OPERA REVIEWS: The Crucible (August 20); The Thieving Magpie (August 20); Sweeney Todd (August 21); La bohème (August 22, matinee)
INTERVIEW: Francesca Zambello
Salem Village is stalked by the devil. A servant girl in France faces the gallows for the theft of some tableware. Vengeance is decimating London’s Fleet Street district (while a concomitant new gastronomic craze takes disturbing hold). Oh, and might one mention? – Paris isn’t paying its artists enough!
Jealousies, grudges (and strange gravies) simmer. Accusations (and human-sized birds) fly.
Cue the orchestra!
It’s all the stuff of a glorious and bracing three-days’ visit to the Glimmerglass Festival in upstate Cooperstown, New York, with new productions of four outstanding works: composer Robert Ward’s 1961 operatic adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; Rossini’s rarely-seen The Thieving Magpie (La gazza ladra); Steven Sondheim’s bloody masterpiece Sweeney Todd; and Puccini’s beloved homage to starving artists and the seamstresses and coquettes they adore, La bohème (which was viewed for this article on August 22, at a matinee that may prove a career milestone for the late-announced replacement in the role of Rodolfo – tenor Chaz’men Williams-Ali of the festival’s Young Artists Program).
All that Glimmers
The Glimmerglass Festival traces its history back to a 1975 limited run of (coincidentally) La bohème, performed in a high school auditorium. The company’s fortunes have risen greatly since then, however, and since 1987 the festival has been housed in a magnificent (and unusual) performance venue of its own.
One arrives at Glimmerglass across the exquisitely verdant “Leatherstocking Region” of New York State, the term deriving from a series of novels by James Fenimore Cooper, including The Last of the Mohicans. It was Fenimore Cooper, too, who felicitously dubbed nearby Lake Otsego “Glimmerglass,” bequeathing an indelible word-image.
Part of the greater Mohawk Valley, the land still has a virgin quality today, civilization only lightly imprinted by picturesque hamlets and old Dutch barns. It’s easy to imagine Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer tracking his quarry here, or peering out from behind a copse of trees. Emerging from a wooded stretch of New York Route 80, one encounters a decidedly atypical traffic sign – a classic rural crossroads symbol subscribed with one word: “Opera.”
Home at the Grange
The Glimmerglass Festival’s main performance building comes into view, an apotheosis of local barn architecture, it rises like a magnificent blue-gray grange hall, fronted by two towering flagpoles streaming pennants adorned with the festival’s distinctive colors. Designed by Hugh Hardy, the 914-seat house has no mechanical climate control. Its sides are large screens, across which barn-door-like panels slide at the beginning of a performance to enclose the space and secure darkness. (“It’s basically a big screened-in porch,” says A/V director Joel Morain.)
The Festival currently gives over 40 performances of four different major productions per summer season, in addition to extensive outreach, educational, and smaller production work. Since 2011, it has been under the artistic and general directorship of Francesca Zambello, who also directed this season’s production of The Crucible (performed on multiple dates from July 23 through August 27; viewed August 20).
“These are girls who are incredibly repressed,” Zambello says of the Salem Village girls whose erratic actions and accusations ignite the story of The Crucible. “Girls who found a way to express themselves, to have some power, to be heard – just to have a voice.”
That self-expression, of course, involved leveling accusations of consorting with the devil against a broad cross-section of their community, with dire consequences, including the executions of twenty people in the course of the 1692–93 Salem Witch Trials.
Arthur Miller’s play is as famous for its putative political allegory of the 1950s “Red Scare” as for its faithfulness to the historical Witch Trial record. The libretto for the opera, however, is a wonder of musical instinct and ruthless concision by Ward’s collaborator Bernard Stambler, and is honored by Zambello in an irony-free reading with no double-vision 20th-century references. It plays out in its native cultural parameters.
The action begins with an arresting bit of stage business innovated by Zambello. As the sounds of crickets and wind rise dimly, a forested night scene takes shape. Female figures huddle around a smoking fire-pit. In its glow, they begin to dance. A male figure creeps on, spying the girls. A scream, a flash of lightning, blackness. Ward’s score then strikes up and the scene shifts to the opera’s scripted opening in the household of Reverend Parris.
