10 April 2012

Preview of a Memory with Gotham Chamber Opera

Youthful exuberance: Angelini, Munger, and Biller, the newest Gotham Dreamers
All photographs by Richard Termine at New 42nd Street Studios.
Used with permission.

Not very long after conductor Neal Goren launched the opening bars of Il Sogno di Scipione (Scipio’s Dream) on April 6, 2001, New Yorkers huddled in the playhouse of the Henry Street Settlement knew they were witnessing something special. The North American premiere of an opera by Mozart, no less, performed by a winning cast of unknowns (for at least a few more minutes), in a provocative staging by Christopher Alden.

Over time, our memories of that first night have accrued a golden luster, to the point that — just as you could not meet a Berliner who didn’t claim to attend opening night of Weill’s Die Groschenoper in 1928 — it’s become difficult to meet a music lover in this city who doesn’t claim to have attended the first performance of what has become the Gotham Chamber Opera. (For the record, I didn’t get to the show until a few performances later in the run. Remind me of that, when I’m old and forgetful.)

Luminous (and at the time scarcely known)
Celena Shafer as Costanza, in 2001.

So it’s daring — a word we have come quite usually to associate with the Gothamites — to revisit our memories. But to celebrate the troupe’s tenth-anniversary season, Goren not only commissioned a world premiere, Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, he’s also reviving Scipione. The show opens tomorrow night at John Jay College, on Manhattan’s West Side, and runs through April 21.

Let it be said from the get-go that we couldn’t have known, back in 2001, that Goren’s ensemble would become venerable, though by now they’re well on the way to that status. With a combination of unusual repertory, attractive singers, and attention- and crotch-grabbing stage direction — that is, all the ingredients present from the start — Goren has managed to keep New Yorkers talking about him, and consequently he’s managed to keep his company going, when other opera organizations big and small have fallen by the wayside over the years.

Make no mistake: New York is full of talented people. It’s not easy to put on a first-class production, but it can be done — it is done, all the time. But endurance is another matter: even the revered New York City Opera now looks like a flash in the pan. Goren and the Gothamites are still going.

Yesterday, I attended the final dress rehearsal of the new edition of Il Sogno di Scipione, and the experience proved edifying in the extreme. The charms of the original were almost precisely as I remembered them — though, now that I saw the show again, I was reminded that this was not, after all, a flawless musical experience. It remains a singularly joyful one, however.

Biller enjoys a Fortunate cocktail.

Mozart’s score, an occasional piece meant to amuse his patron, who was both a prince and an archbishop, manages to be fresh (he was 15 when he wrote it) and conventional at once (with a libretto by the inevitable Metastasio, based on a work by Cicero), a series of bravura arias linked by the titular hero’s choice between Fortune and Constancy, here represented by two sopranos, and abetted by the ghosts of his father and grandfather. Everybody sings about virtue and fame, and then we pat ourselves on the backs and go home.

Alden sets all of this in one of his trademark anonymous rooms, the sort of background familiar to commercial travelers and to fans of David Lynch movies (and also to audiences for Alden’s stagings — but eleven years ago, the trademark still seemed quite novel). The principals start out in their underwear and, over the course of the single act, get ready to face the day: Fortune in particular has a great deal of stage business, first trying on more outfits than the average Barbie doll can boast, then mixing cocktails. How on earth she remembers what notes to sing is anybody’s guess, but the role was a triumph for Georgia Jarman in 2001, and it’s likely to yield comparable acclaim for Susannah Biller now.

One doesn’t review a dress rehearsal, of course, and it is always expected that, if anything, the performances will only improve by opening night. But the singers were all new to me, and I admired each tremendously: Marie-Ève Munger as Costanza (which the young Mozart couldn’t know would turn out to be the name of his wife), Michele Angelini as Scipione, Arthur Espiritu and Chad A. Johnson as the wounded grandfather and father (respectively), and Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Licenza, who concludes the event with a deliciously congratulatory flourish. “Though my heart praises Scipio,” she tells us, “my heart praises all of you, my patrons,” and you get the sense that she and Goren are addressing us, the patrons of Gotham Chamber Opera.

All of these attractive young people display the kind of brilliant, pure, flexible voices that we’ve come to expect from the Gothamites, and their utter fearlessness onstage is exemplary. I once helped to stage-direct an opera in which a tenor refused even to raise his hand while singing, much less cavort in his underwear. Alden employs amusing gestures to accentuate the singing: just by way of example, Angelini grabs his own ass on high notes in one aria, and Johnson’s melismas are excited by his stoic nurse (a marvelous young actress, uncredited at the rehearsal).

This is great fun, and while it might get in the way of the storytelling in one of Mozart’s mature operas, it works here, keeping lively what might otherwise be little more than a song recital.

In the pit, Goren maintains a kindred, equally spirited approach. This music was written to give pleasure, and by golly, that’s what Goren delivers. Mozart apparently never heard the piece played through — Scipione’s first complete performance seems to have been only in 1979 — but you’ve got to believe he’d have enjoyed hearing it exactly like this, as youthfully exuberant as he was when he wrote it.

So it’s not merely to revisit a cultural landmark that I urge you to see Il Sogno di Scipione, and to celebrate Neal Goren’s achievement over the past decade: it’s first and foremost to exult in the sheer pleasure that music can bring.

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