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New York State of Mind: Ariadne auf Naxos and An American Tragedy at the Glimmerglass Festival

I’m always amused by the fact that Cooperstown, NY, a small, random, classically American town situated over four hours north of New York City, can support a world-renown summer opera festival as well as the Baseball Hall of Fame. Resting on Otsego Lake, the Glimmerglass Opera Festival provides a welcome escape for opera fans who flock to the beautiful and practically constructed Alice Busch Opera Theater to see three operas and one musical be performed in repertory every summer. It’s always a little baffling how an opera festival draws so many people to the rural, baseball themed Cooperstown every year, but breaking even budgets and a sense of community integration and enthusiasm for the performances being presented must be what keeps the festival an opera destination every year.

This was my second year up at Glimmerglass, after having seen Camelot and King for a Day last year. Recently, under the artistic leadership of Francesca Zambello, the festival has been re-branded and rejuvenated with young-artist lead performances, audience-accessible events(weekly free tours of the opera house, free pre-performance lectures, and myriad recitals and concerts).

This year, the four presentations at the Glimmerglass Festival were Ariadne auf Naxos, An American Tragedy, Madama Butterfly, and Carousel. I was up at Cooperstown over the weekend of August 8th and saw all four performances. This first half will discuss Ariadne and American Tragedy, with reviews of the other two productions which will follow later this week.

Each year at Glimmerglass, Francesca Zambello has made it her mission to have an “artist in residence” every summer. In the past, it has been singers like Deborah Voigt and Nathan Gunn. The artist in residence usually performs in one production and a recital, with smaller concerts and mentor-ship roles throughout. The artist in residence this year was the dramatic soprano Christine Goerke.

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival. (L to R): Beth Lytwynec as Dryad, Jeni Houser as Naiad, Jacqueline Echols as Echo, Christine Goerke as Prima Donna, Adam Cioffari as Agent, John Kapusta as Dance Captain, Catherine Martin as Composer, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella, Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, Gerard Michael D'Emilio as Truffaldino, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Wynn Harmon as Manager of the Estate.

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
(L to R): Beth Lytwynec as Dryad, Jeni Houser as Naiad, Jacqueline Echols as Echo, Christine Goerke as Prima Donna, Adam Cioffari as Agent, John Kapusta as Dance Captain, Catherine Martin as Composer, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella, Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Wynn Harmon as Manager of the Estate.

This year, the mammoth-voiced Goerke returned to her Glimmerglass roots as the Prima Donna in Richard StraussAriadne auf Naxos. Ariadne has always been a fascinating work for me. The opera itself is a masterpiece. While musically it’s mostly quite compelling and entertaining, the psychological aspect of the piece is my favorite part. The creation of these mostly-nameless characters is thought provoking beyond belief when the squabbling opera troupe and raucous comedians come together to form the “opera” portion. I’ve always found the prologue more musically interesting, and after picking my brain about it, I realized why. The prologue is written by Strauss. The opera is written by the Komponist who dominates so much of the prologue. It is a first venture into opera, for this young composer, so of course it is flawed. The Ariadne/Bacchus duet always manages to feel long, but Strauss really understood the cycle of composition for a young composer. The two vitally important pieces of the piece could not exist without each other. Strauss asks more questions than he answers with Ariadne, but isn’t that what good theatre is about? This is just my personal analysis of the piece, so feel free to leave your impressions in the comments.

The “mostly-nameless” characters whom I brought up in the first paragraph are the members of the two rivaling factions slated to perform at the home of the “richest man in Vienna” or, as Zambello’s production would have it, upstate New York. Zambello sets the production in a barn in upstate New York, decked-out with goats, chickens, and tractors. Part of what makes Glimmerglass so special is its surroundings, which were referenced in this production. The production was mostly funny and created some pleasant stage pictures. The crowd scenes were stimulating, but a lack of clear blocking in the opera portion made a scene that can easily feel long feel endless. Too bad Strauss didn’t write a part for the “direktor” that we can stick the blame on. Also, in the beginning, Zambello had the characters enter from the house, chattering and running throughout the theater as the prelude was going, drowning out some of Strauss’ lovely music, conducted with almost too much delicacy and lightness by Kathleen Kelly.

