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Hits in a baseball town

In a hamlet that venerates sport, Glimmerglass Opera thrives on bold yet casual performances.

August 07, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — This small village appears to have one thing on its mind. But past the Baseball Hall of Fame and the endless souvenir shops is the imposing, beautiful Lake Otsego, which James Fenimore Cooper called Glimmerglass. And along the shore is the improbable, winning Glimmerglass Opera.

It's improbable not just because there doesn't seem to be much reason for summer opera to thrive alongside the commerce of sport but because important, adventurous opera companies don't usually spring up so quickly from such humble origins anywhere, let alone in a village of 2,000 year-round residents. The company began when local opera lovers put together a production of Puccini's "La Boheme" in the Cooperstown High School Auditorium.

Twelve years later, in 1987, it had grown sufficiently in size, stature and ambition to open a 900-seat theater on a wonderful lakeside site a few miles out of town. Neither air-conditioned nor heated, the Alice Busch Opera Theater is a handsome wooden barn, unnecessarily dolled up with Victorian ornaments and with sides that can open to the lawns outside. It might be stifling in hot weather, frigid in cold, but the atmosphere is congenially informal. At matinee performances on hot days earlier this week, many audience members arrived in shorts and sandals and picnicked on the grounds. But the house was not uncomfortable, and the acoustics are special. Perfect for Mozart.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Opera photo -- In some editions of today's Calendar Weekend, a caption that ran with the Glimmerglass Opera reviews mistakenly identified two performers as Christine Brandes and Bejun Mehta from Handel's "Orlando." The picture is of Amy Burton as Donna Elvira and Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello in Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

Most important of all, the opera is world-class and interesting. The artistic director, Paul Kellogg, who is also general and artistic director of New York City Opera, often uses Glimmerglass these days to develop productions he will bring to Lincoln Center. But cognoscenti know it's better to go upstate than to see the works in the acoustically troubled New York State Theater.

Each summer, the productions are unveiled throughout July and then run in repertory, seven performances a week, in August. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, I saw Handel's "Orlando," Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Robert Kurka's "The Good Soldier Schweik," missing only Offenbach's "Bluebeard." The musical level was high, with impressive young singing actors.

I had pretty much expected that the company could pull off Handel and a jazzy comic opera about the literary antics of the hapless Czech soldier who inspired "Catch-22." Bejun Mehta and Christine Brandes assured zestful singing in "Orlando." It was impossible to resist Anthony Dean Griffey as Schweik, even if he did portray him as more a lovable oaf than a sly trickster.

But the surprise was the intense, disturbing "Don Giovanni," staged as a violent modern drama. More surprising still was that Francisco Negrin, the Mexican director who made a muddle of Handel's "Julius Caesar" at Los Angeles Opera, here created such a hair-raising staging for this co-production with New York City Opera.

Updated and performed on a cold, spare architectural set, Mozart's semi-comic opera may never have seemed blacker. Mozart meant his Giovanni, the mythical seducer, to charm us on some level, even as we disapprove. The Danish baritone Palle Knudsen, head shaved, is, instead, a vicious, unrepentant serial rapist. Yet with what fascination we watch his animal cruelty, his tiger-like grace while on the attack, his irresistible self-confidence and control. This is a performance in which there is only Don Giovanni and his victims. The mob gets him in the end, but he goes down fighting, unrepentant. There are few laughs.

The good-looking young cast was captivating, particularly Maria Kanyova as a vibrant, tortured Donna Anna, and Amy Burton as a princessy Donna Elvira. The company's music director, Stewart Robertson, led a sleek, graciously phrased and neatly played performance that included having the singers ornament the repeats of their arias.

For "Orlando," one had to be satisfied with the singing. Twenty years ago, Peter Sellars updated Handel's opera to Cape Canaveral and was attacked for his silliness. Under that concept, though, was a serious core. The new Glimmerglass staging by Chas Rader-Shieber, also a co-production with New York City Opera, is just silly. The set by David Zinn is a series of Postmodern cliches -- distorted angled walls and a precariously hilly floor, a confusion of outdoors and indoors, hospital beds in the forest, foppish costumes and kitschy cupids.

Mehta, in the title role, who was said to be suffering from sinus problems Sunday (he canceled an earlier performance), lacked his usual charisma but was still appealingly heroic in sound. Brandes as Dorinda, the shepherdess (here the nurse of a ward of cupid's victims, tending their arrow wounds), brought to the afternoon a deeper level of rapt poetry. Bernard Labadie's conducting was fast and light, rather than dramatic and moving, but it fell very pleasantly on the ear.

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