Night at the Operas

If I had arrived several weeks earlier, I might have seen “La Traviata” or perhaps “Simon Boccanegra,” but I was only to be in Venice for a few days, and there was no opera scheduled at Teatro La Fenice. I was happy to settle for a Diego Matheuz conducting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony—just to spend an evening listening to music in one of Europe’s most extraordinary concert halls. Unfortunately, Matheuz did not perform because there was a general strike on Friday. I did, however, manage to attend a Saturday night performance of a contemporary work. More on that later.

DSC01491loc-grande-guerra-page-001-344x1024Why did I care about this particular theater? The history, mostly. And the way it looks on the inside. Just being there, even if there isn’t the same there that was there before. This is the opera house where Verdi’s “La Traviata” made its debut. Same for “Simon Boccanegra,” where Maria Callas became a star. It is, or was, a remarkable place in the history of music. Why the dancing verbs? Because the place has a history that’s as crazy as any opera plot. Originally built as the San Benedetto Theatre in the 1730s, it burned down in 1774, and was rebuilt as Teatro La Fenice (“Fenice” translates as “phoenix”) to begin anew in 1792. Immediately, there was squabbles, the theater survived and by early 1800s, it was a world-class venue, mounting operas by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, the big names in Italy at that time. In 1836, it burned down again, and was quickly rebuilt a year or so later. That’s when Verdi started writing operas for La Fenice, including “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata,” which debuted there. So began a century and a half of magic—until 1996, when two electricians burned it to the ground. Remarkably, engineers had measured the theater’s acoustics only two months before, so the theater was rebuilt sounding much the same as its predecessor.

DSC01752That’s the theater that I visited, the 1,000 seat theater that hosted the premiere of “La grande guerra (vista con gli occhi di un bambino)” – a tale for men’s chorussopranonarrator and instruments with music by Claudio Ambrosini, featuring Sonia Visentin (soprano), Sandro Cappelletto (narrator), Matteo Liva (piano), Alberto Perenzin (trumpet), Giulio Somma (percussion), Coenobium Vocale (Maria Dal Bianco, choirmaster ). The title translates as: “The Great War (as seen through the eyes of a child”). The instrumentation was carefully chosen: the soprano Visentin represents the voices of the mothers and sisters and aunts who bore unceasing sorrow as they lived their short lives. The child, who wrote the World War I diaries, is manifest in the percussion work of a twelve-year-old musician who masterfully handled the xylophone, tympani and other instruments. The men’s choir—rather flawless in their relentless soldiering on through the era’s music—represent the soldiers. Capalletto’s narration tied everything together in the words of the child. So painful, so affecting. So frustrating—I wanted to understand every word, but I could only understand some of what was being said and sung.

DSC01772It was a beautiful performance in a beautiful place. But it was not my only engagement for the evening. Fearful of seeing no music in Venice, I also booked a seat at the tourist-oriented Musica a Palazzo, just a few dark alleyways, a campo (plaza), and several bridges away from the opera house. I raced over in the dark to catch the final act of an intimate staging of the story in an old mansion–the last Barbaggio family member died in 1804).  Each act is staged in a different room of the mansion. I arrived in time for Violetta to die in her bedroom, the men in her life beside her, three performers singing their hearts out for perhaps a hundred people with the accompaniment of a quartet (violin, viola, cello, piano). The intimacy of the performance, and the the familiar strangeness of the setting in the old mansion, turns out to be a delightful for a tourist to spend an evening in Venice—but you must be willing to buy into the schtick. The audience seemed to delight in doing just that.

DSC01499The contrast was fun to contemplate. On the one hand, a classic old opera house rebuilt from its own ashes less than twenty years ago presenting material from World War I in a 21st century setting. On the other, an old mansion dating back two centuries— Ca’Barbagio presenting an opera that debuted at La Fenice in 1853 for 21st century tourists visiting an old city of just 50,000 permanent residents whose long decline probably began more than 500 years ago. Today, the city exists mostly for its history and tourism—more than 20 million people visit Venice every year. I was lucky enough to spend my time at La Fenice sitting next to a local woman, Mirella, whose love for La Fenice has less to do with classic old operas and more to do with the many contemporary works, like those by Ambrosini, for this is, after all, her neighborhood music house.

