Edmonton Opera Blog

Entries from August 2012

Glimmerglass Festival opens 'windows on the world' with four operas

Thursday, August 30. 2012

Since its founding and very modest beginnings in 1975, Glimmerglass Festival has become a major destination for opera lovers from around the world. As well, it serves as training ground for artists and professionals in the performing arts world. It is based close to Cooperstown, which is apparently famous for its Baseball Hall of Fame (and that I know nothing about and am not even embarrassed to admit it). The festival started with four performances of La Bohème in a local high school and now has over 40 performances of four operas (although it seems that most years one of the four is more in the genre of the musical theatre but done as they say, in the “operatic” manner with no amplification) in a purpose-built theatre on the shore of Otsego Lake. The Alice Busch Opera Theater (914 seats) designed by Hugh Hardy opened in 1987. The interesting fact is that this was the first purpose-built American Hall for opera following the opening of new Metropolitan Opera house in 1966. Glimmerglass has a truly impressive Young Artists Program — this year there are 44 artists from all over the world, and the program has, over the years, launched many careers.

The hardest thing to come by in Cooperstown is reasonably priced — or for that matter any —accommodation. That seems to have been the case for years as visitors continue to struggle to find place to stay. In that respect it reminds me of places like Niagara-on-the-Lake or Stratford festivals in Ontario.

The first production I saw upon arrival was Jean-Baptiste Lully’s brilliant tragedie lirique Armide (1686) co-produced with Opera Atelier from Toronto. I saw it back in 2005 when it was first presented in Toronto with some of the same cast. Armide examines the conflict between the Muslim and Christian worlds during the First Crusade in the 11th century. The work is full of magic, enchantment, love, drama and raw passion — at the end of the opera all we are left with is the destruction of lives, still two worlds apart. The design by Gerard Gauci was inspired by glittering, exquisite illuminations from Persian culture of that same time (11th century). He also collaborated closely with a Persian calligrapher who translated parts of the libretto and wrote these elegant scripts on panels that were part of the set. Even the house curtain became a calligraphic masterpiece. Dora Rust D’Eye designed beautiful costumes that supported so well the story and the concept. Kudos to director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg to continue their inspired, wonderful quest to bring us back the beauty of so many of the rarely performed masterpieces. Their commitment to present these operas as much as possible true to their period of creation is not a simple task. Maestro David Fallis was excellent and led the chorus, the artists of Atelier Ballet and of course the wonderful cast in such a way that the production got standing ovation and numerous curtain calls — I stopped counting after seven! Armide was sung by a young soprano native of Minnesota, Peggy Kriha Dye — the bravos and standing ovations for her brought her to tears! Some notable young Canadian singers in this cast were Mireille Asselin, Meghan Lindsey (both sopranos originally from Ottawa) and the young tenor Aaron Ferguson. All three were this year chosen to be in the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program. Certainly artists to watch and I hope we can bring them to Edmonton one of these days.

Almost every name in and around Cooperstown is somehow related to the early American writer James Fenimore Cooper, his family, or his books and characters. He saw Otsego Lake as glimmering glass; the name Leatherstocking is everywhere including the local golf and country club; the beautiful art museum (Fenimore Art Museum) has been built on the same property where his stately house once stood ... the list goes on. I spent my Saturday morning at the Fenimore Art Museum with its impressive collection of Native American art. What also impressed me was that there is a good collaborative relationship with the Glimmerglass Festival, as there was an exhibit on Armide with set and costume sketches very prominently displayed at the art museum. They also had a costume that Renée Fleming wore in the Met’s production of Rossini’s Armida in 2010. A very nice touch.

Next week, Sandra continues her recap of Glimmerglass with The Music Man, Lost in the Stars and Aida.

Production facility tour

Tuesday, August 21. 2012

Edmonton Opera's assistant technical director talks about the new production facility, which consolidates three warehouses into one. The first build taking place in the space, "Les Contes d'Hoffmann," is scheduled to begin any day.

