Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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Glimmerglass Macbeth and Cato in Utica
July 21, 2015

Macbeth

From Cape Cod, Peggy and I made the five hour drive across Massachusetts with our friend Marilee Wheeler to Glimmerglass, which is located on the north shore of Lake Otsego, not far from Cooperstown, NY, where the Baseball Hall of Fame is located.   Perhaps of greater note to culture lovers, this is the territory of James Fenimore Cooper, America's first major novelist and author of the Leatherstocking Tales, that collection of novels that includes The Last of the Mohecans and The Deerslayer.  Incidental intelligence: one of Cooper's stories, The Bravo, went on to become an Italian opera by Mercadante, a contemporary of Donizetti and Verdi.  So far as I know, it is the first American literary work to become a European opera.

Glimmerglass is actually a rural "campus" which houses several buildings related to the Festival including the Alice Busch Theater where most performances take place.  It is a rustic-modern structure, covered, but with sides screened-in to let in the natural air.  The advantage of the locale--its beauty and isolation in a natural setting--is also something of a disadvantage: lodgings are not always easy to find nearby.  This year's festival, overseen by the opera director Francesca Zambello, includes the two operas we saw as well as Candide and The Magic Flute.  There are also concerts, lectures and master classes; like so many summer opera festivals tucked away in beautiful places, this one also includes a program for young artists, who populate the chorus and help out in all manner of ways.

Our weekend seemed to be centered on a theme of power politics and justice, and the two operas bookended a talk by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about opera and the law.

I must confess that Macbeth is one of my absolute favorite operas, and it was certainly Verdi's first towering masterpiece.  Verdi's earlier nine operas have a lot of wonderful music with those unforgettable arching melodies that were his special provenance, but Macbeth (1847) was the first time that Verdi was challenged by a great work of literature, one that did not have one-dimensional  characters.  He seized the challenge for all it was worth, and years later, in 1865, he substantially revised the opera, strengthening it with all the knowledge that he had gained as a composer in the intervening years.  The changes are substantial enough that the Verdi Institute considers the two versions separate operas.  Today, we almost always hear the revised (1865) version, and that is what we got here, with one small addition--Macbeth's on-stage death scene, which Verdi dropped from the revised opera.

Macbeth is about power and ambition, and the way that the desire for power corrupts a man who in other circumstances might be decent, until all that is left is "sound and fury, signifying nothing."  It is surely Shakespeare's darkest play, but its lesson resonates and is, unfortunately, played and replayed over and over in our world.  Piave's libretto for Verdi is excellent too, and very close to Shakespeare.  In the last hundred years, long after Shakespeare's death and after Verdi's too, one sees Macbeth at work in the world all too often--in the two World Wars, and especially with Hitler, but also with Assad and far too many other dictators and strong men.  As adjunct to the political theme, in Macbeth we see the two main characters consume themselves and disintegrate before our eyes into wretchedness and self-loathing.

In Director Anne Bogart's version at Glimmerglass, the time frame of the story is moved from medieval Scotland to some vague period between the two World Wars--late 1920's or early 1930's judging from the costumes.  The men wore military uniforms of some unnamed Kafkaesque army and carried guns and not swords.  The Scottish refugees who sing the great "Patria oppressa" chorus in the last act are refugees during our lifetime, or near it--for, alas, in our time the tide of millions fleeing war and chaos the world over has not diminished.  Tragically, Macbeth is a tale which never ends.  All of this worked pretty well, except for a set (by James Schuette) which consisted of backdrops  splashed with huge red roses.  At a Q&A with the singers and Francesca Zambello after the opera, Eric Owens, our Macbeth, explained that the director had been asked by the designer what she had in mind.  'I see flowers', Ms. Bogart was quoted as saying.  So there were flowers, garish and distracting.  I didn't get it.  On stage there was a two story house facade; one side was the front of an elegant London-ish house that one might have seen in numerous BBC/PBS series.  On the back side there was a dark gray wall with windows.  The set revolved several times to depict the Macbeths' castle (elegant side) or almost every other setting in the opera (dark side)--blasted heath, forest, battle scene.  Sometimes the set was turned perpendicular to the audience, dividing the stage.  When that happened, I wondered how people who were not seated in the middle of the theater could see what was going on on the "wrong" side of the wall, e.g. Macbeth's death.  Lighting by Robert Wierzel was fine, and the chorus, powerful.

