Anna Nicole: a new $#@*ing opera

Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas have brought Anna Nicole Smith’s silicone-enhanced charms to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in a co-production with the New York City Opera.

cMark-Anthony Turnage (score) and Richard Thomas (libretto),
Anna Nicole. Brooklyn Academy of Music, September 19, 2013 (BAM and New York City Opera co-production). Production by Richard Jones, conducted by Steven Sloane with Sarah Joy Miller (Anna Nicole), Susan Bickley (Virgie), Rod Gilfry (Stern), Robert Brubaker (J. Howard Marhsall II), Christina Sajous (Blossom), many more

The basic conceit of Anna Nicole is that people singing obscenities at top operatic volume is really funny. You may or may not agree with this; personally, I found the effect wore off after about five minutes. Its comic effect depends on our expectations for opera as a highfalutin’ cultural activity.  Anna Nicole’s story isn’t unusual in opera–she’s a modern Manon–but the soloists and chorus screaming out naughty language are, and to a lesser extent the score’s slides into jazz are also mildly transgressive. (Redneck caricatures coloratura-ing a blue streak are what made librettist Richard Thomas famous in his earlier work, Jerry Springer: The Opera. That was a scruffier Fringe Festival endeavor compared to Anna Nicole’s Royal Opera House–where the opera was first seen in 2011–high gloss. I think this kind of cheeky fusion is more convincing on a lower budget.)

We open with the chorus, describing Anna Nicole’s tale in a prologue that seems to be borrowed from Sweeney Todd. They present her as both an “absurdist tale of woe” and a “fabulous eccentric.” The first half of the opera presents in a series of short scenes a relatively amusing, obvious satire of American trashiness. This shows Anna’s rise to fame through fast food, teen motherhood, and stripperdom. Finally she marries the elderly oil baron J. Howard Marshall II. In the second half, Marshall dies and the opera suddenly makes an awkward jump of a decade to show Anna in addicted decay. It leaves out the years of Anna Nicole’s legal fights in favor of showing her final months and attempts to be a tragedy and indict the grotesque pleasure we took in the first half. The chorus becomes a creepy voiceless swarm of dancers with cameras as their heads.

It doesn’t really work; the creators want to have their satiric cake and eat it too. One problem is that Anna is left more or less a spectator in her own story. She is presented as superficial and incredibly stupid (the occasional note that she was “smart” doesn’t counteract what it is showing us the rest of the time), as well as passive and reactive. The libretto’s baffling lacuna is also at fault here, excising the years where she was a Famous Big Personality but rather showing her pathetically trying to deal with the consequences. The original soprano who sang Anna Nicole, Eva-Maria Westbroek, has a hefty voice and was imposing and ungainly onstage. Sarah Joy Miller, singing Anna Nicole here, has a much slighter presence both physically and vocally. Her default expression is a deer-in-the-headlights look of smiling amazement, which is, to be fair, just about all the libretto gives her to work with. Lacking agency, personality, and much in the way of self-reflection, Anna succeeds as neither a heroine or an antiheroine.

The libretto is incredibly wordy. Thomas loves lists (more Gilbert cluttered than Cole Porter languid), and his verse starts tripping over itself when getting stuck on long lists of synonyms for breasts, deadbeats, etc. I swear that the composition of this libretto must have involved a very profane thesaurus. These lists usually end with a line like “you get the picture,” as if the situation is simply too outrageous for his words to contain. The language is an intentionally heightened, stilted colloquialism that is sometimes funny but mostly vocally unfriendly and sometimes less stylized than just plain dated (even my family doesn’t say “harsh the vibe” anymore).

