Glimmerglass—which has come a long way from performing in a high school gymnasium to its current residence over multiple weeks on a bucolic “campus” outside Cooperstown, New York—has this year produced an unusually fascinating pastiche of operatic history. The festival’s four major opera productions include Handel’s Xerxes (1738), Donizetti’s L’Assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais, 1836), and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935)—one work per century in an art form just over four hundred years old (the fourth major offering—Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical Oklahoma! is not under review).

Under Francesca Zambello’s leadership, Glimmerglass has raised its profile considerably, though not without significant cost. In an era of political uncertainty, uneven economic recovery, and graying audiences, the solicitations for donations seem to grow more insistent as time goes on. Appearing before each of the performances discussed here, Zambello made her pitch, reminding the crowd that in Manhattan the free parking they enjoyed courtesy of Glimmerglass would easily equal the amount of a modest contribution to her enterprise’s coffers. Upon returning to my seat from one intermission, I found a donation envelope not so discreetly placed atop my program. And when the air conditioning broke down at the matinée opening performance of Porgy and Bess on July 18, Zambello lost no time producing personal fans that parched patrons could obtain from her in exchange for crisp five-dollar bills. It seemed like a joke, but alas it was not.

Nevertheless, crowds filled the theater to the rafters. Handel’s Xerxes suffers from a typically intricate love plot centered around the eponymous Persian Emperor, famous in history for meeting defeat at the hands of hopelessly outnumbered Greeks. In the opera he has only one line about the war and spends the rest of his time pursuing Romilda, who inconveniently loves his brother Arsamenes. Arsamenes is in turn adored by the beautiful Atalanta, who tries to aid Xerxes’s pursuit of Romilda so that she will be out of her way to Arsamenes’s heart. All the while a third woman, Amastris, pines for Xerxes, once her betrothed. Through a comedy of errors, everyone ends up with someone and Persia seems like a happier place than much of its history would suggest. Tazewell Thompson’s production favors colorful natural motifs. There is much projected greenery in John Conklin’s sets, reminding us that the operatic Xerxes’s unexpectedly mild and kind nature emerges in his entrance aria “Ombra mai fu,” an apostrophe to a plane tree. It was in this role that the young countertenor John Holiday, Jr. made a great name for himself among the cluster of highly successful singers in that unusual vocal category. In the absence of castrati, the sound is probably closest to what Handel’s audiences really heard, and Holiday delivered an exceptionally dynamic performance. Mezzo Allegra De Vita competed handily in the role of Arsamenes, contributing a delicate voice that nevertheless imparted sufficient masculinity to make the brothers’ romantic rivalry somewhat believable. Apart from the two royal leads, the rest of the cast was drawn from Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program. The standouts were sopranos Emily Pogorelc as Romilda and Katrina Galka as Atalanta. The weaker mezzo Abigail Dock’s Amastris did less well, but the overall impression was that of a dynamic young cast giving it their all. Nicole Paiement led the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra with enough verve to bridge the ornate arias with action that seemed more dynamic than it probably was.

Zambello came to the festival’s forefront in her much discussed production of Donizetti’s rarely performed L’Assedio di Calais. Featured here in its American premiere, the opera recounts the heroic Hundred Years’ War story of the Burghers of Calais, the six leading citizens who in 1347 offered their lives to the invading English King Edward III in exchange for clemency for their besieged coastal town’s starving population. Moved by their selfless sacrifice, Edward’s queen Philippa successfully urged him to spare their lives while taking the city under his rule (in fact Calais remained under English rule until 1558). The tale’s themes of war, sacrifice, and magnanimity suggest the makings of a great opera. But the absence of any serious romantic passion is probably the best explanation for work’s obscurity compared to, say, the composer’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which had premiered a year earlier. Here the only intimate conflict rests between Eustachio—history’s Eustache de Saint-Pierre, one of Calais’s self-sacrificial burghers—and his son Aurelio, who out of filial loyalty wishes to share his father’s sacrifice. Aurelio’s wife Eleonora adds some elegantly scored bickering—what will happen to her and the couple’s young son if Aurelio surrenders his life to King Edward?—but to today’s sensibilities this bourgeois family drama would need something more to inspire a director.

Enter Francesca Zambello, the theater director best known for occasionally provocative stagings of standard repertoire works. Zambello’s chic contemporary politics and aspirations to social relevance drove both her choice of Donizetti’s forgotten opera and her approach. Modern Calais recently housed a refugee encampment called “the jungle.” After many difficult months, French police finally cleared the area in October 2016. Zambello would like to convince us that the events of 1347 bear comparison to the charged issue of the flood of migrants into Europe now and that we should be appalled by humanity’s seemingly undiminished capacity for cruelty. The opera’s Calais, therefore, is plucked out of the fourteenth century and recreated as “the jungle,” with the name of the French town spray painted across a corrugated iron gate to remind us where we really are. The encampment within evokes images of Syria with its hopeless urban destruction. Eustachio and his fellow burghers are not leading citizens but deracinated community elders trying to hold together some kind of order among a distressed populace. The English invaders of lore are black vested Eurocops led by an Edward who looks more like an overdressed Brussels functionary than a bloodthirsty tyrant.