It’s a tantalizing vignette of – what? Witchcraft? Voyeurism? Sublimated lechery? As the necessarily exposition-heavy Act I unfolds, we come to understand it as an accurate depiction of the play’s immediate backstory (the Reverend Parris coming upon his daughter and her friends in the woods, engaged in what to a 17th-century mind would have seemed anything but a wholesome girl-scout outing). But in suggesting multiple layers of sinister possibilities, all the latent tragic dynamic of the opera’s ensuing action is foreshadowed.
The plot is thick. This is a compact world where human nature nonetheless (perhaps especially) exhibits all its typically combustive tendencies. Purposes cross, rivalries flare, power is grabbed at, and lusts are triggered. Spouses cheat and slaves and servants brood, plotting revenge or rebellion or even murder.
The opera weaves elements of soap opera, psychological thriller, courtroom drama, and – who knows? – perhaps even supernatural exposé. Can we be sure the devil is not afoot here?
Ward’s score rings changes reflective of all these elements, from striking modernist dissonances, syncopations, and seven-beat rhythms to suggestions of negro spirituals and protestant hymns; fragments that might be called “neo-Baroque”; and even some soaring and plaintive passages of lonely, Aaron Copland-like openness.
“I think the score is ultimately neo-Romantic,” says Zambello. “The beginning is very edgy. I think the last two acts are the most successful – the courtroom and the prison scene.” Indeed, by his own report, Ward looked to no lesser examples than Verdi and Puccini for these latter two sequences. Verdi’s work (in particular “Innaffia l’ugola,” the “drinking song” sequence in Otello) tutored Ward as to how he might economically set the complex courtroom dialogue, while Puccini’s general last-act praxis of recapitulation cued Ward to rework and recycle his own earlier musical material for his Act IV (which not only gave the entire piece a four-part symphonic structure, but helped Ward meet the composition deadline for the original New York City Opera debut).
Conductor Nicole Paiement, in her Glimmerglass debut, handles it all with firm and beautiful clarity.
It’s a large cast, and the performers are terrific. Members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program get a particularly large share of stage time here – 14 of the 18 listed principal roles go to them. Of these, soprano Ariana Wehr in the crucial role of the scorned young Abigail Williams deserves note, as do mezzo-sopranos Zoie Reams, as the enigmatic slave woman Tituba, and Helena Brown, as the stalwart Rebecca Nurse.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was sensitive and touching as Elizabeth Proctor, the self-effacing wife of the opera’s principal protagonist. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger, as the conflicted Rev. John Hale, and tenor Jay Hunter Morris, as the dour and implacable Judge Danforth, both contributed greatly to the skein of dramatic tensions.
Baritone Brian Mulligan as John Proctor, the Everyman caught in Salem’s maelstrom of sexual, political, and spiritual forces, was ideal – his voice potent, his English diction unaffected yet impeccably clear; his foibles and vulnerabilities unabashedly evident, yet his common sense luminous, and his ultimate spiritual heroism authentic, tragic and ennobling.
“It’s like Rodrigo,” Zambello remarks of Proctor’s final aria, referencing the doomed hero of Verdi’s Don Carlo. And, indeed, Zambello’s own demonstration of the nobility in this unaccountably overlooked, Pulitzer-Prize-winning American masterwork augurs well for The Crucible’s fuller restoration to the modern performance canon. Give the devil his due.
The Lady of the Lake
Having handled so expertly The Crucible’s flinty textures and harsh themes, it is a delight to find Francesca Zambello such a buoyant and downright fun person. She appears, mic in hand, at the top of every Glimmerglass performance to welcome the audience and do a little fundraising pitch. “We’ll take house keys, car keys, whatever you’ve got.” She’s an entertainer.
Met with a round of applause on announcing Handel’s Xerxes for next season, she feigns surprise. “Really?” she asks a man in the third row. “I’m glad you’re pleased. You can help us sell tickets to that one.” She might be spotted tooling around the festival grounds in a golf cart during intermission, or working the aisles passing out subscription forms. She gets past people’s defenses, engages them, stirs them. You know if she were hosting a cocktail party or a karaoke night, you’d want to be there. “She’s a pistol,” opines a gent named Graham, a long-time subscriber and clearly a Zambello fan.
Zambello is also brilliant. A polyglot linguist (a native of New York City, she spent childhood years in Europe and later attended Moscow University for a time), she has forged an international career as an opera and musical theater director. And – as if there are too many idle hours in a year – she is also the artistic director of the Washington National Opera, where earlier this season she helmed a massive presentation of Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle at the Kennedy Center.
