At first, music and baseball might seem to have little in common. But don’t tell that to sports diehards and opera buffs in upper New York State. At least not in July and August, when a multitudinous group of fans from across the US converge at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. This year’s annual induction ceremonies were held July 20–23. Meanwhile, just a few miles down the road, devotees of vocal aspirants flocked to the Glimmerglass Opera to hear and see them “play ball.”
At Glimmerglass, baseball bats may yield to violin bows, as Yankee pinstripes are benched in favor of seersucker suits. But the smells and sensations of grassy-knolled outfields never seem far away from the Opera’s rustic grounds.
Was it the proximity of the baseball diamonds that stimulated operaphiles this summer to become nearly as vocal as their athletic counterparts?
More likely, it was the extraordinary repertoire. Two real rarities highlighted the Festival: Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide and Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars. Then again, for many, the home runs may have issued from conventional favorites: Verdi’s Aida and Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. Careful thought informed all aspects of this year’s productions. I attended all four Festival operas as well as a tribute concert to singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine by Glimmerglass’s Artist in Residence, Eric Owens. With few exceptions, the Festival programs sported fine singing, stylish conducting, and spirited, musicianly orchestral playing. Many ancillary activities — lectures and receptions — helped build a sense of context and community. Essays in the program book were exceptionally detailed. Most of all, the 2012 Glimmerglass Festival featured vivid theatricality. This was theater that was fiercely imaginative, energetic and memorable.
New York has been called a city that never sleeps. Peking and Moscow, too. Egypt might be another safe haven for insomniacs, especially those fortunate enough to find their way onto the set of the Glimmerglass Festival production of Verdi’s Aida, where somebody was always scheming, shooting, seducing, or otherwise disturbing the peace. There was no tranquility on this Nile.
Indeed, there was no Nile. Instead, the setting was some sort of post–World War II bombed-out theater, possibly located in Africa or the Middle East…or maybe not. From the opera’s start, simulated bomb fire and the presence of machine guns, jeeps and military khakis conjured up an ever-present threat of warfare, even during the most intimate moments. For action lovers, there were horrific simulations of contemporary water-board torture and lethal injection.
Michelle Johnson sang the title role with sweetness and richness. In lesser hands, Aida can come across as just a luckless heroine, but Johnson deftly pivoted from the lonely despondency of “O Patria Mia” to the sultry pulchritude of the seduction/betrayal scene with Radames. Sometimes a victim, other times a vixen, Johnson’s Aida has potential for greatness. Mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas captivated as Aida’s rival, Amneris. Great Amnerises of the past, such as Simoniata and Gorr, awed with sheer vocal power. Karanas had all the necessary vocal skills but also scored strongly in her rendering of Amneris as a spoiled rich girl whose emotional core is as flighty as a weathervane in a desert storm. Fetching and dangerous, her Amneris could have walked off the set of one of today’s reality television programs. Tenor Noah Stewart shone as the doomed Egyptian general, Radames. He has a great physique and great high notes. Tenors rarely possess both. In his final duet with Johnson, “O terra addio,” Stewart’s voice smoothly soared even as his character lay dying convulsively from lethal injection. Also a high point was Eric Owens’ portrayal of the embittered Ethiopian king, Amonasro.
The multicultural cast added rarely encountered verisimilitude to the opera’s North African/Asian geographical setting. According to Zambello, 19 of the 39 singers in the Glimmerglass Young Artists program were non-Caucasian. Three of the four principals were African-Americans. This Aida was all the more believable for the racial heterogeneity of the cast. How easily we could get used to such pluralism. More, please!
The Music Man
The severity of Zambello’s Aida was nicely countered by the bounciness of The Music Man, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Meredith Willson’s masterpiece of romance and mayhem takes place amid the Independence Day festivities of the fictional small town of River City, Iowa. Baritone Dwayne Croft was dashing as the fast-talking Professor Harold Hill, whose roguery upends the provincial, addlebrained citizenry. Croft’s singing was always a delight, but here and there his Hill could have been a little more seedy. Hill is, after all, a practiced con artist, and his final conversion to good guy needs more foregrounding in suave despicability. But Elizabeth Futral, as librarian Marian Paroo, had toughness to spare. Her Marian came off like Alice Kramden (Remember Audrey Meadows in The Honeymooners?), tart tongued and testy. The rest of the cast was uniformly strong, with special praise going to Cindy Gold (Mrs. Paroo) and young Henry Wager, making his stage debut as Winthrop.
