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New works with American roots

The Alice Busch Theater
07/21/2011 -  & July 26, 29, August 7, 13*, 22, 2011
John Musto: Later the Same Evening
Jeanine Tesori: A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck

Later the Same Evening:
Andrea Arias Martin (Elaine O’Neill), Kyle Albertson (Gus O’Neill), Patricia Schuman (Estelle Oglethorpe), Lauren Snouffer (Ruth Baldwin), Jake Gardner (Ronaldo Cabral), Neal Ferreira (Sheldon Segal), Andrea Carroll (Rose Segal), Carin Gilfry (Thelma Yablonsky), Andrew Stenson (Jimmy O’Keefe), Lacy Sauter (Valentina Scarcella), John Boehr (Joe Harland)
The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra, David Angus (Conductor)
Leon Major (Director), David O. Roberts (Costumes), Erhard Rom (Sets), Mark McCullough (Lighting)

A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck:
Patricia Schuman (Carlotta Monterey), David Pittsinger (Eugene O’Neill), Carin Gilfry (Louis Kronenberger, Aleksey Bogdanov (Bernard DeVoto), Stephanie Foley Davis (Mary McCarthy), Lindsay Russell (A Young Woman), Jeffrey Gwaltney (Officer Christopher Snow)
The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra, Jeanine Tesori (Conductor)
Francesca Zambello (Director), Court Watson (Costumes), Erhard Rom (Sets), Mark McCullough (Lighting)

P. Schuman & D. Pittsinger (© Julieta Cervantes)

Glimmerglass always wants to present its audiences with something unfamiliar, whether dredged up from the past (like last season’s Tolomeo) or something contemporary. This year it was a double bill: John Musto’s Later the Same Evening and Jeanine Tesori’s A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck.

The Musto work was first performed at the University of Maryland under the aegis of Leon Major, director of the Glimmerglass production. Librettist Mark Campbell has fashioned a narrative inspired by five paintings by Edward Hopper whose moody works typically capture a still moment in time with a suggested, ambiguous narrative. The laconic titles Hopper gave to his works are a further barrier to imagining a story. (Of course this brings to mind Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George and its bringing to musical life the figures portrayed in Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.)

Later the Same Evening presents the audience with six interlocking stories as the characters from the five paintings end up at a Broadway musical at the same time (Hopper portrayed theater-goers in many paintings.) It begins with a scene portraying a squabbling couple, then several other short scenes, each with an isolated individual giving us a quick insight into what is going on in his or her life at that moment. The work is deftly structured, with words and characters clearly expressed. All in all, it’s quite the marvel of construction, music and stagecraft. Erhard Rom’s ingenious set indicates a locale for each short scene and shows us the five paintings as well. The ending is cautiously optimistic as some of the characters seem to have managed to connect.

The cast of 11 are all just fine although there are two performances that stand out: those of Patricia Schuman and Jake Gardner as two middle-aged widowed individuals on a tentative first date. The other nine, by the way, are all members of the festival’s Young Artists Program.

Tying in with this production is a display of Hopper’s works (mostly drawings) at Cooperstown’s lovely Fenimore Art Museum. Compared with the source material, Musto and Campbell’s work is too talky and communicative to be truly Hopperesque. There are so many characters, each with a story, that we fail to connect significantly with any of them. Mind you, the intense silences emanating from a Hopper painting would challenge Harold Pinter, not mention the creators of an opera.

The second work of the evening is a world premiere: A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, composed by Jeanine Tesori with a libretto by Tony Kushner. (This is their second collaboration, the first being Caroline, or Change, first presented in 2003.) This work depicts an incident in the life of playwright Eugene O’Neill. In 1951 he and his wife, Carlotta, had a blazing argument (fueled by a combination of medication and liquor), which led to his running out into a blizzard and her following to rescue him. They both ended up in hospital.

It’s quite the corker of an argument, and Patricia Schuman and David Pittsinger make the most of it. It starts off as a dispute about room temperature, then about a tinny recording that the husband keeps playing. At one point Carlotta even taunts him about having won the Nobel Prize. It has echoes (deliberate I am sure) of confrontations in O’Neill plays (notably Long Days Journey Into Night). References are made to eminent critics who had taken O’Neill to task - and they appear: Mary McCarthy, Bernard DeVoto, and Louis Kronenberger (sung by a woman, in homage to the operatic tradition of the pants role).

As O’Neill runs out into the blizzard, the set reverses and we are with him as the apparition of a young girl (the singer from the record) appears and encourages him to rest in the snow. We find out what then happens in the epilogue when a cheery young police officer recounts how he found the playwright in the snowdrift.

The singers, notably the two leads, all gave committed performances. It is interesting to see Young Artist Jeffrey Gwaltney give a performance as the police officer that contrasts so totally with his role as the conflicted Giasone in the festival's Medea.

Erhard Rom also designed the sets for Blizzard and they are, if anything, even more effective than those for Later the Same Evening. The lively, well-crafted score was conducted by the composer herself and I can only assume that she achieved the desired result.

It is difficult to foresee what performance future these two accomplished works might attain. In 1999 Glimmerglass presented three new one-act operas (by Deborah Drattell, Robert Beaser and Michael Torke) under the collective title Central Park. They were subsequently performed at New York City Opera (closely linked with Glimmerglass at the time) but as far as I can tell nowhere else since. One can certainly see the Musto work getting productions at opera schools. Ms Tesori has made quite a name for herself but contemporary one-act operas are less frequently programmed than full-evening works. However it would be nice to see that this show has legs.

Michael Johnson



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