Determined as New Yorkers seem to be to pretend otherwise, the rebirth of the New York City Opera in November offered little cause for celebration. After a year in the dark, the company's always precarious finances are decimated. Of five productions this season, four are revivals, none is cast with name talent, yet the cost per performance hovers almost exactly at an astronomical $1 million. An apples-to-apples comparison with the City Opera's mighty next-door neighbor the Metropolitan may not be possible. Yet consider this. The Met presents world-class singers and conductors, charges higher prices, and has a capacity of over 1,000 more seats. Making no allowance at all for the expense of producing nearly 150 audio and video broadcasts per season, the Met spends well below $800,000 per live performance. In the circumstances, the City Opera's old label of "the people's opera" seems peculiarly delusional.
On the plus side, $100 million from the philanthropist David H. Koch, whose name is to emblazon the former New York State Theatre for the next 50 years, has paid for extensive renovations: two much-needed aisles built into the formerly monolithic block of orchestra seating; new seats that are more comfortable and better spaced; an expanded orchestra pit that may be raised and lowered; improved lavatory facilities. A controversial electronic sound-enhancement system has been removed, and discussion of the Koch acoustics is for the moment musical New York's hot-button topic #1. No one seems to wonder why the company could not have found alternative performing spaces while its permanent theater was under reconstruction, as other institutions around the world have often done.
The man at the helm, as the opera world will remember, was to have been Gérard Mortier, of whom the best that can be said is that he had the sense to abandon a ship he could never have sailed. In his place, the board has installed the operatic neophyte George Steel, known for operating an adventurous, wide-ranging concert series on a shoestring at Columbia University. Who would not wish him well? But of his three inaugural offerings, not one came close to the mark.
The festivities, such as they were, began with a gala curtain raiser on the theme "American Voices" (November 5). For sparkle, one or two popular show tunes ("That's Entertainment," "I Am Easily Assimilated") were dropped in amid many glum excerpts from operas of Barber, Gershwin, Golijov and others. Samuel Ramey, a company alumnus, pulled out all the stops in the Revival Scene from Floyd's "Susannah," but it was Joyce DiDonato singing Bernstein's "Take Care of This House" (from the Broadway flop "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue") who lingered in memory. Playing mostly under the company's music director George Manahan, the orchestra sounded scrappy, the chorus not bad. All in all, not a night to remember.
Business as usual resumed two nights later with Hugo Weisgall's "Esther," a work given its world premiere by this company in 1993 and unseen anywhere since. Was it a triumph back then, as some are saying now? Despite a favorable review in the New York Times and cheers from some excitable fans, the claim is untenable. For one thing, the initial run consisted of just two performances; for another, many who were there—myself included—remember the evening as an unrelieved ordeal.
And so it proved again. Based on the Old Testament and written in stilted verse, the libretto lacks narrative or dramatic thrust. So does the score, which is atonal, densely orchestrated, turgid, and ungrateful to the voice. Lauren Flanigan, who as house diva of the 80s and 90s created the title role at the world premiere, returned for an encore, as committed and intense as ever but decidedly worse for wear in her upper range. Under the baton of George Manahan, the orchestra and chorus performed as persuasive as Weisgall's admirers could have wished. For the rest of us, the only real point of interest lay in Jerome Sirlin's ingenious scenic designs. Working with little but projections on shifting screens, Sirlin conjured up landscapes, palaces, prisons, and symbolic spaces more charged with theatrical possibility than anything in the score.
For the season's single new production, Steel recruited the director Christopher Alden, who delivered a woebegone "Don Giovanni." The action unfolded in a graceless gray-and-white assembly hall of unspecified function, embellished by a neon crucifix. Men in fedoras gave the proceedings a vaguely Italian neorealist air. Before the music began, the entire cast assembled on wooden chairs which they subsequently moved around a great deal. The murder of the Commendatore had shock value—his head was smashed against a wall—but later, anomie was the order of the day: characters crawled on the floor, sang to the walls, struck poses in slow-motion. Masetto and Zerlina made a sweet picture in their formal black peasant garb, his vaguely Alpine, hers perhaps Eurasian. For much of Act 2, Giovanni and Leporello shared one business suit, exchanging the trousers and the jacket. No room indoors for a graveyard, but the Commendatore's coffin was on view for the greater part of the second act. Rather than descend to hell, Don Giovanni went flying into the Commendatore's coffin, flung there by the hand of a little boy.
There was lustrous, impassioned singing from Stefania Dovhan as Donna Anna and Keri Alkema as a suitcase-toting Donna Elvira, outclassing Joélle Harvey's sketchy Zerlina. Of the men, Kelly Markgraf's Masetto carried off the laurels with his crisp sound and phrasing. Gregory Turay's unsettled Don Ottavio had isolated moments of considerable eloquence. The Don Giovanni of Daniel Okulitch and the Leporello of Jason Hardy seem to have been cast for physique and looks. On that basis, Hardy—a boy-next-door Jude Law—had the edge, and he got an ovation in the second finale for balancing a chair on his chin. But vocally and dramatically, both master and servant were throwing very soft punches. On the podium, Gary Thor Wedow had chronic ensemble problems, both within the orchestra and between the stage and the pit.