Glimmerglass Opera Produces Triumph of Inspired Whimsy

In the wonderful guidebook A Night at the Opera– which appropriately borrows the title of the greatest operatic film ever made, courtesy of Groucho, Harpo and Chico–Sir Denis Forman gives as good an account of operatic reality as any I’ve read in his description of the make-believe land he calls “Oprania”: “The Opranian has no interest in any sport except hunting and shooting. (No Opranian has ever been known to hold a golf club or a tennis racquet.) There is no such thing as objective discussion in Oprania. A topic of conversation is only introduced if it is relevant to the personal life of those onstage. The passage of time is erratic: an hour may pass in 10 minutes or it may stretch to two hours. Although most Opranians live in a comfortable state, no Opranian is ever seen to be in the business of generating wealth. There are no mosquitoes in Oprania, and fallen snow does not melt.”

To expand on the subject, Oprania is also a world of recognizable human emotions (most commonly fear, jealousy and romantic passion), and it is an intensely palpable place (all those players playing and singers singing). But, as Sir Denis suggests, Oprania is no more easily comprehensible to the outsider than the world through the looking glass is to Alice. In order to become so, it requires a sure guiding hand–usually that of the director–to unlock the code that enables us to enter the whole topsy-turvy wonderland, leaving disbelief behind.

Few companies have managed this tricky business so consistently as Glimmerglass Opera, in Cooperstown, N.Y. Many of the world’s top directors–Jonathan Miller, Christopher Alden, Rhoda Levine and John Cox, among others–have done some of their best work in the intimate, Hugh Hardy-designed barn on the shores of Otsego Lake, employing young designers, singers and musicians who seem perennially infected with the Mickey-and-Judy spirit of “Let’s put on a show!” The first two offerings of this summer’s festival are not just exemplary demonstrations of how to decode Oprania, but great shows–the strongest opening that the company has had in years.

Mark Lamos, a Glimmerglass veteran, understands better than just about anyone that the best way to make sense of nonsense is to make it a piece of meta-nonsense. I am not talking about spoofing works that are already spoofs–an approach that British directors are too fond of and that has, in the past, made several Glimmerglass productions of Rossini close to unbearable. Mr. Lamos’ sensibility is whimsical rather than rib-jabbing, and this summer he has brought off a triumph of inspired whimsy with his staging of L’Étoile , a rarely performed French operetta by the master of picturesque drollery, Emmanuel Chabrier, which will play throughout July and August.

L’Étoile was not exactly a smash hit when it was first performed at Offenbach’s Bouffes-Parisiens theater in 1877, and its brand of buffoonery–which such later composers as Ravel, Stravinsky, Satie and Poulenc adored–may have been too nutty, even for the fluff-loving boulevardiers of the day. Its plot, which defies rational synopsis, features a King Ouf, who prowls his kingdom looking for someone to execute in honor of his birthday; an incognito mission of royalty-hunting foreigners determined to marry their daughter to Ouf; a romantic leading man in the person of a poor peddler named Lazuli, who is sung by a woman; and a royal astrologer, whose knowledge of what the stars demand finally sets everything more or less aright.

Apart from Chabrier’s music, which manages the high-wire act of quoting its betters (Mozart, Donizetti, Wagner) while remaining completely itself (think Sir Arthur Sullivan without the sentimentality), the key to the evening’s success is the decision of Mr. Lamos and his team to turn their backs on L’Étoile as a period piece and to reinvent it as a whirligig suitable for MTV. Lighting designer Robert Wierzel uses a computerized system of deliciously pastel lighting effects that requires the performers to follow the spots–not, as is usually the case, the spots to follow the performers. The result is that everything onstage–and everyone, in a cast of superb comic singers led by Torrance Blaisdell as King Ouf and Christine Abraham as Lazuli–becomes one more delicate piece in the fluid, overall spectacle, no more or less important than the nuttily choreographed “dancing” stars. Their arrival from somewhere out in cyberspace steals the show. No less deft is Jeremy Sams’ translation of God-knows-whatever French was in the original libretto into English that violates none of the fizzy charm of Chabrier’s music. Somehow, during one of the evening’s many moments of narrowly aborted calamities, the metaphysically unsubtle line “It went bang!” brings down the house. Zestfully conducted by Glimmerglass music director Stewart Robertson, this is a balloon that never pops.

Le Nozze di Figaro is hardly an opera that needs another reinterpretation, and Stephen Lawless’ production of Mozart’s masterpiece, also running through the summer, breaks little new ground in its 18th-century trappings and its delineation of the familiar upheaval in the house of Almaviva. But in my long life of Figaro s, I can’t recall a production in which the issues of the drama, not to mention the comings and goings of the characters, were presented with such bracing clarity. Mr. Lawless, who masterminded the Met’s wonderful restaging of Don Giovanni within the old, less-than-wonderful Franco Zeffirelli production last fall, has gone to the heart of what Figaro is essentially about: sex and class. But he has tipped the scales: Most productions make the restiveness of the title character, the sympathetic barber who wants to marry his Susanna, the engine of the drama. This Figaro takes that impulse for granted and brings to the fore the aggressions that really drive the piece, those of the sexually seigniorial Count Almaviva.

The centerpiece of Benoit Dugardyn’s elegant set is, appropriately, a curtained bed, which proves to be not only a marvelous place for all the costume-changing deceptions of Cherubino and Susanna, but also a metaphor for the stakes that are played out to the very end. (So potently is it used throughout that its presence in the ultimate garden scene seems perfectly right.) And although the cast features a robustly sung Figaro (Dean Ely), an unusually sympathetic Susanna (Nicole Heaston) and a beautifully sung if somewhat hyperactive Cherubino (Valerie Komar), it is the count and his neglected countess who most command our attention.

I have admired Joyce Guyer in many performances–at Glimmerglass, New York City Opera and the Met–but this beautifully trained (and beautiful-looking) American soprano has never seemed so compelling as she does in a finely shaded portrayal that begins on a level of icy hauteur and gradually warms in sympathy–of the most regal sort. Ms. Guyer’s is a completely thoroughbred Countess to rival that of Felicity Lott’s. Her ” Dove Sono ,” in which pride and pain were combined with gorgeous equilibrium, was devastating.

But in Mr. Lawless’ staging, this is the count’s show. And in the splendid young American baritone Christopher Schaldenbrand, it has an Almaviva of breathtaking narcissism. Mr. Schaldenbrand, who stands well over six feet, has the figure of a pole-vaulter and the bearing of an 18th-century aristocrat out of Gainsborough–the kind of fop who looks as good in ruffles as he does bare-chested, which he is all too eager to be. The count can easily tip over into blustery silliness, but this master’s bluster is lethally compelling. The librettist da Ponte’s famous line, ” Perdono non merta chi agli altri non da ” (“He who cannot forgive others does not deserve to be forgiven himself”), is emblazoned on the proscenium of this production like a curse. So dynamic is Mr. Schaldenbrand’s vanity that, when he finally proves himself capable of begging his wife’s forgiveness, the sublime closing music–beautifully conducted by George Manahan–takes on a radiance that would have brought Mozart to his feet.