Mast Appeal

All of New York’s musical institutions began the new season under stress in the aftermath of last month’s terrorist tragedy, the City Opera perhaps more than most. A four-day postponement of opening night meant that two new productions had to be launched on the same day. As it turned out, both performances were energized, focused, and theatrically compelling to an unusual degree. No doubt flowing adrenaline helped, but I suspect that these productions would have been distinguished under any circumstances.

Much has been made of the City Opera’s rare foray into Wagner, although the young composer’s first durable effort, The Flying Dutchman, poses no more problems than other works of its time and has never really been beyond the company’s reach. The orchestra and chorus face the biggest challenge, but every difficulty is met head-on with stunning results. The double chorus of sailors that opens Act III (technically Scene 3 – the opera is played without intermissions, as Wagner originally intended) sounds full-bodied, buoyant, and disciplined, while the orchestra (under George Manahan) plays the score with a degree of expressive warmth, precision, and instrumental virtuosity that it never could have mustered a few seasons ago.

Mark Delavan has made his name hereabouts as a Verdi singer, but his burly, wide-bore baritone and blunt vocalism strike me as far better suited to such expansive roles as Wagner’s cursed Dutchman. Pouring it on tirelessly for more than two intense hours, Delavan creates a forceful anti-hero whose lowering presence effectively dominates the entire stage. As Senta, the Dutchman’s vessel of salvation, Susan B. Anthony puts her attractively textured, unblemished soprano to the most expressive uses, in a compelling piece of singing even without that extra push of strength and power at the top that an ideal Senta needs. Both tenors, Carl Tanner (Erik) and Scott Piper (the Steersman), make strong musical capital out of potentially irritating characters, and if Kevin Langan’s bluff Daland and Marion Capriotti’s fussbudget Mary put theatrical values ahead of vocal glamour, they do so with intelligence.

In general, director Stephen Lawless is content to tell the story, which he mostly does with clarity and theatrical flair while adding a few powerful images along the way: the doomed Dutchman lashed to his rigging with bloodred ropes, the ghostly procession of the brides who betrayed him, and, at the end, a lone gull joined by its mate to symbolize the triumph of Senta’s true-to-death self-sacrifice. There are, however, one or two miscalculations. In the electrically charged, silent first meeting of the two protagonists, the music tells us that Senta has reached the defining moment in her life, but Lawless has her busily setting the table with what look like TV dinners. This is a pity, since Delavan and Anthony could easily sustain the static magic of the scene as Wagner describes it. Then, too, the feathers that flutter down from the ceiling during their duet look more like a backstage error than like a subtle touch of poetic symbolism. But these and other distractions are minor matters, easily fixed.

Giles Cadel’s Expressionistic set consists of three receding gray-green clapboard frames, open at the rear to accommodate the opera’s locations: seacoast, cottage interior, and harbor front. The dangerously tilted wall and floor perspectives do not look especially singer-friendly, while concealed doors and traps tend to fly open unexpectedly like windows on an Advent calendar. No matter. The opera’s brooding atmosphere is effectively suggested, and nothing onstage seriously interferes with what counts most: the singers themselves, who are consistently inspired to give their best.

Four hours after the Dutchman premiere, the City Opera raised the curtain on Jonathan Miller’s well-traveled production of The Mikado, first seen at the English National Opera in 1986. This surreal reinterpretation of the beloved operetta might best be described as Gilbert and Sullivan for those who hate Gilbert and Sullivan – which includes most card-carrying British intellectuals, Miller clearly among them. Gilbert was a master of topsy-turvy, but Miller goes him one better here. Instead of disguising the legal absurdities and class-conscious corruption of Victorian society as a comic-opera Japanese village, this version takes place in a twenties British seaside resort where – don’t ask why – everyone pretends to be Japanese.

And somehow it works. Perhaps that’s because Gilbert’s original concept is itself so deliciously absurd that no directorial gloss can harm it. Or perhaps it’s because this production is so brilliantly inventive and staged with such superb comic timing. Or perhaps it just goes to prove once again that Gilbert and Sullivan are indestructible. Then, too, the choice to give the show the flavor of a brittle twenties musical is not all that far-fetched, since the whole G&S canon contains the seeds of the genre as it grew and flourished during that period. In any case, Stefanos Lazaridis’s inspired set – a curio-crammed hotel lobby all in white, including the potted palms – plays host to nonstop merriment, from ubiquitous dancing bellhops to the Mikado himself, here envisioned as a Mafia don the size of a beached whale.

The cast, clearly having the time of its life, would doubtless have excelled even in a more conventional production. The affected British accents, always the bane of American G&S, might be toned down, but otherwise Richard Troxell’s brainless Nanki-Poo, Angela Turner Wilson’s vacuous Yum-Yum, Richard Suart’s sprightly Ko-Ko, David Evitts’s ripe Pooh-Bah, and Jan Opalach’s oily Mikado can scarcely be bettered. Linda Roark-Strummer is certainly a formidable Katisha to behold, but the habit of assigning this contralto role to a soprano past her prime, no matter how imposing, is a tradition to be discouraged. The music dances lightly and easily under Gerald Steichen’s direction, another clear testimony to the company’s vastly improved orchestra. Circumstances couldn’t have been worse, but the City Opera’s fall season is off to a smashing start.

The Flying Dutchman
The opera by Wagner, staged by Stephen Lawless.
The Mikado
By Gilbert and Sullivan, staged by Jonathan Miller.
Both at the New York City Opera.

Mast Appeal