Of the four offerings this summer Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (continuing Aug. 13, 16, 19, 21 and 24) must look like that uncommon safe bet. But director Ned Canty has moved the action forward to the time of the opera’s premiere, 1900, so that the villainous police chief Scarpia runs an office with clacking typewriters. In keeping with a tradition of producing more recent American works, we’re also getting Aaron Copland’s almost-never performed The Tender Land (Aug. 14 and 21). While Copland is probably America’s most popular, late-romantic symphonist (the ballets Rodeo and Appalachian Spring), he had less experience with the human voice. The Tender Land was commissioned in the early 1950s for NBC-TV, which refused to broadcast it, and has since been accessible only to select audiences, like those in Cooperstown. Former Syracuse Stage artistic director Tazewell Thompson takes the reins of this production.
Your New Times team selected George Fridric Handel’s Tolomeo (Aug. 12, 14, 17 and 23), making its North American premiere, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (Aug. 15, 20 and 22). Although still fixed in the popular mind with his heart-thumping oratorio Messiah, Handel actually wrote 46 operas, a half-dozen of which have been revived at Glimmerglass, creating a taste for them in this part of the world. It takes audiences used to the lushness of the Verdi-Puccini repertory to cotton to countertenors in roles written for castrati, but it’s a taste more easily acquired than that for sushi or Korean kimchi.
The Marriage of Figaro might be one of Mozart’s best-known titles, with selections often heard in concerts and on public radio, but performances are far less common than for Don Giovanni. Part of the reason is that it calls for a larger-than-usual cast, with strong voices in a host of supporting roles, and also that it relies on a highly convoluted plot running more than three hours.
Seeing red: Karin Mushegain (left) and Julie Boulianne in Glimmerglass Opera’s Tolomeo.
You don’t need much Italian to know that “Tolomeo” is a name for several Egyptian princes in Cleopatra’s family, but in libretti for baroque opera, history is not an issue. Here we are asked to believe that a son named Tolomeo (Anthony Roth Costanzo) of a cruel Cleopatra has escaped Egypt and is living in exile in Cyprus (i.e. Europe) in disguise as a shepherd named Osmino. Everyone sings in Italian. Unbeknownst to him, his loyal and loving wife Seleuce (Joelle Harvey) is cast out of Egypt, and she too seeks anonymity in Cyprus as the shepherdess Delia.
Despite their low status, the two sheepherders attract the affections of the local royal family. The violent King Araspe (Steven LeBrie), an ally of Cleopatra, would like to bring harm to Osmino/Tolomeo but harbors something like lust for Delia/Seleuce. Adding to this symmetry, the king’s sister Elisa (Julie Boulianne) finds herself powerfully attracted to Osmino/Tolomeo, who protests that he loves another, his absent wife whom he does not expect to see again. Complicating this X-shaped dynamic is Tolomeo’s brother Alessandro (mezzo Karin Mushegain in a trousers role), dispatched by offstage Cleopatra to kill Tolomeo. That’s not going to happen but he does become smitten with the Cyprian princess Elisa.
Although no recent audiences would tolerate such convoluted contrivance (we’re leaving out a lot), Handel’s opening-night audiences in 1728 knew exactly what was going on. Opera in London at that moment was dominated by two warring diva sopranos, one in ascent and one in decline, who would not appear on stage together. Indeed, we hear precisely six arias apiece for Joelle Harvey’s loyal wife and Julie Bouliane’s rather aggressive Cyprian princess. Musically, Harvey seems to have a slight advantage with such a virtuous character and early solos like Fonti amiche, aure leggere. But Bouliane, an audience favorite after the lead in last year’s La Cenerentola, may have the advantage of director Charles Rader-Shieber’s madcap staging. Her bright red wig makes her look like the Red Queen in movie director Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland.