Stage on the Lake, summer operas Part 3

Friday, August 17. 2012

Bregenz Opera Festival has become a must go and see for the opera aficionados that above all love the sometimes absolutely outrageous but always creative to the extreme use of the lake as a basis for the elaborate opera sets. Bregenz is a small medieval town on the Austrian part of Lake Constance, a large body of water between Switzerland, Germany and Austria. My daughter thought the coolest way to get to Bregenz from Verona was over some treacherous, tiny alpine mountain pass that would then lead us through Liechtenstein. She really wanted to close the loop of seeing all of the smallest countries in the world, but had me drive the hairpin turns!

The Bregenz Festival produces one new grand opera on the “Stage on the Lake” every two years and has a well-deserved reputation for making the impossible viable, exciting and worth the trip to Bregenz. This was the second year of their production of André Chénier, an opera in four acts by Umberto Giordano set in the times of French Revolution (1789-1795). Director Keith Warner and David Fielding, set designer, took as inspiration the painting The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David from 1793. Many months after the initial concept was approved and developed, the cranes and barges delivered a 60-ton head onto the platform in the lake water. The eyes and mouth opening; cast, chorus, supers and stuntmen running up and down the numerous sets of stairs (apparently over 150 stairs) connecting various stages and platforms — but that was only a part of the stage. There were multiple stages with hundreds of performers that included the aerialists, rock climbers and divers — and numerous cast members, including the tenor in the title role, jumped into the lake at some point. It certainly was a memorable production.

The orchestra of the Bregenz Festival is the Vienna Philharmonic which played beautifully under the baton of Maestro Enrico Calesso (but hidden from the audience other than two large screens simulcasting from their space). The cast was great — Serbian born tenor Zoran Todorovich, living in Germany, was in the title role, and soprano from Uruguay Maria José Siri as Maddalena de Coigny, to mention just the two. The unfortunate reality of the festival is that due to its location, everyone is miked and the sound then mixed which was not always perfect. Still, it was a wonderful experience and I am truly pleased to have been there, even in the rain. The show went on through the rain and the audience, pretty much like our last year’s Opera Al Fresco audience, didn’t move until the end.

Summer opera festivals, part 2

Wednesday, August 8. 2012

I have been going to the summer festival at the Arena di Verona for many years and every time I go, I come to the same conclusion: no other place can beat it. It’s mainly because of the acoustical properties of the ancient Roman amphitheater that is far superior to other summer festival outdoor venues that I have been to. I have to admit that the sheer size of their budget allows for presenting each and every opera with best possible singers, huge choruses, supers and as a spectacle works with the masses there too, both the educated and the novices. The orchestra and chorus are of the highest quality. The cast has, in my experience, always been stellar.

This year was the 90th festival — the festival started in 1913 but had a few interruptions during the war years. 

This year I am seeing three operas in Verona; two last week and I will see one more on my way back to Rome.

Don Giovanni was the first one and the interesting fact was that this was the first time that Verona summer festival presented it. They gave the honour to the almost-90-year-old Franco Zeffirelli, the legend of opera, to both design the set and to direct it. It was an excellent production where Zeffirelli gave it a sense of Mozart’s time in terms of how he handled the production — both the look and the performing style. It worked well in spite of having hundreds on stage, which would have certainly not been the case at the time when the opera was first composed. Great cast with special mention of one of the world’s most celebrated bass-baritones, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, in the title role, well-established opera buffa interpreter Bruno de Simone as Leporello, young Bulgarian bass Deyan Vatchkov as Masetto (although I really wanted to hear him sing a different role!) and a promising young tenor from Albania, Saimir Pirgu, as Don Ottavio. I am now not sure if I am listening this year differently for male roles as we keep wanting more men in our Edmonton Opera chorus, so I am somewhat obsessed with that aspect of our search, but it seems that there is a pool of talented male singers on the summer stages of Europe. I have to add that all the female principals were wonderful to hear too which is especially so for the gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Samuil as Donna Anna. I only heard the French mezzo Geraldine Chauvet live in roles like Adalgisa — I knew she does a great Carmen but didn’t imagine her as Zerlina. I love it when great singers surprise us with what range and rep they can actually do and do it so well. It was especially moving when at the end of the opera, Franco Zeffirelli came onstage in his wheelchair and the entire cast and the wonderful conductor Daniel Oren all went on their knees so as not to be higher than Zeffirelli! I felt truly privileged being there that night.

