OPERA NEWS - The Crucible (7/22/16), Sweeney Todd (7/22/16), La Bohème (7/24/16), La Gazza Ladra (7/25/16)
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In Review > North America

The Crucible (7/22/16), Sweeney Todd (7/22/16), La Bohème (7/24/16), La Gazza Ladra (7/25/16)

Glimmerglass Festival

In Review Glimmerglass Crucible hdl 1016
Mulligan and Barton in The Crucible at Glimmerglass
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

DIRECTOR FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO can be an ardent revisionist, upending settings and scenarios in search of new perspectives on familiar material. But Zambello’s Glimmerglass Festival production of Robert Ward’s 1961 The Crucible this summer stuck to basics. Perhaps because the work itself, based on Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, offers its own dislocation, recasting the figurative witch-hunts of the McCarthy era as the actual ones of the colonial past, Zambello, who is also the festival’s artistic director, stayed true to the time and place indicated in the libretto. Neil Patel’s unit set only fitfully suggested the locations for the opera’s five scenes but still rooted us firmly in colonial-period Salem, Massachusetts. Zambello’s aim seemed to be to present the piece as clearly and simply as possible—an impression buttressed by Nicole Paiement’s lucid, dramatically alert musical leadership. 

This was my first encounter with The Crucible, and I sensed that Zambello and Paiement were allowing me to see it whole. It is a worthy work but perhaps not a great one. Ward’s setting of Bernard Stambler’s text is always just. The action proceeds intelligibly; the music is always apposite and occasionally satisfying in its own right. But I didn’t feel any sense of true synergy between The Crucible’s score and its story: the music supports the drama without achieving its own theatrical force.

On the production’s July 22 opening night, the piece best held the stage when Brian Mulligan and Jamie Barton, playing the unhappy couple John and Elizabeth Proctor, were front and center. Both are big-voiced singers, but both made an impact through the expressive aptness of their singing as much as through the sheer volume of the sounds they produced. A vocal indisposition forced Mulligan to dodge some climactic high notes, but his burly baritone nonetheless conveyed both the farmer’s fallibility and his heroism. In the closing measures of Elizabeth’s “I do not judge you, John,” Barton let out a torrent of sound suggesting a wellspring of previously unexpressed feeling. 

The tart, vibrant lyric soprano of Ariana Wehr (a member of this summer’s Young Artist Program) was ideally suited to the vengeful young hysteric Abigail Williams. Wehr’s ability to sing through consonants and make them springboards for the vocal line made each vocal gesture count. As the Reverend John Hale, David Pittsinger, a familiar Glimmerglass presence, used his weighty bass-baritone to convey the character’s strictness as well as the underlying compassion that makes him recoil from the witch-hunt’s excesses. Young Artist Zoie Reams’s sultry mezzo-soprano turned the slave Tituba’s Act IV aria into a moment of voluptuous respite. But Jay Hunter Morris’s infirm tenor couldn’t convey the scalding intensity of Judge Danforth’s vitriol. 

The use of Young Artists to play all but a handful of the older characters undercut The Crucible’s naturalism.As fine as mezzo-soprano Helena Brown and tenor Chaz’men Williams-Ali both were, it strained credulity when Brown’s Rebecca Nurse called herself “a grandma twenty-six times over,” or when Williams-Ali’s Giles Corey was labeled “a slanderous old fool.” The economic and pedagogic motivations behind Glimmerglass’s policy of filling such roles with Young Artists are easily understandable, but in this production, the strategy sometimes gave the proceedings a university-theater tinge.

In Review Glimmerglass Sweeney Todd hdl 1016
Bybee and Grimsley as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Compared to Zambello’s Crucible staging, Christopher Alden’s production of Sweeney Todd (seen July 22) was a thorough exercise in twenty-first-century regie. Apparently Sondheim’s “musical thriller” can now be subject to the same kind of directorial interventions typically sustained by standard-repertory pieces—a sure sign of its induction into the opera-house canon. Alden shifted the action forward roughly a hundred years, from the Victorian era to the middle of the last century. The curtain rose on what looked like a municipal assembly hall, festooned with Union Jacks: it might have been decorated to celebrate the coronation of the present British monarch. As the action started, the cast members grabbed clothes off a rack—the costume supply of a community-theater group. As the action moved forward to its bloody climax, Andrew Cavanaugh Holland’s set became increasingly fractured; the horrid “tale of Sweeney Todd” overwhelmed the surroundings.

