Glimmerglass Opera Festival 2019: La Traviata

La Traviata: Vibrant ‘Violetta’

Review by Ed Cloos

As seen August 10, 2019

Anyone who would read an opera review knows La Traviata, but there is a good chance the name Amanda Woodbury doesn't ring a bell. It is one I'll never forget after the all-around solid production of the Verdi classic at Glimmerglass.

The lead role of Violetta Valéry is a plum for a young soprano, but also daunting since most of the great divas of the past 165 years or so, including some every year in our time, have sung it. This isn't about them; it is about a brilliant young soprano who sang the familiar arias and duets with her own exquisite stamp. She gave every note its own character, subtly mixing trills, tremolo and just about everything a soprano can do. She slipped through the passaggios, (high to higher) with seeming ease despite the difficulties they pose for pronunciation.

Her performance wasn't just showpieces. To be convincing as the 23-year-old French courtesan who gives up the last chance for love in her brief life, an actress must be able to show strength in her character, not to be merely a subject for pity. No problem for Miss Woodbury.

The opera is based on a novel, and later play, by Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of the author of Count of Monte Cristo, Three Musketeers and others still popular, at least through films. But in the mid-19th century he was more popular than his father. The libretto, by Francesco Piave, is more or less a direct Italian translation from the French of Dumas.

The setting is the salon world of Parisian society. This provided the opportunity to showcase the developing strength of the Glimmerglass company in movement and dance. That's particularly appropriate in this opera since most of the music is based on dance themes, often the waltz—waltz in the stately French manner, not the speedy, complex Viennese form.

Dance scenes were thoroughly professional, thanks to the skills of many members of the Young Artists program.

Violetta is approached by Alfredo Germont, a young man who says he's been deeply in love with her for a year. At first, she pays little attention to this sincere, but naive admirer. For opera purposes, it is the beauty of his song of love that leads her to accept his advances, and soon to return his love.

The beautiful tenor of Kang Wang, a Chinese-born rising star, joined Violetta in an achingly sublime love duet few months later, they've left Paris for a quiet life in a cottage in the nearby countryside.

Their idyll falls apart when Alfredo learns from her maidservant that Violetta has gone to Paris to begin selling her possessions to pay their living expenses. Alfredo isn't so much self-absorbed not to realize somebody has to pay the bills; he’s just clueless.

Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, takes advantage of his son’s absence to visit Violetta and plead for her to end all relationship with Alfredo to protect his young daughter's chance for marriage. Alfredo's relationship with a courtesan is a scandal in their country village. Violetta firmly resists his cruelly harsh demand, but the elder Germont softens his tone and the beauty of the appeal he sings begins to win her over. She agrees to leave and write a note saying she is going back to Baron Douphol, her former protector. Alfredo never questions it.

It takes a warm baritone to carry that off, and Adrian Timpau was up to the task. The Moldova-born Timpau is a Young Artists alumnus, but this was his first lead role with the company. To me, this pivotal song is a crucial element in the success of the whole production, and I've had opportunities to see it fail. Not this time.

Everything moves fast after that, and Violetta isn't reunited with the two men who both loved and cruelly hurt her. Her death scene has been staged in many ways, sometimes in an elegant bedroom (as a few years ago at Glimmerglass) and once even sitting in a chair. This production both begins and ends in what looks like a charity hospital.

Francesca Zambello directed a production that worked at all levels. Joseph Colaneri conducted, and also contributed an essay on the Violetta character in the program.

Photo credits copyright Karli Cadel.

Production Credits:

  • Joseph Colaneri, Conductor

  • Francesca Zambello, Director

  • Peter J. Davison, Set Designer

  • Jess Goldstein, Costume Designer

  • Mark McCullough, Lighting Designer

  • Parker Esse, Original Choreographer

  • Andrea Beasom, Choreography Remounted by

  • Samantha M. Wootten, Hair & Makeup Designer

  • Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles

Glimmerglass Opera Festival 2019: Show Boat

Show Boat: Music and Message

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

Seen August 11, 2019

Show Boat, the Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II musical theater staple, is closing in on 100 years old, and it still is, in many ways, a commentary on current social issues. I've been waiting to see the Francesca Zambello interpretation since I first heard a broadcast of its initial appearance at Lyric Opera of Chicago. That was seven years ago. It was worth the wait.

A show with songs like Old Man River, We Could Make Believe and Why Do I Love You?, could never be all bad (although we may have forgotten where they came from). But when fake southern accents are involved, it can come close. What I heard in the broadcast seemed really to be like an opera.

The show is set in the late 1800s when marriage between people of different races, really just black and white, was illegal. Anti-miscegenation laws continued in some states long after that, but it is no longer against the law anywhere. That doesn't mean it is accepted everywhere. Racism is alive and well in America.

