Glimmerglass’s ‘An American Tragedy’ an American triumph
The opera’s three major roles, all played by Glimmerglass Young Artists, reveal the depth of talent within the company’s apprenticeship program
The Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York continued its 2014 season of operas that highlight Men Behaving Badly (Very Badly). This entry in the bad behavior sweepstakes was the world premier of a revised version of An American Tragedy by composer Tobias Picker and librettist Gene Scheer.
In the Glimmerglass 2014 lineup, Tragedy follows Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, in which Lt. Pinkerton marries a Japanese geisha, fathers a boy and then abandons her to her fate — which is suicide. Then came Billy Bigelow in Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Billy batters Julie Jordan, convinces her that this is acceptable behavior, fathers a girl by her and then gets killed, leaving her destitute.
Pinkerton and Bigelow might be hard to top, but Clyde Griffiths, the anti-hero in Tragedy, manages that feat. He is based on a real-life character named Chester Gillette who, in 1906, seduced a naïve farm girl, made her pregnant, and then tired of her and chased a wealthy society girl who offered him the brass ring of status and money. Gillette rid himself of the farm girl by striking her on a boat on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, allowing her to drown. Gillette paid for this in the electric chair at Auburn Prison.
Novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote An American Tragedy in 1925 based on Gillette’s story, which was a major tabloid newspaper sensation at the time. Dreiser followed the outline of the real-life crime. Librettist Scheer based his opera loosely on the novel, managing with great skill to condense Dreiser’s over-stuffed, 850-page novel into a two and a half hour music drama.
In our era of the 99 percent and the 1 percent, the opera resonates despite its 1920s setting. Dreiser explained Clyde’s two-timing, social-climbing murderous behavior this way: “…craving for ease and luxury, for beauty, for love—his particular kind of love that went with show, pleasure, wealth, position….” If this reminds you of a hedge fund manager in New York, it should.
Picker is a leading American composer of opera, with Therese Raquin and Emmeline to his credit. Therese kills her lover’s wife; Emmeline unknowingly marries her illegitimate son. Clearly Picker is drawn to highly charged stories with a sexual element — just right for grand opera. He understands that he is writing for an audience that wants to be entertained.
Does this “modern” opera pass the “Lulu test?” Is the audience spared the aural assaults of this Alban Berg work, or of Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, another Excedrin special?
Happily, yes. For the most part the opera is tonal, listenable, and logical in its matching of music and action. While little of the music sticks on first hearing, Picker has offered a number of set pieces that I would want to hear again.
For example, Clyde’s dazzling, rich, magnetic love interest — the socialite Sondra Finchley — has a languid act one aria in which she talks about the pleasures of visiting New York City. She plays with the word “free” in an insinuating vocal riff that glides up and down the scale. Roberta Alden, the doomed girl, sings with great sorrow at being abandoned by Clyde at the start of act two. Picker offers a dramatic chorus of churchgoers who are worshipping when Roberta arrives to announce to the world that Clyde has made her pregnant but will not marry her. Clyde’s mother Elvira pleads with Clyde’s rich uncle Samuel to attend the murder trial in support of his nephew. (He doesn’t.) It’s a duet with hints of Verdi. All of these numbers, and more, bear repeated listening.
Further, Picker’s music is rhythmically ingenious and always challenging. He is a very skillful orchestrator. The opening of act two is strongly influenced by the “Sea Interludes” from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. The tympani play a major role in the opera, establishing the grim tone. The opera opens with ominous tympani strokes. The tympani also underscore Clyde’s realization that killing Roberta is his only way out. Trombones, bass clarinets, and other instruments play prominent roles.
That said, some of the opera is tough aural going. Much of the music for Roberta is written for the upper register of the soprano voice, and it’s not pretty. Perhaps Picker wanted her to sound annoying, even painful, to Clyde. She was, indeed, a pain to Clyde. He didn’t want to hear from her once he had fallen for Sondra. Similarly, some of the music for Clyde’s tiresome, evangelical mother Elvira is also high-flying, including one very exposed, very painful high note at the close of a her major act two aria. Much of the music for Roberta and Elvira barely passes the Lulu test.
The production is directed by veteran Peter Kazaras, with sets by Alexander Dodge, period costumes by Anya Klepikov and effective lighting by Robert Wierzel. It does justice to the piece, with one notable exception.
The basic set offers a frame of a central staircase surrounded by balconies and additional staircases. Individual scene settings are marked with props — such as shirts that drop from the flies to suggest the shirt factory owned by Samuel Griffiths; wicker chairs for the garden at the Griffiths’ stately home; and red lanterns to light up a party scene. Roberta’s sad little domicile where she is seduced and abandoned is a claustrophobic, two-level box that is wheeled on and off when needed.
Kazaras opened the opera with Clyde standing at the center of the stage, flanked by his two love interests.
At the close, Clyde is still at stage center — this time strapped into an electric chair, with his two love interests (one now dead) still flanking him. It was a nice squaring of the circle.
The one disappointment was the staging of the murder itself on Big Moose Lake. The production team cleverly recreated the lake with a scrim and hazy lighting representing the deep water. A rowboat was rolled out on top of the scrim with the couple inside.
But when Roberta went overboard, she stood on the stage and screamed. No thrashing about, no struggling, no realism. It was a missed opportunity. (The one image of the original production at the Metropolitan Opera a decade ago that I distinctly remember, with dread, is this scene.)
The three largest roles in the opera by far are for Clyde, Roberta and Sondra. All three were assumed by members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists program, which is a testament to the quality of talent that Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello is attracting to this apprentice program.
Christian Bowers offered a robust and pleasing baritone as Clyde. He is handsome and could, indeed, have been attractive to Sondra. He was too reserved, however, once his trial started and his execution approached.
Roberta was sung by soprano Vanessa Isiguen. As I noted earlier, much of the part lies high and her sound is not attractive at the high-end of the register. But her middle voice is effective, and she communicated the desperation of her character.
Mezzo Cynthia Cook embodied Sondra: blond, sexy, vivacious. Picker has given her much attractive music, and she delivered it well.
Other Young Artists assumed smaller parts, and all were effective. Tenor Daniel Curran was slithery and a bit nasal as Clyde’s wealthy cousin, Gilbert Griffiths. Meredith Lustig was suitably perky as Gilbert’s sister, Bella. Thomas Richards was the aggressive and confident prosecutor, Orville Mason. John Kapusta was the Reverend McMillan, who tries to provide spiritual succor to Clyde.
Diction was quite good, although Glimmerglass helped out by projecting English supertitles.
Two veterans populated the cast. Soprano Patricia Schuman was Elvira Griffiths, Clyde’s mother; and Aleksey Bogdanov, an excellent Sharpless in Butterfly this season, was the patriarch, Samuel Griffiths.
George Manahan led the Glimmerglass Orchestra with energy. Coordination between pit and stage was top-notch, particularly for the first performance. At the curtain call the orchestra members gave Manahan a noisy shuffling of their feet, showing appreciation for his leadership.
Picker and Scheer were in attendance and came out for a bow. They, too, were enthusiastically greeted by the audience. They deserve to have been. This concise, reworked Tragedy deserves productions in other venues across the country. They are as good a team as exists today on the American opera scene.
What: An American Tragedy, music by Tobias Picker, libretto by Gene Sheer
Language: Sung in English, with projected text
Performance reviewed: July 20, 2014 (opening performance)
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: About two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $10 to $144 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 25, 31, Aug. 7, 16; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 5, 9, 11, 24