Good and Bad Is All Good at New York City Opera

07/03/2012

  Verdi, La Traviata: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of New York City Opera, Steven White, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, 16.2.2012 (GG)

Cast:

Violetta: Laquita Mitchell
Flora Bervoix: Karin Mushegain
Alfredo: David Pomeroy
Giorgio Germont: Stephen Powell
Gaston de Letorieres: Jeffrey Hallili
Marquis d’Obigny: Krassen Karagiozov
Doctor Grenvil: Kenneth Overton
Baron Douphol: John Maynard
Annina: Jennifer Tiller

Production:

Producer: Jonathan Miller
Director: Elena Araoz
Scenery: Isabella Bywater


Rufus Wainwright,
Prima Donna:
Soloists, orchestra of New York City Opera, Jayce Orgren, Brooklyn Academy of Music, BAM, 23.2.2012 (GG)

Cast:

Regine Saint Laurent: Melody Moore
Marie: Kathryn Guthrie Demos
Andre Le Tourneur: Taylor Stayton
Phillipe: Randal Turner

Production:

Producer: Tim Albery
Director: Joanna Turner
Scenery: Antony McDonald

New York City Opera is back onstage, and that is a victory, to quote Craig Ferguson, for the forces of “intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” Their newest, and still relatively new, General Manager George Steel had to somehow rescue the company from the drastic consequences of several years of mismanagement by its board, and his strategy was to make the kind of radical change with sclerotic tradition that most administrative and business leaders pay lip service to but never have the courage to do themselves. That meant quitting Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater, where rent alone would have consumed almost forty-percent of the companies budget.

There was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, most loudly over the perceived loss of prestige in leaving the center and becoming a relatively itinerant company — that is, performing on different stages across New York City — and the phrase “world class opera” was tossed around with the carelessness of a political slogan. Steel’s plan, to perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and other stages, was an appropriate fulfillment of the company’s mandate, “the people’s opera:” bring opera to the people, and keep it affordable. Not only should every company that truly cares about the art form hold those same values, but in the contemporary moment when the forces of political and economic power can no longer maintain their sleight of hand which has the the public chasing the latest shiny bauble rather than seeing what’s in front of their nose, City Opera should absolutely not being playing in a theater named after one of the most egregiously anti-social and anti-democratic plutocrats in America.

Steel had actual, difficult choices to make and problems to solve, most having to do with personnel. He could not keep conductor George Manahan, who had done so much to improve the orchestra’s playing in the previous two seasons, under contract, and relationships with the musicians and chorus had to be drastically revised. There was a real possibility that the labor issues would not be resolved and the season, and the company itself, would come to an end, through no other fault than the over-extended organization had failed financially.

But the issues were resolved at just about the last minute, and City Opera debuted their artistically ambitious and organizationally modest (four productions, four performances each) in February at BAM. It would be easy to simply be thankful that La Traviata and Prima Donna were on stage, but to leave it at that would be pandering. City Opera is back as a regular, working company, and that they can, and should, be treated critically means that the company is not only going to exist but endure.

The basic function of the people’s opera is to present fine productions at accessible prices, and that means La Traviata was the best possible news for the company. Jonathan Miller’s production, borrowed from Glimmerglass Opera, is clear, unfussy verismo. It sets the time and place, opens up the context into social values that are normally strange to us, and then stays out of the way of the music, singing and acting. The dramatic conflict in the story is silly to all but the most stuffy and anachronistic listeners — we believe in, and are moved by, the drama because Verdi’s music makes it work.

And because the artist made it work. Laquita Mitchell was a sweet, clear-voiced Violetta. She’s a lyrical, graceful singer with a human presence, and her characterization was of a loving young woman cut down by tragedy, and facing it with empathetic equanimity, not one whose internal fires begat the consumption that fells her. She and David Pomeroy generally sang well, although they each had difficulties with tempo at times, he breathless and rushed in “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” and she, understandably, while lying in bed at the finale.

Violette is one of opera’s most famous heroines, but I find Verdi at his considerable best when writing for low, males voices. The greatness of his lyrical craft comes out when there is less to dazzle with, and the music for Germont is some of the finest in the opera. Stephen Powell, acting and singing with feeling and power and with great beauty in ensembles, was the standout performer of the night, along with the playing of the orchestra under Steven White. With a smaller pit and a smaller budget, they were lighter than the previous season but played with absolute technical command and musicality. If a measure of an opera company is the quality of what they put on stage, City Opera remains world class.

Another necessary measure is how many people they put in the seats, and the good news for both productions was that each was a sold out run. That was the key for Prima Donna, which was a success for City Opera, but an unfortunate one. Wainwright’s opera was originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, who later passed on it, with some murmurings about the libretto being in French. That always struck me as a polite excuse. Steel picked it up for the obvious reason that it might put new audiences in the seats, and the packed houses proved him right. I do hope he never thought that the quality of the production would be world class, because with such a terrible piece of work that would simply be impossible.

The Met clearly dropped the opera because it was bad. It’s actually worse than bad, it’s amateurish and lazy. Amateurish in that Wainwright cannot write or structure such music on a professional level, and lazy in that he neither thought about what is he was doing, not did he bother to do even the slightest bit of work to improve things (the opera has been touring stages and workshops for a while).

Wainwright’s idea about opera is that it is about a woman who sings dramatically and people, or a person, who adore her. What the woman actually thinks and feels is hard to tell because the libretto is so thin it doesn’t even rise to the level of trite or shallow. The French scans adequately, but there’s no point to it even being in English. The dramatic highpoint is supposed to demonstrate that the diva had a grand artistic triumph, after which she could not proceed, for some reason, but music this fussy and empty, and boring, cannot convey emotions like that. There is a nice four chord progression that appears throughout, but the composer never does anything with it. There is an entirely superfluous aria for the singer’s maid that exists only because Wainwright imagines that some coloratura is required. And yet he never worked with his singers, or if he did he doesn’t know how to change keys, because so much of the music lies in weak registers in the chest and throat. There is a quite nice cadence that is an important part of the crisis moment, such as it is, but he ruins it by making the final chord a ninth, when not only would a triad do but it would work brilliantly. He cannot notate rhythms properly nor score for percussion, nor think beyond four-bar phrases, and the orchestration is dull, brown and thick, without knowledge of what instruments can do. The orchestra itself sounded under-rehearsed, appropriate for a work that is the product of ignorance and incuriosity about the form.

But in the context of the City Opera season, Prima Donna is also impervious to criticism. It was on stage to sell tickets, and that it did. There were enough Wainwright fans for a few fools to stand and cheer when, after missing the perfect ending, it finally wound it’s way through an exceedingly dull final scene. The money it brought in and the audiences were another sign of the company’s renewed health. I hope it was enough of a financial success that Steel never has to make the same decision again.

George Grella

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