of writers, pulled together by the poetry of Richard Wilbur, and Verdi’s Macbeth, based quite closely on Shakespeare’s play and inspired by actual history. So I’ll start with those.

The others were Mozart’s Magic Flute and Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica. They were a little less popular, at least in reported ticket sales, perhaps because Magic Flute is so well known and Cato in Utica so little. Both had plenty of virtues and warm audience response.

Candide an Audience Delight

Candide was certainly the entertainment highlight of the season. It’s a just plain great show. It was presented as the show musical in the otherwise opera season, but it is an operetta with little spoken dialogue. And it is a brilliant work that Bernstein composed in the 1950s at the same time he was writing the classic West Side Story.

The story is way too complicated to summarize, but it boils down to the misadventures of Candide and Cunegonde as they travel the world attempting to live the philosophy that “all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Needless to say, it seldom works out that way. The story is based on writing of Voltaire somewhat parodying the writing of 17th century philosopher Leibniz.

The operetta turns the material into 35 or so songs that express a full range of emotions. The musical highlight, for sure, is Cunegonde’s aria “Glitter and Be Gay” in which she laments her status as a kept woman—pretty much her occupation throughout. It gave Kathryn Lewek the chance to toss off the super high notes that very few sopranos can sing better. Throughout, her energy and lovely voice enlivened the entire production.

Of course, the operetta is about Candide, the earnest young man who is devoted to the teaching of the master of optimism Dr. Pangloss. Tenor Andrew Stenson, who’s appeared once before at Glimmerglass, made the character real and did a fine job in his aria “It Must Be Me,” as he realizes that the theories of Dr. Pangloss don’t seem to be working out. The acting role of Pangloss was sensitively played by David Garrison who is a baritone and singer as well.

Two other characters that keep the action moving are “The Old Lady,” played with verve by Marietta Simpson. Her best-known song is “I’m So Easily Assimilated,” and she made the most of it. The other is “Martin,” who enters as a street sweeper and becomes the companion of Candide and eventually part of his little family. Martin Scollin played the part to perfection.

Scollin is the only Young Artist in the cast that I’ve named, but not the only significant contributor. The production makes more use of a chorus than most, and all 19 members were Young Artists. They aren’t working on careers in ensembles, for the most part, but they rose to the occasion. This was due in no small part of the often-unheralded work of chorus master David Moody, a regular member of the music staff and a teacher at Juilliard.

Now may be the appropriate time to say it: The 40th season celebration made it clear what a treasure Joseph Colaneri is to Glimmerglass. He’s the Glimmerglass music director so he knows the fine orchestra better than anyone and he was able to get out that little bit extra, both in Candide and Macbeth. Francesca Zambello, the artistic director and all around major domo at Glimmerglass was the director. She wisely let the work stand on its own.

The production will be broadcast Nov. 21 on WQXR in New York City and carried nationally over the WFMT Radio Network.

Macbeth Featured Strong Leads

Macbeth is an entirely different story from a humorous operetta, and it got the audience response that it deserved. Giuseppe Verdi was a baritone himself, so he wrote wonderful roles of baritones. As Macbeth, bass-baritone Eric Owens was a commanding presence. He’s as big an opera star as ever appears at Glimmerglass so, of course, he sang the role beautifully. A higher baritone might have fit the music a little better, but let’s not quibble about that. If there was a problem it would be that he is too likeable on stage to express the total evil to which Macbeth falls (or rises, depending on how one looks at it).

The musical action mostly falls to Lady Macbeth, and, boy, could Melody Moore handle it. I’d hoped she’d be back since her sensitive and lovely performance as Senta in The Flying Dutchman two seasons ago. In this role Lady Macbeth is called on to sing with power over a chorus that is often in full voice (the Young Artists again, who didn’t get program credit this time). Miss Moore sang with sensitivity as well as power in a role that calls for inspiring her husband to carry out the evil deeds which she knows are in his heart. Since the first is to murder his cousin the king.

The day I saw the production was just one day after the anniversary of the death of King Duncan the First of Scotland (in 1040). He wasn’t actually killed in his sleep by Macbeth, as in the play and opera, but otherwise the story is pretty faithful to history.

