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Reviews

Joélle Harvey as Seleuce [Photo by Claire McAdams/Glimmerglass Opera]
24 Aug 2010

Glimmerglass Rarities Out-Score Hall of Famer

To frame it in nearby-Cooperstown sports metaphors, the enterprising Glimmerglass Opera scored two decisive ‘home runs,’ and a decent enough ‘single’ in its 2010 Festival season.

Glimmerglass Rarities Out-Score Hall of Famer

Above: Joélle Harvey as Seleuce (Tolomeo) [Photo by Claire McAdams courtesy of Glimmerglass Opera]

 

Handel’s little-performed Tolomeo was treated to an endlessly witty, constantly surprising — aw hell, let me say it — smasheroo production by the one of opera’s most imaginative directors, Chas Rader-Shieber. Sometimes he can be a bit too imaginative, it is true, as in St. Louis’s fussy Una Cosa Rara, where he seemed to be mistrustful of the material and hence created endless distraction from it.

Not so here, where Mr. R-S’s inventions not only underscored the characters’ emotional states and complemented the dramatic situation, but masterfully fleshed out a very very very (did I say ‘very’?) lean plot, rife with convoluted masquerades. Purists will carp that this serious (seriously boring?) dramatic material is not the basis for humorous interpretation. I say Chas has upended the static piece to its own benefit, and thrown the heart-aching moments into even higher relief.

Tolomeo-Press-KCadel-001.gifAnthony Roth Costanzo as Tolomeo and Julie Boulianne as Elisa [Photo by Karli Cadel courtesy of Glimmerglass Opera]

That Glimmerglass has been challenged by the financial climate is evidenced by the pleading recorded pre-show announcement in which music director David Angus not only silences cellphones but solicits donations. Practically, enforced austerity required that all the operas share the same basic scenic environment, a big textured gray box in which doors, windows and structural elements could be swapped out. In the case of Tolomeo set designer Donald Eastman and the director turned this into a springboard for simple, well chosen visual delights.

At rise, Tolomeo sings of the sea, but is contemplating the waters…in a fishbowl on a stand. As he sings of maritime perils, a stuffed shark descend from the flies. The director concocts a true star entrance for our hero by having him crouched behind the bowl, face distorted by the water until a musical swell occasions his standing upright so we can take full measure of our leading man. The shipwrecked Alessandro staggers on with half of a ‘destroyed’ toy boat in each hand, before he faints as the plot requires. Boat pieces get passed to Tolomeo and, in short order, to Elisa who takes charge of the situation by fusing the halves back together, re-appearing with the boat as an adornment incorporated into her wild henna wig (the excellent hair and make-up were by Anne Ford-Coates). This is not only clever entertainment, but underscored Elisa’s character in her entrance aria.

Carefully selected set pieces from an upper crust home of Handel’s time provided apt images and visual clarity: a richly set dining table; an armoire that contained appropriately changing images and, in one goof, a piece of colorful topiary that got unceremoniously schlepped out to decorate/punctuate a ‘garden’ moment; and a bed-cum-funeral-bier for Tolomeo. Chas added three extras to the ensemble in the form of mute, slightly doddering old men (Desmond V. and Julian A. Gialanella, Jack Loewenguth) who were almost omnipresent as they constantly adapted the environment by moving around various furniture elements. I will not soon forget the image of the ‘dying’ Tolomeo in his great aria, being drawn to, and languishing on the constantly circling bed. The image of serene repose achieved as the supers inched it into its final resting place just as the music concluded was stunning.

The lustful sexiness was heightened, too, with more leering machinations than on an average episode of The Bachelorette. The inspired finale found everyone getting prepped for a good tumble by stripping down to their skivvies, with even the villainous Araspe suddenly redeemed as he is overtaken by randy urges to shuck his red suit and join the partying. There were so many telling moments that it is impossible to include them all, but surely one of the loveliest effects was the placement of ordinary (period) oscillating room fans down stage to create the ‘breeze’ of which Seleuce sings, and which carried her scattered white tissue paper messages about the playing space. This theme was carried through with a small shower of red tissue paper as Tolomeo subsequently sings of his longing, and shortly thereafter, a cascading profusion of red from the flies as accompaniment to Seleuce’s haunting aria.

Tolomeo-Press-KCadel-003.gifJoélle Harvey as Seleuce and Steven LaBrie as Araspe [Photo by Karli Cadel courtesy of Glimmerglass Opera]

Lest I imply that clever effects were all there was, Mr.Rader-Shieber also showed a deft hand at creating meaningful subtext for his performers, and he beautifully judged interaction between the characters. It did not hurt that he had a superlative lot of singers at his disposal.

