Opera Critic » New York City Opera

As New York’s second opera company, City Opera has evolved as a venue for experimental and less frequently performed works.  In no repertoire is this more apparent than Handel, where daring productions of the composer’s operas face no serious competition from any other American company (apart for Julius Caesar and the recent Rodelinda, the Met barely touches it).  In recent seasons the newly named David Koch Theater has witnessed Ariodante, Xerxes, Rinaldo, Orlando, Alcina, Acis and Galatea, Semele, and Agrippina, in addition to Partenope, which dates from 1998.

Francisco Negrin’s effort is a light take but suitable for an opera that combines a comedic plot with instances of real drama.  John Conklin’s airy, pastel sets evoke the Italian south of one’s imagination, with pale blues and greens suggesting the warmth of sky and sea.  Paul Steinberg’s bright costumes place us there in an outré modern milieu that might well be the province of the royalty and nobility who populate the cast.

The plot of Partenope demands a steady stream of male voices.  The title character, the Queen of Naples, has three suitors – the Greek princes Arsace and Armindo in residence and a would-be foreign conqueror Emilio, the ruler of the barbarian Cumans.  Arsace is pursued by a jilted lover, Rosmira, who arrives to reconquer him in a male guise only he can see through.  Seeking his heart through Partenope’s offices, Rosmira contrives to force him into a duel, which Arsace unmasks by demanding, as the right of the challenged, that the combatants fight stripped to the waist.  Partenope succumbs to her original instinct to fall for Armindo, Rosmira and Arsace are more or less happily reunited, and Emilio, though undefeated in battle, learns humility and accepts Partenope’s friendship rather than her love.

The opera draws great interest as a period piece.  After a rather dull first act, the second and third parts blossom into a cornucopia of well designed arias that require a virtuosity characteristic of Handel’s better works.  The heavily male cast is well served in City Opera’s revival.  We live in a veritable age of countertenors, and both the young (27) Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Armindo and Iestyn Davies’s Arsace were models of the genre with their crystal clear diction and a purity of sound that the vocal type uniquely demands.  Tenor Nicholas Coppolo carried off the role of Emilio with real feeling, and City Opera veteran Daniel Mobbs sang well as Partenope’s tutor Ormonte, the opera’s lowest part.  Cyndia Sieden did rather less well in the title role, sounding consistently underpowered.  Stephanie Houtzeel matched her colleagues as Rosmira, combining dramatic talent with fine mezzo singing that has filled the proverbial trousers of Richard Strauss’s Octavian and Composer in major houses.  Christian Curnyn’s conducting followed the intricacies of Handel’s score with remarkable feeling.

City Opera is ending its 2007-2008 season and saying good bye to the New York State Theater as we know it.  Planned extensive renovations will preempt next season altogether, leaving us to wonder what will come of the company under its next general manager, the enfant terrible of Salzburg and Paris, Gerard Mortier, when it reopens in the fall of 2009.  As a company designed for American opera and less elite audiences, it is perhaps fitting that it observed this milestone in its history with what is essentially a Broadway show.
            Leonard Bernstein kept revising Candide almost until his death in 1990.  This version, the so-called “Opera House” version of 1982, looks a bit tired in Harold Prince’s circus-like production.  The undisguised use of amplification belied the operatic pretensions.  The diction coaching of modern American theater produces an artificial voice of incredible, open mouthed naivete, leaving too many stage performers sounding like gay kindergarten teachers, and that was certainly in no short supply.  Most of the singers came from show business.  Noted film and television actor Richard Kind’s Pangloss stood out for sheer acting in his mostly spoken role.  Daniel Reichard, of the recent Broadway hit Jersey Boys, captured the title character’s simplicity.  Lauren Worsham sang a lovely, effecting Cunegonde.  This is, however, mostly an ensemble piece, following from the twists and turns of Voltaire’s original story.  Robert Ousley and Eric Michael Gillett were an amusing comic duo as the Grand Inquisitor of Lisbon and Don Issacher, rivals for Cunegonde’s affections.  Ousley’s Baron Thunder-ten-Tronck also made a strong impression.  George Manahan led the orchestra in a fresh reading of Bernstein’s colorful score.

George Bernard Shaw called it a “shabby little shocker,” but like it or not Puccini’s 1900 opera has become a standby guaranteed to raise lots of revenue for American opera companies. City Opera introduced Mark Lamos’s production over a decade ago. Set in a fascist Rome, it seems a bit tired in its revival. The sparse sets are dominated in the first two acts by giant crucifixes suspended horizontally over the stage. Their symbolism is unclear – are we looking at the oppressive power of the Roman Church? Is God watching over instances of violence which end, in all three acts, with his name being invoked? In any case it seemed overstated. The fascist motif was also a bit strained. The uniforms looked suitably austere and the supertitles were sanitized to remove all periodizing references (to Napoleon, Voltaire, the Battle of Marengo, and so on), but Scarpia and his men moved about like cold thugs.
Ukrainian soprano Anna Shafajinskaia has been bandied about as a leading light this season, but she fell far short of the hype. Her soprano is competent, but only came alive in “Vissi d’arte.” The rest of her performance failed to move. Cuban tenor Raul Melo got off to s shaky start but improved with time. His third act singing was the evening’s best, especially in “E lucevan le stelle.” Todd Thomas was a gruff Scarpia who captured a suitable balance between the roles viciousness and courtly blemishes. Steuart Bedford led the effort with a fine interpretation of Puccini’s dramatic score.

City Opera’s spring season continues this month with a notable revival of Leon Major’s production of Verdi’s last opera and only comedy.  The tale of Shakespeare’s fat knight lends itself to raucousness, and it was in no short supply as this production reopened last night.  John Conklin’s sets gestured toward minimalism (Falstaff’s room at the Garter Inn reminds one of New York City hotels in size), but the essentially Renaissance character of Windsor and its environs are imparted believably.
            No one can take the slightest amount of credit away from American baritone Jan Opalach.  In the title role he was by turns sad and ridiculous, the perfect clown for the stage and vocally on track throughout the evening.  The young baritone Stephen Powell’s Ford showed all the sonority and stage appeal of a real Verdi baritone in the making.  John Tessier’s Fenton was light and quick.  The women were all upstaged by Anna Skibinsky’s Nanetta, a fine complement to her character’s suitor.  Pamela Armstrong and Heather Johnson were entertaining, if not quite first class, as Alice Ford and Meg Page, the objects of Falstaff’s painfully simultaneous affection.  Ursula Ferri’s amply bosomed Mistress Quickly tended toward caricature.  George Manahan conducted with his customary grace.

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