Although it is musical theater through and through, it has all the character of opera, as pretty much everything Hammerstein wrote does.

Glimmerglass presented the same production, with a different cast, but the same sets and costumes. Peter Davison is set designer and Paul Tazewell is costumer designer. James Lowe conducted, but John DeMain remained as musical supervisor. Reviews were great in Chicago, but at least one critic complained that the sets weren't elaborate enough for big-time Lyric—more suited to regional companies. Well, yes. Ones like Glimmerglass.

For me a key is a strong Captain Andy, he runs the Mississippi River showboat. Lara Teeter, an Actors Equity actor, was inventive, versatile, and in all respects held everything together and kept it moving. He wasn't the original, but he was more than fine. And he was entertaining in his own right.

The Cotton Blossom show had no trouble in the North, but when it docked in Natchez, Mississippi, there was plenty. Julie, the leading lady, is a negro (remember, “African-American” hadn't been coined yet). She's married to Steve, the company's leading man, but Pete, the boat's engineer, has designs on her. She spurns his advances, and he and Steve come to blows. Andy fires Pete, but he continues to cause trouble when he tells the local sheriff that a negro woman is married to a white man on board.

Getting word of this, Steve tries to get around the law by cutting his and Julie's fingers, mixing a little blood and sucking some. A drop of negro blood was said to make a person legally negro. That avoided immediate arrest, but they were ordered out of town by nightfall. The “opera” begins there.

The captain's daughter, Magnolia, has been following the show, knows all Julie's songs, and Julie is her best friend. Magnolia (Lauren Shouffer), known throughout the rest of the show as Nola, also has met on the dock a handsome stranger, named Gaylord Ravenal, he isn't really a singer or actor—turns out he's a river gambler—but he's fast learner.

They spontaneously sing We Could Make Believe (I love you), one of the musical's enduring hits. So they become the leads for the rest of the tour. They also actually fall in love and are married, against the wishes Parthy Ann Hawks, her mother.

The couple soon has a daughter, Kim, who quickly is old enough to sing Why Do I Love You?” together. Things move fast in musical theater. They settle in Chicago, and the show becomes a kind of melodrama from there, a melodrama that covers 40 years, but not before a stirring rendition of Ol' Man River by Justin Hopkins, a guest artist, as Joe, while on the Cotton Blossom. (I'm not clear on Joe's role on the showboat.)

Production Photos copyright Karli Cadel and Connor Lange.

Production Credits:

  • James Lowe, Conductor

  • Francesca Zambello, Director

  • E. Loren Meeker, Co-Director

  • Eric Sean Fogel, Choreographer

  • John DeMain, Musical Supervisor

  • Peter J. Davison, Set Designer

  • Paul Tazewell, Costume Designer

  • Loren Shaw, Associate Costume Designer

  • Mark McCullough, Lighting Designer

  • Samantha M. Wootten, Hair and Makeup Designer

  • Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles

Glimmerglass Opera Festival 2019: Ghosts of Versailles

Ghosts of Versailles: An Entertainment

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

As seen August 9, 2019

Ghosts of Versailles, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in celebration of its 100th anniversary, was seven years late in its opening, December 19, 1991. It has been trying to find its footing ever since. It has a special opportunity to mature at Glimmerglass since its composer, John Corigliano, is this season's artist in residence. It still seems to be a work in progress.

Its initial seven-performance run sold out, and it had an all-star cast, as The Met always does, it hasn't found a solid place in the American opera repertoire. Corigliano calls it a grand opera buffa, a large comic opera. To me, it is an entertainment, and entertaining it is.

The setting is grimly serious enough: it is set in an afterlife community of the court of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, all put to death by the new invention, the guillotine, during the early part of the French Revolution known as The Terror. The story is built on the imagined love of the playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. We know him as the author of the two plays on which the great “Figaro” operas are based.

At first, I saw echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which a mortal man is able, through his song, the enter the underworld to rescue his beloved wife who seems mysteriously to be ambivalent about the project. But, no, Beaumarchais is also a ghost. His life was contemporaneous with the Court, but his death was half a dozen years later. The core of the plot is that Beaumarchais is so madly in love with Marie that he is sure his powers (mostly ego?) can restore her to life at an earlier time, rescue her ahead of The Revolution, and change history.

She proves not interested in love or life, depressed over the circumstances of her beheading. Beaumarchais wins her over with a humorous opera, composed for the ghost audience, using the characters he created for his plays. The result is madcap comedy that has little to do with what the roles of the characters were in his plays. He seems to figure that Figaro, who is a lot like Beaumarchais himself, can do anything.

