There was a time when small opera groups flourished in New York, exploring odd corners of the repertory unlikely to be served by the major companies. Teatro Grattacielo was founded in 1994 expressly to investigate neglected turn-of-the-century Italian operas. Nothing could be more unfashionable right now, and no composer from that era is more sneered at than Francesco Cilèa, whose best-known work, Adriana Lecouvreur, is invariably dismissed by superior critics as a trashy vehicle for ego-driven divas. Even more obscure is L’Arlesiana, an opera based on the pastoral play by Alphonse Daudet and mainly remembered for the melting aria “Lamento di Federico,” first sung by Enrico Caruso at its premiere in 1897 and a lyric-tenor staple ever since. There are plenty of other pretty tunes in the opera, as Teatro Grattacielo’s concert performance at Alice Tully Hall revealed. The whole score, in fact, is the elegant work of a composer whose delicate musical sensibility can be easily trampled in the operatic rough-and-tumble.
This loving performance made a strong case for the work, thanks in large part to conductor Fiora Contino’s masterly control of the score’s lyrical ebb and flow. There are four juicy parts, and each one was in reliable hands: Gerard Powers as the love-obsessed Federico, Eugenie Grunewald as his anguished mother, Carol Ann Manzi as the hapless girl next door, and Michael Corvino as the philosophizing old shepherd. L’Arlesiana is a lovely work, and there are many other equally worthy operas from the same period waiting to be reassessed, enough to keep Teatro Grattacielo busy for years.