In Review > North America

Assedio di Calais (7/22/17), Oklahoma! (7/21/17), Porgy and Bess (7/22/17), Xerxes (7/20/17)

COOPERSTOWN, NY
The Glimmerglass Festival

In Review Glimmerglass Calais hdl 1017
Leah Crocetto and Aleks Romano in Glimmerglass’s Assedio
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

THE CHIEF NOVELTY of this summer’s Glimmerglass Festival was the U.S. premiere of Donizetti’s Assedio di Calais. The composer apparently wasn’t fond of the piece, and after its 1836 Naples premiere, he never spearheaded a revival. But the Glimmerglass mounting made me wonder how The Siege of Calais (as it was billed) could have remained buried for so long. The dramatic tropes of the work, involving honor and sacrifice, are familiar from many a bel cantoopera. But Siege shows Donizetti at the height of his compositional powers, displaying not only his abundant melodic gifts but his ability to create theatrical excitement. The musical treatment makes Calais’s events matter 

The production (seen the evening of July 22) made a stirring case for the work. The opera chronicles a 1346 incident during the Hundred Years’ War in which, in order to save their city, six Calais elders offered themselves as martyrs to England’s Edward III. Francesca Zambello, Glimmerglass’s artistic director, set the piece in the modern-day “Calais jungle”—the refugee camps razed by the French government in October 2016. The analogy between the situations of today’s Mideast refugees and Donizetti’s medieval burghers may have been a bit tenuous, but the war-torn setting, in James Noone’s revolving set—a dystopian clutter of debris and corrugated steel—kept us from complacency, giving the events onstage an immediacy they would have lacked if set in a distant operatic past. 

Two excellent bel canto singers headed the cast. The heroic central figure of Aurelio is a trouser role: a rarity for Donizetti, who generally used the convention only for supporting parts such as Smeton in Anna Bolena and Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia. Here it was taken by Aleks Romano, brandishing an attractively smoky mezzo-soprano and showing, in the cabaletta of her entrance aria, how coloratura can evoke machismo. Leah Crocetto played Aurelio’s wife, Eleanora. A beat afflicted her voice at the evening’s outset, but soon its scale and warmth came into focus. Eleonora’s cabaletta-finale is unfortunately one of the most banal moments of the piece. But when Romano and Crocetto blended their voices in a two-part Act II duet, reminiscent of Bellini’s “Mira, o Norma,” they created unquestionable enchantment.

Two of the summer’s Young Artists, both baritones, took the other principal roles. Adrian Timpau, as Eustachio—the mayor of Calais and Aurelio’s father—revealed an exciting sound with lots of presence. But it was under uncertain technical control: phrase endings were rough, and notes tended to fall south of pitch. As the bloodthirsty Edward III, Michael Hewitt’s voice was virile and centered, but he smudged the passagework in the cabaletta of his double aria. The festival’s music director, Joseph Colaneri, conducted. I wished he had sometimes urged his ensemble forces toward dynamic levels softer than forte, but his vigorous reading played a significant role in the evening’s theatrical impact. 

In Review Glimmerglass Oklahoma hdl 1017 
Jarrett Ott and Vanessa Becerra, Curly and Laurey at Glimmerglass
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
 

THE FESTIVAL OFFERED two musical-theater classics, Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma!, that share some remarkable similarities. Created within a few years of each other, both draw on folk elements, and both were innovative efforts to expand the scope of the Broadway musical. (The original Broadway stage productions were also both the work of director Rouben Mamoulian.) Glimmerglass’s policy of presenting Broadway shows unamplified, in their original orchestrations, gave Oklahoma! in particular an original-instruments flavor. At the July 21 performance, when James Lowe’s bracing reading of the overture sent Richard Rodgers’s great tunes ringing through the hall, it was like being present at the work’s creation.