Christine Goerke is a thrilling singer. She has emerged with power, brilliance, and sensitivity  as a dramatic soprano whose Faberin at the Met last season was the highlight, for me, of 2013. Her voice is almost too huge for the intimate Alice Busch Opera Theater, but she commands the stage with thrilling low notes, intelligent use of text,  and real comic timing. Also, it looked like she, like the rest of the cast, was having a great time onstage, which is one of my favorite reasons to be at Glimmerglass.

Rachele Gilmore’s birdlike voice soared with sensitivity as Zerbinetta, gliding over high notes during a sassy and expressive “Grossmachtige Prinzessin”. Katherine Martin’s Komponist was marred by mushy diction(which really matters when the production is partially-performed in an intelligent English translation by Kelly Rourke) and a jagged upper voice. Fortunately, her aria was performed nicely and she has a pleasant, if not indistinctive, middle voice. Corex Bix was expressive, if not a little underpowered as Bacchus.

Clockwise from top: Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Gerard Michael D'Emilio as Truffaldino, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Carlton Ford as Harlequin in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Clockwise from top: Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Carlton Ford as Harlequin in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Of the supporting cast, Carlton Ford, Jacqueline Echols, and Matthew Scollin, all members of the Young Artists Program, were very pleasantly voiced as Harlequin, Echo, and the Farmhand.  Troy Hourie’s sets were fun to look at, with a map of New York state painted on the barn door, and Erik Teague’s costumes were fun to look at. Mark McCollough‘s fantastic lighting delivered the much-discussed firework finale of the opera with simplicity.

The (unionized, if anyone’s interested, considering the recent events at the Met)Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra was in lovely form, with special props to the clarinet section.

Saturday afternoon presented a drastically different work from Ariadne. Tobias Picker’s 2005 opera, An American Tragedy, based off the Theodore Dreiser novel and surges with emotion. Picker and librettist Gene Scheer take on the ultimate challenge of cutting an over-one-million word novel down into a 3 hour opera and pull it off with attention to detail and a variety of musical colors. While Scheer’s character development can sometimes come off a little heavy-handed, Picker’s intense and evocative musical storytelling more than make up for it.

The story of class conflict that eventually brings Clyde Griffiths, the central character and accused-murderer of Roberta Alden, to the electric chair, is effectively and deliberately illustrated in Peter Kazaras’ production. While the stage may be dominated by a large, metal scaffold, it very rarely impedes the performers and in the final scene, makes for a moving and symbolic stage picture. Also, the staging of the boat-flip was pulled off in an extremely intelligent way, as seen below.

As Clyde Griffiths, Christian Bowers evoked memories of Nathan Gunn in his earthy, sensitive performance. As Roberta Alden, Vanessa Isiguen won the most applause of the afternoon. With a beautiful smile and a warm, colorful voice, she was intensely believeable and extremely sympathetic as Clyde’s first “love”. At the other end of the economic spectrum, Cynthia Cook’s sumptuous, earthy voice swelled with vibrato and earnestness as Sondra Finchley, the second woman with whom Clyde falls in love.

Cynthia Cook as Sondra Finchley, Christian Bowers as Clyde Griffiths and Vanessa Isiguen as Roberta Alden in The Glimmerglass Festival's new production of Tobias Picker's "An American Tragedy." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Cynthia Cook as Sondra Finchley, Christian Bowers as Clyde Griffiths and Vanessa Isiguen as Roberta Alden in The Glimmerglass Festival’s new production of Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Amongst the supporting cast, Meredith Lustig’s Bella was punctuated with great low notes and Aleksey Bogdanov delivered an authoritative, snarling baritone as Samuel Griffiths. George Manahan gave an intense, brooding, and evocative reading of Picker’s lush score. The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus both delivered passionate performances, with the children’s chorus as a welcome presence in the Church Scene in the second act. Anya Klepikov and Robert Wierzel’s costumes and lighting complemented each other well in light of the story. Alexander Dodge’s sets moved on and off the stage with ease, expertly linking together the many smaller, more intimate scenes in the opera with the bigger ones.

Stay tuned for reviews of Madama Bufferfly and Carousel to follow later this week!

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