The motley landscape of opera is busy with the sound of digging. Diligent operagoers can scarcely keep up with all the finds that clamor for their attention-the unknown gem from a tunesmith who is suddenly revealed to have been more than a poor shadow of Mozart; a onetime flop that, upon belated revival, turns out to be a masterpiece. This summer has been unusually rich in discoveries and rediscoveries. At Bard College’s SummerScape, in Annandale-on-Hudson, the centerpiece of an extravagant festival devoted to Russian theater, film and music of the 20th century has been a sensational production of Shostakovich’s seldom-performed, fiendishly wacky first opera, The Nose . At Glimmerglass Opera, in Cooperstown, a risky lineup of mostly unfamiliar offerings has given that festival its most entertaining season in years.
Few operas have been greeted with such withering criticism as Shostakovich’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s fantastical story of 1836 about the misadventures of a civil servant who loses his nose while getting a haircut. The 21-year-old composer, fresh out of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and flush with the international fame bestowed by the success of his First Symphony, was emboldened to write the opera when the Soviet avant-garde was still in flower. The work was intended to inspire a radical model of musical theater and to encourage other composers to “re-accent” Russian masterpieces of the past, but the climate had changed by the time of its premiere in 1930. Soviet art czars declared it infected with “the infantile sickness of leftism,” and Shostakovich never again wrote with such exuberant freedom from fear.
The Nose must be the maddest madcap work in the annals of opera. (In an essay in Shostakovich and His World , a book specially published for the festival, Levon Hakobian calls it an “all-crushing typhoon of the absurd.”) The music, which is conceived as continuously “symphonic” rather than operatic, is pell-mell with parody, terror and mawkishness. The libretto, which Shostakovich called a form of “literary montage,” follows as much logic as might be expected in a man’s search for a mysteriously amputated proboscis that keeps turning up in the damnedest places. Somehow, thanks to Shostakovich’s uncanny mastery of musical irony, it all hangs together: What is by turns pummeling and exhilarating becomes, in the story’s denouement, unaccountably moving.
I can’t imagine a more effective production than the one director Francesca Zambello and her set designer, Rafael Viñoly, brought to the Frank Gehry–designed Fisher Center, which turns out to be as superb for small-scale opera as it is for symphonic and chamber performances. The collaboration between a forward-looking composer of the 1920’s and a literary master of the previous century was strikingly evoked by the spectacle of operetta-costumed characters preening, marching and swarming against abstract triangles of light. (Mr. Viñoly, a renowned architect, immediately established himself as one of the most musically sensitive stage designers around.) A cast of mostly Russian singers delivered the pungent declamations, shrieks and choruses with an authoritative understanding of how cunningly Shostakovich fit his music to Gogol’s-and, in one instance, Dostoevksy’s-pungent flow of gabble and dismay. The players of the American Symphony Orchestra, under the incisive direction of Leon Botstein, seemed utterly in their element. This was an operatic coup of the first order, and one that deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience.
The happiest surprise of the season at Glimmerglass has been another youthful curiosity, The Mines of Sulphur , by the British composer and jazz pianist Richard Rodney Bennett, who was 28 when the work had its premiere in London in 1965. Adapted by the librettist Beverley Cross from his play of the same name, the opera belongs to a creaky genre-the English Gothic morality play-that I have little taste for. The plot concerns the murder of a rich man in his house on the moor by a renegade soldier and his girlfriend; they get their comeuppance when some traveling players arrive, enact a play that eerily echoes the crime and visit nothing less than a plague upon the hapless outlaws.
Mr. Bennett dedicated this, his first full-length stage piece, to Benjamin Britten, whose ghost opera, The Turn of the Screw , it fails to match for ethereal fusion of music and words. But Mr. Bennett, who was weaned on the most up-to-date techniques by his teacher, Pierre Boulez, has a gift for writing singable vocal lines and vivid orchestral textures that tickle the scalp. (His chief fame as a composer comes from his scores for more than 50 films, including Far from the Madding Crowd and Four Weddings and a Funeral .) The opera’s music is consistently sulfurous, and David Schweizer’s production, set in a penumbral cellar, was gripping. Stewart Robertson, Glimmerglass’ music director, directed a strong, fully engaged cast led by Brandon Jovanovich and Beth Clayton.
Glimmerglass has been a pioneer in the great ongoing revival of Handel operas, merging superb young Baroque singers and inventive stage directors with remarkable success. Their sixth foray into that razzle-dazzle legacy is their most daring yet: an attempt to infuse fresh life into the composer’s penultimate opera Imeneo , which was consigned to near-oblivion after its lackluster premiere in 1740. At this point in his career, Handel had reduced his plots to a minimum- Imeneo ‘s only dramatic concern is the age-old one of a woman’s choice between love and honor-and it made sense for Chistopher Alden, the director, to strive for greater psychological resonance by setting it in Hawthorne country: a New England house, circa 1850.
But Mr. Alden is one of those directors for whom a good concept is a license to bludgeon. His convention-trapped characters were forced into so many stylized poses illustrative of Puritan repressiveness-Grimness, Anguish, Rage, Bewilderment, you name it-that anything resembling real life was reduced to a dumb show. Attempts at comic relief, like the joke of having Imeneo, the macho hero, blast one dead squirrel after another from the flies with his shotgun, were forced.
But the glory of one of Handel’s most ravishing scores couldn’t be undone, and Glimmerglass has assembled a cast to do it justice. Under the taut conducting of William Lacey, a handful of brilliant principals (augmented by a chorus) kept things afloat. John Tessier’s Imeneo had impetuous strength. Megan Monaghan’s Clomiri was sweet and alert. Best of all were the Rosmene of Amanda Pabyan and the Tirinto of Michael Maniaci. Ms. Pabyan is a soprano of fearsome agility and power. Mr. Maniaci is also a natural soprano (of the male variety) who sings not in the falsetto of a countertenor, but in an “unbroken” voice of astonishing purity and warmth. He’s a wonder to hear.
The great triumph of the Glimmerglasss season has been Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West . Adapted from David Belasco’s hit melodrama, The Girl of the Golden West , this Italian excursion into the American Gold Rush of homesick miners, an indomitable pioneer heroine and a bandit with a heart of mush has always seemed the odd man out among the composer’s enduring masterpieces ( La Bohème , Tosca , Madama Butterfly and Turandot ). Despite a triumphant opening night at the Met in 1910, with Caruso and Emmy Destinn as the romantic leads (a performance that earned Puccini 55 curtain calls), the work has been only fitfully revived, suffering-so it has seemed-from the stark melodramatics of its plot and an insufficiency of hit tunes.
AtGlimmerglass, Fanciulla emerged, miraculously, as an overheard composer’s richest masterpiece-from a musical point of view. The set by John Conklin, a marvelously cluttered miners’ camp with a Bierstadt view of the High Sierras, evoked the opera’s sophisticated essence as a valedictory to the mythic American West. As directed by Lillian Groag, the singers interacted with a wary naturalness born of enforced intimacy that banished any hint of cardboard swagger. In the taxing role of Minnie, the redoubtable heroine, Emily Pulley, gave one of the most luminous performances I have seen in the intimate Glimmerglass house-unflagging in vocal and theatrical truthfulness. Fanciulla boasts Puccini’s most orchestrally driven score, and Stewart Robertson, using a slightly cut-down “chamber” roster of players, caught all the glitter of its brooding oscillation between whumping romanticism and Debussy-like modernism. I can’t wait to see this stirring production again when it resurfaces at New York City Opera in the spring of 2005. It’s the operatic find of the summer-real gold.