Sunday, April 21, 2013

A case for performing a rarity

Your intrepid reporter made two trips to New York City Center on April 20 and 21 to see what has become of New York City Opera. We haven't seen that noble company in these pages since 2011, when we saw a perfectly charming L'Elisir d'Amore at the former New York State Theater (you will not see the current name of that theater in this blog!), and we were introduced to the wonder that is David Lomeli. I've been interested in what NYCO has been doing since then, in various venues throughout New York City, but time and finances have interfered with my actually seeing any of their productions before now. (I don't know why they've never given me comps to their shows, as other opera companies do. It might be because I haven't asked for any.)  I was happy to see them back in their pre-Lincoln Center home, the theater where the company had its debut in 1944.

On Sunday, April 21, I saw the opening of Mr. Offenbach's rarely performed (in this country) operetta La Périchole. It's a charming story of a Peruvian street-singer couple (no, not Juan-Diego Florez and Ernesto Palacio!) who are in love but penniless. They craftily use the colonial Viceroy's lust for La Périchole to gain enough money to marry and live happily ever after. La Périchole remains popular in France, and in this blogger's humble opinion it could be very popular on this side of la mer as well, particularly if presented in English with some topical humor thrown in, as one does (if one has any sense) with Die Fledermaus.

Marie Lenormand; Photo by Fadil Berisha
What a delightful show! Even before the downbeat, we saw elements of Paul Steinberg's clever sets, and we saw actor Philip Littell in action as the ever-present bartender (later the old prisoner on whom plot elements rely). The excellent chorus sauntered on lazily to sing the opening number, and then we were off for a whirlwind Act I. Silliness and excess were in abundance, the energy was high, and the laughs were many. Although the show lost some steam in the second half, the whole remained a highly satisfying experience of music theater.

The true stars were tenor Philippe Talbot and mezzo Marie Lenormand as the young street singer couple. Both were full of charm and youthful spirit, and both sang beautifully and acted convincingly. Mr. Talbot has a sweet, mellifluous voice that he uses to great effect with his skillful acting as the silly, prideful young Piquillo. Ms. Lenormand also sings beautifully, and took full control of the stage as the crafty young Périchole, who knows how to use her talents, not all of which are singing, to profit her man and herself. One envisions a bright future for both of these artists, and a brief look at their bio-blurbs reveals it's already on its way.

The Andrews Sisters-like trio of Lauren Worsham, Naomi O'Connell, and Carin Gilfry provided a Greek chorus commentary on the action and the feelings of the hoi polloi, well worth watching and hearing. Baritone Joshua Jeremiah and tenor Richard Troxell quite effectively and amusingly gave us the Viceroy's henchmen, singing and acting with great gusto and lovely sound. The Viceroy himself, Kevin Burdette (whom we have seen in these pages in our Opera Pulse review of Mr. Muhly's Dark Sisters), was a study in acting, in flinging oneself into a role. Literally. Flinging. There was a lot of physical comedy in this show. The Viceroy is a silly, bitter-yet-hopeful example of adolescent self delusion. In other words, a middle-aged straight man. It is a surprise he doesn't have an elaborate comb-over.

The orchestra played well under Emmanuel Plasson, and the chorus and its director Bruce Stasyna deserve another mention for their great work.

On April 20 I saw the closing performance of Mr. Rossini's Mosè in Egitto, or Moses in Egypt (libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola). From time to time I have uttered the opinion that most neglected works are neglected for a reason, and I won't say my opinion of this opera contradicts that feeling.  I wasn't familiar with this work, although I did recognize the beautiful prayer in the last act. (I believe that prayer belongs beside Va pensiero and the prayer from Maria Stuarda as one of the truly moving, unifying moments in opera.) It was beautiful music, but was it beautiful theater? I'm not sure. I texted to a friend during the interval, "Lots of vox fireworks, but why?"

We all know the story of Mosè in Egitto already, about Moses and the Hebrews' flight from Egypt, whether we grew up in a faith tradition or we have merely seen a lot of Charlton Heston movies. Keeping with early 19th century tradition, there is a Hatfield & McCoy romance (Pharaoh's son and Israelite girl) and a miracle in the form of the parting of the Red Sea, which in this case is accomplished creatively with video projections by Ada Whitney/Beehive.

There was a lot to like in this production, and for me it was primarily the singing. My two favorites in the cast were Siân Davies as Elcia, the Israelite woman duped by in love with Pharaoh's son, and Keri Alkema as Almatea, Pharaoh's wife. Both are fine singing actresses and gave stellar performances. We have seen Keri Alkema in these pages before, when she sang Adalgisa in Caramoor's 2010 performance of Norma. At that time, Ms. Alkema was transitioning from mezzo to soprano, and I heard beautiful mezzo tones in her Adalgisa. In her Almatea I heard some of those tones still, but also a beautifully spun top, and a skillfully and artistically used soprano voice.

David Salsbery Fry as Moses
Photo by Carol Rosegg, courtesy
In general it sounded as if all the men were oversinging, which suggests not being able to hear themselves in the theater, while the women seemed to have escaped that problem. Male vocal standouts include bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as the Pharaoh, although he sounded tired from time to time, and tenor Randall Bills as Pharaoh's son Osiride. Bass-baritone David Salsbery Fry very capably stepped up to the plate for every performance as Moses, covering for David Cushing, who withdrew due to illness.

Production design was by director Michael Counts. Although the set, or rather the projections, were well done and quite clever, they did become a distraction at times. On the other hand, they contributed to the relative shallowness of the set, which I appreciated as someone in a seat very, very far to the right side of the audience. The costumes by Jessica Jahn reminded me of Project Runway rejects.

My operatic weekend was a success! I saw two rarely performed works, at least one of which deserves to be performed more often. I heard lots and lots of beautiful singing, which is a balm for my weary soul, and I had the opportunity to think critically and to write creatively, which is a balm for my weary brain. I have plans for lots more opera-goin' in the coming months, so I should be awash in balm and loving every minute of it!

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