Near the end of New York City Opera’s new Don Giovanni, the murdered Commendatore staggers, zombielike, from his coffin—which is pretty much what the company is doing, too. Back from the dead but not yet out of danger, City Opera has proclaimed its vigor, to varying degrees, with a rapid-fire series of events. First, the abbreviated season opened with a revue that didn’t quite accomplish either of its tasks: to show off the company’s talents and the acoustics of its newly refurbished house. Then came Esther, a populous biblical epic by Hugo Weisgall that had a successful premiere in 1993 before being shoved into storage. Finally, director Christopher Alden kept the adrenaline flowing with a hyperactive staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni that pinballed between ludicrous gimmickry and clever musicality. City Opera certainly seemed itself again: brave, surprising, earnest, spirited, and infuriatingly uneven. Welcome back.
About the gala, it’s best to be terse. Samuel Ramey made souls and rafters shiver as a country preacher in a scene from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Measha Brueggergosman sang “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess with rawness and subtlety. But Rufus Wainwright singing “That’s Entertainment” wasn’t.
When City Opera needed rescuing, it hired George Steel, and when Steel needed a statement, he thought of Esther, which has the virtues of being recent, serious, and grand. I wish I could greet its resurrection with fanfares and streamers, but it struck me as a ploddingly professional piece of work. The Jews of ancient Persia are marked for extermination; Esther, the king’s wife, risks execution and saves her people by acknowledging her ancestry. This is powerful stuff, which Weisgall treats with such incessant urgency that the drama wilts. He sculpts vocal lines with a confident chisel, distinguishing Esther’s tormented melismas from the aggressive bark of the genocidal consigliere Haman or the sumptuous rage of the banished ex-queen Vashti. But he also garlands all these styles of declamation with so many high-speed harmonies, expressive dissonances, and strong instrumental colors that they bleed into a purple splatter.
Nobody in the production betrays any such qualms. Lauren Flanigan hurls herself into the title role she sang sixteen years ago, and if her always-steely top notes have gotten a little clankier, her commitment is as ferocious as ever. Chorus, cast, conductor, and orchestra match Flanigan in fervor, undeterred by beards and robes that look as if they were plundered from a middle-school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Christopher Alden whipped together Don Giovanni, the season’s sole new production, in six months, which in opera years counts as the last minute. Miraculously, City Opera managed to assemble a musically assured and physically alert ensemble, and Alden has coaxed everyone to find and tend a three-dimensional personality. Daniel Okulitch sings Giovanni with an irresistible bass-baritone that helps explain why women would be drawn to an oleaginous sociopath. Jason Hardy pits his fine aristocratic voice against Leporello’s cringing-bumpkin mannerisms. Keri Alkema owns the stage as the fantastically obsessive Donna Elvira, and Stefania Dovhan, a soprano with a titanium voice and precision control, sings Donna Anna, not as the usual sanctimonious whiner but as a tough and complicated lady driven by outrage, erotic fascination, and manipulative tenderness.
Alden has dropped his cast into a vortex of physical comedy. Characters stumble together, flop apart, cross paths at full tilt, embrace, grope, struggle, and dodge, all in a plain-gray set that could be a DMV, a church, or Purgatory. The costumes, too, are depression-colored, though they slip off nonchalantly enough. Instead of Don Giovanni’s exchanging his nobleman’s attire for Leporello’s servant fustian, the two hard-bodied men share a single shirtless suit. Alden builds on Giovanni’s libidinous tastelessness; he milks every thumping downbeat and “ah-ah” vocalize for its R-rated potential, and in one moment of gross-out hilarity has the Don dribble soup on the coffin. (Don’t ask.)
Intelligence shines through the silliness, and sound now springs from the orchestra pit. That’s a relief, because City Opera has a lot riding on these productions, and even more on the $107 million treatment for the house’s acoustical ailments. The cure’s not perfect—too many voices still seem to be fighting their way out of a hole—but both music and company are suddenly a lot brighter and more vibrant than we had any right to expect.