by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Nov. 30, 2009.
At the opening-night gala for New York City Opera, earlier this month, the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato bestowed her glowing tone on Leonard Bernstein’s song “Take Care of This House.” Given the dire problems that City Opera has lately faced—a disappearing general manager, a vanishing endowment, layoffs, labor disputes, dissent on the governing board, bad press, and, above all, the cancellation of almost an entire season—Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics fit the occasion uncomfortably well:
Here in this shell of a house,
This house that is struggling to be, Hope must have been
The first to move in,
And waited to welcome me.
But hope isn’t easy to see.
Back in early 2007, the days of endless money, City Opera announced that the modish Belgian impresario Gerard Mortier would take over as general manager and artistic director. Less than two years later, Mortier withdrew, citing a shortage of funds. When City Opera then handed the job to George Steel—an experienced presenter of new-music concerts but an opera neophyte—many people wondered whether the company would survive. With Peter Gelb taking the Metropolitan Opera in a more progressive direction, did Lincoln Center still need an alternative opera house? News stories described City Opera as “troubled,” “beleaguered,” even “tottering.” One online reporter cheerfully predicted oblivion.
In a feat of sang-froid, Steel ignored the doomsaying and put together a semblance of a season—two productions in the fall and three in the spring. The gala made for a bumpy start, with the orchestra sounding scrappy at the outset and several singers struggling to be heard. But the program, consisting of American and Canadian singers performing American music, reaffirmed City Opera’s commitment to native artists. Vocal honors went to DiDonato, who is at the zenith of her art, and Measha Brueggergosman, who gave a smoldering “My Man’s Gone Now,” from “Porgy and Bess.” Rufus Wainwright, the pop stylist turned opera composer, mugged his way through “That’s Entertainment” and then repaired to the audience to hear Amy Burton sing the closing aria of his opera “Prima Donna”—an intriguingly wispy exercise in French Romantic style.
The gala also marked the début of the David H. Koch Theatre, as the New York State Theatre is now named. An interior renovation, made possible by Koch’s oil-and-gas fortune, has produced a brighter acoustic, although the sound still lacks warmth. The improvement is substantial enough that City Opera has nixed its sound-enhancement system, which never seemed to do much anyway. Thankfully, aisles now divide the orchestra seating, meaning that patrons in the center no longer need to say “Excuse me” twenty times.
Two nights later, City Opera revived Hugo Weisgall’s “Esther,” an adaptation of the Biblical tale of Queen Esther. The work had its première at City Opera, in 1993, and then dropped from sight. Weisgall, who died in 1997, was an unfailingly craftsmanlike composer who adopted a largely atonal idiom, in the vein of Arnold Schoenberg. “Moses und Aron,” Schoenberg’s prophetic drama, is the chief model for “Esther,” although Weisgall’s harmonic language comes closer to that of Berg’s “Lulu.” It’s a rugged, earnest opera, strongest in choruses of lament and rage. But it lacks either the overpowering personality of “Moses” or the vast expressive range of “Lulu”; it takes you back to the time when Schoenberg’s imitators tried to normalize atonality, suppressing its uncanny power.
Nonetheless, Steel showed mettle in retrieving this estimable obscurity from the warehouse; it was hardly the safe way to begin his tenure. And the production came off handsomely. Christopher Mattaliano’s 1993 staging, a sleek affair that relies on projections rather than hulking sets, has aged well. Lauren Flanigan, who has given so many gutsy performances at the house, vitally inhabited the title character, capturing Esther’s transformation from naïve maiden to vengeful orator. The tenor Roy Cornelius Smith, as Haman, demonstrated how a strong voice can take command of the theatre’s new acoustics. George Manahan conducted incisively.
The other offering in City Opera’s truncated fall season is a funny, sexy, spooky new production of “Don Giovanni,” by Christopher Alden. A provocateur with sharp theatrical instincts, Alden has placed the opera in a surreal nineteen-thirties Spanish setting, vaguely evocative of Buñuel films. There are jarring outbursts of violence—Don Giovanni kills the Commendatore by dashing his head against a wall—and some marvellously creepy party scenes, with dancers writhing in slow motion. We gradually realize that the drab public space in which the action unfolds is a funeral parlor, and that the Don will have to confront not the Commendatore’s statue but his corpse. The damnation climax is chilling: the Commendatore rises from his coffin and invites the Don to take his place.
