The good and not-so-good of New York City Opera's season
The recently ended New York City Opera season saw eight weeks severed from the schedule because of an acrimonious war that the orchestra union (Local 802) seemed to be waging against the management, general director Beverly Sills in particular.
The new opening night was given to Massenet's ''Cenrillon''; the following night went to what should have opened the season last July, a revival of Puccini's ''Turandot.'' The New York premiere of Carlisle Floyd's ''Of Mice and Men'' was also offered. Another highlight included the telecast production of Janacek's ''The Cunning Little Vixen.'' Just what sort of season was it?
All these productions have already been discussed in these pages. Undiscussed as yet is the new production of Handel's ''Alcina,'' which lent the company a good deal of distinction. Musically and vocally, this evening, the ''Cendrillon, '' and ''The Cunning Little Vixen,'' offered a refreshing taste of City Opera at its best - the first hints of profile and ensemble spirit in all too long a time.
In such evenings as a revival of Bizet's ''Carmen'' or the company's popular production of the same composer's ''Les Pecheurs de Perles'' (''The Pearl Fishers''), things were on far less secure ground. Both of those productions suffered seriously from weak and sloppy stage work. The ''Carmen'' featured Janice Meyerson's debut in the title role. This young mezzo sang Brangane in a concert synthesis of Wagner's ''Tristan und Isolde,'' under Leonard Bernstein's baton, several seasons back at Tanglewood. Here, she lacked the strength of personal presence to make Carmen consistently interesting. While the voice has a rich burnished hue, the top was frequently in precarious shape, and one wondered why she would choose to sing so heavy a role at this point in her career.
Her Don Jose, Jon Fredric West, lacked acting ability, but possessed a robust , attractive, handsomely used tenor. Karen Huffstodt, as Micaela, and Alfred Anderson, as Escamillio, lacked presence and vocal impact. In the pit, Christopher Keene kept things moving alertly. Despite a few lapses, his presence signaled a new attention to detail and musical values missing for quite some time.
As to ''Pecheurs,'' the interest in the final performances of the season was the debut of Belgian baritone Marcel Vanaud as Zurga. His is a genuinely French-sounding voice - slightly soft-grained in quality, but secure from top to bottom. It is particularly pleasant to hear a so handsome and particular type of voice in this kind of music - an idiomatic approach rarely heard today. Jon Garrison, Pamela Myers, and Gregory Stapp completed the principal cast, all with their share of vocal problems.
For the major new production of ''Alcina,'' Miss Sills turned to baroque-ophile Raymond Leppard as musical head. She brought Andrei Serban, the enfant terrible of the theater, to stage it on Beni Montresor mirrored sets. It proved a mixed affair visually. But musically, things were in fine shape. Mr. Leppard never let attention lag. He put his singers through their paces, without making things altogether impossible for them technically.
The felicities of the evening lay in the singing. Every member of the cast communicated a sense of ensemble effort. On a vocal level, the evening, at its best, was imposing. Carol Vaness, one of America's most promising stars-in-the-making, was an Alcina of vocal strength and beauty. The voice retained its gleam, flexibility, and quality from top to bottom; she sang the taxing role with unflagging tonal allure and rock-solid intonation. She also looked more glamorous and acted more the prima donna (in the best sense of the word) than I can remember on any other occasion with this company.
Erie Mills, another important up-and-comer, offered a scintillating Morgana, pertly characterized, boldly and sensitively sung. Debuting mezzo D'Anna Fortunato, in the trouser role of Roderigo, made her mark in matters of artistry , impeccable taste, and vocal facility. Bass Harry Dworchak was the strong Melissio; Mimi Lerner made her Bradamante more accomplished histrionically than vocally. Completing the cast were John Stewart as a pallid Oronte, and Nadia Pelle as a strident Oberto.
Bringing in a unusual theater name (Serban) to direct was, on the surface, daring. However, he clearly lacked an awareness of music, tending to the outrageous for no visible reason. He also seemed to imagine bawdy humor at the core of this tale of magic and wizardry, so anytime something suggestive, or even lewd, could be insinuated, Mr. Serban fairly rubbed our noses in it.
Throughout the City Opera season, the presence of Mr. Keene has been important. The ''Carmen,'' as noted, was on an entirely different level than many things heard with the exception of Mr. Leppard's ''Alcina.'' His ''Turandot'' lacked a certain idiomatic veracity, but in ''Mice and Men,'' he was in his element.
What the company needs now is a surer sense of its image and a more consistent sense of ensemble. The best evenings may not have been superbly sung. Nevertheless, they enchanted because everyone on stage was communicating something in productions that were well rehearsed and imaginatively, or at least sensibly, staged.