Glimmerglass Opera Festival 2009
- At the Alice Busch Opera Theater
- Cooperstown, N.Y.
- Friday through Sunday (continuing to Aug. 25)
On paper, this year's Glimmerglass Opera seemed like a bit of a bore.
As usual, the summer festival lineup includes a cash-cow warhorse (Verdi's La Traviata ), a bel canto (Rossini's La Cenerentola ), early music (Purcell's Dido and Aeneas ) and a modern opera (Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul ). However, for differing reasons, all are worth the schlep to the village of Cooperstown, N.Y.
The live experience, it turns out, is a lot better than the playbill.
Canadians can feelpatriotic pride in the casting of the leads in La Cenerentola - Rossini's opera based on the Cinderella story, performed on Saturday night - with Canucks Julie Boulianne as Angelina (Cenerentola) and John Tessier as her prince (Don Ramiro).
Tessier has an international reputation as the perfect light lyric tenor: He has beautiful clarity of tone and hits seemingly effortless high notes, and over the years he has grown into a terrific actor to boot.
But it's French-Canadian mezzo-soprano Boulianne who is the one to watch - Rossini's endless coloratura is a killer, yet she rips through ornamentation like a carving knife. Her voice has both sweetness and bite, with hints of darker and deeper notes to come, all boding well for meatier roles down the line (her current slate includes upcoming stints with Opéra de Montréal and Pacific Opera Victoria).
The rest of the cast is excellent as well, including perfect roly-poly buffo bass-baritone Eduardo Chama as Don Magnifico and the sensational young baritone Keith Phares as Dandini. Conductor Joseph Colaneri, meanwhile, makes absolute sense of Rossini: Instead of the usual fast and slow tempos, he actually connects music to text, finding dramatic expression and nuance in the composer as few others have.
For his part, director Kevin Newbury cleverly sets the opera in the Prohibition era (which gives Don Magnifico his bathtub gin and designer Jessica Jahn to-die-for period costumes to play with). And there is some very funny shtick on stage. But the opera is ultimately over-directed, the set can feel busy, and lighting designer D. M. Wood (a Toronto native) has created strange and distracting shadows.
All this is an interesting contrast to La Traviata . Rather than a revisionist vision, iconic director Jonathan Miller has set his opera in Second Empire France as in Verdi's original. Having no directorial distractions allows him to transform this overworked opera into a realistic musical play.
The emotional cadence of the scenes, performed Saturday afternoon, is so intense that even the supporting roles of the comprimario take on three dimensions (for example, Violetta's jealous lover is given a brooding presence that hangs over her first-act party like a miasma). Violetta's second-act encounter with Père Germont brings tears to the eyes. And her death is absolutely harrowing.
It helps that paint-by-numbers conductor Mikhail Agrest follows Miller and his impressive singing actors, who include soprano Mary Dunleavy as the consumptive Violetta, tenor Ryan MacPherson as her young swain Alfredo, and baritone Malcolm MacKenzie as the older Germont. While Dunleavy and MacPherson opt not to go for the high, money notes, their vocal performances are still rich. MacKenzie has a huge old-fashioned blood-and-thunder voice that should take him far.
Miller is also responsible for Dido and Aeneas , which was performed Sunday morning, and which Glimmerglass is calling a concert dramatization because the singers wear their own street clothes. Unfortunately, Ada Smith's set of two high walls separated by a narrow gap means the chorus is squeezed into a little opening, but Miller's touches of modern-day humour - for instance, a hunt scene with backpacks and cell phones, a sorceress and demons in hoodies - compensates. There is also rich interplay between the chorus and the soloists.
As for the singers, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford (Dido) shows off a gorgeous voice of both strength and beauty, baritone David Adam Moore (Aeneas) is suitably manly, and Joélle Harvey (Belinda) has a very pretty and expressive feathery soprano. The standout, though, goes to countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (Sorceress) - his outpouring of high notes is nothing short of miraculous. Conductor Michael Beattie is superb with the nuances of early music.
Hearing Menotti's The Consul live with a big orchestra on Friday night was a revelation. The orchestration and musical effects are stunning, and Glimmerglass music director David Angus pulls out all the dramatic stops.
Director Sam Helfrich loves symbolism, and his collaborators Andrew Lieberman (sets) and Kaye Voyce (costumes) have created an institutional setting of exposed bricks and various period clothes that suit the character of the opera - about a woman living in a police state and struggling to find a visa to join her freedom-fighter husband in exile.
While modernist - this opera was written in 1950 - Menotti still clings to melody, which makes for moving arias and ensembles. The strong cast is led by soprano Melissa Citro (Magda Sorel) and baritone Michael Chioldi (John Sorel). Veteran mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle is superb as Sorel's mother, while good accounts come from mezzo-soprano Leah Wool (Secretary), baritone David Kravitz (Kofner) and tenor John Easterlin (Magician). Young baritone Robert Kerr (Secret Police Agent) is a definite talent in the making.
Glimmerglass Opera continues in Cooperstown, N.Y., until Aug. 25. For more information, visit http://www.glimmerglass.org .