The Glimmerglass Opera staging was outstanding in all aspects of production: the singing was commanding, costumes were lavish, the scenery was sumptuously displayed and changed smoothly from scene to scene with appropriate lighting.
Glimmerglass Festival, 2012. At Cooperstown, New York, through August 25.
By Anthony J. Palmer
An exclamation of surprise broke from the lips of Deerslayer . . . when on reaching the lake, he beheld the view that unexpectedly met his gaze. On a level with the point lay a broad sheet of water, so placid and limpid that it resembled a bed of the pure mountain atmosphere, compressed into a setting of hills and woods.
(The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper)
Thank you James Fenimore Cooper for your astute and artful description of Otsego Lake in upper New York State that you called Glimmerglass in the Leatherstocking Tales. I had heard of Glimmerglass Opera several years ago but only recently decided to explore. Also, my wife and I had never been to upstate New York and found it quite beautiful, full of silos on extensive farm acreage, rolling hills, vibrant green with spring and summer’s growth, and quiet roads of few vehicles.
A bit of net surfing and we were making reservations to attend Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars and Jean Baptiste Lully’s Armide. This is as much an informal travelogue than a music review, but the essay would not be complete without some commentary on the music.
We left on a Saturday morning from the greater Boston area with the expectation of rain, and indeed it rained, all the way to New York and Springfield, where the Glimmerglass Festival is located on the north end of Otsego Lake approximately 65 miles west of Albany. For the sports-minded, Cooperstown lies on the south end of the lake, where the Baseball Hall of Fame and Doubleday Field are located. The 25th year of Glimmerglass featured several performances of the Weill and Lully operas as well as Verdi’s Aida and Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, in addition to numerous events related to all four productions.
Lost in the Stars is based on Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Payton, with the opera libretto by Maxwell Anderson, a frequent collaborator with Weill. Introduced on Broadway on October 30, 1949, the work played for 281 performances, holding its own against South Pacific. Unusual for the time, as with Porgy and Bess, all the leads were African-Americans. The Glimmerglass production was a collaboration with the Cape Town Opera, producing a highly successful joint venture.
We arrived at our motel late afternoon and found our room with a deck overlooking the lake, hoping that the rain would subside for the evening. Gaia did not comply. Somewhat damp, we joined hundreds of opera lovers for the evening performance. The dramatically and musically strong presentation erased memories of the damp because it demanded focus on the superb acting and singing. The action took place on a bare stage with a crate or two and other paraphernalia simulating the various settings.
Lost in the Stars is a powerful vehicle whose lead character, Stephen Kumalo (Eric Owens), a minister, deals with his son’s honesty in answering charges of murder, leading to a conviction and death by hanging. Absolom, the son (Mukudupanye Senaoana), wayward through his teens, now accepts his father’s dictum to be honest in his dealings with the world. Herein lies the conflict: lying violates his upbringing but saves his life. Truth telling leads to death. As the narrator, The Leader, played by Sean Panikkar, made use of a strong tenor voice to introduce the play and carry the story through successfully to its conclusion. Although sung in English, the supertitles were extremely helpful in following the story, those with Biblical recall will remember the story of Absalom, the third son of David the King, or perhaps the William Billings setting of the brief text:
“David the king was grieved and moved; He went to his chamber, his chamber and wept,
And as he went, he wept and said, “Oh my son! Oh my son! Would to God I had died!
Would to God I had died for thee! Oh Absalom, my son, my son!”
This is obviously more than a simple coincidence in the Anderson libretto.
We were fearful of another day of rain as the next morning opened with some drizzle in the breakfast hours and one massive downpour on the way back to the room. It soon let up and the view of the lake was spectacular, just as Cooper described it 150 years earlier. Facing east and the sunrise, the reflection of the sun was blinding, but with semi-closed eyelids, we were able to make out its dazzling reflection on the placid surface of quiet water. We looked forward to the matinee performance believing that the production would be as first-rate as the previous evening’s staging.
Armide, considered by contemporary critics Lully’s masterpiece, was first performed on February 15, 1686, in the presence of the Grand Dauphin, although Louis XIV, his father, did not attend. Lully was born in Italy but spent most of his life in the French capital in the service of Louis XIV. There he adapted to the French style, which relied heavily on the presence of ballet in the operas of his day. The former was extensively and appropriately exhibited in this production. Phillippe Quinault composed the libretto, basing it on Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered). Tasso, incidentally, was a favorite poet of Monteverdi and his contemporaries, who set many of the poet’s verses to music.
Contemporary Western views of Islam echo the attitudes in this seventeenth-century opera: Muslims are to be feared. In Armide, the lead character is an enchantress who captures her enemy, Renaud—the Christian knight and one of the leaders of the First Crusade—through her magic spells. She tries to stab him but succumbs to his charismaric presence, falling in love. She is angered that Renaud responds only because of the spell placed upon him. Disappointed in this turn of events, Armide calls the God of Hate to restore her enmity, but the deity fails—her love is too strong. Renaud is rescued from her clutches by two companions, leaving Armide despairing and helpless.
The Glimmerglass staging was outstanding in all aspects of opera production: the singing was commanding, costumes were lavish, the scenery was sumptuously displayed and changed smoothly from scene to scene with appropriate lighting, and the orchestra played in true Baroque style. The dance aspects of Armide were superbly choreographed.
Singing was a major contribution to the production’s success. Peggy Kriha Dye was fluid, vocally gripping, and movingly dramatic as Armide. Her two companions, Mirelle Aselin and Meghan Lindsay, were remarkable in their vocal and acting abilities. Colin Ainsworth was forceful and effective as Renaud. Marshall Pynkoski directed the production with great insight, integrating the choreography of Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg effectively. The chorus, hardly visible singing from the balcony, played their key role in commenting on events with vital and well-balanced tone quality. David Fallis kept the orchestra tightly controlled, superbly supporting the action and vocalists. Attention to style was obvious, what with two theorbos and baroque cello in the pit.
Cooperstown, some nine miles south of the theater complex, is more concerned with baseball than opera: most of its stores on the main thoroughfare are dedicated to the sport. Halfway between the two points lies Otesaga, a beautiful resort hotel accompanied by the attractive Leatherstocking golf course. This part of New York is beautiful during the summer, with vast areas of rolling green and forests of evergreen and deciduous growth. US 20 crosses the territory from Albany to the west and can actually be taken from the Boston area all the way west—in fact, as far as the Oregon coast.
Some of these towns have attractive hotels from previous periods of abundance, but they still maintain, like an aging beauty, obvious references to an earlier elegance. We decided to have dinner at the American Hotel in Sharon Springs, a 25-minute drive back east just off highway 20. The service and food were as fine as any in the larger cities; I enjoyed a delicious vegetarian entrée, not easily found in Boston upscale restaurants. My wife’s halibut entrée with lobster topping was every bit as good as found anywhere.
The purpose of our trip, beyond the interest in opera, was to get a different perspective, another view of life outside our urban enclave. New England furnishes many such opportunities to leave the city for smaller, more compact and rural communities. Within two or more hours drive, one can experience different attitudes, other ways of thinking about life and the world. We are looking forward to next summer. For Wagner fans, The Flying Dutchman is on the menu. For Broadway aficionados, Camelot will play for five weeks.