13 Aug 2013

Glimmerglass: Major League Move

“World-class” is an encomium often used indiscriminately by promoters and publicists but in light of Glimmerglass Festival’s triumphant Der Fliegende Holländer the press office has my full encouragement to use the phrase loud and often.

The cause for celebration begins with an uncommonly fine cast, surely among the top tier of today’s Dutchman interpreters. As the title character, Ryan McKinny has served notice that he is poised to be the Heldenbariton of choice for the punishing requirements of the demanding role. Mr. McKinny boasts a solid, even instrument that rolls forth with a hint of darkness and substantial weight. The inherent gravitas in the tone did not keep him from hurling out important dramatic declamations with a bright laser beam intensity and welcome purity of line. But, Ryan could also reel in the volume and ravish us with sotto voce phrasing that was warm, lyrical, and bewitching.

His traversal of “Die Frist ist um” was a mini-drama-within-a-drama, varied, well-shaped, empathetic and undeniably moving. I have never been quite so involved with the doomed man’s plight, or more involved with his journey. The handsome Mr. McKinny is also blessed with a personal charisma and stage magnetism that characterize the greatest performers. Mark my words, you will hear much much more in very short order about this exciting singer.

Every bit his equal, Melody Moore was a marvel of a Senta. Her well-focused tone had appreciable ‘ping’ but more important, there was an endearing womanly warmth in her sound, imbuing her vocalizing with great appeal at all volumes and in all registers. Like her co-star, Ms. Moore limned an unusually varied and effective introductory aria, which at once captured our interest and pleased our ears. In their great duet, the pair seem to inspire each other to even greater heights, with each successive phrase urging on the next resulting in confrontations of mounting intensity.

As Erik, we were fortunate to have Jay Hunter Morris, one of the most celebrated Wagnerian tenors of the day. He brought to Erik a shining, steady, youthful tone with ample steel, and unflagging stamina for the sustained tessitura. Mr. Morris also looked strapping and youthful, and he found more than the usual amount of dramatic variety in his two pivotal scenes. Peter Volpe’s Daland was an excellent foil for the Dutchman, his mellifluous, round bass filling out the character with insinuating, powerful calculation.

Two accomplished soloists from the Young Artists program made strong impressions in smaller parts. Adam Bielamowicz’s appealing tenor had sweetness and clarion punch as Erik and Deborah Nansteel’s solid mezzo made for a sassy, gutsy Mary.

John Keenan did yeoman’s work in the pit, helming a taut, propulsive account of what may be Wagner’s most accessible score. The musicians responded with beautifully judged solo passages and an awesome sense of ensemble. His judicious use of rubato with his solo singers added immeasurably to their communication of the drama. If the lower strings occasionally sounded a bit thinner than usual, it could be owing to the somewhat dry acoustic, or perhaps the space limitations of the pit. Nevertheless, this was overall a very fine interpretation.

I don’t think stage director Francesca Zambello is capable of doing anything that is uninteresting, and her work here was exceptionally fresh and thought-provoking. Set designer James Noone devised for her a clever and effective environment for the work’s disparate visual elements. Mr. Noone has elevated a large square stage platform and surrounded it with a large metal “box” of legs and trussing. Numerous tie lines hang from each overhead side bar. The backdrop is a large staircase rising from up right to high up left, which is fronted by a stylized “ship” shape. A set of black drapes upstage can iris in or out, revealing a further stylized image of an old sailing ship’s rope ladder. Backlit by blood red light, extras (and the Dutchman himself) can crawl up and down the structure, or simply hang lifelessly.

Ms. Zambello imagines the tale as Senta’s dream. Or perhaps her delusion? We first see the heroine in a white slip for a fleeting unscripted moment at the very start, in bed, in a confused state as sailors run all about her pulling on ropes. We return to this stark setting at opera’s end. Is she in fact, institutionalized? The decision is left open and that is the production’s strength. The basic story is told quite comprehensibly while the subtext and disorienting elements allow us to speculate, drawing us into what’s at stake.