According to Zambello, the witches in Macbeth (play or opera) are a director's nightmare.  How to handle them and not have the audience laugh, especially if the work is updated as here?  The answer was to treat them as women (the surtitles translated the Italian "streghe" ('witches') as "women"--housewives, maybe with an extracurricular activity relating to magic and foresight.  As Eric Owens pointed out, they are not evil; they don't do anything bad.  They just predict the future quite accurately.  They are not so much Wagnerian Norns weaving the thread of destiny as they are predictors of future events.  If you think about how often Macbeth has happened in the real world and continues to happen, the future is really not so hard to foretell.  Anyway, it worked well here, I thought, with these women in their 1930's cloth coats (and one in a fur) and period hats.  Later, and obviously, they became the Scottish people or the partygoers when Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost.  They are us.

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The singing in this production was just top-notch.  Eric Owens, the Artist-in-Residence at Glimmerglass brought his powerful bass-baritone to every piece.  He was a portrait of fear and worry descending into self-loathing with an eye tick that got more pronounced.  It was frightening to watch from the second row.  Melody Moore was his equally powerful Lady, launching with fury into her entrance aria "Vieni, t'affretta" ("Come, hurry here") and especially its furious cabaletta "Or tutti sorgete, ministri infernali" ("Now rise up, ministers of hell"). She is full bore on, or "all in" as they say these days.  There can be no doubt that she shares Macbeth's murderous ambition, and then some.  Moore's voice shook the rafters in one of opera's most punishing roles.

In a very strange directorial/musical choice, Acts I and II were played together without the break which so obviously comes after the great ensemble ("Schiudi, inferno"--'Open, hell') on the discovery of King Duncan's murder.  Verdi, I think, would have been horrified, because not only does the audience need a break after all the intensity and drive of Act I, but also because it gives the singers no chance for a breather.    Moore was required to stay on stage and immediately sing "La luce langue," the aria that Verdi added to the score in 1865, and continue on through the banquet scene and its coloratura brindisi, "Si colmi il calice" ('Fill up your cup') to the end of another big finale.  In any case, she did it, and so did Mr. Owens in his taxing role.

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Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene is the high point of the opera, and it shows her disintegration through subconscious guilt and fear.  It is certainly the greatest thing that Verdi had written up to that point in 1847.  Ms. Moore was wonderful, and she reached the high D flat without shrieking: "Andiam, Macbetto, andiam, andiamo."  "Let's go Macbeth, let's go, let's go...."  Verdi asks his Lady to be a dramatic soprano and a bel canto coloratura all at once.  That demand has brought more than one singer to disaster, but Moore's portrayal was great, in the noblest sense of that word.

Soloman Howard was a splendid, sonorous Banquo.  He is a young singer at the start of what should be a great career.  His aria "Come dal ciel precipita," sung just before he is murdered by Macbeth's thugs, made me wish that he had more to do in the opera.  Tenor Michael Bradenburg's Macduff was good too, but Marco D. Cammarota as Malcolm was at least as impressive even though he doesn't get the tenor aria.  Both are Young Artists associated with the Festival.

As I mentioned earlier, the production imported Macbeth's brief death-aria "Mal per me" from the 1847 version.  Verdi was never quite satisfied with the ending, and in 1865 wrote a fugue for the final battle where Macbeth dies offstage.  "Mal per me" gives the bass-baritone a chance for the final word, but Owens had delivered such a beautiful "Pietą, rispetto, onore" a little earlier, with such fine legato singing, that it was scarcely needed.

The opera will be broadcast on WQXR.org on November 7.  It was an exciting evening: a fine performance of a wonderful opera.


