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Monday, July 19, 2021

Opera on the Grass, At Last

WHILE SOME MUSIC VENUES are opening to audiences, opera – especially as presented by an institution like The Glimmerglass Festival – needs to plan ahead. Way ahead. They lost a year, of course, as did we all, but they spent it planning a careful return to live programming that could take advantage of the Festival’s beautiful grounds.

Eric Owens and Lisa Marie Rogali
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

And as music by Mozart filled the air, as a dignified and friendly Sarastro settled into a fancy chair, we were ushered into a new Glimmerglass era. “Glimmerglass on the Grass,” in fact, featuring a season presented on a specially built outdoor stage, with socially distanced seating on the facing lawn.

An ever-changing forecast was borne out by the mix of sun and clouds that greeted the 11 AM “Magic Flute” performance last Saturday, but it was a good backdrop for a fast-moving production that came with its own plentiful thunder. Glimmerglass resident artist Eric Owens – who has been a great success in productions from several previous seasons here – sang and spoke the role of Sarastro, also offering narration that helped trim the piece down to the 90-minute, intermission-free length that characterizes all of this summer’s productions.

Joseph Colaneri conducted the orchestra from within the theater, a little distance away, so the music emerged through good-sounding speakers (and the conductor could be seen by the cast on strategically placed monitors). You know the part of the overture that sounds as if it’s the finish? There’s where it did finish in this version, a portent of trimmings to follow.

Peter J. Davison’s set design complements the lawn, being a quasi-rustic wooden rectangle that sits at a rake with steps at the front and back, giving a large expanse of playing area. Design features are a spare forest of tall tree trunks and several strings of light bulbs that add an illusion of a busy sky.

Puppets and flags enhanced the action; thus, the monster that terrorizes Tamino at the top of the show floated in on sticks, but in a menacing enough way that you quickly forgot the sticks were there. Costumes, by Christelle Matou, and lights, by Mark McCullough, also worked to create a simple but stylized look to the show.

Except for Owens, all of the singers in this production are company Young Artists, each of whom made clear the high level of talent thus employed. Aaron Crouch, as Tamino, had the right mix of terrific voice and youthful bravado that makes his mission credible. Papageno, the bumbling birdcatcher, had a charismatic interpreter in Michael Pandolfo.

Spencer Hamlin, Michael Pandolfo,
and Helen Zhibing Huang
Photo: Carli Kadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
When you get down to it, “The Magic Flute” isn’t a story about good and evil as much as it’s a custody battle between parents who have armies instead of attorneys to back them up. Giving Sarastro the narrator’s chair humanizes an otherwise forbidding-seeming character, but, let’s face it, The Queen of the Night, his ex, is more outrageously villainous and thus more appealing. She almost fools us, at first, into thinking she’s the reasonable spouse, and then she goes into the first of her coloratura routines and we know that she’s nuts. Soprano Emily Misch gave the Queen the right amount of appealing craziness, and, although she was a little unsteady with the first of the hell-bent-for-leather sequences, by the time she took on the more famous aria in what would have been Act Two, she was completely in control of her instrument.

Likewise our Pamina, the object of Tamino’s quest. She doesn’t get to be much except arm-candy, but Helen Zhibing Huang gave her a great voice and personality. Pamina’s foil is the cunning Monostatos, another steal-the-show character well sung and acted by Spencer Hamlin.

One of the conceits of this production was to combine the Three Ladies with the Three Boys, which at least gave Victoria Lawal, Ariana Warren, and Maire Therese Carmack more character arc as we followed the trio from Queen’s henchwomen to Sarastro’s angels.

Director NJ Agwuna kept everything moving deftly, taking advantage of the many playing areas, capturing the sense of child-world wonder that makes this such a popular opera. What wasn’t available to work with was a decent libretto.

