August 7 Glimmerglass: Double-bill opera premieres

Lauren Snouffer as Ruth Baldwin in "Later the Same Evening" (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Lauren Snouffer as Ruth Baldwin in “Later the Same Evening” (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Glimmerglass premieres of ‘Later the Same Evening’ and ‘A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck’ engaging, though little more

Both productions are entertaining and well-performed, but neither opera is likely to survive the test of time

By David Rubin

In its 37 seasons Glimmerglass Opera has presented a world premiere only four times.  In 2006 the company offered The Greater Good by Stephen Hartke and Philip Littell.  Before that (1999) came Central Park, three one-act operas that included Strawberry Fields by Michael Torke and A.R. Gurney.  Strawberry Fields, about a dying and confused elderly lady who believes she is at the opera house while sitting on a bench in Central Park, was among the most emotionally engaging pieces I have ever seen at Glimmerglass, and it brought me to tears.

Strawberry Fields worked because at its center was a sympathetic and recognizable character.   Many families must cope with an aging parent whose mental faculties are breaking down.  The contemporary setting features average New Yorkers in the Park who interact with the lady in credible ways.  The ending is predictable but distressing nonetheless.  Torke’s challenging, quirky, distinctive music fairly shouts “New York City” in its aesthetic.

This season the Glimmerglass Festival offered the world premiere of A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck (music by Jeanine Tesori and libretto by Tony Kushner); and the first professionally staged production in the U.S. of Later The Same Evening (music by John Musto and libretto by Mark Cambell).  Both pieces are very well made and entertaining.  Both received first-rate mountings with some excellent performances.  And both are cold, not just because one features a blizzard.  They leave the audience on the outside looking in.  No tears this time.

Later The Same Evening is a conceit that brings to the stage characters from five well-known paintings by Edward Hopper.  The paintings have a place of honor at center stage, displayed as they might be at an exhibition.  This is a risky artistic decision, given the genius of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.  In that show, Sondheim puts the characters of Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte on stage.  Who can forget how Sondheim recreated the painting in a coup de theatre at the first act curtain?  That’s tough competition for Later.

Librettist Mark Campbell has created stories for the Hopper characters and manipulates them so that, in plausible fashion, they end up grouped on the stage as they are in the paintings.  His slight stories include a married couple who no longer share the same interests; a widow about to embark on her first date; a young dancer departing for Indianapolis having failed to make it in New York; and a lonely usher at a Broadway theater where many of these characters collide.  The challenge for the audience was seeing how Campbell would move them around, like chess pieces, to fill out Hopper’s painterly visions.  His solutions are satisfying, but only the widow and the young dancer came alive on their own terms.

Musto’s music is rhythmically engaging, tonal, accessible, obligingly happy and sad, but without any distinctive melodic profile.  It does the job of propelling the action, such as it is, but it’s a minor player in the drama. 

Later is an ensemble piece, and Glimmerglass cast it well.  Of particular note was the veteran soprano Patricia Schuman as the widow; soprano Lauren Snouffer as the ballet dancer; and tenor Andrew Stenson as Jimmy O’Keefe, so beguiled by his night at the theater that he quits his job as a teacher in Lynchburg, Virginia and vows to stay in the big city.  Both Stenson and Snouffer are members of Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program, and they were the most successful at making the audience care about any of these Hopper-inspired creations.

Director Leon Major and Set Designer Erhard Rom did an expert job — using just chairs and the paintings — of creating a variety of interiors, from a small apartment to a Broadway theater.  Mark McCullough’s lighting kept the paintings in focus for the audience, although they could have been larger.  David Angus, the company’s music director, had the measure of the score and kept it from sagging.

Hopper’s paintings are celebrated for how well he communicates the isolation of his subjects from their environment.  This is a tough challenge for opera — the most emotional of art forms.  Opera characters must be extravagant.  These never leave the canvas.

Blizzard features playwright Eugene O’Neill arguing ferociously about money (or the lack thereof) with his wife Carlotta and trying to get over bad critical reviews for The Iceman Cometh.  He is so depressed that he leaves the house, walks into the blizzard, almost freezes to death, and is rescued by a Marblehead police officer, the only believable character in the piece.

Kushner’s libretto, not surprising for this hugely talented playwright, is witty, vulgar, and poetic (all strengths of his Angels in America). Tesori almost matches him with music that is energetic, appropriate to the action, and varied, but also without much melodic profile.  The two combined best for the closing aria, delivered by tenor Jeffrey Gwaltney as the Marblehead cop.  His recounting of the rescue is at once matter-of-fact, just as a policeman might offer it, but also moving.  Gwaltney, another member of the talented Young Artists group, delivered the aria like a pro and brought the piece to a perfect close.

Patricia Schuman and bass-baritone David Pittsinger were the warring O’Neill couple.  Schuman chewed the scenery during the argument, and Pittsinger was noble as he lay down in the blizzard to die, with a snow bank for a pillow.

Tesori conducted her own composition with brio and looked mightily pleased at the curtain call.  Francesca Zambello, the artistic and general director of Glimmerglass, directed.  (A more substantial musical theater piece by the team of Tesori and Kushner will be at Syracuse Stage in the 2011-12 season: Caroline, or Change.)

One member of the large group with whom I attended said she would much rather hear two new American operas any day than a revival of some Verdi rarity, and the rest of this group liked both operas much more than I did.  The audience was enthusiastic, and the house was filled. 

But I doubt either opera will have legs beyond conservatory performances.

Details Box:
What: Later the Same Evening and A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck
When: August 7
Who: Glimmerglass Festival (formerly Glimmerglass Opera)
Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $26 to $106
(discounts include: 50% students, 35% educators, 10% seniors)
Remaining performance: Monday, 8/22/11, 1:30 p.m.