Burden and Burton

Two American singers dominate Cooperstown’s summer opera

Britten’s final opera, “Death in Venice” (1973), is meant to disquiet, but it often just creeps me out. Thomas Mann and Britten’s conflicted responses to their own gay desires fuel a story about love for beauty that is, well, not pretty. Watching the middle-aged widower Aschenbach, a distinguished artist, discover eternal truth in the looks of a young adolescent boy (Tadzio) in plague-infected Venice that then kills him can be grim, and the music, if not well-shaped, can turn arid.

On July 25, Glimmerglass did very well by the score. Stewart Robertson had the sometimes-variable pit band in excellent form, with the percussion deserving special praise. The ravishingly vocalized and splendidly articulated and inflected first Aschenbach of the gifted tenor William Burden is a career milestone.

Perhaps due to budget considerations, director Tazewell Thompson and designer Donald Eastman kept all the action in the frame of a grand hotel lobby, indicating locale changes by shifts in windows and lighting. It took the production about 20 minutes to get beyond this and establish more specificity; more could still be achieved, the needed sense of dread was in short supply. But there is the basis of a fine show here, and Burden’s performance sets new standards for the role, often the province of desiccated veterans—including, to be honest, its creator, Britten’s life partner Peter Pears. Having an ancient-sounding Aschenbach seems too easily to render the opera’s events grotesque; having a still vital one, vocally and physically, raises the dramatic stakes.

Instead of the traditional disembodied amplified voice, John Gaston’s well-sung Apollo stayed very much onstage, working nicely with Nicola Bowie’s well-plotted movement for Tadzio and his friends. These dance passages on the beach can be embarrassing if routinely handled as “big opera house ballet.” But Bowie (herself gracefully embodying Tadzio’s mother) and a group of local student gymnasts led by Scott Chiba (Tadzio) and Benjamin Woodul (Jaschiu) achieved the proper ritualistic athletic quality. Though only 15, the talented Chiba looked too developed for Mann’s creation.

David Pittsinger skillfully sang the multiple roles created by John Shirley-Quirk; maybe a bit more variety in verbal characterization will come, but the vocalism was sure and attractive. The reliably impressive bass Craig Phillips turned in an excellently worked turn as the English Clerk. Many of the company’s Young American Artists took part, avidly creating crowds and cameo parts while dressed in rather stuffy haut-bourgeois grand hotel wear.

A French double-bill was a good idea, this being (with the production of Donizetti’s “Lucie de Lammermoor”) a “French summer” in Cooperstown. The Festival clearly wanted to make amends for having done so few French works in the original language (the great “Iphigénie en Tauride” a rare exception). A major part of Glimmerglass’ mission is training its Young Artists, and French always seems to place well behind Italian and German in most young singers’ priorities and skills––not to mention it being a lot harder to master! So some Gallic emphasis—also felt in the choice of songs for the Young Artist recitals the Glimmerglass offers––was salutary. The fact that not a single Francophone artist had been engaged for the French works was not.

Things started infelicitously, with Massenet’s 1894 “Le portrait de Manon,” a weak follow-up to what had been his biggest success. In this sequel, the now middle-aged hero of the 1884 “Manon,” des Grieux, lives for his memories of his beloved (who in Massenet’s version died on the way to deportation in America). His sentimentality is played upon to overturn his reluctance for his nephew Jean to marry a commoner, Aurore––dressed as Manon, she makes des Grieux in a flash remember love and youth and give in. (Turns out she’s Manon’s illegitimate niece.)

Admiring the real passion Massenet poured into the love music in “Manon,” one can only wonder that he was willing to try and exploit it so glibly here. The only memorable melodies are the snatches of remembered hit tunes from “Manon” (Massenet did not apply them with great judiciousness: how can des Grieux flash back to the melody of Manon’s Act “Je suis encore tout étourdie,” which she sings before he enters the stage?)

The orchestra under Andrew Bisantz gave a scrappy, unfocused reading, the loudness of which tended to obscure the text. The cast did not shine; only brilliantly stylish singing actors could have done so, and though pleasant-voiced tenor Colin Ainsworth (Jean) made an honorable attempt at Gallic vowels, the level of sung and spoken French was decidedly mediocre. After honorable service of some decades, baritone Theodore Baerg (des Grieux) retains a good, solid top, but this part demands a rich lower voice not in evidence July 24. Kristine Winkler (Aurore) has a nice twinkle in her tone but seemed below best form. Massenet wrote some enjoyable one-acts, “La Navarraise” and “Thérèse.” But this “Portrait” might well have remained veiled.

Much happier was the choice of “La Voix Humaine,” Poulenc’s dawn-of-the-Fifth-Republic setting of Jean Cocteau’s crackling period piece monodrama. A woman only identified as “Elle” is shown in her Parisian apartment, fielding calls from an ex-lover who has clearly dumped her for someone else. What we hear of their conversation— her side only, full of accusations posing as pleasantries and banal sallies covering up grief—is interrupted by technological problems now as remote-seeming as standing still for the daguerreotype––lack of message capacity, intrusive yet necessary urban operators and party line snoops.

Glimmerglass scored big where it counted most. Robertson’s stellar-sounding orchestra seemingly in a different league than their pre-intermission selves, with razor-sharp attack; and Amy Burton’s protagonist. Burton was a superb choice for Elle––not an ingénue, but still glamorous onstage, with excellent sung French and a gift for verbal coloration few American singers of her generation can match. Burton’s performance in this orchestral setting was of festival quality, and David Newell’s set (chic apartment backed by photo patterns of a partial male head, presumably that of the ex) was well-conceived, if a trifle wide (was the vast State Theatre playing area a consideration?)

Yet on the purely practical telephonic level, I didn’t grasp director Sam Helfrich’s intentions. Elle only picked up the phone at the end; before that, she traipsed about the apartment, in and out of the bathroom, singing her lines in a steady mezzo forte regardless of position in regard to the phone––so that any thought that she was using an (anyway anachronistic) speaker phone could be laid aside. Meanwhile, Elle went about her business quite collectedly, perusing magazines, attending to details of her dress, raiding the fridge. A certain “Far from Heaven” quality to the action suggested a Douglas Sirk-style 50’s glamour meltdown, perhaps a plausible way of playing “Voix Humaine” in departure from the usual suicidal hysteria. Still I wonder about the phone itself: was Elle replaying this (multiply interrupted) conversation?

The Britten continues through August 20, the double-bill through August 21.

David Shengold (shengold@ yahoo.com) writes about the arts for Time Out New York, Playbill, Opera and Opera News.

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