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In Review > North America

Macbeth (7/17/15), Catone in Utica (7/18/15), The Magic Flute (7/20/15), Candide (7/19/15), 

COOPERSTOWN, NY
Glimmerglass Festival

In Review Glimmerglass Macbeth hdl 1015
Riveting command: Moore and Owens in Macbeth
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
In Review Glimmerglass Catone lg 1015
Jurenas, Allen and Samarin in Catone in Utica
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
In Review Glimmerglass Flute 1015
Pannikar and Echols, Tamino and Pamina at Glimmerglass
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

IN VERDI'S MACBETH , the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival showed its very best musical face, thanks to the efforts of its music director, Joseph Colaneri, on the podium, and of Eric Owens and Melody Moore as the murderous protagonists. The July 17 performance was marked by speed and concision, owing less to the small cuts in the score than to the thrust and propulsion Colaneri brought to the piece. It was a reading that left me with renewed awe at the phenomenal vitality of the young Verdi’s musical invention.

Owens’s Macbeth represented a bit of unconventional casting. As a bass-baritone, his vocal center of gravity lies a tad low for the role, and some of its climactic high notes were indicated rather than sung full out. Still, the sheer scale of his singing, filling the intimate Alice Busch Theater, made a terrific impact. Owens conveyed vulnerability more than ferocity; the woolly warmth of
his voice let us hear Macbeth, for all his fatal flaws, as a fully human being. 

The last time I heard Melody Moore was at Glimmerglass in 2013, when she offered an appealing if somewhat lightweight Senta. Either her voice has grown in the intervening years or Lady Macbeth is a more suitable role for her. In any case, she was stunning. Her riveting command of the stage offered a persuasive correlative for Lady’s malevolent allure. Her voice was forceful and freely produced, with none of the guttural approximations that some Lady Macbeths permit themselves. Moreover, its trace of steel fit the role exactly; the savage “O voluttà del soglio” section of “La luce langue” slashed like a sword. Only in the sleepwalking scene did Moore fall short of excellence; for this — and for much else — director Anne Bogart must take the blame. For the scene’s whole length (even during its orchestral prologue, minutes before the Gentlewoman announces the Lady’s entrance), Bogart sent Moore scurrying about the stage, performing a kind of slalom race amid a forest of silent choristers. I couldn’t begin to fathom the reasons for this but could only note that the director, apparently deaf to the unearthly stillness of the music, had effectively torpedoed Lady Macbeth’s transcendent moment.

Soloman Howard was a sonorous Banquo, if a bit too callow in voice and manner to suggest the noble warrior. The festival assigned Macduff to one of its Young Artists, Michael Brandenburg; in “Ah, la paterna mano,” he made some impressive sounds, if not exactly knitting them together into a cohesive lyric statement. 

Bogart’s production registered as inept and uncomprehending from the start. Her hardly original notion of moving the action forward to the beginning of the twentieth century bore no particular resonance. James Schuette’s unit set — a cumbersome structure of three French windows, evoking Downton Abbey-esque luxury, spun this way and that — never quite connected to any individual scene. A tightrope-walking routine during the conspiracy duet turned Macbeth into a buffoon; the staging of Banquo’s murder was ludicrous. Bogart’s most egregious decision was to turn the witches into the Macbeths’ domestic servants: after spending most of Act I trying to decipher the meaning of this transposition, I decided to expend no more psychic energy on it but to attend to Verdi instead. Luckily, Colaneri and his forces offered the means to do so. 

Compared to the gutsy theatrics of Macbeth, Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica registers as fairly bloodless stuff. The Metastasio libretto, which depicts the dissident senator Cato in exile from Julius Caesar’s Rome, consists of a series of stock opera seriasituations, engendering a stately progression of da capoarias. But Glimmerglass’s production offered musical satisfactions that compensated for the work’s dramatic shortcomings. Moments of loose ensemble aside, conductor Ryan Brown drew stylish playing from his modern-instrument forces. (The July 18 performance was the production’s opening night; no doubt some musical details fell more neatly into place later on.) The production’s impressive musical preparation could be heard even more in the work of its singers, most of whom ably handled the demanding virtuoso arias. Even more impressive was the cast’s treatment of recitative, which was crisply articulated and declaimed with a freedom that mimicked the patterns of speech. 

