The simple joys of Glimmerglass

Photo by Brenda Tremblay. Embedded photos: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

I’ve just returned from Cooperstown, where green hills cradle Otsego Lake and humans wear golf shirts and sneakers to the opera.  You'd love the ambience.  It’s beautiful.   The Glimmerglass Festival site spreads out from the barn-like Alice Busch Opera Theater and offers five productions this summer, including three operas (four, really, which I’ll explain in a moment) and a great American musical, Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot.  In general, everything was very good, more than a few moments were transcendent, and a few made me squirm. 

The first show I saw was a double bill pairing an 18th century jewel with David Lang’s Pulitzer prize-winning 2008 concert work, The Little Match Girl Passion.  In both pieces, singers lament the death of an innocent.  In Pergolesi’s 1736 sacred masterpiece Stabat Mater, Mary, the mother of Jesus, watches her son suffer and die.  Singers Anthony Roth Costanzo and Nadine Sierra are well-matched, florid and sublime; the orchestra played with subtle expression, and the music is mirrored in fluid, athletic dancing from eight company members directed and choreographed by Jessica Lang.  With two heavy beams and a silky cloth, set designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg shifts the mood from oppressive darkness to shimmering light.   I think I mentioned that the singing was gorgeous, right?

Photo: Jamie Kraus/The Glimmerglass Festival.

After intermission, children emerged, intoning an introductory piece written especially for Glimmerglass by composer David Lang. The Little Match Girl Passion retells Hans Christian Andersen’s story of a poor, abused girl forced into the streets at Christmastime to sell matches.  She fails, lights the matches to warm herself, and freezes to death after a series of ecstatic visions.  The music comes in waves of sound (which the adult vocalists told me was easy to learn and nearly impossible to memorize.) I must say it was discordant to hear kids singing “When we were children” as though youth and hope is past.  The bright, talented young actors, all local to the Cooperstown area, were uncomfortably exposed, without accompaniment.  But super-hero conductor David Moody held it together, drawing fierce and opulent performances from soprano Lisa Williamson and mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer.  Tenor Michael Porter and bass Christian Zaremba were equally strong, and all the adults played percussion instruments, too.  The Little Match Girl Passion is unrelentingly sad, and in my opinion, the anxiety created by slight insecurity in children's chorus detracted from the power of the music. (By the way, David Lang’s newest choral piece is reportedly even more exposed and intimate to the point of being inaudible.)

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The next day I saw what might be described as a Marvel Comics ™ version of Verdi’s early opera King for a Day, with the action literally outlined in a giant frame hanging over a tilted stage.  With garish colors, slapstick choreography, and a silly plot sung in English, it goes down as sweet and satisfying as a Gilbert and Sullivan-flavored gelato.  Soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson (who was an unforgettable Carmen a few years ago) spun out beautiful and delicate bel canto arias, enchanted while cuddling The World’s Most Adorable Tiny Poodle, and channeled the spirit of Nicki Minaj.  The whole thing was very Rossini-esque. Brain candy.  You'd probably love it.

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman started with the brass killing the overture in the best possible fashion --with skill, force, and total abandon.  Ryan McKinney plays the captain of a ghostly vessel doomed to cross the seas forever unless he finds a woman capable of faithful love.  What “faithfulness” entails isn’t clear until the end of the story. (I won’t ruin it for you.) McKinney was thoroughly compelling, singing of his doom with meaty conviction and flaunting a wicked chest tattoo.  Adam Bielamowicz (the  Steersman) offered a surprisingly tender recount of the delights of home with a voice like burnished gold. Francesa Zambello’s brooding and demonic interpretation is a romantic nightmare worth living.

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The last show I saw was the musical Camelot, which, like The Sound of Music, unfolds in two distinct halves.  The first half is spiced with joy and light and playful humor.  The second half turns dark and heavy with guilt as the characters form a classic love triangle.  The singing and acting was all wonderful, especially from David Pittsinger as the conflicted King Arthur and Andriana Chuchman, a silky and lush-voiced Guenevere.  Nathan Gunn, in my opinion, was a little stiff as Sir Lancelot, but then again, he was ACTUALLY WEARING ARMOR.  The rich, opulent set by Kevin Depinet was a great character all by itself, as violent and dark as the end of the story.

The 2013 Glimmerglass Festival runs through August 24th.

NEA Fellow Brenda Tremblay is the Music Director of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Brockport, New York, and serves as weekday morning host on WXXI-FM Classical 91.5, streaming music and arts features at