I’m all for rendering a piece like this into the language that prevails in its performance venue, but it has to honor the original text. This was an amateurish attempt rendered by resident librettist Kelley Rourke, who has yet to learn how to craft a rhyme and work with heightened language. Yes, the lyrics should rhyme. The do in the original. It’s the convention for a work like this. “Engage him” and “awaken” don’t rhyme. Neither do “beast” and “unleashed,” or “outcome” and “won.” They don’t even come close to Dickensonian slant rhymes. And those were just in the first five minutes.

Would-be poets who don’t know the craft often use awkward phrasings to stick a rhyme at the end of a line; here, there were awkward phrases without even the satisfaction of a proper rhyme. And the lyrics too often were mired in self-reflection, thus missing out on the imagery found in the original text. This is an embarrassment to a company that otherwise practices the highest standards of production and performance values.

We took advantage of a two-performance day to return for “To the World,” a collection of musical moments from favorite shows. And I have to wonder: did Rourke take in none of the stellar lyrics making up this assortment? With the work of Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Herman, Alan Jay Lerner, Oscar Hammerstein, and, especially, Cole Porter on tap, we had one song after another that presented complicated characters and told complete stories with perfectly crafted lyrics that rhymed with effortless precision. There’s an “ahh” moment when that excellent rhyme hits home. When it doesn’t, I feel a physical pain.

On to the show, headlined by resident artists William Burden, Isabel Leonard and guest artists
Michael Mayes and Alexandria Shiner, with able assistance from many of the Young Artists, including some returnees from the “Magic Flute” cast.

It started, energetically enough, with the “Candide” overture, conducted (again, out of sight) by James Lowe, and continued with another Bernstein piece, with the opening number from “On the Town.” That’s where three sailors – Aaron Crouch, Kameron Lopreore, and Armando Contreras – try to decide how they’ll spend their 24 hours in New York City. From there it was a different kind of journey as Burden started us off in “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Herman’s “Hello Dolly,” assisted by Shiner and others.

Nothing too fancy was attempted in the staging and choreography: just enough to keep the number moving and thus do justice to the song. And it was endearing to see it all play out on the “Magic Flute” set.

Michael Mayes gave us on of the big “Kiss Me, Kate” solos: “Where is the Life That Late I Led?” And he knew just how to bend a note or twist a syllable for maximum comic effect. We stayed in Italy for a contrasting view of love, the wistful, somewhat angry title song from Adam Guettel’s “The Light in the Piazza” gorgeously rendered by Helen Zhibing Huang.

Mayes also knocked it out of the park with “Tevye’s Dream” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” a piece that needs a strong personality and voice to match. Alexandria Shiner, as Fruma-Sarah, was equally compelling, with nice ensemble work by Lisa Marie Rogali, Ariana Warren, and Ron Dukes.

Two selections from “The Sound of Music” reminded us of the show that would have been part of last summer’s cancelled season, with Burden offering an affecting “Edelweiss” and Shiner leading the ensemble in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”

When you’re faced with a song like “Maybe This Time,” from the film version of “Cabaret,” you’ve got a formidable shadow looming over you. Isabel Leonard made the wise choice to go in her own direction, shucking the Minelli mantle in order to display a different color of heartbroken optimism.

Speaking of formidable shadows, the sky darkened more than expected as Burden and Leonard explored the simple joy of Lerner and Loewe’s “Almost like Being in Love,” and, as Aaron Crouch sang the portentous “Corner of the Sky,” the sky began to open in this corner. With a threat of lightning in the vicinity, the rest of the performance was cancelled. We gotten about three-quarters of the way through, which meant our appetites were whetted even as the wet came down. Yes, I miss the intimacy of non-amplified performances in the theater nearby, but I feel a lot safer right now on the socially distanced lawn, watching fine performers return us to live theater.

The Magic Flute
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder
Directed by NJ Agwuna
Conducted by Joseph Colaneri
Glimmerglass on the Grass, July 17

To the World
“(A) journey around the globe through popular musical theater hits.”
Directed by Eric Sean Fogel
Conducted by James Lowe
Glimmerglass on the Grass, July 17


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