The late Donizetti masterpiece, L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais) is a rarity indeed, even in Europe. Four years after the first performance, l’assedio was not performed again until 1990. One hundred and eighty-one years after its premiere in 1836, this Glimmerglass production marked the American premiere. During its composition, Donizetti had struggled with it and bent operatic conventions to seek performances in Paris. Ultimately, the opera was a tactical failure and Donizetti wound up with two versions, with an unequal number of acts. In preparation for this production, Francesca Zambello and Joseph Colaneri worked on a new performing edition that tightened loose ends and yielded a satisfactory, if not compelling, conclusion. Some ballet music was lost in the cuts, but dance (to curry favor with French opera goers) would be an awkward addition to the nobility and gravity of the plot. In the Zambello/Colaneri conclusion, the final exculpation of six sacrificial hostages was emotionally and musically heartrending.
Lucking into one of the first few nice days of a late spring, I attended the annual Glimmerglass Festival kickoff, hosted at Midwood, the secluded Germantown home of philanthropist Joan K. Davidson. This beautiful Sunday afternoon offered the enticements of the summer opera fare in Cooperstown along with hors d’oeuvres and wine. Francesca Zambello, the transformational Artistic & General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, invited several young artists, veteran performers, and composers to further the cause.
Director Francesca Zambello’s Ariadne in Naxos at Glimmerglass was a saucy and well-thought out production of one of Richard Strauss’s most difficult operas. Just shoe-horning the English translation into Strauss’s very specifically shaped German lines was a remarkable accomplishment. The rustic home-spun setting of the Prologue worked remarkably well as an analogue to the simply staged apotheosis. At first I thought that it wouldn’t, but it did.
When I interviewed Francesca Zambello in 2011 she had just been named General and Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival. Under her predecessor’s tenure, each opera season had a unifying “theme.” Ms. Zambello quickly swore off such yearly festival themes as trite convention. Yet, in 2012, as reported in this journal, one clearly felt the bristling fervency of social activism in every aspect of production. That season was topped off with a provocative interview with Ruth Bader Ginsberg to a packed audience in her thrall at the Otesaga Hotel. There were probably more law professors there that day than music lovers. Her special appearance and the ethical themes woven into each opera production, made for a startling and refreshing season. Aida, Music Man, Armide and most memorably, Lost in the Stars, were narratives, each quite unique, on the ethics of outworn societal patterns in the face of political, moral or economic change.
At first, music and baseball might seem to have little in common. But don’t tell that to sports diehards and opera buffs in upper New York State. At least not in July and August, when a multitudinous group of fans from across the US converge at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. This year’s annual induction ceremonies were held July 20–23. Meanwhile, just a few miles down the road, devotees of vocal aspirants flocked to the Glimmerglass Opera to hear and see them “play ball.”
Should Art be merely an escape or refuge from the realities of our difficult times? In the 1940s, the debate heated and divided artists, musicians and scholars. In Wallace Stevens’s essay “The Noble Rider and The Sound of Words,” the twain are resolved in the idea that art, even “abstract” art can assume the role of social commentary only through innate and ineffable transformations of reality rather than by any explicit agenda dogmatically imposed by the creator. Great art could not be manhandled ideologically. How this solution might apply to opera of the past becomes the task of the director and musicians in balancing the surprisingly diverse elements of the music’s intent, the libretto’s intent, the historical context, and, yes, the composer’s objectives, if any. It is not surprising that Stevens regarded that an artistic creation had its own life apart from the creator’s wishes. Thus, we have the license for interpretation and deconstruction that has become the hallmark of Regietheater in our times.
When any object is taken apart and reformed, does its substance remain what it was in the beginning? Nothung, Siegmund and Siegfried’s magical sword, proves stronger for having been shattered and forged anew. Does the Rhinegold itself acquire new properties through being the fatal, world-dominating ring, or when the Rhinemaidens receive it at the end of Götterdämmerung, has it the same intrinsic properties it did when Alberich stole it “twenty hours ago,” as Anna Russell clocked it?
Director Francesca Zambello, in her Americanized Ring Cycle, three-quarters of which were co-produced by Washington Opera, forged something new and wondrous from Wagner’s tremendous and often toxic masterwork. Not every bit of Wagner’s original symbolism reintegrates seamlessly into the newly fashioned work, and occasional cognitive dissonance results. Frankly, Wagner’s own sprawling cosmology—one part German myth, one part creative genius, one part tortured personal psychology—leaves many questions unanswered and any number of unresolved contradictions and loose ends. In San Francisco, the director and her designer colleagues shaped a remarkable production that transcended its occasional awkward moments and that touched the heart in ways I’ve never known this uniquely ambitious epic work to do before. The striking and varied stage pictures are the work of Michael Yeargan, the always illuminating costumes are by Catherine Zuber, the colorful, refreshing, and often exquisite lighting is by Mark McCullough. The many projections, used as backdrops and show curtain, were created by Jan Hartley. I didn’t find every element equally successful, but I left the theatre believing that this production had the mystical power to make the world a better place. The staging is that good.
Francesca Zambello’s first season as Artistic Director of Glimmerglass will unfold very soon. Indeed, much in Cooperstown will be transformed by her vision, if not her brand of exciting and eclectic taste. At a gathering in Millbrook, New York, Ms. Zambello, undaunted by a leg cast and crutches from a fall earlier this year, pitched the lineup, and gave a clear and unequivocal justification for the launch of the newly dubbed “Glimmerglass Festival.” Ms. Zambello, who has an infectious sort of down-to-earth enthusiasm, is determined to make Glimmerglass a major draw. No longer merely a season of repertory operas clustered around weekends, the Festival will strive for wider audience appeal, and more lectures and recitals. Promoting Lake Otsego as a destination, it is hoped the rural beauty of the area will attract NYC visitors for long weekend stays.