Sunday, August 21, 2022

Return to Glimmerglass: Carmen, The Sound of Music, Tenor Overboard, and Two New Short Operas

Two weekends ago, after a two year hiatus, Martha and I joined our friends Marc and Stewart for a return to the Glimmerglass Festival, held in the Alice Busch Opera Theater, on the shore of Lake Otsego near Cooperstown, New York. Our first opera. on Friday evening, was Bizet's Carmen. I had seen several productions of this very popular romantic opera before; indeed, I first heard its highlights on a record album my parents bought when I was about ten. Perhaps my memories of earlier performances had faded, but to me this was the best ever. It was directed by Denyce Graves, who has considerable experience with the role of Carmen. According to the Glimmerglass program,"[s]he made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role in 1995 and went on to sing the role at the great opera houses of the world for decades."

The title role was sung brilliantly by the mezzo soprano Briana Elyse Hunter (photo), whom we had seen in 2019 as Mother in the then new opera Blue, which later received the Music Critics Association of North America 2020 Award for Best New Opera. She brought to the role of Carmen an almost unstoppable forcefulness, even in the scene in which she draws fortune telling cards that in each instance predict her death. The program includes the transcript of a dialogue between Ms. Hunter and the director, Ms. Graves. Near the beginning of the conversation Ms. Hunter asked, "Do you feel like you take a little bit of [Carmen] with you each time you play her?" Ms. Graves answered, 
"She made me the woman I am today, without question. I feel like it was no mistake that she came into my life, and I think she's been strengthening me from the moment I met her."

Ms. Hunter responded: "Every time I play her, I leave proclaiming, 'This is how I'm going to be now' . . . and then I realize how hard that really is."

The Don José role elicited another excellent performance, this by tenor Ian Koziara, who skillfully assumed the various emotional states the role demands, from obedient soldier to reluctant suitor to outlaw to enraged jilted lover. During her conversation with Ms. Hunter, Ms. Graves said:
"I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Don José, for the person he becomes and the trajectory of his experience. . . . By the time we see him in Act Four he's not a priest, he's not a corporal, he's not the lover of Carmen. He's lost his mother, Micaela, his dignity, home, country, everything. Carmen rises in society. . . . That's what I want to show in our production, this incredible elevator effect where he's going down as she's going up."
Richard Ollarsaba, a bass-baritone, was convincing as the bullfighter Escamillo, showing bravado but also a touch of vulnerability. The role of Micaëla, the village girl Don José's dying mother wants him to marry, was played to perfection by soprano Symone Harcum, a member of Glimmerglass's Young Artists Program. Bass baritone Peter Morgan was the model of a martinet as the Army Captain Zuniga. The rest of the cast was superb. Credit must also be given to the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra, conducted by Joseph Colaneri, for its forceful presentation of Bizet's score.

Glimmerglass presents one musical comedy or operetta each year. This year's selection, The Sound of Music, is far from Martha's or my favorite Broadway show by a long stretch. Still, the performance on Saturday afternoon was very well done. Baritone Michael Mayes was spot on as the intensely disciplined and patriotic Captain Georg Von Trapp, as was soprano Mikaela Bennett playing the talented and flighty Maria. Soprano Alexandra Loutsion was authoritative and compassionate as the Mother Abbess, and Alyson Cambridge did well in the role of the scheming Elsa Schraeder. Among the Von Trapp children, all well played, I'll give special mention to Tori Tedeschi Adams, a member of the Young Artists Program, as Liesl, and to Oliver Horvath as Kurt and Cordelia Dziuban as Brigitta, both members of the Glimmerglass Youth Chorus. The orchestra, conducted by James Lowe, was faultless. Unfortunately, I was left with "Do, Re, Mi" as an earworm for several days, despite hearing some Rossini that evening.

So, to the Rossini. Ken Ludwig has been described, by Barry Edelstein, Artistic Director of The Old Globe, as "America's preeminent comic playwright." (Well, now that Neil Simon is no longer with us.) Mr. Ludwig not only writes plays; he is also an opera librettist. Since he doesn't write music, he needs to use someone else's. In Tenor Overboard that someone else is Gioachino Rossini. Mr. Ludwig assembled a pastiche of music from several Rossini operas to accompany his story. 

The story begins in "1940s New York." Petronio, an Italian immigrant, well voiced by Bass-baritone Stefano de Peppo, has two daughters, Gianna (mezzo soprano Reilly Nelson) and Mimi (soprano Jasmine Habersham). He wants to marry Mimi to the son of a friend, but Mimi has her heart set on a young man she met during a trip to Sicily. 

The sisters attend a performance by the Singing Sicilians, and want to return with them to Italy. They are refused an audition because the group is all male, so they put on drag, audition as Joe and Jerry, and are welcomed. They board a liner bound for Italy, and a series of bizarre adventures follows. Petronio, not knowing his daughters are on board, gets on the same ship, having decided he's had enough of America. A movie actress, Angostura (soprano Keely Futterer; her part named for a kind of cocktail bitters) keeps threatening to expose the sisters as women. Mimi recognizes fellow Sicilian Singer Dante (tenor Fran Daniel Laucerica) as the lad who won her heart in Sicily. Gianna falls in love with another Sicilian, Luca (baritone Armando Contreras). Petronio is thought dead following a blow struck during a storm, but revives just as the Captain (tenor Matthew Pearce) is about to commit his body to the sea. Petronio then recognizes Dante as the friend's son whom he wanted Mimi to marry. Weddings follow. 