It would really be better if the music could do more narration and the words less. The voice developed by Turnage is a jazzy sort of Sondheim with some operatic effects used for comedy and, occasionally, a more lyrical arioso. Mostly, he sets the words dryly for maximum comprehensibility. You can understand most of them, but there’s a lack of a controlling musical voice. The score could have done a lot to reconcile and prepare for the mood shift between the two halves, it could have deepened the characters, but instead it contents itself with being inconsequential. The best stretch is instrumental–in the interlude bridging the libretto’s decade gap–but its would-be Wozzeck moment doesn’t have a dramatic context. Similarly, the orchestra could do more–though to be fair, it was probably doing a lot that I didn’t notice. From my seat, the sound design was both obviously miked and heavily favored the voices. (Steven Sloane conducted, but I could hear so little orchestra I can’t say anything about him. It stayed together, and seemed well-paced.)

The strongest element of the opera is Richard Jones’s inventive, fluent production, which has been transferred from London. It keeps the action moving and offers genuinely amusing visuals. Miriam Buether’s colorful sets and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are also great: there is a lot of bright pink, giant plastic animals, a giant mattress, and a tendency for dying characters to finagle their own body bags. The ensemble is less universally strong and dramatically attuned than it was in London, but they’re all giving it their best and their Texas accents are far more consistent. Miller seems a little too cute for Anna Nicole, and never convincingly debauched. Susan Bickley, the lone holdover from London, makes a strong impression as her mother, but the character is awkwardly transformed from a monster to the voice of conscience. Broadway stalwarts James Barbour and Mary Testa are wasted in the tiny roles of Anna’s father and aunt, while Richard Troxell has a better cameo as her plastic surgeon. Robert Brubaker is funny and loud as J. Howard Marshall II, and Rod Gilfrey is also wasted in the small role of lawyer Howard Stern (reportedly cut down before the London premiere due to threats of litigation from the real Howard Stern–fittingly, the character frequently enters pronouncing his intention to sue everyone).

I remain somewhat uncomfortable with this opera. It makes me feel unexpectedly sorry for the real Anna Nicole, who seemed never fully in command of herself, exploited by others in death just as she was in life. I don’t want to be naive about this or say she was just a victim, she knew how to play the game and took what she could. (Besides, I don’t know anything about her.) But we never really see that in the opera, which seems to have plenty of interest in watching a hot mess but no interest in understanding a person. (Its most persuasive act of empathy is for her son.) I can’t quite shake the feeling that here we have a bunch of privileged men again profiting from Anna Nicole’s lack of privilege. It leaves a bitter aftertaste to an opera that already is somehow less than the sum of some formidable parts.

This brings me to City Opera itself. This is a co-production with BAM, which seems to be just the right place to produce it: it’s an institution that has long explored works that cross between high culture and low. But the City Opera, now in desperate financial straits, is promoting itself as “The People’s Opera.” This seems tone-deaf. “People’s Opera” implies something populist, an element that is family-friendly, and accessible. That’s City Opera’s history. But now they put on a small season of Johann Christian Bach and Telemann operas. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, we need people who will tread where the Met doesn’t, and I hope they’re able to keep doing it. But that’s a boutique company, not a populist one. The Met’s outreach and HD series makes it look much more populist than City Opera does right now. So I hope the company survives, but am worried about their apparent confusion of mission, and wonder how they got here. If this is their last production, at least they went out with something that seems appropriate to their aims.

Anna Nicole
plays through September 28.

Photos copyright Stephanie Berger.

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La Périchole closes the New York City Opera’s season

I went to see La Périchole at the New York City Opera and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:

Henri Bergson famously defined comedy as
“something mechanical encrusted on the living”. One suspects that
Jacques Offenbach would have been a fan of this definition, and that
Christopher Alden most certainly is. Alden’s new production of La Périchole,
which closes the New York City Opera’s season, is strange, abrasive,
and also extremely funny, careening past the everyday to end up
somewhere deeply bizarre.

You can read the whole thing here. I highly recommend this show! It is a great piece in a top-notch and hilarious Alden production, and that’s a winning combination (check out the video below). It’s actually been quite a fortnight for opera in New York, between Giulio Cesare, Mosè in Egitto, best of all David et Jonathas at BAM, and finally after all those Egyptians and Romans, then Israelites and Egyptians, and then Israelites and Philistines, finally ending with this insanely delightful farce that just has Peruvians.

