Wednesday, August 07, 2013


Opera Festival Weekend

Last weekend was my annual pilgrimage to Cooperstown, NY for the Glimmerglass Opera Festival (yes, Virginia, there is much more than the Baseball Hall of Fame to Cooperstown!)  It was my 21st annual trek, one to which I look forward avidly every year for the combination of beautiful rolling farm country filled with prosperous working farms, great antiquing, several fine museums and restored historic houses to visit, good restaurants, winding country roads to explore, and an intelligently planned opera program performed in extensively rehearsed productions cast with singers from established world-class stars to advanced, highly promising young talent.

The 900+ seat opera house (above, looking to the back of the auditorium) is informal, comfortable, designed to have excellent acoustics and sight lines -- and to be ventilated before the performance and during intermissions by sliding open the panels that make up the side walls of the theater.  The panels close to keep out noise and keep in sound from the stage and orchestra pit during the performance.

An Amish buggy on route 20 between the converted carriage house studio apartment where I stay in Richfield Springs and the Opera House on the shore of Otsego Lake.  The Amish are frequently seen throughout the area.

I have sometimes gone out alone, but usually with a friend or, as last year when Fritz decided to go with me.  He's not a big opera fan unless the works are sung in English (he prefers to hear the opera's text, not read it's translation via supertitles) and/or I happen to be the set designer.  Under the current directorship, one classic American musical is programmed each year in the original keys, voice ranges, and orchestration but without amplification.  It's a treat to hear what voices really sound like,  and listen to the voices and orchestra rather than being assaulted by them.

This year Fritz stayed home and I invited a blogger friend who had always wanted to go to Glimmerglass to join me.  He flew into Albany and I picked him up on my way westward from New Hampshire.

Mornings before the Saturday and Sunday performances I usually explore countryside and stop at a huge antique (the building and its contents) barn on four levels well outside of town, and he fell right into the routine with me.  We also did a walking tour of Cooperstown and, on Sunday morning, spent an hour and a half at the excellent Fennimore Museum (of the James Fennimore Cooper dynasty that looms large there).  The author of the Leatherstocking tales named the shimmering surface of Lake Otsego "the glimmerglass.")  There was a revealing special exhibit on the Wyeth family that went far beyond "Christina's World" and showed the current, youngest generation of Wyeth painters developing the family tradition in new directions. 

One of the more striking (non-Wyeth) paintings in the Fennimore is this moody rendering of the Kingfish Tower that rises from the bottom of the lake offshore, maybe a half mile from Cooperstown's marina.  The town is full of the standard postcard images of the tower bathed in sunlight and surrounded by sparkling water, but this brooding view suggested to me a medieval watchtower somewhere in a German or northern Italian lake.  The actual purpose of the Kingfish Tower was to increase boat rentals in the early 20th century by tourists who would see it from the shore and want to row out for a closer look.

The opera repertory this year, the 200th anniversary of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, in the order I saw them:

Verdi's early comedy Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day) which was a failure at its premiere but, with some judicious pruning of what were judged to be way too many repeats, made a charming evening performed as something between musical comedy and vaudeville.  The bulk of the cast was from the current Young Artists program, and of alumni from that program who are now getting established nationally. 

Lerner and Lowe's Camelot was the Saturday matinee.  The original production which I saw on Broadway had been staged for spectacle; every now and then six women in magnificent heraldic gowns with six foot long trains and wearing elaborate, tall headdresses would cross the stage just to get gasps of delight.  Glimmerglass's handsome and outstandingly sung, but restrained, production was focused on the interpersonal relationships and was deeply moving in its major scenes of love and loss.  Baritone David Pittsinger made a very fine Arthur, Andriana Churchman's lovely soprano was easily the equal of the legendary Julie Andrews, and Nathan Gunn was the handsome, smooth-voiced Lancelot.

David Lang's one hour a capella opera, The Little Match Girl Passion, was easily the most unusual piece on the stage this year.  Based on the rather grim Hans Christian Anderson story of a battered child sent out to sell matches on a cold winter night, who succumbs to cold and dies in a doorway, Lang's opera avoids any sentimentality.  References to Bach's St. Matthew Passion elevate her condition and death to a level that calls attention to the stoic, uncomplaining way the child accepts her fate and dies with a vision of heaven.  Four singers, two men and two women, sing the story as it is acted out, each of them also occasionally striking various percussion instruments that point up, but do not musically accompany, moments in the vocal narration.  At the request of the Festival, Lang expanded the work to include an introduction by a children's chorus, who also played a role in acting out the drama.  It was a fascinating production.

Match Girl was accompanied by a staged version of the Stabat Mater by Giovanni Pergolesi.  A hymn to the Virgin Mary on her grief over the death of her child it was sung by two altos, one female and one male, the astonishingly good countertenor Anthony Rolf Costanzo (who also danced seamlessly with the eight professional dancers) in an extremely beautiful and imaginative production.

Our weekend ended with Glimmerglass's second production ever of a Wagner opera, The Flying Dutchman (his early Das Liebesverbot based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure having been the first).  The most vocally demanding and dramatic of the summer's operas, Dutchman was excellently cast with Ryan McKinney whose rich bass-baritone never  faltered, Melody Moore who had all of Senta's high notes and all of her lyricism, Jay Hunter Morris, now the Metropolitan Opera's preferred Siegfried, and Peter Volpe as an excellent Daland.  The orchestra under John Keenan's direction, the stage production under Francesca Zambello's direction, and the splendid chorus (made up of all the members of the Young Artists Program) were all in synch for a superb rendition of the very German Romantic score.

As we packed up to leave Cooperstown, my companion gave me this in gratitude for luring him out of Newfoundland to a place he had wanted to go but had never been.  He knew of my having designed the church parables of Benjamin Britten and found this commemorative first day cover as a thank you gift.  I was delighted and very grateful--it now hangs in my studio with a couple of autographed singer pictures and a bit of the gold fringe from the curtain of the old Metropolitan Opera. 

King for a Day? I only know of it in music history courses. What a treat ! I would enjoy hearing it, so I can boast Ive heard all of Verdi's works.
What a very odd season. Mind you, who else would do Camelot these days? ENO staged Kismet, another period piece, and I rather enjoyed parts of it, but it was generally lambasted in the press.
Camelot remains popular here, David, because John F. Kennedy and Jackie, but particularly the president, loved it. In the aftermath of the assassination and the end of his glittering but short arts-oriented, literary and intellectual White House, the name Camelot became identified with his still dearly loved Administration.
To think of the original cast of 'Camelot', though you would not actually call Richard Burton a singer, at least more of one than Rex Harrison! What a treat to see 'Camelot' with first-rate voice talent, scaled to the relationships.
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