Classic Mistake

High on Haydn: Lisa Saffer in Orlando Paladino.Photo: George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera

What are summer music festivals for if not to put a fresh perspective on classics long dulled by routine? That, I suppose, justifies Glimmerglass’s unsettling new take on opera’s favorite twin bill, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. For starters, the traditional order has been reversed, and Pag now precedes Cav, a necessary step in director Robin Guarino’s rethinking of the two operas and how they relate to each other. In this production, the blur between playacting and real life in Pagliacci is extended to Cavalleria as well. The characters of each opera wander freely from one tragedy to the other within John Conklin’s arena-and-bleachers set, while Tonio the clown acts as our Pirandellian guide.

It’s an intriguing approach, but the theatrical reality of these down-to-earth melodramas simply cannot support it. In order to create one opera out of two, Guarino seizes on the static scene-setting moments in each to impose her most fanciful inventions and ambiguous encounters. Unfortunately, the musical themes in these sequences almost always refer to specific characters, events, and emotions, contradicting the newly made-up action every time – another instance of a director who can’t or won’t hear what is plainly there in the score. It gets worse. Instead of stabbing Nedda and her lover, Silvio, Canio hits her with an ice bucket and then shoots him – apparently with blanks since they all return in Cavalleria, where Canio knifes Silvio for real and is viciously beaten up by village thugs during Alfio’s jolly carter song. Guarino has plenty of other ideas just as bad, so many, in fact, that the singers are too occupied with directorial conceits to perform the operas that Mascagni and Leoncavallo actually wrote. I’ve certainly never seen a Cav and Pag with less gut impact.

It’s probably indicative of a failed concept that the most persuasive moment arrives when Eugenie Grunewald and Keith Ikaia-Purdy are allowed to sing the heated Santuzza-Turiddu duet more or less straight, unencumbered by fancy gimmicks. John Mac Master might well be an effective Canio when not asked to give a W. C. Fields impersonation, and the rest of the cast is at least game. Cav/Pag is this summer’s only Glimmerglass production not scheduled to reappear at the City Opera, and I’m not surprised.

Not only is Mark Adamo’s Little Women due in New York next spring, but it is also popping up all over the country. Since its 1998 premiere in Houston, no new American opera in years has enjoyed such a huge success, including a PBS telecast and a recording. The high-recognition title helps, of course, but Adamo has done his job well, adapting Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel for operatic purposes with considerable skill and theatrical savvy. In fact, his libretto has more emotional weight and dimension than the three popular Hollywood films based on the book, examining the family unit as an organic entity with Jo as the central figure stubbornly resisting change. The music is nothing if not accessible and well written for voices, although Adamo’s own compositional voice, pleasantly and modestly in the service of the material, tends to be rather anonymous.

Directed by Rhoda Levine and conducted by John DeMain, the Glimmerglass production unfolds smoothly, tapping effectively into the work’s charm, humor, and poignancy. I especially appreciated the authentic New England atmosphere conjured up by set designer Peter Harrison, perhaps because both of us hail from Concord, Massachusetts, and grew up virtually in the shadow of the Alcott house. The entire cast clearly enjoys performing the opera, particularly Jennifer Dudley, whose luminous soprano conveys all of Jo’s vulnerability as well as her toughness.

Omf this summer’s four operas, by far the most compelling is Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. But then, this work is so exquisitely written, the characters so immediate, the music so singer-friendly, the powerful climax so seamlessly achieved, that bad performances are hard to imagine. I’ve never seen the opera fail to move audiences, from my first exposure (Vienna in 1959 with Irmgard Seefried as a radiant Blanche de la Force) through many subsequent viewings at the Metropolitan down to the humblest music-school production.

The Glimmerglass version stands among the best of them. Director Tazewell Thompson manages the opera’s cinematic flow flawlessly, sharply defining each individual character without neglecting the larger community spirit that binds the Carmelite nuns to one another as they move ever nearer to their tragic date with the guillotine. Even the strained voices of Anne Evans (Madame Lidoine) and Robynne Redmon (Mother Marie) can’t detract from the overall effect of this superb ensemble effort, led by Maria Kanyova as Blanche, who finally conquers her fear of life by discovering how to die.

Sooner or later, Glimmerglass was bound to get around to Haydn. Like Schubert, Haydn was a great composer who had little luck with opera. His dozen or so stage works have always been more appreciated by connoisseurs than by the general public, and I’m afraid that situation is unlikely to change with this production of Orlando Paladino. Using many of the familiar figures from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, for centuries a rich source of operatic material, Haydn produced an episodic heroic-comic opera that never quite makes up its mind what it wants to be. The funny bits are clever and the serious moments often dig deep, but the characters never come to life as they do in the work of a born opera composer such as Mozart. It’s odd, but Haydn seemed able to charge his symphonies with far more theatrical energy.

I’m not sure that staging Orlando in the manner of a nursery tale was the right way to go, but apparently that’s what director James Robinson and designer John Conklin wanted to suggest. When not giving in to temper tantrums, the characters act out by scrawling angry graffiti on the walls, wave paper scimitars, and cavort with cardboard cutout sheep. It is never terribly amusing, but at least Lisa Saffer (Angelica) and Paul Austin Kelly (Orlando) are able to wring a measure of heartfelt emotion from their mad scenes as well as sing them with awesome virtuosity.

Four Operas at Glimmerglass
Cavalleria Rusticana, by Mascagni, and Pagliacci, by Leoncavallo
Little Women, by Mark Adamo
Dialogues of the Carmelites, by Poulenc
Orlando Paladino, by Haydn.

Classic Mistake