Review: The Pittsingers as the O’Neills in Tesori’s “Blizzard on Marblehead Neck” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 13, 2011

Jenine Tesori is a familiar name on Broadway, as composer of such successful theatrical ventures as “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Shrek, the Musical”. Tesori, in collaboration with other artists with Broadway successes, librettist Tony Kushner, and Stage Director Francesca Zambello, created a one act opera, based on a few hours in the life of playwright Eugene O’Neill and his wife, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill.

[Below: Composer, conductor Jenine Tesori; edited image, based on a Joseph Marzullo photograph for WENN.]

The opera, entitled “Blizzard on Marblehead Neck”, chronicles one of the fierce and emotionally destructive arguments between Gene and Carlotta O’Neill, whose outcome was the playwright being locked out of his house in his bedclothing in a snow-storm, and nearly succumbing to the elements.

[Below: Carlotta Monterey and Eugene O’Neill; edited image of a historical photograph.]

The site for the opera’s world premiere was the 2011 Glimmerglass Opera Festival, in association with Zambello’s first season as the opera company’s artistic and general directorships. Tesori, herself, conducted the opera.

Playing the O’Neills is a couple familiar with both the Glimmerglass and Broadway communities – the husband and wife team of bass-baritone David Pittsinger and soprano Patricia Schuman.

[Below: Carlotta Monterey (Patricia Schuman) recites her complaints about her husband, Eugene O’Neill (David Pittsinger); edited image, based on a Julieta Cervantes photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]

The opera, which in its totality lasts less than three quarters of an hour, engages the audience in the “dirty linen” of a relationship where love and respect appear to exist underneath the brutal demeanors of the two protagonists.

Little things – a strong disagreement on what the temperature of their cottage should be, Carlotta’s annoyance at Gene’s insistence on replaying the same record over and over – lead to Carlotta’s cruelly referencing the suicide of his son and his estrangement from daughter Oona, the wife of Charles Chaplin against his wishes.

To underscore her wrath, she invokes negative reviews of Broadway critics for O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” – with three of the most virulent appearing as illusory images to give voice (sung by Glimmerglass Young Artists Stephanie Foley Davis, Aleksey Bogdanov and Carin Gilfry) to their criticisms. Introducing a bit of surreality seems consistent with 21st century tastes, even as the power of mid-20th century theater critics to destroy a play seems a quaint concept in this time of somewhat reduced influence of the print media.

[Below: Mary McCarthy (Stephanie Foley Davis, left), Bernard DeVoto (Aleksey Bogdanov, center) and Louis Kronenberger (Carin GIlfry, right) express their problems with the play “The Iceman Cometh”; edited image, based on a William Brown photograph, courtesy of Glimmerglass Opera.]

There are two other characters, both Glimmerglass Young Artists – A Young Woman, sung by Lindsay Russell, who first comes across O’Neill in a snowbank, almost frozen to death, the next morning; and Officer Christopher Snow, who fills out the “incident report” the next morning, a part engagingly sung by Jeffrey Gwaltney.

[Below: Officer Christopher Snow (Jeffrey Gwaltney) is responsible for the paperwork relating to the incident of Eugene O’Neill being found, nearly frozen, in the snow; edited image, based on a William Brown photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]

The participation of the Pittsingers in the project was essential to the opera’s success. David Pittsinger is not only an especially effective character actor, he is one of the great American bass-baritones, with impeccable credentials in a wide swath of the operatic repertory from Puccini to  bel canto to the French Romantic repertory, as noted in my reviews cited below. (I had seen both Pittsinger and Schuman as younger artists in a variety of smaller roles at the San Francisco Opera.)

As “docu-operas” (about supposedly real life incidents of persons who actually existed in history) go, this is a slight story (that one concedes would have ended in tragedy had O’Neill been exposed to the elements much longer).

Its composition, both musical score and libretto, is interesting in itself. Much of the music of the vocal writing is influenced by the sounds of contemporary Broadway.

I have argued that we are in a period where a number of American opera composers are experimenting with new forms, that re-establish melody as significant component of vocal writing (which never disappeared from American musical theater)  and incorporate a range of American sounds. “Blizzard” often has a bluesy feel to it, as if the “sound” of popular music from the 1930s has been remixed into an operatic format.

Works like “Blizzard on Marblehead Neck”, which experiment with characterization, all contribute to the American opera art form. Glimmerglass Opera provides an invaluable service in providing a vehicle for such a work to be performed before a sympathetic audience.

I suspect we are getting close to the time when “Great American Operas” will be composed. Perhaps we will agree that one or two have already been performed or are in preparation. The sponsorship of Glimmerglass Opera and Francesca Zambello for these efforts is something to be admired and supported.

For my reviews of other David Pittsinger performances, see: Marta Domingo’s Reconceptualization of “Rondine” Returns to L. A. – June 7, 2008, and also,

Beautiful Singing in Bellini’s “Capuleti”: Pittsburgh Opera – May 3, 2008, and also,

“Thriller”: Paterson Links with Netrebko, Villazon and Domingo in L. A. “Manon” – October 5, 2006.