Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

Opera Warhorses random header image

Review: Tobias Picker’s “American Tragedy”, Extensively Revised, Debuts at Glimmerglass Festival – July 20, 2014

July 21st, 2014

Composer Tobias Picker’s 2005 opera based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, was presented at the 2014 Glimmerglass Festival in a revised version, directed by Peter Kazaras.

[Below: Director Peter Kazaras, resized image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph for Seattle Opera.]

Seattle Opera staging rehearsal for "The Daughter of the Regiment"

In its previous form, the opera had been commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Opera in a production that starred Nathan Gunn as the amoral Clyde Griffiths, and Patricia Racette and Susan Graham as, respectively, Roberta Alden, the factory girl Clyde impregnates and Sondra Finchley, the society woman who looks upon Clyde as a potential husband.

[Below: Gilbert Griffiths (Daniel T. Curran, above, right) introduces his cousin Clyde Griffiths (above, second from right, beneath clock) to the shirt manufacturing factory floor; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


The stage director of the Met’s 2005 production, Francesca Zambello, whose administration of the Glimmerglass Festivals began in 2011, suggested the idea of reviving the opera in a revised form for the more intimate surroundings of Glimmerglass’ Alice Busch Theater, casting the three  principal roles with Glimmerglass Young Artists.

[Below: Clyde Griffiths (Christian Bowers, right), defying the rules of the factory that hires him, becomes sexually involved with Roberta Alden (Vanessa Isiguin, left), one of the workers he supervises; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Picker and his librettist Gene Scheer (inspired in part by the theatrical pacing of Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick”, whose libretto Scheer wrote) made several important changes.

They jettisoned the early scenes giving Clyde’s “back story” of growing up in a missionary family and working as a hotel bellhop.

[Below: the socialite Sondra Finchley (Cynthia Cook, center left) interested in Clyde Griffiths (Christian Bowers, center right), invites him to a social event; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


In other changes, Clyde’s motivations during the scene of Roberta’s drowning were made more ambiguous, his mother’s desire that he confesses his sins is somewhat muted, and, before Clyde’s electrocution, a vision of Sondra invades his mind.

What remains is a more consistently theatrical piece that centers all action around Clyde’s sexual desires and his quest for social status.

[Below: Sondra Finchley (Cynthia Cook, left) invites Clyde Griffiths (Clyde Griffiths, right) to join her at the lake shore; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Picker’s score is richly orchestrated and through-composed. George Manahan, an expert on Picker’s works, conducted persuasively.

Using physically attractive Young Artists for the trio of principal roles lends to the dramatic impact. One notes that each of the three Young Artists have taxing parts.

Bowers’ Clyde Griffiths is rarely off-stage. Both Vanessa Iniguin’s Roberta and Cynthia Cook’s Sondra have an abundance of long legato lines sung in the upper parts of their vocal ranges.

[Below: the Reverend McMillan (center front) preaches a Biblical parable to his congregation; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Some of score’s highlights include a church scene in which Picker’s dramatic choral writing is used effectively.

Among the most gripping scenes is that of Roberta’s drowning, in which Clyde tries to convince himself that he is witnessing an accident, while doing nothing to prevent the drowning of the person whom he wishes to disappear from his life.

[Below: Clyde Griffiths (above) lets Roberta Alden (Vanessa Iniguin, below) drown; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


The “law and order” scenes which follow are especially fascinating, beginning with the appearance of Minnesota bass-baritone Thomas Richards as Attorney General Orville Mason.

Mason revealed that Clyde Griffiths’ efforts to cover up a premeditated murder had left too many easily discovered loose ends.

Clyde’s protests that the drowning was accidental seemed sufficiently heartfelt to his Christian missionary mother (powerfully sung and acted by veteran soprano Patricia Schuman) that she tried to persuade the family’s politically-connected patriarch, Samuel Griffiths (Ukrainian baritone Aleksey Bogdanov), to use his influence to get her son set free.

[Below: Clyde's mother Elvira Griffiths (Patricia Schuman, right) pleads with Samuel Griffiths (Aleksey Bogdanov, left) to take a visible role in the defense of her son; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival. ]


But on cross-examination all of Clyde Griffiths’ alibis and assertions crumble, and signalled by brief chords, Griffiths – convicted by a jury and sentenced by the judge – is executed in New York State’s electric chair.

[Below: District attorney Orville Mason (Thomas Richards, center) refutes the arguments of Clyde Griffiths (Christian Bowers, right) that the drowning was an accident, while the trial judge (Matthew Scollin, left, rear) looks on; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Composer Picker and librettist Sheer have demonstrated that Dreiser’s lengthy novel contains material that translates well into the operatic form.

Their latest revisions go a long way towards refashioning a work that will assure it has some staying power as part of the American operatic repertory. The Glimmerglass Festival’s production and staging is theatrically valid, and resourcefully exploits the opera’s absorbing scenes.

