Glimmerglass double bill features themes of religious zeal, spiritual service

COOPERSTOWN — Religious zeal and spiritual service are the intertwined themes of new operas in the double bill which opened Friday night at the Glimmerglass Festival.

First came “Taking Up Serpents,” a charged and bitter tale of Pentecostal fury and family strife, written by composer Kamal Shakaram and librettist Jerre Dye. It was followed by “Holy Ground”, a melodious, rather charming but often hazy story of a few clever angels and reluctant saints, with music by Damien Getter and libretto by Lila Palmer.

In “Snakes,” soprano Mary-Hollis Hundley plays the hurt and ailing adult daughter of a righteous and abusive preacher played with outrageous fury by baritone Michael Mayes. A third principal is the conflicted and possibly disturbed mother, sung by mezzo Jacquelyn Matava. It’s a tortured story that’s mostly seen through flashbacks and doesn’t end well.

As in “A Strange Loop,” the hit Broadway musical, the hateful religious fervor continues to such extremes that all signs of healing and redemption are lost. Likewise, the relentless flow of words and music in the opera never settles enough for much insight or emotional reaction to settle.

“Holy Ground” begins somewhere in the business administration wing of heaven. A quintet of lollygagging angels are at their wit’s end in their fruitless efforts to find a woman good and docile enough to give birth to the next messiah. Sweet-voiced tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes pays a few visits to curious young Mary, sung with sincerity by soprano Jasmine Habersham.

But first the magistrate, the angular baritone Joseph Goodale, must negotiate a contract on behalf of his renowned but absentee client. On hand for much of this is Mary’s mother, played by soprano Alyson Cambridge, whose voice sounded like a big hug.

Geter’s music is flexible and beautifully orchestrated for chamber orchestra. Some scenes go a little too long and it’s not always clear what the Earth-to-sky shuttles’ true purpose is, but there are nice touches of humor and a sweet attitude throughout.

Both works were directed by Chloe Treat and conducted by Lidia Yankovskaya, who each made the most of what they had to work with. Trevor Bowen’s costumes were utilitarian and polyester for “Snakes” and ceremonial and silk for “Holy Ground.” There were no wings on these angels.

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

opera review

“Taking Snakes” (Sankaram/Dye)

“Holy Ground” (Geter/Palmer)

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Glass Glow Festival

Duration: Two hours 30 minutes; an intermission

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