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Handel, With Care

Among the City Opera's new productions, Handel's little-known "Partenope" is the music-theater drama to which a superb ensemble most impressively responds.

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All Gershwin at Carnegie Hall, all Beethoven at the Philharmonic, (almost) all Plácido Domingo at the Metropolitan Opera -- New York's major classical-music venues kick off the season, as usual, with the most bankable names in the business. Even the New York City Opera, the first to open, is playing it safe by presenting two "new" productions -- Puccini's Tosca and Handel's Partenope -- already tried, tested, and widely reviewed at Glimmerglass Opera last summer. Not that these carefully packaged imports invariably arrive at Lincoln Center looking precisely the same as they did upstate in Cooperstown. This new tack on Tosca, you will recall, moves the action forward from Rome in the 1800s to Mussolini's fascist police state of the 1930s, but Michael Yeargan's spartan settings look even grimmer and more exposed on the State Theater stage. They are, in fact, so devoid of stylistic detail that one scarcely has a sense of any specific time or place, forcing an audience to focus full attention on the three principals and the ugly events that lead to their violent deaths. For the most part, director Mark Lamos keeps the action moving crisply, and his more fanciful inventions are thankfully repressed. Scarpia, for instance, is no longer so carried away by his lust for Tosca that he appears to be masturbating during the church procession in Act I -- an inconceivable behavioral lapse for this cold-blooded control freak.

The opera has also been recast, and although the choices represent some shrewd rethinking of what the opera needs in pure vocal terms, the performance as a whole is still pretty workaday. Isabelle Kabatu mostly flounces and brays as Tosca, projecting little of the role's star glamour, let alone its cunningly plotted theatricality. Although an improvement over his inadequate summertime predecessor as Scarpia, Mark Delavan offers only a sketch of this complex character, and Antonio Nagore's juiceless, throaty tenor does few favors for Cavaradossi's music.

Let's face facts. Tosca may be an audience-pleasing masterpiece, but apparently young singers no longer relate to its sweaty melodramatics. They do, however, respond to the cooler, more structured, but equally passionate music theater of Handel, and the current performances of Partenope offer stunning proof of that. An enjoyable production at Glimmerglass has now become a spectacular one at the City Opera, sung and acted by six brilliant vocal talents completely caught up in this bittersweet lesson in love. Many superb countertenors have recently appeared to sing Baroque opera, and two exquisite, perfectly contrasted voices grace this performance: David Walker, spinning out flawless coloratura lines in the showy role of Arsace, and Bejun Mehta, a positively radiant vocal and dramatic presence as the lovesick Armindo. Lisa Saffer (Partenope), John McVeigh (Emilio), Jennifer Dudley (Rosmira), and Eduardo Chama (Ormonte) complete a tightly knit ensemble directed with wit and keen insight into each character by Francisco Negrin. I still find John Conklin's fussy postmodern sets cluttered and meaningless, but no matter. The singers who inhabit them are fabulous.

The third item to open the City Opera's fall season is one of the few productions that originated here at home, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "sung ballet" The Seven Deadly Sins and Carl Orff's scenic cantata Carmina Burana. As I recall it, the first performance of this double bill a year and a half ago was pretty scrappy, but all that has been fixed. As the two Annas, Emily Golden and Ellen Lauren barnstorm through Brecht's seven rotten American cities without a hitch, and even Donald Byrd's orgiastic choreographic direction of Orff's galumphing celebration of medieval debauchery seems less irritating when put across with such conviction. Even so, despite superficial resemblances between the two pieces -- both written in the mid-thirties by German composers inevitably stressed out by the times -- the two works still sit uneasily together. At least the production spares us any facile suggestions that these "sinful" scores might actually enjoy some sort of illicit relationship.


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