One could appreciate Alden’s efforts to adapt his production to the venue. The amateur-theatrical concept justified the strategies he deployed to cut Sweeney down to Glimmerglass size. (The stage couldn’t possibly house the two-story set piece needed to show the corpses of Sweeney’s victims chuting down to Mrs. Lovett’s oven; instead, a charwoman marked each successive murder by throwing blood against a wall.) But the result was neither particularly scary nor particularly funny. This was partly due to the festival’s policy of presenting Broadway shows with unamplified voices and a fully manned pit orchestra. In a work such as Carousel, written for similar acoustic circumstances, the tactic is commendable, and the results can be thrilling. But here it became clear that Jonathan Tunick’s lush orchestrations had been tailored to the heavily miked original Broadway production. Although the dialogue was “gently enhanced,” according to a company spokesperson, the singers often had a tough time making Sondheim’s lyrics heard and his musical wit understood without electronic enhancement.

The problem was compounded by the usual difficulties opera singers encounter when adapting their techniques to Broadway material. Neither Greer Grimsley (Todd) nor Luretta Bybee (Lovett) could consistently summon the forward placement needed to put the text across. In the role’s higher reaches, Grimsley offered a taste of the heroic sound that makes him such an eminent Wagnerian, but lower down he was dull. Bybee was sometimes forced to abandon the musical line altogether to whoop out Sondheim’s best bits. Alden set “A Little Priest,” the show’s great Act I finale, as a music-hall number, but neither performer summoned the vaudeville flair needed to justify the conceit. 

Ultimately, it was hard to apprehend who the two characters were. In order for their peculiar relationship to make sense, we need to understand the dual obsessions that drive them—Sweeney bent on revenge, Lovett moonstruck over Sweeney. In the Glimmerglass production, with the two leads struggling to master the idiom, neither mania came through.

The most effective work came in Sweeney’s two most “operatic” roles, both taken by Young Artists. Harry Greenleaf sent Anthony’s ballad “Johanna” soaring through the house; Nicholas Nestorak made every word of Tobias’s “Not While I’m Around” hit squarely on the ear. Among the production’s other Young Artists, Bille Bruley, as Beadle Bramford, effectively suggested a man solidly ensconced in middle age. But Emily Pogorelc, hampered by a hideous fuchsia party dress, didn’t begin to convey Johanna’s innocent sensuality, and she made heavy going out of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Christopher Bozeka flounced without comic flair through the role of the pseudo-Italian Pirelli.

The “guest artist” contingent included Peter Volpe, depicting Judge Turpin’s bourgeois self-satisfaction, if not his squirm-inducing lechery. Glimmerglass stalwart Patricia Schuman was a first-rate Beggar Woman, palpably unsavory but pitiably human. Conductor John DeMain’s reading was often quite slow and only intermittently achieved Broadway-style dazzle.

In Review Glimmerglass Boheme lg 1016
González as the Glimmerglass Festival’s Mimì
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

E. Loren Meeker’s production of La Bohème (seen July 24 matinée) indulged in its own temporal displacement, moving the decor forward a half-century from the 1840s to the belle époqueof the work’s composition. But it was an essentially conservative take on the piece. Set designer Kevin Depinet gave the Bohemians a drafty loft to live in and a bustling café to cavort in. The horseplay that Meeker drew from the men worked at eliciting laughter rather too insistently, and I wish that in the Momus scene Musetta had tried to command Marcello’s attention with a good deal more subtlety and a good deal less “funniness.” But the treatment of the central love affair was unfussy and sensitive: in the scenes between Mimì and Rodolfo, the work’s unbounded pathos came through. 

For this, Meeker must share credit with Glimmerglass music director Joseph Colaneri, the production’s conductor. His reading maintained a balance between taut and spacious; he gave his singers plenty of room for expression without ever letting the sentiment descend into mawkishness. When the Bohemians flattered Benoît, Colaneri imparted a gentle spring to the underlying berceuse rhythm: I had heard the passage a thousand times but had never before so fully appreciated its mocking wit.

