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Friday, August 15, 2014

That Can Sing Both High and Low

State of the Stage: My review of two more operas in this summer’s season at the Glimmerglass Festival.


TWO FISH-OUT-OF-WATER STORIES that nevertheless couldn’t be more dissimilar find a young Japanese woman trying to please her American lover by herself becoming as American as possible–and a starry-eyed composer forced to allow a commedia dell’arte troupe to infiltrate her new opera. Both Madame Butterfly and Ariadne in Naxos were directed by Francesca Zambello, who has shepherded the Glimmerglass Festival into its most successful seasons and yet seems to have a weakness for letting her singers run riot across the stage in at least one production.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San
This year it was Ariadne, a curiosity by Richard Strauss originally written as the finale of a Molière play that librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal had translated, later turned into a full-length piece with the addition of a prologue.

That’s the part that’s troublesome. But let’s look at Butterfly first to see how right it can go. Set designer Michael Yeargen made the little house in which much of the action usually occurs literally little, a model that goes from hand to hand as the opening scene plays out in the American Consulate’s office. Dinyar Vania, as the American officer Pinkerton, has a warm voice that’s not especially rich in its high end, but it blended well with the other principals–Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) and Aleksey Bogdanov as the consul Sharpless–and he created a fully engaging character.

Goro is the matchmaker who brings together the ill-starred lovers, and Ian McEuen’s sang the role nicely but was relentlessly (and distractingly) busy–a contrast to a chorus whose movement was a well-realized canvas of stillness or small gestures.

A big moment is Butterfly’s act two aria “Un bel dì,” which Lee sang so beautifully and with such conviction that it became all the more apparent that the accompaniment itself is fatefully working against her. If the first act seemed to take its time establishing the story, the scene in the second where Sharpless tries to tell Butterfly the truth about her putative husband was effectively relentless–transparently sung, superbly acted. And it set up the end of the act, the haunting “Humming Chorus,” to drag out the tears.

Here’s how well staged this production was: As young Louis McKinny, as Butterfly’s son, interacted with her and her maid, Suzuki (an excellent Kristen Choi), that part of the audience given to ooh-ing over the spectacle of any child on stage was stopped (I could hear it) by the total conviction of the kid’s acting. A big bravo to him.

Would that the Ariadne people could have been encouraged to such restraint! Working against them from the start was Troy Hourie’s set, which, judging from the livestock that trouped down the aisle, is supposed to be a working barn somewhere in the neighborhood. An excellent Young Frankenstein gag notwithstanding, I live near too many working barns to buy that notion. My wife–and we’ll get back to her–didn’t care.

Then Wynn Harmon arrived as the Manager of the Estate, channeling Franklin Pangborn, if Pangborn had been on Benzedrine. Big, stylized gestures have their place if there’s a unity of style, but everyone here was in his or her own show and it ended up only being confusing. By the time Christine Goerke entered as the Prima Donna who would play Ariadne, her own over-the-top antics were lost in the stormy sea of “look at me!”

All of which allowed Rachele Gilmore to triumph as Zerbinetta, keeping her characterization focused and, oh my heavens, what a voice! Her duet with Catherine Martin, as the Composer, was a joy–and thank you for dispensing with the pants-role business and letting the Composer be a woman. It worked.

As my wife ardently observed, the arc that took us from rustic barn to the otherwordly, almost set-free realization of union of Ariadne and Bacchus, was extremely effective. And so I’ll grant her that. Corey Bix, as Bacchus, has rich, ripe voice, but it’s no match for Goerke’s when she cuts loose, so I longed for a better balance. But once the nonsense was abandoned and their story was underway–and the orchestra, conducted by Kathleen Kelly, showed their own mastery of Strauss–it felt as if we truly were meeting the gods. And these days they’re only found in the opera house.

Madame Butterfly, Glimmerglass Festival, July 29
Ariadne in Naxos, Glimmerglass Festival, Aug. 2

Metroland Magazine, 7 August 2014

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