Retrospective of the Glimmerglass Festival mainstage season of Summer 2017: Xerxes, by G.F. Handel (libretto by Minato and Stampiglia); The Siege of Calais by Gaetano Donizetti (libretto by Salvatore Cammarano); Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin; and Oklahoma! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
Who says you can’t go home again?
The theme of this past summer’s Glimmerglass Festival 2017 was “home and homeland,” and it proved a fertile organizing notion, with love of home, defense of home, loss of and longing for home all woven richly into the fabric of the four fine works that played the festival mainstage – two from the Old World, and two from the New.
And, for at least part of the season, home was decked out with a distinctive touch of Persian flair.
Glimmerglass boasts a special relationship with the works of George Frideric Handel. And this past season, the company played a Handel royal flush with a visually stunning, exquisitely sung and acted production of a late-career novelty of the master’s – Handel’s 1738 Xerxes.
As the production’s conductor, Nicole Paiement, commented during an audience talkback session following the performance of August 18 (viewed here), Handel was, at the time of writing Xerxes, contending with a changing musical scene – evolving tastes, diminishing funding, new singing styles. Countering adversity with creative innovation, he decided to experiment with a tighter structure and new velocity, fashioning a compact seven-character whirligig of an opera.
The approach turns out to be quite gratifying to modern sensibilities, even if it was apparently disorienting for many of Handel’s contemporaries, acclimatized as they were to stately paces. In Xerxes, we have Baroque opera that moves. Handel largely disencumbered his singers of long da capo repetitions, and gave us instead streamlined, forward-thrusting drama and melody.
The title character – better known to history as the tyrant king of the ancient Persian Empire and arch-adversary of the Attic Greeks – is here glimpsed at home (there’s the season theme!), in his capital at Susa. And we discover that, between engagements at Thermopylae and Mycale, his amorous majesty found himself waging a series of dysfunctional sexual skirmishes as well.
The plot treats of Xerxes’ perverse and implacable pursuit of Romilda, a local satrap’s daughter, even though she’s in love with Xerxes’ brother, Arsamenes. Tyranny having its prerogatives, Xerxes banishes Arsamenes, and redoubles his efforts to bring Romilda to heel. Arsamenes sends his skittish servant, Elviro, back to the capital with a love note for Romilda, but it’s intercepted by Romilda’s wildly erotic sister, Atalanta, who has designs on Arsamenes herself. Oh, and there’s Xerxes’ erstwhile fiancée, the jilted Amastris, who disguises herself as a visiting outland nobleman in order better to monitor all the dubious shenanigans Susiana.
Deceptions, disclosures, titanic tantrums and fits of despair all ensue in dazzlingly programmed variety, until everything resolves – without bloodshed and more or less happily.
It’s remarkably lively stuff, not to mention brazenly improbable, and sets a unique tone for itself, pitched somewhere at the intersection of melodrama, sceneggiata and farce. One can see why genre purists of Handel’s day might have been disconcerted, and why post-genre moderns can revel in it with impunity.
Susa Who’s Who
The performances were terrific. Five of the seven characters were played by members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program, and did the program proud. These included bass Brent Michael Smith, sonorous and spot-on as Romilda’s fuddled father, Ariodates; bass-baritone Calvin Griffin, hilarious and power-voiced as the servant Elviro; mezzo-soprano Abigail Dock, warm-toned and ardent as the lovelorn Amastris; soprano Emily Pogorelc, whose vertiginous lyric runs and bell tones as the beleaguered Romilda were thrilling; and soprano Katrina Galka, fierce, fearless, fiery and lusciously manic as the ruthless Atalanta.
As the two royal brothers whose love feud is at the center of the opera, mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita, as Arsamenes, and countertenor John Holiday, Jr., as Xerxes, were perfection. The former was every inch the swaggering and fervent young buck. Rarely does a female performer so completely obliterate any sense of mediating irony in assuming one of these Baroque trouser roles. De Vita’s physical and psychological authenticity were flawless, and her voice was pure and virile passion, earnestness, and thew.
