Saturday, August 12, 2006

Field trip to Glimmerglass

Yesterday the AJ cohort traveled to Glimmerglass Opera near Cooperstown, NY (best known as home to the baseball hall of fame) for a tour of the house and a performance of Janacek's opera "Jenufa." Aside from the house being frigid (um, hello New York, it's still AUGUST why are you giving me 60 DEGREE WEATHER?), it was a truly excellent experience.

I wanted to be sure to get down my thoughts on this while it is still reasonably fresh in my mind - though 7 hours of travel-with-cat has somewhat scattered my thoughts a bit. I accidentally left my notebook with a few thoughts I jotted down on my table in Syracuse, but I'll give it a go all the same.

I'll start by saying that I loved the production. Though I was not previously acquainted with Jenufa, the general story is a familiar one in opera, and it was refreshing to see it play out in a less conventional setting. Isabella Bywater designed the costumes and sets to place this in the American Midwest in the middle of the 20th century (the story as written plays out in a Czech village in the late 19th century). The Glyndebourne production we watched on DVD was set as written, and I found that Glimmerglass's updating made the story much more immediate and accessible, overall more powerful. The palette was full of dusty, muted tones and faded florals, but the characters generally would add a shock of color - a pink cardigan here, a vibrant blue-and-red fabric there - so it didn't all melt into bleak monochrome.

This production was superbly cast - at least on the female side of things. Not only were each of the three leads ideally suited to their roles vocally, but they also looked their parts, with seeming little effort from costumes and makeup. Somehow the casting director got the perfect body and voice type for Jenufa, Kostelnicka and Grandmother Buryja, which must be a rarity.

Take the grandmother, for instance. Ideally you'll have an older singer in the role, but that often brings with it the peril of hiring someone who should have been put out to pasture long ago. Not the case with mezzo Judith Christin - though she's on the older side of the opera singer spectrum, she still has full control over a rich voice and a nice stage presence. She was physically and vocally old in her role, but never veered into the harrowing world of warbliness that so often accompanies these parts.

The two strongest cast members were Maria Kanyova as Jenufa and Elizabeth Byrne as Kostelnicka. Both sopranos demonstrated a mastery of vocal control and a range of entirely believable emotion. Most striking to me was, again, how each of them perfectly matched the physicality of their roles - especially Byrne. A sturdy woman, she cut an imposing figure that was just intimidating enough to give her authority and a bi of a scary edge, but she wasn't so hard that you didn't empathize with her.

For me, and I imagine for most of the audience, the high point of the opera was the second act. This is the point of highest dramatic tension. It also happens to be the act in which we hear the least from the male leads - and not to the detriment of the opera. Here it was advantageous having just seen the DVD version - I was so riveted by Jenufa and Kostelnicka that I hardly craned my head back to read the supertitles at all. In their solo scenes, they each commanded the stage with such energy and dramatic and vocal presence that you couldn't take your eyes off of them.

The second act was also the one in which the jury finally weighed in on the gentlemen leads, Scott Piper as insensitive rich boy Steva and Roger Honeywell as Laca, his Judd Fry-esque, lurky, neglected half-brother. In the first act, Steva is drunk, and as such is entitled to reel about the stage or teeter back and forth while attempting to stand still. Subsequent acts call for Sober Steva, who, unfortunately, came across much the same as Drunk Steva minus the tinge of silliness. Piper has a perfectly lovely tenor voice - but the problem was that he seemed content to coast on his voice alone, and the result was a closed-off, uninspired performance that left me thinking he had no clue what his character was saying. His emotional range was pretty much nonexistent, and once that revealed itself, his vocals seemed flat as well. His utter lack of understanding of the physicality of his character was thrown into sharp relief by his outstanding female costars. It just seemed to me that a character so inclined to flirtation and flaunting his wealth and status, so arrogant, wouldn't stand around with his hands in his pockets, restlessly shifting his weight but never committing to action. But maybe that's me.

Laca made much more of an effort, dramatically and physically, and at times he succeeded. His strongest act was the first - admittedly, the act in which Laca sees the most action. Subsequent acts saw Laca shrink into a weak, weepy man-boy. By the third act as he sat in a smallish wooden chair against the set wall wearing a suit with a too-short tie (perhaps meant to be a socio-economic indicator?), his face frozen in an operatic "I'm-crying-now" twist, he bore more resemblance to a troubled Buddy Elf (a la Will Ferrell) than to the lumbering embodiment of pent-up aggression we'd seen in the first act. Singing-wise, it was obvious Honeywell was struggling through something, clearing his throat frequently when he wasn't singing. He did have a back pocket full of money notes, which he occasionally pulled out with great verve, and I was duly impressed. However, that was about five notes out of how many? Perhaps we can chalk up the inconsistency to whatever was plaguing his throat last night, but I have the feeling there's a little more voice hiding somewhere.

Let's see, does that cover it all? I might go back week after next when I return from Atlanta to see the Barber of Seville. I'd love to sit somewhere else in the house - and with a maximum capacity of 985, there probably aren't any really bad seats, as they say. We were on the third row on the left side last night, where the orchestra could overpower and the supertitles were difficult to see without completely ignoring the stage below.

Overall, Glimmerglass seems to be all it's cracked up to be. But next time, I'm bringing a blanket!


Dave Allen said...

you are so right about Laca-as-Judd-Fry! it definitely takes me back to playing Curly my senior year in high school. so just for old times' sake:

Poor Judd is daid
Poor Judd Fry is daid
He's looking oh so peaceful and serene
He's all laid out to rest
With his hands upon his chest
And his fingernails have never been so clean

Anonymous said...

I had written this long comment about opera, the ol' P-S and STARS, but the roaming wireless signals that surround my house suddenly shut off. So I have no comment (but I am going to sign this post using the "other" option).