Catone in Utica

The following evening we saw the American premiere of Vivaldi's opera Catone in Utica.  For those who don't remember their Roman history, Cato the Younger (95-46 B.C.) was a vigorous opponent of Julius Caesar when Caesar crossed the Rubicon, challenging the Roman Senate, and the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire with a dictator/emperor.  Cato fought Caesar, eventually fleeing to the Roman city of Utica in North Africa (the ruins are in present day Tunisia).  He was known for his devotion to the cause of republicanism, his unbending morality and his refusal to take bribes.  He was a Stoic, and when he was finally defeated by Caesar, he committed suicide.  Over 1,300 years after Cato's death, Dante Alighieri makes him the Guardian on the shores of the mountain of Purgatory in the Divine Comedy, one of only two pagans allowed in that particularly Christian realm of the Afterlife.  Cato's reputation as a man who refuses to compromise his ideals and die for them continued in the Eighteenth Century when he was highly revered by the revolutionaries of the Enlightenment who were dedicated to the cause of a Republic.  Joseph Addison's play Cato, a Tragedy (1713) was one of George Washington's favorites, and he had it performed for the troops at Valley Forge.  Today, the Cato Institute is a libertarian think-tank founded by Charles Koch which takes its name from the Roman senator.

Metastasio, the greatest of early eighteenth century librettists, wrote his libretto for Catone in Utica for the composer Leonardo Vinci in 1728.  As with most Metastasio libretti, it was taken up in quick succession by other composers including Leo and Hasse.  Handel concocted a pasticcio on the libretto using the music of several composers for the arias in 1732.  Vivaldi's setting dates from 1737, near the end of his career.  Both the libretto and the score present serious problems for anyone wanting to produce it today.

Metastasio had originally given the story an historically correct, tragic ending for Vinci's opera, but audiences, who always expected happy endings, were horrified, and he was forced to change it to a traditional forgive-and-forget-and-be-happy ending which is neither historically accurate nor convincing.  Vivaldi may have wanted to use the tragic ending, but he too was constrained to end the opera with an unconvincing "happy" concluding chorus of the principals.  The other main--and more serious--problem is that Vivaldi's music for all of Act I is missing.  Acts II and III are complete, but how can you have a three act operas without the first act?  Recently, Alessandro Ciccolini reconstructed a first act using music from other Vivaldi operas and instrumental works and newly composing recitatives in Vivaldi's style.  Alan Curtis, who died days before the Glimmerglass production, then came out with a critical edition.  That version has been performed in Europe in recent years and is the basis of the one recording.

Glimmerglass decided to do something different.  They simply dispensed with the first act, which was mainly exposition, altogether.  Each of the six characters is "introduced" with short descriptions on a scrim as they came forward one by one while the overture (imported from Vivaldi's opera L'Olimpiade (?)) was played.  Then the action began with what was originally Act II.  That action, typical of opera seria, revolves around the entanglements of love as much as politics.  Marzia, Cato's daughter, is in love with his enemy Caesar; Cato wants to marry her to his ally, Arbace, Prince of the Numidians.  Fulvio, Caesar's lieutenant is torn between his love for Emilia, the widow of Gnaeus Pompey, whom Caesar's legions have slain at the Battle of Pharsalia, and his loyalty to Caesar.  Emilia plots to kill Caesar, but she is thwarted by Cato, who in spite of his hatred of Caesar will not allow him to be killed nefariously.  When Utica falls to Caesar's army--well, everything either ends happily or Cato commits suicide.  Glimmerglass chose suicide, although Vivaldi did not write music for such an ending.  The conductor, Ryan Brown and the Director, Tazewell Thompson kept the tragic ending by using one of Ciccolini's reconstructed arias from Act I, but here turning the vocal music into an extended oboe solo: Cato's death by slitting his wrists is accompanied by instrumental music; there is no aria.  (The real Cato, according to Plutarch, disemboweled himself on his sword, and when that did not kill him, he tore his exposed bowels apart, which did the trick.  That would be a tough one to stage; in our production, the slumped-over Cato, sitting in a chair with his back to the audience, had red material tied to his wrists and trailing on the floor, a stylized representation of his suicide.) 

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The impressive set by the veteran John Conklin depicted a ruined Roman arch with bits and pieces of Roman columns and architectural elements.  The backdrop seen through the arch changed from time to time to depict sand dunes, the sun against the sky, a large view of the moon and other romanticized classical views.  The local art museum in Cooperstown (the Fenimore) had a show on Maxfield Parrish, the early twentieth century American artist who painted many pictures with women framed in arches and dressed in classical drapery.  I wondered if Conklin was inspired by his work.  (The Museum also hosted a display of costumes from the famous Marc Chagall designed production of The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan.)  It was an impressive set, and for the most part the costumes (by Sara Jean Tosetti), somewhere between ancient Roman and Star Wars fantasy were handsome.  Cato himself, bald with an aquiline nose, could have stepped off of a Roman coin.  The set was well lit by Robert Wierzel.

