Monday, September 5, 2016

'glass roundup

So here we are, stumbling across the finish line and with a short breather before Fall things begin, so I thought I'd do a post-game for things that didn't get a posting when they happened. Fortunately for you, Reader, I missed a lot of things.

The main destination this year was Glimmerglass, with three of the four productions seen. The delegation skipped Boheme, from a combination of ennui, short budget, and civic-mindedness (figuring that would be the one to sell out, so they didn't need us). So that left La Gazza Ladra (billed as The Thieving Magpie, because that's how they roll out there), Sweeney Todd, and Robert Ward's opera version of The Crucible.

I've already remarked elsewhere about Magpie -- in all fairness it's a limited opera, drama-wise, with the standard Soprano Wrongly Accused bel canto plotline. The director chose to focus on the notion
The Thieving Magpie - photo Karli Cadel
of birds, so everybody got to wear feathers and behave as birds. Cute, but that's even more limited than the plotline after the first few minutes. The armchair directors in the audience were probably thinking the whole time what you might do with the notion of property ownership and the employer/employee relationship, and went reaching for their Engels when they got home. Or maybe not. But as I said before, it was really about  Rachele Gilmore, and they'll broadcast it on WQXR in November so you can hear why.

Photo: Karli Cadel
Christopher Alden's Sweeney Todd production was interesting as an attempt to bring a contemporary opera production sensibility (i.e. what should have been done with Magpie) to a musical. If the old question What's the difference between opera and musical? has an answer, perhaps it's that operas -- and perhaps opera audiences -- better withstand directorial creativity and/or hijinks. Alden's opening church hall setting, its sudden transformation into music hall comedy duo for A Little Priest, and its limited use of stage blood (not more than a gallon or two), were a challenge for some audience members -- fans of the musical armed with very specific expectations about what should happen, when, and how. Exit commentary in the stairwell afterward particularly focused on the lack of a trap door.

I can understand their point: if it's always been done that way, a director who's not going to do it that way needs to up the ante. Alden did the opposite, opting instead for a weary charwoman routinely dousing the wall with a bucket of blood she fills from a spigot. That was cute in its way, but short on impact. If Alden's intent was to undermine and critique audience expectations, I guess he succeeded.

One thing Alden's approach did accomplish is to highlight how much Sondheim's chorus is reminiscent of the chorus in Peter Grimes. If that was his intent as well, then yay, but it will have left the musicals people, who wanted their London docks and period costumes, their trap doors and their specially designed Sweeney Todd razors, all as they're used to having them.

The cast, vocally and dramatically, was pretty much the level you would expect at Glimmerglass, though Greer Grimsley's Sweeney didn't quite convey the required boiling rage under a veneer of service-economy civility -- or at least it didn't reach the nosebleeds. Sounded good, though.

Brian Mulligan, Ariana Wehr - photo Karli Cadel
The last round was Robert Ward's adaptation of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and of the three it was the only one I would have trekked out to see again had time allowed. The draw was Jamie Barton in the role of Elizabeth Proctor, but the cast overall was terrific. Librettist Bernard Stambler winnowed the action down so the focus is on the central triangle of Elizabeth, her farmer husband John, and their dismissed and vengeful ex-serving girl Abigail Williams. But Stambler left in enough of the petty-turned-deadly community squabbles to convey the larger picture Miller was getting at in the original play. (It also means a cast big enough to serve as a Young Artist showcase, and Glimmerglass' YA program has plenty to brag about.) Brian Mulligan as John Proctor and Ariana Wehr as Abigail were both rock solid, and David Pittsinger surfed Reverend Hale's quandaries with subtle shading. The highlight, though, may have been Jay Hunter Morris' thoroughly freaky Reverend Danforth -- clearly those Ahabs he's been doing of late stood him in good stead for Danforth's all-or-nothing Wrath of God MO. Francesca Zambello's production, with sets by Neil Patel, was visually arresting without getting in the way of singers or material.
The Crucible: trial scene - photo Karli Cadel

If you never knew there was an opera version of The Crucible...welp, neither did I, so I can't speak much about the score, having only heard it once. But conductor Nicole Paiement's orchestra gave the music enough punch that I wanted to hear it again. The broadcast on WQXR is November 12th.


  1. I suppose I'm a little bemused at how anyone could see Chris Alden's name on a show and still expect it to be "just the way it always is".

    1. I'm not sure the complainers would know Chris Alden's name from a hole in the ground. Opera people tend to pay attention to directors, but do Musicals people?