A young cast eagerly realized Alden’s vision. Daniel Okulitch fluidly delivered the title role, even if his tone needed a little more red meat. Jason Hardy sang and acted vigorously as Leporello, the Don’s masochistic servant; he also juggled and balanced a chair on his chin. Stefania Dovhan revealed a hint of star quality as Donna Anna, her voice dark in timbre and expressively pointed; Keri Alkema was an erratic but vivid Donna Elvira. Gary Thor Wedow led a propulsive, though sometimes overhasty, performance, with Liora Maurer adding witty adornments at the harpsichord. It bodes well for the new regime that Steel and his staff whipped up this captivating show in a matter of months. By the end of City Opera’s opening weekend, hope was a little easier to see.
Peter Gelb, too, is facing a test: the current Met season is the first that he has planned himself, and it will allow for a thorough assessment of his progress as general manager. The first new production of the fall, “Tosca,” was troublingly inept. The second, Leoš Janáček’s “From the House of the Dead,” is a total triumph, perhaps one of the finest things that the Met has ever done. Admittedly, it is an import of an already celebrated staging, by the French director Patrice Chéreau, who has been a legend in European opera since his epochal production of Wagner’s “Ring” at Bayreuth, in 1976. Gelb deserves credit, however, for insuring that Chéreau’s vision reached the Met intact; the company’s semi-feudalistic culture has stymied directors many times in the past. If anything, the Met version is more fiercely integrated than what you see on a DVD filmed two years ago at Aix-en-Provence.
“From the House of the Dead,” based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel of Siberian prison life, is Janáček’s grimmest and possibly greatest opera. The Moravian master wrote it at the end of his life, in 1927 and 1928, when he had broken free of all convention and essentially invented his own form of music theatre. The libretto is a swirling collage of dialogue from the Dostoyevsky novel, with no clearly defined leads. In each act, a prisoner narrates his crime, generating little sympathy in the process. The commandant orders beatings; the prisoners beat each other. Not even Berg drew so pitiless a picture of the human condition. Yet the fury of Janáček’s invention justifies the quotation from Dostoyevsky that the composer wrote at the head of the score: “In every creature a spark of God.”
Chéreau has discarded both operatic routine and modern directorial clichés. In some ways, his conception is grittily realistic: the convicts, with their unshaven faces, tattered coats, and agitated body language, are a seething bunch, a hive of tension. In other ways, the setting is enigmatic and abstract: no obvious cues are given for time or place, and the action is contained within blank concrete walls. Some of the imagery recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” the most forbidding film to emerge from the Soviet Union. (The sets are by Richard Peduzzi, whose grim aesthetic works far better here than it did in the ill-fated “Tosca.”) In an awesome coup de théâtre, the walls are revealed at one point to be a gigantic garbage chute, the prisoners’ job being to gather refuse. The main spark of hope comes in Act II, when the inmates present a pair of entertainments, one of them an all-male “Don Juan.” Here the staging becomes more than a commentary on Siberian deprivation. The camp is a community of people haunted by their mistakes, and the makeshift theatre allows them the grace of forgetting.
The cast is flawless. Kurt Streit found plaintive lyricism in Skuratov, an unstable romantic who killed his sweetheart’s husband. The liquid-voiced Swedish baritone Peter Mattei drew disturbing pathos from Shishkov, a tortured lout who cut his wife’s throat when she declared her love for another. And Stefan Margita created an effectively grating portrait of Filka Morozov, a pathological scoundrel who might be the worst of the lot. Singers in smaller roles had no less impact: Willard White, nobly traumatized as the political detainee Gorianchikov; Vladimir Ognovenko, brutally cavalier as the commandant; the venerable character tenor Heinz Zednik (Loge and Mime in Chéreau’s “Ring”), dispensing shards of wisdom as the Old Prisoner. Members of the chorus added more subtle shades of emotion, and unleashed a potent roar at the end: “Freedom, dear freedom!” they sang, against rattling drums.
Esa-Pekka Salonen was the conductor, making a belated Met début—though not as belated as the début of Chéreau, who had never before worked at an American opera house. Salonen proved a worthy replacement for Pierre Boulez, Chéreau’s longtime collaborator, who led the European performances of this production. Indeed, Salonen may have dug deeper into Janáček’s musical language, which is more minimalist than modernist in its obsessive manipulation of folkish motifs. The cruelly exposed orchestral writing came off with uncommon precision—the Met brass had an especially brilliant outing—and the players responded to Salonen’s direction with startling vehemence. From the crackling first bars of the prelude, you knew that this would be no ordinary night at the opera. A hundred minutes later, the last harsh chord sounded, a stunned audience burst into a prolonged ovation, and it seemed as though the grand old Met had been the scene of a revolution.