Since 1975, the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown (Known for its baseball as well as its opera.) has been presenting operas during the summer months in the gorgeous pastoral setting of rural New York. Since 1987, they have presented operas in the Alice Busch Opera Theater, an intimate, 914 seat venue with retractable walls, which blends the indoor/outdoor atmosphere of Glimmerglass. Each year, it’s the mission of the festival to present four new productions of operas, ranging from the standard rep, to obscure pieces, and even the annual musical, usually a classic. In a time where there is a struggle to make opera accessible, Glimmerglass has gone above and beyond to create an enticing and stimulating series of summer performances.
The fact that the festival is so far removed from New York City combined with the fact that it only runs during the summer, makes it a destination trip, to say the least. I was able to steal up to the festival for just a day and night on Saturday. While I was up there, I saw “Camelot” and “King for a Day”. It seems like there’s a royal vibe going on.
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “Camelot” is as famous for being a “classic American musical” as much it was synonymous with the JFK administration. The musical opened on Broadway in 1960 starring Julie Andrews as Guenevere and Richard Burton as King Arthur, and ran for 863 performances at the Majestic Theater. The musical details King Arthur’s assumption to the throne of Camelot, and his subsequent creation of the “Round table”, a community of knights founded on principles of chivalry and upholding of the law. In fact, it’s Lancelot, one of the knights who arrives from France to join the round table, who drives the wedge between Arthur and Guenevere.
As King Arthur, David Pittsinger gave the most sympathetic portrayal of the afternoon. After taking a few minutes in the first act to warm up, his acting skills and voice were thrown completely into the role. His voice is like fine leather. It’s not big and lusty, but refined and smooth, while it still manages to be authoritative and expressive. He dispatched these vocal talents to create a resonant portrayal that filled the opera house.
The sweet-voiced Andriana Chuchman was his wife, Guenevere. She was the most resonant of the singers, even when singing on her back, and was a convincing actress. The top of her voice soared in pieces like “The Lusty Month of May”, but at other times, it showed a weaker middle register. In fairness to all the singers, though, the entire performance was done without microphones. For an opera singer, musical theater is a different medium, so they must work harder to be heard.
The big-name celebrity of the musical was definitely Nathan Gunn, whose performance was the least convincing and most disappointing of the afternoon. While his voice may work for some operas like Billy Budd, it didn’t resonate at all here. He struggled with a poor French accent the entire performance (In all fairness, the accent situation was all over the place), and while he proved likeable in a few numbers, his voice just doesn’t contain that spectrum of emotion that would propel a singer into more intense or dramatic repertoire.
Jack Noseworthy was a lithe and malicious as Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son who breaks up the round table, and Wynn Harmon was entertaining in the straight-acting roles of Merlyn and Pellinore. Standouts amongst the supporting cast were Clay Hilley, Noel Bouley, and Wayne Hu as the hotheaded and passionately sung trio of knights.
However, the star of the afternoon was without a doubt the conductor, James Lowe. He managed to bring the perfect amount of majesty and fire to Loewe’s sophisticated score. The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Ensemble were in great form.
Robert Longbottom’s “park and bark” production didn’t provide much insight or angle into the characters and some of Paul Tazewell’s costumes caused unnecessary sound when moved, sometimes hindering the singers. Kevin Depinet’s sets were effective (Instead of a round table, there was a round-chandelier. I guess that’s the same thing…?) and practical. Robert Wierzel’s lighting provided a perfect touch to the drama.
As Verdi wrote “Un Giorno di Regno”, his children, then wife were dying. It’s ironic that the composer’s first comedic opera came at a time of such tragedy. In fact, it wasn’t until the end of his career that he attempted another comic opera, “Falstaff”. The opera’s 1840 premiere at La Scala was a flop, and greatly discouraged the young Verdi.
The opera, however, is actually quite charming. The story is about a man hired to impersonate the king at public engagements. When he ends up at the house of Baron Kelbar, hijinks ensue. The music is heavily influenced by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti (I noticed a LOT of similarities to Donizetti, actually.) and shows quite a few glimmers of the Verdi to come. In fact, it almost seems like two hours of all those happy Verdi crown scenes. Just imagine Ogni cura si doni al diletto and the Brindisi from Macbeth on repeat. However, it never gets boring. It just gets more and more charming. The opera would be a great choice for a New-Year’s Eve gala. It may not be the laugh-fest that Falstaff or Barbiere is, but it’s quite charming.
As the pretender to the throne, Belfiore, Alex Lawrence is a buffo baritone with a medium size voice and a ton of stage appeal. The role sat nicely for him, but exposed some flaws in his voice, in particular there was some flubbed coloratura. Jason Hardy as Baron Kelbar was the strongest man of the night. His voice was resonant, commanding, and his diction was crystal clear. As Edoardo, Patrick O’Halloran strained his way through the entire opera. His voice carried strangely in the house. Every once in a while, you could hear some of his more even middle register, but it was a largely disappointing performance. Andrew Wilkoske sang the basso-buffo style role with ease and a big voice.
It’s obvious that Ginger Costa-Jackson, a singer I’ve always enjoyed, has made a home at Glimmerglass. The mezzo-soprano took on Carmen there at the ripe age of 24 in 2011, and returned for the Marchesa del Poggio this summer. The Marchesa has been sung by zwischenfach mezzos like Anna-Caterina Antonacci, but Costa-Jackson is not a zwischenfach mezzo. Costa-Jackson has a deep, rich, heavy tone. In fact, I think she could easily tackle some of the great Verdi contralto roles like Ulrica or Mrs. Quickly (She’s covering the role at the Met next season.) However, the Marchesa was not the right role for Costa-Jackson. The role was set very high and she had trouble negotiating the higher passages where her tone sometimes became nasal and less audible. With that being said, she’s a real performer. Costa-Jackson was a diva-ish and fiery actress and a dancer to boot. While she (and the entire cast) improved vocally in the second act, her performance was a testament to how live opera is not 100% about the voice, but the performance aspect of it as well.
The standout of the performance was Jacqueline Echols as Giulietta, Baron Kelbar’s daughter. She easily negotiated the floated high notes and trills of the role with ease. Her voice is beautiful, and while she lacks some coloratura technique, she filled the house with a lustrous sound that was interesting and pleasing to listen to.
In the non-solo role of Kelbar’s “secretary”, Sharin Apostolou delivered most the laughs throughout the night.
Joseph Colaneri conducted the highly skilled Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in a lively performance and the Chorus was in great shape.
Christian Räth’s angle of the production was how people do crazy things when celebrities get involved made more sense after the explanation. Court Watson’s picture frame-inspired sets were a little confusing but his costumes were interesting and drew on the comedic vein of the opera. Eric Sean Fogel’s choreography was pure fun and Robert Wierzel’s clever lighting added to the colorful and flashy vibe of the opera. Kelly Rourke’s English translation of the opera was OK, but I’d have liked to hear the piece in its original Italian.
Also, I think it’s important to bring up the Glimmerglass Artistic and General Director, Francesca Zambello’s, accessibility at the festival. She was introducing herself to people before the performance and greeted me like I was family. It goes without saying that I really appreciated and respected how warm she was. It shows a commitment to opera as a business that is rarely seen amongst the higher levels of administration of opera companies these days.
It was a lovely weekend at Glimmerglass this weekend, and with their 2014 season of Madama Butterfly, An American Tragedy, Carousel, and Ariadne auf Naxos announced, I can’t wait to come back next summer.
All photos courtesy of Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival unless otherwise noted