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The Glimmerglass Festival Alice Busch Opera Theater. Designed by Hugh Hardy, the theater features unique sliding walls that open prior to performances and at intermission. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
23 Aug 2017

Glimmerglass Being Judgmental

There was a sense of event about the closing performance of Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsberg for days in advance.

A review by James Sohre

Above: The Glimmerglass Festival Alice Busch Opera Theater. Designed by Hugh Hardy, the theater features unique sliding walls that open prior to performances and at intermission.

Photo © Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, one of three characters in S/G was in attendance at all four main stage productions of the weekend, and of course was on hand for Wang’s enchanting 60-minute opera about her unlikely friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. The sold-out house repeated a scenario of most other performances she attended: When Notorious RBG was recognized a smattering of applause built in intensity until it culminated in a vociferous standing ovation for the legendary jurist.

It was basking in the afterglow of this unique preshow moment that the curtain rose on Scalia/Ginsberg. Or rather didn’t rise, since there was no curtain. With Porgy and Bess having ended barely 60-minutes prior, the setting was of utmost simplicity: a black curtain isolating the apron of the stage, two easy chairs, a table and some stacks of books on the floor. And not only was that all that was needed, it freed director Brenna Corner to be endlessly creative coaching and blocking with her talented cast.

William Burden does not have quite the right look for the swarthy Scalia, but his acting more than compensated, capably suggesting the irascible personality. And, my, what singing! Mr. Burden has one of the most engaging lyric tenors in the business and composer Wang has crafted some flights of fancy above the staff that found him in excellent form. Bill is also a master of comic delivery and his patter and one-liners (Pure applesauce among them) landed every time.

Young Artist Mary Beth Nelson was picture perfect as Ginsberg, and she sang with virtuosic abandon. Wang has given his mezzo some extremely challenging florid singing all over the range and Ms. Nelson tossed it off with joyous flair and assured beauty of tone. In more reflective moments Mary Beth displayed a lovely range of vocal coloring that ranged from teasing to touching. Too, she was occasionally asked to cross over into a pop-blues delivery that she managed with such conviction and acumen, she prompted raucous shouts of approval from the house.

Joining these two highly accomplished performers, another Young Artist, Brent Michael Smith more than held his own as The Commentator. The composer devised this role as a sort of latter day Starkeeper (Carousel) who challenges and prods the Justices, and loosely ties matters together and keeps them moving forward. Mr. Smith not only has a substantial bass-baritone of considerable accomplishment, but he has maturity of delivery and a capacity for humor that make him a distinct asset to this or any other production. Just watch Brent fidget his way around a joking delivery or moonwalk his way across the stage, and you realize you can’t take your eyes off him lest you miss whatever inspired business he might do next.

Briefly put, The Commentator challenges Scalia to account for his rulings and seals the exits, amusingly done by leaning in two American flags at the top of the stairs to the audience level stage left and right. Scalia is challenged to pass three tests of vague definition and threat. Justice Ginsberg breaks in with an amusing entrance aria. When asked how she got past the sealed doors, she quips I have broken through a ceiling before.

Ginsberg first defends, then joins Scalia in his attempt to “explain himself” to The Commentator. Derrick Wang has exhaustively researched and annotated the many quotes that comprise his libretto and he has musicalized it with heart, levity, and occasional pastiche. At times there are so many clever musical quotes from famous arias tumbling over each other that it seems Derrick has not so much “composed” as “assembled” select passages.

But when called upon to bring his own important voice to the fore, Wang proves highly adept at crafting exceedingly attractive phrases that really take wing, buoyed by a harmonic palette that progress inevitably and agreeably. His angular writing for the more contentious exchanges remains vocally grateful and pungently accented with well-used dissonances. In a wondrously calculated penultimate number, Burden and Nelson vocalize We Are Different, We Are One, intertwining their poised phrases with ravishing tone and poignant delivery.

The composer first wrote the piece when Justice Scalia was still living, and for this occasion has revised it effectively to acknowledge his passing. As The Commentator escorts Scalia to his eternal home, he and Ginsberg exchange touching farewells. As the opera closes, Ruth hangs black crepe on Nino’s easy chair, evoking the tribute on his chair in the Supreme Court chamber.

Pianist Kyle Naig provided the accomplished accompaniment while conductor Jesse Leong kept the performance taut and assured. This was a perfect little jewel with which to end my enjoyable time at Glimmerglass, and it is always a treat to discover an accomplished new work by a living composer. Mr. Wang is young, he is talented, and if Scalia/Ginsberg is any indication, he will give us many more enjoyable evenings in the opera house before he is done.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Justice Scalia: William Burden; The Commentator: Brent Michael Smith; Justice Ginsberg: Mary Beth Nelson

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