Sunday, August 26, 2012

Deerslayers Lost in the Stars

Cooperstown is no longer just about baseball.  Now, a walk down Main Street might persuade you that baseball in this burg isn't everything, it's the only thing.  Lots of souvenir shops beckon, but try as I might, I failed to find one where I could buy a Vic Raschi jersey--and none online so far either. But the Baseball Museum is terrific--exhibits much improved, lots of controversial issues are included, although the party line can still rankle, e.g., the theme that baseball expansion beginning in the early 50s was a good thing. And don't get me started on the designated hitter.

Anyway, it's lots of fun. They still show "Who's on First" over and over, and it's still better than their big new baseball celluloid extravaganza.  But you can also listen to Mel Allen or Bob Prince or Red Barber call some innings--and clearly no one has yet figured out what to do about the steroids issue.  The Hall of Fame itself--all those plaques--is frankly of little interest; the only importance of course is whether someone's in or out of it.  It perfectly reflects the underlying chicanery and corruption that permeates the history of the game, so that's why Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver and Pete Rose should be there. Heck, they finally let Leo Durocher in, but only after he was dead long enough so they didn't have to see him standing up on the podium.

Eight miles or so up Otsego Lake--the Glimmerglass of the Fenimore Cooper novels--the Glimmerglass Opera Festival resides in a delightfully-sized theater. The highlight of our visit was the production of Kurt Weill's last musical work, Lost in the Stars, drawn from Alan Paton's novel of the immediate pre-apartheid times in South Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country.  It's a magnificent piece of musical theater--denominated "musical tragedy" by Weill. The summer's artist-in-residence, baritone Eric Owens, played the lead and brought the whole show to the emotional heights it clearly could attain. He has both a fantastic voice and magnificent presence, both celebrated in the past few years as he has made his mark at the Met playing Alberich in two of Wagner's Ring operas--Das Rheingold and Goetterdaemerung

The same night he was Amonasro in the "chamber opera" production of what usually is regarded as the last truly grand opera in the standard repertoire, Aida.  While he was also wonderful in this traditional baritone role, he just blew the audience away as Stephen Kumalo in Lost in the Stars. The Aida production took up on the war theme, which is usually kept offstage in the opera. So there are uniformed soldiers all over the place and a unit set serves well to focus attention on the violence underlying the love triangle between tenor, soprano, and mezzo. 

All the voices were fine, as was the conducting by the director of the Cairo Opera. We had earlier heard the Weill conductor, John DeMain, discuss how the production had restored some of Weill's original songs and added a reprise of the title song.  Weill remains a fascinating 20th century composer--both for his work in Germany, such as The Threepenny Opera, written with Brecht's lyrics, and then after he fled to the States, his several Broadway shows, plus movie scores and other work. He was a major player in the movement of the 40s and 50s that brought operatic voices into Broadway musicals and created musicals than verged on the operatic. Gershwin really began this effort with Porgy and Bess, and Richard Rodgers built on that, especially with Carousel, as did Weill; the latter two produced great work despite the vast stylistic differences.

Books and lyrics were always the big problem, in my view, and George Gershwin, aided  by his superb lyricist, his brother Ira, might have been the luckiest. I find that Oscar Hammerstein's words still seem heavy-handed and I expected little better from Maxwell Anderson's work here for Weill. Anderson was a major American playwright who is just about forgotten today, and surprisingly, he did a nice job with Paton's classic. Weill was well-served on an earlier musical, Lady in the Dark, by securing the services of Ira Gershwin for the first time since George's death.

As out-of-towners hitting two performances on the last day of the festival, we were invited to a picnic with the artistic director and some heavy hitters, that was moved indoors by a sudden shower but which was enjoyable anyway. We sat with a delightful lady who hosts the all-night classical music program on WQXR in New York and had delivered a lecture on Aida's relevance to the current Egyptian political  currents.

By the by, should you find yourself in Cooperstown any time soon, and need to dine in what may be the most thriving metropolis in upstate New York, I'd recommend the New York Pizzeria, which is a short ride from the center of town. On the way north, we passed through Richfield Springs on U.S. 20, the old east-west route across New York State.  Not only is the breakfast great at the Tally Ho, but there's even a branch of the New York Pizzeria down the street.

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