What's Opera, Doc?






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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: MacKillop, James
Date published: August 10, 2011

What's Opera, Doc?

It's now the Glimmerglass Festival, which means more musical variety at the Cooperstown venue

The change is only semantic. Still one of upstate New York's premier arts organizations, Glimmerglass of Cooperstown went from being the Glimmerglass Opera of past years to the Glimmerglass Festival of this summer. That means a stylish Broadway musical, produced with the highest standards, is now featured instead of just being included as an extra. Giving people what they want, or demand, is what keeps the arts mission alive. At Syracuse Stage's Archbold Theater, which Arthur Storch designed to be inconvenient for musicals, Jonathan Larson's Rent was the biggest draw last year. It follows then that Irving Berlin's 65-year-old Annie Get Your Gun (Aug. 12, 15, 18, 20, 21), with Deborah Voigt, one of America's top operatic divas, is the area's hottest summer ticket and most talked-about show.

Although Glimmerglass, about a two-hour drive from most points of Onondaga County, draws heavily from the Syracuse area (you can always count on running into somebody you know in the crowd), it primarily attracts select national audiences eager to see superior performances of rarely heard but important works. This year that would be Luigi Cherubini's 1797 Medea (Aug. 14, 16), Ludwig von Beethoven's favorite opera and a one-time starring vehicle for the legendary Maria Callas.

The festival is also premiering two short works in tandem. They are John Musto's Later the Same Evening, with Mark Campbell's libretto based on five Edward Hopper paintings, and Jeanine Tesori's A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, with libretto by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and based on an episode in the life of Eugene O'Neill (Aug. 13, 22). And for comfort food there's still the well-received production of Georges Bizet's Carmen (Aug. 11, 13, 20, 23).

By taking on a widely known golden age musical, the festival had to take some angles not seen or heard elsewhere. One was to eliminate all microphones, not only because the 42-singer company has the vocal power to fill the 900-seat Alice Busch Auditorium but also to renew the score. The effect is amazing, like tasting fresh salmon after you've been used to canned or frozen. Admittedly, some players' diction requires you to play close attention to the words, but you're used to doing that anyway.

Voigt, who's appearing in Cooperstown as an artist-in-residence, clearly puts her heart into the role of Annie Oakley, the impoverished, tomboy sharpshooter who became a show business sensation a century and a quarter ago. In program notes she says her mother always preferred her supporting role as Gooch in Jerry Herman's Mame over all the major Puccini and Wagner lead roles in world capitals. In her Metropolitan HD broadcasts last winter and spring, Voigt was sure to plug Annie Get Your Gun during intermission interviews.

Once the action begins to roll, she turns out to be a delicious light comedienne, even though the "ain'ts" and double negatives do not quite fall trippingly from her tongue. Musically Voigt sounds her best in the more intimate numbers where her excellent diction and vibrato are put to best advantage, like the usually overlooked "Moonshine Lullaby," "I Got Lost in His Arms," "I Got the Sun in the Morning" and the duet with her diffident lover, baritone Frank Butler (Rod Gilfry), "They Say It's Wonderful." Best of all is the duet and mock debate, "Anything You Can Do," coming late in the second act. She really can sing the higher note. In those numbers written for the coarse klaxon of original star Ethel Merman, like "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun" or "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," Voigt's Annie makes one think of a thoroughbred pulling a circus wagon.

Glimmerglass' commitment to Annie Get Your Gun can be measured not only in Voigt's presence but also the importation of esteemed Broadway veteran Kristin Blodgette conducting the large pit orchestra and the imprimatur of company artistic director Francesca Zambello helming the action. Baritone Rod Gilfry delivers the best Frank Butler this reviewer has ever heard, removing all the treacle from ballads like "The Girl That I Marry" but leaving the rascality in "I'm a Bad, Bad Man." Viewers who find Gilfry a bit stiff are unfamiliar with the show as written. In Herbert and Betty Fields' otherwise witty book, Frank Butler is an insufferable prig and unlikely love object.

Further strengths in this production are the splendid performers in supporting roles, especially Drew Taylor as Charlie Davenport, who gets things done for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and Klea Blackhurst as his feisty female sidekick. Glimmerglass favorite Jake Gardner, resplendent in white goatee, invests much dignity in Buffalo Bill, necessary for the show's tone. Comic player Nick Santa Maria gets great mileage out of Sitting Bull's lines, never allowing us to wince at their political incorrectness.

Annie Get Your Gun was never meant to be a history lesson, even though the characters in it actually existed. Scholars such as Louis S. Warren in Buffalo Bill's America (2005) argue that the Cody Wild West Shows with all their baggage really did invent international show business a generation before the founding of Hollywood. Irving Berlin, the composer who could barely read music, was thus miles ahead with his anthem "There's No Business Like Show Business," heard three times in the show.

Myth and ancient drama rather than history are the basis of Luigi Cherubini's Medea, which opened in Paris in 1797, six years after W.A. Mozart died at the rise of what would come to be known as bel canto opera. That Paris opening and the libretto by François-Benoit Hoffmann are significant because the unmistakable nationality of Cherubini (1760-1842), Medea, originally Médée, is French in design and structure. Two generations later Carlo Zingarini translated the text into Italian, as it is performed in Glimmerglass. The elements that make it French are the distinctive integration of the chorus and the fidelity to Euripides' ancient tragedy, Medea.

Always remembered as the mother who killed her children to avenge her husband, Medea was a foreigner from faraway Colchis who betrayed her family to help the Greek hero Jason secure the treasured Golden Fleece. At the beginning of the action Jason is about to marry the blonde, Greek princess Glauce, forgetting his bond with Medea, with the full approval of the girl's father Creon. With so few lead characters, it looked like a bad omen when the performers originally slated to play Glauce and Jason had to withdraw, replaced by two singers from the Young Artists Program, essentially advanced students. For beautiful-voiced Jessica Stavros (who also has a small role in Annie Get Your Gun) the move up to Glauce is a happy occasion. And regarding the new Jason, it should be cause for joyous celebration in the household of powerhouse tenor Jeffrey Gwaltney. The other Young Artist impressing here is Sarah Larsen as Medea's nanny, Neris.

Ultimately, the opera belongs to the grown-ups, bass-baritone David Pittsinger as the imposing Creon and, as it must, to French Canadian soprano Alexandra Deshorties in the title role. As in Euripides' drama, Medea's wrenching decision occupies much of the last half of the action, perhaps 45 minutes. In program notes director Michael Barker-Caven and designer Joe Vanek argue whether she should be a sorceress or a real woman. Vanek's grim set includes a long snake motif, repeated in Medea's costumes. Barker-Caven's direction underplays Medea's histrionics, leaving all the drama to Deshorties' big voice with its shark-like intonations.

Glimmerglass Festival, 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, 1:30 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday through Tuesday matinees, 2 p.m. Tickets range from $46 to $126. For more information, call (607) 547-2255 or visit www.glimmerglass.org.

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