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Italian Dressing

Performances of Tolomeo and Figaro highlight Glimmerglass Opera’s summer season in Cooperstown

By James MacKillop N

o artistic enterprise is more labor- intensive than opera. For cost alone, the stakes are always high. And no

theatrical enterprise must try to cosset audi- ences so finicky—not to say stridently opin- ionated—as those for opera. All of which makes you wonder how the Glimmerglass Opera Company of Cooperstown became so intoxicated with such risk-taking.

There is rarely any question about the

quality of the singing, which can range from excellent to breathtaking. But when it comes to picking what operas we are going to see and how they will be interpreted, you can be sure that Glimmerglass will never deliver the same old thing. That’s why Glimmerglass draws audiences from the greatest distance. And no other company so stirs up an audi- ence’s artistic juices and so fires debate. 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. For- mer 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 pre- miere, 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 run- ning more than three hours. 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 sheepherd-

ers attract the affections of the local royal fam- ily. 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 sym- metry, 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

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Note worthy: Patrick Carfizzi in the title role of The Marriage of Figaro at Glimmerglass Opera.

was dominated by two warring diva sopra- nos, 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, Tolo-

meo 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 Ste- ven 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 sing- ing 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 superan- nuated 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. “Mar- riage” might be in the title, but much of the action deals with hanky-panky, some of it forced by the stronger upon the weaker.



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