But Oscar Hammerstein II’s book has not worn as well as the songs it envelopes. It was hard to keep tears at bay when Curly (Jarrett Ott) and Laurey (Vanessa Becerra) sang of their burgeoning romance in “People Will Say We’re in Love,” but their bickering over the upcoming “box social” didn’t hold nearly the same degree of interest. Act II in particular, with its long stretches of dialogue, became something of a slog. Surely the responsibility for the relative weakness of the evening’s book scenes can be laid at the doorstep of director Molly Smith. But her production, with Eugene Lee’s evocative unit set and Ilona Somogyi’s splendidly colorful costumes, nonetheless evoked the soul-stirring Americana that made Oklahoma! a hit in the first place. Given the limited size of the Alice Busch Theater stage and a cast made up largely of non-dancers, choreographer Parker Esse couldn’t recreate the circumstances that made the original Oklahoma!, with its Agnes de Mille choreography,such a dance phenomenon. Still, it was intriguing to see the influential dream ballet in context, with its music performed complete. 

For all of Oklahoma!’s reputation as groundbreaking musical theater, the comic subplot of the Ado Annie/Will Parker/Ali Hakim triangle definitely relies on earlier musical-comedy tropes. The Hakim character in particular seems a relic of an extinct showbiz tradition; Young Artist Dylan Morrongiello simply couldn’t resurrect it. But Emma Roos, a Young Artist with a musical-theater background, was a delightfully guileless Ado Annie, with a true Broadway belt. The singing of Michael Roach, the Young Artist playing Will Parker, did not have the same kind of visceral presence, but he danced nimbly and enthusiastically. 

Hewitt here played Jud Fry, the villain of the piece, making the farmhand pitiable but not especially threatening. His singing was firm and strong. Judith Skinner was a warm, appealing Aunt Eller, although her urban diction was clearly not that of a prairie woman. William Burden, this summer’s Glimmerglass artist-in-residence, exuded stage authority as the farmer Andrew Carnes.

The dialogue scenes found Becerra and Ott, both accomplished opera singers, at a small remove from their comfort zones. Becerra couldn’t summon the histrionic force for her rebuff of Jud Fry to register as a dramatic turning point. Ott had an easy, assured stage presence, but his exaggerated cowboy drawl threatened to turn Curly into a character role.

All could be forgiven, though, when they sang. “Many a New Day” lay a little low for Becerra (a “soprano” is a somewhat different animal on Broadway than in the opera house), but “Out of My Dreams,” delivered sweetly and surely, was a moment of true vocal charm. Ott, for his part, seemed born to sing Curly’s music. His entrance, singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from the back of the theater, was a spine-tingling moment; he used his lyric baritone, vibrant throughout its range, to fill out each musical line to its full lyric potential—truly an “original instrument” approach. 

In REview Glimmerglass Porgy hdl 1017 
Porgy at Glimmerglass, with Talise Trevigne, Musa Ngqungwana and Norman Garrett
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
 

PORGY, seen at the July 22 matinee, was a less happy affair altogether. Zambello’s production—a version of a staging that has traveled around the nation for more than a decade—scanted the work’s beauty and pathos while leaving its racial condescension intact. It encouraged among its large cast a kind of demi-comic sock-it-to-the-rafters delivery that often bordered on minstrelsy. Peter J. Davison’s skeletal slum set provided an effective initial image but proved unadaptable to the work’s various scenes: it was often unclear whether a given scene was taking place inside or out. The production seemed geared toward pushing the unwieldy property along rather than uncovering its affective core, bringing in cast and scenery for new scenes before the old ones had played out; in particular, the heart-stopping moment at the end of Act I, Scene 1, when Bess takes refuge in Porgy’s shack, got smothered as the cast traipsed on for the next tableau.

Neither of the performers playing the title characters had an effective showing. This is partly the fault of the staging: they tended to get lost in the midst of the excessive stage business. But Musa Ngqungwana sang Porgy with gray, unvaried tone that missed the character’s poignancy. Talise Trevigne’s Bess was sabotaged by Zambello’s directorial conception, with transformations from tramp to saint (and back again) so vertiginous as to induce a case of the bends. Trevigne’s narrow lyric soprano achieved little purchase on the music. 

