The New York City Opera lurched New York's musical season to a start Thursday evening with an untraditional approach. Instead of opening with a high-priced, star-studded event, it opened with a low-priced ($25), star-studded Opera-for-All festival.
The four-performance affair cast a glance over the company's entire season. Only "Madama Butterfly," a work that will soon get attention at an opera house across the way, was ignored. "Semele," quite possibly the greatest opera ever written in the English language (let's not quibble over genres) was represented by the sublime "Where'er you walk," the god Jupiter's tribute to the earthly object of his love, sung with grace by the tenor Robert Breault. Another new fall production, Donizetti's perennial comedy "L'Elisir d'Amore," has an even better known tenor aria, "Una furtive lagrima," which John Tessier sang with sweet tone and smooth phrasing.
George Manahan, the company's music director, conducted all the excerpts, and doubled as master of ceremonies. He may have aroused undue expectations for fleet delivery when he said that the words of the quintet from Bizet's "Carmen" flow with the rapidity of speech, but his singers negotiated this delightful piece — the highlight of the opera, I'd say — quite ably.
The farewell trio "Soave sia il vento" from Mozart's "Così fan tutte" found Julianna di Giacomo and Jennifer Hines in alluring voice as the two sisters matched with Sanford Sylvan's seasoned Don Alfonso. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas rightfully occupy a place in the City Opera's repertoire, and a new production of "The Pirates of Penzance" appears in the spring. In the wonderful ensemble "When the foeman bares his steel," Don Yule was a dry-voiced but engaging Sergeant of Police, spirited on by the fervent injunctions of Maureen McKay and Heather Johnson, with Michael Wanko, as the Major General uttering the famous "Yes, but you don't go."
Two very different post-Wagner composers supply operas for the fall season. The famous prayer from Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" was sweetly intoned by Vanessa Cariddi and Julianne Borg, and the orchestra played eloquently in the instrumental peroration. In his remarks, Mr. Manahan drew a parallel between Korngold's "Die tote Stadt" and the composer's later work for film scores, and rightly meant it as no slight. Baritone Keith Phares gave a handsome account of that opera's "Tanzlied."
The outgoing director of City Opera, Paul Kellogg, has mined works by two great composers neglected by the Met, Handel and Rossini. The latter's serious opera "La Donna del Lago" makes a welcome appearance in the spring with a new production. Circumstances were perhaps not propitious for an attempt to explain why Mozart and Handel are such transcendent opera composers, but Mr. Manahan had a point in noting the dramatic fervor of serious Rossini. Jennifer Aylmer was the appealing soprano in the trio "Alla ragion deh rieda," with agreeable contributions from two tenors, Javier Abreu and, especially, in the concluding cabaletta, Andrew Drost.Another Handel excerpt found Randall Scotting filling in for David Walker in the aria "Sento la gioia" from "Amadigi," which the company interpolates into its production of "Flavio." His countertenor sounded a little small-scaled given the heroic context of the music.The fine soprano Elizabeth Futral, paired with tenor Ryan MacPherson, made a tantalizingly brief appearance in the Drinking Song from Verdi's "La Traviata."
The evening closed with a sizable chunk of Act II of "La Bohème" dominated by Elizabeth Caballero's resonantly sung, theatrically winning Musetta. John Coberman's direction, which helped enliven earlier selections, succinctly conveyed the dynamics of the situation at the Café Momus.