L to R: David Pittsinger as King Arthur, Andriana Chuchman as Guenevere, Wynn Harmon as Pellinore, Clay Hilley as Dinaden, Wayne Hu as Sir Sagramore, Nathan Gunn as Sir Lancelot and Noel Bouley as Sir Lionel in Camelot

The ropes prove to be an important visual motif, at once unsettling and ordered. There are rows of dangling lines flown in various combinations. In a brilliant choice, the spinning chorus finds the women sitting in rows and slowly braiding the ropes like an overhead macramé project. At another time, cast members riff the rows of lines in opposite directions creating a riot of motion. Mark McCullough chills our bones with an austere, changeable lighting design that seems to suggest the wanderings of a troubled mind (Senta’s, not his!).

The director seemed to find unlimited use for every inch of the space, which found nimble Young Artists even climbing the supporting legs of the truss during the famous choral numbers. Indeed, the work of the ensemble was flawless, marked as much by earnest acting, potent vocalism and restless motion as it was by controlled choreography devised by Eric Sean Fogel. Erik Teague’s costumes were picture perfect. The exotic, jacketed but bare-chested look for the Dutchman, displaying a prominent chest tattoo, was just the right combination of sex appeal and danger. Wagner lovers should fuggedaboutbayreuth and beat a path to Glimmerglass if they want to see the master well-served.

The ebullient, non-stop inventiveness on display in the Verdi rarity King for a Day (Un giorno di regno) made for what is possibly the most fun one can have inside an opera house with one’s clothes on. The creative team seemed to take a page, make that a Big-Ass-Page from the 60’s Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and exploited that formula brilliantly.

That hit TV show, you’ll recall, bombarded viewers with op-art visual images, blackout sketches, and manic dances that were as sudden and as tempestuous as a Cooperstown rainstorm. I have seen this “kitchen sink approach” fail with many a comic opera staging when the excesses have exhausted the viewers and left us wanting less. But not here.

Director Christian Räth has thoroughly evaluated his source material, and while remaining true to the silly plot, he has mined every last guffaw possible by re-imaging the stock characters and investing them with more personality than Verdi ever did. Kelley Rourke added to the goofs with a breezy translation that was colloquial and laced with a welcome hint of irony (although it has to be said for the first half of Act One, diction was variable). Mr. Räth was also fortunate to have had the collaboration of a gifted and thoroughly whacked-out design team.

From the git-go, the look of Court Watson’s tongue-in-cheek set design was comically akimbo with a stage platform (atop the existing stage) steeply raked from left to right, and poking out at us from under a diaphanous slanted white drape like a schoolgirl’s slip that was showing. Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel flooded the drape with a profusion of psychedelic circles that were set in motion as soon as the allegro portion of the overture began. Mr. Wierzel’s tight area lighting and isolated specials contributed mightily to punching up comic moments, and enhanced the overall joyous frivolity of the proceedings.

Once the main curtain opened, we were treated to a skewed gilt proscenium-arch-within-a-gilt-proscenium-arch, this opening tilted in opposition to the downstage slanted platform. And this image established the concept for the rest of the show which featured ornate picture frames large and small, manually carried or flown, that appeared, disappeared and re-configured to “frame the action.” Most often they were used to capture fleeting family portraits, but characters crawled in and out of them at will, sometimes sitting on them like a trapeze, other times soloing in front of a tableau that might abruptly spring to life.

Other than the basic structure and the ubiquitous frames, locales were suggested with such economical means as red and gold ballroom chairs, a red-carpet runner that became a running gag, and a red velvet pouffe topped with an unruly fern. Mr. Watson frequently upstaged his clever sets with eye-popping post-Nehru jacket costumes that are a riot of color and ingenuity.

