Land of the Lost

Operagoers who like to hark back have been kept busy recently, attending revivals of rarely performed works guaranteed to stir up fond memories. A French confection popular at both the Metropolitan and City Opera a generation ago, Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon enjoyed a onetime-only concert resurrection in Carnegie Hall under the auspices of the Opera Orchestra of New York, and many eyes were damp at the prospect. Like Gounod’s Faust, another slightly faded old-time favorite that returns to the Met this week in a new production, Mignon is a sentimentalized adaptation of a Goethe masterpiece, in this case Wilhelm Meister Lehrjahre. The score is slight, but everyone gets a lot of good tunes to sing, the heroine most of all—Mignon’s tender reminiscence of her childhood, “Connais-tu le Pays,” has been recorded by just about every mezzo-soprano who has ever drawn breath over the past century, and many sopranos as well (my modest collection contains 70 versions, and that’s hardly exhaustive).

OONY’s presentation, I fear, scarcely did the piece justice. Stephanie Blythe belted out the title role without a trace of charm, nuance, or understanding of the style—a pity, since her deluxe voice should be a seamless fit for this music. An even more grievous disappointment, Eglise Gutierrez as the flirtatious Philine, lacked the éclat and finished coloratura technique to articulate her florid phrases with proper precision or grace. No one’s treasured recollections of past performances were seriously disturbed by Massimo Giordano’s inelegant Wilhelm or John Relyea’s rough-toned Lothario, let alone Eve Queler’s flat-footed conducting. After this depressingly clueless evening, poor Mignon may now be returned to the library shelf to continue her peaceful slumbers—her musical world seems to baffle today’s singers.

The picture is considerably brighter over at the City Opera, which has just brought last summer’s lively Glimmerglass production of Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West into its repertory. This oater à la italiana, given its world premiere at the Met in 1910 starring Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn, did not catch on at first, but audiences are beginning to appreciate the opera more, now that the idea of American cowboys and gold-rush miners singing an impassioned Puccini aria no longer seems quite so campy. In fact, the more I hear and see the opera, the more twistingly poignant and poetic it becomes. Any sensitive soul is bound to brush away a tear when Minnie and her bandit boyfriend Dick Johnson ride off into the sunrise, leaving a community of rough prospectors devastated and bereft of the one element of human dignity that held them all together.

Perhaps the City Opera cannot field the sort of generously gifted, clarion-voiced Puccini singers that once seemed so plentiful, but Stephanie Friede (Minnie), Renzo Zulian (Johnson), and Stephen Kechulius (Sheriff Rance) enthusiastically enter into the uninhibited vocal spirit of the piece and savor every superheated moment. Lillian Groag’s detailed stage direction gives even the tiniest walk-on character theatrical life, and John Conklin’s overflowing set is crammed with flavorful mementos of old California.

Also on view at the City Opera this week is a fanciful new production of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, a drama of triangular love in a fairy-tale Ceylon that bears no resemblance to the Sri Lanka of today. Or, in this case, to much of anything else in real life.

Zandra Rhodes’s dippy comic-book sets and Andrew Sinclair’s silent-movie stage direction take us to a balmy South Seas isle where frantic half-naked teenagers are constantly breaking into beach-blanket-bingo dances, nasty high priests melodramatically prepare to sacrifice an unchaste vestal to Brahma, and an unlikely male-bonding friendship triumphs over illicit love.

Bizet was only 25 when he was handed this preposterous libretto in 1863, and the miracle is that he came up with so much gorgeous music, wholly original for its day, touched with fascinating exoticisms, and full of beguiling melody. Luckily, it is also being handsomely sung at the City Opera, especially by Mary Dunleavy (Leïla), Yeghishe Manucharyan (Nadir), and Stephen Powell (Zurga), under Emmanuel Plasson’s sympathetic musical direction. By all means, go to hear them, but surely there must be a better way to stage this problem opera.

BACKSTORYThough Giacomo Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West celebrates the spirit of the American frontier, the opera itself originated in New York. In 1907, the composer visited Manhattan to attend a Puccini festival at the old Metropolitan Opera House on West 39th Street. While in town, he happened to see David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West at the Belasco Theater a few blocks away. Three years later, Puccini brought his opera version, which he claimed drew on American folk songs and Native American melodies, to New York, receiving 50 curtain calls at the premiere. But critics on both sides of the Atlantic were less kind: Europeans disdained the material, and Americans found it inauthentic. Perhaps the problem was Puccini himself: The composer had never been to the West.

Ambroise Thomas.
Opera Orchestra of New York. April 7.

Girl of the Golden West
Puccini. City Opera.

Les Pêcheurs de Perles
Bizet. City Opera.

Land of the Lost