Culture-conscious Washingtonians, I'm told, look upon the Big Apple as a rich, bossy older brother who always gets the best of it. But as a Manhattanite who spends a fair amount of time on the Metroliner, I'm honor-bound to confess that things aren't so simple.
Yes, there's only one Broadway--but there's also only one Phillips Collection, and sometimes I'd gladly trade you even up. Yes, the New York Philharmonic is one of the world's great virtuoso ensembles--but under Leonard Slatkin, the National Symphony Orchestra is playing unhackneyed programs that smart New Yorkers would kill to hear. Yes, we're the dance capital of the universe--but the Kennedy Center puts on plenty of blue-chip dance events that come to us after the fact or not at all. And in Septime Webre, the Washington Ballet now has a fresh young artistic director who makes hugely exciting dances, something neither New York City Ballet nor American Ballet Theatre can claim.
What New York definitely has in excess is--well, excess. That is our glory and our shame: Too much is happening here, and we take it all for granted. We have, for instance, two full-time opera companies, the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera, which are located next door to each other at Lincoln Center, an absurd state of affairs that does nobody any good. The irony (some call it poetic justice) is that the Met, which is rolling in dough, has been weathering a fearfully dull patch of late, while City Opera, which has perpetual trouble making ends meet, is on an artistic roll.
To use a phrase familiar inside the Beltway, the Met stages operas by throwing money at them, and it doesn't always stick. Not that the company has much choice: The Metropolitan Opera House stage is mammoth, the auditorium monstrous, and so there's no way to put on a show other than to build jumbo sets and hire top-dollar singers with lungs to match. But grand opera a la cash, the Met's perpetual plat du jour, is too often theatrically unsatisfying.
Last Monday, for instance, the Met opened its season with a double bill of "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Pagliacci," in which Jose Cura made his long-awaited Met debut and Placido Domingo broke the house record for most opening-night appearances (Enrico Caruso set it in 1920 with 17). That may sound fabulous on paper--though I hasten to remind you that Cura-Domingo joint appearances are old hat in Washington--but no amount of high-octane singing could cover up the fact that Franco Zeffirelli's bloated, ultra-realistic 29-year-old production is terminally tired.
Meanwhile, City Opera kicked off its season with two new productions executed in the spare yet stylish manner to which Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic manager, has been accustoming local operagoers since he took the helm in 1996. Rossini's rollicking "Il Viaggio a Reims" was set in a 19th-century French spa (complete with indoor pool) that bore a suspiciously Pythonesque resemblance to Fawlty Towers, while John Conklin's magically simple set for Handel's "Ariodante" consisted of four moving panels, a few pieces of furniture, a first-class lighting plot and the audience's imagination. Everybody in both casts could act, and "Ariodante" was sung to something approaching perfection, especially by Amy Burton, a brilliantly gifted singing actress who graces the company's baroque-opera productions and is surely destined for major-house stardom.
But, then, who says City Opera isn't a major house now? The New York State Theater hasn't been this hot since Beverly Sills was queen of the cats back in the '60s. In the last couple of seasons, it's become the place to go if you want to see adventurous productions of operas that haven't been done to death, and that spells major in my book. Money isn't everything--not even in New York.
This is the first in a series of occasional columns about the arts in New York.