19 January 2009

Songs of New York

Spending time in New York means hearing the city’s music once again, and revisiting some of the institutions that have sustained me in my love of opera over so many years. An institution unto herself is Marilyn Horne, who celebrated her 75th birthday (Friday) with a gala concert (Sunday) at Carnegie Hall, where tribute was paid to the great lady by several of my other favorite artists: especially wonderful were Frederica Von Stade (our mistress of ceremonies, eternally sublime), Thomas Quasthoff (in Brahms), Thomas Hampson (in Mahler), Dolora Zajick (“Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix”), and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (“O Carlo, ascolta”).

Among the younger artists, Nicole Cabell offered a luscious “Adieu de l’hôtesse arabe” that makes me hungry for more French rep from her; and Meredith Arwady, who impresses me more each time I hear her, in Elgar’s “Where Corals Lie.” (The gala was a benefit for the Horne Foundation, which sponsors recitals by these and other young artists in venues all across America.) The opportunity to hear any of these artists singly would be exceptional; the opportunity to hear them in one afternoon, historic; the opportunity to hear them and my beloved Susan Graham (“Connais-tu le pays?” so delicate that you could smell the orange blossoms) and my beloved Joyce DiDonato (closing the program with a courageous, kick-ass “Tanti affetti” that left us giddy), quite simply a blessing. Then Ms. Horne herself stepped out, hardly letting us cheer for as long as we wanted, before giving us a funny, tender little speech. Only in New York, kids.

The afternoon was a tonic, really, and it helped me to set aside my gnawing anxieties over the fate of another great musical institution, New York City Opera, that preoccupied me for much of the previous week.

Mortier: Pouf! He, how you say, vanish!

In the 1970s, City Opera’s signature artists (Sills, Treigle, Rudel, Capobianco, so many others) defined the possibilities of the art form for me as a boy, and its production of Menotti’s Juana La Loca was the first opera I heard in New York, in 1979. The company has suffered significant reversals in recent years, and many of them, it must be said, can be blamed on its board of directors. These folks — well-meaning, surely — chose the Belgian provocateur Gerard Mortier two years ago to take over City Opera as general and artistic director. Manifestly the wrong man for the job, Mortier quit in November, even before assuming his duties in full, yet he managed to screw the company just the same. At his urging, NYCO is on hiatus this season, while the New York State Theater is renovated. How any opera company is supposed to maintain a presence — to persuade donors that it’s viable — is anyone’s guess, but it’s a signal truth that Mortier, like so many Europeans lately selected by American boards, has at best limited fundraising experience. (The money is supposed to appear magically.) And of course Mortier quit when he discovered that City Opera had even less cash than he’d anticipated. His grandiose (and sometimes insulting) plans for the company couldn’t be fulfilled.

Now the company has turned to George Steel, who has minimal experience raising funds or producing opera at all. I thought he was a risky choice to run Dallas Opera, when he was named to that post a few months ago; I can only hope that his few weeks in Dallas have provided him with an intensive education in — well — everything. Both my hometown companies are cash-strapped, at the very beginning of an economic crisis. But City Opera really can’t afford a single misstep or a second wasted.

Man of Steel or feet of clay?

It’s the topic of every conversation here, almost. For every encouraging reminder that Steel does know New Yorkers, and is a well-regarded conductor, comes the dispiriting news that the company will cut its productions by half next season, or that Steel’s favorite opera composer is Johann Christian Bach. I wish I saw any cause for optimism.

As a reminder of what’s at stake, City Opera presented its only performances of a complete opera last week: two evenings of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra in concert at Carnegie Hall. The score has suffered under the yoke of a terrible reputation, since it was given its premiere performance on the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s new home at Lincoln Center, in 1966. The composer Mark Adamo has defended the piece on his blog, and I urge you to read his analysis; but to these ears, Antony and Cleopatra’s enduring neglect is entirely justified: its Orientalist exotica (in the Egyptian scenes) sounds like movie music, its more aggressive “Roman” themes are bombastic, and in all its postwar conservative, tonal and melodic idiom isn’t very interesting. Menotti did this sort of thing much better, at least for the stage. Yet it’s important to hear Antony and Cleopatra, and to make one’s own judgments.

The shmatte they fall: Flanigan and Rhodes

The title roles are good parts for good singers, written for Leontyne Price and Justino Díaz, and taken here by the City Opera superstar Lauren Flanigan and a debutant, New Zealander Teddy Tahu Rhodes, whose work I’ve enjoyed at Houston Grand Opera in previous seasons. George Manahan led the City Opera orchestra with genuine passion, and it’s a luxury to hear that ensemble so well-rehearsed — polished, even, to a brilliant luster. In short, this is exactly the sort of thing City Opera ought to be doing.

Just pray that Steel doesn’t fuck it up.

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