Creepy Tale in an Lovely Setting

In 1905, Grace Brown drowned in Big Moose Lake. In 2005, the Metropolitan Opera debuted an opera about what happened to her. This past weekend, just about 100 miles from the tragedy, I watched the story come back to life, at my leisure, on the shores of nearby Lake Otsego. In fact, the whole sad affair took place in Cortland (75 miles away) and Utica (40 miles away). To this day, nobody is completely sure what happened to Grace Brown, but her story is as captivating today as it was when her love letters to Chester Gillette were revealed in connection with his 1906 trial. Did Chester Gillette lure his pregnant fiancé up to the Big Moose Lake to kill her? Probably. Did he swat her with an oar and send her to the depths; or did he lose faith in his plan at the final moment and lose his wife-to-be in an unfortunate accident? Whatever happened, it was kind of cool and kind of creepy to sit through a retelling of the story not far from where the real thing captivated newspaper readers a century (or so) ago.

You may recall that journalist-novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a very fat novel called “An American Tragedy” about this unfortunate turn of events. Chester was hired by his uncle to supervise a skirt factory in Cortland, NY; got one of the worker girls pregnant and promised to marry her; captured the attention and the heart of a wealthy and pretty socialite; got himself all confused; and figured out that the best way to solve the problem was to end Grace’s life.

i-ftZBWGQ-LThe next character in what turned out to a fascinating Saturday night at the Glimmerglass Festival just north of Cooperstown NY is Tobias Picker. If you don’t know the name, you should. “An American Tragedy” is his fourth opera (and one of several he has written with Gene Scheer’s libretto—you may know Scheer from 1998’s “American Anthem”). Picker’s other operas include “Emmeline,” which is excellent and available on CD, originally a Judith (“Looking for Mr. Goodbar”) novel; “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (same Roald Dahl story that gave us the animated film); and “Dolores Claiborne”) based upon the Stephen King novel. Which is to say: Tobias Picker is writing contemporary American operas about American stories (not many people are doing this, so it’s well worth noting).

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Two wonderful women—what’s a guy to do? Keep the one with the money, and kill off the other. His downfall: he kept the working girl’s love letters.

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As for this particular performance, a good solid brava! A solid cast of about fifty performers benefitted from very articulate direction (and especially good lighting design). The production was lifted by several nice turns by Vanessa Isiguen as the most unfortunate (and richly voiced) Roberta Alden (the Grace character, renamed, and shown in the blue frock, above), a fetching Cynthia Cook as the socialite who owns the bad guy’s heart (the blonde, appropriately placed above our Grace), and an impressive final act performance by the bad guy’s God-fearing, God-loving mother, Elvira, by Patricia Schuman. I should note that Glimmerglass is well-known for a superior Young Artists program, and many of the performers in this production are among this year’s class. BTW: Lots more photos of the performance here.

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

I believe Glimmerglass is one of my favorite places to enjoy opera in the United States. The opera house (built in 1987 but still looking new) is about eight miles (and another world) north of baseball-crazy Cooperstown: peaceful, easy, civilized. The Alice Busch Opera Theater is handsome and easily navigated, a tremendous relief for the seniors who may find other opera halls far less sensibly designed. The acoustics are wonderful, the seats are comfortable,  and the dedicated musicians, performers, and staging staff do a great deal with a budget that would be a fraction of some big city companies. When the weather is hot, the exterior walls open up to cool the place down during intermission (how great it that?!).

Every summer, the  Glimmerglass Festival produces three operas and one musical. This year, I missed “Carousel” (the musical), almost managed “Madame Butterfly,” and “Ariadne in Naxos.” Next year—I vow to make plans early—the bill will be “The Magic Flute,” “Macbeth,” “Candide,” and the far more obscure, “Cato in Utica” (by Vivaldi). And I learned a very important lesson: if you are planning to go to Glimmerglass, do not assume that it’s easy to arrange for a hotel room (unless you are working well ahead of the desired date). Tickets for next year are available now—and presumably, you can arrange for a room long before next season begins.

And in case you’re curious, the name Glimmerglass comes from a James Fennimore Cooper novel involving Lake Otsego. Cooper’s father founded the town that bears the family name. It’s a beautiful place, as lush and green and perfect as a summer’s day. I’m sure Grace was thinking the same thing when she and her husband-to-be floated out on July 11, 1906. Creepy enough that I almost drove up to Big Moose Lake to see what there was to see. But I thought better of it, and spent just a bit more time hanging around Lake Otsego, probably all for the best.

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