A Brave, Hit-and-Miss Season at Glimmerglass

Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, N.Y.; August 9-10, 2013—It would be impossible to fault the Glimmerglass Festival, now in its third season under the artistic direction of Francesca Zambello, for not being courageous. This year’s offerings were positively peculiar: Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer was the only known quantity; the other two “opera” presentations were a double bill titled “Passions”, which included Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (1736) and David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion (2007, with additional music for this production), and Verdi’s second opera, Un giorno di regno (as “King for a Day”).

Un giorno di regno was such a flop at its 1840 premiere that Verdi cancelled all subsequent performances and claimed he would give up composing. The silly plot—mismatched couples are to be wed at the home of a Baron in the presence of the king of Poland, who, for political reasons, sends an impersonator, Belfiore, in his stead—was only part of the problem. Ensembles are repetitive; the opera has no real “voice”; characters are not musically well-drawn. But the music has verve, and many numbers are a delight. At any rate, Kelley Rourke’s English adaptation is marvelous (although the plot’s sillinesses never quite gel) and so is much of the singing, but the endless wackiness of the direction by Christian Rath and Court Watson’s sets and costumes show little faith in the music.

Set sometime in the very recent past (plaid jackets, big hats and hair-dos, ruffles, paparazzi), the front of the playing area is a platform about three feet high on one end and stage level on the other; empty gilded or silver picture frames, angled oddly and of various sizes, appear and disappear. There are crooked chairs. It’s all askew, get it? Actions are slapstick; the Marchesa has a miniature poodle that tries, and occasionally succeeds, to steal the show. When Edoardo, the ingénue tenor engaged to Giulietta, is being measured for a wedding suit (for some reason, he’s in short pants with argyle socks), the action is timed so that as the tailor approaches his crotch, he goes to a high note.

A pity, too, since Ginger Costa-Jackson as the Marchesa has a fine voice, half way between mezzo and soprano, that she uses with expression, wit, and charm, and she acts up a storm in a Joanna Lumley manner; Jacqueline Echols’ Giulietta is energetic and overall lovely; Patrick O’Halloran’s bright, all-American-sounding tenor easily takes in Verdi’s high tessitura (there’s a cadential high-C in his aria). Jason Hardy, acting like John Cleese, is a fine, comic Baron Kelbar with an agile bass voice, and Alex Lawrence, as Belfiore, takes relish in being the King for a Day: at the opera’s end, after the plot has been discovered, someone asks where the King really is, and he shows up in an Elvis mask. (Over the top? Silly?) The other singers were fine as well, many of whom also had to dance the Macarena. Joseph Colaneri led the orchestra and chorus as if the opera were a great work. Most of the audience loved it; others found the slapstick a bit much.

The double bill was odd. Pergolesi’s two-voice, 40-minute setting of the Stabat Mater, a psalm that describes Mary’s misery and suffering at the foot of the Cross, hardly lends itself to a dramatic staging, but thanks to marvelously moving direction and choreography by Jessica Lang, eight remarkable dancers, two brilliant singers, and sensitive conducting by Speranza Scappucci, it worked well. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s simple set—huge V-shaped tree trunks with a horizontal one that came and went to form a cross at times—allowed for free movement and more than suggested starkness; Beth Goldenberg’s costumes, in earth tones or black, were floor-length, fitted dresses for the women and simple slacks and shirts for the men. A huge shawl sometimes covered the figure of Mary; sometimes four women at once.

Soprano Nadine Sierra was lovely throughout, but Anthony Roth Costanzo, who has graduated from minor roles at Glimmerglass to lead roles and on to the Metropolitan Opera, stole the show with his stunning, sometimes fierce, sometimes mellow countertenor. He can trill on any note he wishes; his dynamic range is remarkable, and asked to dance, he proved himself as physically agile as he is vocally agile. The entire effect was hypnotic and reverent.

The Little Match Girl Passion was not as effective. It is a stark work (familiar from a recording by Paul Hillier on Harmonia Mundi) based on Hans Christian Andersen’s depressing tale of a poor girl who freezes to death in the snow on Christmas. Somehow, adding a physical dimension—i.e.: acting it out—detracted from its power. Director Francesca Zambello did the best she could with the beautiful, if static, minimalist, Arvo Pärt-like score by David Lang. The chorus of poor, Dickensian-looking children entered down the aisles and took seats on a bench at the front of the stage. After their prologue—a new setting of the text “When we were children” (a reworking of a Biblical text) composed for this production—the curtain rose and the kids scampered, looking for warmth, the Match Girl lost her shoes, it snowed atmospherically, and four solo adult singers, looking like they came from a temperance meeting, stood rigidly stage left, occasionally playing xylophone, bells, and gongs.

Four Glimmerglass Young Artists—soprano Lisa Williamson, mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer, tenor James Michael Porter, and bass Christian Zaremba—did well by the music, particularly Porter, who handled the cruelly high tenor line gracefully. The other children are seen enjoying life indoors, complete with Christmas tree, and then the girl has a vision of her dead grandmother beckoning her to heaven. It turned mawkish and one felt manipulated; it is a work better heard than seen.

“Dutchman”, also directed by Zambello with sets by James Noone and 19th-century, vaguely Goth costumes by Erik Teague, created quite a stir. Metal scaffolding and ropes frame the stage. The appearance of the Dutchman, in long leather-and-fur coat, shirtless but with a tattoo covering his chest, was welcomed by a rear screen that irised out to portray black rigging on a blood-red background; harridan-like women in silhouette writhed on the rigging. Zambello’s notion seems to focus on sexual obsession: Senta is first seen thrashing nightmarishly on a bed getting tangled up in the ropes; she and her spinning friends (they braid the omnipresent ropes) grope themselves during their second-act scene; Senta’s initial shock at seeing the Dutchman turns into a mutual feel-fest almost at once with Senta removing the Dutchman’s coat; and as the Dutchman leaves her at the opera’s close, she is back in bed, in a flimsy nightgown, and garrotes herself with a rope and dies. It doesn’t always make sense, but it’s thrilling. A single intermission, by the way, was invented by Zambello as the Dutchman appears at Daland’s home in what is normally the middle of Act 2.

The two leads were sensational: bass-baritone Ryan McKinney was a dangerously sexy, seemingly possessed, darkly troubled Dutchman with a fine sound that easily encompassed the role’s musical and dramatic demands. Melody Moore, a stunning young Senta obsessed and desperate, sang the role—including the treacherous ballad—just about perfectly, with dead-center pitch and manic involvement. Peter Volpe’s Daland was almost comically avuncular, his voice grand enough; Jay Hunter Morris was in poor voice as Erik; Deborah Nansteel did well by Mary, and Adam Bielamowicz’s Steersman was startlingly loud. John Keenan led with understanding, but the 70-piece orchestra reduced the visceral thrill this opera requires.