Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New York City Opera, Fall 2010

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Mary Dunleavy in Intermezzo; Sara Jakubiak and Patricia Risley in A Quiet Place (photos by Carol Rosegg)


Composed by Richard Strauss
Directed by Leon Major
Conducted by George Manahan
Starring Mary Dunleavy, Nicholas Pallesen, Jessica Klein, Andrew Bidlack
Performances through November 20, 2010

A Quiet Place
Composed by Leonard Bernstein

Directed by Christopher Alden
Conducted by Jayce Ogren
Starring Sara Jakubiak, Louis Otey, Christopher Feigum, Patricia Risley, Dominic Armstrong, Joshua Hopkins
Performances through November 21, 2010

New York City Opera
David H. Koch Theater, Columbus Avenue and West 63rd Street

Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo is filled with so many charming felicities that it might get swallowed up in a large opera house. Although the New York City Opera’s Koch Theater is nowhere near the giant that the Met is, it’s still not as intimate as Strauss’s exquisite “domestic comedy with symphonic interludes” needs. Ideally, Intermezzo should be in a tiny jewel-box theater, but that won’t happen, so we should thank City Opera for returning this wonderful miniature to the stage.

Too bad Intermezzo is the work of the worst librettist Strauss ever had: Strauss himself. Based on his own marriage, Strauss penned a fluffy bagatelle about the loony but lovable wife of a famous composer who believes he’s cheating on her after she intercepts a telegram she believes was intended for him. After much back-and-forthing, the confusion gets sorted out satisfactorily, and the couple lives happily ever after.

The story’s so simpleminded it deserves at most an hour-long, one-act opera. Instead, Strauss gives us a three-hour work with intermission. The final scene, as everything sorts itself out and conjugal bliss reappears, runs on and on (and on). Too bad it’s sung in English rather than German: sure, it’s talky and chatty, but since everyone in the audience is reading the supertitles anyway, why not just sing it in the original language and give it the internal logic it needs?

Happily, what Strauss lacks in his words he more than compensates with his music. No one wrote more glorious melodies—Wagner’s endless melody was paltry compared to what the man who succeeded him as Germany’s greatest stage composer could do. Intermezzo is filled with unbroken streams of beautiful sounds, from heroine Christine’s arias to the orchestral interludes that carry the audience away on waves of undulating notes, music that literally washes over you.

In Leon Major’s engaging production, a perky Mary Dunleavy plays Christine as alternately charming and annoying. Occasionally, she swallows words and sounds shrill, but comes across far less harpy-like as Lauren Flanigan did when she sang the part at City Opera in 1999.

A preposterous, un-tragic story of a failed marriage’s car-wreck, Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place returns nearly 30 years after its less-than-successful premiere. Stephen Wadsworth’s libretto is riddled with bad puns, general crudeness and implausible characterizations; Bernstein’s pleasingly melodious music is overrun by dull modernism.

Too bad a great popular composer like Bernstein wanted to write a “serious” opera; similarly, Paul McCartney’s “classical” works don’t approach his classic songs. Bernstein’s own 1952 one-acter about Sam and Dinah’s failing marriage, Trouble in Tahiti, is the centerpiece of Act II, and its jazzy rhythms and hummable melodies stick out like a sore thumb amid the surrounding dross: inflating the serviceable original story into the numbingly long A Quiet Place is the height of pretentiousness.

Christopher Alden’s staging gives needed clarity to this troubled work, yet do we need a simulated fellatio scene during Trouble in Tahiti? Jayce Ogren ably conducts Bernstein’s pell-mell score, while the large cast and chorus work hard and sometimes effectively. The dramatic and musical standouts are Christopher Feigum as young Sam and Patricia Risley as Dinah, not coincidentally the leads during the Tahiti interludes. Otherwise, A Quiet Place never quite finds its place.

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