Finally, John Holiday, Jr.’s performance as the Persian autocrat was breathtaking. His unique and pliant male soprano sound was uncanny, his coloratura electrifying, and his take-no-prisoners intensity show-stopping. Whether caressing our ears with his opening pastorale (the famous “Ombra mai fù”) or hurling vocal Molotov cocktails of furioso, this was a performance nothing short of divo-esque. All of Xerxes’ mad self-indulgence, incredible ego, and Streisand/Cher/Diana Ross-like histrionics were served up, vocally and physically, replete with swirling capes and untrammeled superstar ostentation.
Director Tazewell Thompson obviously knew how to coax the full measure of operatic amplitude out of his performers, and moved things deftly and expressively around the stage; while conductor Nicole Paiement expertly massaged a throbbing and nuanced col canto organicism out of her terrific Baroque instrumentalists.
The glorious aesthetic farrago of Sara Jean Tosetti’s mixed modern/ancient/Baroque costume designs, and the jewel-toned brilliance and arresting, asymmetric eccentricity of John Conklin’s set designs and Robert Wierzel’s lighting, all contributed to an evening of unflagging interest and visceral delight.
The other Old World work at Glimmerglass 2017 was a stirring rendition of a Gaetano Donizetti rarity – his 1836 The Siege of Calais. Glimmerglass Festival artistic and genera director Francesca Zambello herself was at the helm, generating a bracing sense of immediacy and gutsy high stakes in a big, modern-dress production.
The underlying story is true – or at least celebrated in legend. At the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, Edward III of England laid siege to the French city of Calais. The city strove heroically to hold out, but privation took its toll. At last, Edward offered to lift the siege in exchange for the voluntary surrender to execution of any six of the city’s leading citizens. It’s a wrenching tale of heroic self-sacrifice still cherished by the people of Calais, and commemorated in a famous larger-than-life sculpture by Auguste Rodin that still graces the city’s Place du Soldat Inconnu.
Here, Zambello sidestepped medieval siege-craft and instead presented a world of bombed-out urban devastation – apartments exposed by cratered and crumbled exterior walls, and even a burnt-out shell of an automobile. This could be present-day war-savaged Syria, or any number of other places in crumbling, failed modern states.
Spoiler alert: in the end, the sacrificial volunteers are spared by the eleventh-hour intervention of England’s Queen Isabella. But, prior to that, there are action, drama, intrigue and heroics aplenty amidst the desperate denizens and burghers of the city – not to mention heart-rending arias, duets, and big, vaulting Donizetti choruses.
Company at Calais
The performers rose fully to the outsized and harrowing call of the material. Mezzo-soprano Aleks Romano, in the lead male role of Aurelio, was exceptional. In consort with soprano Leah Crocetto, as Aurelio’s wife, Eleonora, the two created some of the evening’s most hauntingly beautiful and poignant passages, as when their luxuriant tones merged in a duet of commiseration over bad omens and fears for their son (“Io l’udia chiarmarmi a nome / “Rio presagio!…amato figlio”).
Baritone Adrian Timpau, one of nine members of the festival’s Young Artists Program who performed in the large cast, was excellent as Eustachio de Saint-Pierre, the mayor of the city, as were other members of the program such as baritone Michael Hewitt, grand and rich-voiced as King Edward, and soprano Helena Brown, redoubtable and robust of voice in her Act III power turn as Queen Isabella.
The momentous Act II prayer of the six presumably doomed men (“O sacra polve, o suol nation”) was a luminous and hypnotic coup – a moment certifying the emotional authenticity of all that had preceded and built to it, and a high credit to director, ensemble and orchestra alike.
The score was conducted with passionate and masterful taste by Joseph Colaneri. The costumes were by Jessica Jahn, the sets by James Noone and lighting by Mark McCullough.
The Siege of Calais did not prove a great success for Donizetti in his own time; but Glimmerglass has done high service in excavating it, and demonstrating both the work’s stark pertinence and its potent emotional claim on sentiments of patriotism, altruism, and staking of home.
“I loves you, Porgy…”
It’s a humbling and exhilarating pleasure to encounter again the monumentality and the freshness of that veritable musical-theater oracle, Porgy and Bess. Like the Book of Genesis, the Gilgamesh, the Oresteia, the Elgin Marbles, it exudes an aura of authenticity, priority, seminal originality. Nothing quite precedes it, everything seems to flow from it.
The Glimmerglass Festival 2017 presented a rapturous and, indeed, flawless production of this indispensable work.
