Opera Critic » Opera Orchestra of New York

The Opera Orchestra of New York nearly faded with the 2008 financial crisis, but the last two seasons have allowed it to demonstrate an impressive return to fiscal and artistic health. (Or almost, its planned March 7 performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo in the title role was just cancelled for unspecified financial reasons). This season began auspiciously with an excellent and heavily cheered performance of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur starring the great Jonas Kaufmann and Angela Gheorghiu. Wagner’s early opera Rienzi – which the composer considered “immature” and banned from his personally designed theater in Bayreuth — had been scheduled for spring 2009 and then cancelled, but has now appeared. Eve Queler, listed since last season as the Opera Orchestra’s “Founder and Conductor Laureate,” has yielded the baton to the company’s new music director, the talented conductor Alberto Veronesi, but has pledged to return for one of the Opera Orchestra’s annual performances. This is the fourth time she has mounted Rienzi, and she chose it for her appearance this season.

The orchestra sounded very brassy and a bit loud, a trait for which Queler’s conducting has been criticized. In Wagner, however, it works quite well, and the unusual setting of Avery Fisher Hall (the company normally performs in Carnegie Hall) may have added the right acoustic effect. The orchestral moments, some derivative of Meyerbeerian grand opera but others showing the evolution of Wagner’s emerging style, passed most enjoyably. It was a disappointment that the ballet music was cut, but Rienzi in full is a cumbersome piece and something had to go to make for a balanced afternoon.

Ian Storey is edging toward that zone where one politely uses the phrase “past his prime,” but he delivered most of the title role with a verve that recalled the somewhat rough-edged 1950s German Wagnerian Gunther Treptow. The prayer aria was as eerily insightful as it should be for an opera about a populist dictator who defeats internal traitors, foreign enemies, and the church before his people turn on him. The image of a self-deluded Hitler in the bunker (where the original score of Rienzi disappeared with him…) is never far off. Elizabeth Matos fared less well as Rienzi’s sister Irene. Fine middle register singing too often jumped into upper range shrillness. A true discovery came in the French mezzo Geraldine Chauvet, who made her American debut in this performance. Her Adriano, a trouser role of conflicted loyalties and emotions, radiated a solid beauty and superb musicianship. Both the part’s traditional aria “Gerechter Gott” and cabaletta drew sustained applause and cheers. The young singers Ricardo Rivera, Brandon Cedel, Philip Horst, and Jonathan Winell all made solid impressions that suggested great things to come. The New York Choral Society and children’s chorus from the Vox Nova of the Special Music School made excellent choral contributions, the society from the stage and the children with entrances through the audience. A “military ruling” unfortunately excluded the West Point Glee Club from performing the soldiers’ choruses, but a replacement chorus of male singers did the job quite well.

Puccini’s rarely performed opera closes OONY’s 2007-2008 season with a real treat for the New York audience.  Coming between the much better known and more loved La Boheme (1896) and Tosca (1900), this 1899 work hardly endears itself to the usual Puccini fan.  Its title character, torn between a life of pleasure and a life of respectability and the two women who go with each variant, overcomes all the obstacles fourteenth-century Flanders can present to embrace the latter, only to have the happy ending spoiled in the last minute of the opera, when the spurned hedonistic amour brutally stabs her rival to death at her moment of triumph.  The Romantics among us could hardly champion such an obvious victory of vice over virtue, but the opera nevertheless contains some of its composer’s best music.
Eve Queler drives her orchestra to loud extremes at times, so it was unfortunate that Jennifer Larmore, once a powerful singer, was cast as the aptly named Tigrana, the opera’s “bad girl.”  Barely audible at times in what is deliciously evil scoring, but gorgeous in her sultry red dress, she yielded both vocally and dramatically to the “good girl,” Fidelia, sung by the hefty Latonia Moore.  Rather more impressive in the higher range than the lower, Moore stole the show with artful spinto singing.  New York’s only tenor (it seems) Marcello Giordani sang with uncharacteristic flair, though this may have appeared to have been the case because the concert format required little dramatic skill.  Giordani hit all of the title role’s high notes and sang with an occasionally brilliant top, but the rest of the part was a standard B+.  Stephen Gaertner’s Frank and Giovanni Guagliardo’s Gualtiero filled in the rest of the case without too much splendor.  The New York Choral Society handled the opera’s choruses with volume and verve.

New York and the world should be grateful that Eve Queler has saved her company from recent financial difficulty.  Last night it proved its reputation as both an excellent venue for the introduction of new singers and a showplace for well established vocal talent.  Bellini’s comedy has its moments and, in Ira Siff’s semi-staged format, Carnegie Hall was clearly delighted. 
            The evening clearly belonged to the wonderful Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto.  Bringing his cavernous voice and fine dramatic ability to the role of the Count, a falsely suspected seducer, he taught us what “superstar” should mean in the operatic world and how well he would deserve the title if the times were meant for greater elegance.  The opera’s star is of course the soprano title role, the sleepwalking village girl Amina whose impending marriage is nearly compromised by her unfortunate condition.  In Eglise Gutteriez, Ms. Queler’s company has made a real discovery.  Her lower and middle range lines and artful cadenzas delivered gorgeous bel canto singing, despite some slight strain in the ascending E flats.  There was refreshingly little embellishment to the part as written in Bellini’s original score, proving the value of stricter come scritto singing than we often hear today.  Elizabeth Caballero, known to New York audiences from her appearances at the New York City Opera, made an impressive Carnegie Hall debut as the mischievous Lisa.  Dmitry Korzak’s Elvino, Amina’s suitor, captured the character’s milksop qualities and rendered fine musicianship.  The voice, though, seemed a bit too small for a hall of Carnegie’s size.  Ms. Queler’s conducting guided the performance successfully.  Her chorus was a fine accompaniment.