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Opera Saratoga to stage 'our most elaborate season ever'

Opera Saratoga to stage 'our most elaborate season ever'

Season opens July 1
Opera Saratoga to stage 'our most elaborate season ever'
Director James Ortiz in rehearsal with the Beast for Opera Saratoga’s "Zémire et Azor."
Photographer: Provided

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Opera Saratoga this summer offers a lecherous comic knight straight out of Shakespeare, monstrous but friendly beasts living in a fairy-tale land and a union-busting allegory so brazen the U.S. government actually shut it down opening night. The season opens Saturday July 1.

“It’s our most elaborate season ever done,” said general and artistic director Lawrence Edelson. “There are three full sets that are large-scale.”

Verdi was 80 when he wrote “Falstaff,” his last but hugely successful comic opera that premiered in 1893. Complex musically with intricate vocal ensembles, it stars baritone Craig Colclough, a leading Falstaff interpreter. The libretto, which is based on five characters from Shakespeare’s plays, was written by Arrigo Boito and will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. 

Opening night’s “Falstaff’s Feast” at 5 p.m. at the Gideon Putnam Hotel costs $125.

Families will love James Ortiz’s elaborate larger-than-life puppets, which he designed along with the murky palace sets for Andre Gretry’s “Zemire et Azor” (“Beauty and the Beast," 1771). There are three puppets: a little shaggy-haired dog, the beast Azor that stands up to 8 feet tall, and a serpentine Spirit of the Wind that is 12 feet long. They are made from foam pieces, which are glued and then painted.

“I made miniature versions first then blew up the pattern pieces,” Ortiz said, who has been doing puppetry “passionately” for at least 10 years. “The most concern was for weight and durability.”

Four guys in costume, who also double as dancers, operate the beast by pulling inside levers that can open its mouth, move a flipper or ear. But the beast and Chinese dragon-like spirit have sweet faces with huge dark eyes despite their lurking presence. The music, too, is beautiful and will be sung in French with English supertitles.

Not so surprising is that the opera, one of the earliest adaptations of the famous fairy tale, had many fans. Mozart, a huge fan of marionettes, kept a score, and Catherine the Second named her favorite greyhound Zemire.

Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” has a history few operas have. Written in 1937, the libretto, which Blitzstein wrote when he was 32, is about a greedy businessman who tries to corrupt the local press and other community leaders to get what he wants. But the factory foreman decides to unionize the workers to “rock the cradle” and shift the balance of power. The pro-union plot and allegory of corruption so alarmed the federal Works Progress Administration, who oversaw the show’s theater, it shut the show down opening night. 

Undeterred, John Houseman, the show’s producer, and Orson Welles, its director, found another theater, and with Blitzstein at a battered upright piano and the cast without costumes or sets, put on the show before hundreds who had followed along. Except for a 1960 New York City Opera revival and a concert version that Leonard Bernstein made, the show has never been given a production as Blitzstein conceived it  -- the first time in 57 years, Edelson said. Blitzstein died in 1964.

“This is a significant production,” he said. “We got a special grant from the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music Inc. as Blitzstein had been the translator for many of Kurt Weill’s works. And with a 24-piece orchestra, we’re now discovering some of the unusual sounds he used with an accordion, guitar, a Hawaiian guitar, saxophones. It’s exhilarating.”

The show, which will be performed in English, has a huge cast with Edelson directing.

“This is a politically driven work that moved from the opera house to Broadway and changed the course of musical theater, without which we’d not have ‘West Side Story’ or ‘Hamilton,’” Edelson said. “It has legendary status and the issues raised 80 years ago are still timely: wealth vs. equality, and abuse of corporate power.”

Pre-concert talks are one hour before performances.

Opera Saratoga

WHERE: Spa Little Theater, 19 Roosevelt Drive, Saratoga Springs

  • Verdi “Falstaff”:  7:30 p.m. July 1, 6; 2 p.m. July 10, 15
  • Gretry “Beauty and the Beast”: 7:30 p.m. July 2; 2 p.m. July 8, 14
  • Blitzstein “The Cradle Will Rock”: 7:30 p.m. July 9, 13; 2 p.m. July 11, 16

HOW MUCH: $50 - $95
MORE INFO: 518-584-6018; www.operasaratoga.org

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