It’s all been the stuff of legend: money, power, immolation, and a brave new world. First, George Steel left Miller Theater in October, 2008, for an offer he couldn’t refuse: to run the the Dallas Opera with a substantial budget for innovative programming. So powerful was his attraction that he was lured with not only a raise, but with the promise of conducting some operas as well as running the company.
Next, Gerard Mortier left City Opera in the lurch in November, 2008, when its shortfall required a steep budget cut. Mortier simply abandoned ship and flew to Europe, saying he was “too old for discount opera.” What to do? Could City Opera survive the turmoil? Steel was offered the post, but was reluctant to depart Dallas after such a brief tenure.
Then there was a lot of backstage maneuvering. Pressure was brought to bear. For Steel, another offer he couldn’t refuse: innovative programming on a lean budget. A challenge! He changed his mind, left Dallas, and flew back to New York in February for some heavy lifting, putting together a season in record time with what was available, and surviving a coup by some Board members to replace him with the Met’s ex-long-time chieftan, Joe Volpe. After the dust cleared, NYCO finally had their Mr. Right.
The big news is that Steel has focused on NYCO’s strengths, using its budget for maximum effect, and filling seats in the new, improved New York State Theater (now renamed for David H. Koch, following his $100 million dollar gift). NYCO’s mission is clarified: the current season has been devoted to finding and casting the best young voices in America—first for a new production of Don Giovanni, and second for a revival of Hugo Weisgall’s Esther.
Don Giovanni has fielded a roster of extraordinary singing actors, young enough to have the looks and the stamina, and mature enough to have the finesse to make the most of the score and the action. What a pleasure! Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch leads the ensemble in the title role, with Jason Hardy as the long-suffering Leporello; baritones Kelly Markgraf (Masetto) and tenor Gregory Turay (Don Ottavio) balance Donna Anna (Stefania Dovhan), Donna Elvira (Keri Alkema), and Zerlina (Joèlle Harvey). They have the energy to stay on the move, embrace the opera’s comedy and its darkness, and the sparkle to light up the score.
As a companion piece, Esther is an inspired choice—a gorgeous revival of NYCO’s 1993 production of the biblical tale. Weisgall’s spiky music is just right to express the story and, again, the cast can do no wrong. Lauren Flanigan is outstanding as the teenager who grows up to be queen; as are Stephen Kechulius as the powerful Xerxes, and Beth Clayton as his deposed consort. Also outstanding are Haman (Roy Cornelius Smith), Zaresh, his wife (Margaret Thompson), and James Maddelena as Mordecai.
Of particular note: the direction by Christopher Mattaliano, and the exceptionally fluid sets by Jerome Sirlin; scrims reflecting the walls of ancient Babylon and (in one dazzling scene) the Pergamon altar. Joseph Citarella’s costumes are rich with a sense of time and place.
All of this bodes well for the coming spring season, when NYCO will bring us Chabrier’s L’Étoile, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and Handel’s Partenope. E.V. Day’s exhilarating installation in the Koch Theater’s promenade lobby—13 sculptures made from vintage NYCO costumes suspended over the intermission crowds—will still be flying high enough in the spring to meet the phoenix risen from the ashes on its home turf.
At the Met: House of the Dead – It’s Alive!
Even the Met has become budget-conscious: austerity is the name of the game for its new production of Janacek’s House of the Dead, being shared by four venues beyond its own stage. With harsh lighting and costumes, and direction by Patrice Chéreau, Janacek’s libretto (based on Dostoyevsky’s novel of prison life), and the open harmonies and lean textures of his score are perfect here, too. The opera’s stories are interconnected; their despair and quicksilver emotions are fragments of the human condition.
While the stage is abundant with singers and actors, three stand out: tenors Stefan Margita and Kurt Streit, and baritone Peter Mattei. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts (more about him later); his House of the Dead is dark, yet stubbornly filled with life and light.
Out of Town in the 19th Century
Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte spent some years in Pennsylvania in between his lives in New York, and there are many sites in Philadelphia related to his sometime career as grocer, distiller, and French teacher in that city. Members of the American Philosophical Society and the Mozart Society recently put together an intimate tour there of his houses, the historic buildings and markets of his era, Christ Church (where his son and daughter-in-law were married) and affiliated monuments. The most important thing: unlike New York, where almost everything connected to his life has been destroyed, the bricks and mortar in Philadelphia are still standing. Don’t miss the area near the waterfront, the city of Da Ponte’s era restored to its original ambiance, and a great day-trip for walking into history.
Next Time Around….
There’s nothing like a high-end trade show to generate a sense (however temporary) that all’s well with the world. And nobody does it better than Sanford Smith. Known for his exhibitions in the lavish spaces of the Park Avenue Armory, he is the go-to guy for the best of the best.
Like good food and wine, his shows are seasonal – the Winter Antiques Show, the Spring Outsider Art Show, and Modernism (this year combined with Art 20) in the fall. They are all always worth the trip. But for me, Modernism is Mecca for 20th century art and design. Modernism’s opening night gala is a palpable “up” in these straitened times. Strolling through the aisles, you can feast on elegant edibles and wine, while swooning over really spine-tingling furniture, objets, books, paintings, photographs, sculpture, and, of course, the jewelry (a divine and deeply guilty pleasure).
But there’s a feel-good aspect to it that transcends even the fabulousness of its displays: it’s also a fundraiser that serves the best of the best causes: the Brooklyn Museum, Planned Parenthood, and the bestowing of an annual design award. These have often been conferred on long-time design superstars. This year, though, the recipient was Yves Béhar of fuseproject in San Francisco. Creator of plastic slip-on shoes for Birkenstock and chandeliers for Swarovski, Béhar has dreamed up the LEAF lamp for Herman Miller, as well. More to the point: he has also masterminded computers—small, colorful, inexpensive, and green—made for the non-profit One Laptop Per Child, meant for the world’s poorest children.
So if you missed this November’s irresistibles, be sure to book Modernism 2010. With its maximum returns for indulgence and charity, it’s cheap at the price. www.sanfordsmith.com