Repeated exposure to rabidly innovative opera productions has prepared me for just about anything, but I wasn’t prepared for something that happened during Cavalleria Rusticana , which, along with its usual mate, Pagliacci , inaugurated Glimmerglass Opera’s current season in Cooperstown. That we were in for a studied exercise in innovation was established at the outset. In a reversal of the usual order, the evening began with Pagliacci , which was set not in a picturesque Calabrian village but in a bare-bones theatrical arena surrounded by bleachers and stage lights. Leoncavallo’s use of Tonio’s curtain-parting prologue to signal that this is one of those stories in which the drama suddenly becomes real life was further complicated by the device of making Tonio the author/director of both operas. Having overseen Canio’s (mock) murder of Nedda and her lover Silvio in the first piece, he reappeared in the same setting after the intermission to oversee the second piece’s (mock) buildup of Sicilian passion. Midway through Cavalleria , just as things were really heating up over faithless Turiddu’s betrayal of desperate Santuzza, Tonio seated himself on one of the bleachers, pulled out a banana and nonchalantly ate it.
It was the first banana that I have seen consumed onstage during more than 40 years of operagoing, and it prompted an unwelcome bout of speculation: Either the banana business was a crudely sophomoric way of underscoring luscious Lola’s ensnarement of sex-crazed Turiddu, or the director, Robin Guarino, had simply run out of things for Tonio to do in his new, expanded job.
Ms. Guarino’s attempt to shake up Cav/Pag was fine in principle. As archetypal overproduced works in the blood-and-guts verismo genre, they cry out for fresh thinking that will restore their original, ruthlessly lyrical power. And as one of the sturdiest plays-within-a-play in the operatic canon, not to mention one that employs an M.C. who is also the agent of the melodrama, Pagliacci at least would seem more than capable of shouldering a meta-layer out of Pirandello. (The program notes lean heavily on the old trickster’s modernist observations about the difficulty of distinguishing between illusion and reality.)
But just as Verdi’s operas have proved incompatible with the sort of tinkering favored by today’s overeducated stage directors, these two masterpieces-so swift and sure in their composition-made Ms. Guarino’s novelties seem both forced and feeble. Having Tonio the director kneel next to Nedda and Silvio during their love duet, ” E allor percho, di, tu m’Hai stregato ,” did nothing to enhance the “magic story” of their passion, ironically or otherwise. And infiltrating Cavalleria with Pagliacci ‘s characters, whether as spectators or as victims who won’t stay dead (Silvio, by my count, is killed twice more), threatened to make a hash out of what is one of the most concise, poetically charged tragedies in opera.
Under the musical direction of Stewart Robertson, the opening-night performance was muddled. Throughout Pagliacci , the orchestra’s entrances were ragged and the ensemble playing coarse; the cellos seemed to be taking the night off. The opera’s principals-Ned Barth’s Tonio, John Mac Master’s Canio, Marie Plette’s Nedda and Ray Fellman’s Silvio-brought little more than rough fire to their parts. Cavalleria was considerably stronger, thanks to three exciting young voices with the potential for major careers:Eugenie Grunewald’s almost scarily imposing Santuzza; Brian Montgomery’s firm, ardent Alfio; and the Turiddu by Keith Ikaia-Purdy, a beautifully schooled Hawaiian tenor whose only fault was a purity of line that may have been a shade too elegant for the brute he was playing. When the three of them were going full throttle, all questions about the staging melted away.
The second of Glimmerglass’ offerings this summer, Little Women , is a triumph for its composer and librettist, Mark Adamo. This was my first hearing of a piece which, since its premiere at the Houston Grand Opera in 1998, has become the most-performed new American opera of our time. Stills from that production, which accompany the video of a subsequent PBS telecast, indicate that it fit perfectly the sort of picturesque naturalism that has cloaked-and suffocated-American musical theater since the opening night of Oklahoma in 1943.
Rhoda Levine’s production for Glimmerglass supplied a stunning corrective to all that. Ms. Levine, who has staged beautiful revivals of Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden and Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men for Glimmerglass and New York City Opera (which will present Little Women next spring), has an uncanny knack for addressing American operas with simplicity and grace-qualities that bring out the best in what, on the whole, has been a highly insecure body of work.
Little Women is Mr. Adamo’s first opera, and it is a striking debut-a crackling adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic that both distills the tale’s most powerful elements into a two-act drama of cinematic fluency and gives it the sweetly mythic dignity of an old family album. American music is still a volatile mixture of mawkish folksiness, Broadway sentimentality and restless openness to “isms” cultivated in older cultures, and Mr. Adamo’s score dabbles happily in all of it, never staying long enough in one place to wear out its welcome. Big arias-or half-arias-soar suddenly out of skittering dissonances; effusions of giddiness, yearning, impatience and pathos jostle pell-mell with one another. At times, ghostly offstage voices provide a supernatural chorus, like wind whistling through a graveyard. And somehow, because of what is manifestly Mr. Adamo’s deep-felt enthusiasm for the book, this kaleidoscopic approach feels just right for evoking the passage of four 19th-century American sisters from tightly bonded, hermetic girlhood into the separate, expansive state of womanhood.
At the heart of the opera is Jo, the sister most capable of-yet resistant to-growth beyond the family. She is as complex a character as I have seen in a contemporary opera, and although Mr. Adamo has given sharply sketched dimensions to her parents, sisters and suitors, she dominates the piece as completely as does the title character of Tosca . The recurrence of her eerily adamant aria, “It was perfect,” is the opera’s most telling motif. Yet it’s a testament to Mr. Adamo’s dramatic instincts that the single most resonant moment in the piece is given not to Jo but to her German suitor, Friedrich Bhaer, when he widens her horizons by singing a Goethe poem (“Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom”). It is set to an arching, angular melody that Brahms might have written if he’d ever visited New England.
On opening night, the cast’s affection for the material, under the musical direction of John DeMain, was palpable. Jennifer Dudley’s Jo was a beautiful young woman with an easy, clear mezzo-soprano and a fascinating variability-radiantly thoughtful one moment, coltishly insensitive the next. Among her sisters, Sandra Piques Eddy gave voluptuous voice to Meg; Caroline Worra’s petulant Amy was deliciously feminine; and Christina Bouras’ tragic Beth was touching without being sentimental. Joshua Hopkins sang the baritone part of Bhaer with unforced generosity, and Chad Freeburg sang Laurie, Jo’s unsuccessful suitor but deepest friend, with boyish steadiness. Charm is not a word that can be often applied to opera, but it’s a quality that Mark Adamo’s Little Women has in abundance, and the audience-who rewarded him with a standing ovation-seemed to savor every minute of it.