Can’t Swim in the Sea if You Can’t Reach the Water
By David Browning
The weekend of July 29 and 30 I ventured to the Glimmerglass Festival near Cooperstown, NY, for the first time. I saw four shows in two days, and left wanting even more. I was happy to see the two shows I discuss here for Opera Pulse. I reported on the other two shows I saw in my blog.
First up was a double bill of new one-act operas on Friday evening. Later the Same Evening by composer John Musto is a nice little opera composed of vignettes based on familiar Edward Hopper paintings. The vignettes were based on familiar paintings: Room in New York, in which a young woman is dressed to go out while her husband seems to have settled in with the evening paper; Hotel Room, in which a young woman eyes a train schedule; Hotel Window, in which a woman of a certain age waits for something or someone we can’t see; Two on the Aisle, in which an older couple has arrived early for the theater; and Automat, in which a fashionable young woman ponders a cup of coffee in a late-night coffee shop alone. Librettist Mark Campbell has filled in detail about each of these characters’ lives, added a few characters, and brought them all together at the theater featured in Two on the Aisle. All except the young girl in Hotel Room.
Some of my favorite parts of the opera were not inspired by the paintings. The musical within the opera featured fun music like that in the musicals of the 1930s, and we see the cast reacting to the musical. Not a new device, of course, but well handled and fun. I also liked the quasi-chorus (what do you call an ensemble of eleven?) as the entire cast left the theater and went into the rainy night. I quite like the scene based on the painting Automat, in which the theater usherette stops for a cup of coffee after work. Carin Gilfry, who sang the usherette, is a standout among cast members. Other standouts include Andrew Stenson, who sang Jimmy O’Keefe, a friend of the young woman in the painting Room in New York, who is just a little too enthusiastic about the theater, and Kyle Albertson as the young woman’s husband. The remaining cast, composed mostly of members of the Glimmerglass Young Artist Program, were all good singers. I must give kudos to designer Erhard Rom (sets) and David D. Roberts (costumes). The simple museum setting with the Hopper paintings illuminated from behind, which then transformed to the theater, then the street, and then the Automat, and back to the museum, was quite effective. So were the costumes, most of which were appropriate and beautiful. Director Leon Major choreographed the crowds well, and the singers had a good sense of the characters they were singing. I can see this opera having a bright future with university and conservatory productions. The music is singable and pleasant enough, and it uses a lot of singers. I wish I could say it excited me more.
What did excite me was the other one-act opera on the program, A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck by composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright/librettist Tony Kushner. This opera is based on an actual event in the life of playwright Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill and his wife Carlotta, both ill and on heavy medications, have one of their many bitter arguments, and O’Neill wanders out into a blizzard to get away. The vision of a singer from a bygone era–his incessantly playing of old phonograph records drives Carlotta crazy–encourages him to lie down and sleep in the blizzard. The epilogue is a young Marblehead police officer filing an incident report on O’Neill’s rescue from the snow bank where he was found.
This was exciting opera. Bass David Pittsinger as O’Neill and soprano Patricia Schumann as his wife Carlotta Monterey held nothing back and gave us passionate, well thought out portrayals of the two characters. Pittsinger skillfully showed O’Neill’s physical stiffness and pain from a degenerative neurological disorder, which added to O’Neill’s cynical, aloof persona. This did nothing to limit his beautiful singing. This role fits his resonant bass beautifully. Likewise Patricia Schumann was given many gratifying moments to soar and shine vocally as a bitter but still tender Carlotta. A beautifully realistic touch in the libretto has Carlotta defending O’Neill in a discussion with the vision of a theater critic–defending him against the very same criticisms she’d hurled at him in the argument. OK, we don’t all have visions of theater critics, but we’re not all on heavy medications like both O’Neills were.
Supporting characters were sung and acted beautifully. The young singer in O’Neill’s vision was beautifully sung by Young Artist Lindsay Russell. With her high, light soprano she skillfully alternated between the saccharine sweetness of a 20s-era singer of Tin Pan Alley songs and a legitimate sound when she was in actual dialogue with O’Neill. Ms. Tesori’s score in this regard was brilliant. I also was quite impressed with Young Artist Jeffrey Gwaltney as the police officer in the final scene, which actually could stand alone as an excerptable scene. His beautiful, beefy tenor voice and handsome looks will take him far. The trio of theater critics who taunt O’Neill in his arguing with Carlotta were well sung and acted by Carin Gilfry, Aleksey Bogdanov and Stephanie Foley Davis. Miss Davis was the critic who remained to chat with Carlotta.
The score is beautiful and singable but not derivative or forgettable, as so many new operas are. The brilliant libretto is full of quotable lines which do nothing to distract from the arc of the story. (The title of this review is a line sung by the beautiful young singer/siren.) Design was brilliant. When the curtain rose the audience applauded the depiction of the blizzard and the small house the O’Neill’s shared. Erhard Rom gets credit once again. I’m not sure I’d have costumed Carlotta in the way Court Watson did, but otherwise I like his work. Francesca Zambello‘s direction was skillful, helping the singers shape the multi-faceted characters the libretto so beautifully gave them.
Although this piece is planned as part of a larger scale tryptich, it stands alone quite well. I would like to see this opera, either singly or as part of the larger work envisioned, enter the repertory of frequently performed works of living composers.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes
David Browning is a singer and writer living in the greater New York City area. He is the publisher of the opera blog Taminophile: www.taminophile.com