It is remarkable that Glimmerglass’ Young Artists are assigned virtually every part, including the treacherously difficult singing required of Iniguin’s Roberta and Cook’s Sondra, as well as the physical and vocal stamina that is expected of Bowers’ Clyde.

The results are a credit not only to the abundant talents of the Glimmerglass Young Artists, but also to the national pool of high quality American opera singers that Glimmerglass and other Young Artists programs are able to draw from.

California tenor Daniel T. Curran sang the role of Gilbert Griffiths. Texas soprano Jennifer Root is Elizabeth Griffiths. New Hampshire soprano Meredith Lustig iss Bella Griffiths. Michigan bass-baritone Matthew Scollin is the Judge.

New York soprano Samantha Guervekian is Grace. New York tenor John Kapusta is Reverend McMillan.

Eric Sean Fogel was the choreographer. Alexander Dodge created the very effective sets. The production’s lighting was designed by Robert Wierzel.


I recommend this to the fans of Picker’s operas as an exemplary presentation of “American Tragedy” and for all opera-goers who wish to see well-performed, intelligently-staged productions of 21st century American works.


For my review of another Tobias Picker opera, see: World Premiere Review: Patricia Racette’s Gritty “Dolores Claiborne” at San Francisco Opera – September 18, 2013.

See also Facebook/ Opera Warhorses

Tags: 2005-2014: William's Reviews

Review: Zambello’s Dazzling New “Ariadne in Naxos” Enchants Glimmerglass Festival Audiences – July 19, 2014

July 20th, 2014

Director Francesca Zambello, whose imagination seems boundless, can always be counted on to provide us with new insights into familiar operas. Her latest new production, created for the Glimmerglass (New York) Festival of which she is the General Director, is a reconceptualization of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”.

No part of the witty concoction by composer Richard Strauss and his august librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is lost in translation, but much is gained by presenting both the opera’s prologue and the commedia dell’arte high-jinx that occur on Naxos island in English. The mock opera seria characters of Ariadne, her companions Naiad, Dryad and Echo, and her new lover Bacchus sing in German.

[Below: Cast members for a production of "Ariadne in Naxos" await the arrival of their audience; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


The production has several other remarkable features.

First, the opera’s location is shifted in place and time from 18th century Vienna to a working farm in 21st century Central New York (not too far from Lake Otsego, where Glimmerglass is located).

Second, the character of the Composer does not leave in a huff at the end of the Prologue, but stays to supervise the performance, at first reluctantly, and then, with increasing interest in the goings on, passionately.

(This idea has been occasionally explored by others, but, to my knowledge, never with a composer intended to be a woman, rather than a man sung by a mezzo-soprano.)

[Below: Catherine Martin is the Composer; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival)


Third, Zambello consciously cast the opera with current and previous Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists.

If that might seem to be a limitation, one should consider that among the Glimmerglass Young Artist alumnae are an Ariadne (Christine Goerke) and a Zerbinetta (Rachele Gilmore) that one must consider of the first rank internationally in their roles.

[Below: Christine Goerke as the Prima Donna in the Prologue, who will play Ariadne in the opera; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


All of Zambello’s ideas work. The result is not only a theatrically valid presentation of Strauss’ work, but one that arguably deepens the impact of the work.

There are many, including artists who have sung the role of Zerbinetta or the Composer, who believe that a romantic attraction was brewing between the two characters.

[Below: Rachele Gilmore is Zerbinetta; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Any such romance, as traditionally staged, is cut short when the Composer, distraught at the revisions imposed on his opera, disappears after the Prologue.

In Zambello’s conceptualization, the Composer returns to the stage after the Prologue. As the Glimmerglass audience arrives after the intermission, the Composer is passing out revised scores to the orchestra.

[Below: Ariadne (Christine Goerke, rear, with holding hands up) is distressed at the arrival of Zerbinetta (Rachele Gilmore, front center) with her dancing troupe of Truffaldino (Gerard Michael D'Emilio, left), Harlequin (Carlton Ford, second from left), Scaramuccio (Andrew Penning, second from right) and Brighella (Brian Ross Yeakley, right); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Although in agony when she first observes Zerbinetta’s interpolated harlequinade, the Composer and Zerbinetta begin to notice each other.

The two characters sit together at a piano at stage left, both transfixed at the evolving relationship between Christine Goerke’s Ariadne and dramatic tenor Corey Bix’ Bacchus.

[Below: Although Bacchus (Corey Bix, left) and Ariadne (Christine Goerke, right) have entirely different expectations of their encounters with each other, they bond as lovers; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


However, it is not just Bacchus and Ariadne who are both personally transformed through their each fulfilling the needs to the other.

It is the Composer and Zerbinetta who are also transformed.

