Fine Sounds in Hated Premises-If It Ain’t Broke, Why Fix It?

In our culture of complaint (to borrow Robert Hughes’ memorable phrase), many of the disgruntled voices belong to lovers of classical music who lament the imminent demise of the art form they profess to cherish.

Whether the theme is the lowering of traditional standards, the decline of CD sales or the disaffection of younger audiences, the glass is always just about empty. Particularly loud are the sound and sight police-those for whom the acoustics and the ambiance of modern halls are never good enough. Their favorite adjectives are “dry” and “cold,” and their greatest wrath is reserved for the New York State Theater and Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. To their delight, two of the principal inhabitants of those bunkers-the New York City Opera and the New York Philharmonic-have announced that they can’t get out of their leases soon enough. Given the proposed alternatives-for City Opera, a pie-in-the-sky move downtown; for the Philharmonic, a schedule-gobbling takeover of Carnegie Hall-I’m beginning to think that it would be better for the health of the two deserters, not to mention that of the city’s musical life, if they stayed put. Both organizations are doing fine where they are: They seemed stronger than ever during the opening events of the new season.

Ever since City Opera’s general director, Paul Kellogg, brought the panache of Glimmerglass Opera to the State Theater seven years ago, I’ve been puzzled by a conundrum: Why, back in the 60’s and 70’s, when Julius Rudel was in the pit and singers like Beverly Sills, Phyllis Curtin, Norman Treigle and the young Pl├ícido Domingo were onstage, did none of us complain that the place was inimical to exciting opera? Is there something about today’s young singers (smaller voices, less alluring stage presence), or about the current trends of production (intellectualized sets, lots of physical action), that makes productions which seemed so vivid in the intimate Glimmerglass theater so distant when transplanted to the house built for Balanchine on the Upper West Side?

Having experimented unsatisfactorily with a new sound “enhancement” system, Mr. Kellogg and his team have now reverted to an old-fashioned remedy: station the singers down front and install a solid backdrop to do the vocal enhancing. Mr. Kellogg’s regime has been notable for its deftly updated stagings of Handel operas, though in some cases the cuteness of the conceptions has undercut their 18th-century nobility. Happily, Francesca Zambello’s production of Alcina , which opened the season, takes one of the composer’s most tuneful masterpieces at face value.

Although the opera, which had its premiere at Covent Garden in 1735, is set on a lush isle ruled by a lascivious sorceress, Ms. Zambello and her set designer, Neil Patel, have shrewdly removed any hint of paradisiacal foliage in favor a brick wall of interlocking parts. This device not only concentrates the action where it matters most-in the nonstop array of spectacular arias-but also underscores the opera’s Enlightenment point, which is to work out the contest between earthly love and supernatural arrogance. Abetted by the felicitous conducting of Daniel Beckwith, some judicious editing (the opera now clocks in at under three hours) and the choreography of Sean Curran, who has created whimsically erotic tableaux of satyr-like trees, Ms. Zambello has pulled off a most beguiling entertainment.

Perhaps owing to opening-night jitters, the eager-to-please cast that I heard was of variable quality. In the demanding title role, Christine Goerke was magnificent when enraged (which, fortunately, is much of the time), less sure when reflective. Her lack of a genuine trill took a good deal of the magic out the enchantress. Lauren Skuce, in the showy part of Morgana, and Jennifer Dudley, as the aggrieved Bradamente, were eye-catching but lacking in dramatic color. Keith Jameson’s Oronte and Joshua Winograde’s Melisso sang with sensitivity and strength. In the trouser role of Ruggiero, Katharine Goeldner, a young American mezzo-soprano previously unknown to me, was stunning-“boyishly” beautiful of manner, alive to every nuance of one of Handel’s richest heroic roles. A woman sitting next to me who’s highly placed in the music business whispered, “She has it all.”

I wish I could report that Jennifer Welch-Babidge, whom I heard a few nights later in the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor , made as unequivocal an impression. In a P.R. coup, her appearance was front-page news in The Times -not because of any advance excitement over her vocal prowess, but because she was singing opera’s maddest heroine as a six-months-pregnant mother. An attractive young woman with a compelling stage presence and a pretty though not terribly penetrating soprano, she managed to flaunt her “delicate” condition in a fetching petticoat-without breaking character. (The libretto gives no hint that Lucia might be pregnant by her illicit lover Edgardo, but the production made a persuasive case for it.) In the opera’s famous mad scene, she italicized Lucia’s breakdown with so much twitching and lurching that she threatened to blow down the set-a corrugated Scottish cliff that turned a variety of colors from bleak to garish.

She was terrifically well supported by Stephen Powell’s bullying Lord Enrico, the Edgardo of Jorge Antonio Pita, an exceptionally promising young Cuban tenor with a fine command of bel canto style, and the propulsive conducting of George Manahan. Despite some inexplicable costuming choices-Lord Enrico’s men appeared to be outfitted by L.L. Bean; their ladies were veiled and swathed in long red chiffon-this Lucia worked viscerally. For her considerable pre-labors, Ms. Welch-Babidge earned a standing ovation fit for a Mother of the Year.

On the ovation scale, however, it paled next to the tumult that followed Lorin Maazel’s conducting of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. In the first half of the program, the orchestra made an excellent showing with the world premiere of Stephen Hartke’s Symphony No. 3, which had been commissioned for the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack. An ambiguously tonal 30-minute work set to an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem from the Dark Ages that mournfully describes a great ruin, it managed to sound at once archaic and contemporary. The performance, which featured the unusual combination of four male voices (the superb Hilliard Ensemble) hovering over a great swarm of strings, was beautifully balanced and dolefully clear.

Then the heavens opened: Maestro Maazel, with a showman’s flourish, pulled back the curtain on one of Mahler’s most resplendent extravaganzas. Not since the heyday of Herbert von Karajan in Berlin have I heard an orchestra so responsive to a conductor’s iron-clad will; far from resenting the hated hall, the musicians seemed to revel in the bright, hard acoustics to the point where you could practically see your face in the gleam of the brass. Would they have sounded any better at Carnegie? Absolutely not. Yet I felt strangely unmoved, even during the celebrated, shimmering adagietto. Maestro Maazel never leaves anything to chance, never lets his players lose themselves, as it were, in the music. As is typical of this most technically equipped of conductors, the effect was overwhelmingly impressive. Still, the performance lacked what the Germans call Innigkeit -that inner spirituality without which Mahler is merely exhilarating and not the deeply intimate poet we love.