The numerous chorus numbers were imaginatively conceived and spectacularly executed, an effervescent fusion of music with dance. A colleague from Germany confided that European performances never come close to attaining the exuberance of this Glimmerglass production. The rolling hills and relaxed whimsy of American painter Grant Wood were ably evoked in James Noone’s colorful sets.
Before the William Christie revivals more than 30 years ago, I would never have believed that French Baroque opera could enthrall me for four hours or longer. This period-inspired restoration of Jean Baptiste Lully’s Armide, co-produced with Opera Atelier of Toronto, followed the model of Christie’s pioneering performances and was so enchanting that fourmis rouges (fire ants) could not have dislodged me from my seat. Of the singers, special kudos goes to soprano Peggy Kriha Dye as Armide. Her crystalline voice and emotionally charged interpretation of Lully’s tortured sorceress were white hot. Her Act 5 love scene with Renaud (Colin Ainsworth) seesawed with delirious passion. Overall, the young cast sang and danced with grace and conviction, although the female cast members clearly outperformed the men. Jeanette Lajeunnesse Zingg’s choreography was particularly effective at differentiating the courtly dance styles from the comic and magic styles. Sets and costumes reigned supreme in this sumptuous production. Where to begin in describing the visual delights of Gérard Gauci’s sets and Dora Rust D’Eye’s costumes? The production was a must-see-to-be-believed triumph.
Lost in the Stars
Kurt Weill’s rarity, Lost in the Stars, was composed in 1949, just one year after the publication of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, the novel on which it is based. Stars ran on Broadway for 281 performances and has since enjoyed a few revivals and a screen adaptation.
Apartheid-ridden South Africa is the setting for this sad story about an elderly black minister’s failed attempt to rescue his unlawful, estranged son. The opera, a curious blend of intense spoken drama and breezy musical set pieces, was admired as a Singspiel by Virgil Thomson. Certainly, it follows a model similar to Mozart’s Magic Flute. But, unlike The Magic Flute, this story is better left spoken than sung. The lightweight music often seemed at odds with the story’s gravity and could easily have been dispensed with. Weill could be a formidable ironist, but not in this instance. Here a little too bland, there a little too facile, the music only heated up in the final act.
As in other Glimmerglass productions, the cast was excellent. Chrystal Williams was entrancing as the sultry Linda. Her song “Who’ll Buy” put fruit to more aphrodisiacal use than anything since the table debauchery in Albert Finney’s Tom Jones. Eric Owens masterfully probed the tragedy of the minister, Stephen Kumalo. From his opening measured gait to his final sobs, Owens’s Kumalo was a strong, compassionate man, bent but never broken by family sorrows. Owens’s acting talents, like his singing, were impressive. His multiple Festival appearances delighted audiences and clearly inspired his colleagues and students.
Billy Eckstine Tribute
Eric Owens impressed again in his tribute to singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine. A star of the 40’s and 50’s, Eckstine and his golden baritone are too easily forgotten by today’s flood of bland pop singers. Following the path of other crossover singers — Eileen Farrell, Kiri Te Kanawa, Ezio Pinza and Owens’s erstwhile Metropolitan Opera stage nemesis, Bryn Terfel, to name a few — Owens likes to moonlight with pop standards. But whereas most of his aforementioned colleagues more or less croon long-breathed melodies with minimal inflections, Owens crammed his renditions with ornamentation. Not routine operatic decorations, but phrase elisions and portamentos sung lightly, never occluding the main melodic lines. Highlights included Eckstine standards “My Foolish Heart” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” For added projection, Owens’ performance in the 910-seat Alice Busch Theater would have benefitted from the presence of a live band or even a trap set with bass. Maybe the success of the Eckstine program will inspire more such experiments.
Zambello and her youthful forces delivered on the director’s commitments to making opera accessible and relevant. The fine 2012 Glimmerglass Festival season will long be remembered after the Cooperstown bats have been stilled and the baseball diamonds quiescent.