Set within a two-tiered enclosure of corrugated tin, fishy detritus and slummy, ramshackle charm, director Francesca Zambello and her company found every measure of humanity, squalor, venality, foible, relentless human striving, and hope in this circumscribed Gullah community’s universe of Catfish Row.
The cast was simply great. The crippled, tragic naïf, Porgy, whose yearning for a woman he can redeem brings him to the verge of ruin, was played with heartbreaking honesty by bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana; while the object of his desire, that veritable Magdalene of Catfish Row, Bess, was rendered in all her bewitching, maddening and sordid mix of virtue and folly by soprano Talise Trevigne.
Tenor Frederick Ballentine portrayed the charismatic tempter Sportin’ Life with insouciance and the devil’s own suavity, virtually spoiling any audience who may one day witness another performer in the role. And baritone Norman Garrett was simply terrifying as the doomed, couthless caitiff Crown, assaultive and murderous in his vicious bid to reclaim Bess for himself.
A large contingent of Glimmerglass young artists filled out the cast, all contributing to the fully realized sense of place and humanity. Simone Z. Paulwell, as Serena, keening her “My man’s gone now,” was exquisite; as was Meroë Khalia Adeeb as the dreamy Clara, who inaugurates our sojourn on Catfish Row with her languorous laudation to “Summertime.”
The splendors of the score were, as always, astounding to rediscover. Laments, spirituals, cakewalks, ragtime, hymns, blues, and the indescribable atavistic potency of Gullah folk music all ravished.
The conductor was John DeMain. The choreographer was Eric Sean Fogel. Costumes were by Paul Tazewell and the set design was by Peter J. Davison.
All the big emotions, operatic grandeur (great storm scene!), excruciating fragility and tender hopes of Porgy and Bess were brought out in Glimmerglass’s production, all without recourse to sentimentality – a very real and very memorable visit home to Catfish Row.
It’s long been stipulated a watershed American work – the first “modern” American musical. Thus, by both received wisdom and personal partiality (this writer’s father was born in Oklahoma, and visits to his childhood home are the stuff of idyllic memories), it might have seemed preordained that a new viewing of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! would be an unalloyed delight.
Experienced toward the end of the recent Glimmerglass run (August 20), and in clarifying proximity to the company’s Porgy and Bess, both the strengths and weaknesses of Oklahoma! were exposed surprisingly and starkly – its mixture of quaintness and nostalgia, calculation and artifice, and a plot so sanitary as to be almost conflict-free.
Yes, there’s a romantic triangle sketched among cowman Curly, farm-girl Laurey and disreputable farmhand-drifter Jud Fry, but the first two are so clearly destined for each other that dramatic tension is slack.
And, yes, on the sociological level, there is the rivalry between “farmers” and “cowmen” (the zesty ensemble number highlighting it might arguably be seen as anticipating the more incisive call-and-response taunts of “I Like to Be in America” from West Side Story). But while this element affords some (under-exploited) savor and even historical grounding, it’s a far cry from the meaty assays of prejudice with which Hammerstein would grapple in later works such as South Pacific, The King and I and Flower Drum Song.
It is ironic, however, that the actual story of Oklahoma’s admittance as a U.S. state – or the earlier drama of its being opened for settlement after having several times been pledged as a homeland for Native Americans of the “Five Civilized Tribes” – might have made for truly ripping Hammerstein-esque drama.
As for revisiting Rodgers’ score (again, as evaluated against Gershwin’s accomplishment in Porgy), it comes off now as chiefly novelty- and charm-driven – less American West than European operetta.
The title song is a satisfyingly show-bizzy anthem, but it’s sung by characters who, though they may “belong to the land,” are evidently oblivious to etymology – “Oklahoma” being a Choctaw construct for “Red People.” Other numbers – Curly’s opening “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” or Laurey’s “Out of My Dreams” – are essentially Viennese-style waltzes that Strauss or Lehár might have penned.
Okay, quibbles done with. The Glimmerglass production wisely avoided any attempt to make Oklahoma! something it ain’t. Director Molly Smith seems to have seen it all as mostly breezy fun, and the playing style was generally broad, energized, even antic (though Smith and her choreographer, Parker Esse, did infuse a measure of erotic complexity into such sequences as the “Dream Ballet”).