A purist may regret revisions of Hofmannsthal’s storyline (although the stage action is always true to the spirit of Strauss’ musical score), but in changing the gender of the Composer in the opera (an idea that might not have occurred to Strauss or Hofmannsthal), there are added dimensions to the story that transform in wondrous ways the meaning of the opera’s final moments.

[Below: Bacchus (Corey Bix, left) and Ariadne (Christine Goerke, second from left), who have achieved their happiness reflect on the emerging love affair between the Composer (Catherine Martin) and Zerbinetta (Rachele Gilmore); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Christine Goerke deservedly received a tumultuous ovation at opera’s end.

A similar ovation occurred after Rachele Gilmore’s display of bravura in the long, complex and brilliantly theatrical coloratura aria addressing Ariadne as a Great Princess, but also a woman, who, like herself, is simply in an interlude between lovers.

Other Credits 

Kathleen Kelly conducted the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra. Troy Hourie created the sets and Erik Teague the costumes. Eric Sean Fogel designed the choreography.

The inventive attire and dance steps of the commedia dell’arte troupe (Illinois baritone Carlton Ford as Harlequin; Pennsylvania bass-baritone Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino; Minnesota tenor Andrew Penning as Scarmuccio, and Kansas tenor Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella) deserve special commendation.

Ariadne’s companions on Naxos – Naiad (Wisconsin soprano Jeni Houser), Dryad (New York mezzo-soprano Beth Lytwynec) and Echo (Michigan soprano Jacqueline Echols) – added their beautifully blended voices to the island’s enchantment.

[Below Naiad (Jeni Houser, left), Dryad (Beth Lywynec, center) and Echo (Jacqueline Echols, right) assist the opera's lighting technicians; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


The prologue, located in a rural farm’s barn, was populated not only with those singing in the opera, but also with an amusing group of functionaries.

Instead of Strauss’ Music Master, there is an Agent (Ohio bass-baritone Adam Cioffari). Strauss’ Major Domo is the Manager of the Estate (Equity actor Wynn Harmon), Strauss’ Dancing Master is a Dance Captain (New York tenor John Kapusta).

Michigan bass-baritone Matthew Scollin is a farmhand, Florida tenor Cooper Nolan an Officer. Minnesota bass-baritone Thomas Richards is a wig maker.


I enthusiastically recommend the Glimmerglass Festival’s new production and cast, both for the veteran opera-goer and for those new to opera.


For my previous reviews of “Ariadne auf Naxos”, see: Goerke, Claycomb, Graham in Stylishly Accessible “Ariadne auf Naxos” – Houston Grand Opera, April 29, 2011, and also,

Young Rysanek Promotes Strauss at L. A.’s Shrine – “Ariadne auf Naxos” – November 1, 1957.


Tags: 2005-2014: William's Reviews

Review: Ryan McKinny Stars in Affectionately Mounted “Carousel” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2014

July 19th, 2014

The 2014 Glimmerglass Festival, as part of the company’s multi-year salute to the American musical, mounted Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s 1945 classic, “Carousel”.

[Below: Director Charles Newell, edited image, based on a publicity photograph from the Goodman Theater of Chicago.]


The creative team behind the production included two experts on Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s masterful work, their second effort after the megahit “Oklahoma” - Conductor Doug Peck and Director Charles Newell.

Ryan McKinny’s Billy Bigelow

The musical starred dramatic baritone Ryan McKinny as the bad boy Billy Bigelow, whose good deeds after death lead to his soul’s redemption.

McKinny gave a spirited performance, flirtatious as the barker whose eyes are on Julie Jordan (soprano Andrea Carroll), coy as he courts Julie in their great love duet If I Loved You and aggressive as their financial prospects deteriorate.

(At Glimmerglass, opera singers are encouraged to learn to dance, and McKinny took on a few dance steps with aplomb during the rousing Whaler’s scene with its dancing chorus, as well as in “Carousel’s” penultimate scenes.)

[Below: Ryan McKinny as Billy Bigelow; edited image of a Jessica Kray photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


The highlight of a Billy Bigelow performance (and a principal reason why this part is coveted by young baritones) is the Soliloquy, in which Billy, feeling chastened for his bad behavior after learning of Julie’s pregnancy, contemplates what life with his son will be like.

Then, as the thought that his newborn might be a girl dawns upon him, Billy determines to do whatever needs to be done to obtain money to assure his daughter’s security.

McKinny delivered the Soliloquy with the dramatic power and nuance one expects in the operatic performances of this singing actor.

After Billy’s suicide in a robbery gone bad, much of the rest of the second act takes place at the doors of Heaven, where, taking only a few celestial moments, 15 years have passed.

McKinny’s transition from Bigelow’s desparation to celestial redemption is yet another example of McKinny’s acting skills.

