Summer opera and classical music festivals walk a fine line: should the goal be to buoy the spirits through the hot summer months or present the same, standard programming, just where the mosquitoes can find you? The indispensable Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown (think “baseball”) has achieved a balance between the two – an even blend of the standard repertoire and the more innovative, presented accessibly (think lectures, opera in English, and artist Q&A’s), with other artistic/intellectual events in between (think recitals and masterclasses), all on the sprawling campus in rural upstate New York. One such event brought Jamie Barton, Cardiff Singer of the World and Richard Tucker Award winner and Glimmergass’ 2016 Artist in Residence, to the shores of Otsego Lake for a one-off recital program on Friday afternoon consisting of song cycles and selections by Joaquín Turina, Charles Ives, and Antonin Dvořák and a performance of Lee Hoiby’s delightful Bon Appétit!
Clad in sparkling silver and her characteristic warm smile, Barton opted to start with Turina’s both vocally- and emotionally-demanding Spanish “Homenaje a Lope de Vega” just as the skies opened over the Alice Busch Opera House. Competing with the noisy rain, the open piano lid (though accompanist Christopher Devlin tended towards the subdued with his supportive playing), and a persistent piano-grabbing habit, Barton seemed somewhat diminished from her usual self. And though the Turina songs showed off full-bodied low notes and her enviable facility with languages, her voice and musical sensibilities really bloomed in Five Songs by Charles Ives, where clearly-enunciated text and the unique musical sensibilities to create beautiful phrases out of Ives’ jagged, clipped musical lines served as a reminder that Barton is one of the most sincere, balanced singers on the scene. In “Gypsy Songs,” the emotional scope of the ode to Gypsy life was well-communicated through both her rounded, warm singing and her confidence with the Czech text. Her Jezibaba at the Met next season is a must-see item.
Lee Hoiby’s musically-nuaced one-woman Bon Appétit! takes an episode of Julia Child’s “The French Chef” to the stage for a lesson in gateau au chocolat, l’eminence brune. Sending up Child’s characteristic mannerisms through music with jumping octaves, chewing on the text, and actively cooking onstage, Barton was charming and in assured voice. In a way, Barton attacks singing similarly to the way Child attacks cooking: with thought, preparation, and ample humor.
My summer of rarities by Gioachino Rossini continued with a presentation, in Italian, of The Thieving Magpie (1817) (La Gazza Ladra), a semiseria about Ninetta, a servant girl accused of stealing from the family that employs her when it is, in fact, a pesky magpie responsible for the thefts. As Ninetta, Rachele Gilmore lent an agile, silky soprano with sterling ornamented high notes (plus a trill!), even if her Italian was inconsistent. Gianetto, the son of Ninetta’s wealthy employers and her betrothed, was ably sung by Michele Angelini whose clean, easily-produced voice was challenged only by the highest notes in the part’s punishingly high tessitura. Calvin Griffin revealed a beautiful light bass-baritone as Gianetto’s father, Fabrizio, but as his wife Lucia, Leah Hawkins’ plummy voice often lacked power in comparison and her diction suffered as a result. The Mayor, who has designs on Ninetta and leads the charge out of spite when Lucia accuses her of theft, was sung with anger, force, and not much else in the way of legato or phrasing by Musa Ngqungwana. Dale Travis’ was a sympathetic Fernando, Ninetta’s father, with a slightly covered voice, and Allegra De Vita’s warm voice really opened up in Act II as Ninetta’s friend Pippo. Brad Raymond’s powerful high tenor, heard here as both Isacco and Antonio, should make him a very valuable comprimario singer as his career progresses.
In the end, it’s revealed that the magpie was the one behind the thefts and Ninetta’s life is saved. While plenty of standard repertoire operas play with themes of duty, state, and ethics, precious few bother with the environment the way that Gazza does. Unfortunately, the unimaginative production by Peter Kazaras, though seldom static, failed to mine any deeper into a story that could have been a compelling parable for humankind’s relationship with and destruction of the environment. Additionally, Rossini’s delightful and famous overture was so over-staged that it detracted from what was happening in the pit under the direction of Glimmerglass Music Director Joseph Colaneri who led a lithe, textured performance of the sparkling Rossini score. In a story that straddles the dramatic and the comic, and Colaneri coaxed playing that was alternately sentimental and ebullient from the distinguished Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra. Meg Gillentine in the role of the magpie proved tireless in her twitching and preening, but her proprietary choreography sometimes felt better suited for an Elektra than a bird. The whole production was housed in Myung Cho Lee’s sleek, art nouveau-inspired sets and fantastical, if sometimes unflattering, costumes that would have been at home in any production of Alice and Wonderland. Mark McCoullough’s lighting paired nicely with the silvery sets and was overall quite pretty. The Glimmerglass Festival Chorus performed well, as it often does, though with a somewhat reduced sound than usual.
It was a promising start to the aptly-termed “Getaway Weekend” that would later include performances of Sweeney Todd and The Crucible. Stay tuned for those reviews later this week!
The Thieving Magpie will receive 3 more performances this season. Tickets can be purchased here.
All Glimmerglass production photos by Karli Cadel