In the pit, recently appointed Music Director Joseph Colenari led a taut, idiomatic reading that captured the juvenile buoyancy and good lyrical intentions of Verdi’s second opera. Some judicious cutting of repetitive music tightened the score to good effect and whatever was there to be mined for musical interest, Maestro Colenari found it, and urged the cast to appealing musical accomplishments. Indeed, all concerned seemed hell bent on treating the opus like a masterpiece it isn’t!

Although announced as indisposed, Alex Lawrence as Belfiore (the impostor king) sported a sturdy, forthcoming baritone with a warm presence that was as handsome as his appearance. His easy demeanor and animated antics enlivened every scene he was in. Jason Hardy’s reliable bass served the role of Baron Kelbar ably, and his twitchy acting style aptly conveyed the motives of the mercenary noble who is trying to get the best deal in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Jason should only be attentive to pushing too much in upper forte passages lest his tone become diffuse with pitchy results.

With a hair-do like a hood ornament on a Pontiac (splendid make-up and hair courtesy of designer Anne Ford-Coates), Andrew Wilkowkse is having a whale of a time as the daughter’s undesirable suitor La Rocca. His burnished baritone pleases in a part that is more usually barked by a buffo, and he pairs up successfully with Mr. Hardy for a nutty, well choreographed boxing match (yes, with gloves) in which his supple singing floats like a butterfly and his left hook stings like a bee.

Joe Shaddy sings the character part of Count Ivrea (the other unsuitable suitor) more beautifully than we could reasonably expect for such a comprimario role. Mr. Shaddy also scores big with his mastery of physical comedy as he presents the Count as a crusty old fart who has considerable difficulty negotiating his walker. His spontaneous entanglement in the apparatus elicited a show-stopping laugh. Andrew Penning sang cleanly as Delmonte and made the most of his expanded stage time as a frequent conspirator in comic plot complications.

Jason Hardy as Baron Kelbar and Alex Lawrence as Belfiore in Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day)

As the young love interest Edoardo, Patrick O’Halloran had it all: a Verdi-sized tenor, seamless technique, innate musicality, physical stature and freshly-scrubbed good looks. If the voice sounds a bit anonymous at this point, age and experience will no doubt provide some individual patina, but Mr. O’Halloran likely has a bright future. One design quibble: as engaging as it was to have Patrick costumed as an overgrown schoolboy in horn-rimmed eyeglasses, shorts, and argyle knee socks, eventually I wanted him to have matured a bit and perhaps looking more responsible than all the crazies around him.

Jacqueline Echols was perfection as the Baron’s bargained off-spring Giulietta. Ms.Echols is possessed of a lustrous, wide-ranging lyric soprano, that can sound round and dusky at one moment, then incisive and gleaming the next. Ms. Echols’ bubbly personality and killer smile, her lovely physique du role, and her charm factor recalled all the assets of the young Kathleen Battle. She not only partnered effectively with her Edoardo but warranted one of the night’s most enthusiastic responses for her spot-on rendition of her first act aria. Ginger Costa-Jackson is giving a tour-de-force, take-no-prisoners performance as the spurned diva. . .er. . .um, I mean Marchesa. Looking as glam as a vintage Vogue cover girl, Ms. C-J prowls the playing space like a tigress in search of a cage just so she could finally lock down and get some rest. Vocally, she is hard to categorize and while the commitment and overall effect of her singing is engaging, she can also be inconsistent. Just when you have her pegged as a mezzo with a rich, plangent lower voice, she will drop a line on you that totally thins out at the bottom. Then she will pop out a note above the staff that would be the envy of Gheorgiu. A moment after she fudges a straight-forward melismatic passage, she dazzles with an accurate flash of coloratura.

There is no denying that she has any number of compelling effects in her vocal arsenal and that she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. In a performance chockfull of wholly dedicated performers who achieved wonderful results, no one else came close to her definitive portrayal. Ginger Costa-Jackson is a singer, stylist and actress of tremendous gifts. I only urge her to get all of her substantial strengths completely ironed out and she will be a star ne plus ultra.

