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.
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.
Marshall Pynkoski’s direction of Lully’s Armide at Glimmerglass was a beautiful and unpretentious thing. It was also limited by the demands of a repertory opera house. The production trod a middle ground stylistically, using by necessity young conservatory-trained singers, the best that we have. This made for heavy going in the choral sections. The orchestral playing as well began with some detail and point, but changed slowly into a kind of general approximation of what standard Baroque practice is thought to be. Orchestral texture in this style is of the greatest importance, especially the continuo group. I would be looking for much more variety and also more stillness where the silences carry the words forward.
The great scandal surrounding the Met’s 2010 production of Tosca seemed to be a hyperbolic reaction to the palpably conflicting musical and psychological currents of Puccini’s darkest opera. Joseph Kerman’s famous dismissal of it as a “shabby little shocker” is at least one-third correct: shocking it is. Yet, swathing those nasty bits with the sounds and imagery of the Catholic liturgy – Puccini’s innovative use of Latin plainchant, modal counterpoint, carillons and chimes, vaulted church interiors, ritratti della Madonna, and the spectacle of worship – is the primary way Puccini projects a creepy sense of moral and psychological irony and repression throughout.
Greeting guests were James Barton, a Trustee of the Board of Glimmerglass, and Michael MacLeod, General and Artistic Director. MacLeod has, in five years of his term, maintained an enviably high artistic level of production, while at the same time bringing a much needed marketing facelift. For example, program books, brochures, mailings, and the Website have undergone extensive and attractive redesign.
One doesn’t often get the chance to see a fully-staged production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Cold War opera The Consul, a great hit after its debut in 1950. This is an opera of inaction, of waiting. John Sorel (baritone Michael Chioldi) comes home wounded from a meeting of dissidents. He must flee the country. He tells his wife Magda (Melissa Citro) that she must go to the Consulate for a visa so that she, their child, and his mother can join him in exile. At the Consulate, Magda joins a crew of hopeful, then hopeless, supplicants.
Purcell’s perennial favorite Dido and Aeneas often receives stately, if not opulent productions, emphasizing the work’s elevated and tragic elements. Jonathan Miller takes a very different tack in this concert staging for Glimmerglass Opera’s 35th season. Severe gray walls suggest an almost institutional setting, and the youthful cast (even the principals are on the young side), casually dressed, look like something out of a Gap commercial. Color is used sparingly. This counterintuitive approach highlights the opera’s intense, hurtling emotions. The Queen Dido (silken-voiced mezzo Tamara Mumford), suffering unspoken love, is watched carefully by her courtiers, led by the lady-in-waiting Belinda (Joélle Harvey). Her secret revealed, they promptly egg her on to pursue the hero Aeneas. Cupid, they assure her, is “ever gentle, ever smiling.” What could go wrong?