“My interests lie more in contemporary works,” says Zambello, asked to taxonomize her broad range of activities. “And in uncovering unknown pieces.”
Like The Crucible? “Yes, that’s a classic Glimmerglass choice,” she says. “As is The Thieving Magpie.”
For the Birds
In fact, the entire Glimmerglass Festival grounds become the pre-show performance space for this year’s production of Rossini’s 1817 La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). Dancer/actor/choreographer Meg Gillentine, portraying the opera’s emblematic title character (a role not always filled by a human actor) flits mischievously among the gathering audience, both inside and outside the theater, pecking at their concession-stand cookies, darting at earrings, or clawing at hairdos in search of material for her nest.
At curtain time, Zambello, taking up the mic for her usual greeting, warns the audience, “By the way, there’s a magpie loose in the house! So keep your purses and wallets closed.” A pause; then, picking up her obligatory fundraising theme, she deadpans: “Or better yet, just leave them open!”
The famous overture is fully choreographed (by Gillentine), with a fantastic danza buffa dramatizing the opera’s predicate – the magpie’s larcenous ways and the human characters’ erroneous assignment of blame to the servant-girl heroine, Ninetta (soprano Rachele Gilmore).
“Every season has a theme,” explains Zambello. “This year it was ‘unjust accusations.’” And, in fact, The Thieving Magpie is based on a true story of a servant girl actually hanged for the theft of a spoon – a theft later discovered to have been the work of…you know what.
Stendhal – Rossini’s first major biographer and international literary booster – called it a “disgusting little anecdote,” but hailed Rossini’s transformation of it, reporting that La gazza ladra’s debut reception was “delirious.” It may come as no surprise that, despite perilous turns of plot and feverish moments of suspense, Rossini’s opera semi-seria ends as Rossini, not history, would have it – happily for its heroine.
Director Peter Kazaras and designer Myung Hee Cho have given a distinctive and stylish look to the production. The entire stage is framed by a curved black tangle of art nouveau brambles (or feathers or talons), placing the entire action figuratively within the magpie’s nest. And, indeed, almost every human character in the opera exhibits birdlike trappings or attributes.
Performances were delightful. Gilmore’s showy coloratura passages were brilliant, and her subtler emotional moments, as in her prayer “Deh, tu reggi in tal momento,” were mesmerizing. Tenor Michele Angelini, as the preening and pampered soldier and lover Giannetto, was hilariously indulgent; he gave us a thoroughly likable, innocently narcissistic but shameless divo – a perfect semi-seria solution to the portrayal of an ultimate Rossini leading man. Young Artists Calvin Griffin (bass-baritone) and Leah Hawkins (soprano) worked effective comic turns as Ninetta’s farm gentry employers; and two more bass-baritones – Dale Travis, as Ninetta’s father, and Musa Ngqungwana, as the lecherous Mayor – provided robust tones and memorable characterizations.
Young Artist mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita, in the “trousers” role of the peasant boy Pippo, proved ardent and warm-voiced, movingly portraying the character’s platonic devotion to Ninetta while dressed in an eye-popping, groovy, and feathery, mustard-colored get-up that was part magpie, part Mad Max: Fury Road.
The production’s avian/human crossover factor achieved prosopopoeial fullness in the charged courtroom scene where Ninetta is condemned to death by a veritable murder of plumed judges, all shuddering their own feathers as if shrugging off any vestige of human decency.
The music is intoxicating, with countless stretches of Rossini’s magical melody-machine whirring along at full tilt – duets, trios, quintets, choruses. Conductor Joseph Colaneri wrings every wonderful flourish out of a luscious, flamboyant score. (Performances of The Thieving Magpie were on multiple dates from July 16 through August 25; viewed on August 20.)
Welcome to the Festival
In addition to its major productions, Glimmerglass provides a wealth of para-theatrical programming. Set changes between matinees and evening performances become a free spectator event where audience can watch the crew’s well-oiled maneuvers accompanied by an entertaining Q&A session hosted by husband-and-wife team Abby Rodd, the festival’s director of production, and the aforementioned Joel Morain, who is also the festival’s chief sound designer.
In a tent on the festival grounds, members of the artistic staff provide valuable preview information an hour prior to each performance, as chorus director David Moody did prior to the matinee of Sweeney Todd on August 21, discussing the penny-dreadful literary antecedents of the musical story, as well as demonstrating Sondheim’s canny transformations of a traditional “Dies irae” melodic motif throughout his score. (Sweeney Todd performances were scheduled on multiple dates from July 9 through August 26.)