It is so gratifying to see how counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo has developed in only the two years since his Nireno in Julius Caesar here. Already then an artist of great promise, Mr. Costanzo had matured into an assured star on the verge of a major international career. He is possessed of an exceptionally clear, incisive timbre and his sure-fire, take-no-prisoners way with even the trickiest coloratura was thrilling. He does not shy away from some aggressively butch singing in the lower register, but it is in the upper reaches that he truly shines. His nuanced, deeply felt reading of his death aria held us spell bound. Although slight of stature, he nevertheless commands the stage with his committed physicality.

Joélle Harvey, too, has progressed remarkably since last I encountered her in Orpheus in the Underworld. On this occasion she was giving the kind of controlled, ethereal, affecting performance that had the intermission crowd asking “who is that fabulous soprano?” She has a limpid and technically secure lyric instrument which gives over easily to the plangent outpourings Handel asks of her. Ms. Harvey’s spot-on performance was the heart of the production, the emotional rock that grounded the proceedings. The celebrated echo section and duet with Tolomeo was a standout. although in one of the show’s only minor miscalculations, I wished the supers had butted out for the duration of that gorgeous set piece so we could have just reveled in its musical perfection.

I quite liked Julie Boulianne in last year’s Cenerentola but nothing about that performance prepared me for the brilliance of her Elisa. Ms. Boulianne still displayed a bit of covered vocal production and (just) decent fioriture in her first appearance, but immediately thereafter she caught fire and lavished us with sizzling vocal pyrotechnics all night. Moreover, she displayed a fiery and comically savvy stage presence throughout, greatly assisted by a wonderfully daffy costume — part tutu, part vamp, all Lady Gaga — from the talented costume designer Andrea Hood. Ms. Hood scored big with all of her ingenious creations, but Seleuce’s distressed, wilting, catty-wompers hoop skirt also greatly illuminated the character. And while I am on ‘illumination,’ Kelley Rourke’s diverse lighting design perfectly enhanced the scenic effects.

Young American Artists Steven LaBrie and Karin Mushegain more than held their own up against these three masterful portrayals. As the evil Araspe, Mr. LaBrie cut a handsome figure and is possessed of a ringing, rich lyric baritone. His assured portrayal never descended into cliche and he mined much humor from his chicanery. Ms. Mushegain has an ideal, dusky mezzo for the trousers role of Alessandro, and she reveled in her florid singing. Her stage demeanor was sympathetic and appealing.

The musical proceedings were masterfully helmed by conductor Christian Curnyn, who brought out much subtlety in Handel’s writing, phrased with his soloists as one, and displayed admirable pacing and theatrical drive. He was ably abetted by the sensitive playing from Ruth Berry (Continuo), Michael Leopold (Theorbo) and especially David Moody (Harpsichord).

Tolomeo was truly ‘Festival’ opera, a performance and production that would be at home on any world stage. Very close behind was a wholly engaging new production of Copland’s The Tender Land. If the all-Young Artist cast is any gauge, the future of operatic singing is very, very bright.

Press-TheTenderLand-KCadel-.gifL to R: Joseph Barron as Grandpa Moss, Mark Diamond as Top and Andrew Stenson as Martin in The Tender Land [Photo by Karli Cadel courtesy of Glimmerglass Opera]

Let us immediately discount the fact that for the several character roles, the apprentices are simply and unavoidably too young. That said, I found Stephanie Foley Davis not only able to suggest a couple of decades of life experiences as Ma Moss, but also to sing it with a knowing richness of tone and musical authority that belie her years. This was a secure and memorable role assumption. Almost as successful was Joseph Barron in the (let’s face it) unsympathetic role of Grandpa Moss. Although the company wisely eschewed cheesy age make-up, the burly Mr. Barron nevertheless conveyed ample gravitas and seniority, and used his secure, authoritative bass-baritone to good effect. Mr. Splinters made the most of his crucial moments thanks to the pleasing baritone of Chris Lysack. In the small role of Beth Moss, Rebecca Jo Loeb made a fine impression with her totally committed, always consistent take on the young girl.

