Like the weather, the operas at the proliferating summer festivals hereabouts have ranged from the torpid to the delightful. Leading the sluggards was Robert Wilson’s The Days Before: Death, Destruction & Detroit III , which, though not billed as an opera, seemed closer to the genre than any Wilson extravaganza since Einstein on the Beach , his collaboration with Philip Glass of 23 years ago. Leading the charmers was a production of Francesco Cavalli’s seldom-heard 17th-century masterpiece, Ercole Amante (Hercules in Love), which was performed with exceptional panache by the Boston Early Music Festival at Tanglewood. Somewhere in between were the first three of this summer’s new productions at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y.
If I were asked to name my dozen favorite opera productions of the past five years or so, the majority of them would undoubtedly be from the category of the no longer unjustly neglected Baroque repertoire. However silly their plots and long-winded their arias, the operas of Monteverdi, Cavalli, Handel, Lully and Rameau handle the great operatic themes of passion, duty, fidelity and betrayal with a high-spirited ruthlessness that speaks to our irony-laden, post-Freudian weariness.
Ercole Amante , which was first performed in the Palais des Tuilleries in Paris for the wedding celebrations of Louis XIV and Maria Teresa of Spain in 1662, is Baroque splendor of another sort: a richly scored and choreographed spectacle that ran some 12 hours in the original production (with many walkouts) and was here pared down to four. Its story concerns the inability of the world’s strongest man to win the heart of his son’s beloved. Cavalli’s resourceful music is full of sudden harmonic surprises and turns, wonderfully apt at filling out the two emotional cornerstones of Baroque musical architecture: big-chested fury and languorous despair.
The tremendous verve with which it was performed by the Boston Early Music Festival, whose leaders are two of the world’s best lutists, Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette, made me wonder why, when there is so much revelatory historiography going on in classical music, New York still cannot boast a world-class group specializing in early music and period performance. This was an utterly entrancing production, without a smidgen of modish allure. Costumed beautifully in 17th-century finery and choreographed with telling simplicity, a large cast led by Nathaniel Watson in the title role, Lisa Saffer as his unwilling love-object Iole, and William Hite as his abused son, Hyllo, made the point that you don’t need the Tuilleries to do justice to Cavalli’s opulent imagination; done right, it can happen in a rustic, bare-bones auditorium, in the Berkshires.
The Wilson farrago had its world premiere at the New York State Theater as part of the Lincoln Center Festival on the wings of a piece in The New York Times ‘ Arts & Leisure section that betokened more than unusual interest in puffing up the importance of an artist who scarcely needs more puffery. (The interest was that of the festival’s former artistic director, John Rockwell, who commissioned the work and who is now back at The Times as Arts & Leisure’s editor.) This exercise in Wilsonian window-dressing made the mistake of including something resembling a libretto in the form of passages from Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before , a story about a 17th-century shipwreck that was, I gathered, meant to stand in for much of what has gone wrong with the 20th century. As read, with bad amplification, by the great Irish actress Fiona Shaw, the spoken words reduced Mr. Wilson’s trademark eye-popping or -glazing tableaux to illustrations from a very chic children’s book. Apart from a moving Tibetan lamentation, the only moment when sight and sound coalesced with theatrical clarity was provided by an ancient diva on a gilt settee being whisked across the stage while croaking Wagner’s Liebestod . We’ve been there before, but, in this setting, an interlude of campiness was welcome.