For all the superlative contributions from the performers, there is no doubt that the triumph belonged to director Räth. At the end of the day, when we thought we were laughed out, goofed out, and pooped out, the text sang one last time of “the King” and he brought on Belfiore in an Elvis mask. Helplessly, perhaps in spite of ourselves, we burst into a final tribute of appreciative belly laughs. Although King for a Day is not a great opera, it is most definitely great fun.

If you had told me that the staging of the Pergolesi Stabat Mater would be the knockout of the Festival, I might have thought you mad. However, from its rather gentle source material, the artistic team has indeed wrought a mesmerizing creation of enduring beauty, worthy of inclusion in the repertoire of the world’s ballet companies.

At curtain rise, Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s evocative set consists of a large ashen tree trunk standing center stage, framed by a triangular opening, fronted by a matching log hovering high above, parallel to the stage floor. A lone sorrowful dancer is at the foot of the tree draped in an oversized grey veil as the mother of Christ.

With economical means and telling dance moves, director-choreographer Jessica Lang has found inspiration in the text and tone of the score’s various movements to devise meaningful, and at times devastating expression of Pergolesi’s opus. Ms. Lang seems to set up a visual theme, then breaks it apart into variations, changes group sizes, inverts certain steps, and subsequently expands upon then to give us an overall experience of potent emotional impact.

The well-schooled dancers, simply clad in what might pass for rehearsal clothes, embraced the concept and committed to it with whole-hearted expertise. The re-positioning and angling of the two pieces of the tree, and the frequent re-purposing of the veil were highly effective. I will not soon forget the descent of the large vertical log to serve as the cross beam upon which one male dancer suggests the crucifixion. Other dancers drape the wood with the gray cloth consistent with familiar Christian imagery, and that effect slowly raised skyward as the “corpse” remained earthbound. Stunning.

No less over-powering was the perfection from the two vocal soloists. Nadine Serra’s appealing soprano has almost a spinto thrust and spin at times, but she also has an uncanny ability to scale it back to execute masterful Baroque effects with no loss in quality or sweetness. I have long admired Anthony Roth Constanzo and his countertenor has never been heard to better advantage. Mr. Constanzo can sing with full-throated abandon with no loss of color, his florid passages are dramatically charged perfection, and his introspective musings are achingly beautiful. Both singers are well integrated into the dance movement, and Anthony was especially entrusted to execute some graceful choreography with skill and conviction.

The small period orchestra was expertly paced by Speranza Scappucci, who showed a real affinity for musical subtlety and effective dramatic pacing. Audience response to this unexpected jewel of a performance was immediate and vociferous. As soon as the curtain fell a cheer rose up that could probably be heard in Cooperstown.

Stabat Mater was followed after intermission by the staged premiere of David Lang’s the little match girl passion (sic), the double bill marketed under the heading Passions. There was much to admire in Lang’s writing, especially the unique palette of vocal sounds and purposefully controlled use of limited intervals and harmonies.

As part of finding theatrical expression for match girl director Francesca Zambello commissioned Mr. Lang to compose a sort of curtain warmer that featured the excellent Glimmerglass children’s chorus (Tracy Allen, Chorus Master). The result was the opening chorus when we were children. This was played in front of a main scrim with a row of red-lacquer benches (Ms. Kellogg again designed the set). Ms. Zambello had the ragamuffin children enter through the audience with house lights still on, and variously take their places sitting on the long expanse of benches until every seat was filled. The house lights dimmed and the children intoned a haunting, layered unaccompanied chant of few pitches and limited harmony.

When the curtain rose, there was little to reveal within the Pergolesi’s left-over triangular frame save a few platforms stage right with a bank of percussion instruments. These were played by the four adult vocalists as they sang in place. These Young Artists meticulously executed the complex vocal demands and were uniformly terrific: Julia Mintzer, James Michael Porter, Lisa Williamson, Christian Zaremba.

