City Opera’s Long Weekend

woolf09nycogala038 City Operas Long WeekendWhen the lights went up Sunday afternoon on a shirtless man next to a pantsless man—both American, both young—I knew that City Opera was back. It was the start of the second act of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and the two men were playing the eponymous antihero and his servant, Leporello.

Christopher Alden’s new production of Giovanni was the highlight of a long weekend marking the start of the company’s 2009-2010 season. Mr. Alden’s staging is morbid, sinister and darkly funny. In an open space that resembles a train-station waiting room, a place where people spend lots of time doing little, the chorus sits dumbly and the characters wander through their motions with eerie lethargy, their behaviors taking on the sad inevitability of compulsions.

In many ways, this Don Giovanni has every mark of a great City Opera production: a bold, interesting perspective on a repertory staple, cast with young, talented singers. (Six of the eight major parts are taken by singers making their City Opera debuts.) This is the way the company used to distinguish itself from the Met. Back in the late ’60s, City Opera had a daring Frank Corsaro Traviata featuring the attractive Patricia Brooks; the Met had a staid Alfred Lunt staging and the statuesque Montserrat Caballe.

But things have changed. Not only are the Met’s tickets now just as cheap as City Opera’s, but the singers are just as attractive, and the productions are just as stark and edgy. Mr. Alden’s spare, ominously surreal Giovanni resembles nothing so much as Willy Decker’s spare, ominously surreal Traviata, a production scheduled to come to the Met next season.

If the Met and City Opera offer the same product at the same price, it won’t be a surprise which company succeeds. City Opera’s only course of action is to offer a different product, a different repertoire. The company’s spring season—featuring Handel’s Partenope and Chabrier’s L’étoile—is a better example than fall’s of the choices it should make. Though George Steel faults it for being in its own way conservative, there was a reason that Gerard Mortier’s plan for the company resonated. It felt natural and exciting that City Opera would dedicate itself to operas that the Met does never (Einstein on the Beach, St. Francis of Assisi, Death in Venice) or rarely (The Rake’s Progress, The Makropulos Case, Pélleas et Mélisande).

This has, of course, always been City Opera’s way. The list of its American and New York premieres is extraordinary. The company’s commitment to completely new work has also been commendable. (But the results have been dismal: Of its 29 world premieres, precisely one—Copland’s The Tender Land—is done with any degree of frequency.) It is a commitment the company honored at its opening night on Saturday, a revival of its world premiere production of Hugo Weisgall’s Esther.

In his 1978 book Opera in the Twentieth Century, Ethan Mordden sums up Mr. Weisgall’s operatic output as “well-intentioned mediocrity.” The book was published well before Esther, but the description remains apt. The opera is long, dreary, ponderous and dimly lit. The libretto speaks in self-serious proclamations like “Why can I chart the course of empire but not the path of my own heart?” The projections of Ancient Near East reliefs that constitute the set are elegant enough, but the costumes scream The Ten Commandments. (It doesn’t help that Roy Cornelius Smith, playing the evil Haman, distinctly resembles Edward G. Robinson.)

The audience response Saturday night was warm but hardly tumultuous. The interesting question, then, is what has changed since the opera was so ecstatically received at its premiere 16 years ago.

There may be two answers—one aesthetic, one political. The premiere of Esther, on Oct. 8, 1993, came on the heels of two much-hyped world premieres at the Met: Philip Glass’ Columbus-themed The Voyage, in October 1992, and John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles, in December 1991. There was hardly a review that neglected either elaborate production’s cost (more than $2 million for Voyage and $3 million for Ghosts); next to those two, Esther’s projections must have been refreshingly clean and simple.

After Voyage and Ghosts, Mr. Weisgall’s music, too, may have been a welcome antidote. Depending on how you looked at it—and which Met production you were taking as your foil—Esther could be all things to all people, either admirably easy or admirably hard. Martin Bernheimer clearly had Mr. Glass in mind when he wrote, in his 1993 rave, that Esther “may strike those observers perched on the cutting edge of today’s most trendy isms as a bit old-fashioned. … One could hardly call it minimalistic in any sense.”

Edward Rothstein, in The Times, took on the grand-opera pastiche of Ghosts of Versailles, writing, “[At] a time when post-modernist taste is dominant and nostalgia and eclecticism rule, Mr. Weisgall’s uncompromising modernism … made a compelling case for difficult music used for difficult purposes.” Esther, in other words, was in the right place at the right time.

One other early-’90s opera that offers the most interesting comparison to Esther is John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer. Like Esther, Klinghoffer is an opera about Jews. It tells the story of the 1984 hijacking of the ocean liner Achille Lauro by Palestinian extremists, who eventually killed one of their Jewish-American hostages. As might be expected, Mr. Adams’ weighing in on the fraught Middle East standoff met with considerable criticism. Opponents of the work objected to what they viewed as the humanization of the terrorists; performances in San Francisco in 1992 were picketed by Jewish groups, and, shortly afterward, a planned run of the opera in Los Angeles was canceled.

Esther received rather different treatment, to say the least. Mr. Adams was obviously wandering into more charged territory with an opera based on recent, as opposed to Biblical, events. But Esther, too, courts contemporary relevance, speaking, as the program notes say, “not only of the ancient Diaspora and the story of the Jewish freedom festival Purim, but also of the Holocaust and of the quest for a Jewish homeland in the 20th century.”

The difference is that the story Mr. Adams is telling is hard, challenging long-held assumptions about culpability and morality. Esther is ultimately much more cozy and self-congratulatory—and easier to stand up and applaud. In the opera, assimilation is bad; the search for a rigidly defined identity is good; and the Jews are eternal victims whose militarization is necessary for their survival “forever and ever.”

When Esther premiered in 1993, just a few weeks after the signing of the Oslo Accords and at a high point in Israel’s moral standing, the opera’s positing of armed self-defense as integral to the perpetuation of the Jewish people might have been stirring, and doubtless inspired some of those bravos and reviews. Today, in a very different world, it has a very different effect.