The Tender Land is Laurie’s journey of course, and who wouldn’t want to to make the trip with immensely gifted young soprano Lindsay Russell. Ms. Russell has all the goods for this deceptively simple role. She has the ‘heart’ in her ample lyric voice for the simple longings of “The World So Wide”, to be sure. But she also has the ‘ping’ and the moxie for the determined pronouncements in the opera’s climactic scena. Her instrument is uniform throughout, her musicianship is natural and clean, and her technique easily accommodates the often angular Copland writing. If she does not yet float a pianissimo quite as effortlessly as Dawn or Renee, rest assured, she will. Lindsay Russell is poised on the fast track to the major league.

Andrew Stenson’s pleasing tenor has just enough heft for the under-written role of the drifter Martin. He did all that was required dramatically, although somehow I felt there was more complexity to the role than could be found in Mr. Stenson’s hale-fellow-well-met approach. Still, it is not every day we enjoy a young artist with such a beautiful tone and with a reliable technique that is hooked up so well.

TenderLand-StageOrch-CMcAda.gifStephanie Foley Davis as Ma Moss and Chris Lysack as Mr. Splinters (right) in The Tender Land [Photo by Claire McAdams courtesy of Glimmerglass Opera]

My bet on The-One-To-Watch is young Mark Diamond whose virile, buzzy baritone brought his every phrase as Top to vivid life, and whose intense, prowling stage demeanor was marked by a concentrated arc of dramatic conviction. From the moment Mr. Diamond appeared he commanded attention and admiration. Watch for him soon at an opera house near you.

Conductor Stewart Robinson not only conveyed his affection for the score in his pre-show talk, but more important he conducted it lovingly in the pit. The orchestra responded with secure, vibrant, sensitive Copland of the highest order. The Maestro ably supported his young artists, and he shepherded the great ensembles with elan that was tempered by clean control. I confess I am a sap for the unfolding tune and steady crescendo of “The Promise of Living” and the addition of the chorus to the soloists (with the Copland estate’s permission) was an affecting choice that should become the ‘standard.’ Most impressively, Robinson also guided the assembled forces through a tight and propulsive reading of “Stomp Your Foot”, never missing a beat even though the actors were simultaneously cleanly executing some simple but effective (and uncredited) choreography.

TenderLand-Press-CMcAdams-0.gifL to R: Rebecca Jo Loeb as Beth Moss, Lindsay Russell as Laurie Moss and Stephanie Foley Davis as Ma Moss in The Tender Land [Photo by Claire McAdams courtesy of Glimmerglass Opera]

Perhaps the dance steps were just another part of the successful staging devised by director Tazewell Thompson, who served the naïveté of the homey story and the folksiness of the score with the creation of uncomplicated, straight-forward, clean-as-a whistle blocking that made for charming stage pictures as well as well-pointed confrontations. The ‘basic box’ set was somewhat adorned by the addition of two white clapboard walls fronting the sides and a ladder propped up stage right that afforded some use of levels as Top and others variously scrambled up and down. Otherwise, well-chosen set pieces and props, and imaginative directorial re-definitions of the playing space provided all that was required for The Tender Land to make its gentle points.

Smaller companies are usually at a disadvantage taking on a bread-and-butter staple such as Tosca. First of all, it is the stomping ground for very the biggest stars. We cannot help but come to the piece with echos of Caballe and Verrett and Nilsson and Pavarotti and Domingo and Milnes and MacNeill in our ears. On top of that, we have the ‘real-famous-Roman-sites’ visuals of Zeffirelli and Visconti and Pizzi in our eyes. And then there are the over-sized passions of the story and the thundering musical punctuations required from the sizable orchestration. Is there any opera in the repertoire that is laden with quite so many expectations? Given all that, it surprising that the competent Glimmerglass production succeeds as well as it does.

Tosca-Press-KCadel-002.gifAdam Diegel as Cavaradossi and Lise Lindstrom in the title role of Tosca [Photo by Karli Cadel courtesy of Glimmerglass Opera]

Certainly, Lise Lindstrom is a polished singer who has a good touch of steel in her well-schooled soprano, which is admirably ‘present’ at all extremes of the range. Ms. Lindstrom also commands some of the most secure, laser-like high notes I have ever heard. She never misses…B-flat…B…C…she could probably keep zinging them out to the point only dogs can hear. What Lise does not yet have is an Italianate delivery, rather seeming to be a very admirable Straussian caught in the wrong opera. Nor is she helped by Matthew Pachtman’s beautifully tailored but wrong-headed 1920’s gowns in silver, white and black. I mean, Floria is not a black-grey kinda gal. She (and the production) cried out for color, not only to mirror the seething emotional situations but also to evoke the turmoil of a politically unsettled Rome. The diva would never ever wear a white evening gown to sing a cantata in a chapel. Never. Here, Mr. Eastman’s multi-use sets showed their limitations, functional to a point but evoking neither time nor place, although Jeff Harris’s varied lighting made some amends.

