06 November 2009

New York City Opera’s American Voices

¡Por favor! ¡Toreador!
Joyce Castle and a few friends celebrate NYCO

New York City Opera is so much the “people’s opera” that it’s a bit strange to attend a really glitzy fund-raising event there. This thought occurred especially during the auction that concluded last night’s season-opening gala, “American Voices”: do City Opera fans really have enough cash to plunk down for a hunting vacation in Germany (hosted by members of the Bismarck family, no less)? Well, apparently some do, because the prize did not go begging, though most of us seemed to be sitting on our hands, for fear of being mistaken for bidders.

I don’t know how much money was raised, but the evening was a great morale-booster for the company, which has suffered from financial crises, homelessness, a blacked-out 2008–09 season, and a leadership vacuum in recent years. “American Voices” are indeed a traditional specialty at this populist institution, and — with ticket prices starting at $12 — we were treated to a parade of American singers, in American song.

Ramey (center): A tongue of flame

I was particularly moved by Samuel Ramey’s account of the revival scene, from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, an opera with a distinguished history here. (The great Norman Treigle, whose shoes Ramey was hired to fill in the 1970s, created the role of Olin Blitch for City Opera, at the work’s New York premiere.) Though his career is nearer now to its twilight than to its dawn, Ramey grew in confidence as the scene progressed. You could actually feel his growing awareness, as if he were waking to his own power. His voice, wobbling at the outset, swiftly found its secure placement, and his acting seethed with intensity. He was having a good night, and he ran with it — exhilarating for him as an artist and for us, his audience. In the pit to egg him on was Julius Rudel, 88 years old, the company’s former director and in many ways responsible for its enduring artistic vision.

City Opera’s reigning prima donna, soprano Lauren Flanigan, offered an aria from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, a great success for her here a couple of years ago. Alas, I didn’t get to see any of those performances, and the selection this evening (“Do not utter a word, Anatol”), divorced from its context, proved less than compelling. To a degree, this wasn’t a problem: Flanigan gave one of her trademark dramatic readings, and we ate it up, because this is her house and we’d love her if she sang nothing but “Mairzy Doats.” Hell, we even put up with Deborah Drattell’s work, just to hear this woman sing. But I can’t help wishing she’d chosen a stand-alone piece, something with a more festive mood, or a bigger dramatic gesture, or a more melodic sweep — or all of the above — which is to say, something more appropriate to the occasion.

Flanigan: We loved this dress, too.

Another beloved City Opera soprano, Amy Burton, did her best to inject interest into a blurry, repetitive, pretentious aria (in French) by pop star Rufus Wainwright, from his new opera, Prima Donna. Wainwright himself performed “That’s Entertainment!” — a fun contribution, but too fast and with insufficient point. Surely a man who writes lyrics ought to appreciate the importance of putting across lines like “Where a ghost and a prince meet / And ev’ryone winds up mincemeat,” but Wainwright failed us, and I was hard-pressed to explain to friends why I admire him.

A better tribute to City Opera’s crossover traditions came from the orchestra, under music director George Manahan, with a spirited arrangement of “New York, New York,” from Bernstein’s On the Town; and from Broadway’s Marc Kudisch, who acted up a storm in Carousel’s “Soliloquy.”

The Gang’s All Here: Manahan & NYCO Orchestra

Manahan and the orchestra were in wonderful form all night, as it happens. Over the years, the level of playing has risen so far, it’s almost a miracle, and so long as the musicians have received adequate rehearsal (as was abundantly the case this evening), you’re assured of a first-rate performance. The orchestra opened the concert with Stravinsky’s “Fanfare for a New Theatre,” followed closely by a companion piece, the world premiere of Peter Lieberson’s “Fanfare for New York City Opera.”

Several numbers at this performance were given over to young singers: the delectable Anna Christy sang “Blue-green beautiful chlorine” from William Bolcom’s A Wedding; sumptuous (and barefoot) Measha Brueggergosman gave us Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now”; and Talise Trevigne and Kelley O’Connor scorched the gold leaf off the walls with a duet from Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainamadar.

Not until the end of the evening, however, did the occasion become a real gala. First, mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle cavorted gleefully through “I Am Easily Assimilated,” from Bernstein’s Candide, a hallmark of her repertoire with this company and elsewhere. This was authentic star power, quickening every pulse in the room. Joyce clattered away on her castañets and hopped and shimmied through her tango, with most of the City Opera chorus to partner her. (You really need to see a close-up of her facial expression, so I’ve provided this inset. Has assimilation ever looked like more fun?)

Koch Classic: Our benefactor starts the show.
George Steel looks on, at left.

A tough act to follow, and it fell to that other Kansan mezzo named Joyce — DiDonato — to alter the mood and to send us out with another kind of uplift already. City Opera’s new general manager and artistic director, George Steel, selected her material: Bernstein again, “Take care of this house” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The song speaks of the White House, but in this context, it spoke of the “new” home of New York City Opera: the David H. Koch Theater, inaugurated with this very performance, that is both the same old New York State Theater we’ve always loved, and a completely new space, with an uncertain but possibly brilliant future before it. With caressing tenderness and unflinching conviction, Joyce offered the house a blessing, and we, her congregation, joined in.

According to Kara Lack, I am clearly visible in this photograph.
Can you spot me?

I’ve said it before: this company informed so many of my ideas about what opera could be, it presented so many memorable performances by so many great artists, it means so much to me. I don’t want to see New York City Opera fail, or even falter in its mission. (And it has one.) For these few hours, I felt good about the company, and I remain hopeful. That in itself is cause for celebration.

Much easier to spot me in this photo with Joyce DiDonato.
Really, the gala should have been called “American Joyces.”
Photo by Darren Keith Woods. Used with Permission


Chris Rebholz said...

Sam Ramey may not be as great of voice in the past, but he still remains the very first opera heart throb I remember seeing (shirtless in "Faust" at San Francisco Opera). He set a high mark for following male opera singers to match in the beefcake (and basso) department. I would listen and watch him any time!

William V. Madison said...

Some of Ramey's performances seemed to gain in élan -- or whatever you want to call it -- based on the degree to which he flaunted his physique. His entrance in Attila, bare-chested and flexing, was purely theatrical, and it inspired his singing to a comparable level of charisma. Nowadays, he's got to come up with other ways to make his point. His success last night really was heartening.

Anonymous said...

Are you the fellow surveying the scene from one flight up, at the very left of the picture?

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Actually, I'm in the foreground, about five deep, though there's some disagreement as to which side: we have left- and right-hand candidates. Kara says I'm on the right.

Anonymous said...

If I had to guess, I'd say you're at the left, standing between the waiter with the tray and the two balding fellows.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Yes, Rick, that sounds like the area I'm supposed to occupy -- unless I'm the right-hand candidate, as Kara believes!

Oh, it's a tough life, being so ordinary-looking.