Opera Critic » New York City Opera

City Opera has opened the spring component of its 2007-2008 season with a production of this English baroque work (“dramatic opera”) by Henry Purcell.  Based on a John Dryden poem written to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Charles II’s reclaiming of his decapitated father’s throne, it is supposed to tell a lesser known story from Arthurian legend, Arthur’s campaign against one of primordial England’s Saxon lords, Oswald, in the hope of unifying the kingdom and winning a princess called Emmeline (Guinevere?).  Flamboyant choreographer and MacArthur Foundation-recognized “genius” Mark Morris has devastated this work by leaving out all of its spoken parts, which, unfortunately for the poor story, contain the parts of Arthur, Oswald, and Emmeline in their entirety.  Unfortunately for the audience, the music and dance sequences left behind tell no coherent story.  Apart from a few fleeting references, it was difficult to understand why the show is even called King Arthur.  Instead we watched a series of unrelated and for the most part clichéd vaudeville acts that went nowhere, each longer and more tedious than the last.  The only apparent explanation for the omission is Morris’s tart and obnoxious program comment about the opera’s dramatically essential spoken part: “I don’t like it.”  I suppose no one else matters, perhaps not even the large number of bored City Opera patrons who walked out at intermission.
            Reviews both here and in London, where the production premiered two years ago, have not been favorable.  Only last year’s Berkeley, California version appeared to impress anyone, and that speaks for itself.  Morris might have gotten away with his approach if he had presented the music/dance sequences with some hint of style.  His undoubtedly long exposure to the wrong side of the New York theater world appears to have deprived him of any higher sense of it.  The costumes reduced the cast to C-grade method actors who looked like they were trying out for a semi-amateur Lower East Side (and not the part that real estate agents have now annexed to the East Village) casting of Rent.  They were surrounded by sets that actually looked improvised – lots of flimsy curtains, campy 70s furniture, and so on.
             The acclaimed Scottish soprano Mhairi Lawson cancelled her appearance as one of the unnamed sopranos, but neither her cover Melissa Fogarty nor anyone else in the cast had any astonishing vocal gift.  The dancers of Morris’s company seemed well rehearsed but also underwhelmed us in their carnivalesque prancing.  Jane Glover’s conducting drew a passably listenable seventeenth-century sound from City Opera’s orchestra, but not one compelling enough to save this flawed and forgettable production.

City Opera ended its fall 2007 season today (performances resume in March) with the end of its run of Samuel Barber’s most significant opera.  Arguably the nation’s first important and “grandest” indigenous work in the genre, it looks and sounds a lot like a European opera.  Set in about 1905 in an unspecified “northern” country, the wintry references, Europeanish names, bourgeois conventions, stock characters (spinster, ingénue, widow, playboy, doctor), and psychologically complex plot suggest Ibsen or Chekhov.  Virgil Thompson infamously (jealously?) dismissed it as “old wine in old bottles,” suggesting that Barber simply aped European musical forms.  The libretto was written by Barber’s Italian-born collaborator and partner Gian Carlo Menotti.  One of its earliest performances, in Spoleto in 1961, actually was in Italian.
Nevertheless, Michael Kahn’s production, shared with Dallas Opera, has given us an excellent reason to believe in the strength of American classical music and the possibilities of its tradition.  The superb cast of course helped.  Lauren Flanigan’s intense dramatic soprano seemed made for the title role, which was originally written for Maria Callas, who turned it down.  Flanigan’s natural acting talent brought Vanessa through all her femme fragile moods and whims in a way that makes one wonder how close she got to Sarah Bernhardt or Eleanora Duse’s Ibsen interpretations of a century ago.  Katharine Goeldner portrayed even greater pathos in her depiction of Erika, Vanessa’s niece and rival for the love of Anatol, sung as a gracious dandy by the fine tenor Ryan MacPherson.  Goeldner’s mezzo-soprano is delicate without being weak, strong without approaching shrillness.  Callas allegedly turned down the title role because she felt Erika to be the show’s real star; Goeldner raised that possibility.  Just to make sure, the original Erika from the opera’s 1958 premiere, veteran mezzo Rosalind Elias was there on stage in the role of the Old Baroness, the family matriarch.  Vocally small but dramatically important, the role seemed right for Ms. Elias who, if she will pardon the observation, made her Met debut as one of the Valkyries in 1954.  Seasoned baritone Richard Stilwell is a name from a past generation of singers, but remains a voice for today.  His beautiful and well sustained sounds both make one hope he will return more visibly to the stage and lead this reviewer to the delightful conclusion that not one note was out of place all afternoon.  Anne Manson’s driven conducting rendered loving tribute to Barber’s layered score.

