Regional opera at its best at the Lake George Festival

The Lake George Opera Festival, founded in 1962, began in a barn at Diamond Point, a few miles up the western shore of the lake it took for its name. For 20 years now, the festival has operated out of the Queensbury High School Auditorium on the outskirts of Glens Falls, some 12 or so miles south of the lake. It has long had a reputation for the high quality of its productions. Two of the three productions seen this season -- Gounod's ``Romeo and Juliet'' and Donizetti's ``The Daughter of the Regiment'' -- boasted excellent production values, thorough musical preparation, and carefully chosen casts of young singers, several of whom were getting their

first cracks at these plummy roles.

A less appealing aspect of the festival could be the area in which it is situated: Lake George is a gorgeous body of water, but Lake George Village, at the southern base of the lake, is as commercialized a tourist district as could be imagined.

Happily, in the theater one experiences regional opera on the highest level. And the festival takes advantage of the best of its environment. Four Sundays a summer, it charters the Mohican, a converted paddle-wheeler, to chug up-lake for a two-hour concert cruise. While sailing on this handsome body of water, watching the sun set (and, skies and scheduling permitting, a spectacular moonrise), one listens to principal and apprentice singers in concert. And, because general director Paulette Haup t-Nolen tries to ``create an atmosphere where the second clarinetist feels as important as the leading singer,'' principal orchestra players participate as well.

Mrs. Haupt-Nolen sees to it that the festival keeps its standards up. She has been general director since 1981, though as a conductor she got her first professional engagement here in '73. Her present responsibilities preclude finding the time to conduct, but from past experience she knows whereof she speaks when she says, ``The most important thing for any company is the right director-and-conductor team. If [the young singers] have someone to work with who's really giving them something, helping them to create a role, it makes a big difference in what they go away with.''

This was particularly evident in the ``Romeo and Juliet.'' Director Leon Major's sleek production took place on Michael Anania's two-levels-of-arches set, and he used the small chorus and the youthfulness of the principals to appealing effect. The opera was staged as the presentation of a modern-day theater troupe, and it flowed with an effortless grace and believable simplicity.

In the title roles, James Schwisow and Jennifer Ringo made a handsome couple. Mr. Schwisow's tenor rang free and true in the upper reaches, with a somewhat throaty vocal production but an appealing timbre throughout the range. He sang with feeling, grace, and a real sense of French style (though the opera, as with all productions here, was sung in English). Miss Ringo was less comfortable when pushing her soprano in the more dramatic moments of the score, but, as with Mr. Schwisow, she believed in every thing she did. The rest of the principals made their marks, and in the pit, Cal Stewart Kellogg managed to make his orchestra sound much fuller than the 35 players the tiny pit has room for.

The ``Daughter of the Regiment'' is clearly a more crowd-pleasing show. The froth unfolds, on Mr. Anania's cloyingly cartoonlike sets, with determined nonsense and high jinks. Unfortunately, Maggie L. Harrer's relentless direction does not really allow the few serious moments of the score to carry the impact they ought to. This extends to the manner in which soprano Jeanne Ommerl'e, in the title role, is directed to be impossibly cute and often insipid, even during her tenderest moments. Happily, she i s the sort of singer who can transcend, with her vocal acting, whatever she has been directed to do on stage.

Seekers of genuine tenor voices will have found a double bounty this season, both in Mr. Schwisow and in ``Daughter's'' Marcus Haddock. To him went the risky aria with nine high ``C's,'' which he sailed through with ease and a spine-tingling ring. In the more lyric moments he was equally impressive -- an important bel canto lyric-tenor-in-the-making.

It was good to find Claudia Catania being so funny and singing so well as the Marquise of Berkenfield. And at least Miss Heller managed to make the subplot of the Krackenthorp family (heavily rewritten from the original libretto) riotously funny. In both Nancy Callman (a wonderfully snooty, overbearing caricature of a Duchess) and Michael Lauricella (as the idiot Duke) she had fine allies. Young baritone Paul Francis Messal, one of this year's apprentices, was commendably understated (and funny) as the aged valet, Hortensius. In the pit, Louis Salemno kept things moving at a good clip and gave his singers all the room they needed to make their welcome bel canto effects.

There are four more performances of this ``Daughter'' -- Aug. 9, 13, 15, and 19. There is also a double bill of Richard Wargo's ``The Seduction of a Lady'' and Dominick Argento's ``The Boor,'' in six performances between Aug. 10 and 20.

On the basis of what I saw at the Lake George Opera Festival, Mrs. Haupt-Nolen has proved her statement that ``for me, the bottom line is an artistic climate where you are constantly being challenged to do your very best.''

Meanwhile, there is every possibility that the company will be building itself a new home overlooking Lake George in a few years. A plan to create an arts center in Glens Falls was scuttled in a shortsighted gesture by Warren County supervisors. But clearly, a new home would be the next plateau for what must be considered the finest summer opera venue on the East Coast, and one of the better regional companies in the land.

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