Director's Cut #1

A New Yorker's Season Summary
Part One:  September - December, 1998

Spring is in the air and another New York City opera season has heaved its last sighs.  While some folks will soon be off to Santa Fé, Cooperstown, Glyndebourne, Provence and, the holy of holies, Bayreuth, I'm staying in town for the long months from May to September.  I'm not complaining, mind you.  I count my stars lucky to live in New York where live opera is available to me six nights a week from September 'til the end of April.  (And some in the summer, too.)  Not every performance is a timeless work of art; nor is every painting a Picasso.  But let me tell you, the O'Connell canvass in my living room gives me a great deal of pleasure and so did many of the evenings I spent in the opera house.

Some thirty-five performances richer in experience I peruse my list (Wayne Koestenbaum is right on that count, we opera fans are list keepers) and ponder which evenings will stick with me for the long haul.  I realize that some already are all but forgotten.  A few of my thoughts follow in this, the first "Director's Cut."  As the name of the column implies, these are the observations and ruminations of a theatre person on theatre discovered (or found missing) in the opera house.

The great actress and teacher, Uta Hagen, observes that the best way for actors to get to know one another is by getting down to the work of rehearsal.  In the same spirit, allow me to introduce myself by telling you what I saw at the opera this year.

September 1998

My first night of the season was the New York City Opera opener of a new Tosca produced by Mark Lamos.  At the time, I thought the production was weak - not because Mr. Lamos updated the action to fascist Italy, but because I couldn't discern a coherent vision beyond that conceit.  In retrospect, however, images linger and I find a powerful resonance in staging and design choices (such as the array of votive candles on the floor that suggest the first act church interior) initially dismissed as merely budget inspired. Memory informs me.  This Tosca effectively highlights the noble and tremendously difficult struggle against cruelty and tyranny.  Candles on the floor, idealists, and artists are flickers of hope in a seedy, inhospitable world slashed with stark red swaths of violence.  It is a production of lingering, accumulating power and I will make it a point to check this production out again in the fall.   Each of my three encounters with the work of Mr. Lamos (Tosca, Butterfly and Wozzeck) stands out as a true highpoint of the last eight months.  His Madama Butterfly (for Glimmerglass & City Opera), in fact, is my hands down choice as the best new production of the season.

Also at City Opera, Francisco Negrin's production of Handel's Partenope offered more proof that musically sound opera and exciting theatre are not mutually exclusive experiences.  Mr. Negrin creates a delicious post-modern theatrical language that perfectly complements the conventions of eighteenth century opera seria.  Lisa Saffer, Bejun Mehta and David Walker headed a cast of spectacularly talented singing actors.  Lesser lights would have been overwhelmed by Mr. Negrin and designer John Conklin's lush profusion of images but this cast owned the stage.  My pulse quickens again at the memory of this wonderful performance.

It's a pity that the Met "simplified" the Samson et Dalila production by Elijah Moshinsky in it's first revival.  Seen on opening night and a few weeks into the run, the performances of Olga Borodina, Placido Domingo and René Pape were impressive but the production as a whole was disjointed and theatrically unfocused.  I missed the edgy excitement the work generated in it first outing last spring.  A contributing factor (in addition to an apparent lack of attention to staging details in rehearsal) may have been James Levine's lush reading of Saint-Saens' score compared with Leonard Slatkin's more muscular approach.

On the other hand, the return of Richard Wagner's Lohengrin in Robert Wilson's controversial production proved that sometimes good things actually do get better.  Many will have it that Mr. Wilson relented and relaxed the stylized movement for this revival.  To my eye, however, the new cast members (Karita Matilla, Falk Struckman and René Pape) really were not allowed a great deal more freedom for movement and facial expression.  The "changes" were much more subtle and what made these performances different from those of the previous spring was how the cast was able to communicate via Wilson's idiosyncratic theatrical language.  I missed the radiant beauty of Deborah Voigt's singing and the aching tenderness and vulnerability of her characterization; her Elsa's innocence was the center point of a mysterious, sad and beautiful constellation.  On the other hand, Karita Matilla gave us an incisive Elsa to match the fevered intensity of Deborah Polaski's Ortrud.  This heightened conflict between the two women provided a linear dramatic spine along which the other elements fell into place.  What I find truly striking is Wilson's ability to work with his minimalist vocabulary and make strengths of the individual qualities of his casts.  I was deeply moved by both spring and fall mountings of this outstanding production and was pleased to contribute to the calls of bravo when Mr. Wilson took a bow the second time around.

Also seen in September was an unremarkable Met performance of Verdi's Aida at the Met.

October 1998

Tosca again, this time at the Met.  The production by Franco Zeffirelli exemplifies his curatorial approach to opera staging at its best.  The sets, handsome recreations of the actual locales, delight the eye, work well for the performers and still elicit "oohs" of admiration from the audience.  (I am thankful that Luciano Pavorotti's scheduled (and then rescheduled) appearances this season eliminated the annoying elevator scene change in the third act.)  Spectacle notwithstanding, this is a Tosca that develops as a character piece:  a sturdy production that must, to be exciting, be carried by the singers.  The "event," the night I was there, was Aprile Millo's first Floria Tosca for the Met.  Although her singing struck me as careful, her vivid characterization, rich in detail, and in-the-moment presence was work to treasure.  Ms. Millo is one of those wonderful actresses who can play over-the-top without commenting on her performance.  Her Diva Tosca is vulnerable, impulsive, needy and, finally, courageous.  Her death leap was the most believably spectacular I've seen.  Richard Leech, singing his first Met run as Cavaradossi, gave a lively, intelligent performance - far above the caliber of current "house" tenors previously heard in this role.

