Wednesday, August 20, 2014

More Glimerglass 2014: An American Tragedy

To recap: An American Tragedy premiered back at the Met back in 2005 as the opera world was still reeling from Carl Sagan's Romeo and Juliet. A Volpe-era commission from composer Tobias Picker and librettist Gene Scheer, the Met gave it an impressive launch, with a big Broadway style production (directed by Zambello), and an aughties all-star cast of American singers: Nathan Gunn (in the bathing suit that launched a thousand Arts & Leisure puff pieces), Pat Racette, Susan Graham, and Dolora Zajick. I was into it.

Cut to 9 years later: Zambello has brought a streamlined version of the piece back to Glimmerglass for a welcome second hearing with a strong cast of young singers. On the plus side--there's still a lot of engaging material here, even without the splash of the first production. On the other hand, the limitations are clearer this time around--and perhaps insurmountable in the long run.

The great promise of "AmTrag" is Picker's music. Not sure what label you would put on it--perhaps something like "lyrical minimalism"?--but in any event it does a great job of depicting the dread-filled emotional landscape of the story, while maintaining the capacity for displays of great emotional power by the principals, for instance, Roberta's scorching material in the end of Act I ("Marry me Clyde Marry me Clyde Marry me Clyyyyyyyde"). Set pieces like the church scene, in which Roberta's effort to publicly confront Clyde is woven in with the congregation's hymn, and Clyde's mother's gripping aria that carries the finale further demonstrate Picker's skill. Yet while I was again pleasantly taken with the depth of the music, its hard to ignore that the troubles of the libretto.

It's just all so relentlessly...literal. The cinematic/epic Broadway-style approach to the story spawns an endless procession of discrete little scenes that dutifully spin out the plot, but nothing really happens during any of them. The major revision in this version, the removal of a series of opening expository scenes with a childhood Clyde, seems to be trying to compensate a bit for concerns that the show doles out a lot of plot at the expense of drama, but I fear it's not enough.

The big showpiece arias in the first Act--Clyde's thing about fast cars and Sondra's "New York has Changed Me"--are prime examples of how poor a job this libretto does at finding dramatic incident worthy of the kind thoughtful melodrama Picker/Scheer seem to want to write. Both fall flat, unable to gin up much interest with material that does little to give us more insight into the characters than we've already gathered. If Scheer allowed Clyde a moment to wear his heart a bit more on his sleeve, perhaps reveal to the audience a bit more about his sociopathic lust for ambition that will lead to his later amoral acts, we might be engaged, but instead we get seven minutes of the non-surprising information that this social climber thinks nice cars are good. One emotional punch that did land cleanly was Roberta's heartbreaking material at the beginning of Act II, when she grows increasingly distraught that she has been abandoned by Clyde. Her text here is done as though she is reading letters she has written to Clyde, and in part I think it works better because of the easier marriage between emotional content and declaration that Scheer allows himself for this conceit.

The production, directed by Peter Kazaras, is spare and effective (clearly they blew their wad on that big light up barn map of NY state for Ariadne), though the spartan approach on some things, like the drowning scene, made one fondly remember the clever big budget version from the Met. The three main principles, Christian Bowers (Clyde), Vanessa Isiguen (Roberta), and Cynthia Cook (Sondra), all members of the Glimmerglass Young Artist program, offered a skillful reading of what is surely a difficult score. Isiguen deserves special praise for bringing a compelling sound and notable stamina to that character's punishing scenes. Patricia Schuman, playing Clyde's mother made a solid go at this role, so unforgettably sung by Zajick in the premiere, but it is clearly a tall order for any mezzo without Zajick's unique upper extension, and Schuman had a rough time in her upper register.

Kudos to Zambello and Glimmerglass for revisiting this work, which surely deserved the additional hearing that the Met canceled at some point. While my enthusiasm was certainly more measured this time around, Picker deserves continued support and the show, with its juicy principle roles and Americana source material, ought to be a consideration for American companies looking to produce tested, accessible recent work.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Glimmerglass 2014: Ariadne auf Naxos

Headed to Cooperstown last weekend to catch this year's Glimmerglass productions of "Ariadne auf Naxos" and "An American Tragedy," my first trek to the festival since performances of "Jenufa" and Stephen Hartke's "The Greater Good" way back in 2006.

Ariadne, and more specifically, the glory of Christine Goerke fresh off her breakout Met season, was our real reason for attending, and while Goerke didn't disappoint, the production made sure you had to wade through a lot of dreck for the pleasure. As you may have gathered elsewhere, this production, helmed by festival head Francesca Zambello, presents the entirety of the Prologue, as well as the commedia dell'arte portions of the Opera, in one of those zany English "adaptations" that try to "connect" by inserting modern local references and a bunch of punchline driven humor. 

Now, I'm not uniformly opposed to this sort of thing--a liberal English adaptation can be a nice way to occasionally present opera for children and/or newcomers, salvage otherwise hopelessly dated/uninteresting material (Fledermaus), or just have a little fun with a property that has assumed untouchable warhorse status (Zauberflote). But Ariadne? Hugo von Hoffmansthal hasn't even been in his grave for 100 years and its already cool to just mess around with his very careful, deliberate work as you see fit? Especially when its still a fair bet that a large majority of audience members at any given show are seeing the work for the first time? I'm not trying to be the purity police here, but it felt very, very wrong.

But good taste wasn't the only casualty here. Ariadne's virtuoso vocal writing is very carefully married to its German text, and forcing the singers to shoehorn a clumsy English libretto into Strauss' soaring lines resulted in a jumbled mess musically. Catherine Martin seemed to have the right stuff for a solid Komponist, but it was more or less impossible to judge, as the tin-eared adaptation robbed her Act I finale of any of its natural momentum. Martin did her best to scavenge what she could from the text, but where the finale should send you off to intermission swooning with anticipation for Act II, we were left bitterly nursing our discontent. If not quite as big a trainwreck, the crueler loss was "Großmächtige Prinzessin," or, as it will now forever be known in my head, "Don't THINK Me Disrespectful..." (!). The chances that a summer festival like Glimmerglass is going to serve up a great Zerbinetta are pretty slim, which is fine--Rachele Gilmore ably took on all of the parts challenges and supported it with a lively stage presence. But again, I'm loath to judge anyone wrestling with the thornier problem of how to make endless bars of devilish coloratura work while singing the word "surrender."

And its even more of a shame because this perfectly serviceable production would have been fine otherwise. Sure, the overall concept (wealthiest man in Vienna's house = barn in upstate NY, har, har) is a tad cutesy and indulgent, but hey, its August--they are allowed. Zambello has concocted a raft of effective, frenzied stage business nicely suiting the prologue, and the Opera hits all the right notes with moments of lyrical beauty as well as great jokes in the troupe-Diva interactions. Another choice--to have the composer read as a woman wearing trousers rather than a woman in a trouser role--is a great option for modern dress productions and should be more routine.

What else? Bacchus (Corey Bix) had a robust but not terribly pleasant sound (sort of a curdled thing going on), but to his credit he maintained stamina and sailed through the bits where prettier Bacchusses often run aground. The Glimmerglass orchestra, which sounded lovely the following afternoon, was rough throughout Ariadne for some reason. Poor coordination in the strings, frequent misfires in the horns and an overall thin squeezebox sort of effect added to the musical problems onstage. The first half or so of the Prologue also seemed to plod dreadfully, though I'm not sure if that should be chalked up to the conducting (by Kathleen Kelly) or discomfort with the unfamiliar timing required by the new book.

OK, after throwing all that shade, it is worth remembering why we came. La Goerke was in marvellous, thrilling voice for the Diva--the kind of sound that finds you in your bad place, perhaps brooding over poor directorial choices, plucks you out of the muck, sits you up, and makes you forget all your misgivings. In the little Glimmerglass barn her voice was vast, hard to contain, stomach butterflying. Moreover, this Ariadne was a great opportunity to appreciate what a natural stage creature she is--she carried a significant portion of the comedy in the Opera, delivering hearty laughs with skillful execution of her assigned funny business (which this show really needs to balance all the faux laughs that come out of the extended troupe stuff).

Next up, AmTrag...