Reviving some operas is hardly worth the effort
Just exactly what is the value of reviving obscure and forgotten operas?
In some cases works that were deemed worthless have been found to have appeal , such as the early Verdi revival that put ''Luisa Miller'' back in the repertoire -- and may do the same for ''I Due Foscari,'' ''I Lombardi,'' and ''Attila.''
Some Donizetti and Bellini works have surfaced to great acclaim. An occasional rehearing of, say, Zandonai's lush, opulent ''Francesca da Rimini'' proves that work to be of greater value than is usually supposed. Nonetheless, revivals have turned up a goodly crop of unworkables, as in the three works heard in close succession here last week.
Richard Wagner is surely no unknown, but his first opera, ''Die Feen,'' written when he was 20, was never fully produced in his lifetime and has only just now been given its United States premiere with the New York City Opera Company (NYCO). Roger Sessions's ''Montezuma,'' after a disastrous world premiere in Berlin in the '60s, was given its US premiere by Sarah Caldwell and her Opera Company of Boston in 1976; it has just been produced at Juilliard's American Opera Center to honor the composer on his 85th birthday. Hermann Goetz, whose ''Taming of the Shrew'' was offered by the Manhattan School of Music, at one time was deemed by no less a critic than George Bernard Shaw as at least the equal of Johannes Brahms!
To begin with, the NYCO concert presentation of Die Feen afforded the public a chance to hear the very first large-scale work of the art form's most influential creative genius. It has its longuers, its share of silly moments, but it has more than intermittent vitality and moments of musical originality amidst the basic core that sounds so much like Carl Maria von Weber -- Wagner's idol.
It could be argued that we did not get the full sweep of the score since what usually runs 3 hours and 50 minutes without intermissions consumed only an ample three hours with two 15-minute intervals. Were we spared redundancy and elaboration, or were we really robbed of the work's cumulative scale and inpact? I suspect that the former is the case, that a four-and-a-half-hour concert would not wash in today's world and that, had the forces involved actually attempted the work uncut, they might not have gotten through it at all.
This work could make quite a good stage spectacle for some imaginative director and an ambitious company, though I doubt it deserves that sort of revival ahead of other works, such as Marschner's ''Der Vampyr,'' which is gaining in popularity.
Montezuma is another example of a less than successful revival. Sessions's convoluted work has always had a few champions, and there had been some problems with Miss Caldwell's US premiere run in Boston. A second chance to reappraise a difficult work was welcome.
''Montezuma's'' libretto is poor, its orchestration fiendish. There was complete mastery at Juilliard, under the baton of Frederik Prausnitz. But the work fights natural singing and obscures its dramatic pulse in a morass of orchestrational densities and complex fragments.
At no point in the course of the sung drama was there any genuine correlation of music to text, any sense that the orchestra was illuminating the words, or at least of setting (or off-setting) them in some way. There was a mimed sacrifice scene that packed a gripping punch musically. Otherwise, that huge orchestra aurally slithered, hopped, crawled, scampered -- up, down, in, out, around -- the available pitches, leaving the singers in a quandary, for no enunciator could last for long against such an onslaught.
Then there is Goetz's Taming of the Shrew. This work is, in the final analysis, best left obscure. There are a few scenes -- mostly for Katherine and Petruchio (it follows Shakespeare quite closely) -- that have an interesting, brooding undercurrent, but the sewing together of the set pieces, and the creative spark in those pieces, is not up to, say Otto Nicolai's ''Merry Wives of Windsor.'' Scenes from the opera might be nice to hear again. An entire outing (and the Manhattan School performance was cut), even with top-class singers, would be less than an enchanting affair.
And what about the performances themselves? The ''Feen'' suffered from under-rehearsal, some raucous singing, and some miscasting. In fact, the only truly commendable performance came from lyric tenor John Alexander as the heroic Arindal -- somewhat low-key and overparted, yet always suave, tasteful, and reliable.
The Juilliard operation was at mostly peak form in its presentation of ''Montezuma.'' The Ming Cho Lee production looked marvelous. Ian Strasfogel's direction was not always clear and was often utterly silly. The singers plowed valiantly through the work, though one questions using a singer with poor diction in the crucial role of Narrator. No questions vis-a-vis soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, who almost made us believe that Sessions had something to say. The production proved anew that an opera that lacks an orchestral correlative to the stage action cannot be deemed a success, no matter how noble the effort.
Lou Galterio's staging of ''Shrew'' was fussy and prone to non-stop movement, though the production had a handsome design thanks to Maxine Willi Klein's sets and Steven Feldman's costumes. The singing was adequate in a student sort of way , though Lauren Flanigan's Katherine showed a more than passing promise. Bruce Ferden conducted with great conviction, bringing out that brooding beauty when it was to be found.