Apparently, it is now a Glimmerglass tradition to put on one show a year that looks totally crazed, and the director responsible is usually Christopher Alden. This summer’s exercise in silliness at the upstate opera festival in Cooperstown is Offenbach’s operetta Bluebeard, which, like most Glimmerglass productions, is destined to turn up at the New York City Opera. Of course, Offenbach always invites onstage lunatic humor; here we have a romp in which he uses the celebrated wife killer to satirize the loose marital and sexual practices of the Second Empire.
Needless to say, Alden isn’t interested in any of that. What he conjures up instead is a manic fantasia on American pop-culture themes, with an amiably clean-cut, Ted Bundy–type serial murderer in the middle of it all. Dysfunctional TV families, mafia movies, the Osmonds, Carol Burnett, the Texas chain-saw massacre, Groucho Marx, the theater of the absurd, a lounge-lizard sleaze, Elvis’s Las Vegas wedding chapel, Met Opera general manager Joe Volpe—the endless onslaught of homages, machine-gunned at the audience, gave me a headache and must set new standards in directorial incoherence and self-indulgence.
And yet if you shut your eyes, you will hear a superior performance of a neglected Offenbach score, one of his wittiest and most delicious—it’s amazing how singers can be so vocally and musically disciplined during such a strenuous workout. Tracey Welborn is an especially fine Bluebeard, as his exquisitely modulated tenor covers the huge range of the role with absolute security and tonal sheen. As Boulotte, the wife who eventually outwits him, Phyllis Pancella sings just as stylishly, and the entire cast seldom sacrifices vocal integrity in order to get another cheap laugh. I suppose conductor Gerald Steichen is at least partly responsible for the musical excellence, and for that much thanks.
If one looks hard, a small but viable repertory of choice American operas does exist. These works never vanished completely from sight after their premieres, and for the past few summers Glimmerglass has been reminding us of the fact with some valuable revivals. This year the festival brought back Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik, first performed by the New York City Opera in 1958, four months after the composer died just short of his 36th birthday. The piece has always had a coterie of admirers. It pops up with some regularity, even in Europe, and Cedille Records has released a splendid performance based on a production staged in 2001 by the Chicago Opera Theater.
The character of Schweik came to prominence right after World War I in a satirical novel by the Czech author Jaroslav Hasek. Happy-go-lucky and always in a jam, he’s a simple Everyman soldier and an archetype of the eternal survivor. The son of Czech immigrants, Kurka responded eagerly to the subject, and Schweik, who bumbles through the rigors of war and Army protocol as a sort of comic Wozzeck, comes to musical life as vividly as any operatic hero I can think of. The opera’s neoclassical format and mix of idioms—pop, jazz, march, dance, ballad—will probably put most people in mind of Kurt Weill. So will the small instrumental ensemble of wind, brass, and percussion, which adds pungency to subjects opera rarely addresses: an aria extolling enemas, a sextet with a prominent part for a dog, and the poignant final scene, in which Schweik, tired of wars and the crazy men who make them, puts down his rifle and simply wanders off into legend.
The opera’s requirements are hardly demanding, and Glimmerglass’s production is simplicity itself. John Conklin’s sets are little more than a handful of stark bleachers for sitting, climbing, and fighting, while it’s enough to suggest a bunch of woebegone WWI Army recruits by putting buckets with toilet plungers on their heads. Rhoda Levine’s edgy direction matches the music’s crisp energy, neatly supplied by conductor Stewart Robertson and his small band. Best of all, Anthony Dean Griffey as Schweik gently but firmly commands the stage every minute, both through the appealing emotional tug of his plangent tenor and the wide-eyed, lovably innocent character he creates.
The annual revival of a Baroque opera has also become a Glimmerglass tradition, and this year’s choice is Handel’s Orlando. Despite the freewheeling liberties taken in staging his operas, Handel hasn’t done badly at the hands of contemporary directors, who more often than not are in tune with his highly stylized brand of musical theater. Like so many of his operas, Orlando may be based on ancient legend, but character and relationships matter far more than time and place. In the last production I saw, Peter Sellars had the magician Zoroastro surveying the heavens from Cape Canaveral before moving the action to a trailer park in southern Florida. None of that tinkering really mattered, since Sellars made such an eloquent case for the essence of the piece, a cautionary tale of how love’s power, when misdirected, can drive mortals insane.
At Glimmerglass, director Chas Rader-Shieber and designer David Zinn took a more surreal approach but made the same point just as powerfully. The knight Orlando and his love-bewitched companions wander through a lush forest governed by both the wise council of Zoroastro and the reckless arrows from Amor’s bow, opposing forces that everyone must confront as they come to terms with their emotions. The sheer poetry of the visual detail and the characters’ expressive movements help make this journey of self-discovery so mesmerizing, not to mention the refined, technically polished Handel singing that one takes for granted these days. Under Bernard Labadie’s pliant musical direction, Bejun Mehta (Orlando), Joyce Guyer (Angelica), Christine Brandes (Dorinda), Michael Maniaci (Medoro), and David Pittsinger (Zoroastro) are all ideally cast. One wonders if the fabled singers of the composer’s time could have bettered them.