In Review > North America

Lost in the Stars (7/22/12), The Music Man (7/20/12), Aida (7/23/12), Armide (7/21/12)

COOPERSTOWN, NY
The Glimmerglass Festival

In Review Glimmerglass Music Man hdl 1012
Croft as Harold Hill in The Music Man at Glimmerglass
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival 2012

The Glimmerglass Festival, in its second season under the leadership of Francesca Zambello, continued its tactic of mixing Broadway shows in with opera. Two of this summer’s four offerings were works first seen on the Great White Way — Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars and Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. The Weill work was especially welcome. Based on Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Countrythe piece had a respectable 281-performance run after its 1949 opening at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre. Its subsequent airings have included an admired New York City Opera production (1958), a short-lived Broadway revival (1972), a BBC concert staging in 2009 and a 2011 presentation in City Center’s Encores! series. The Glimmerglass mounting, a coproduction with Cape Town Opera (seen July 22 matinée), showed it well worthy of revival. 

The score is prime Weill, characteristically mixing high operatic style with lowdown showbiz pizzazz. Treating the divide between the races in South Africa, Maxwell Anderson’s libretto occasionally shows its age, but its central drama — the crisis of a provincial preacher whose son commits a murder in Johannesburg — is a powerful one. In the Glimmerglass production much of the power derived from the performance of Eric Owens, as Stephen Kumalo, the preacher. The impact of this great voice in the 914-seat Alice Busch Theater was overwhelming. Using a lilting African accent, Owens sustained the musicality of his singing in dialogue scenes; in both speech and music Owens revealed the workings of Kumalo’s heart. 

The cast was strong throughout. Sean Panikkar, playing the Greek-chorus-like role of the Leader, asserted his authority through the bracing clarity of his tenor and the decisiveness of his stage manner. Makudupanyane Senaoana, a member of the festival’s Young Artists Program, cut a touching figure as Kumalo’s wayward son Absalom, a child-man too vulnerable to assert control over his fate. Mezzo Brandy Lynn Hawkins, another Young Artist, turned Absalom’s pregnant lover Irina into a thoroughly sympathetic character, although her voice was a shade too “legit” to squeeze the bluesy essence from her songs “Trouble Man” and “Stay Well.” Wynn Harmon, in the non-singing role of Kumalo’s nemesis James Jarvis, admirably refrained from overplaying either the character’s racism or his eleventh-hour reformation. Young Caleb McLaughlin, as Alex, sang the show’s eleven-o’clock number, “Big Mole,” with infectious energy. 

Michael John Mitchell’s monochromatic unit set at first portended an afternoon of unrelieved somberness. But it proved to be an effective frame for Tazewell Thompson’s production, which filled the stage with movement. The cast may have consisted of only some two dozen people, but as deployed by Thompson, they evoked a nation. John DeMain conducted a reading that found impact in both the Broadway and the operatic elements of the piece. 

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Hawkins, Owens and Senaoana in Glimmerglass’s Lost in the Stars
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival 2012

Unlike the quasi-operatic Lost in the Stars, The Music Man (seen July 20) is a Broadway musical, pure and simple. But Glimmerglass generally casts its musical comedies with opera singers — in this case, Dwayne Croft and Elizabeth Futral, neither of whom made a strong case for the tactic. Croft delivered “Trouble” in big, sweeping phrases, each word crisply articulated, the familiar mahogany tone buoying Harold Hill’s patter. But there was nothing of the scamp in Croft’s salesman; he seemed too stalwart a fellow to swindle the good people of River City out of their hard-earned money — and too plausibly a bona fide graduate of the Gary (Indiana) Conservatory of Music. 

He struck few sparks with Futral’s Marian. Her brittle presence in Act I made her later acquiescence seem unmotivated; in song, her penetrating voice did little to suggest the tenderness beneath the librarian’s prickly exterior. Much of the role sat low for her — an illustration, perhaps, of how the realms of Broadway and opera make different technical demands of their sopranos. 

Bass-baritone Jake Gardner seemed similarly adrift, unable to uncover the humor in Mayor Shinn’s Babbitt-like pronouncements. By contrast, Cindy Gold, a visitor from the legit stage, brought surefire comic timing to the Celtic pronouncements of Mrs. Paroo, Marian’s mother. But Ernestine Jackson, another theater performer, was miscast as Mrs. Shinn — too clearly a born entertainer to draw comedy out of the starchy dowager’s terpsichorean aspirations. Josh Walden played the sidekick Marcellus with a vaudeville-style Brooklyn accent that was a little too thick for consistent intelligibility, but he executed some nimble maneuvers in his specialty number, “Shipoopi.” 

It’s probably built into The Music Man itself that a couple of its supporting elements can walk off with the show. Here, the four Young Artists in the barbershop quartet (tenors Eric Bowden and Adam Bielamowicz, baritone John David Boehr and bass-baritone Derrell Acon) set off shivers of pleasure whenever they joined their voices in song. And young Henry Wager, as Marian’s kid brother, Winthrop, drew spontaneous, delighted applause when he seized center stage for his chorus of “Wells Fargo Wagon.” 

Director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge moved the period forward from 1912 to 1946 — a decision quite at odds with the script’s references to Model Ts and cracker barrels, as well as its evocation of a cultural moment when a marching band could be seen as a social panacea. But the show moved sharply and swiftly, and Dodge turned a group of the Young Artists into a smashing, high-kicking dance corps. Under DeMain’s authoritative leadership, the orchestra delivered the show’s original orchestrations, by Don Walker, with Broadway-style panache.

