Glimmerglass at Cooperstown: Home Runs

Alice Busch Opera House
(photo: Glimmerglass Festival)

The contrast between the comic opera The Barber of Seville and the sobering opera Silent Night, both presented this past weekend as part of this year's season of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival, could not have been more pronounced. Yet it was a stunning demonstration of how each of these profoundly disparate operas may serve as a reminder of how the medium of opera can inspire in so many different ways, especially in the hands of brilliant directors. Though Cooperstown may perhaps be more famous for its Baseball Hall of Fame one could argue that it is equally renowned, at least among music lovers, for its annual Opera festival, since its founding in 1975. This year is no exception.

The Cast of "The Barber of Seville"
(photo: Karli Cadel)

In the more familiar work, with its lively music by Gioachino Rossini and hysterical libretto by Cesare Sterbini, this version of Barber was imagination on speed, a virtually flawless romp with a plethora of truly funny comic touches, a non-stop cornucopia of visual treats. The direction, by the company's Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello, was nothing less than astounding. If you think you've seen every possible production of this war horse, think again. It's rare that a much beloved work receives such a unified and original approach. This is reflected by the Costume Designer Lynly Saunders, Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel, Choreography by Olivia Barbieri, and perhaps especially Scenic Designer John Conklin (who gives a whole new depth to the term “two-dimension” (not to be revealed here). But the old saying correctly admonishes that you can't hum the scenery; it remained for the orchestra (under the magical touch of Conductor Joseph Colaneri) and cast to solidify all the stage business with musical and vocal precision. For all its apparent simplicity and ease, this is a challenging piece to perform, and the musicians both in the pit and on the stage didn't fail to deliver.

Joshua Hopkins as Figaro in "The Barber of Seville"
(photo: Glimmerglass Opera)
The story is well-known enough to dispense with a synopsis, other than to note that it all revolves around the character of Rosina (here superbly played and sung by Emily D'Angelo), the almost universal object of affection of virtually everyone on stage, who is the ward of Dr. Bartolo (a true gem both in his acting and singing, Dale Travis). Count Almaviva (the wonderful David Walton), aided by Figaro (the hysterically comic Joshua Hopkins), is another suitor. The rest of the cast include Rosina's music teacher Basilio (the able Timothy Bruno), the maid Berta (Alexandria Shiner, with a lovely voice even in this relatively minor role), and the characters of Fiorello (Ben Schaefer), an Officer (Maxwell Levy) and Figaro's Assistant (Rock Lasky). And there's not a clinker in the bunch. One almost-spoiler: keep a lookout for how one character (the maid Berta) gives a clever new meaning to the term “disappearing into the scenery”.

The Cast of "Silent Night"
(photo: Glimmerglass Opera)

There's no likelihood of anyone's disappearing into the scenery in the company's compelling production of Silent Night. The stark yet versatile style visually captures one's attention from the first moments of this startling contemporary work, complemented by yet another example of an ingenious director (Tomer Zvulun). Based on a film by the same name, the operatic version was first performed in 2011. Its Composer Kevin Puts won the Pulitzer Prize for this, his debut opera; the Libretto by Mark Campbell (who impressed last season in Boston Lyric Opera's production of his Mr. Burke and Mr. Hare) is his third Pulitzer. It's easy to hear why, especially as led by Conductor Nicole Paiement. The music is lovely, melodic, and complex, and the story is enthralling.

There are three stories, actually, taking place on a World War I Belgian battlefield on Christmas morning (in 1914): two famed German opera stars, also lovers (Arnold Livingston Geis as Sprink and Mary Evelyn Hangley as Anna), first separated, reunite for a command performance at a German officer's chalet nearby; the two Scottish Dale brothers, Jonathan (Christian Sanders) and William (Maxwell Levy), and their local parish priest (Wm. Clay Thompson), all enlist; and French Lieutenant Audebert (Michael Miller) also enlists though his wife is pregnant, and is given coffee by his aide-de-camp Ponchel (Conor McDonald). There ensues a brief truce, first as a respite for the holiday, then extended in order to bury the dead. Peace reigns ever so briefly, inevitably, as war must be resumed.

The Cast of "Silent Night"
(photo: Glimmerglass Opera)

Or must it? Consider Audebert's aria “j'ai perdu ta photo”:
I lost your photo...
I don't need a photo
To see you.
I close my eyes
And you are there...
I will finish this tomorrow.

Or, equally poignant, consider Anna's aria “Irgendwo, irgendwann”:
And then in your grave.
Our story will end
Like all the others.
Unless we do something about it.
We must do something about it.
I will find a way.

This version is blessed with a cast of astonishingly terrific singer/actors, especially those singled out by name above, and a creative team that has captured war in its most heartrending aspects, with lovers who are divided, brothers who are separated in the extreme sense, and an absurd death of a unfortunate soldier in the wrong place in the wrong time in the wrong uniform. A word about those uniforms: though they are historically accurate, Costume Designer Victoria Tzykun has noted that she designs not costumes but characters. The scenery by Erhard Rom is an inspired choice to illustrate the triple nature of the conflict, and the Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel echoes this approach.

In the end, with obvious resonance for the irrational times we live in, there are no winners, only losers, except one; war is the sole winner.


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