Saturday, August 13, 2016


James Karas

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street did and still does well as a Broadway musical since it opened in 1979. But it does just as well and perhaps better on the operatic stage. The Glimmerglass Festival has chosen it as its “musical” for this year’s roster of productions. It proved a wise choice in a highly praiseworthy production.

The production has the benefit of superb singers and an accomplished orchestra but it relies on pared down sets.
Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett and Greer Grimsley in the title role of The Glimmerglass Festival's 
production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
In the opening scene, we see the cast in their “street clothes” and they take their costumes from a clothes rack to become the chorus of the opera. Set designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland provides two moveable walls which serve as the backdrop for most of the performance with some variations for the asylum scene and the “end” of Mrs. Lovett.

Sweeney Todd is billed as a thriller and it reaches back to Jacobean revenge tragedies where murder, dismemberment and far more grotesque doings are the order of the day. Benjamin Barker was a barber on Fleet Street in London but he was transported to Australia by Judge Turpin on trumped up charges. His crime was having a pretty and virtuous wife that the judge desired. Now he returns to London disguised as Sweeny Todd to wreak vengeance.

He meets the inimitable Mrs. Lovett who runs a pie shop and she knows Barker’s story. They team up to avenge Sweeney and save his lovely daughter Johanna (Emily Pogorelc) who is the judge’s ward and on whom the judge has lecherous designs. As a barber, Sweeney has the perfect method of disposing of people’s souls with his sharp razor. Bodies are a bit more cumbersome but, you see, good meat is hard to come by and Mrs. Lovett needs a lot of it for those delicious pies.

Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley leads the cast as the grim and murderous Sweeney in search of his wife, his daughter and justice. He has a threatening manner and vocal power as he slashes his victims’ throats. 
L to R: Emily Pogorelc as Johanna, Harry Greenleaf as Anthony Hope, Greer Grimsley in the title role, Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and Bille Bruley as Beadle Bamford in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett makes a perfect partner for Sweeny. If he is after revenge, she is after money and more. Bybee performs with gusto the lurid role and sells delicious pies made with human flesh with sheer pleasure. She is just the type of woman your mother wants you to bring home.

Bass Peter Volpe plays the despicable Judge Turpin who wants to marry his young and beautiful ward Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter. Volpe sings and acts well and when Turpin gets a well-deserved close shave we are almost eager to order a meat pie from Mrs. Lovett the next day.

There are several performers from Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program that deserve credit for praiseworthy work. They are tenor Christopher Bozeka as the caricature of the operatic singer Adolfo Pirelli, tenor Nicholas Nestorak as the toady Tobias and tenor Bille Bruley as the ass-kissing Beadle Bamford. The opera seethes with disgusting characters but Glimmerglass is rich in having singers to do justice to the roles.

The lovely voiced soprano Emily Pogorelc deserves special praise as Johanna Barker who, with baritone Harry Greenleaf, another talented young artist, provided the love interest and decency in the moral cesspool of the opera.

Director Christopher Alden had a fine cast but limited stage props to work with.  He does a fine job with a few movable panels.

The chorus’s movements are well choreographed and the production works well.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra under John DeMain performs superbly.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street  by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book adapted from the play by Christopher Bond) opened on July 9 and will be performed nine times until August 26, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Friday, August 12, 2016


Reviewed by James Karas

The Thieving Magpie (La Gazza Ladra, for sticklers) is a delightful opera that gets a rousing and captivating production directed by Peter Kazaras at the Glimmerglass Festival.

Rossini’s 1817 romp has been assigned a number of tags but I think it is an opera buffa at heart but more about this later.

Plot main: The lovely servant Ninetta (Rachele Gilmore) loves her employer’s son Giannetto (tenor Michele Angelini). Fabrizio, his father, approves; Lucia, his mother does not because she thinks Ninetta is a thief because of missing silverware. Subplot one: Ninetta’s father Fernando arrives as an army deserter sentenced to death. Subplot two: The town mayor has his eye on Ninetta and is prepared to blackmail her. We have about two and a half hours to enjoy the opera and solve all these problems.
Rachele Gilmore as Ninetta, Ensemble member Simon Dyer, Musa Ngqungwana as Gottardo, Calvin Griffin as Fabrizio Vingradito, Michele Angelini as Giannetto and Leah Hawkins as Lucia in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of "The Thieving Magpie"
Our main concern is Ninetta who stands accused of theft, must protect her father and defend herself from the lecherous Mayor. Get a grip on yourself because she is convicted and sentenced to death. Soprano Rachele Gilmore with her delicious voice, vivacious manner and strong character leaves no doubt that she will pull through but she does come awfully close to losing all.

