Photo: From left, Pavel Antonov, Carol Rosegg (3)

Two decades ago, New York City Opera was literally dying. Signs backstage announced the nearly constant roll call of company members lost to aids. I remember the night in 1995 when artistic director Christopher Keene, 48 and frail, conducted a messy but heroic performance of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, about an artist soldiering on through catastrophic times. A few weeks later, Keene was dead. The company he left behind was decimated by disease and low morale, yet within a year or two it rose briskly from the grave.

Now it looks like austerity might do what aids never got close to accomplishing: make City Opera cease to matter. It’s physically painful to write this: The company is the pet hamster of the music world; nobody wants it to come to a bad end. Perhaps it won’t. The budget is balanced, the unions placated, venues have been lined up for the next three years, and tickets are wonderfully affordable. But City Opera is artistically adrift. This year, with no music director and a thinned-down ensemble, it mounted two so-so stagings of standard works, a prematurely fusty new piece, and a thin, sporadically engaging staging of an obscure, sporadically engaging eighteenth-century opera. Only a Mets fan would call this a comeback.

If City Opera is hoping to kindle a worldwide revival of Telemann’s operas, as it once did for Handel’s, it will need a hotter fire. General manager and artistic director George Steel reached into the depths of oblivion and emerged clutching ­Orpheus, which might have been assembled from whatever oddments of music and lyrics the composer found strewn around his worktable. Exuberant Italian arias segue into German lamentations. Brilliance intermingles with formula. Director Rebecca Taichman’s approach was equally uneven. Orpheus and Eurydice attempted their escape from Hades atop separate tables that were wheeled around in a touching pas de deux, but neither Taichman nor designer David Zinn could resist Baroque opera’s contemporary clichés: Orpheus in Gatsby-ish white; a charcoal-suited Pluto presiding over the severe executive offices of a modern, um, plutocrat. Disparities ruled the music, too. Jennifer Rowley sang the nasty queen Orasia with a succulent voice and undisciplined abandon, and Nicholas Pallesen perked things up with Pluto’s rousing revenge aria. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow and an erratic cast softened the score’s catalogue of emotional extremes into something binary and generic. Telemann demanded Tenderness, Grief, Regret, and Rage. Instead, we got :-) and :-( .

Steel sees himself as heir to the tradition of City Opera executives who put on shows they believed in even when the risks bordered on lunacy. But of all the new operas he might have chosen to announce the company’s rebirth, he opted for Rufus Wainwright’s dusty Prima ­Donna, about an isolated, superannuated diva. The two acts have the feel of a continuous vamp before the closing autumnal reverie, “Les feux d’artifice t’appellent” (“The fireworks are calling you”), a pretty tune that never pays back in poignancy a debt accrued in tedium.

The title role should have been a tour de force for a soprano with a great career behind her and a slightly weathered voice. Instead, Wainwright made her a whiner. Melody Moore stood and delivered prettily just the sort of music that her character supposedly can’t sing any more. Having failed to imbue the role with tragedy, Wainwright loaded the orchestra with strenuous climaxes in which strings hammer away at simple chord progressions. Performing new music is inherently risky, but in this case, Steel knew exactly what he was buying. The Metropolitan Opera, which had commissioned Prima Donna, dropped the project in 2008 (nominally because the company wanted an English libretto and Wainwright insisted on French), and the world premiere took place in Manchester in 2009. Steel may have craved the contact hipness that comes from working with a pop star, but he wound up with a score redolent of a graduation exercise from the Paris Conservatoire, circa 1890, only less technically adept.

City Opera also bobbled its mission to give well-known works some fresh theatrical sparkle. I’ll pass over a mostly fizz­less La Traviata, since Jonathan Miller, the production’s ostensible creator, involved himself not at all. That leaves Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte. The director, Christopher Alden, has whipped up some frothy productions in the past, but this time he curdled the score’s sexual brio and sly wit into lumps of misery. (Fortunately, the conductor Christian Curnyn kept the music bright and sprightly, and although the orchestra wasn’t always onboard with his brisk tempos and incisive rhythms, he did forge the six singers into a tight troupe.)

Alden dressed the quartet of lovers in black antique bathing suits and placed them in a rowboat against the backdrop of a monochrome Arcadia. Then he obliterated that arresting image with a flurry of high-concept silliness. You might conceivably ignore Don Alfonso (the otherwise impeccable Rod Gilfry) dressing up as a dancing bear, but it was hard to do the same for the boys’ bunny ears, which were constantly being suggestively fondled. This stage business displayed not just distaste for the obvious and ordinary but a terror of doing nothing. It would be too straightforward to make Alfonso the misogynist manipulator with time on his hands that Mozart had in mind—so, whatever, let’s make him a dancing bear.

But it was the finale that seemed especially ominous for a company in need of good news. The opera ends with a double wedding, in which the cross-groping lovers get reshuffled back into their original pairings, wiser now, and more accepting. In Alden’s version, they sat out the ceremony on a park bench, wrapped in army greatcoats, crushed by self-consciousness and too jaded for joy.

Each new season offers another shot at brilliance, but next year looks chancy, too: a Rossini biblical blockbuster, an Offenbach operetta, Britten’s creepy The Turn of the Screw, and Thomas Adès’s raunchy Powder Her Face. That recondite list is Steel’s way of saying “Trust me”—something he’s making it ever more difficult to do.

Georg Philipp Telemann. Directed by Rebecca Taichman.
New York City Opera.