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Stronger than ever, NYC Opera wraps up a good season

THE New York City Opera has just closed the doors on its 41st season. In the closing weeks, a superb new opera was given its first local performances, a new ``Kismet'' was unveiled, and several singers of interest were heard for the first time. The year has not been without low points, and the warehouse fire that destroyed all its noncurrent costumes has been a serious blow. But a clear sense is growing that the company headed by Beverly Sills is coming together to present a consistent profile.

That new opera was Dominick Argento's magical ``Casanova's Homecoming'' (renamed ``Casanova'' in New York). From first curtain to last, from opulently scored opening phrases to resounding finale, this was an uproariously entertaining addition to the operatic literature, and the production proved a feast for the eyes. Argento's instantly likable score, heard twice, is skillful, subtle, and rich in expansive character detail.

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The composer has constructed a witty and intelligent libretto, replete with clever plot twists and turns. It tells of the aging Casanova, who woos a soprano the Venetians believe to be a castrato while he cons a loony old lady, Mme. d'Urf'e, out of a fortune to raise a dowry for his godchild Barbara. Argento has framed his prose with music that is at all times supremely professional, and more often than not casts a spell that lingers long after one has left the theater. The opera comes to a dazzling c limax at the end of the second of three acts, with Mme. d'Urf'e, Casanova, and his conspirators out on a Venetian lagoon during a freakish hurricane.

The Arthur Marsella production proved to be the finest one the house has shown for many a season. Franco Colavecchia's sets created a splendid atmosphere of 18th-century Venice, with its arches and the silhouette of the city in the distance. Duane Schuler's lighting is simply the best a New York opera production (at either house) has received in years.

As Casanova, Baritone Timothy Nolen dominated the evening. He created something endearing in this rou'e and con artist, singing the role with unstinting solidity of tone and superb diction. (It should be noted that the English-language production was subtitled.) He had a vital foil in Joyce Castle's Mme. d'Urf'e. In this tricky caricature role, she communicated a lovable eccentricity, a tragic vulnerability, and a dangerous dupability. Also outstanding were David Hamilton (Lorenzo), John Lankston (Marq uis de Lisle), and Carol Gutknecht (Giulietta). There was not a weak link in the cast, and Scott Bergeson conducted with a nice sense of the lyricism and sweep of the score.

Ironically, ``Casanova'' is not scheduled for next season. Equally ironically, Philip Glass's ``Akhnaten,'' first seen (and poorly received) last season, was back for a few performances. This time around, some of the inanities of the somewhat restaged production (by Harry Silverstein) seemed toned down. But it remains a boring, insubstantial work that is not given sufficient visual allure.

Of the new singers heard this fall, Greek coloratura soprano Jenny Drivala (Elvira in Bellini's ``I Puritani'') was of interest because of her numerous major-house credits in Europe. Unfortunately, she showed off a rudimentary acting ability and a voice that did not come easily. Nor could she sustain high notes without serious flattening of pitch.

The American coloratura Gail Dobish fared far better in her debut role of Donizetti's mad ``Lucia di Lammermoor.'' Miss Dobish wedded an attractive stage presence to a voice of considerable potential. Although it was unruly at the performance I attended, when she relaxed into her upper register, tones of great appeal were heard, and she acted Lucia touchingly. Her Edgardo, tenor Richard Leech, had a voice of remarkable promise, but he as yet lacked consistency to allow him to get through a performance without problems.

Irish soprano Suzanne Murphy debuted as Bellini's ``Norma'' (a role she has sung with the Welsh National Opera, and in Munich). One sensed throughout her effortful performance a voice all wrong for this supremely demanding role. When she kept pitch and tonal quality alive, or suffused her basically white tone with sufficient vibrato, she was able to give a sense of a voice that could be prettily used in less strenuous music.

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Of the City Opera regulars, Marianna Christos's Violetta in Verdi's ``La Traviata'' stood out. A newfound confidence and assurance graced an already fine interpretation, and she filled the theater with consistently heartfelt, beautiful tones to create a portrayal that ranks as one of the best of the City Opera season.

The season closed with its new production of the Forrest and Wright ``Kismet,'' the Borodin-pastiche musical -- which was a most unfortunate undertaking. Why is it that, the company's ``Candide'' and ``Sweeney Todd'' notwithstanding, most of the City Opera musicals are underdirected, poorly designed, and wanly projected by the singers involved? George Hearn, fresh from Broadway's 18-month run of ``La Cage aux Folles,'' was featured as Hadjj, the plot catalyst. Alas, he was in poor voice, though he e xuded a personal charm that held him in good stead throughout much of the evening.

Otherwise, only Cris Groenendaal's impressive Caliph and Jack Harrold's and James Billings's amusing portrayals of the Wazir and Omar, respectively, brightened the evening. ``Kismet'' left this reviewer not altogether sure how the five-week run of a new Lerner and Loewe ``Brigadoon'' next spring will fare. But he is secure in the knowledge that things in general are looking better and better at New York's second opera house.

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