Massenet might have composed the most plaintive retelling of the Cinderella story.  We see the anguish not only of the young ugly duckling, but also of Prince Charming, who in this version despairs of her absence, and her father, who chases out the wicked stepmother and stepsisters and then leads his daughter to the country house where she is eventually reunited with her love.  Henri Cain’s libretto injects an unusual amount of pathos into this fairy tale, but the production rather deftly excises it.  A collaboration of French Canadian Director/Choreographer Renaud Doucet and his real life partner Andre Barbe (sets and costumes) moves the action from the typical fairy tale milieu to a quaint yet psychedelic 1950s America, a locale brimming with allusions to the “American dream,” the happily-ever-afters so commonly identified with that mythically idyllic decade, and, perhaps, the undercurrents of discontent that beset it.  Cinderella’s family congregates in a zinc-lined postwar kitchen dominated by the color pink and exaggerated to grotesque proportions in a way suggestive of Alice in Wonderland.  Cinderella emerges from a giant oven which she has been cleaning from the inside.  In the course of the opera we see a purple-walled supper club for the ball, a drive in movie for the love duet, and an oversized fifties car to make the fairy characters appear small.  The country retreat to which Cinderella and her father decamp is a cookie-cutter house in a faceless suburb.  Costumes run the gamut of 1950s images from Prince Charming’s varsity letterman jacket (“P” for “prince,” I suppose), the same dark rimmed glasses sported as fashion by the characters but ironically by too many people in the audience, and the expected dresses, dinner jackets, and dressing gowns, all rendered in pastels to match the fantastical nature of the production.  One appreciates imagination in opera, but too often this production was pure camp.
The announcement of real French singers created a great deal of hope in this age of poor French diction, but the results were mostly disappointing.  Cassandre Berthon’s voice is neither large nor beautiful, even if there were hints of good acting in her Cendrillon.  Katherine Jolly’s Fairy Godmother squeaked through the role.  Frederic Antoun was occasionally affecting as Prince Charming though his tenor seems better suited to operetta.  The non-French singers fared better.  Eugene Brancoveanu’s Pandolfe, Cinderella’s father, served raucously for this rather intense role.  Mezzo-soprano and City Opera board member Joyce Castle contributed an entertainingly detestable stepmother right up to the last scene, when she embraces the fortunate young Cinderella as a daughter.  George Manahan led the orchestra through the score with competence if not much verve.

City Opera’s warehouses shelter productions of eleven operas by George Frideric Handel, but it is hard to imagine that any of them are as zany, entertaining, and fun as Agrippina.  Completed when the composer was only 24, its facile romances, oversexed characters, and easy physical comedy firmly rooted his reputation in the European operatic scene.  The revival of this production by Lillian Groag wastes no time in reaching the essence of the opera’s mood.  Its updating to a decadent 1920s or 1930s reminds us that the depravities of ancient Rome can still resound in our own times.  Some special touches help.  Emperor Nero, gorgeously and enthusiastically portrayed by Jennifer Rivera, plays Russian roulette, snorts cocaine, drinks martinis, and makes out with his mother Agrippina.  The inherent anima of mezzo trouser roles notwithstanding, we see the adolescence of a power mad psychopath blossoming.  Kelley Rourke’s supertitles give us memorable details of the characters’ bleak futures in the last scene, when short historical facts are superimposed over the refrains of the finale celebrating the happiness of Rome.  Heidi Stober successfully debuted as a Jean Harlowesque Poppea.  Countertenor David Walker delivered a vocally charged Ottone, but his dramatic approach unintentionally left us wondering whether his beloved Poppea were indeed female.  Marco Nistico and David Korn (the latter in his debut) played off each other well as the sycophantic duo Pallante and Nasciso.  Jeffrey Tucker portrayed a dutiful yet plodding Lesbo, whose name is mercifully deleted from the supertitles and replaced simply by “servant.” (The Anglicized Lesbus might have worked just fine).
The grandest highlight of the afternoon arrived clearly in Romanian soprano Nelly Miricioiu’s debut in the title role (her company debut was in concert two weeks ago).  This Agrippina knows how to manipulate her surroundings, deal judiciously with every personality she encounters, and still effect the opera’s happy ending, all with the authenticity of a great diva.  A gorgeous legato and mastery of Handel’s ornamentation betrayed valuable gifts portending what one hopes will be a great future at the State Theater.  – Paul du Quenoy

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