With the eventual addition of only the mournful thudding of a solo bass drum, and witnessing the blackened pit, it became evident there would be no other musical accompaniment forthcoming other than what might emanate from the onstage instruments. Festival Chorus Master David Moody conducted and admirably kept the whole piece tightly knit. Mr. Lang has a distinctive style here, which deconstructs words and divides phrases almost on a syllable-by-syllable, note-by-note basis. This poses a real challenge in understanding the text, and all necks seemed to be craned to read the super titles.

This is a fascinating score, with memorable moments and painful dissonances, and unsettling open harmonies. With something this minimal however, it is incumbent upon the performers to execute the rhythm, intervals, and chords with absolute accuracy to make a complete effect. While the adult quartet succeeded admirably, I believe that the composer set the bar just a mite too high for this (or any) children’s chorus, who nonetheless performed conscientiously.

For her part, Ms. Zambello wrung every possible bit of dramatic possibility out of the fragmented narrative with constantly evolving stage pictures and confrontations that emerged from almost cinematic dissolves. From all I read, I believe that Mr. Lang meant truly to move us with his composition. For all its admirable aural complexity, its original voice, and its accomplished staging, the piece fully engaged my intellect but could not engage my heart.

Rounding out the Festival was the annual classic American musical entry Camelot, which was treated to a handsome production. I am not sure Camelot is a “classic” since it is so plagued by book problems, narrative holes, and a couple of weak tunes. Over the years, there were so many songs and scenes excised, then randomly restored that there does not seem to be a definitive performance version. Never mind, director Robert Longbottom exerted a sure hand and paced the show well, imbuing as much clarity as is possible.

The show was blessed to have the highly appealing performer David Pittsinger as its King Arthur. Mr. Pittsinger has one of the most impressive baritones in the business and his treatment of Arthur’s songs was luxurious to say the least. While the role is written primarily for an actor who can sing (a little), David also proved to have the chops to pull off the King’s great speeches with unaffected grace, looked youthful and appealing, and was the anchor that the production required him to be.

Lovely young Canadian soprano Andriana Churchman was a delectable Guenevere with a voice of more solid radiance than I have ever encountered in this part. When she was allowed to sing a few optional notes in her gleaming upper register, we were keenly aware that Ms. Churchman has operatic abilities way beyond the requirements of Lerner and Loewe. Mr. Longbottom surely re-instated You May Take Me to the Fair to give Andriana another chance to shine and she made the most of it.

Nathan Gunn’s well-documented physical appeal and his alluring baritone are a near-perfect match for the preening Lancelot. It was a joy to discover the unforced sense of humor and subtle French accent that Mr. Gunn put to fine use in a well-calculated C’est Moi. Curiously, Nathan did not opt for a full-voiced ending to If Ever I Would Leave You which is decidedly more effective than a crooning finale. Still, he sang sweetly and acted with sincerity and purpose.

Victoria Munro (center) with the children's chorus in The Little Match Girl Passion

Jack Noseworthy was a definitive, boyishly spiteful Mordred, sprinting about with a dancer’s wiry poise and singing in a firm character tenor. Jack managed to make an art song out of the score’s weakest number, The Seven Deadly Virtues. We were lucky that he was also included in a re-instated Fie on Goodness as the primary soloist, a directorial choice that paid extraordinarily good dividends. Wynn Harmon, doubled as King Pellinore and Merlin, found a way to mine every possible laugh with his savvy delivery, although we were not fooled for an instant that the same actor played both roles.

Clay Hilley, Noel Bouley and Wayne Hu made solid contributions as Sirs Dinadan, Lionel and Sagramore, respectively, with Mr Bouley particularly notable for his virile bass-baritone. Richard Pittsinger (King Arthur’s real life son) was a sincere Tom of Warwick, characterized by excellent diction.

Everything was dispatched with great efficiency and, in spite of reclaiming two numbers, the legendary lengthy playing time was kept in check with other substantial cuts. Dance music was partly affected, but I didn’t mind so much since Alex Sanchez’s choreography was more pleasantly ‘functional’ than it was ‘inspired’. Other nips and tucks were internal save for the total elimination of Arthur’s visit to Morgan Le Fay and the Enchanted Forest in Act Two. This deprived him of stage time which seems really necessary to keep him a central figure in an act that is dominated by other characters. Conductor James Lowe kept things bubbling along in the pit, once past an overture that had muffled brass fanfares and a somewhat odd balance.