It’s also basically the end for me of this season’s operatic adventures in NYC, though the Phil’s Dallapiccola in June will provide a coda. I recommend y’all go see Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Met, but there are only three performances and unfortunately none of them fit into my schedule. As you may remember, I have mixed feelings about this piece and have seen it twice recently, once in Robert Carsen’s excellent traditional staging and once in Calixto Bieito’s excellent non-traditional staging, so I don’t regret it too much. It will spare you my habit of nun puns (sorry).

Anyway, I have some other stuff elsewhere coming up, so I’ll see you soon-ish in any case.

Photo copyright Carol Rosegg

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Mosè in Egitto at City Opera

I went to see the New York City Opera’s production of Mosè in Egitto at City Center , and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

In recent seasons, the New York City
Opera has largely limited itself to chamber operas. Its newest
production marks a renewed ambition: Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto, a
proto grand opera that ends with nothing less than the parting of the
Red Sea. Fortunately this scrappy but worthwhile performance showed that
the company can tackle large-scale works on its own terms, albeit with a
few stumbles along the way.

You can read the rest here. It was a frustrating afternoon: some very talented performers and interesting production ideas (Harry Kupfer’s Rossini video game) that ultimately didn’t quite make a full show. I still think it’s worth seeing, though: it’s a unique spin on an unusual piece, and that’s something in itself.

A few other notes, though. I wish City Opera would show some care with its presentation. (Their website doesn’t even give the address of the theater where they’re performing. I had to Google it.)  This performance was trumpeted as the “original version.” Putting aside the problematic construction of “original” and its implied superior status, that can’t be true: the third act of the first version was lost, as you can read in the introduction of the critical edition. (This production didn’t even use that critical edition; the program credits Hendon Music/Boosey and Hawkes.) I would have liked some program notes, but maybe I’m alone there. If you’re going to claim scholarly status, you have to do your homework.

But enough of that, the actual performance did exceed my expectations. The LED video (more like a TV than projection scenery) occasionally looks like the VHS version of the Met’s Parsifal Blu-Ray. Jayce Ogren isn’t a Rossini conductor but the orchestra is sounding much better than it did last season and it’s good for the City Opera to have him on board as music director. There’s some good singing. So still recommendable, if you like Rossini.

Photo copyright Carol Rosegg.

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Telemann’s Orpheus at the City Opera

I went to see Orpheus (not that one… or that one… or that one) at the City Opera and wrote about it for Bachtrack.

The New York City Opera has spent the
season reinventing itself from a large company with a large theater to a
peripatetic one presenting small works. Perhaps it was apt that they
closed their season with Telemann’s Orpheus. Not only was it
one of the first stagings of any Telemann opera in the United States: it
also presents a radically reworking of a familiar story that seems
unwilling to confine itself to one geographic location.

Click here to read the whole thing. It’s an intriguing work but not ultimately a spectacularly rewarding one, at least in this production (though Jennifer Rowley is really great in the central role!). It was also an extraordinarily odd choice to produce. (I heard that it resulted from George Steel meeting someone who has worked on it extensively. Not from research in “baroque operas we should put on.”) I’m all in favor of choosing weird and random repertory, so on the one hand I’m proud of them for doing it. But on the other, are we running before we are walking here? I mean, when it comes to recently discovered operas, New York (unless you count New Haven) hasn’t gotten a staging of La finta pazza yet, which is a much more important work. When you have such a tiny season each choice has to be good, and this one while it was promising didn’t quite pay off.

