New York City Opera Did Rarities and Modern Works Proud

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Several weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout’s reaction to the looming demise of New York City Opera was “So what?” His reasoning and response were neither flippant nor ill-considered. He asked why it was necessary for a company that had once presented some 20 productions and 130 performances a season to endure in diminished form, concluding that an itinerant, “ad hoc” operation was no longer “indispensable” to New York’s cultural life.

There is much sense in what he wrote, especially given the swelling array of offerings now available to New York Operavores. In the past decade or so, gutsy troupes such as Gotham Chamber Opera have risen to must-see status; the New York Opera Alliance’s website (bookmark it, please) lists more than two dozen indie producers and companies. January’s inaugural Prototype Festival scored a huge hit with critics and audiences, and Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music routinely mount festival-quality stagings. Following the Met’s lead, La Scala, Covent Garden, and other houses now offer HD cinema transmissions.

Every week brings webcasts and DVDs of unusual operas and prestigious productions from around the world. And then there are BAM, the New York Philharmonic, Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, and the other excellent presenters whose operatic forays are rarer but often superlative.

So what, then, if NYCO has gone under?

Like many opera lovers, I "walk… in chambering and wantonness." In other words, and begging Saint Paul’s pardon, I can’t get enough opera, and NYCO has served up revelatory and unforgettable performances even in its latest, scaled-down incarnation. Christopher Alden’s 2012 staging of Così fan tutte, superbly sung and conducted, probed the dark, Sadean heart of Mozart and da Ponte’s dramma giocoso more pitilessly than any other I have seen. It was also a treat to see and hear Così in an intimate venue (John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater) instead of a Lincoln Center hangar.

Last season’s Adès (Powder Her Face) and Britten (The Turn of the Screw) at NYCO were musically and theatrically first-rate. Though uneven, Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto was a rare and welcome New York staging of a serious Rossini opera and a reminder of NYCO’s noble track record in early Ottocento music. Alexandrina Pendatchanska and Barry Banks brought scalding virtuosity to 2004’s Ermione, and they also lit up 2007’s La donna del lago. In 1999, NYCO opened its season with Rossini in frothier mode: Il viaggio a Reims, only fifteen years after the opera’s modern premiere.

A decade or so after Met intendant Rudolf Bing informed Maria Callas that Donizetti’s Anna Bolena was “an old bore of an opera,” NYCO mounted Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux and Lucrezia Borgia for its resident superstar, Beverly Sills. Few were bored. (Opera Orchestra of New York, another struggling organization, has long championed Ottocento rarities but in concert form, while the Met, excepting Lucia, mounted only comic and semiseria Donizetti before 2011.) The 1966 Giulio Cesare that sent Sills's career into the stratosphere paved the way for world-class turn-of-the-millennium Handel productions at NYCO, including Xerxes, Alcina, Partenope, Ariodante, Rinaldo and Agrippina, starring the likes of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, David Daniels and Bejun Mehta.

Though American and contemporary operas have been at the core of NYCO’s mission, its “mainstream” offerings often ranked with the best. A 2002 Trittico directed by James Robinson set Suor Angelica in a children’s hospital. The chilly, spartan locale took the saccharine edge off Puccini’s music, and Maria Kanyova in the title role gave a shattering, for-the-ages portrayal. Robinson’s jaundiced, Fellini-esque Gianni Schicchi could hardly be bettered. Kanyova also starred in a memorable 2004 Traviata: the revival of Renata Scotto’s 1995 staging was without gimmicks or glittery décor and told Verdi’s story with exemplary pith. Sherrill Milnes, Plácido Domingo, Shirley Verrett, José Carreras, Samuel Ramey, Renée Fleming and Rolando Villazón are among the global stars who won early acclaim at NYCO.

As for homegrown and modern works, few American companies have done more than NYCO to keep the supposedly moribund form of opera alive. As NYCO general director Sills introduced supertitles to New York in 1983; the company also performed many operas in English. NYCO's 30-odd world premieres include Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land and William Grant Still’s Troubled Island, the first opera by an African-American composer to be performed at a major house. It gave local premieres of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, Schönberg’s Moses und Aron, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten; its VOX (Contemporary American Opera Lab) has incubated such current-day classics as Mark Adamo’s Little Women, David T. Little’s Soldier Songs and Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar.

So while Teachout makes valid points, I for one will miss New York City Opera. "Indispensable" or not, it was a company whose best work was invaluable and not all behind it. For all New York’s wealth of spunky and inventive troupes, the city’s luster is dimmed and its song less resounding today.

Video Slideshow: director Christopher Alden discusses City Opera's revival of A Quiet Place