City on Fire!
Is Sweeney an opera? “Sondheim lectured here earlier this summer,” Zambello remarks, “and he said, ‘you know, if it’s in an opera house, it’s an opera; if it’s in a theater, it’s a musical.’”
Whichever genre gets the nod, Glimmerglass cooks up Steven Sondheim’s 1979 Sweeney Todd deliciously, spiced with a few ingredients not found in the original recipe.
The initial scene is transposed from industrial-age England to some shabby-genteel pastiche of 20th-Century Thatcherite Great Britain. In a functional space – a church basement or community rec room, perhaps – furnished with little more than a complement of wooden chairs, a tightly grouped chorus stands center, all staring dumbly, holding plates over which they noisily scrape their forks, consuming a repast presumably vended by that bored blond in a cafeteria uniform slouching in the corner, puffing a fag, next to a folding table bearing – oh! – her assortment of meat-pies.
The one other person present is a loner who sits inert, downstage left, his back to the audience.
Racks of costumes are rolled across the room; a church organist plays a dark prelude on a small upstage Wurlitzer. It becomes evident that the group is rehearsing a play, and we are plunged into their performance – the story of the vengeful, murderous barber, Sweeney Todd.
The production unfolds with verve and fluidity under director Christopher Alden’s sure guidance. A circle of chairs becomes the captive heroine Johanna’s symbolic gilded cage; the slow in-folding of a rear wall suggests the depraved Judge Turpin’s fateful and inexorable surrender to his own lusts.
Act II adds “splashes” of color to the set’s white walls as the body count mounts and the destinies of all the principals come into ghastly relief.
Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley was wonderfully brooding and menacing as Sweeney, with a sepulchral voice that at times almost seemed an octave lower than the register in which the role is traditionally heard. Baritone Harry Greenleaf and soprano Emily Pogorelc (both members of this season’s Glimmerglass Young Artists Program) provided sublime musicality and scrumptious romantic ardor as the resourceful young lovers, Anthony and Johanna. Soprano Patricia Schuman keened marvelously as the tragic Beggar Woman, while bass Peter Volpe and tenor Bille Bruley (the latter a member of the Young Artists program) were ideal predatory foils as, respectively, Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford. Young Artist tenor Nicholas Nestorak was endearing as the addled but pure-hearted apprentice Tobias Ragg; and Young Artist tenor Christopher Bozeka hit exquisite Italianate high notes in the faux-Rossini-tenor role of rival barber Adolfo Pirelli (and – spoiler alert! – he shifted in and out of the dual dialects the role requires with virtuosic ease).
Mrs. Lovett, usually played by mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee, was, at the performance viewed on August 21, played instead by Young Artist mezzo-soprano Molly Jane Hill in a delightful turn that gave sterling testament to her talents, stamina, and professional preparation.
Jonathan Tunick’s expanded opera-house orchestrations of the score were beautifully handled by conductor John DeMain.
With this presentation of Sondheim’s meaty chef-d’œuvre, Glimmerglass has served up a feast to sate the most theatrically ravenous. A thing to be savored. Chew on that.
Those Crazy Left-Bank Kids
Before the August 22 matinee of La bohème, Zambello advises the audience that they will love the young man playing Rodolfo today. “I heard him sing excerpts of the role when we visited Attica prison earlier this month,” she says, referencing one of Glimmerglass’s performance outreach programs. “Now, I do appreciate that you’re a different type of audience, but still….” The announcement generates laughs, applause, and a perfectly-calculated ratcheting of theatrical anticipation.
The young Bohemians of Paris – with their free-loving lifestyle, impecunious ways and recidivistic stiffing of café managers – may not rise to the same level of scandal as the witches of Salem or the unwitting cannibals of Fleet Street; but they remain a caution to the ordered strata of society. And their demi-monde is vividly, even lovingly evoked in Glimmerglass’s new production of Puccini’s 1896 opera based on Henri Murger’s chronicles of la rive gauche.
Director E. Loren Meeker has set this Bohème a little later than the period of the original stories. But we’d know them in any age, these hapless, sometimes irritatingly self-involved, but always very human individualists.
