Opera reviews: “Carmen” and “Medea” at the Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass Festival
Opening Night, 7/2/11

In the new production of “Carmen,” which opened at the Glimmerglass Festival on Saturday, the action grows more tight and focused throughout the night until Carmen and Don Jose are alone in a ring.  In a daring moment of surrender, Carmen stops her tormenting ways and prostrates herself before her angry and jilted lover.  She seems to think better of it, but it’s too late. The knife plunges.

The lights are at their brightest in that climax.  The evening began in a washed out haze with only fleeting bits of color against a jumbled set of sepia and gray tones. In a program note, director Ann Bogart says that she took inspiration from bull fighting and the grittiness of the Orson Welles film “Touch of Evil.”  She makes the evening a long but inexorable progression.

The performances also have a cinematic intimacy, especially that of twenty-four year old Ginger Costa-Jackson who’s making her debut as Carmen. In fact, it’s her first time to have the lead role in an opera.  Her voice was dark, rich and attractive. Bringing to mind a tousle-haired Jennifer Lopez, she displays a youthful and unceasing passion and an understated skill of seduction. Costa-Jackson seldom played overtly to the house, but stayed tightly bound in the role, intently focused on Carmen’s shifting priorities and ploys.

The show horse of the night was tenor Adam Diegel as Don Jose.  His voice grew more powerful and compelling with each scene.  As for his acting, Carmen seemed to truly piss him off. More than once he flung her away from him, as if trying to fight a magnetic bond.

The secondary leads were fine to serviceable.  Anya Matanovic sang beautifully as Micaela. Keith Miller hit his marks in the famous toreador number but later had a frog in his throat.

A pair of Spanish dancers enlivens several scenes, especially with a terrific shadow dance in the second act.  Just after the opening, there’s a creepy mix of soldiers and children marching in formation.

As expected, Bogart’s production mostly avoids the obvious and traditional. Carmen never handles a rose. Instead, a basket of oranges sit stage center for much of act one. They’re tossed about in a vaguely erotic way.

The set is often jumbled and junky, in that familiar, supposedly non-traditional manner.  How many seasons now have we seen the theatre’s back wall?  But it takes more than clutter and shadows to rob the drama from “Carmen.”


Glimmerglass Festival
Opening night, July 8, 2011

The dramatic soul that enlivens Glimmerglass’ new production of Cherubini’s “Medea” doesn’t appear on stage but comes from the pit.  Starting with the lengthy overture, it’s an evening for the orchestra thanks to the 28 year-old Italian conductor Daniel Rustioni.

With his vigorous style and unceasing energy, Rustioni displays a strong vision of the score and musters an unusually hearty and sustained sound from the Glimmerglass orchestra.  One still wishes that the string section was 20 or 30 percent larger, but the thought didn’t come to mind during Friday’s opening night.

Though a central component to any successful opera staging, a conductor can’t overcome limitations and failings on the stage and there are many with this “Medea.”

Soprano Alexandra Deshorties got all the notes in the hugely demanding title role but failed to deliver the kind of coherent and unflinching grit that the character requires to be convincing let alone compelling.  She was not aided by some bizarre choices from director Michael Barker-Cavan.

This is not, however, an opera transplanted to some strange new time and place.  The single set is vaguely Greek, distinctly temple.  A ceremonial scene makes elegant use of incense and water.  Medea’s appropriately chilly first entrance is one of her best moments.  In the second act, her body is contorted into one awkward yoga position after another.  Toward the end, as she sings on and on about her children, she hardly looks at them or touches them.

During one of many climactic arguments with Jason, the two are shoved off to the side of the stage and grip opposite sides of a black wall.  The old fashioned stand and sing method would have been better.

Joe Vanek designed the set as well as the costumes and they’re a hodgepodge of styles. Medea gets caught up in a pea green dress with a stiff and distracting train. At one point the male chorus looks like some Ken and G. I. Joe dolls decided share play clothes.

Deshorties gets upstaged by singers more comfortable — and showy — in their roles.  Wendy Bryn Harmer is a knock out as Glauce, Jason Collins unflagging but not particularly moving as Jason. David Pittsinger is sturdy as a rock in the priestly role of King Creon.  As the wretched plot winds on, some of the most moving moments come from the servant Neris, played with affecting beauty by Sarah Larsen, a member of the company’s Young Artist program.

Originally appeared in the Times Union.

Photos by Julieta Cervantes courtesy Glimmerglass Festival.



During the intermission of Medea I spoke to a colleague about the handsome and dynamic conductor Daniel Rustioni.  I said that he’s got that Joshua Bell-type hair with a great bounce.  The person I was conversing with had been at the company’s opening night dinner the prior week and said that when he saw the guy across the way  at the party he asked, “Who’s boy toy is that?”  He got the reply, “He’s one of this year’s conductors!”

Rustioni is starting to get an internet buzz and recently appeared in Italian Vanity Fair.

One Response to “Opera reviews: “Carmen” and “Medea” at the Glimmerglass Festival”

  1. Paul Lamar says:

    Dear Joseph,

    We saw Medea today. Static beyond belief. Some of that is in the music, but the staging was the biggest culprit. The performers all shuffled around the stage, and the costumes were especially unimaginative. Part of the power of this story comes from Medea’s “otherness,” but she was never dressed as the sorceress from the Black Sea or told to act as someone outside Greek culture.

    Very disappointing all around.

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