In “Aleko” and “Pagliacci,” New York City Opera finds its stride
Watching this cannily judged double bill from New York City Opera—the opening of its 2016-17 season—makes one wonder why Rachmaninoff’s Aleko isn’t paired with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci more often.
But conductor James Meena, General Director and Principal Conductor of Opera Carolina since 2000, led this same program there just a few months ago, in April. Now restaged at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the two operas benefited from his sure hand, helped by a weighty-sounding orchestra. A few synchronization issues, probably due to opening night, did not detract from the overall pleasure.
Aleko was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s first opera, unveiled in 1893 at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko wrote the libretto, using Pushkin’s poem “The Gypsies” (1827), and the fast-moving story of infidelity and revenge is remarkably similar to Pagliacci. Musically, Rachmaninoff drew heavily on Russian folk tunes—perhaps with a little Borodin thrown in for good measure—coupled with the composer’s masterful melodic gifts.
The vivid cast, headed by Stefan Szkafarowsky in the title role, made the most of these musical phrases, with adroit and affecting direction by Lev Pugliese (who also staged NYCO’s recent Tosca revival). Szkafarowsky, recently heard at the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, combined a firm tone (except for one shaky moment near the end) with laudable devotion to the role of a husband who suspects his wife, Zemfira, is seeing another man. As that wife, Inna Dukach showed an appealing high soprano and effectively conveyed a mix of sadness and confusion as the opera reached its grim end.
But both were almost outshone by the Old Gypsy, sung by Kevin Thompson, whose bass fairly yanked one by the shirt collar on his initial entrance. As the Old Gypsy Woman, Olga Lomteva lent appropriate gravitas to her brief stage time. And as the Young Gypsy and the wife’s paramour, tenor Jason Karn added a youthful sparkle, a welcome contrast to the others’ darker timbres.
The opera has a substantial dance sequence, choreographed by Andrei Kisselev for himself and Yana Volkova, who intertwined beautifully with each other (and eventually, some of the chorus). The duo’s handsome costumes were the most explicitly exciting work of designer Ildikó Debreczeni, who dreamed up different-but-somehow-related costumes for each opera. And John Farrell’s simple set design—a boxcar in the center, flanked by two buildings—served each opera well, complemented by Susan Roth’s lighting.
A large chorus, capably directed by William Hobbs, was occasionally too voluminous for the Rose stage: there was simply not enough room for a group that size to move, despite director Pugliese’s generally admirable staging. But that leads to a few “intermission” comments before Pagliacci: overall, the Rose seems ideal for this opera company’s comeback, and this production gives more optimism.
At slightly over 1,200 seats, the Rose is less than a third of the size of the Metropolitan Opera House (3,800), and the benefits are many. The sight lines are shorter, allowing the audience to see facial expressions easier. The house’s acoustics could be more resonant but the clarity is welcome. Best of all, singers don’t have to work as hard to project, and can experiment, using their voices almost at a whisper. New York desperately needs opera presented in this type of space.
On this occasion, Pagliacci emerged considerably more moving than the recent Met production by David McVicar, mostly due to the Rose’s increased intimacy. It also didn’t hurt that, for the role of Canio, the company snagged Francesco Anile, who garnered some renown last season, when Alexandrs Antonenko’s voice gave out in the final act of the Met’s Otello. With just a few minutes’ notice, Anile stood at the side of the stage and sang as Antonenko acted the scene. Anile has the voice: a clear, expressive instrument that pleasantly “pings” above the orchestra, and equally, what appears to be a fountain of acting chops. In the famous scene in which Canio realizes that Nedda has been unfaithful, the soft sobbing into his costume was undeniably affecting. And when he leaped onstage to open the traveling show, his drunkenness was believable, not overdone.
As Nedda, Jessica Rose Cambio also had satisfying theatrical instincts, especially toying with plates, glasses, a vase of flowers, and a bottle of wine as part of that “show within a show.” But her love scene with Silvio, rakishly sung by Gustavo Feulien, drew bravos from many in the audience. As Tonio, Michael Corvino grew steadily more despicable (that’s praise); he might investigate the role of Iago if he hasn’t already. Two villagers were deftly done by Robert Garner and Mario Arevalo, and from the first half, Karn made a welcome return as Beppe.
After a rocky few years, this musically and emotionally satisfying double bill is the best evidence yet that this storied company may at last be staggering to its feet.
New York City Opera will repeat Aleko and Pagliacci 7:30 p.m. September 10 and 13 and 4 p.m. September 11. www.nycopera.com