Saturday, November 10, 2007

Comic and Tragic

Composed by Jules Massenet
Libretto by Henri Cain
Conducted by George Manahan
Starring Cassandre Berthon, Joyce Castle, Eugene Brancoveanu, Frederic Antoun
Performances October 27-November 18, 2007

Composed by Samuel Barber
Libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti
Conducted by Anne Manson
Starring Lauren Flanigan, Rosalind Elias, Katherine Goeldner, Ryan MacPherson
Performances November 4-17, 2007

New York City Opera
New York State Theater
West 63rd Street and Columbus Avenue

Antoun (Prince Charmant) and Berthon (Cendrillon)
in Cendrillon

Flanigan (Vanessa) and MacPherson (Anatol)
in Vanessa
New York City Opera wraps its Fall 2007 season with new productions of two operas that have languished on the fringes of the standard repertory, and which both deserve a better fate.

Jules Massenet ruled French opera in the late 19th century, but today, only his tragic Manon, Werther and Thais are heard and staged with any frequency. But his take on the romantic fairy tale of Cinderella, Cendrillon, is charming and deserves wider currency. The same goes double for Samuel Barber’s romantic tragedy Vanessa, which is the greatest American opera ever written–only Barber’s follow-up, Anthony and Cleopatra, comes close–but whose intense drama and gorgeously singable melodies have paradoxically relegated it to also-ran status, as if we have heard enough of this sort of thing from Richard Strauss. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In Cendrillon, Massenet hewed closely to the original Cinderella story, and has composed many lovely passages for his protagonist and her Prince Charming to sing, along with several comic interludes for her foolish stepsisters and even more idiotic stepmother. It’s not a great opera by any means, but even lesser Massenet is professionally polished and moves with all the necessary momentum onstage.

That said, the City Opera staging (imported from Montreal) is a garish mess: director/choreographer Renaud Doucet and set/costume designer André Barbe apparently subscribe to the “Shakespeare in Central Park” school that one must never trust the actual text, and must instead heighten and underline everything so that even the dimmest bulbs in the audience can “get” it. Hence, we have a multi-colored, exaggerated set and costumes that cross the line into camp, and performances that are likewise pitched far too high to score.

In this context, it’s not the fault of such fine actor-singers as Joyce Castle (stepmother), Lielle Berman and Rebecca Ringle (stepsisters) and Eugene Brancoveanu (father) that they can only rarely hit the right comedic notes. Luckily, Frédéric Antoun (prince) and Cassandre Berthon (Cendrillon) are spared much of the nonsense, and make the love story that’s central to the opera burn with fire. Their beautifully sung Act I duet nearly makes one forget about the absurdly oversized cars, fridges and ovens that populate this unnecessarily cluttered production.

Happily, the New York City Opera Orchestra plays with finesse and deftness under George Manahan’s steady baton, making this a completely disarming musical–if not a successful theatrical–experience.

As for Vanessa, Barber’s masterpiece premiered at the old Metropolitan Opera in 1958 to positive reviews, but its unveiling at that summer’s Salzburg Festival earned it critical brickbats from those who thought that Barber’s unashamedly tonal and melodic musical language was passe. Well, the joke’s on them, since Vanessa is a thoroughgoing masterpiece, an invigorating work from the pen of a composer at the very height of his genius.

The libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti is no more or less melodramatic than those hoary 1940s and ‘50s Hollywood soap operas directed by Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray, and has its antecedents in various operas of similar ilk. Vanessa, who has waited for the return of her lover Anatol for the past 20 years, lives in an isolated mansion with her faithful niece Erika and elderly mother, the Old Baroness. One day, Anatol does return, but it’s the deceased man’s son–who proceeds ro seduce and impregnate the innocent Erika and promise Vanessa marriage and a happy life in Paris.

It’s standard-issue fare, but Barber takes this plot and spins miraculous musical gold out of straw. Right from the ominously on-rushing orchestral prelude, we know we are in the hands of a master, and Barber’s superlative dramatic instincts continually prod a gothic melodrama into shattering tragedy.

Michael Kahn’s production–which had its premiere at Dallas Opera–is ready-made for such an interiorized story with a stifling atmosphere. The large mansion set by Michael Yeargan is exquisitely crafted down to the last detail, Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are equally and plausibly ornate, and Jeff Harris’s lighting subtly underlines the frazzled nerves and desperate lives within this house.

Kahn has directed unobtrusively for the most part–with the exception of the big Act II ball, which takes place offstage and during which characters return to the foyer to dance, confusingly. But overall, Kahn has a good grasp of Menotti’s characters and how Barber’s music shapes these events.

Conductor Anne Manson in her City Opera debut (it’s actually the first time she’s conducted opera anywhere in the city) has an even firmer grasp of Barber’s classic opera, persuasively making a case for Vanessa as a startling, musically cohesive, first-rate drama. She not only allows the purely orchestral parts to rise organically from the unfolding story, but also artfully constructs the sung parts into a brilliant whole.

It helps that her cast is a dream. Lauren Flanigan is at her very best in the title role, utilizing her best attributes–passion and fiery dramatic sparks–to bring to life this pathetic woman holding onto a past that can never return. As her naive niece Erika, Katharine Goeldner is equally skillful at carrying the broken heart she’s inherited from her aunt–she invests Erika’s big aria, "Must the Snow Come So Soon?", with a showstopping bundle of emotions.

Rosalind Elias, who played Erika in the opera’s premiere a half-century ago, is a forceful and dominating Old Baroness, doing as much with a dismissive look or gesture as she does singing. Ryan MacPherson stars as the conniving Anatol, but this energetic tenor took sick after the second act at the performance I attended and was replaced by Christopher Jackson, who did an estimable job stepping into a near-impossible situation.

Although Cendrillon is worth hearing–rather less so to watch–City Opera’s Vanessa is the real deal: miss it at your peril.

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