COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — With so many first-rate summertime attractions nearby, Bostonians rarely venture to the wild terra incognita beyond Massachusetts for musical entertainment. And yet, only a pleasant four-hour drive westward over the Berkshires and past the Hudson, through the rolling cornfields of central New York, takes you to one of the country’s largest and most ambitious summer opera events: the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y. Situated on sylvan Otsego Lake, the company presents in its modern Alice Busch Opera Theater four shows each summer in rotating repertoire (you can see all four shows in a single weekend), featuring both veteran and upcoming singers in notably adventurous productions.
On a visit there last weekend, I saw two of this year’s offerings: Verdi’s youthful opera “King for a Day” and the venerable Lerner and Loewe musical “Camelot.” Both were handsomely mounted, energetically directed (even over-directed) and artfully sung in what is one of America’s most inviting and well-designed small opera theaters.
As it happens, Glimmerglass Festival has strong connections to Boston. Esther Nelson, general and artistic director of Boston Lyric Opera, worked there as general director and CEO. Other Glimmerglass alumni now at BLO include music director David Angus; artistic advisor John Conklin, still holding the title of emeritus associate artistic director at Glimmerglass; and director of artistic operations Nicholas G. Russell.
Also this season, several singers with roots in the Boston area have been assigned leading roles. Baritone Alex Lawrence, 29, a Weston High School graduate, is Belfiore, the impostor Polish king in Verdi’s madcap “King for a Day.” The handsome, 6-foot-4-inch Lawrence got his start singing in the high school chorus, and his first professional encouragement from tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz of the Boston University Opera Institute. “He told me I had what it takes to have an opera career,” Lawrence said in a Saturday interview. “Until then I was singing pop and rock music.” Now Lawrence sings in the company of the Zurich Opera House.
In “Camelot,” tenor Jack Noseworthy, a graduate of Lynn English High School and Boston Conservatory, gives a compelling, vibrant performance as King Arthur’s evil bastard son, Mordred. Boston is definitely in the Glimmerglass house.
Each summer, the four shows usually include one standard item (this year, Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman”), a lesser-known work by a major composer (“King for a Day”), a musical (“Camelot”), and a contemporary work. This year, the new piece is “Passions,” an unusual double bill of Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” and two pieces by David Lang, “The Little Match Girl Passion” and “When We Were Children.” (“When We Were Children” was commissioned by Glimmerglass and dedicated to its current artistic and general director, Francesca Zambello.)
Verdi was only 26 when “Un giorno di regno” flopped badly at La Scala in 1840. Based on a revision of a creaky old libretto by Felice Romani, it has rarely been revived. For this production, Kelley Rourke has fashioned a witty and flashy new English adaptation that strives mightily, and with fitful success, to insert some pep into the tired and silly mistaken-identity clichés. More Rossini than Verdi, the often repetitive music gallops and romps and vamps.
Director Christian Räth updates the action to the mod 1960s, creating a frenetic send-up of celebrity culture. Papparazzi and groupies swarm the stage clad in garish colors. Confronted with the work’s dramatic and musical weakness, the production team overcompensates with nonstop stage business and sight gags — including an Elvis mask. (“The King,” get it?) Some work and some don’t. Although suffering from a throat virus, Lawrence convinced as the preening Belfiore, pretending to be a Polish king for plot reasons that remain unclear. His strong, elegant voice, and his confident bearing should serve him well in the aristocratic roles he says he would like to sing, such as the title role in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”
But the vivacious soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson outshone him as the Marchesa, the king’s love interest. Her distress aria addressed to a poodle cradled in her arms was a zany highlight. Tenor Patrick O’Halloran (Edoardo), bass Jason Hardy (Baron Kelbar) and soprano Jacqueline Echols (Giuletta) provided sturdy vocal support. Joseph Colaneri, the company’s incoming music director, conducted the much-improved Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra.
For “Camelot,” director Robert Longbottom took a more traditional approach. This expertly fashioned, bittersweet retelling of the ménage a trois legend involving King Arthur, his Queen Guenevere and his knight Lancelot opened on Broadway in 1960. Later, it became closely associated with the idealistic administration of another Bostonian, President Kennedy. Packed with Frederick Loewe’s enchanting musical numbers (“If Ever I Would Leave You,” “How to Handle a Woman,” “C’est Moi,”) and equipped with Alan Jay Lerner’s keenly literate and poetic book and lyrics, “Camelot” wears well. Glimmerglass fields a strong cast: baritone Nathan Gunn as narcissistic Lancelot, bass-baritone David Pittsinger as philosophical Arthur, and soprano Andriana Chuchman as conflicted Guenevere.
Kevin Depinet’s sparely evocative sets, Paul Tazewell’s sparkling costumes, and Robert
Wierzel’s nuanced lighting tastefully avoid kitsch. Alex Sanchez has devised some stirring choreography, especially for that show-stopping anthem to mayhem, “Fie on Goodness,” led with infectious malice by Noseworthy’s Mordred. Conductor James Lowe leads a brisk account of the surprisingly multilayered score.