Saturday night a capacity crowd filled an Amphitheater brimming with anticipation for one of the summer’s key artistic events: an original inter-arts collaboration among Chautauqua’s major performing arts organizations exploring and presenting a brand-new composite version of Romeo and Juliet, conceived and directed with flair and skill by the Chautauqua Theater Company’s Vivienne Benesch. Despite some rain, busy performance schedules all around and the challenges of rehearsing and coordinating in such a busy venue a project involving 150 artists in the pit and onstage, the evening proved a triumph of vision and organization. The other Institutional artistic entities involved were the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, Chautauqua Dance program and North Carolina Dance Theatre, Chautauqua Opera Company, the Chautauqua School of Music and — materializing up near the United Nations flag for a sexy entr’acte of Duke Ellington’s “Star Crossed Lovers,” with Scott Hartman the persuasive trombone soloist — a jazz ensemble from the Music School Festival Orchestra. Where else but Chautauqua could such a feat have been attempted, let alone brought off? Even The Juilliard School (to which many of the artists involved have ties) has neither the institutional structure nor an appropriate venue for preparing and presenting such an ambitious, large-scale venture.
On Friday, Norton Hall hosted — and will host again tonight — Chautauqua Opera Company’s fine and funny production of Giuseppe Verdi’s final (and, some would argue, his greatest) opera: Falstaff, based on the beloved comic character from Shakespeare. Even without juxtaposition to this weekend’s Romeo and Juliet-based multi-arts extravaganza, Falstaff — dominated, as it should be, by a great physical comedy performance from American bass Kevin Glavin — shows what magic Shakespeare and music can work. Jay Lesenger’s diverting staging, very solidly led by James Meena, should be a definite destination for anyone who only knows Verdi’s “red sauce” tragedies, like La traviata, Rigoletto or Aida. Sung in English (or at least British, in Andrew Porter’s cleverer-than-most translation), it’s actually the kind of show — not too long, with swift action, a range of humor from rueful to belly laugh-inducing and a happy ending romantic subplot — that even folks who think (or think they think) that they “don’t like opera” might want to sample. [w/ SLIDESHOW]
Saturday evening proved quite sensational in the Amphitheater, where guest conductor Christopher Seaman and pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk offered outstanding work in the second of two concerts centered around the piano concerti of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Weather and Delta Airlines conspired to make me miss the first of these on Thursday; but Saturday’s program, sumptuously played by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, was genuinely memorable. Fortunately, the concert was broadcast live via NPR affiliates in Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
Chautauqua Opera Company, a cornerstone of the Institution for more than 80 years, opened another highly worthwhile production Friday under the direction of the company’s Artistic and General Director Jay Lesenger. Giacomo Puccini’s 1893 Manon Lescaut — his third completed opera — was the solid hit that allowed the composer the prestige and economic base to go on to compose four of the most popular operas in the repertory (La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot). Full of great tunes and all kinds of musical devices Puccini drew upon again in those “greatest hits” works, Manon Lescaut offers a kind of youthful freshness and (eventually) unbridled passion that can inform and impress both Puccini’s committed fans and those who find him “too popular” in approach.
The good news is that Chautauqua Theater Company is staging Anton Chekhov’s 1901 “Three Sisters,” one of the greatest plays ever written, through July 17. Further, good reports can be made of the chosen translation: by the late Slavic academic-turned-actor Paul Schmidt, it renders Chekhov’s then-contemporary idiom (the play is set in a stultifying provincial city in 1900) into plausible, listenable and unstilted American English, with only a few questionable decisions.
Following last season’s grand Norma, the Chautauqua Opera Company achieved even finer results Saturday evening with a fine but under-appreciated Giuseppe Verdi work that represents a midpoint between the bel canto style of Norma and the full-out “music drama” Verdi and Wagner were to develop later in the 19th century: 1849’s Luisa Miller. While, it’s never been a crowd-pleaser like Rigoletto or La traviata, it’s a passionate story — full of melodrama, but also full of feeling — and the music is wonderful, culminating in a third act that ranks among the great single acts in Verdi’s huge output.