Angelini as Giannetto looks and sound like a tenor that came from central casting, as they used to say. Tall, faithful, ardent, with a martial bearing and high notes that just fly from his chest, he never leaves us in doubt that Ninetta and their love will triumph.

Bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana sings exceptionally well as the lecherous and corrupt Mayor but let the latter have Ninetta? We wouldn’t trust him with a plastic magpie let alone an anthropomorphic or ornithological one.   
   Leah Hawkins as Lucia, Calvin Griffin as Fabrizio Vingradito, Michele Angelini as Giannetto and members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of "The Thieving Magpie"
Bass-baritone Dale Travis was disappointing as Ninetta’s father Fernando. He sounded almost hoarse and off his voice. Soprano Leah Hawkins was an authoritative Lucia and bass-baritone Calvin Griffin was her nice and obedient husband in good performances.   

You can’t have a thieving magpie without a magpie and that can be a plastic one in a cage or a dancer. Kazaras has choreographer Meg Gillentine in an ornate “magpie” costume greet the patrons as they take their seats in the theatre. She has a large cage on the stage and she dances in and out of it in a delightful performance.

The opera is set in and around the spacious courtyard of Fabrizio’s house and outside the jail cells of the town. Set Designer Myung Hee Chung has her own idea for the large yard and the town setting. A large wreath (or is it the outline of a cage?) enfolds the front of the stage with a vista of blue sky in the background. The scene does change for the jail scene but the simple idea of the wreath remains.

The Thieving Magpie has been described as a melodrama, a rescue opera, a tearjerker, a tragedy, a comedy and no doubt some other names. It is a classic comedy. The old try to interfere with the course of true love of the young; a dirty old man does the same; integrity is questioned but in the end wins. The usual obstacles of comedy are all there as is the happy ending.

Kazaras does excellent work with all of those elements. The opera can take well over three hours to perform. He cuts it down to less than two and a half hours excluding intermission.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Joseph Colaneri maintain a brisk pace from the drum roll of the overture right up to the happy ending.

A simply delightful evening at the opera.

The Thieving Magpie by Gioachino Rossini (music) and Giovanni Gherardini (libretto) opened on July16 and will be performed eight times until August 25, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Thursday, August 11, 2016


James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival’s chestnut offering this year is Puccini’s La Bohème. Yes, the one where she coughs in the first scene, dies in the last and there isn’t a dry eye left in the house. And rightly so.

Director E. Loren Meeker and designer Kevin Depinet have set the opera in the Paris of the Belle Époque, the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec which was beautiful, colourful, and full of life and joy. This is the image conveyed successfully in the Café Momus scene in the Latin Quarter. Depinet makes full and very intelligent use of the small stage of the Alice Busch Opera Theatre to convey a vivacious party atmosphere without the paraphernalia one sees in larger houses. More about this later.

 Rhys Lloyd Talbot as Colline, Brian Vu as Schaunard, Raquel González as Mimì, Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo and Hunter Enoch as Marcello in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
How about our Mimi? Soprano Raquel González breaks our hearts very easily. Sure her candle goes out and she knocks on Rodolfo’s loft door, but after that she sees what she wants and goes for it. She drops her keys and makes sure her candle stays outRodolfo sees what he likes too and a couple of arias and a duet later, it is love at first sight.

González sings sweetly, lovingly, effortlessly. Her outpouring of emotion from “Mi chiamano Mimi” to “Donde lieta usci” to the final love duet is delivered with vocal beauty and deep feeling that goes straight to our heart.

