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Performances

The Glimmerglass Festival's Alice Busch Opera Theater. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
19 Aug 2019

Queen: A Royal Jewel at Glimmerglass

Tchaikovsky’s grand opera The Queen of Spades might seem an unlikely fit for the multi-purpose room of the Pavilion on the Glimmerglass campus but that qualm would fail to reckon with the superior creative gifts of the production team at this prestigious festival.

Queen: A Royal Jewel at Glimmerglass

A review by James Sohre

Above: The Glimmerglass Festival's Alice Busch Opera Theater. [Photo by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival]

 

First, Kelley Rourke has effectively condensed Pushkin’s story by taking the most indispensible musical highlights in the tuneful score, shedding the chorus and extraneous plot twists, and distilling the whole into 70 cogent minutes of considerable pleasure. Ms. Rourke has also crafted a quite poetic, very singable translation of utmost clarity and has been ably abetted in this pursuit by composer Nicolas Lell Benavides who has imaginatively re-scored the lush orchestration for just five players.

But what players they are! Although not credited in the program book, the violinist, cellist, bassist, pianist, and clarinetist (doubling on bass clarinet) performed superbly under the baton of Apprentice Conductor Michelle Rofrano. Maestra Rofrano elicited thrilling, evocative results from her exquisite chamber players and she ably supported her singers in relating the drama. And what singers they were!

The seasoned soprano Patricia Schuman’s Countess was a Masters Class in refined singing and concentrated stage comportment. Ms. Schuman can merely raise an eyebrow and communicate volumes in her laser focused characterization. Moreover, many years into a successful international career, she is singing wonderfully, her substantial instrument still fresh and powerful. That this treasurable artist was matched in quality by the remaining cast of Apprentice Singers is a testament to that training program, helmed by Allen Perriello.

The demanding roles of Hermann and Lise challenge even the starriest of singers in the operatic firmament. On the basis of their performances here, I can predict you will hear much much more of tenor Maxwell Levy and soprano Julia Wolcott.

Mr. Levy is that rare, somewhat dark voiced tenor who not only has the stentorian delivery needed to fill any hall, but also the ability to scale it back with gorgeous results, as he imbues his vocalization with immense heart and feeling. He meticulously communicates Hermann’s ambition as well as his secondary passion for Lise. Ms. Wolcott‘s generous, warm soprano is deployed in utter service to the heroine’s plight, intrigued by Hermann, but knowing that Prince Yeletsky is the better choice. Her luminous reading of the deeply conflicted emotions that lead to her suicide was enormously touching in its wrenching delivery.

Ben Schaefer, who had been such a nonpareil Figaro in The Ghosts of Versailles two nights prior, proved an exceptional Prince Yeletsky on this occasion. Mr. Schaefer’s debonair appearance was matched by a resonant baritone that limned his famous aria with awesome legato phrases dripping with easy elegance.

Nicholas Davis was a commendable Tomsky, his rolling baritone packing theatrical bite and punch. The role of Narumov was skillfully impersonated by Christopher Carbin, whose agreeable bass had sheen and amplitude. In the triple roles of Chekalinsky, Surin, and the Servant, Spencer Hamlin’s steady tenor had a pleasant hint of shining steel.

The clever set design by James F. Rotondo III capitalized on the Pavilion space with a thrust configuration. A platform with the Countess’ imposing, imperious chair is against one side backed by fragmented, cockeyed flats with ornate trim and crimson damask wall covering, suggesting both Hermann’s instability and the opulent premises. A narrow central stage juts out into the room, with an elegant faux inlaid wooden floor painted on it. The chamber players are accommodated on the house left corner of the platform, with performers being able to enter on to the thrust through the audience, which surrounded the playing space.

Loren Shaw’s spot-on costume design gave every character just the right look to communicate their station. She also conveyed the irascibility and volatility of the old Countess with several clever looks and changes. S. Stoli Stolnack’s lighting design was of necessity simple, even, and effective, and it was no small feat to illuminate the “stage” while avoiding shining lights in the eyes of the audience that was mere feet away.

Perhaps best of all, tying the bow on the gift package was director Francesca Zambello, whose staging was a miracle of invention. Ms. Zambello excels at creating focused character relationships and the interaction of the performers was consistently credible and informed. Too, she moved the characters around the small space with the skill of a chess master, always repositioning them to favor all lines of vision, and unfolding the tale with spontaneity and inevitability. The effect of the piece relied on a well-controlled, inexorable build of tension until the big payoff, which was so well managed it electrified the room.

This reduced version of The Queen of Spades was spoken of as something of an experiment. If the sold out, cheering houses are any indication, I think the response is: More, please.

James Sohre


The Queen of Spades
Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin
Musical arrangement by Nicolas Lell Benavides
New translation and adaptation by Kelley Rourke

Lise: Julia Wolcott; Hermann: Maxwell Levy; Countess: Patricia Schuman; Paul Tomsky: Nicholas Davis; Narumov: Christopher Carbin; Chekalinsky/Surin/Servant: Spencer Hamlin; Prince Yeletsky: Ben Schaefer; Conductor: Michelle Rofrano; Director: Francesca Zambello; Set Design: James F. Rotondo III; Costume Design: Loren Shaw; Lighting Design: S. Stoli Stolnack

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