Not to Worry, Opera Fans-Cooperstown’s in Fine Shape

At New York City Opera a few years ago, there were cries of worry in the always fretful tribe of opera junkies that the marvelously congenial summer festival on the shores of Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, N.Y., would suffer badly, even though Paul Kellogg was staying on as artistic director. And when it was announced that Glimmerglass was to become a feeder of new productions to City Opera, more than a few members of the lime-trousered Cooperstown oligarchy were heard to grumble that their homegrown gem of an opera company might become nothing but a haven for out-of-town tryouts, with all the excitement of a Florida spring-training camp.

Not to worry. I made the trek out to Cooperstown on the second weekend in July, and on the basis of the first two productions-Verdi’s Falstaff and Puccini’s Tosca -I can report that the “Glyndebourne of America,” as Glimmerglass has been dubbed, is in as good, if not better, shape than it has ever been. I don’t know of too many other small opera companies that could survive the last-minute loss of the baritone who was to sing Sir John Falstaff and the tenor who was slated for Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca , but Glimmerglass has become such a prime proving ground for America’s best young singers that the emergency was handled with dispatch.

Certainly, the Falstaff of Mark Delavan, who joined the cast just two weeks before rehearsals, promises fine things for this young American baritone. I had admired the open-door roominess of Mr. Delavan’s voice-so reminiscent of the great American Verdian of the 40′s and 50′s, Leonard Warren-in the title role of last season’s Macbeth at City Opera, but had found his acting a bit blocky and unshaded (or perhaps too shaded, given the fact that he was up against the take-no-prisoners Lady Macbeth of Lauren Flanigan). The antihero of Verdi’s final opera, which fuses the cunning Falstaff of Henry IV with that of the grand sybarite who gets his comeuppance in The Merry Wives of Windsor , can easily degenerate into a generic buffoon-a wearisome dirty old man. Mr. Delavan’s Sir John, all done up in splendid disarray, was richly imposing but never merely grotesque-a bull who threatened, but never succeeded, in demolishing the intricate clockwork of this most delicate of operatic romps.

Indeed, Leon Major’s production, with sets and costumes by John Conklin, is one of the cleanest, most fluent stagings of Verdi’s last will and testament that I have ever seen. Falstaff is not an opera that encourages “revisionist” interpretation. As with the other two members of opera’s trinity of comic masterpieces, The Marriage of Figaro and Die Meistersinger , all of its parts are so thoroughly integrated into the whole as to defy tampering with. All Falstaff needs is to be presented -clearly, deftly and with immense affection. Mr. Major, the artistic director of Boston Lyric Opera, must have had Falstaff in his bones for a very long time, for his coordination of the very busy goings-on in and around the Garter Inn-the posturings and plottings, the maskings and unmaskings, the furtiveness and ardor-is absolutely seamless, as inevitable and logical as the most naturally surreal Buster Keaton comedy. About Mr. Conklin’s stage designs I have nothing to say except that they are utterly appropriate-picturesquely cluttered where clutter is the essence of things (Sir John’s debauched lair), elegantly simple where elegant simplicity is required (Fenton’s moonstruck aria).

Falstaff , perhaps more than any other opera, rises or falls on the alertness of its ensemble, both onstage and in the pit. Listening to the exquisitely pell-mell effects that George Manahan, the conductor, achieved with his forces, I felt I was in the presence of a seeing-eye cat. Mr. Manahan’s intelligence seemed to be everywhere at once in this Halley’s comet of a score-not by pushing it or pulling it along, but by pouncing on its every felicity so tellingly that each flash of melody played its just part in the continuous, magical flow. Among the evenly superb cast, I was especially taken with the robust Ford of Stephen Powell and the vivacious Alice of Amy Burton, who more than fulfilled Verdi’s injunction that she be played as though she has “the devil in her.”

The fact that the pivotal role of Baron Scarpia in Tosca was a colorless, stock Italian baritone named Michele Bianchini did not, surprisingly enough, lessen the visceral power of Mark Lamos’ new production of Puccini’s pulpy study of sexual cruelty. With his customary facility for getting to the essence of things and bringing them out with stylish vividness, Mr. Lamos has updated the story’s lurid events to Mussolini’s time, with a minimal set, by Michael Yeargan, featuring an overhanging, malevolent cross that would not be inappropriate for a new S&M club in Chelsea. At the Sunday matinee I attended, Glimmerglass’ music director, Stewart Robertson, drew an unusually charged performance from the young musicians in the pit, one that was unblushing in both bombast and tremulousness.

And if the last-minute Mario Cavaradossi of Ian DeNolfo was as woefully short on any sense of a musically shaped line as he was long on a genuine tenorial ring, that didn’t matter much. Tosca succeeds or fails largely on the strength of its leading lady, and in Amy Johnson, a City Opera stalwart to whom I have not paid enough attention, it has a stunner. Dressed magnificently, by Constance Hoffman, in floppy hats and soigné , 30′s-style deco dresses out of a Tamara de Lempicka portrait, Ms. Johnson, who possesses a beautifully pointed soprano, was as alluring a Tosca as I have seen since the last days of Maria Callas at the old Met. Coiled yet fluid, vulnerable yet implacable, she would, in the old days, have been swept off to Hollywood by the likes of Josef von Sternberg. Fortunately, she is being swept off to the City Opera’s mounting of this Tosca at the New York State Theater in September, where she is certain to bring down the house.