Also be aware that while the running time is listed on the website as two and a half hours, it was just shy of three on Saturday. El Museo del Barrio’s theater is functional enough; I was sitting too close to the front to judge the acoustic properly.

photo © Carol Rosegg

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The City Opera’s Mozartean rumspringa

City Opera is hanging on by a thread, and their current Così fan tutte reminds us why New York needs them. Christopher Alden’s bold and exceptionally thoughtful production pits a bunch of repressed kids against the terrors of young adulthood, and the cast is excellent. Those in search of ruffles, cheeriness, or, unfortunately, an orchestra that can play in tune or support the production at all will be disappointed. But in this small theater, it’s the most inspired Mozart production I’ve seen in New York in a while.

Mozart, Così fan tutte. New York City Opera at Lynch Theater, 3/20/12. New production by Christopher Alden, conducted by Christian Curnyn with Sara Jakubiak (Fiordiligi), Jennifer Holloway (Dorabella), Marie Lenormand (Despina), Allan Clayton (Ferrando), Philip Cutlip (Guglielmo), Rod Gilfry (Don Alfonso).

I’m not sure why C. Alden decided to set this production in a Seurat-ish 1920’s Paris straight out of Sunday in the Park with George. The entire thing seems to take in a park dominated by a very long bench, with umbrellas (used in a very Rossinian storm in the Act 1 finale) and occasional interloping picnickers. It doesn’t get in the way or add much either way, and Alden’s focus on the psychological development of the characters renders it more or less irrelevant.

This production is a slow burn. The first act is played out in very static, stylized fashion. Our four young people are exceptionally tight-laced and inexpressive sorts, moving slowly and never looking at each other. The original couples don’t seem to have that much in the way of genuine feelings. It all unfolds in a kind of slow-motion, zombie-like stupor (I was reminded of acting exercises in which the director yells “be a sloth! you’re a sloth!”). Don Alfonso is a mysterious magician figure who seems to want to shake these poor kids’ world up a bit. The boys’ disguises are nothing more than a series of mildly crazy outfits–a ruff, those silly hats with giant ears, and other things that the straight-laced Ferrando and Guglielmo would never touch. Despina is a helpful crazy bag lady and handywoman (not apparently in the sisters’ employ, but that works).

I noticed that partway into Act 2, Kelley Rourke’s convenient surtitles (which had previously glossed Despina tasting the chocolate to work with the staging) stopped translating “donna” as “girl” and began saying “woman.” It’s not in Da Ponte, but that’s surely what Alden was doing. All hell breaks lose. Don Alfonso shows up in a bear suit (more bait for a review from The Awl than Stefan Herheim), and the couples go through tense and ultimately traumatic coming of age–apparently the original couples were virginal, but the new couples are not. The emotion they had been holding back through Act 1 finally finds an outlet, and it’s pretty scary for everyone–Dorabella’s “È amore un ladroncello” is a nervous wreck, and Fiordiligi’s impulse to just get out of there for once makes real sense. At the end, we don’t end up with couples at all but the sisters in one group and the men in the other. This is going to take some time to get over.

It’s a very serious production, and takes the mock-opera seria elements of the score in total earnest. (I was reminded at times of David Alden’s more elaborate but equally grim Finta Giardiniera, but I think C. Alden is much more successful here than his brother was in that case.) But it’s a convincing one, and best of all a human and woman-friendly take on an opera that is often breathtakingly cruel. Both the men and women doubt what they are doing at every step (the men first go to their original partners before Don Alfonso rearranges them, and Fiordiligi sings “Per pietà” directly to Guglielmo) and feel enormous amounts of hesitation and guilt, and yet are driven somehow to escape the sloth-world of the opening anyway. It’s a voyage of discovery for everyone, men and women alike, and despite the title there’s no statement about fidelity on behalf of either gender. There are some random bits, but it keeps moving and sometimes you need some rabbit ears to spice up your unit set and six-character opera, I guess.