If there is any baggage accompanying Camelot it is likely the expectation of a lavish physical production. Set Designer Kevin Depinet makes a very good first impression. The tree stage left that conceals Arthur in Scene One was a very exciting, gorgeously stylized interpretation, almost suggesting a wave, and a true work of art. The mid-stage drop featured a slanted girder hung with a lovingly painted castle and an eroded hem that presaged the strife to come.

But oddly hanging over this outdoor scene was a huge brass chandelier. This later dropped lower for the study scene with the addition of a draped tapestry and some ornate chairs, but for the interiors the tree stubbornly remained in sight. In fact after about thirty minutes it was clear that with the exception of some other furniture, we had seen all we were really going to see, and that the big chunks were never leaving our sight.

Too, the chorus was on the small side, with Pellinore even pressed into service as a vocal participant in The Joust. With all the Young Artists at their disposal, and given the history of having large casts in the musical series, my only thought is that budget constraints may have dictated keeping the cast size smaller to avoid needing too many more of Paul Tazewell’s lavishly beautiful costumes. Side note: when Guenevere, extravagantly clad in a dazzling, perfectly tailored bugle-beaded gown tells Lancelot she has to change for dinner, I would love to know what she had in her closet since she already looked beyond ‘spectacular’!

Still, the capacity audience loved it all, there was the predictable standing ovation, and it was all entirely professional. But I kept having the nagging sensation that, for whatever reason, I was at a performance of Cam-e-Lite.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day)

Baron Kelbar: Jason Hardy; La Rocca: Andrew Wilkowske; Delmonte: Andrew Penning; Belfiore: Alex Lawrence; Edoardo: Patrick O’Halloran; Marchesa: Ginger Costa-Jackson; Giulietta: Jacqueline Echols; Count Ivrea: Joe Shadday; Conductor: Joseph Colaneri; Director: Christian Rath; Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel; Set and Costume Design: Court Watson; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Hair and Make-Up Design: Anne Ford-Coates; English Adaptation: Kelley Rourke


King Arthur: David Pittsinger; Guenevere: Andriana Churchman; Lancelot: Nathan Gunn; Mordred: Jack Noseworthy; Sir Dinadan: Clay Hilley; Sir Lionel: Noel Bouley; Sir Sagramore: Wayne Hu; Merlin/Pellinore: Wynn Harmon; Tom of Warwick: Richard Pittsinger; Conductor: James Lowe; Director: Robert Longbottom; Choreographer: Alex Sanchez; Set Design: Kevin Depinet; Costume Design: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Hair and Make-Up Design: Anne Ford-Coates

Passions: Stabat Mater, Little Match Girl Passion, When We Were Children

Set Design: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg; Costume Design: Beth Goldenberg; Lighting Design: Mark McCullough; Hair and Make-Up Design: Anne Ford-Coates; Stabat Mater soloists: Anthony Roth Constanzo, Nadine Sierra; Conductor: Speranza Scappucci; Director/Choreographer: Jessica Lang; little match girl passion & when we were children Vocal Ensemble: Julia Mintzer, James Michael Porter, Lisa Williamson, Christian Zaremba; Conductor: David Moody; Director: Francesca Zambella; Choreographer: Andrea Beasom

Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman)

Daland: Peter Volpe; Steersman: Adam Bielamowicz; Dutchman: Ryan McKinny; Mary: Deborah Nansteel; Senta: Melody Moore; Erik: Jay Hunter Morris; Conductor: John Keenan; Director: Francesca Zambella; Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel; Set Design: James Noone; Costume Design: Erik Teague; Lighting Design: Mark McCullough; Hair and Make-Up Design: Anne Ford-Coates