Macbeth acts on the predictions of three witches who are considered the third “main” character in the opera. They predict what actually will happen, but Macbeth hears their coded messages in the light of what he wants to hear. In any case, Young Artists Rhys Lloyd Talbot, Vanessa Becerra and Jasmine Habersham were convincing.

The only “guest artist” beside the two leads was Solomon Howard as Banquo, Macbeth’s sidekick until the witches predict that his sons will inherit the throne. That leads to his murder, the first of the great many in Macbeth’s trip to the throne. Howard was a commanding presence on stage. It isn’t really a major role in the opera, but Howard was at Glimmerglass primarily to play Sarastro in The Magic Flute.

Productions of Macbeth don’t normally include a death scene, but director Ann Bogart and Colaneri agreed it added to the drama, so Macbeth dies onstage.

The production will be broadcast on Nov. 7 on New York classical music station WQXR and carried nationally through the WFMT Radio Network.

Focus on Great Music in Magic Flute

Mozart’s The Magic Flute is one of the operas most performed today, and the showy arias of The Queen of the Night are often performed free-standing in concerts. It also has been given a wide variety of novel productions. Thankfully, at least in my opinion, under the direction of Madeline Sayet, who is new to Glimmerglass, the choice was to play it straight. This approach focused all attention on the beautiful music (what music of Mozart isn’t beautiful?) and the story which is dramatic enough to stand on its own without all kinds of special effects. It also allowed the main characters more opportunity for movement on stage.

The story in brief:  Pamina, daughter of The Queen of The Night has been kidnapped by men of Sarastro, king of the realm and high priest of an undefined order of honor. Lots of magic is involved including a premonition that a young hero will arrive and rescue Pamina. That young man is Tamino. In this production, he’s the scion of a wealthy family in the financial industry and totally lost in the strange forest in which he finds himself. He meets up with Papageno, a bird catcher for the queen, then three women who serve the queen. He’s shown a picture of Pamina, falls instantly in love and sets off with the help of Papageno on his mission. The women give him a magic flute and Papageno some magic bells. Frankly, they don’t serve much of a part in the story.

Eventually we learn that Sarastro is actually the good guy, and the story ends with everyone except The Queen happy. In some productions, Sarastro is explicitly the former husband of The Queen and father of Pamina. In the Glimmerglass interpretation that issue never comes up.

Sean Panikkar, whom I saw in the role last season with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, again displayed his rich tenor to even better effect because the production allowed the characters to express their emotions physically along with their song. His character came alive with his integrity and was able to show intelligence more than is sometimes the case.

Same with Ben Edquist, who was excellent as Papageno, a plum of a role for a member of the Young Artist program. His Papageno showed sensitivity and thoughtfulness despite his weakness of caring mostly about food and finding a mate. His strong baritone was put to very good use.

Pamina, who falls in love with Tamino as soon as she hears about him, was played and sung with verve by soprano Jacqueline Echols, a veteran of two years in the Young American Artists corps who returned this season with full guest artist billing. She deserved it.

As befitting their opposing roles as Queen of the Night and high priest of the realm, the arias of The Queen call for a soprano who can sing very high and of Sarastro a bass who can sing very low. It’s a challenge not just to hit the notes but to maintain their musicality. So Young Park, a Young Artist, had no trouble doing that and was an animated and convincing actor who she wasn’t singing high. Solomon Howard’s smooth bass handled that challenge of Sarastro. Tall and handsome, he was a commanding presence.

The three women who serve the queen have a major part in the story. Young Artists Raquel Gonzalez, Aleksandra Romano and Claudia Chapa carried that job off well. Speaking of young artists, treble Samuel Solomon got guest artist billing as Second Spirit since he’s too young to be in the Young American Artists program.

Special mention needs to go to choreographer Eric Sean Fogel’s work in both Magic Flute and Candide. Tamino and Pamina together undergo the trials by fire and water to be accepted into the order of truth led by Sarastro. Six dancers represented the trials beautifully—as well as the perhaps-imaginary monsters that Tamino encountered when he first entered the forest. They are: Olivia Barbieri, Amanda Compton, Giovanni da Silva, Cole Francum, Andrew Harper and Katherine Henly.

While Tamino and Pamina pass their trials, the tests weren't for Papageno. Still he got his prize in Papagena. Played by Jasmine Habersham, a Young Artist, of course, she first appears in a costume about as weird as one can imagine in an opera. Once she is accepted, she emerges as a lovely young woman.

