The role of the “other” opera companies in New York is to serve as alternatives to the Metropolitan Opera. It’s that simple.
It has been this way since the turn of the 20th century, when Oscar Hammerstein’s upstart Manhattan Opera House countered the Met’s stagnant repertory with contemporary opera and the American premieres of works like Pelleas et Melisande, Elektra and Salome. New York City Opera, in its prime, offered a similar package: the operas, directors and young, attractive singers that the Met wouldn’t touch.
Fast-forward a few decades, and the situation has reversed. The Met is now its own alternative, with an established and growing commitment to contemporary work and a variety of directorial approaches on display. No longer, at least in theory, is it all Zeffirelli-style naturalism, all the time.
City Opera, still reeling from financial troubles, seems to have ceded the field almost entirely. What was most depressing about the La Traviata that opened its abbreviated 2012 season last month wasn’t the inanity of the powdered-wig-realism production, though opera rarely feels so irrelevant and pointless, with a tepid first act that felt like a garden party rather than a prostitute’s late-night blowout. No, the most depressing thing was that it opened just two months before the Met’s revival of the thoughtful, contemporary, radically spare Willy Decker production that pointed in a new direction for the company’s treatment of the standard repertory when it premiered in 2010.
Not only did City Opera fail to live up to its own standard—Frank Corsaro’s production for the company all the way back in the 1960s treated the opera with painstaking, dramatically vibrant seriousness—but it was beaten soundly by the Met. That is something that the “other” opera companies simply cannot afford.
So it came as a saving grace when Christopher Alden’s production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte for City Opera played at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College last week. Back in 2009, when Mr. Alden’s eerie, elegant production of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place opened, a year after his eerie, elegant Don Giovanni, I wrote in this paper: “If City Opera gives us an Alden production a year in perpetuity (which seems to be the plan), it’ll be an extraordinary gift to our cultural life.”
It now seems that the one-Alden-a-year allotment is to be City Opera’s only gift to our cultural life. Its Cosi is excellent—strange and bracing—and unlike La Traviata, its Met counterpart is a wanly picturesque dud. There is finally something worth celebrating at City Opera.
The production takes place in a public park over the course of a single night, partly idyllic and partly ominous, half Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and half Central Park Jogger. The design is spare. There is a life-size image of a small meadow that serves as a backdrop and a large bench that shifts position as the scenes progress, and that’s about it.
Mr. Alden seems to have been inspired by his own haunting production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which played in London last summer. Don Alfonso, the older gentleman who convinces two young friends to test their fiancées’ fidelity by disguising themselves and attempting to woo each other’s women, has become a dandified Oberon, administering an ambiguous potion to the four lovers. This may be a metaphor for hormones, the chemicals that deliver us from innocence to experience. Whatever it is, it makes them fall asleep, and when they awaken, the rest of the first act takes on a kind of drugged stylization. Alfonso (the forcefully restrained Rodney Gilfry) and Despina (the lively Marie Lenormand) separate the lovers as if separating stuck-together magnets, and everyone moves in a trancelike slow motion.
The characters are isolated in a world that blends fantasy and reality. For “Come scoglio,” the other characters abruptly leave as Fiordiligi (the angular, agile Sara Jakubiak) hikes up her skirt and covers her face with her hair, a madwoman-in-the-attic figure, and then reappear as she finishes.
Alfonso starts the second act, surreally, in a bear costume, with Despina as his trainer: power tamed. Similarly, the two male lovers are soon after given rabbit ears to wear, a conflicted symbol both of children’s costumes and, well, fucking like rabbits.
After the dazed first act, the second has a kind of jittery explosiveness as the lovers lash out at each other, brandishing rowboat oars and crumpling in corners after exhaustingly physical renditions of their arias. Dorabella’s “È amore un ladroncello” (“Love is a little thief”), usually a pleasant diversion, became in the hands of the mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway a desperate cry of frustration and misery.
The baritone Philip Cutlip and, especially, the passionate tenor Allan Clayton were fully committed presences. One of Mr. Alden’s most valuable gifts is his ability to win over his performers to his vision, and the result is a rare consistency of mood and approach; everyone always seems to be living in the same production.
My only significant problem came, as it did in Mr. Alden’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the final scene. His Dream—which was framed by a man on the eve of his wedding looking back on his fraught schoolboy days—ended with Puck, the younger version of the man, spitting out the famous “If we shadows have offended” speech with vicious anger. It struck me that the more effective ending would have had a spirit of resignation rather than fury. Yes, things can be awful, and yes, we grow up. But it happens, and life goes on.
Mr. Alden’s Cosi ends with similar bitterness: the four lovers sitting on the bench, all facing directly forward, fuming, passing a bottle of Champagne back and forth.
Mozart and Da Ponte leave the outcome up to the director. Do the original lovers reunite? Do the new couples marry instead? Does nothing at all happen? After a long series of revisionist productions of the opera, it is now standard to avoid a “happy” ending in which peace and order are restored, so there is nothing really new in Mr. Alden’s solution. Indeed, I wondered as I watched if the more harrowing Cosi production would end “happily,” with the original couples back together. That would be in keeping with the truly adult nature of the opera’s conclusion: people learn all the horrible things there are to know about each other, and they reconcile anyway. Life goes on.
To insist instead, as Mr. Alden does, on closing with a mood of adolescent peevishness is wrong, not because we deserve to leave the theater in a good humor, but because it would be more difficult and thought-provoking to choose the alternative. In the guise of increasing the opera’s complexity, Mr. Alden’s ending is a cop-out.
About the painfully scrappy, out-of-tune orchestra, conducted by the Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn, the less said the better. The seductively morose production would have benefited from atmospheric playing, but nevertheless it made its impact. Not every moment or idea is convincing, but Mr. Alden’s seriousness and inventiveness are engrossing.
Laurent Pelly, who directed the production of Massenet’s Manon that arrived at the Met on Monday, tends to confuse inventiveness and preciousness. His Manon, updated to the Belle Epoque 1880s, can be charming, but the cutesiness gets exhausting, with all the cheerfully out-of-scale sets and the choruses mugging and freezing in time with the music.
And he sometimes overplays his hand. It is mesmerizing when someone from the chorus—one of the crowd of anonymous, top-hat-wearing gentlemen who haunt the production—seems to guide a ballerina through her paces with his walking stick during the ballet in the Cours-la-Reine scene. In a few seconds you perceive all of the sexual tension and latent misogyny in the opera’s world; it’s fabulous. But it is much less mesmerizing, and much more ordinary, when the scene ends with a violent mass abduction of the ballerinas. It comes across, perversely, as more cutesiness.
The great soprano Anna Netrebko fully gets the doomed Manon’s mixture of girlishness and sensuality. (It would be fascinating to see what Mr. Alden would do with her and this opera.) Her voice is blooming recently; some moments in which she has trouble getting it fully aloft are more than compensated for by long passages of magnetic richness. And the tenor Piotr Beczala, as her tortured lover Des Grieux, is a singer of consummate classiness.
With a well-paced if not especially delicate orchestral performance led by Fabio Luisi, it was a lovely evening. But thanks to Mr. Pelly, it was also oddly harried and uncomfortably detached. City Opera wins the week.