It’s awful that City Opera moved out of the formerly-known-as-State Theater at Lincoln Center and has been reduced to such a pathetic little season, but the Lynch Theater at John Jay College is just the right size for Mozart opera, with a lovely intimate atmosphere. The acoustic is dry and unforgiving, and showed the problems of the orchestra mercilessly. This was not professional-level playing, with terrible ensemble and intonation and just crass playing from every side. I can’t judge the contribution of conductor Christian Curnyn, the tempos were OK but musically was just a mess. With decent orchestral support, this production could have been so much better. And no stage music, City Opera? To this we’ve come?

The cast was excellent, and most importantly were visibly all in the same production. Sara Jakubiak has a spicy, strong soprano; Fiordiligi is a killer role and she struggled with the low notes and some of the coloratura. But it was a committed and musical performance, as was Jennifer Holloway’s richer-voiced Dorabella. Allan Clayton as Ferrando was the vocal standout of the cast with an evenly produced and very clear Mozart tenor sung with style and no apparent difficulty with the tessitura, and acted with sympathetic bashfulness. Philip Cutlip was the resident barihunk Gugliemo of any self-respecting Così but vocally OK at best. Marie Lenormand as Despina provided most of the production’s goofier moments with cute humor, and her mezzo is light enough to pass as a soubrette. Rod Gilfrey sounded loud and blustery as Don Alfonso, and was more an enigmatic Wizard of Oz than a teacher at this School for Lovers.

I could see this production being a big hit at somewhere like the Theater an der Wien. (My last Così was actually at the Theater an der Wien–in the Chéreau production, featuring Elina Garanca as Dorabella, so you can guess that it wasn’t super-recent.) In New York, it’s a refreshingly smart and interesting take on a repertory served badly in the oversized and conservative Met, but the serious musical compromises are unfortunate.

Two performances remain: March 22, and 24.

Photos copyright Carol Rosegg. Sorry for the bad quality, but I had to scavenge, as City Opera’s “Photo Room” wasn’t very helpful.

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City Opera: Stuff White People Like?

The downward spiral of New York City Opera is depressing. But if their planned spring season does go forward (currently it looks like it will), it will begin with La traviata at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February. They are promoting the production with this image.

Soprano Laquita Mitchell will be singing Violetta. There’s not a lot on YouTube of her singing opera rep, but based on this standard she’s got a voice and is a heartfelt singer:

But it’s obvious that she’s not a blond white lady. Can we talk about this for a minute? You can protest that they don’t have enough money to get a different poster model for this one opera. (The mysterious blonde pictured above is seen throughout their publicity materials.) Or perhaps they assembled the publicity images before their casting was complete. Since the company has become a shoestring operation this is even likely. But the result still makes me really uncomfortable.

Black Violettas are rare. I suspect this is because of the limited roles which society has allotted to women of color. Melissa Harris-Perry talked about this racism just last week on the Colbert Report. (She was promoting her book on this very topic.) Violetta’s angelic femininity does not figure in the stereotypes Harris-Perry describes. But black ladies should be just as able to be beautiful and virtuous dying courtesans in operas as white ladies! It’s great that Laquita Mitchell is defying tradition and will be singing Violetta at City Opera, and they should recognize this and put a woman of color on their poster, even if it’s not Mitchell herself.

Also, African-Americans are woefully underrepresented in classical music both onstage and in audiences. Writing the black lady out of the publicity materials isn’t a way to convince the African-Americans who think opera isn’t for them to change their minds. Look at how much Broadway has diversified in the last few years as producers have discovered how to reach more African-Americans. Maybe it’s time for classical music to figure out how to do the same.

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Partenope: It’s raining (counter)tenors, part one

Handel, Partenope.  New York City Opera, 4/3/2010.  Conducted by Christian Curnyn with Cyndia Sieden (Partenope), Iestyn Davies (Arsace), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo), Stephanie Houtzeel (Rosmira), Nicholas Coppolo (Emilio).  Production by Francisco Negrin, directed by Andrew Chown.