The good news from Glimmerglass this summer is mostly vocal. Each of the three productions I’ve seen so far–the fourth, a trilogy of one-acts entitled Central Park , promises to be the most interesting of them–has been exceedingly well cast, at least in the leading roles. Indeed, the only virtues of the opening, lackluster production of Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio were the handsomely sung Belmonte of William Burden, Joyce Guyer’s elegant, fetching Constanze and Anna Christy’s lively Blonde. The hallmark of the festival’s artistic director Paul Kellogg’s approach to opera is imaginative theatrically. I hope that Glimmerglass’ role as the prime feeder of new productions to the New York City Opera (where Mr. Kellogg is general director) does not mean that a certain timidity, a flattening out for the masses, is creeping in. But, as directed by Irene Lewis in a monotonous, constricted set by John Conklin, this Abduction is a tedious affair, utterly lacking in fresh insight into Mozart’s youthful miracle about the irrepressibility of love. And what a mistake it is to be doing it in English (with titles). The rationale, I presume, was that the all-American cast was inadequate to this Singspiel ‘s abundance of spoken German. But much of the dazzle of Mozart’s musical invention depends on subtle changes during the piling up of repeated phrases, for which the flexible German is more conducive. To be thrown a line like “Only cowards are afraid” over and over again is to find oneself in a madhouse where the only song being sung is “Row, row, row your boat.”
Mr. Conklin also provided the sets for Rhoda Levine’s production of another opera about abduction, Rigoletto , and although their coloring-book minimalism seemed more appropriate in tone to The Pirates of Penzance than to Verdi’s most concentrated tragedy, they worked efficiently enough. This is, in its modest terms, an exciting Rigoletto . Last season, the American baritone E. Mark Delavan delivered as robust a Falstaff as I have seen. His Rigoletto is even finer–crude and appalling as the Duke’s jester, touching and noble as Gilda’s father. There is something undisciplined about Mr. Delavan’s huge voice and presence, which might limit him in certain roles. Here, it translates into sheer animal magnetism. As the Duke, Raul Hernandez tossed off his tenorial bonbons with aplomb; less winning was a stage presence that suggested little of this Clintonian figure’s oily arrogance.
Glimmerglass is a well-known breeding ground of “discoveries,” and this summer the breakthrough performance is Christina Bouras’ Gilda. Ms. Bouras was in the festival’s Young American Artists Program last summer. To go from mere aspiration to the level that she achieves in a part that demands comparisons with the greatest prima donnas, from Nellie Melba to Beverly Sills, is remarkable, to say the least. A dark, slender beauty who would not look out of place in 16th-century Mantua, Ms. Bouras handled the part’s cruelly exposed bel canto with melting color and accuracy instead of the usual pinging pyrotechnics, and she acted with a stunning lack of artifice.
Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (The Return of Ulysses) had its premiere in 1641, by which point opera had moved from the court into public spaces. This retelling of Ulysses’ highly fraught homecoming to his faithful Penelope contains the most beautiful and attenuated recitative writing in all of opera, a mixed blessing that continually ravishes the ear while threatening to put one to sleep. The staging is by John Cox, who has been, among many distinguished positions, director of productions at Glyndebourne, and I hope that this Ulisse is the first of many more Cox-Glimmerglass productions to come. Using a set by Johan Engels that works as well for the hero’s lonely wanderings as it does for Penelope’s hothouse court–a circular platform under a vast, star-sequined sky–Mr. Cox moves his singing actors with an unfussy dignity and a telling economy of gesture and expression that are the marks of great opera director. Although the opening night’s first act dragged mercilessly–in part, because of its inordinate length (an hour and 45 minutes) and a tendency of the conductor Jane Glover to slow down during the singers’ longer declamations–the performance gathered a sure, inexorable pace that culminated with tremendous force in a cleverly stylized slaying of the suitors and in Penelope’s belated recognition of her husband.
In a uniformly strong cast, the standouts were Joseph Maddalena’s Lear-like, world-weary Ulysses, Phyllis Pancellat’s marvelously centered, radiantly dark Penelope, the countertenor David Walker’s plangent Human Figure and sweet Pisander, Greg Fedderly’s strong, lyric Telemaco and another “discovery,” Derrick L. Parker, an African-American bass-baritone in the Young Artists Program, whose commanding potency as the suitor Antinoo had one rooting for him to bend Ulysses’ bow. I hope that Mr. Parker gets cracking on his Russian. He has all the potential to become a great Boris Godunov.