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The genuine article: Johnson as
Glimmerglass’s Aida

© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
2012

Zambello, in her own production of Aida (seen July 23 matinée), seemed to want to give Verdi’s opera the showbiz punch of the festival’s Broadway fare. “Su del nilo,” the consecration scene and the triumph scene were all staged as production numbers, the performers facing forward to sock ’em out. The strategy made the most of the intimate venue, giving these moments an immediacy that they don’t necessarily attain in traditional grand-opera stagings. But too often, the production felt like Aida Lite: it shrank the opera to fit its surroundings — literally so in the first two acts, which were riddled with cuts.

Zambello made her revisionist intent clear from start to finish. Perhaps because this summer’s troupe, assembled for Lost in the Stars,included a large contingent of African and African–American singers, she sidestepped the racial dichotomy that usually marks this opera. No longer were the Egyptians “white” and the Ethiopians “black”; instead, Egypt and Ethiopia were two rival African powers, trapped in gritty battle. The costumes, by Bibhu Mohapatra, combined contemporary desert-warfare mufti and operatic “Egyptian” garb. Lee Savage’s unit set was a war-battered opera house that only occasionally corresponded to the opera’s seven settings. Radamès was waterboarded during the judgment scene; at its conclusion, he was strapped to a gurney and given a lethal injection by Ramfis. The tomb scene was played as a sick joke: Ramfis ambled off, leaving Radamès and the syringe, presumably half full, behind; Aida shot up as she sang “O terra addio.” 

Two of the performers brought the kind of grandeur to their assignments that the production itself lacked. Owens was as good an Amonasro as I have ever seen or heard — fearsomely bellicose one moment (a terrifying “Dei Faraoni tu sei la schiava!”), tenderly paternal the next. Michelle Johnson, who took the title role, is the genuine article — a big-scaled Verdian spinto. Based on the evidence of this performance, her top is not her glory; through most of its range, though, the voice is rich and full, with an incisive finish that lets it ride over the orchestra. Johnson is a great-looking woman (even if her wedding-dress-cum-monk’s-robes costume did its best to hide the fact), and the figure she cut was regal — this Aida was every inch the king’s daughter — yet extraordinarily sympathetic, thanks to the generous warmth of her singing and the yearning expressiveness of her stage presence.

Noah Stewart’s Radamès was a likable enough fellow, and a handsome one, too (rare is the Radamès who can play Act IV shirtless without embarrassment, as Stewart did here), but little in his manner suggested either the masterful warrior or the ardent lover. The voice itself has plenty of juice, but Stewart used it roughly, with top notes all but shouted. Daveda Karanas played Amneris not as an imperious princess but as a high-school mean girl. Her loud, harsh mezzo carried no hint of seductiveness or vulnerability: this was an Amneris who could hector but not cajole, and it was hard to imagine her suffering for love of Radamès. Joseph Barron, a Young Artist, was a sonorous Ramfis. In keeping with the spirit of the production, the work of conductor Nader Abbassi was more notable for its brash energy than for spaciousness or opulence. 

In Review Armide hdl 1012
Enthralling Baroque style: Kriha Dye and Ainsworth in Armide
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival 2012

Lully’s 1686 ArmideGlimmerglass’s first-ever foray into French Baroque opera, was an altogether more successful affair. In Marshall Pynkoski’s production, a joint venture with Toronto’s Opera Atelier, the piece (seen July 21) created a hypnotic effect. Lully’s musical argument consists of recitative and short melodic motifs, but they’re bound together in act-long spans, anticipating Wagner’s “endless melody.” Under David Fallis’s lively but surely paced musical direction, and as played out in Gerard Gauci’s splendid sets, Armide unfolded like a dream of the Baroque. 

In Lully’s version of the oft-told romance of Armida and Rinaldo, love and desire are chimeras. Here, the spirits who lulled the warrior Renaud into his magic sleep included a male corps,their blouses cut low to expose their chests; the spirit of Love was a winged, half-naked man who caressed the sleeping hero. These homoerotic elements registered not as shock effects but as suggestions of both the fluidity of sexual desire and the worldly mores of Louis XIV’s court. 

Peggy Kriha Dye made a commanding Armide — a forceful presence with an intriguingly complex lyric soprano, which had veins of darkness running through it. Its fine-spun vibrato here changed with the princess’s emotions, reflecting her mercurial shifts from vengeful disdain to romantic longing to hysterical fury. Colin Ainsworth (Renaud) occasionally blurred note values, especially when notes ran small and fast. But his voice was tremendously appealing — a sweetly lyric tenor that nonetheless rang through the house with extraordinary power. 

As the heroine’s companions, two sopranos from the Young Artists Program offered contrasting aural impressions — Mireille Asselin, sweet and tangy, and Meghan Lindsay, mellow and clarinet-like. Both looked elegant in Dora Rust D’Eye’s period costumes. Covered in body paint as the spirit of Hatred, bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan seemed cast more for his physique than for his singing. Both bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre and tenor Aaron Ferguson, as the two knights who come to rescue Renaud from Armide’s clutches, failed to maintain consistent focus in their vocal projection, but their Mutt-and-Jeff interactions garnered well-earned laughs.

Armide is as much ballet as opera; its long stretches of dance, choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, registered not as divertissements but as integral elements of the work’s structure. Opera Atelier’s impressive dancers used contemporary ballet technique, but their movements suggested the formality of the seventeenth century. Like so much else in this Armideits dance sequences offered a convincing and enthralling view of Baroque style. spacer 

FRED COHN

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