New York opera has two faces: Met ‘Ory,’ NYCO ‘Monodramas’

You can’t judge an opera by its audience, but last week in New York, you could come pretty close. On Thursday night, the Metropolitan Opera’s first-ever production of Rossini’s rarely performed “Le Comte Ory” was sponsored by Yves Saint Laurent and ushered in on a glittering red carpet dotted with gowns and unlikely celebrities (Mary-Kate and Ashley?).

On Friday, New York City Opera, a company that was all but left for dead a couple of years ago after shutting down for a season for renovations and flirting with a general director it couldn’t afford, offered what in the opera world qualifies as breathtaking artistic daring: a triple bill of one-person works, called “Monodramas,” the most traditional of which was Arnold Schoenberg’s “Erwartung.” This was less an opera than a Happening, and the audience was less an opera audience than the new and different crowd (Jim Jarmusch!) that classical-music institutions are always saying they want.

The crowd is certainly an indicator of which event is more likely to interest you. Being catholic in my tastes, I was predisposed to be excited about both; thought both were generally quite good; but didn’t like either one quite as much as I had hoped.

Most exciting, to me, was the contrast: At a time when people are concerned about dwindling audi­ences, opera can generate excitement and buzz for completely different events.

It’s a challenge, though, to address both of these audiences in a single review. To holders of tickets to the live HD movie-theater broadcast of “Comte Ory” on April 9, I can say: Don’t worry, you’ll have a great time. “Ory” gathers three of the best current vocalists in opera: the ringing tenor Juan Diego Florez in the title role, the radiant soprano Diana Damrau as the chilly Countess Adele, and Joyce DiDonato, her voice shining and true, in the male role of Isolier, Ory’s page, who loves Adele himself. It’s Rossini’s penultimate opera, his final comedy, and features some of his most sparkling music (a lot of it lifted from “Il Viaggio a Reims,” an incidental work he wrote honoring the coronation of Charles X). This is opera on a very high level — even if the conductor, Maurizio Benini, was no more than adequate — and it’s probably going to come across wonderfully in HD.

Indeed, my biggest quibble on opening night lay in the singers’ reliance on nuances that will work just fine on a movie screen. Florez, playing a naughty count who spends half the first act disguised as a hermit and the second act as a nun (so he can get into Adele’s castle, and her pants), may have tried to suit his voice to his hermit’s disguise; his first aria sounded unexpectedly nasal and bleaty. Later in the opera he came into his own, throwing some nectary-sweet falsettos in for good measure. Damrau tweaked and fine-tuned every phrase, expertly; though she made some gorgeous sounds, I kept wanting her to stop fiddling so much and sing out.

The soprano Susanne Resmark, making her debut as the lady-in-waiting Ragonde, started uncertainly but turned out to have a big soprano voice anchored on a firm, rich, contralto-like base. The baritone Stephane Degout was another bright spot as one of Ory’s sidekicks. If Benini was weak (the ensemble at the end of Act 1 sounded rudderless) and Michele Pertusi, as Ory’s tutor, unimpressive, the opera was still a lot of fun; and the trio at the end of Act 2, sung by Florez, Damrau and DiDonato, all groping one another with adolescent vigor in a big bed, was a delight.

The director, Bartlett Sher, cast the whole thing as a play-within-a-play, with stooped stagehands in 18th-century garb (costumes: Catherine Zuber) manning winches that raised and lowered el­ements of the scenery (by Michael Yeargan) from the flies. Sher’s Met productions so far — this is his third, after “Barber of Seville” and “Tales of Hoffmann” — have not been entirely to my taste; here, too, I thought there was room for more insight beyond the generic entertainment of bustling choruses and gesticulating singers. But these productions have pleased so many people that I am willing to recuse myself and simply be happy that others enjoy them.

To the new-music fans out there, I can say: “Monodramas” is for you. Michael Counts, the visual artist and director who staged all three works, set out to make Art with a capital A, resulting in an evening that was “Ory’s” exact opposite: static, slightly impenetrable, deliberately nondramatic in the narrative sense, resting heavily on visual effect. At the start, two mannequins posed in front of the curtain turned out, when the curtain rose (25 minutes late, due to the crowd), to be living people; they roamed through a forest of veiled bodies, stripping the coverings from a selected few: a man in a red suit; a woman in white; the soprano Anu Komsi, who zealously performed John Zorn’s “La Machine de l’etre” (the machine of being). In this piece, Counts’s visuals evoked other artist-directors, from Robert Wilson (slow, suspended movement) to William Kentridge (antic animations projected on a screen).

City Opera saved the best for last. Kudos to the company for staging Morton Feldman’s “Neither,” a 1976-77 setting of the only opera libretto Samuel Beckett ever wrote. “Neither” is remarkable: abstract and evocative, with words and notes coalescing around half-understood meanings, the sentences lying so high in the soprano’s voice that they are almost impossible to understand, then yielding to simple “ah” vowels in wordless vocalese.

And kudos to the soprano Cynthia Sieden for an outstanding performance of a challenging piece. Singing beautifully is one thing: The soprano Kara Shay Thomson managed that in “Erwartung,” the second work of the evening. But Sieden went the next step into artistry by imbuing every phrase with significance — not self-consciously, but with genuine urgency. Counts placed her within silvery walls that both reflected and refracted, finding garish bright colors in the cool white of the stage lights, and surrounded her with revolving mirrored cubes, descending and rising, that cast shards of light around the auditorium until everything was as bright and spinning as Feldman’s music.

I’m so appreciative of City Opera’s effort in getting such work on an opera stage that I am reluctant to criticize “Monodramas,” but the evening overall had some real flaws. Counts’s visual gestures sometimes lapsed into cliche, such as rose petals showering down over a Greek chorus of white-clad dancers in “Erwartung.” This work is a hyperexpressive, dreamlike piece in which a woman sees, or imagines seeing, the body of her dead lover; but though both Thomson and the company’s music director, George Manahan, were competent, they performed it without much variation, so that every phrase sounded much the same. And Counts stripped away the mystery by creating an “aha” moment in which it was revealed that the action was unfolding in reverse chronological order, so that by the close, the audience knew exactly what was going on.

Still, it was thrilling to see a company take risks so far outside the operatic mainstream. Don’t worry that City Opera might be dogmatic about doing avant-garde work, though: Its next new production, opening in April, is Stephen Schwartz’s “Seance on a Wet Afternoon,” the first professionally produced opera by the creator of “Wicked.” That one should be a lot more traditional in its storytelling and will probably draw in yet another kind of audience. How nice to see proof that there is, indeed, more than one.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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