What about the object of her love – Rodolfo? We are not sure about his character, especially his jealousy, but that is not our concern here. Tenor Michael Brandenburg does well in his protestations of love when in the midrange of his voice but he does not always do as well in his high notes. He is quite ardent in the beginning and in the end but what he does well emotionally he does not always match vocally.
Hunter Enoch as Marcello, Vanessa Becerra as Musetta, Brian Vu as Schaunard, Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo and Raquel González as Mimì in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
His loft-mate Marcello, baritone Hunter Enoch, makes a significant vocal impression in the relatively minor role. His voice resonates with emotion and beauty in a fine performance. Bass-baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot as the philosopher Colline and baritone Brian Vu as the musician Schaunard (both Young Artists) do fine work as Rodolfo’s rowdy but decent friends.

Soprano Vanessa Becerra (another Young Artist on her way up) as Musetta showed spunk and gave us a very vivacious flirt.

The loft of the first act is well-designed with its entrance from a door on the floor. The scene at the gates of Paris is realistic and appropriate. The relatively short scene in the loft where Mimi and Rodolfo meet and go to the café in the Latin Quarter usually requires an interval to change the set. In this production no interval was needed and (the set was changed in a matter of seconds. Bravo for the entire design including the quick change.

Joseph Colaneri conducted the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

Meeker deserves kudos for his conception and execution of this familiar work. He stays the middle course without any off the wall takes and gives us exactly what Puccini intended. A tragic love story, well sung, well done and well wept.   

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini (music) and Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto) opened on July 8 and will be performed thirteen times until August 27, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival on the shore of Lake Otsego is up and running for its 41st season. A few kilometers away from Cooperstown and the museum that honours people who hit balls with a bat, it provides cultural nourishment, intellectual pleasure and spiritual enrichment for modest people who enjoy opera. You may roll your eyes now.

One of this year’s eclectic choices is The Crucible by composer Robert Ward and librettist Bernard Stambler. It gets a superb production conducted by Nicole Paiement and directed by Francesca Zambello.

 The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Robert Ward's "The Crucible." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The Crucible is, of course, based on Arthur Miller’s 1953 play that deals directly with the Salem witch trials of 1682 but more cogently with the American witch trials of the 1950’s under Senator McCarthy.

Ward and Stambler captured and indeed heightened the dramatic events of the play. Nicole Paiement conducts the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in an intense and nuanced performance emphasizing every dramatic chord.

The singing is affecting and frequently outstanding if just as frequently uneven. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton gave perhaps the best performance as Elizabeth Proctor, a troubled woman who betrays her husband while trying to save him. Her marvelous voice conveyed pathos and she gave us an Elizabeth that we fully sympathized with. A nice combination of vocal beauty and acting ability.

Baritone Brian Mulligan has the taxing role of John Proctor, a practical farmer who committed a sin and is caught in the maelstrom of insanity led by a few girls. He is caught up in the vortex of religious fanaticism, vengeance and greed that will lead to his death. In the end he rises to heroic if tragic stature in a fine performance by Mulligan.

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris sang the role of the Judge Danforth, the man who arrogates to himself the role of God’s spokesman and Satan detective. Morris may have been having a bad night but he sounded strained at times even though he never failed to be dramatic.
Jamie Barton as Elizabeth Proctor, Brian Mulligan as John Proctor and Maren Weinberger as Mary Warren in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Robert Ward's "The Crucible." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Most of the cast of The Crucible comes from the Festival’s Young Artists program and their performances were overall admirable. Most notable were soprano Ariana Wehr as Abigail Williams, baritone Michael Miller as the nasty Thomas Putnam, mezzo-soprano Helena Brown as Rebecca Nurse, and Maren Weinberger as Mary Warren.   

Zambello’s production is taut but Spartan. The set by Neil Patel consists of bare gray walls with windows that serves for interior and exterior scenes. The only change is the scene between John Proctor and Abigail where the same gray motif prevails but there is a fallen tree in the background.

The staging is done expertly and the drama proceeds to its ultimate climax inexorable and dramatically.

A superb night at the opera.  

And speaking of baseball, some of you American aficionados may wish to acquaint yourselves with opera. The World Series is coming faster than a curve ball and where will you go when the Blue Jays clobber all the American teams? Remember, the lights go down during an opera performance.   
The Crucible  by Robert Ward (music) and Bernard Syambler (libretto) based on Arthur Miller’s play opened on July 23 and will be performed nine times until August 27, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or