In this new, special-purpose opera, the characters soon depart from the script and pretty much undermine his intentions. He nevertheless succeeds in winning Marie's affection, and their hauntingly beautiful love duet provides a musical highlight. She decides against trying to change history, so their romance is forever confined to the world of the dead.

The production provided the opportunity for 30 members of the Young Artists program to appear, with their names in the program. One baritone, Jonathan Bryan, was strong in the lead role of Beaumarchais. The only guest artist was Ukraine-born soprano Yelena Dyachek as Marie Antoinette. She is herself young and certainly an artist, but she is a graduate of Young Artist programs in Houston and San Francisco, and a Met Opera National Auditions winner.

Jay Lesenger, unfamiliar to me, but the director of more than 200 productions, directed this one, and he will direct when it moves to Chateau Versailles Spectacles, co-producer with Glimmerglass. Joseph Colaneri provided his usual strong support from the pit.

Production photos copyright Karli Cadel and Connor Lange.

Production credits:

  • Joseph Colaneri, Conductor

  • Jay Lesenger, Director

  • James Noone, Set Designer

  • Nancy Leary, Costume Designer

  • Robert Wierzel, Lighting Designer

  • Eric Sean Fogel, Choreographer

  • Samantha M. Wooten, Hair & Makeup Designer

  • Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles

Glimmerglass Opera Festival 2019: Blue

Blue: Absorbing Drama

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

As seen August 10, 2019 

This was the world premiere of a dramatic treatment of the contemporary issue of young black men killed by (usually) white police officers. It was absorbing to watch, and reading the libretto, after seeing the live performance, gave me goose bumps all over. To get right to the point: it didn't inspire compelling music.

The characters are all symbols: The Father, The Mother, The Son, The Reverend, The Girl Friends (of The Mother), and Policeman 1, 2 and 3. I don't know if they even had names, so it is hard to relate to them as actual people. Since the action primarily involves The Father and The Son, one might expect the music to feature them. But their interaction was mostly spoken.

The music, by Jeanine Tesori, who has written previous story-telling opera music for Glimmerglass, had no tunes that ran through our heads after the show, but some, especially that sung by The Mother (Brianna Hunter) were hauntingly beautiful, but also brief and not repeated.

The libretto, by Tazewell Thompson, is concise and moving, but it doesn't lend itself to song. Thompson has made important contributions to Glimmerglass as a director, and he didn't disappoint as a librettist. But the libretto wasn't a catalyst for memorable music. I can't imagine hearing this as a radio broadcast, as Glimmerglass productions commonly have become.

As the story opens, we see The Father drop his hoodie and ceremonially take on the uniform of a police officer, a “cop” to his son and an “officer of the law” to himself.

Even before The Son is born, The Girlfriends sing of the sorrow of bringing a black boy into the contemporary American world, let alone as the son of the cop. “Did no one else apply for the job (as father)? they sing. The Girlfriends were the only part of the cast of characters to express all thoughts in song.

The libretto has kind of a disconnect between the birth of the son and the interaction with his father as a teenager. Young Artist Aaron Crouch was compelling as the spirited, rebellious son, but he got only one notable chance to display his fine tenor. As his father repeats his oath on becoming a police officer, the son sings that he is really “the white man's lackey,” and similar sentiments.

Despite his rebellious nature and disrespect for authority, the only “crimes” we are told about is jumping a subway turnstyle and spraying protest statements on abandoned buildings. He's actually participated only in peaceful protests and dies in his final one.

After the death of his son—we don't know exactly how he happened to be killed—The Father seeks, or perhaps is offered without his request, solace from The Reverend who offers the word of the love of God, which doesn't help The Father much.

The “happy ending” is an epilogue in which the Father, Son and Mother are united around the kitchen table in which mutual love is expressed and The Son, college-bound to develop his art abilities, talks of “just one more peaceful protest” in which “nothing will happen.”

It works wonderfully as theater, but opera? Not so much.

Kenneth Kellogg, an accomplished bass, held our attention as The Father, but the role doesn't call for much singing. He's been involved with the production from the beginning, the press notes tell us, and will continue as it moves on to Washington National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago in the coming season. It is a co-production with those prestigious companies. He's said in interviews that the story is deeply emotional, especially since he has a young son of his own. That son, Jayden, appears briefly in the show as “young child.”

Photographs copyright Karli Cadel and Conner Lange.

Production Credits:

  • Jeanine Tesor, Composer

  • Tazewell Thompson, Librettist

  • John DeMain, Conductor

  • Tazewell Thompson, Director

  • Donald Eastman, Set Designer

  • Jessica Jahn, Costume Designer

  • Robert Wierzel, Lighting Designer

  • Eric Sean Fogel, Movement Coach

  • Samantha M. Wootten, Hair and Makeup Designer

  • Cassie Williams, Associate Hair and Makeup Designer

  • Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles