You may have noticed that I was away from the microphone the last week of July. Part of it was spent in Cooperstown, NY, at the Glimmerglass Festival. On the shore of Lake Otsego (given the name Glimmerglass in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper) there is a splendid little opera house with a bit under a thousand seats, where four different productions rotate in repertory each summer. There are also special events, like the concerts this week by Stephanie Blythe and next week by artist-in-residence Jay Hunter Morris, master classes taught by the likes of Christine Goerke (last Sunday) and Leontyne Price (a couple of years ago). In the last several years Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has given a number of talks about her passion for opera and the law. And the title of this blog comes from a comment made by the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim in an interview last week with Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard. It refers to Sondheim’s comments about why he wrote Sweeney Todd: to scare the audience.
The opening question was whether Sweeney is an opera or a musical. Despite the operatic voices and the full orchestra in this production, Sondheim is adamant that it’s the latter. But he admits to some blurred lines between the forms. And he praised current composers like Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame), who understand the theatricality of storytelling much more than many others do these days. He also revealed that he is currently at work on a new piece based on two films by Luis Buñuel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel. It turns out that Thomas Adès has just premiered a new opera based on the latter film, but Sondheim noted that his would be a mixture of the two stories. He also noted that revivals of some of his other musicals are in the works.
The Glimmerglass production of Sweeney Todd was not quite as scary for the audience as some others I have attended, but Greer Grimsley made an excellent barber and the Young Artist who went out as a youngster covering Mrs. Lovett may not quite have “come back as a star” but she acquitted herself admirably, as did the rest of the Young Artists who made up most of the cast. The Young Artist program at Glimmerglass is producing some fine young talent who sometimes outshine the stars in their midst. It is always a pleasure to un-amplified voices in the classic musicals the Glimmerglass Festival brings to its stage.
Those stars included Jay Hunter Morris as Judge Danforth, Brian Mulligan as John Proctor and Jamie Barton as Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller’s play, with music by Robert Ward. Young Artist Ariana Wehr was outstanding as Abigail Williams. The opera has much the same power as the original play. In a preview talk Canadian conductor Nicole Paiement echoed Stephen Sondheim’s talk of the composers’ use of leitmotif, and of key signatures. She mentioned that the Proctors are always singing in different keys until at the end they understand each other and finally sing in the same key.
Another seldom-performed treasure was The Thieving Magpie, Rossini’s tale of a servant girl facing capital punishment after being accused of stealing silverware. It is, of course the title character who is responsible. As embodied by dancer Meg Gillintine, this bird is one of the real delights of the season. Her birdlike movements are echoed by other characters, especially the judge and jury who convict Ninetta (Rachele Gilmore), their costumes adorned with feathers as are those of several other cast members. The set was also very imaginative, taking on many colors as the lights followed the moods of the story.
Finally on the summer’s program was one opera which is definitely not a rarity, La bohème. This, too, had a highly imaginative set, a simple frame for the garret, which flew out quickly, leaving room for signs suggesting the streets of Paris, so the Cafe Momus scene could follow the opening act without pause, making it as festive a staging as possible. Once again the Young Artists playing Colline, Schaunard and especially Vanessa Becerra’s Musetta shone.
There are still three weeks to catch the 2016 season at Glimmerglass, and nearly a year to plan for the 2017 season. If you can get there this summer, you shouldn’t miss the nearby Fenimore Art Museum which each year mounts exhibitions relating to the operas onstage. This year the art of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec helps set the scene for La bohème. In addition, there are exhibits of early photos of Ansel Adams, lithographs by James McNeill Whistler, and letters which were exchanged between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and their associates in the weeks prior to their fateful duel.
And whether you get to Cooperstown or not, you can hear this year’s Glimmerglass productions, which will be broadcast on New England Public Radio October 29 through November 12. You can also attend an opera closer to home this month. The Berkshire Opera Festival presents its inaugural production, Madama Butterfly August 27, 30 and September 2.