Now that we have finished our Shakespeare unit we are starting the reverse-Blumenmädchen part, that is some ladies who have entranced–either by their natural charms or their magical charms–a large number of hapless high-voiced men.  Most of these ladies are named Armida, and we will soon encounter the Met’s example of this, but today we will be discussing the all-natural, no magic required Partenope, in Handel’s opera of the same title.*

This is a somewhat obscure opera, though this isn’t its first time at City Opera, and this production is a revival.  NPR World of Opera has a nice plot summary and introduction here.   Partenope is a comedy, more or less, which means that the constant comedy applied by directors to most Handel opera actually is appropriate this time.  Francisco Negrin’s production, revived by Andrew Chown, however, doesn’t push the outrageous button very many times, and manages to impart a good deal of humanity to the characters.

The orchestra was modern, and since I mostly listen to Handel as performed by period orchestras, this was a bit different (not in a good way in my opinion, I love my HIP). The result is fleet rather than springy, and in the first act I felt like conductor Christian Curnyn’s tempos were far too fast to allow the music to breathe or have any shape.  But either he calmed down or I got used to it because the second two acts seemed much better.

Francisco Negrin’s setting is modern abstract, and like L’Étoile, the characters kind of color-coded.  The single set is a set of moving white and turquoise walls that resemble a less run-down version of wherever the Met’s Hamlet was set, and appear to be built for a smaller stage than the one on which they currently reside.  However in Personenregie it is mostly naturalistic, no choreography for the arias, the fanciful elements are limited to the costumes and occasional ambiguously symbolic objects appearing onstage.

Sometimes Negrin (Chown?) stages a da capo aria as a single continuous narrative, sometimes the da capo (the A’ of the ABA’ structure) as a variation of the first A, echoing the musical structure.  Particularly considering the realistic staging of most of the other action, I thought the first strategy considerably more effective. The lighting design also acknowledges the structure of the music, mostly very effectively–a shame there was so much ugly pink light.

Most of the singers had no trouble with the quick tempos.  Cyndia Sieden as Partenope zips through everything at warp speed with her laser-bright soprano, and also float nicely on the slow stuff.  She may lack a certain degree of charisma or glamor or something, she seemed a bit too nice, but was always a pleasure to hear.

As Rosmira, a woman disguised as a man who sings in the same range of the countertenors (oh, Handel, you trickster!), Stephanie Houtzeel was very good, with a rich and warm sound and excellent high notes, and was fun onstage.  Her coloratura is excellent but her low notes didn’t seem that big, I see in her bio she’s headed to Strauss repertoire, where she’ll probably sound great.

The two countertenors were both excellent and a study in contrasts, which is good when you have two major characters in the same fach.  Iestyn Davies has a clear, bell-like sound with a lot of pure beauty, but also of considerable virtuosity, particularly in the ridiculous “Furibondo spira il vento” (see video below).  Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo is more nasal and heavier on the vibrato (also sounded best on his high notes, I wonder if this role is low for him?).  Nicholas Coppolo as lesser suitor Emilio (tenors not enjoying the starry status of castrati in Handel’s day) sang just as much coloratura with a pleasant Mozart-tenor ish sound.

The production ended up being a nice break from the madcap and the wacky, there was none of the sensory overload that some Handel stagings can produce, the plot was easy to follow, it was funny when it should be funny, and we got to concentrate on the virtuosity of the singing.  Could it have been a little sexier?  Yeah, probably, but sometimes moderation is a good thing.

City Opera has declined to provide any photos of the current cast, so I attempt to evoke the glory of Handel’s London period below:

Cool Handel

Next:  I may drag myself to the Armida prima if I can find companionship, because I hear there are going to be GIANT SPIDERS and as someone who has read and watched Lord of the Rings an unseemly number of times I do love a giant spider.  Can’t wait for Tosca because OMG Patricia Racette and Fabio Luisi!  This ticket’s value seems to be increasing rather than decreasing with the substitutions.  Just don’t mess with my tenor and we’re good.

