Cooperstown gets an opera house. Glimmerglass company faces new challenges

What do baseball and opera have in common? Cooperstown, N.Y.! The village where baseball was said to be ``invented'' is something of a shrine, what with its Baseball Hall of Fame and Doubleday Field. And now it boasts Glimmerglass Opera's new home - a magnificent jewel of a house that has the potential to be the finest edifice of its size for opera in the United States.

The opera company that began here 12 years ago took its name from the state park that borders Otsego Lake. Productions were held in what I am told was a cramped, crowded, and acoustically flawed high school auditorium.

Glimmerglass has instantly created an entirely new image and set of expectations with its remarkable $5 million, 920-seat opera house, perched on a hill near the lake shore. Living up to this new image will be a laborious undertaking.

From Glimmerglass's first season, the whole community rallied around the company. The chorus was culled from the villagers; the staff was mostly volunteer; the patrons would write checks and also supply moral and gastronomic support for cast and crew, which was all professional.

But from the beginning, Glimmerglassians knew they would not be able to flower without a real theater. Perhaps the arrival in 1979 of general director Paul Kellogg was the catalyst needed. In any case, that it happened so quickly, and that the theater itself was actually ready for the opening night of its 13th season is considered a miracle by Cooperstown folk.

The Alice Busch Opera Theater, designed by Hugh Hardy, is untypically modest - something like an elegant barn with a spacious yet intimate theater sketchily built inside. Both the balcony face and the ceiling (which is depicted on the cover of the souvenir program book) suggest an old-fashioned European elegance within the open and generally rustic interior. Most admirable is the clever and restrained use of such simple things as shrewdly painted molding and lattice work, along with modest but effectively used lighting fixtures - particularly the brass sconces on the balcony. The generous proscenium opening is surrounded by a great width of neutral-toned wood rather than an ornate frame, so that the eye can focus effortlessly on the stage. The feeling is that of a country theater, as well as an elegant opera house.

Most important, acoustician Peter George has made it very fine for the voice, with just enough reverberation to keep things from becoming aurally austere. For now, the orchestra pit is a problem. The basses simply cannot be heard, and when the strings - which are all clumped on the conductor's left, contrary to normal and preferred opera pit seating - push for volume, they take on a dryness and stridency.

The opening night gala was a celebration of the house and of those who gave so much time and money to make it all happen. Critical comments are not necessary, except to note that Alan Titus and Frederica von Stade made elegant and engaging guest stars.

The first full production, Tchaikovsky's ``Eugene Onegin,'' received just about as peculiar a performance as I have ever seen of the opera. And the company used a terrible translation, which did not help matters. While it is clear that everything is done with care and with a sense of serious enterprise, this ``Onegin'' showed how much growing the company will have to do to match the stature of the theater it now inhabits.

Of the singers, only the Lensky, tenor Mark Baker, and the Filipievna, contralto Gweneth Bean, possessed the kind of voices that hold great promise for the future. It must be mentioned, however, that Edith Davis had touching moments as Tatiana. Clearly, on the basis of this cast, Glimmerglass will have to more actively seek out promising talent and showcase it wisely, rather than rely on the personable, all-purpose performers so many other smaller opera companies employ these days. Only the allure of a company that offers the major voices in the early phases of their career will turn Glimmerglass into a national and international draw for opera lovers.

The Peter Dean Beck sets were generally cramped, cluttered, and too often visually confusing. D. Polly Kendrick's costumes, while carefully executed, were too plain and unprepossessing to delinate between the peasants and Tatiana's family in the early parts of the work, or the strata of St. Petersburg society later on. The principals' costumes were all awkward, with an especially frumpy ball gown for Tatiana.

And the matter of stage directors is equally crucial. I'm sorry to say that there is nothing that Patrick Bakman did in this ``Onegin'' that indicated he understood the relationships of the characters to one another, or to the social period of the opera. He rarely trusted the music to do its own work. In general, this most sublime of Russian operas was reduced to a study of directorial intrusions overlaid with silly Freudian echoes. Glimmerglass will no longer be able to rely on fledgling directors if a real company profile is to be built.

Paul Nadler's conducting of ``Onegin'' was stiff, unpassionate, and stressed overly loud dynamics, as was the case with resident conductor Charles Schneider during the gala. The orchestra sounds like a potentially fine ensemble in need of well-honed conductorial ears (not to mention sensitive singer-caring musicians). Such conductors are not that hard to find, as both the Santa Fe and the St. Louis operas have proved.

Clearly, the task ahead for Mr. Kellogg is enormous. But he seems like the caring, diplomatic sort of person who will be able to guide the company through the growing pains this remarkable new house is imposing upon it. He will have to find a way to keep the community involved, while seeing to it that the administrative and artistic framework is raised to the proper level. He has begun some of this, but in matters musical and visual, he has some difficult decisions to make. All of it need not be accomplished over night, but the ongoing company transformation that the Alice Busch Opera Theater symbolizes will have to be realized sooner rather than later.

``Eugene Onegin'' will be performed again tonight, as well as July 5, 7, 10, and 12. Gilbert & Sullivan's ``The Pirates of Penzance'' holds forth July 23, 25, 26, 28, 31 and Aug. 2, 4, and 6. And the season closes with Britten's ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' Aug. 21, 23, 25, 27, 30, and Sept. 1.

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