Given that 2018 is the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, there couldn’t have been much debate at The Glimmerglass Festival about what should fill its annual slot for an American musical. What else but West Side Story?—particularly since Houston Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago were interested in participating in a co-production directed by Glimmerglass’s artistic and general director, Francesca Zambello.
During Bernstein’s lifetime, his serious works were often savaged by classical music critics. He should have stuck to popular stuff, like West Side Story, where his true talent lay, the theory went. But time marches on. Whereas early hostility has frequently yielded to admiration, now critics detect flaws in, of all things, West Side Story. Parts of it now seem dated, especially in a production as literal as Zambello’s, which opened the Glimmerglass season on Saturday, July 7, in Cooperstown, New York.
To be sure, those parts do not include Bernstein’s timeless music or the lyrics by the twenty-six-year-old Stephen Sondheim (the latter’s first major achievement). But in their refashioned version of the Romeo and Juliet story set in the context of gang warfare, the Sharks (Puerto Rican) and the Jets (White), along with their talk about rumbles and gang loyalty, are cliched, as is, indeed, the diction of Arthur Laurents’s book, with its slang and coarse language. It may be heresy to say it, but even the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, though recreated here to invigorating effect, reinforces the feeling that you’re witnessing a somewhat dated product of its time.
In a program note, Zambello herself alludes to “lapses into stereotype,” but she takes no significant action to redress them. And that is a missed opportunity. West Side Story looks the way you’ve always imagined it should, but that will no doubt suit most of its audience just fine. Designer Peter J. Davison has ingeniously recreated pre-Lincoln Center West Side slums from rooftop to street level using little more than a single set that also manages to accommodate Maria’s family’s apartment in between. The clear-cut direction by Zambello, who is assisted by Eric Sean Fogel, is an asset right through to the end, when a gunshot shatters Maria and Tony’s brief renewal of togetherness.
The youthfulness of Glimmerglass’s cast accords with the story, but it is a mixed blessing. Vanessa Becerra is enchanting as Maria, full of energy, impulsive in her emotional reactions, and possessed of a clear, appealing voice affectingly employed. Joseph Leppek, a member (like most of the cast) of Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program, sang Tony’s music with a handsome, lyrical tenor, but he seemed inexperienced as an actor, as did others; his portrayal wanted more authority. Amanda Castro projected a strong personality as Anita, but her low-lying music needed more brassy heft in the Broadway tradition. Brian Vu (Riff), Corey Bourbonniere (Bernardo), and Schyler Vargas (Chino) did well, and Dale Travis’s sympathetic portrayal of the avuncular Doc was welcome. David Charles Abell, who was mentored by Bernstein as a young musician, did a fine job in pacing the work. As always, it was a pleasure to experience a classic musical performed without amplification in the Alice Busch Opera Theater.
A loud rifle shot also constitutes the climax of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, which in other respects is an utterly different work. But then, The Cunning Little Vixen is very different from just about any other work for the musical stage. Based on an illustrated serial in a Czech newspaper, the opera relates the life story of a fox known as Vixen Sharp Ears, from the time she is wrested from her mother’s brood by a Forester, who wants to make a pet of her, to her marriage to a handsome fox and their brief happiness overseeing a brood of her own.
E. Loren Meeker’s straightforward staging, which opened on July 8, makes a striking moment of the shot: onstage characters freeze and Mark McCullough’s lighting suddenly becomes brightly iridescent. Yet as the opera continues, we appreciate that Vixen’s death is just another event in the ongoing process of death and rebirth in nature. (A healthy ecosphere is taken for granted.) Soon the Forester spots another young fox, whom he recognizes as Vixen’s progeny, and resolves to do a better job in transforming this one into a pet.
Ryan McGettigan’s set depicts a forest centered on a large tree with stylized, ribbon-like branches. As with West Side Story, simple shifts in décor work to suggest new scenes within a single basic set. And Erik Teague, the costume designer, did well in decking out the opera’s rich array of personified animals, but the overstuffed chickens were the most amusing, and you could understand why they whetted Vixen’s appetite.
Janáček’s enchanting, often delicately wrought score, animated by folk and folk-like elements, posed challenges for Glimmerglass’s orchestra that are mostly met under conductor Joseph Colaneri’s persuasive leadership. Chamber-like textures combining solo instruments are especially well done. Joanna Latini heads the cast with an animated, ingratiatingly sung Vixen. Also engaging is Alyssa Martin, in resonant voice as a debonaire Fox. They (like most of the cast) are members of the Young Artists Program, which helps make the noted bass-baritone Eric Owens, the festival’s current artist-in-residence, stand out especially as the Forester. In rich, virile voice, he affectingly conveys the character’s conflicting views toward Vixen, while letting you know that, at base, he is on her side. Vixen is sung in a new English translation from the Czech by Kelley Rourke.
The Glimmerglass Festival, which runs through August 25, also includes main-stage productions of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Silent Night by Kevin Puts.