Mozart wrote this (the premiere was in 1791) at a time he was deeply involved in Freemasonry, and in some productions that comes across as what the story is all about. That subject wasn't touched directly at all.

Glimmerglass normally presents operas in the language in which they were written, but Magic Flute works best in English. Kelley Rourke provided a new translation which was effective but didn’t break any new ground, as far as I could tell.

Cato a Baroque Masterpiece

The opera I’d most looked forward to was Cato in Utica, and I wasn’t disappointed. Operatically, it was the highlight of the season. The music of Vivaldi and the singing of the fine cast were stunningly beautiful. There’s just one problem: the first act was staged with so little movement that many in the audience, at least those I could see near me, were nodding off. Everything came to life in the second act, and so did we in the audience. This will be broadcast by WQXR over the WFMT network Nov. 14, and it might very well come across better on radio than onstage.

We don’t normally think of Antonio Vivaldi as an opera composer. But history says he composed more than 90. Only about 20 survive and not all are complete. Only the second and final acts of Cato survive. Other composers have put together an Act 1, but it stands on its own with just the two surviving acts, and that’s what Glimmerglass chose to do.

The story is that Cato, an ardent supporter of the Roman Republic, broke away from Rome after Julius Caesar declared himself emperor and fled to North Africa with troops loyal to the Republic. Caesar’s troops tracked him to Utica, a port city in what is now Tunisia. Silting over the years closed the port and the site is inland today.

A complication is that Cato’s daughter Marzia is in love with Caesar. Caesar himself has maintained strong feelings of respect for his former compatriot Cato and visits him—at personal danger to himself—to try to convince him to surrender and rejoin Rome. Cato is resolute, and Caesar fails in his mission. So Caesar’s troops, under the direction of Fulvio, Caesar’s lieutenant, quickly take Utica.

The libretto is by Pietro Metastasio, based on a play by Joseph Addison. It was adapted by a number of composers before Vivaldi, including Pietro Vinci. That’s worth noting because the Glimmerglass production, directed by Tazewell Thompson adopts Vinci’s conclusion which is the death onstage of Cato. That was too much for Verona in Vivaldi’s time so his version, premiered in 1737, had Cato surrender and accept Caesar’s pardon.

The opera calls for only six characters, all of whom are important. In 1737, a Papal decree that was in effect forbade women on stage, so all roles were played by men, mostly castrati. One production in recent years had five roles played by countertenors. Another, all women mezzo-sopranos. Glimmerglass featured rising-star countertenor John Holliday as Caesar. He was brilliant, his rich voice sounded natural rather than falsetto. He’s a big, burly guy with the commanding presence suitable to an emperor set on dominating at the least the Mediterranean world.

Cato was tenor Thomas Michael Allen, appearing at Glimmerglass for the first time. There is a lot of recitative in the opera M. He carried it off dramatically and musically.

The only role that really can’t be played by a man is Cato’s daughter Marzia, who is in love in Caesar. Mezzo-soprano Megan Samarin, a Young Artist, played and sang with verve. Her energy provided just the only physical action in the first act.

Emilia, widow of Caesar’s late enemy Pompey, is primarily bent on avenging her husband’s death by killing Caesar, and she almost gets the chance until stopped by Cato himself. Sharon Mesko, a mezzo-soprano, played the role in a rather strange way. In dress and hair she appeared so masculine it is as if she were imitating a countertenor playing a woman.

Caesar’s lieutenant Fulvio, on the other hand, was played effectively by mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita, a Young Artist and definitely a woman.

That leaves just Arbace, Cato’s chief aide and suitor to his daughter. Countertenor Eric Jurenas, a Young Artist, was sound in the role.

Opera Lafayette in Washington, a small company specializing in early French opera, will offer two performances of Cato in Utica, Thanksgiving Weekend Nov. 28 and 28, based on the Glimmerglass production and directed by Tazewell Thompson. John Holliday will again play Caesar along with most of the Glimmerglass cast, joined by mezzos Anna Reinhold and Julia Dawson. This will be in the Terrace Theater in Kennedy Center. There will be one performance in New York City, Dec. 1, in Gerald Lynch Theater.

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