Summer festivals of the arts get serious

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The growing depth and ambition of summer festivals has coincided with the burgeoning prices of East Coast beachfront property. Might there be a correlation? Perhaps bright, middle-class people who are priced out of a summer share in Cape May are instead diving into artistic spheres they never knew existed? At Lincoln Center Festival, Bard College, and Glimmerglass Opera?

In decades past, the summer performing arts business was so slim that New York could barely accommodate the Mostly Mozart Festival and Philadelphia sent Angela Lansbury packing when her tour of Mame closed early for lack of business. Thus, it's a marvel that Lincoln Center Festival is importing Wagner's four-part, 16-hour Ring cycle from Russia's Kirov Opera at an estimated cost of $3 million to $4 million.

Even those with beach shares (or suffering an abandonment complex with the Philadelphia Orchestra soon decamping to Bravo! Vail Valley Summer Festival) could easily choose Wagner. Both Ring cycle performances, the first opening July 13, are conveniently packed into consecutive nights, which isn't logistically possible in many theaters.

The fact that there are still tickets left - as of Wednesday, sales were 90 percent - is one vestige of the bad old days: In the regular season, a Ring cycle conducted by Valery Gergiev and designed by George Tsypin would sell out long before opening night.

But then, the better festivals are so committed to stretching into doing the unexpected in less-charted regions, as opposed to the old TV-rerun mentality, that too many sold-out signs would mean they aren't pushing the boundaries hard enough. Many festivals justify their existence as a complement to conventional cool-weather months.

"My wife, who is my most severe critic, said, 'Don't you think the festival is a little esoteric this year?' " said Lincoln Center Festival director Nigel Redden. "But a good audience for one year gives us more license for the next year. And last year was good."

Lincoln Center Festival - with French- and Spanish-language theater, new-music collaborations between composer Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen in The Book of Longing, plus a new George Benjamin opera titled Into the Little Hill that retells the Pied Piper of Hamelin legend as a tale about racism - can't help being a loose-limbed commentary on current global tensions.

Even Wagner's Ring cycle, with its plot about political corruption and scenic design that Opera News described as resembling "blobs of primal matter seen through a microscope," is likely to become another view of how such tensions start - and end.

You could wonder if frivolity is banned. Certainly, the conventional versions of it are. "We don't do The Mikado - it doesn't need help from us," says Leon Botstein, music director of Bard SummerScape at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, 90 miles north of New York City. "We don't do something that everybody knows. "

This summer's theme at Bard, "Elgar and His World," presents a cross section of Victorian English culture with an array of serious, upstanding composers who contributed to Britain's greater glory in the decades before World War I. But because a cross section of the historic landscape demanded that Gilbert & Sullivan be there as a comic counterpoint, Botstein has chosen The Sorcerer, their infrequently heard first collaboration.

Habitually, Botstein challenges received wisdom of the past with the hindsight of the present. Though "Elgar and His World" promises a reevaluaton of seldom-heard chamber and choral works over three weekends Aug. 10 through Oct. 27, the more startling moment promises to be an Aug. 19 symposium titled "Constructions of Masculinity From Dorian Gray to Father Brown." One talking point is why the most affectionate music in Elgar's popular Enigma Variations - the Nimrod section - isn't for his wife but for a male friend.

Taken together, these destinations make up a world view through music and art, rounded out by the Glimmerglass Opera's current past/present confrontation. The standard-setting company in Cooperstown (four hours' drive from Philadelphia) devotes its season (July 7-Aug. 28) to tracking the progression of the popular Orpheus and Euridice legend via operas from four centuries.

That Greek myth, underlying films from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo to the Reese Witherspoon comedy Just Like Heaven, unfolds in less veiled form from the 17th-century Claudio Monteverdi (Orfeo), the 18th-century Willibald Gluck (Orphée et Eurydice), 19th-century Jacques Offenbach (Orpheus in the Underworld) and 20th-century Philip Glass (Orphée). All are considered to have defined their times in one way or another, but their appearances in standard-repertoire opera houses, Philadelphia's included, are fleeting.

Of course, good festivals have instincts about how far they can go without exhausting the audience's curiosity. The international theater at this year's Lincoln Center Festival - from Spain, Chile, Argentina, Mexico and Taiwan - is meant as outreach to audiences who don't normally go to Lincoln Center. Even if that fails, Redden has discovered that regular audiences are also interested. (Ta'ziyeh, which is Muslim folk theater, was a surprise hit in 2002 despite anti-Islamic sentiment.)

Funny, too, how Glimmerglass operas with the least ticket availability are the more remote tellings of the Orpheus tale - Monteverdi, Gluck and, least known of all, concert performances of Haydn's L'Anima del Filosofo.

The point is not to become academic. "We're trying to appeal to the first-time listener," said Botstein, who rejected substantial Elgar works due to their dated Victorian patriotism and pomposity. "Elgar has a tremendous interior reflection, very controlled but extremely intense intimacy."

Yet there's a point at which festival programming isn't calculated. One of the least-expected Lincoln Center moments is an installation titled Slow Dancing by video artist David Michalek: Three screens hung over the front of the New York State Theater will show several of the world's great choreographers (Trisha Brown, William Forsythe and Bill T. Jones) in five-second videos that have been stretched into 10 minutes each. That's a project Redden admits he just stumbled upon. "Most of it," he says, "is stumbling."


Festival Information

Glimmerglass Opera

Cooperstown, N.Y. July 7-Aug. 28. Orpheus operas by Monteverdi, Gluck, Haydn, Offenbach and Glass. Information: 607-547-2255 or www.glimmerglass.org.

Lincoln Center Festival

New York, N.Y. July 10-29. Includes Kirov Opera Ring cycle, the Comédie-Française theater company, and the George Benjamin opera Into the Little Hill. Information: 212-721-6500 or www.lincolncenter.org.

Bard SummerScape

Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. July 5-Oct. 27. "Edward Elgar and His World" plus the U.S. staged premieres of Alexander Zemlinsky's The Dwarf and A Florentine Tragedy. July 27-Aug. 5. Information: 845-758-7950 or www. fishercenter.bard.edu.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http:// go.philly.com/davidpatrickstearns.