The performance boasted a remarkable Mimì in Raquel González. Her complexly shaded lirico-spinto soprano proved an instrument of ideal weight for the role, and she used it to create a portrayal of extraordinary delicacy. Her seamstress never begged for our sympathies, but instead elicited them through her simple, direct manner. She treated “Donde lieta uscì” not as an occasion for grandstanding but as a plain racconto, listing the items she needed to retrieve from Rodolfo’s apartment and only letting her passion come through as she sang of the “cuffietta rosa” underneath his pillow. “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” was so unaffected, so thoroughly in the moment, that its ending elicited from the audience empathetic silence rather than applause, as if nobody wanted to break its spell. This was the work of a true artist.

Michael Brandenburg, as Rodolfo, looked every bit the bearded, amorous young poet. But the sounds he produced were constricted—uncomfortably so in the voice’s lower reaches, disastrously so at the top. Hunter Enoch was a sonorous Marcello, shaggy and sympathetic in his physical appearance. Vanessa Becerra, the Young Artist playing Musetta, was best in Act IV, when she was allowed to abandon the production’s stock soubrette-isms and show that her narrowly focused lyric soprano was capable of conveying tenderness as well as hoydenish energy. The Colline, Young Artist Rhys Lloyd Talbot, delivered a tremendously affecting farewell to his coat.

In Review Thieving Magpie lg 1016
Gilmore and Angelini in La Gazza Ladra at Glimmerglass
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Meeker definitely had a much easier assignment than Peter Kazaras, entrusted with Rossini’s Gazza Ladra, billed here as The Thieving Magpie and seen at the July 25matinée. Even though Bohème is 120 years old, its theatrical workings remain perfectly clear to a modern audience. But the semiseria mode of La Gazza Ladra is most definitely archaic; the work is like little else that we might encounter in the opera house or elsewhere. It cannot be easy for a director to achieve the delicate balance between the opera’s sweet melancholy and its gentle comedy. 

Kazaras got nowhere near to finding the right tone for the piece. La Gazza Ladra is no romp. The predicament of the heroine, Ninetta, accused of thievery, is hardly a laughing matter; during the course of the opera’s action, both she and her father, Fernando, face execution. But this production proceeded as if it were an opera buffato set alongside Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The trouble started even before the show: a dancer (Meg Gillentine), clad as the magpie of the work’s title, circulated through the house, buttonholing audience members and getting cute in their faces. She then starred in a staging of the overture that depicted the theft later pinned on Ninetta, a dumbshow that not only distracted attention from one of Rossini’s greatest inventions but robbed the plot of its suspense. 

The Magpie hung around for all of Act I, kibitzing the proceedings. Her constant presence, even when Ninetta and Fernando were singing of their shared plight, served as a cue that we shouldn’t be taking the action terribly seriously. Gillentine thankfully stayed in the wings for most of the somber Act II. But the “magpie” element remained. Most of the costumes, by Myung Hee Cho (also responsible for the bilious scenery), were ornamented with feathers; when the jury assembled to condemn Ninetta, its members, one by one, gave their feathers a post-preening shake. I couldn’t figure out what relevance any of this had to the matter at hand. 

Rachele Gilmore, playing the hapless Ninetta, was at her best in her duets with Michele Angelini, as her lover, Giannetto, and Young Artist Allegra De Vita, as the serving boy Pippo. Angelini is one of the new breed of tenors able to articulate Rossinian filigree without compromise. The voice, while not large, has an appealing frontal resonance that keeps it sweet and unforced even in the most challenging passagework. De Vita deployed her smoke-infused lyric mezzo with spot-on musical accuracy. When the supremely agile Gilmore joined voices with these two able colleagues, the result was music-making that combined virtuosity with lyricism. In Gilmore’s solo moments, though, I found myself wishing that she could temper her focused, firmly projected soprano with more warmth and color. 

As the rapacious mayor who seeks to dishonor Ninetta, bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana produced imposingly dark sounds, but when the music moved quickly, he offered only approximations. Bass-baritone Dale Travis was Ninetta’s father. The afternoon before, he had offered a canny-old-pro account of Benoît and Alcindoro, but he didn’t have enough voice for bel canto. Colaneri was once again on the podium, and if his work didn’t here come up to the level of his Bohème, it may well have been a reflection of the murkiness of the doings onstage: with the tone of the piece so thoroughly obscured by the staging, it was hard to discern what exactly the music was supposed to be telling us.  —Fred Cohn 

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