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Critic's Notebook: Despite 'Esther,' New York City Opera rises from the ashes

November 18, 2009 |  3:00 pm

Reporting from New York.

Things are finally looking up for New York City Opera. The once-feisty alternative to its imposing Lincoln Center neighbor, the Metropolitan Opera, has an acoustically improved home, is selling tickets and getting very good reviews. None of that was true a year ago -- or anticipated.

In fact, bookmakers, had they cared about the state of opera, would surely have expected to make money off those betting against success after Gerard Mortier’s sudden resignation. The then-visionary head of the Paris Opera was set to take over City Opera with a more venturesome and newsworthy operatic agenda than any New York or the United States had seen.

But when his promised $60-million budget evaporated with the stock market crash, he decamped in frustration, leaving a mess. City Opera responded by dropping all of Mortier’s plans, including commissions from Philip Glass for an opera on Walt Disney’s late years and a lyric stage version of “Brokeback Mountain” by Charles Wuorinen. Last season was without a production, as the company awaited renovation of the oversized, sonically undernourished and generally unloved State Theater.

In what looked like desperation, the company hired George Steel, who had turned the Miller Theater uptown at Columbia University into a new music scene but who had had a very short and rocky period as head of Dallas Opera. Steel brought in as second-in-command Ed Yim, the former director of artistic planning for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the two of them, with impossibly little time and money, put together an imaginative, if abbreviated, season.

They also smartly appealed to New Yorkers’ inherent sympathy for the underdog. Old-time City Opera supporters, dubious about a European provocateur taking over what was once known as the People’s Opera, are now vocally rooting for Steel.

I’m rooting for him too, although only if the company comes up with offerings a lot less dispiriting than a revival of Hugo Weisgall’s “Esther,” which I saw Tuesday night. This biblical opera, which the company premiered in 1993, is running in repertory with an updated new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” that appears to be exactly what City Opera should be all about. It is directed by Christopher Alden, whom Angelenos might remember from his imaginative productions for Long Beach Opera a couple of decades ago, and it stars emerging singers.

Only “Esther,” unfortunately, suited my schedule, and not all the news about it is dismal. This weird, Sunday school relic written in what its champions call a brave atonal style, has done remarkably well, garnering respectful reviews. Tuesday’s performance had not been originally planned but was added because of demand, which is not something that happens often in the world of opera.

More good news can be reported about the acoustics in what has been renamed the David H. Koch Theater in honor of a donor. The hall is still the garishly ugly building it always was, but it now has a larger pit and aisles in the orchestra section.

Most important, the sound is no longer dead. From my seat at the front of the first ring, the voices on stage had presence and ping; the orchestra also came through nicely. I hope Music Center officials will make a trip to Lincoln Center a priority. Maybe the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion could get similar help.

Photo As for “Esther,” it is an embarrassment on every level, and its marketing campaign (with a female pilot in the desert and a Jewish singles night) feels annoyingly exploitative.

Charles Kondek’s banal libretto provides a simple narrative of the familiar Old Testament story. King Xerxes frets that he can chart the course of his empire but not his own heart. Esther is earnest and heroic. Mordecai is a good guy. Haman is a bad guy. There are no ambiguities. Rhymes are on the order of king/thing and queen/mean.

Weisgall (whose dates were 1912 to 1997) was no doubt sincere in his use of a musical idiom that was more than 50 years out of date when he used it. He had a history with City Opera and wrote more successful earlier operas, including a very good one based on Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” for the company in 1959.

“Esther” sounds, on the surface, serious, but that’s only because we hear too little important atonal music to immediately recognize the clichés or lack of invention. To ward off boredom, I began trying to predict whether a singer’s next note would go up or down and found I got it right most of the time.

Joseph A. Citarella made costumes that many a suburban synagogue might like to rent for a Purim pageant. Christopher Mattaliano was responsible for the chaste direction. Jerome Sirlin’s archeological static projections on curtains were the meant to be latest thing in 1993, but they looked cheap then and kitsch now.

In the cast were Lauren Flanigan (Esther), James Maddelena (Mordecai), Beth Clayton (the deposed queen Vashti), Roy Cornelius Smith (Haman), Stephen Kechulius (Xerxes). George Manahan conducted. The performance went reasonably well but not well enough to sell the show.

“Esther” sets the City Opera bar low, and it will never be able to compete with the Met -- which has the triumphant new production of Janácek's "From the House of the Dead" and a high-tech staging of Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust" with up-to-the-minute video projections -- like this. But at least there is a bar, and watching it rise will be a pleasure.

-- Mark Swed

Related stories:

Gerard Mortier resigns from New York City Opera

In New York, City Opera tries to turn a page

Photo: (top) Lauren Flanigan stars in Hugo Weisgall's "Esther" at New York City Opera. Credit: Carol Rosegg / New York City Opera. (bottom) An add for "Esther" in the lobby of David H. Koch Theater. Credit: Mark Swed / Los Angeles Times