The evening’s Caesar, John Holiday, was a clear audience favorite; the laser-beam brilliance of his high countertenor seemed to me better suited to his second aria, the martial “Se in campo armato,” than to his first, the elegiac “Se mai senti spirarti sul volto.” A distinct contrast was offered by the production’s other countertenor, Glimmerglass Young Artist Eric Jurenas, who sang with soft-grained delicacy as Cato’s ally Arbace. The object of both warriors’ affection, Cato’s daughter Marzia, was Megan Samarin, another Young Artist. She excelled in recitative, her quick vibrato giving it a recognizably human “face”; in her arias, her lyric mezzo-soprano sometimes failed to project in its lower reaches. 

Mezzo Sarah Mesko, as the vengeful widow Emilia, provoked excitement through the contrast between her smoky lower register and her flashing top. As Caesar’s lieutenant Fulvio, mezzo Allegra De Vita (yet another Young Artist) offered some of the best singing of the evening; her voice is compact yet well-projected, and the role’s demanding passagework was dispatched with bravura. The one puzzling bit of casting was tenor Thomas Michael Allen in the title role: his voice had so little juice that it was hard to discern just where the notes lay.

Director Tazewell Thompson took a straightforward approach to the piece: Utica was Utica; the Romans were Romans. In collaboration with choreographer Anthony Salatino, he devised lively stage business for the singers that at least distracted from the work’s dramatic stasis. Only in Arbace’s Act I aria did the staging team go too far: the athletic stage business demanded breath from Jurenas that might have been better expended in vocal production. John Conklin’s gilded-ruins unit set provided an imposing if somewhat gaudy frame for the action; the shifting backdrops behind its central arch sustained visual interest throughout the evening.  

The festival’s Magic Flute, on the other hand, was a strenuous exercise in revisionism. Kelly Rourke’s English text was as much a rewrite as a translation, amended to underline the production’s political concerns, and with all manner of expurgation to avoid offending modern sensibilities: the Two Priests forbore from warning against the wiles of the female sex; Papagena’s first appearance proffered no insult to elderly women; Pamina and Papageno saluted not “man and wife” but “root and stem.” 

Madeline Sayet’s production cast Tamino as a corporate exec, upstate on a New-Age-ish retreat. The director’s program note informed us that she was also trying to portray something about the “Tree of Life” and its presence in both the Mohegan and Judeo–Christian traditions. In practice, though, she was able to make none of her muddled conceits stick to Mozart’s opera itself: they disintegrated so quickly and so thoroughly that one hardly needed to attend to them at all. Sayet was equally unsuccessful in eliciting polished efforts from her performers: both stage movement and dialogue were clumsy and unfocused. Troy Hourie’s enchanted-forest set was pleasing enough to look at, but nothing that transpired within it suggested a festival-level attempt to meet Mozart on his own terms. 

Still, the staging was hardly the most disheartening aspect of Glimmerglass’s Flute; it was the utter lack of musical distinction. Although the July 20 matinée, under conductor Carolyn Kuan, offered a couple of trainwreck moments, for the most part it proceeded competently but dully. There was no spring in the music’s rhythms, no luminosity in its textures, and certainly no sense that singers and instrumentalists were working together to realize this opera’s extraordinary sound world.

Among the cast, “guest artists” (that is, full-fledged professionals) took only three roles — Tamino (Sean Panikkar), Pamina (Jacqueline Echols) and Sarastro (Soloman Howard). Panikkar contributed the afternoon’s most exciting singing, the glint of metal in his voice giving it a heroic cast. Echols’s lyric soprano is succulent, but she didn’t pass the exacting test of sustaining a true legato in “Ach, ich fühls.” Sarastro is a more exposed role than Banquo; here Howard’s unsteadiness of emission proved a hindrance.

