Gala Talent, New and Familiar
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Tuesday was the night for the New York State Theater crowd to put on the dog, as City Opera fashioned their black tie event a little differently this season. Instead of an opening night performance of a new production, the company mounted a gala concert featuring much of their current young talent and a few battle-hardened alumni.
Wagner is almost never performed at City Opera and so I was delighted to read in the printed program that music director George Manahan would begin the evening with the overture to “The Flying Dutchman.” I was not delighted, however, with its tepid and gingerly rendition. The normally excellent orchestra sounded thin and pallid, offering, if you can imagine it, a “Dutchman” with neither passion nor dramatic heft. This realization was almost devoid of instrumental color, and quickly devolved into unaccented homogeneity that made little distinction between fast parts and slow, the latter of which were surprisingly uncoordinated. Disconnect between the bassoons and the rest of the ensemble was an especially conspicuous misstep, but the night quickly turned brighter once the singers took the stage.
At the old Metropolitan House, it used to be rather common to exit the hall about 20 minutes into the first act of Georges Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” as the big number occurs during the first scene. Of course, this type of audience behavior is frowned upon nowadays, but I remembered it since the second number on this program was that same miraculous duet, “Au fond du temple saint.”Very movingly sung by current “La Bohème” stars James Valenti and Brian Mulligan, the piece had the opposite effect Tuesday night, whetting our appetite for an evening of high quality.
The company’s present crop of talented neophytes gave this affair a booster shot of adrenaline. Yet another “Bohème” cast member, Daniel Mobbs, joined Stephen Powell for an exciting bel canto turn as the two sang “Suoni la tromba” from Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani.” And countertenor Gerald Thompson previewed his debut later this season by offering a spirited and otherworldly version of “Rompo i lacci” from Handel’s “Flavio.”
There were some clinkers as well, particularly in an out-of-tune and blowsy scene from Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,”in which the horns set the tone for equivocation and a trio of normally reliable singers — Pamela Armstrong, Beth Clayton, and Erin Morley — simply never got on track and produced some rather painful discordance.
From the current cast of “Semele,” we heard two exceptional women, Vivica Genaux and Elizabeth Futral. Ms. Genaux tried her hand at complex ornamentation in the cavatina and cabaletta that begins “Non piu mesta” from Rossini’s “La Cenerentola.” Hers is quite simply one of the most interesting mezzo voices around today — dark and woody, supple and deeply polished. But perhaps I am spoiled by Cecilia Bartoli, for I found Ms. Genaux’s fioritura much too timid, walking the high wire with not only a net, but a harness as well. Ms. Genaux is definitely capable of taking more risks; when she finally lets herself go, the results will be stupendous.
Ms. Futral blew away the competition with a sparkling offering from the increasingly arcane world of the operetta, “Meine Lippen, sie kuessen so heiss” from Franz Lehar’s “Giuditta.” She was so radiantly confident in her character portrayal, so luminous in her enunciation, so refulgent of tone that everyone else seemed a bit wan by comparison. From another adjunct of the opera world, Judy Kaye was understatedly masterful in Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” showing the rest of the high-falutin’ divas how to dazzle with a “less is more” sense of timing and phrasing. And Lauren Flanigan built a solid dramatic scene as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth.
There was one special guest deserving of mention: The company’s rehearsal pianist from its first season in 1944, who somewhere along the way grew into conductor Julius Rudel, the driving force behind the company’s success in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Tuesday night, it put him to work, directing the ensemble as it accompanied alumnus Samuel Ramey in “Ecco il mondo” from Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofele.” It has been a while since I have heard Mr. Ramey live and it appeared from this small sample that he may have lost a step or two. His bass voice did not resonate as it once did. But he is such an intelligent singer that this rendition was still impressive.
Finally, Carol Vaness and Vinson Cole joined Maestro Rudel for “Ma qual mai s’offre, oh Dei” from “Don Giovanni.” Although the veterans couldn’t trump the company’s newcomers, if you listened with your heart rather than your ears, their performance was really quite wonderful.