Energy, youth, and spontaneity are the hallmarks of the opera, and the distinctions of this production. Baritone Hunter Enoch as the painter Marcello, bass-baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot as the egghead Colline, baritone Brian Vu as the composer Schaunard, and, of course, tenor Chaz’men Williams-Ali as the poet Rodolfo (the latter three all members of the Young Artists Program) bound about in Act I, engaging in horseplay and creative procrastination with brio. (Vu, beyond vocal prowess, should also be noted for a dancerly flair that adds mightily to the kinetic excitement.) One can well fancy the productive genius that might attend any one of these characters acquiring a bit of working discipline.
The entrance of Mimì – here played by soprano Raquel González – and her meeting with Rodolfo trigger one of the most famous and memorable romantic sequences in all of Puccini. And the scene as presented at Glimmerglass has both magical delicacy and detailed intrigue – the complex and sexy little lovers’ game of conveniently lost keys and serendipitously extinguished candles is calibrated brilliantly by director Meeker and was acted with endearing cunning by González and Williams-Ali.
The production infuses Puccini’s miraculous mosaic of Act II – a full-cast saturnalia of a Latin Quarter Christmas Eve – with spectacular, even manic energy. In particular, the shenanigans of the flirty Musetta, striving to enflame the jealousies of her ex, Marcello, have probably never been so fabulously zany as those enacted by Young Artist soprano Vanessa Becerra, a fearless coloratura of peerless comic flair, and the rest of this company.
Meeker then tracks the Act II and III downturns in these characters’ romantic fortunes with tender sympathy. The unique tragicomic texture of Puccini’s parallel couples’ scene at the city checkpoint – Rodolfo and Mimì simultaneously splitting up and reconciling, while Marcello and Musetta engage in their trademark brand of battle royal – is a tear-duct-teasing pleasure, and prepares beautifully for the poignant catharsis of Act IV.
González’s performance as Mimì was a jeweled reticule of delicate moments and splendid vocal nuances. At every turn, this Mimì was every bit the poet Rodolfo is. And, spoiler alert (for any unaware of the opera’s famous finale), her death scene captured perfectly the quintessence of Puccini-style pathos.
The ultimate gratification of the August 22 performance was Chaz’men Williams-Ali’s unscheduled handling of the role of the poet Rodolfo. It is a rare treat for a theater or opera commentator to document the moment a star is born, but this may have been just such an occasion for this fine young tenor. Williams-Ali’s honesty, emotional clarity, behavioral specificity and, above all, his weightless and soaring lyrical vocal lines made this a matinee to remember, and treasure.
Hunter Enoch rendered Marcello with charisma and virile vocalism; and Rhys Lloyd Talbot’s Colline was charmingly muzzy-headed. Also noteworthy were bass-baritone Dale Travis, hilarious in the roles of both the duped landlord Benoit and the double-crossed sugar-daddy Alcindoro; and Young Artist tenor David Walton as the toy-seller Parpignol. Kudos go to the splendid chorus-master work of David Moody and of course to conductor Joseph Colaneri for his passionate presentation of Puccini’s gem-studded score. (Performances of La bohème were scheduled on multiple dates from July 8 through August 27; viewed on August 22.)
The Glimmerglass Festival is the second most productive opera-producing entity in New York State, after the Metropolitan Opera. Under Zambello’s leadership, it has functioned in the black every season for five years. Its productions are all original to Glimmerglass, and are subsequently rentable to organizations throughout the world – sets and productions created at Glimmerglass have been seen as far afield as Norway, Oman, and Tasmania.
“It’s hard to believe,” Zambello muses, reflecting on how time has fled during her first six years at Glimmerglass. She just signed a contract for at least another four.
“We are focused on making all of our work socially relevant,” she says. “Answering bigger questions – and that’s why we do so much besides the four shows. Concerts, lectures, discussions, cabarets, youth operas. Next year we’re doing a hip-hop opera which is going to tour all over the state in the spring.” Also premiering will be a Glimmerglass-commissioned one-act entitled Scalia/Ginsburg. The opera-loving Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a repeat guest lecturer at Glimmerglass.
Next year’s announced major productions include not only Handel’s florid Xerxes, but Donizetti’s little-known, rousing The Siege of Calais, the Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (“The great American opera,” in Zambello’s estimation), and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
The season’s theme? “Home and homeland,” Zambello says.
It sounds a perfect note – not only for the upcoming titles, but for this season’s end-of-summer mistiness. An opera-goer’s 2017 return to Glimmerglass will surely feel like a long longed-for return home.