Young Artists filled out the cast. The most accomplished was So Young Park as the Queen of the Night. Her soprano emerged darker and more colorful than that of the leggieros who usually take the role: the voice’s weight was a reminder that the Queen has urgent matters to impart before she lets loose with her fireworks. Park’s coloratura was dazzling in runs and arpeggios, less so in the trill in her first aria and the triplets in her second.  

Ben Edquist was no more successful than most in mining laughs from Papageno’s routines; at least he didn’t press the matter too insistently. Jasmine Habersham was a boisterous Papagena. Nicholas Nestorak missed the rhythmic pointing needed to make Monostatos’s aria fly. Rhys Lloyd Talbot couldn’t summon the requisite gravitas for the Speaker — a cruel assignment, it must be said, for an apprentice.

In Review Glimmerglass Candide hdl 1015
Bowers, Garrison, Stenson, Lewek and Kristen Choi (Paquette) in Candide
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello, staged Bernstein’s operetta Candide, this summer’s foray into musical-theater territory, seen at the July 19 matinée that opened the run. The staging was lively and inventive. James Noone’s set depicted a bare-bones staging area; within it, shifting platforms helped far-ranging action move swiftly from scene to scene, with Jennifer Moeller’s witty costumes filling the stage with color. 

But all the theatrical savvy in the world could not disguise the fact that Candide itself is not an effective piece. The score, to be sure, is one of the marvels of the American musical theater. But the show’s libretto, in its current iteration at least, is episodic, preachy and strangely uninvolving. It renders Voltaire’s satire into a series of cartoony tableaux, killing off its characters again and again, only to revive them to submit to fresh disasters. The tactic allows the audience little emotional stake in the proceedings: it is hard to mourn a character’s death when we know that he will reappear in fifteen minutes’ time. After nearly three hours of flattened-out action, the show ends with “Make Our Garden Grow” — one of the great Broadway anthems, but one whose throbbing sentiment is scarcely earned by anything that has come before. 

The work, which presents more textual alternatives than anything else in the repertoire (Don Carlos and Boris Godunov included) was here given in the “Royal National Theatre version,” based on director John Caird’s 1999 London production. I know the score mainly through the wonderful 1956 original-cast recording; here I encountered not only a handful of numbers new to me but some familiar tunes set to unfamiliar lyrics. Even though many of these are the work of Stephen Sondheim,
I couldn’t help regretting the loss of the brilliant Richard Wilbur originals.

David Garrison, as Voltaire/Pangloss, was an effective anchor for the proceedings, bringing a theater vet’s assurance to the work’s narration, his singing marred only by an occasional lack of projection in the lower reaches. Andrew Stenson’s one-note Candide contributed to the sketch-comedy flavor of the proceedings. Stenson projected the character’s ingenuousness but offered little sense of heroic virtue or romantic longing, and his light lyric tenor left some of his music’s possibilities unexplored.

Kathryn Lewek took an unorthodox approach to Cunegonde’s showpiece “Glitter and Be Gay,” turning the aria into a defiant feminist statement and making the character’s “fallen state” cause for bitterness rather than giddy irony. The cabaletta was stunningly vocalized and capped by a spectacular high E-flat. Marietta Simpson really shouldn’t have been singing the role of the Old Lady: most of her music lay in the chasm between her reedy head voice and growling chest voice. Young Artists ably filled the smaller roles — Christian Bowers, properly bumptious as the fat-headed Maximilian; Andrew Marks Maughan, sweetly sincere as the sidekick Cacambo; Matthew Scollin,
bitingly cynical as the nihilistic Martin.  

Some dropped lines and musical slipups may well have been the result of first-performance-itis. But Colaneri presided over a reading that was once again marked by abundant energy: it was a thrill to hear the splendid score so exuberantly rendered. —Fred Cohn 

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