The following night was Romeo et Juliette under the Verona stars and the heat that evening even after midnight persisted as the temperature never went below 35! Other than Faust, Romeo et Juliette is really the only other Gounod opera performed with any regularity. The production, which has only four performances this year, was designed by Eduardo Sanchi, beautiful costumes were designed by Silvia Aymonino, it was directed by Francesco Micheli and musically well-presented by the conductor Fabio Mastrangelo. The sets, the use of the arena as backdrop, lighting and costumes were a really wonderful, magical modern interpretation of the Shakespearean story. There were a couple of moments when I questioned my own ability to understand some set elements or a directorial decision but I quickly got over it. In title roles, to start with, Polish coloratura soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Juliette was fantastic. I wished I heard John Osborn doing his European debut just a week earlier, but I have to give credit to Stefano Secco as very good Romeo. All in all — a very satisfactory opera experience.

Sampler of summer opera festivals

Wednesday, August 1. 2012

I made it to Bregenz in Austria late last night. I have a ticket to see Andre Chenier here tonight, but it has been raining. So, not sure if the weather gods will permit this extravagant set on the water of the lake to fascinate me tonight or not. I will keep you posted.

I started my sampler of summer opera festivals in Torre del Lago — a small town on a lake not far from Pisa and also just outside the seaside resort of Viareggio on the Tyrrhenian Sea in northern Italy. It’s a town where Puccini came as a young composer at the beginning of his career and spent 30 years of his life there. When Puccini first discovered the picturesque Torre del Lago, he found the area where he could return to the roots of his inspiration — the light, the sounds and scents of nature that could still inspire powerful and passionate emotions.  He first rented a house but then once the money started coming in from the successes of Manon Lescaut in 1893 and then La Bohème in 1896, he was able to purchase a house of his dreams — an ancient lookout tower. He had it restored and it was there that all of his major works were composed (Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine and Il Trittico). Puccini died in 1924 (only one act short of completing Turandot) and was first buried in Milano. His son moved Puccini’s remains to the small private chapel in the Torre del Lago villa in 1926. Visiting the villa (which is still privately owned by the family, similar to the Villa Verdi) brings this great man so close to us, his audience. It’s no wonder that 58 years ago, the Puccini Foundation started the Puccini Festival right outside the Puccini Villa on the shores of his beloved lake.

I stayed in Viareggo as the accommodation there was both cheaper and easier to find. This year’s festival had a novelty in its artistic programming — they added one opera by Verdi (La Traviata) to the usual Puccini opera choices (this year included Tosca, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème).

I saw Tosca first. A very traditional production, effective use of scenic elements to tell the story but not very inspiring as a production. What was great was the cast, as they certainly had some truly excellent singers — Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka as Tosca (some Edmonton Opera staff saw her as Tatiana in LA Opera’s Onegin last fall when she made her North American debut) and Rudy Park (a South Korean tenor who moved to Italy in 2002) as fantastic Mario Cavaradossi. I have heard him in a few roles before and hope that maybe one of these days we can hear him on our stage too.

The second night brought the production of Madama Butterfly. The production itself was lost on me. A very minimalist set that started well with excellent use of lighting on the naked, almost barren stage with the two oversized stones (seemed like the work of Barbara Hepworth). I wish it had stayed that way as bringing in some other geometrical shapes as set pieces later in the opera didn’t really work. The costumes didn’t manage to stay neither as an inspiration nor as a storytelling tool — in most cases — especially in the large chorus scenes they were a distraction and felt like they were inspired by Star Wars. I really felt for Cio Cio San struggling with her costume in Act 2, especially where she stumbled and tripped a number of times. The singers again (just like in Tosca) were worth the trip – Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi was a very strong Cio Cio San – both vocally and dramatically but the one that stood out was Pinkerton sung by the fantastic Venezuelan tenor Aquiles Machado. He was excellent.

So – just when we think that there are not enough tenors in this world, I was fortunate to hear two extraordinary voices in two nights!

Verona coming next…