In the past year, McKinny, still in his early 30s, has added to his performance repertory the title roles of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” [Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013] and Verdi’s “Rigoletto” [Dramatic, lyrical and powerful: Ryan McKinny’s Rigoletto Role Debut – Houston Grand Opera, January 24, 2014].

He also took on the role of another “bad boy” – Stanley Kowalski in Previn’s opera [A Theatrically Brilliant “Streetcar Named Desire” Stars Fleming, McKinny, Tappan and Griffey – Los Angeles Opera, May 18, 2014.]

Andrea Carroll’s Julie Jordan

Starring with him was soprano Andrea Carroll as Julie Jordan, the virginal but sexually curious mill-worker.

The mutual attraction to each other has both immediate and long-term consequences for both and, a decade and a half later, for their daughter Louise, who has become something of a social outcast in the small community because of the bad choices of a father she never knew.

[Below: Julie Jordan (Andrea Carroll, left) assures Billy Bigelow (Ryan McKinny, right) of her love; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


I had previously reported on Andrea Carroll’s notable appearance as Rosalba, which she is scheduled to repeat at the Kennedy Center [see A Florid, Flowing “Florencia” in Salt Lake City – Utah Opera, January 19, 2013].

Carroll’s Julie and McKinny’s Billy were affecting in the extended scene of their courtship, capped by their elegant singing of If I Loved You.

Other Artists

Two Glimmerglass Young Artists played the second couple of Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow. New York soprano Sharin Apostolou was Carrie and Indiana tenor Joe Shadday was Enoch.

[Below: Sharin Apostolou (left) is Carrie Pipperidge and Joe Shadday (right) is Enoch Snow; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Deborah Nansteel, a former Glimmerglass Young Artist, has had “maid roles” in Francesca Zambello productions of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” at the 2013 Glimmerglass Festival and Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” at the Wshington National Opera.

The role of Nettie is a much juicier assignment, given that she takes the lead in two of “Carousel’s” biggest hits - June is Bustin’ Out All Over and You’ll Never Walk Alone. For both assignments (and her prominent role in the clambake) she was a strong and effective presence.

[Below: Deborah Nansteel is Nettie; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


If any of “Carousel’s” characters could be labeled as a villain, the incompetent would-be robber Jigger Craigin comes closest. His bad influence on Billy proves to be a disaster for the Bigelow family.

Texas baritone Ben Edquist played the part with appreciable swagger, creating a vivid (and well sung) impression of the incompetent rogue.

[Below: Jigger Craigin (Ben Edquist, center) participates in the Whaler's scene; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


“Carousel’s” second act includes long surreal episodes in which the spirit of the deceased Billy Bigelow negotiates the terms of his immortal existence with the Starkeeper (character actor Wynn Harmon) and appears on earth to intervene in the life of his daughter, Louise.

These episodes are marked by extraordinary ballet passages, originally choreographed by Agnes DeMille for the 1945 Broadway premiere, and re-choreographed for this production by Daniel Pelzig.

Two Young Artists, with advanced credentials in ballet and modern dance, play the roles of Louise and Carnival Boy.

Florida dancer Carolina M. Villaraos plays Louise. Texas dance Andrew Harper plays Carnival Boy, whose attentions to Louise assure that Louise will inherit her mother’s predilection for a man from the edgy carney world.

[Below: Billy Bigelow (Ryan McKinney, left) watches his daughter Louise (Carolina M Villaraos, in green skirt) dance with the Carnival Boy (Andrew Harper, center, holding Louise) as the Heavenly Friend (Rebecca Finnegan, right) watches; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


After enduring prejudicial comments from Enoch Snow’s family, Louise, at her high school graduation, finds satisfaction in the words of Dr Seldon, the family doctor who decries the idea that any person’s future is inhibited by their family’s past.

Billy’s spirit joins Julie and the community in the musical’s finale, a reprise of You’ll Never Walk Alone.

[Below: Julie Jordan Bigelow (Andrea Carroll, left front, in long apron) stands with Billy Bigelow (Ryan McKinny, left front, in suspenders; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Equity actress Rebecca Finnegan played the roles of the bawdy Mrs Mullen (costumed in a bustled red gown) and  Billy Bigelow’s Heavenly Friend (costumed in a bustled white gown.) Equity actor Wynn Harmon played the Starkeeper and Dr Seldon. Equity Actor Drew Taylor was David Bascombe.

Glimmerglass Young Artists filled out the small singing roles. New York tenor Alex Domini was the First Policeman and a Fisherman. Wisconsin soprano Jeni Houser was Arminy and a millworker. Minnesota tenor Andrew Penning was the Second policeman.

Jessica Jahn designed the costumes. Mark McCullough created the lighting design

[Below: the opening tableau of "Carousel"; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]



This is a carefully prepared production of one of the great American musicals of the 20th century. I strongly recommend it to everyone who loves this art form.

Tags: 2005-2014: William's Reviews