Mid October brought Martha Clarke's banal production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice to the City Opera stage.  The entire evening rests in memory as a dirty gray wash relieved only by a beautiful (but static) interlude in the Elysian Fields.  But perhaps that eternity be long on variety is a lot to ask.  The chorus sang from the pit with dancers taking their roles on stage.  This wouldn't have been a bad idea if the choreography had been at all inspired.  This installment of NYCO's Gluck series was a let down after last year's flawed but exciting Iphigénie.

At the end of the month I had a hard time making much sense of Jonathan Miller's new production of Mozart's sublime Le Nozze di Figaro at the Met.  The sets, with the exception of a misconceived fourth act, are handsome and should serve quite well in a variety of revivals with more adept stage direction.  The stellar cast gave performances that ranged from competent to superb but each seemed to be in a different production.  As I remarked at the time, so lacking was any sense of ensemble, that it was hard to believe the company had rehearsed together at all.  Cecilia Bartoli caused quite a stir by singing alternate arias as Susanna; the night I was there she sang, with some patches of ungainly vocalism, the standard version.  I will, however, remember Renée Fleming's exquisitely sung and beautifully acted Countess for many years to come.

November 1998

As mentioned above, the highlight of the entire season was Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly in a "new" production at New York City Opera.  Previously mounted at Glimmerglass in the summer of 1997, Mr. Lamos's Butterfly is a stunning work of theatre.  Using a sparse, eloquent theatrical language this is a production that speaks in unforgettable gestures and images.  A sky of battleships reflects Pinkerton's crass possession of Butterfly and marriage house, but Cio-Cio San charms the Lieutenant, us and herself, and, by the first act's end, we are transported to a serene world where a moment of tenderness is suspended for eternity:  lovers framed in the light of the moon.  Two vivid images:  between them an intimate journey unfolds effortlessly: a fresh, inevitable sequence of small, life changing events revealed with the ease of sliding shoji.

The second act is no less a miracle.  Precise postures and economic gestures on a nearly empty stage capture Suzuki's fears, Sharpless's discomfort and Butterfly's hopeful expectation.  Cherry blossoms sail aloft on a sheet tossed by Butterfly and Suzuki.  Sorrow, the child, spins with delight as the blossoms shower down and fill the stage.  The act ends with Butterfly, again in the moonlight, this time alone, waiting for the return of love.

Act Three is a dramatic tour de force.  (It seems that Maestro Puccini knew what he was doing when he revised the opera to play in three separate acts.)  The sheet that had buoyed flowers aloft is now a shroud winding down to the front of the stage.  The action hurtles forward.  Buffeted by events too fast to measure, Butterfly ends her life, as we know from the beginning she must, with vehement gestures of defiance and anger.  This production is the work of an important, interpretive artist.

The following week, also at City Opera, I was fortunate to see Of Mice and Men by Carlisle Floyd.  Rhoda Levine's excellent staging was a wonderful showcase for the incredible talent of Anthony Dean Griffey in the role of Lennie.  This young American tenor is destined to become a true star.

Franco Zeffirelli's extravagant new production of La Traviata for the Met consisted of decors but no ideas, fresh or otherwise.  The sets are serviceable enough, except for the second act party scene.  Garish beyond belief, it includes women dressed in spandex bull costumes.  In the final act, Violetta's potentially heartbreaking attempt to join the revelers is totally upstaged by a showy, unnecessary elevator scene change from the second floor sick-room to the now desolate parlors we'd seen thronged with the demimonde in Act I.  (Enough already with the elevator, Franco.)  Patricia Racette and Ainhoa Arteta (seen on opening night and in late December respectively) each turned in an individual, arresting interpretation of the title role.  I'm in the minority here, but I quite liked Marcello Alvarez's Alfredo.  His acting is unaffected (although he would benefit from some relaxation work) and he offered some nicely sung moments - especially the last act scene with Violetta.  It hardly seems necessary to add to the abundance of descriptions of the shortcomings of Haijing Fu and Vladimir Chernov's outings as Papa Germont.  La Traviata is one of the Met's staples and this production will hold up adequately to revivals - if only they'll get rid of the cows.

December 1998

The new production of Lucia by Nicholas Joël continues to puzzle me.  I doubted that the Figaro cast had rehearsed together; but I am almost certain that the Lucia design team worked without interacting with each other.  At any rate, I guess someone forgot to tell set designer, Ezio Frigerio, it was his job to design furniture - so there wasn't any to be seen on the massive sets.  The staging ranged from indifferent, to downright senseless, "artistic" posturing.  Ramon Vargas and Ruth Ann Swenson both sang well and did the best they could to not look to confused by the objects and people around them.  Ms. Swenson took home the trooper of the year prize for not wandering offstage in search of the disappearing wedding guests during the mad scene.  I am a nice boy from Kansas, but, when the production team took their bow, I booed out loud for the first time in my life.  (Actually, it was more of a growl.)

The end of December brought the holidays and a Die Fledermaus with reworked book by Comden and Green.  I discovered that this operetta is not my glass of bubbly and was disappointed by a weak showing from one of my favorites, Carol Vaness, as Rosalind.  It was interesting to see Bo Skovhus in his first Met outing.  He has a terrific presence and strong baritone; I look forward to seeing him again under better circumstances.

The short days of December led us into the last year of the millennium and I hoped that the Met would turn in a few surprises and prove that big budgets and big names can combine for real theatre in the opera house.  I didn't have long to wait for a surprising answer as you will find in the next Director's Cut.

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