Baritone Jarrett Ott gave us a Curly of affable, bow-legged cowboy quintessence, plus a smooth, rich, unaffected voice. His entrance via a stroll down the audience-right aisle of Glimmerglass’ Alice Busch Theater was a neat directorial choice, placing every spectator right there amidst the meadow’s golden haze, the winking of mavericks and the laughter of weepin’ willows.
Soprano Vanessa Becerra was a vivacious and shimmering-voiced Laurey. Her flirty badinage with Ott’s Curly was fetching, while the nuanced insolence of her interaction with Michael Hewitt’s Jud Fry, tinged as it was with hints of self-contempt, suggested a degree of dark attraction that provided intrigue.
Contralto Judith Skinner created an appropriately earthy, plainspoken Aunt Eller, while numerous Glimmerglass young artists – including tenor (and dancer) Michael Roach as a leaping and rambunctious Will Parker; mezzo-soprano Emma Roos as a frisky Ado Annie; and tenor Dylan Morrongiello as the nonplussed traveling salesman of outlandish accent, Ali Hakim – were all commendable.
Baritone Michael Hewitt was a brooding, bearded, full-toned Jud Fry. He may have seemed less seedy and abject than the text suggests (and less psychologized a character than in, for instance,the 1998 Royal National Theatre production by Trevor Nunn, but he mined his grave solo, “The Floor Creaks” – surely the score’s most patently “operatic” number – for much of its lode of disturbing aberrance. And while director Smith’s fleet pacing did undercut the lurid fascination of the Curly/Jud smokehouse dialogue that preceded it, Ott’s and Hewitt’s performance of the duet “Poor Jud is Daid” was a delightfully mordant, virile vocal scherzo.
Smith’s opening visual conceit for the production was canny: a miniature railroad traversed the landscape in the far distance, suggestive of much otherwise missing discourse about expansion, displacement and the ineluctable forces of modernity that favored farmers and cowmen (and even the oddly unmentioned wildcatters) over native people.
The orchestra for this Glimmerglass Oklahoma! was conducted with effortless Broadway suavity by James Lowe. (While the work of assistant conductor Jesse Leong, leading the exit music, prompted one to wonder why grand opera never hit on so satisfying a practice as sending audiences out of the theater on clouds of melody.)
The impressive dance and fight choreography were by the aforementioned Parker Esse; the colorful costumes were by Ilona Somogyi; and the effectively straightforward sets and lighting were by Eugene Lee and Robert Wierzel, respectively.
From ancient Persia to America’s romanticized windswept plains, the Glimmerglass 2017 season was a gorgeous, aggregated homiletic on where the heart lies.
And Glimmerglass 2017 was also an early harvest home celebration of sorts on several other counts. On the poignant side was remembrance of the man who quite literally created the Glimmerglass Festival’s own home – the late visionary architect/engineer Hugh Hardy, who designed and built the performance venue, with its unique indoor/outdoor natural climate control and its big sliding “barn-door” side panels. Mr. Hardy passed away this past March at the age of 84.
There was also a homecoming visit from Paul Kellogg, an earlier general director of the Glimmerglass company, who was introduced to warm audience applause and appreciation on the evening of August 18 by current artistic and general director, Francesca Zambello.
And there was, as ever, that distinctively homey Glimmerglass feeling, generated in large part by Zambello herself. She seems never absent before any performance, greeting patrons, delivering chatty and playful curtain speeches, and boosting the virtues of season subscription – the perfect hostess of a beautiful and welcoming home.
Glimmering on the Horizon
Glimmerglass is a remarkably active operation. In addition to the productions adverted to above, 2017 saw the world premieres of both a new one-act opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, by Derrick Wang, and a youth opera, Robin Hood, by Ben Moore and Kelley Rourke (neither viewed here), as well as outreach performances at Attica prison, and educational programs for both youths and adults.
The announced 2018 season at Glimmerglass includes productions of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, as well as his one-act Trouble in Tahiti; Rossini’s The Barber of Seville; Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen; Kevin Puts’ and Mark Campbell’s Silent Night; and a premiere youth opera version of Homer’s Odyssey by Moore and Rourke.
Plan a trip home!
Glimmerglass 2018 schedule and subscription information are available at www.glimmerglass.org.