Maestro Joseph Colaneri, music director of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival, Metropolitan Opera conductor, passionate educator and simply nuts about Verdi, is a dangerous man to know.

Show the slightest enthusiasm over Met Opera Club cocktails in Manhattan for his latest project, a Sunday matinee semi-staged performance of Verdi’s Falstaff in Washington DC, and any curious opera critic will suddenly find themselves rattling south on a four hour Amtrak odyssey. Not to the capital’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – a reasonable first assumption – but to the boondocks.

And, why was Maryland Lyric Opera (MDLO), a company based at The Music Center at Strathmore, boasting a well constructed concert hall and thriving education establishment, but no opera house, attempting such a challenging work? 

The answer soon became clear. Under Maestro Colaneri’s baton we were treated to an outstanding musical and theatrical experience. Singers, chorus, orchestra and Director, David Gately, excelled themselves. Spurred on, they could do it, so the whole company rose to a seemingly impossible task.

Turned out the Music Center at Strathmore is not in Washington at all. North Bethesda in Maryland. A bit like being encouraged to attend a “do” in London only to find yourself pitching up in Leatherhead. “Er, Joe, why are you doing this?” The simple truth is, like a hound scenting truffles, any prospect of conducting the work of Giuseppe Verdi sets Maestro Colaneri’s musical antennae a-twitch.

“I can’t resist Verdi – and I just love Falstaff”. I get it. Verdi’s final opera is a comic masterpiece, written when he was nearly 80 in collaboration with librettist Arrigo Boito. Compelling stuff. A musical feast, Verdi creates a bravura mélange of all his styles, ending with the most remarkable fugue featuring principals and chorus. The fugue is Verdi’s “farewell”, and the work an emphatic rebuttal of Rossini’s snide criticism; “Verdi can’t write comedy”.

Too bad Rossini had died in 1868 and was not around to eat his words in 1893 when Falstaff premiered at La Scala, Milan, perhaps as a side dish to accompany his fabled Tournedos.  

What was extraordinary was that with a few simple props and costume changes MDLO got across the “feel” of the opera. That was down to some exceptional acting by the principals and sharp direction from Gately. 

My concern was how, with the cast performing behind him and his orchestra back stage, Colaneri would manage to keep control of the fast moving piece. The exchanges between Falstaff, Alice Ford, Meg Page and Mistress Quickly are frequently rattletrap fast. Verdi had by now abandoned any attempt at set-piece arias and recitatives. 

No problem. The Maestro morphed into a dervish, whirling from cast to orchestra and the singers, and he/she/it/they all kept a corner of their eyes on him as if their lives depended on it.

There is no doubt that great performances rely on all the combustible operatic materials being ignited adroitly. The combination of MDLO and Maestro Colaneri was a revelation of what can be achieved when an opera company tries to punch above its weight and benefits from enthusiastic expert musical guidance.

And semi-staged performance brings the action up front. No orchestra put in the way. The audience, with many family members probably not accustomed to Verdi, got every joke as the bumptious knight was given his laundry basket comeuppance. 

Spool on. Another week. Another city. New York. And, who’s that lurking on the periphery of a Glimmerglass Festival National Council winter preview at the National Arts Club, in Gramercy Park? It’s that man again!

Maestro Colaneri is back in town to egg on his team of Glimmerglass performers for this short showcase of what Glimmerglass 2023 will have in store. Although it was a piano/song recital Colaneri was clearly conducting from the wings in his head, gaze intent, leaning forward, nodding at every note and tempo change. 

He has been musical director of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival since 2013. If JK Rowling ever writes about opera she will base it on Glimmerglass, an enchanted opera house standing in isolation on the banks of Lake Otsego in upstate New York. A musical Hogwarts. Miles from anywhere. There is nothing to do except watch, learn about opera and watch the magic unfold.

That is if you avoid The Baseball Hall of Fame in nearby Cooperstown. Bus loads of burger munchers and no subtitles.

This year’s Festival runs from 7th July to 20th August, offering four main-stage events – Puccini’s La Bohème, Handel’s Rinaldo, Bernstein’s Candide and Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. There are countless additional happenings, small scale performances and lectures to make a trek to the beautiful upstate countryside worth the effort. Three days and it can all be taken in.

This will be the first full year Colaneri has worked with Artistic Director, Robert Ainsley. They share common ground at Mannes Musical College on Manhattan’s West 13th Street. In 2019 I was not over impressed by the premiere of Blue, by Jeanine Tesori. As relevant to everyday life in New York’s police force as the fated Nicola Sturgeon’s gender bending policy was to Scottish prisons.

This year looks more promising. So, when Maestro Colaneri caught me at the reception to discuss Falstaff and encourage attendance at Glimmerglass I was able to tell him, smugly, that I had already bought my tickets. Following the talent! 

And another thing!

Elaine Page’s BBC Radio 2 Sunday show – Elaine Paige on Sunday,(EPOS) for those who appreciate an inventive turn of title – has a goldie oldie slot. Last Sunday my good friend, Dr Harry Brünjes, Chairman and doughty defender of English National Opera (ENO) against current threats of closure, had tossed Elaine the bone of a forgotten Scottish variety act of the early 1950s. She jumped at it.

The Singing Scott Brothers was Scotland’s first boy band. Bay City Rollers eat your tartan-trousered hearts out! Less well known, the Glasgow based Scotts were really the Brünjes brothers, a talented, close harmony vocal trio spotted by a savvy agent, who insisted on a well-advised name change; The Singing Scott Brothers – Harry, Drew and Tom. Namesake Harry was Dr Harry’s father. 

From 1949 – 1955 they were “the bonny melodists”, cutting a dash in immaculate evening garb and heartthrob-crimped hair. Listen to their 78RPM rendering of Westering Home, which featured in our family evening fireside sing-songs, alongside the likes of Harry Lauder and, slightly later, Kenneth McKellar. The brothers delivered a quality act. A fixed point in the celebration of Scottish culture of the time. 

So, it came as no surprise to discover that Harry Jnr had inherited the “Scott” genes and was a nifty performer too. During Covid lockdown I hosted a series of online events, Cadenza, for the Met Opera Club. Harry agreed to appear to talk about his beloved ENO, then, as a send-off, turned to the piano and with his talented wife (whisper it, a tad better singer than he), Jacquie, performed an impromptu comic song for the amazed audience. Great routine, rooted in their music hall background. Where they met. 

The Club members had never experienced anything like it. Loved it! A Chairman of an opera company actually singing? If I had persuaded Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, to reveal his little known fire eating skills live they couldn’t have been more surprised. As it happened, Gelb merely spoke. Interesting, but didn’t quite burn the house down.

As ENO continues its struggle to survive, with yet another Secretary of State responsible for its future – cue The Rt Hon Lucy Frazer MP – it’s good to know Harry the Chairman still has as much of the theatre coursing in his veins as his father Harry and uncles, Tom and Drew.

#LoveENO. Sign the petition here. 150,000 and counting.

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