Leaving aside the duel of the divas, Tolomeo abounds in musical riches. For those just learning to respond to a countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo teaches us what a wide range of emotions can be achieved in the upper ranges, with wide swings of emotion including despair and suicide. His early aria Torna sol per un memento commands our high regard, which never flags. The two Young American Artists (in effect, apprentices) impress mostly later in the action, mezzo Karin Mushegain with Se l’interno pur vedono i Numi and baritone Steven LaBrie (with enormous stage presence) in Sarò giusto, e non tiranno.
Perhaps baroque opera plots sound so absurd when fully retold, or perhaps because this is a “park and bark” opera where singing is not a part of continuing action, director Chas Rader-Shieber decided to liven things up with comic and even farcical touches, such as raising a huge stuffed swordfish to signal a shipwreck. A continuing gag has three superannuated footmen appearing as supernumeraries, moving furniture or pursuing the singers like three skeletal stooges. For audiences who find the storyline patently implausible, or scenes within it static, Rader-Shieber offers delight. For others who find the emotions of each aria profound, regardless of how it is introduced, the comic touches are a distasteful distraction, especially when repeated. Make the 90-minute drive with another couple, and you’re assured of lively discussion most of the way home.
Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786) is meant to be comic, even though its characters also sing of real emotions. The rascal barber of the title is one of the best-known characters in literature, appearing first in the comic plays of Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais before anyone thought of music. Gioacchino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (1816), composed 30 years later, employs many of the same characters but in action that actually precedes what we see here. The Rossini, where emotions are caricatured and superficial, is performed more often. In Mozart, despite the mistaken identities, hiding behind furniture and jumping out of windows, Figaro runs to a different kind of irony and humor. “Marriage” might be in the title, but much of the action deals with hanky-panky, some of it forced by the stronger upon the weaker.
Figaro (Patrick Carfizzi), who lives in the household of philandering Count Almaviva (Mark Schnaible), would like to marry another servant, the assertive Susanna (Lyubov Petrova). Fearful that the count will assert his medieval droit de segnieur (allowing him intimacy with the bride on the first night of marriage), the two set up a plot to humiliate the nobleman, employing the unhappy countess (Caitlin Lynch) and a boy infatuated with her, Cherubino (Aurhelia Varak in a trousers role). Simultaneously, Figaro must extricate himself from a rival plot in which he is obliged to marry Marcellina (Courtney McKeown), egged on by Bartolo (Adam Fry) and Basilio (Alex Mansoori).
The large cast puts seasoned professionals in the most demanding roles, especially powerful baritone Patrick Carfizzi in the title role and flexible, colorful Lyubov Petrova as the intended bride, Susanna. Relative newcomer Caitlin Lynch of the steely voice gives us a countess not to be taken for granted. Diminutive Aurhela Varak, looking more like an adolescent than an aggressive lothario, proves herself a skilled soloist in several arias. Her smooth cheek lends itself to one of director Leon Major’s best gags when Carfizzi’s Figaro is asked to shave her.
The production still courts controversy by staging the action at the beginning of the 20th century, like Tosca, with all performers except boyish Cherubino in shades of cream and beige. Some audience members have objected that the droit de seigneur had disappeared by 1900, but unwanted sexual advances from self-obsessed men in powerful positions are still with us.
This is the last year the Cooperstown company will call itself Glimmerglass Opera. Next year it will be titled the Glimmerglass Festival. Some of the penchant for gambling will be pulled back in favor of Bizet’s Carmen, arguably the most popular of all operas, and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. New for these parts will be Chini’s 18th-century restaging of classical myth, Medea, and two new works based on paintings by Edward Hopper, Jon Musto and Mark Campbell’s Later the Same Evening and Jeanine Teson’s A Blizzard in the Marblehead Neck, with libretto by Tony Kushner.
Glimmerglass Opera, located eight miles north of Cooperstown and two miles south of the junctions of routes 20 and 80, offers performances in the Alice Busch Opera Theater on Otsego Lake. Performances run Thursdays and Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sunday through Tuesday matinees, 2 p.m.; with 1:30 p.m. Saturday matinees on Aug. 14 and 21. Tickets range from $26 to $126. For more information, call (607) 547-2255 or visit www.glimmerglass.org.