It's a thoroughly delightful piece, drawing, as Mr. Ludwig explains in his notes, on such comedic resources as A Midsummer Night's Dream and Some Like It Hot. As for the music, taken from, by my count, seventeen different Rossini scores, it was performed beautifully by the orchestra, conducted as it was for Carmen by Joseph Colinari.

On Sunday afternoon we saw a double bill of new one act operas, both on religious themes. The first was Taking Up Serpents, with music by Kamala Sankaram, Glimmerglass Artist in Residence this year, and libretto by Jerre Dye. A young woman, Kayla (soprano Mary-Hollis Hundley) has left her family, charismatic preacher Daddy (baritone Michael Mayes, also Captain Von Trapp in Sound of Music), and her pious and dour mother Nelda (mezzo soprano Jacquelyn Matava) on a self searching journey that takes her to Gulf Shores, Alabama, where she works in a drug store. She gets a phone call from Nelda telling her Daddy has had a fatal bite while handling a snake during a worship service, and is in hospital dying. Kayla goes home to Birmingham where Nelda, wracked with grief over her husband's condition and guilt for having sought medical treatment in defiance of her and Daddy's beliefs, gives Kayla no comfort. After prayerful consideration, Nelda smothers comatose Daddy in his hospital bed. Kayla, facing contradictory feelings about her parents and upbringing, seeks spiritual reconnection in a potentially striking way. The story places emotional demands on the singers, all of whom met those demands with aplomb.

As the Glimmerglass program tells it, the librettist Mr. Dye drew on his own upbringing in a small Mississippi town where his family belonged to a charismatic church, although one without snake handling. "It completely captured [his] imagination as a child." When his family turned to a more conventional, mainline Protestant church, he was "suddenly left with an empty feeling, a great sadness, a sense of disconnect." He transferred that feeling to Kayla. 

Ms. Sankaram found inspiration for her music in "Christian mysticism" that she used "to create musical ciphers that are hidden throughout the score." It was performed by an ensemble using some unusual instruments, including "whirly tubes, which are plastic percussion instruments that are played by being swung in a circle." These were used to accompany "Kayla's retreat into memory." The ensemble was conducted by Lidya Yankovskaya.

Second in the double bill was the world premiere of Holy Ground, with music by Damien Geter and libretto by Lila Palmer. The story involves a departure from Christian theology. As it is told in Luke 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel appears before Mary, a young woman of Galilee, and tells her she will have a son. She asks how this can happen, as she's a virgin. Gabriel says she will become pregnant by "the power of the Holy Spirit" and that her child "will be called Son of God." Mary isn't asked if she consents to this; she is just told it will happen. 

Holy Ground opens with three archangels listening to signals from earth, hoping to find a woman with a pure soul who will consent to give birth to God's son. Unlike the story in Luke, consent by the prospective mother is required. Their scanning device picks up a promising signal, coming from a young Black American woman named (you guessed it!) Mary (soprano Jasmine Habersham, who also was Mimi in Tenor Overboard). The archangels deputize Cherubiel (tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes, a member of the Young Artists Program), newly promoted to their order, to try to convince Mary to accept. He's reluctant, as 849 other women (implicitly including Galilean Mary) have refused. The other archangels convince him that he can do what hasn't yet been done.

Meanwhile, Mary is facing an impending marriage about which she has serious misgivings. Her mother, Ann (soprano Alyson Cambridge, also Elsa Schraeder in Sound of Music), argues that she must go through with it, as a woman without a husband is not safe. (This is evidently some perhaps near future Handmaid's Tale style dystopian America.) Still, Mary thinks she wants something beyond safety with a man. This is when Cherubiel appears with his offer. As the program puts it, Mary "experiences a kaleidoscope of emotions" but concludes that she cannot do it. 

Mary then suffers nightmares in which "[m]ultitudes cry out for help, but there are too many for her to save." Ann tells her that when she became pregnant she initially didn't want to be a mother, but changed her mind and gave birth to Mary. Cherubiel, braced by several (ambrosial?) cocktails with, and encouragement from, the other archangels, returns for a second try. This time Mary says "Yes." Cherubiel concludes with, "Hail Mary, full of grace." 

Mr. Geter's music, conducted as in Taking Up Serpents by Lidya Yankovskaya, complements the story well.

Addendum: Martha tells me that she found Trevor Bowen's costume designs for Holy Ground to be spectacular.

The 2022 Festival is the last under Francesca Zambello, whose twelve years as artistic and general director of the Festival  have been transformative. She has widened the appeal of the Festival, and of opera, to audiences as young as elementary school children, achieved diversity in performers, composers. librettists, and subject matter, and deftly mixed traditional with new material. She will continue serving as artistic director of the Washington National Opera, a position she has held since 2012. Her successor will be Robert Ainsley, who until now has served as director of the Young Artists program at Washington National, "and of the American Opera Initiative where, over a span of six years, he commissioned, developed and premiered more than 30 new operas and other works."

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