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In New York, City Opera tries to turn a page

November 6, 2009 |  4:00 pm

If judged only by the Dom Perignon flowing in the lobby and the American melodies flowing from the stage last night at the State Theatre -- which for the next 50 years, it was announced, will be named “The David H. Koch Theatre” --  New York City Opera would appear to be back in business.

The real test will be this weekend, when City Opera has to get down to business and earn its audience back with two productions of full operas, “Esther” on Saturday night and “Don Giovanni” on Sunday afternoon.  The “People’s Opera,” as the company is sometimes called, has had a rough two years.  It lost its high-profile European artistic director (Gerard Mortier, who bolted to head Opera Real in Madrid), a significant chunk of its endowment (as much as $23 million, some reports say) and besides a concert performance at Carnegie Hall last January, hasn’t staged a full opera in a year and a half.

Rufus The two-hour gala on Thursday night, titled “American Voices,” tried to sprinkle stardust over these harsh realities facing City Opera — and it was somewhat successful.  Despite some boring speeches, misguided stunts (Rufus Wainwright singing “That’s Entertainment,” looking and sounding like Dean Martin after four martinis) and general gala dinner stuffiness, the evening sent this audience member home convinced City Opera has a reason for being.

Much of this was provided by the evening’s sole moment of fully staged opera, a scene from Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 opera “Susannah.”  Julius Rudel, who’s been conducting at City Opera since 1944, led the orchestra and chorus through the church revival scene; and Sam Ramey, the venerable baritone who began his career at City Opera in 1973 sang the role of preacher Olin Blitch.  The performance was more captivating than your usual gala fare due to Ramey’s conviction and the sense of history on display: Rudel conducted the New York premiere of “Susannah” in 1958, as well as the opera’s sole studio recording.  Combined with house diva Lauren Flanigan’s passionate rendition of a Samuel Barber aria from “Vanessa,” the evening made a brief but strong case for the legacy of 20th century American opera.

The question is: with its Lincoln Center neighbor, the Metropolitan Opera (whose general manager Peter Gelb was in attendance) moving in on the repertoire City Opera used to specialize in (Baroque, 20th century, etc.) can the company under its new intendant George Steel stand apart as something unique?  The only hint of an answer was an aria from Wainwright’s new opera "Prima Donna," which Gelb and Co. passed on.  (Once scheduled to debut at the Met in 2014, “Prima Donna” bowed in Manchester, England, over the summer). The number, titled “les feux d'artifice t'appellent” (sung by Amy Burton) was beguiling. One or two new works by younger American composers like Wainwright could be City Opera’s saving grace -- provided the operas are of quality and they don’t let the composers do vaudeville routines on stage).

The night was also about marketing (showing off the renovated theater, burnishing the company’s "beta brand") but the real focus was clear by the end: good singing.  This point was literally brought home by Joyce DiDonato.  Singing a song from Leonard Bernstein’s 1976 musical, “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” DiDonato (who made her NYCO debut in 2002) is exactly the type of American singer City Opera exists to showcase.  From Regina Resnik to Beverly Sills to Flanigan City Opera has been a place where young American artists have grown and flourished. The name of the Bernstein number was “Take Care of This House."  Gorgeously sung, with a crystal tone and clear diction, DiDonato (who will sing Rosina at LA Opera’s “The Barber of Seville” next month) cut through the pomp and pageantry and reminded the black-tie crowd that opera, at its core, is about expressive singing.  You didn’t need the supertitles to know exactly what she was articulating: for the next generation of American opera artists, take care of this house.  Indeed.

-- James C. Taylor

Above: Singer and composer Rufus Wainwright, who appeared at the City Opera gala. The program included an aria from an opera he wrote, "Prima Donna." Credit: Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images for The New Yorker



 

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