*Yes, this is one of the many things in opera that pisses off a feminist.  These lady-learns-a-lesson operas always grate.  Lady is always so much more boring after she is reformed and married off.  But I can usually ignore it and deal.  (My gender politics are always up for a good Fidelio, though.  ALWAYS.)

“Furibondo spira il vento,” Philippe Jaroussky (sorry, Iestyn, you aren’t on the YouTube!)

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L’étoile: Star treks

Emmanuel Chabrier, L’étoile.  New York City Opera, 3/18/10.  Conducted by Emmanuel Plasson with Julie Boulianne (Lazuli), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (King Ouf), Jennifer Zetlan (Laoula) in a production by Mark Lamos.

In New York, you can currently hear two very different examples of 19th-century French opera.  Last Tuesday I saw Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet at the Met, and on Thursday Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’étoile next door at the New York City Opera.  Compared to Thomas’s stern austerity, Chabrier is all bubbles.  Got to say I prefer Chabrier.  This is a score of considerable musical sophistication and refinement, but also not above a long ensemble about tickling.  (Hi, Eric Massa!)

And this production is a fun night out.  The plot is pure Offenbachian silliness: a king is looking for a victim for his annual celebratory public execution, but his astrologer warns him that his choice’s horoscope is closely linked to his own, and should he carry out the execution the king himself will die within a day.  Meanwhile the would-be victim, Lazuli, falls in love with the King’s fiancée.  Hijinks ensue.  How can you not love an opera that has a “Song of Impalement”?  Such non-stop goofiness would become tiring, though, if there weren’t a fair number of lyrical moments as well, and if the music weren’t so consistently inspired.

The City Opera’s production, by Mark Lamos, goes for the goofy end of things, it’s surreal, brightly colored and with a lot of choreographed musical numbers–think a great deal of bobbing up and down.  It’s entertaining and effective, and fits the character of the music very well.  Even the many choruses get entertaining choreographic treatment.  The empty white stage is subject to much bricolage, in the old movie musical sense.  The story is cute enough but often an excuse for flights of musical mischief and parody, which the production treats with suitable fantasy.  It’s a revival, and while it’s the first time I’ve seen it, I suspect the first iteration may have been a little bit dramatically tighter, and maybe more attuned to the poignant moments in the score.  But it’s still great fun.

The orchestra sounded great (conducted by Emmanuel Plasson, son of Michel Plasson), and the singing was mostly strong.  This was my first experience with the new acoustics of the unfortunately-named David Koch Theatre, but I had only been to the old version two or three times so I can’t make a detailed comparison (love those aisles, though!).  But I think it’s an improvement, everything is clear if not the most resonant.  Julie Boulianne sounded great as Lazuli, but was sometimes covered by the orchestra in the faster and lower parts of the role.  Jean-Paul Fouchécourt sounds like he is past his best tenorial days, but he’s still hilarious and stylistically perfect.  Jennifer Zetlan was bright and mellifluous as the Princess Laoula.

So the City Opera isn’t the Met.  We know this.  But this is a great opera (one I doubt the Met could stage successfully), and the production, despite some sketched-in bits, is cheery and silly and inventive and visually more interesting than a lot of things you see next door.  So why the rows and rows of empty seats?  This company is in a bad place, or rather hopefully getting out of a bad place, and they need your support.  By all means go and admire Simon Keenlyside’s biceps singing over at the Met, but please consider a visit to City Opera too.  You’ll get an entertaining night at the opera, and help to ensure that this company stays with us in the future.  They need you!  And you might not realize it, but you need L’étoile too–it will cheer you up, at least.

Their remaining two productions this spring are a revival of Mark Lamos’s lovely minimalist production of Madame Butterfly and a production of Handel’s Partenope by the fantastic Spanish director Francisco Negrin.  I’m hoping to go to the latter.

Next: This William Christie fangirl sees her idol in person for the first time.  Fairy Queen at BAM!

Photos from the New York Times/Sarah Krulwich.  Sorry, Times, but I couldn’t find any of the current cast on the City Opera website.

City Opera trailer:

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