I wanted to love Adam Diegel’s Cavaradossi as much as the rest of the public seemed to, for his is an often thrilling pushed lyric sound with spinto leanings. However, I confess I feared for him in a way that I feared for Carrerras when I heard him do it — thrilling yes, but at his limit and, it turned out, at his peril. Mr. Diegel has a troubling way of often clinging hard to a forte sustained top note and releasing it with a slight catch that veers just sharp of the pitch. I couldn’t help but think he is just getting through it…for now. “E Lucevan le Stelle” was arguably his best moment all night, his soft singing heartfelt (albeit crooned) and his final descending anguished portamento enthusiastically over-stated enough to give Franco Corelli pause. But effective? You betcha.

Tosca-StageOrch-CMcAdams-04.gifLester Lynch as Scarpia and Glimmerglass Opera Chorus Member Paul Griswold in Tosca [Photo by Claire McAdams courtesy of Glimmerglass Opera]

It was booming baritone Lester Lynch who served notice that he is now in consideration for admittance to the Scarpia Preferred Pantheon. Mr. Lynch sang much of the night with exceptionally controlled suavity and mellifluous rolling tone, but when he needed to pour it on he had the Puccinian fire power and the dramatic heat to raise the hair on the back of your neck. And ‘heat’ was otherwise sorely missing from the night’s activities. Much of the blame must be placed on Ned Canty’s generalized direction. In a scenario where the action springs from jealousy, sexual attraction, manipulation, and political intrigue, the characters too seldom even looked at each other. As our hero and heroine sung much of their first encounter straight out to the audience side by side or separated, they could as easily have been Rodolfo and Mimi, so non-specific were their dramatic intentions, so unremarkable the communication of their needs and opinions.

David Angus did not bring much more to the mix by way of support from the pit, the orchestra sounding reduced in size and with a significant lack of presence in the lower voices. The opening chords didn’t thunder, the unison horns at the top of Three sounded puny (and punky), and little refined orchestral detail made it as far as my seat. You know who did fare very well indeed? The Young American Artists! Again. Although they were appearing in roles always played by seasoned older comprimarios, Robert Kerr was a splendid Sacristan, Aaron Sorenson an orotund Angelotti, Zachary Nelson a solid Sciarrone, and Dominick Rodriguez offered the best-sung Spoleto of my experience. Xi Wang intoned the Shepherd with her lovely (if too womanly) soprano.

James Sohre

Cast Lists

Tolomeo — Tolomeo: Anthony Roth Costanzo; Allessandro: Karin Mushegain; Elisa: Julie Boulianne; Seleuce: Joélle Harvey; Araspe: Steven LaBrie; Supernumeraries: Desmond V. Gialanella, Julian A. Gialanella, Jack Loewenguth. Continuo, Baroque Cello: Ruth Berry. Theorbo and archlute: Michael Leopold. Harpsichord: David Moody. Conductor: Christian Curnyn. Director: Chas Rader-Shieber. Set Design: Donald Eastman. Costume Design: Andrea Hood. Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel. Hair and Make-up: Anne Ford-Coates.

The Tender Land — Beth Moss: Rebecca Jo Loeb; Ma Moss: Stephanie Foley Davis; Mr. Splinters: Chris Lysack; Laurie Moss: Lindsay Russell; Top: Mark Diamond; Martin: Andrew Stenson; Grandpa Moss: Joseph Barron; Mrs. Jenks: Jamilyn Manning-White; Mr. Jenks: Will Liverman. Conductor: Stewart Robinson. Director: Tazewell Thompson. Set Design: Donald Eastman. Costume Design: Andrea Hood. Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel. Hair & Make-up: Anne Ford-Coates.

Tosca — Cesare Angelotti: Aaron Sorenson; Sacristan: Robert Kerr; Mario Cavaradossi: Adam Diegel; Floria Tosca: Lise Lindstrom; Baron Scarpia: Lester Lynch; Spoletta: Dominick Rodriguez; Sciarrone: Zachary Nelson; Shepherd: Xi Wang; Jailer: Jonathon Lasch. Conductor: David Angus. Director: Ned Canty. Set Design: Donald Eastman. Costume Design: Matthew Pachtman. Lighting Design: Jeff Harris. Hair & Make-up: Anne Ford-Coates.

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