A Tale of Two Operas: Puccini’s Pop Hit, Sousa’s Dud

In opera, as anyone who has ever tried to write for this slippery medium knows, the fundamental conflict has nothing to do with the misalliances of the characters onstage and everything to do with how well-or how badly-the composer and the librettist have joined the drama of music with the drama of language and story. In a few cases, the match has been sublimely seamless-think of how Monteverdi’s music for The Coronation of Poppea , by turns stately and slithery, expresses the grandeur and decadence of ancient Rome. Or of how Berg’s infernally logical weaving of dissonance brings out the psychosexual nightmares of Wozzeck . And think, too, of those troubling disparities between sound and text-for example, the inability of one of opera’s most beautiful scores, in Mozart’s Così fan Tutte , to overcome a cheap plot. So difficult is the business of getting the fit right between words and music that Richard Strauss and his librettist Clemens Krauss wrote a whole opera- Capriccio -about it.

In recent years, another clamorous party has entered the fray-the stage director-and, depending on the extent of his or her taste, boldness, imagination or egotism, the result can be a theatrical revelation or a theatrical mess. One institution that has generated considerable excitement by giving the director a good deal of license is the Glimmerglass Opera, in Cooperstown, N.Y. This summer, the Glimmerglass festival, which has rightly been hailed as America’s closest equivalent to Glyndebourne, opened with two productions that put this menage à trois to the test.

Given singers with sufficient musical ardor, La Bohème is just about foolproof-a cunningly sentimental confection that blends the bitter and the sweet with the shameless assurance of a Godiva chocolate. Puccini’s most popular work-indeed, what is probably opera’s most popular work-is (unlike its fragile characters) so sturdily built as to seem immune to any director’s ministrations in the name of novelty. So it proved again in what is, for the most part, an appealing new production that should eventually travel well to Glimmerglass’ larger sister organization, the New York City Opera, and the other co-producer, the Houston Grand Opera. With the exception of Kelley Nassief’s prettily sung but dramatically opaque Mimi-the most un-luminous Mimi I have ever seen-the director, James Robinson, moved his young cast with brisk naturalism around a cleverly tilted and prison-like garret and an alluring Café Momus (which seemed far too grand for these starving artistes). The horseplay among the men-led by a splendidly sung and acted Marcello (Frank Hernandez)-was particularly well-done, as were their frozen responses to Mimi’s death, which, for once, transcended the usual postures of grief.

But Mr. Robinson, like so many of today’s opera directors, had an idea. Fearful of La Bohème ‘s familiarity-but, of course, popular masterpieces, on this order, never exhaust their familiarity-he decided to update the action from the amber-glow of fin de siècle Paris to the harsh light of the First World War. During the scene of Rodolfo and Mimi’s breakup, we were treated to the arrival of a large train, from which one soldier’s casket after another was unloaded while the lovers sang their adios. Why this was being done outside a tavern I have no idea; nor did it make sense that Rodolfo and his pals, high-spirited lads that they were, would not have signed up for the War to End All Wars, as did so many of their fellow creative types. Mr. Robinson’s “idea” turned out to be nothing more than a notion-to use a distinction that Newsweek ‘s late drama critic, Jack Kroll, liked to make between an innovative approach that illuminated a work and one that simply decorated it.

Glimmerglass has a distinguished history of breathing new life into forgotten curiosities-the festival’s production of Britten’s Paul Bunyan was a landmark in this respect-but, to my taste, its attempt to revivify The Glass Blowers , a little-known operetta by John Philip Sousa, is a case of restoration run amok. Sousa, the “March King,” may have been the most successful one-string composer in the history of music: His insouciance with such wonderfully blustery, quick-strutting marches like “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “El Capitan” forever set the tone for Fourth of July hoopla and half-time foolery on American gridirons. In fact, Sousa also wrote in a variety of forms-ballads, waltzes, mazurkas, cakewalks, patter songs and the odd orchestral tone poem. At the turn of the century, his large-scale operettas were more popular than those of Gilbert & Sullivan, at least on his home shores.

Put it down to American naïveté, of which there is enough to sink a battleship in The Glass Blowers. Written in 1909 and first produced in 1913, this celebration and spoof of jingoism is held remorselessly together by a score and a libretto (by one Leonard Liebling) that cast the infinitely greater comic-lyrical genius of W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan in brilliant relief. Its “plot”-something about a mix-up between two couples, one nouveau riche , the other old money, who get things sorted out during the Spanish-American War-defies synopsis. The music, I can only say with the greatest charity, is incessantly tuneful without possessing one good tune. (Not even the work’s signature march, “From Maine to Oregon,” stays in the head.) Although the spoken dialogue crackles with some pretty funny stuff-much of which was unintelligible, even in Glimmerglass’ intimate beauty of an auditorium-the lyrics constantly hit such dead ends as “At once this scene I’ll terminate.”

But gee whillikers! What a production Christopher Alden has served up! From its attractive set by John Conklin, which ingeniously served as a posh conservatory, a glass-blowing factory and a Cuban war zone, to the dizzying Day-Glo costumes of Gabriel Berry and the Rockettes-precision-timed, semaphoric acting of a brightly amused cast that reached an apogee of sorts during a knockout “Statue of Liberty” number, this was a spoof of a spoof that had everything but what it needed most-charm. Although this Glass Blowers was indubitably good-natured and never less than eye-catching, and although the audience cheered lustily at the end, it all seemed to be working too hard over too little. As I sat there, trying to get into the aren’t-we-having-fun spirit of the piece, it occurred to me that what The Glass Blowers was really about is something that is simply beyond restoration. Call it a time when patriotism was actually fun-the age of American innocence.

A Tale of Two Operas: Puccini’s Pop Hit, Sousa’s Dud