Smaller roles were filled more effectively. Young Artists took the parts of Clara and Serena: Meroë Khalia Adeeb offered a mellifluous “Summertime,” Simone Z. Paulwell a wailing, operatically scaled “My Man’s Gone Now.” Judith Skinner here brought her surefire comic timing to the role of Maria. Norman Garrett made tangible Crown’s sexual magnetism, if not his violent nature. Frederick Ballentine sang Sportin’ Life in a clear, well-projected operatic tenor—a viable approach, considering that the role was conceived in a vaudeville tradition now lost to time. His choreography, the work of Eric Sean Fogel, did nothing to skirt cliché.

Conductor John DeMain slammed his way through the music. He has conducted Porgy for the past four decades; after his dispiriting work here, I could only conclude that along the way he has lost track of its virtues.

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John Holiday, Jr., as Xerxes
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
 

IN COMMON WITH Handel’s other works for the stage, Xerxes is an opera seria,not an out-and-out comedy. But with its absence of bloodshed, its comic supporting roles and its goofy royal hero, it is one of Handel’s merriest creations. In Glimmerglass’s mounting, seen July 20, the production element that most suggested the work’s unique tone was Robert Wierzel’s lighting, which threw cheerful primary colors on the bas-reliefs of John Conklin’s sepia scenery panels. Tazewell Thompson’s staging had little of the antic energy of the celebrated Stephen Wadsworth production that made its way to New York City Opera in 1997. Thompson offered no particular directorial “take” on the material, but he arranged the singers in sensible groupings that elucidated the emotional substance of each scene. 

Conductor Nicole Paiement showed a clear sense of the work’s affective territory. Her vivacious reading gave each number terrific point; in particular, her buoyant articulation of Handel’s dance rhythms helped define Xerxes’s blithe realm. She led a solidly effective cast. John Holiday, Jr., in the title role, wowed the audience with the coloratura pyrotechnics of “Crude furie degl’orridi abissi.” But his laser-beam countertenor struck me as more suited to bravura than to contemplative moments. Perhaps because it crops up directly at the beginning of the piece, “Ombra mai fu” had an unsettled quality; in any case, Holiday didn’t quite manage to suggest the unearthly calm of the work’s most famous number.  

As Arsemenes, the king’s brother and romantic rival, Allegra De Vita offered an impeccable performance. Her complex mezzo, with its fine-spun vibrato, was lovely in itself, but it also consistently conveyed human utterance: when De Vita sang, you could hear Arsemenes speak. She was especially adept in her precisely etched trills and ornaments, each conveying expressive intent while giving shape to the musical line as a whole. 

The rest of the cast was entirely made up of Young Artists. The forwardly projected lyric soprano of Emily Pogorelc, as Romilda, the object of the brothers’ affections, at first had an unpleasantly penetrating quality, especially as it rose up the scale. Her legato singing, marked by bursts of glaring sound, was especially ineffective. As the evening progressed, though, her voice settled, and she brought true sweetness to the dulcet “Caro voi siete all’alma.” Mezzo-soprano Abigail Dock, as Xerxes’s spurned fiancée Amastris, sang with straightforward honesty, well-knit tone and scrupulous attention to note values. Soprano Katrina Galka offered but one bright vocal color as the scheming Atalanta, but she made up for the limitations in her tonal palette with lively, incisive inflections. Amid the panoply of high voices, the firm, grounded bass of Calvin Griffin, as the comic servant Elvino, served as a balm.

A purist might have taken issue with Glimmerglass’s trimmed edition of the score, which eliminated, among other passages, all the choral sections. But considering the deft, amiable progress of this Xerxes,it was difficult indeed to cavil.  —Fred Cohn 



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