The New York City Opera is back. Founded in 1944, the NYCO was for decades New York’s second opera, living in the shadow of the Met but a decided cut above other intermittent boutique or regional companies (such as, most recently, the Gotham Chamber Opera.) The NYCO found and developed some of the great names in American opera, including Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, and Beverly Sills. Then, in 2013 it went bankrupt—but now it’s back. After a half-season last winter/spring, the NYCO began its first full year in its new incarnation in mid-September, with a double bill of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Aleko and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. It seems determined to test the proposition that in the modern age, what New York needs is another opera company.
But that’s nothing new for the NYCO. In many ways, the company has been swimming against the tide since its first founding, which occurred during a series of major, daunting changes in American opera:
[A]fter the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act shut down U.S. immigration from Europe almost completely, the number of immigrants for whom opera was accessible, first-language entertainment began to dwindle. Meanwhile, the Depression significantly affected financial support. By the time that crisis was over, an increasingly self-confident, broader, and less aristocratic U.S. elite felt less obliged to follow European tastes. And as the radical composers of the Second Viennese School and their heirs divorced the intellectual appeal of classical music from the “gut” pull that many feel from the music of Mozart or Verdi, the children of the operagoers who had awaited every new Puccini opera turned to more accessible entertainments.
Under these circumstances, opera houses survived by staging those works that had the broadest possible appeal to the middle and upper classes
The foundation of the NYCO bucked these trends. Conceived, in Fiorello LaGuardia’s phrase, as “the people’s opera,” it spoke to those for whom opera was still a popular entertainment, even in an era when demographics increasingly made that less so. As a result, NYCO was an anomaly from its birth—and always was in search of an identity. This proved both a blessing and a curse. It led it to work hard to find young singers that blossomed into superstars, to give a hearing to new works even as more established companies increasingly relied on the established repertoire, and to try out identities from the radical to the radically traditionalist. (The company was also literally itinerant: shifting from home to home, unlike its big brother the Met, which this year celebrates its 50th season at Lincoln Center.) Ultimately, the NYCO’s balancing act, as it had often threatened, toppled.
Now, NYCO gets a second bite at the (big) apple. And the circumstances for it in many ways are promising. It has found a new home at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater (which despite its name is not at Lincoln Center, but down the street at the Time Warner complex), a surprisingly intimate 1,100 person venue. We are in the midst of a generational shift in opera, in which subtitles (only commonly used since the 1990s) are leading to the rediscovery of opera as drama and thus expanding the number of pieces available to companies well beyond the 40-odd works that made up the repertoire. These had been chosen for their combination of sustained, superlative music and potential for spectacle in an age when nobody could understand opera’s dramatic side. Now, that’s all changed.
The NYCO’s opening double bill is a great example of this shift. One half of it was a staple of the repertoire: Pagliacci, Leconcavallo’s slim, realistic, one-act masterwork about a love triangle in a traveling circus, leading to a double murder during a commedia dell’arte performance. It’s laden with irony and pathos, and dreadfully moving. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Pagliacci (which is only an hour and a quarter long) is paired with Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry”), to the point where they are often referred to as Cav and Pag. The pairing was inspired at first—both are about love triangles that lead to double murders in the Italian countryside, both are masterworks of the verismo (realism) style, at just over an hour long both are short enough to be combined around an intermission for one evening’s entertainment. Too often, however, the combination carries all the staleness of a old, married couple’s love life, with none of the God-given reasons for them staying together. So the NYCO figured, why not spice it up, and paired Pagliacci instead with a little-seen opera by Sergei Rachmaninoff: Aleko.
This, too, was an inspired choice. There’s just enough in common to keep continuity, as Aleko is also just over an hour and tells the tale of a love triangle that ends in a double murder (maybe there was something in the water in the 1890s.) But there’s more than enough different to add some spice: Aleko is set in a Russian gypsy camp (and sung in Russian), and features an extended ballet one third of the way through. (This was danced captivatingly by Yana Volkova and Andrei Kisselev.) Where the Italian work focuses on passion, betrayal, and revenge, Rachmaninoff’s Russian one—while not ignoring those motives—overlays a heavy emphasis on freedom, choice, and the pain that can often result from both. The gypsy way of life, wandering and free, constantly reminds both singers and audience of these.
Aleko is not going to overtake Cavalleria Rusticana as Pagliacci’s regular dance partner anytime soon. It is too uneven musically for that—which is rather a surprise. Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos are so passionate that my recording (from the Chandos label) has a silhouette of two people having sex on the front. But the young composer (Aleko was Rachmaninoff’s graduation piece from the Moscow Conservatory), while showing flashes of that intensity, could not sustain it consistently throughout the opera.
Nevertheless, it was more than enough recompense for a night out to see it once, particularly with the NYCO’s singers. Kevin Thompson made a gaunt and effective Old Gypsy (the wise, tragically unheeded father of the doomed girl), while Inna Dukach as the love interest, Zemfira, both vocally and in her acting managed to seem worthy of everyone’s (murderous) interest.
The company’s production of Pagliacci, meanwhile, did justice to its reputation as a masterwork. The conducting, under the baton of James Meena, was crisp; the singing and acting of the love interest, Nedda (Jessica Rose Cambio) and the “other” guy, Silvio (Gustavo Feulien) were beautiful and convincing; but at the end of the day, Francesco Anile as Canio stole the show. His “Vesti la giubba” aria, in which he reflects upon his betrayal and terrible anger even as he puts on his clown makeup, brought out the best in his rich tenor voice and arresting stage presence, and in the potential of the Rose Theater’s intimate setting. A sense of immediacy, closeness, and terrifying sympathy could be felt, even as you knew what he was about to do next.
The NYCO’s schedule for this year can be found here. If they continue to be able to bring creative new ideas and operas (yet with a pleasant lack of gimmicks) and singing talent on the level as this, they will prove that this town, yet again, is big enough for two opera companies.