Glimmerglass used two countertenors for the original castrato roles of Caesar and Arbace, John Holiday (right in photo below) and Eric Jurenas respectively.  Jurenas, a Young Artist, was very good in his one aria early in the first part, but Holiday, a recent graduate of Juilliard School was simply amazing as Caesar.  He had no trouble with the extraordinary high notes, leaps and intricate ornamentation of the role.  (One of Cato's arias in Ciccolini's reconstruction, "Con si bel nome," given to Cato in the reconstruction was here used for Caesar.)  Holiday was equally fine in the bravura pieces (of which there are several) and the slow, legato of his first aria.  His is a truly beautiful instrument as well as technically adroit.  He brought down the house.  One audience member was heard to say on leaving, "We've heard more notes tonight than in all the other operas combined, and they cut the first act!"

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Cato himself is a tenor role, and Thomas Michael Allen (left in photo above)certainly looked the way we might imagine the crusty, unbending old republican to have been.  But vocally he was not in the same league as the two counter tenors, though adequate.  Three mezzo-sopranos completed the cast: Megan Samarin as Cato's daughter Marzia (historically, Marcia was the name of Cato's second wife, not his daughter); Allegra De Vita in the trouser role of Caesar's lieutenant Fulvio; and Sarah Mesko as Pompey's embittered widow Emilia.  All were fine.  Originally, Marzia was sung by Vivaldi's protege, muse and probable mistress Anna Giró.  Giró was evidently an amazing actress who could move an audience with her pathos, but she was not as technically adept as many of the other singers for whom Vivaldi wrote.  The lack of technical brilliance shows up in Marzia's role, but Ms. Samarin, a Young Artist, was effective.  Allegra De Vita, another Young Artist, was very good too in her difficult aria, and Mesko as Emilia garnered cheers from the audience in more than one bravura piece.  Altogether a fine evening for singing!

Ryan Brown, who is the driving force behind Washington-based Opera Lafayette, led the modern baroque-sized orchestra, augmented with a theorbo, with knowing skill.  Tazewell Thompson directed the action skillfully, never upstaging the singers with irrelevant activity.  Baroque opera was centered around the singers more than the opera of any other period, and Thompson knew to leave well enough alone so that the singers could shine and astonish with their virtuosity.

Cato in Utica  might have been chosen for Glimmerglass production because Utica, NY, named after the ancient city is only 35 miles away.  (Rome, NY, is close by too.)  At least a number of opera lovers from Utica provided support for the production.  It may not be an opera that will ever be produced outside of festival conditions because of problems with a performing edition, but it provided an exciting evening in the theatre.

Between the two operas, on Saturday afternoon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg provided commentary for a number of scenes and arias performed by the Young Artists, scenes which were related to the law.  She also took questions in a lengthy Q&A after the concert-lecture, many of them about the monumental decisions that came down at the end of the recent Court term.  Ginsburg and her co-justice Antonin Scalia are ardent opera fans, and Ginsburg comes to Glimmerglass each summer.  As much as they are polar opposites on the court, they are friends away from it, joined by their common love of opera.  They frequently attend operas together.  Just a couple of weeks ago a new opera by Derrick Wang debuted in Virginia called Scalia/Ginsburg.  Humorously, Ginsburg explained, Scalia got top billing in the title because he has seniority on the court, and seniority is very important there. The Marriage of Figaro, Ginsburg confessed, is her favorite opera "on the days when it's not Don Giovanni."

Somehow it seemed appropriate to have a talk by one of the world's foremost jurists between two operas about justice, politics and morality.  Macbeth is the archetype of those who would distort all of those qualities for the sake of ambition, and Cato is about an idealist who is so unbending that his otherwise admirable devotion to his ideals brings down his own family and even the  Republic that he so loves.  Such lessons are forever relevant and timeless.  It is also nice to know that two rivals on the highest court in this country are brought together by the forever relevant and timeless beauty of music.

Charles Jernigan


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