One can credit Zambello with indubitable humanitarian instincts. The “jungle” of the refugee crisis suffered alleged human rights violations, police brutality, and occasionally violent resistance to government directives that the migrants resettle in state-operated facilities. The issues involved are contentious and controversial, but does a sovereign state trying to manage a migrant population living in unsanitary conditions really compare to an epic medieval war in which one country spent more than a century brutally trying to take over another? To get to the story’s heart, how often do contemporary Eurocrats offer leniency in exchange for human sacrifice? Dare one suggest that the “jungle” residents, however lamentable their fate, look like something other than patriots defending their homes against foreign invaders? Indeed, the only way Zambello can force that comparison is to eliminate all references to France, Christianity, and being either French or Christian from the translated libretto projected onto supertitles. As American alt-right toughs take to the streets to complain about being “erased” from history, Donizetti’s characters—created by a composer whose own country struggled under a foreign domination that many Italian creative intellectuals metaphorically denounced—suffer exactly that fate in the comfortably bourgeois confines of the Glimmerglass campus. The only apparent reason for this is Zambello’s overweening political conscience, generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Like most political art, this production is unlikely to last beyond the headlines of today. Its contortions are too obvious to withstand trenchant analysis. Its moralizations are too shrill to convince anyone who does not already share them (the large number of Upper West Siders trekking upstate probably do, at least when they are not complaining about the area’s lousy cell phone reception between bites of avocado toast). Its political message—hands off a refugee encampment that no longer exists—will be irrelevant by the time the production is revived, if ever it is.

Happily, qualitative performance is untouched by ideology, and some impressive talent was on display. The musical buzz was around the rising soprano Leah Crocetto, who sang Eleonora. The role—a housewife whose only rival is her husband’s determination to sacrifice his life alongside his father—is not the stuff of which bel canto fireworks are usually made. But there were sublime moments, and after a few rough patches early on Crocetto handled them with the lithe, buoyant sound for which she has become celebrated. She was paired with the talented mezzo Aleks Romano, who took on the trouser part of Eleonora’s husband Aurelio. Trouser heroes are rare in Donizetti’s works—the story here is that the composer could not engage the leading Neapolitan tenor of the day and improvised when he found the other tenor options inadequate—but the role sounded strangely devoid of the delicate balance of animus and anima that the affectation requires. The Romanian baritone Adrian Timpau emerged from Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program to sing a solid Eustachio. We should hope to hear more of him. Joseph Colaneri led the performance with a sophisticated reading of the score.

Another new Zambello production took the stage with Porgy and Bess. In these racially charged times, Gershwin’s opera—the first important American contribution to the genre—stands as a beacon of African-American culture. Perhaps in the name of diversity, it is making the rounds of leading opera companies and will reportedly have a new Metropolitan Opera production in the near future. The creative genius of Gershwin and his collaborators—brother Ira and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward—brought a grand plot to life. In “Catfish Row,” a southern tidewater community of grinding poverty, the disabled beggar Porgy finds true love with the tempestuous Bess. After some legal trouble over the killing in self-defense of Bess’s abusive ex-lover Crown, the drug dealer and ne’er do well Sportin’ Life seduces Bess with a free dose of “happy dust” and visions of a better life in—where else?—New York. When Porgy returns to find her gone, his co-dependency gets the better of him and he sets off to bring her home as the opera comes to its jarring conclusion. We can only imagine what happens next, but the emotional effect is as fierce as anything Europeans could produce.

Zambello’s Catfish Row is a broken down apartment building with two tiers of rusted doors, perhaps intentionally the picture of a neglected prison. The confining effect allows no escape from the characters’ misery and desperation. Leading the cast was the fine South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana. Solid in tone, he occasionally lacked the high notes that one will recall from Lawrence Tibbett or Paul Robeson’s recordings from the time of the opera’s premiere. Nevertheless, the musical and dramatic depiction was compelling. Talise Trevigne’s Bess was convincingly fickle and vocally a fine counterpart. In the dastardly role of Crown, Norman Garrett sang with irresistible force. Tenor Frederick Ballentine nearly stole the show with his serpentine Sportin’ Life. “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the character’s credo of amorality, was a mesmerizing highlight of the performance. John DeMain is the leading national specialist in conducting musicals on the operatic stage, and he judiciously led this opera in a similar vein.

New to The New Criterion?

Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.