Rarities in New York: Music in May

Operatic rarities in New York

1 July 2011 3 stars

Recent musical news from New York was dominated by the New York City Opera finally declaring an exit from Lincoln Center, where it had played for decades. Facing a severe economic shortfall, a motionless board, and a host of other problems - including a well-heeled Metropolitan Opera across the plaza - the already compromised seasons under George Steel are not even guaranteed for next season, and heaven knows where they will take place, if they do.

Which is why one is happy for the little musical organisations in Manhattan that often provide the most interesting operatic work. In the space of a week, the American Classical Orchestra presented Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-Lion at charming auditorium of the Society for Ethical Culture on Central Park West (where my father attended grade school, years ago) and the Teatro Grattacielo (Skyscraper Theatre) presented a double bill of verismo rarities: Riccitelli’s I Compagnacci, and Giordano’s Il Re, at the elegant Rose Theater at Lincoln Center (normally a venue for jazz).

The Grétry opéra-comique was by far the most interesting work, done semi-staged with ingenious direction from Cynthia Edwards. First heard in 1784, to a libretto by Sedaine, and revised subsequently, this work is exactly as advertised: a comedy in three acts "mêlée d’ariettes", all of them hugely catchy. There’s even a prehistoric attempt at Wagnerian leitmotif, with a tune that’s repeated several times in different guises. Even Auber dared to reorchestrate the work in the mid-19th century.

Fortunately, conductor Thomas Crawford chose to return to the original, accompanying with a harpsichord. And the original was played no less than 621 times at the various theatres the Opéra-Comique played in until 1910. If now out of favour, it’s time to bring back this masterwork to general audiences. Though there was a tremendous battle scene at the end, in the 18th-century stagings, the rest of the work offers an assortment of arias, duets and ensembles that are by turns piquant, enchanting, robust, and pastiche-medieval.

The story is related briefly, most familiarly, in the MGM 1952 Technicolor pageant, Ivanhoe, with Elizabeth and Robert Taylor (no relations). In the film, Ivanhoe is the rescuer of King Richard; in Grétry’s version, it is the false-blind minstrel, Blondel. (Does anyone remember the Tim Rice lyrics for the West End musical, Blondel, first seen in 1983?)

Ms Edwards’ staging cleverly made the most of simplified costuming and various props, suggesting a battle scene here and a country dance there.
The singers were led by a remarkable, young, fresh-out-of music school  baritone, Robert Balonek, who sang the role of Blondel with force and wistfulness. He was nearly matched by Josh Benevento in the role of King Richard, and there were a host of suporting male who sang gratifyingly. The ladies included an irresistible Catherine Webber in the travesti role of Antonio.

With the recent Opéra-Comique DVD of Grétry’s enchanting L’Amant jaloux (1778), first staged and recently revived at Versailles, it is high time that one examines Grétry’s other opéra-comiques. This genre, and Grétry himself, deserve revitalisation.

Verismo rarities are another matter. Have any of you heard of Primo Riccitelli (1875-1941)? I hadn’t. A protegé of Mascagni, he is known for two operas: I Compagnacci, and Madonna Oretta. I Compagnacci was presented at the Metropolitan in the 1920s with an illustrious cast that included Gigli and Rethberg.

The plot concerns a wager: will certain friars pass through the flames of the Inquisition to show their holiness? As it turns out, none do, including Savanorola, and lovers Anna Maria and Baldo can marry. The score has several dramatic and also beautiful moments, all rousingly orchestrated and making the most of several choirs, including one for young girls. It also has several blustery exchanges, of little interest, between the Anna Maria’s father and a friend that take up much of the playing time.

Conductor David Wroe made the most of the rich orchestrations and the choral sections, blending them together impressively. In the cast were Jessica Klein and Gerard Powers as the young lovers, and Peter Castaldi as the father and Lawrence Long as his chum.

Giordano, mostly represented today by Andrea Chénier, and possibly Fedora, wrote quite a few other works. Il Re (1929, at La Scala) is a long one-acter in three scenes. Frankly, to this listener, the intermezzi between the scenes had the most interesting music; the vocal sections were occasionally quite lovely, but by no means continuous. The plot, concerns a girl who desires to mate with a ‘handsome" king, rather than her inteded, Colombello. She later discovers that her king is actually old and seedy, and returns, shocked, to her boyfriend.
A lot of extraneous characters did not add to the romance, but one should credit the mostly fine singing of Joanna Mongiardo, James Price, Eugenie Grunewald and John Maynard, as the made-up king.

Deborah Voigt, who has just appeared in Die Walküre in the new production of The Ring at the Met, decided to appear at Carnegie Hall shortly thereafter in a programme of Broadway songs. This was presumably a warm-up for her appearance in the title rôle this summer in the Glimmerglass Festival production of Annie Get Your Gun. The few songs from Irving Berlin’s mercurial score she sang here were not prinicipally the belted numbers that Ethel Merman made famous originally. "They Say that Falling In Love is Wonderful" and "Moonshine Lullaby" are basically crooned. The rendition of "Anything You Can Do…" was better, and the number Berlin supplied for the 1960s revival, "Old Fashioned Wedding" was better still, but hardly spat out the way Merman did it. For these numbers, Ms Voigt was joined by Paolo Szot, lately Emile de Becque in the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific.

Some of the other numbers were not especially impressive, and a constant microphone did not add to the fun. "It’s A Grand Night for Singing" was done in an interminable choral arrangement, and a medley of numbers from The Music Man proved very dull, out of context. A surprise was "Some Girl is on Your Mind", from the otherwise mostly-forgettable Kern-Hammerstein Sweet Adeline, with the huge Collegiate Chorale (180 souls!). A personal note was added with "What Do I Do Now?" from Mame, as Ms Voigt played Agnes Gooch early on. The one time the microphone was eschewed was in "My Man’s Gone Now" from Porgy and Bess, the operatic sound of which fittingly wowed the crowd.

By Richard Traubner

Photo of Deborah Voigt: Dario Acosta