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Housewarming: John Adams conducts the whimsically named Zankel Band in the opening concert at Zankel Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Apparently, it’s love at first sight. No one I encountered at the opening concerts of Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall, the new 644-seat performance space located beneath Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium, had anything but raves for the place, its inviting woodsy interior, the surrounding creature comforts, and the sheer flexibility of design that can instantly turn the site into a practical listening area able to accommodate almost any sort of musical experience a composer can devise. Conventional recitals, chamber music of all kinds, surround-sound occasions, master classes, teaching seminars, jazz and world-music concerts, intimate opera productions—just about anything seems possible here, and it will be fascinating to watch how this valuable new resource develops.

Given the nature of the place, it was crafty of Carnegie’s executive and artistic director, Robert Harth, to forgo anything as conventional as an all-star gala to inaugurate the hall. A few preliminary previews for the press and patrons sufficed before Zankel got down to business with a two-week festival designed to show just how versatile the hall can be. Carnegie’s composer-in-residence, John Adams, was responsible for programming the opening weekend, eight concerts that reflected both his own wide-ranging enthusiasms and the eclectic nature of what we are to expect to hear in Zankel in the future: contemporary chamber-orchestra classics conducted by Adams; choral works new and old sung by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices; Frederic Rzewski’s latest installments in his ongoing keyboard epic The Road; a generous selection from Meredith Monk and her vocal ensemble; a family concert featuring the Brooklyn Youth Chorus; and evenings with Anna Deavere Smith, the Kenny Barron Quintet, and the Omar Sosa Octet.

The special quality of the very first concert arose from the fact that it didn’t make any effort to be special. Adams led a group rather whimsically named the Zankel Band (21 young musicians, most of them former participants in Carnegie Hall’s professional-training workshops) in performances of Charles Ives’s From the Steeples and the Mountains and Scherzo: Over the Pavements; the late Lou Harrison’s Concerto in Slendro for violin; Living Toys, by Thomas Adès; and Mania, a one-movement cello concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The only point this program seemed to be making was that here is some wonderful music, new and from the recent past, all of it well worth listening to in performances of polish, style, and tremendous verve.

If one cared to look further, there was also a benign hidden agenda here in music of Adams’s own choosing, inevitably reflecting his compositional concerns and character even if none of it sounded especially like him. I certainly hear echoes in Adams’s recent scores of Ives’s independence and sheer cussedness; Harrison’s sunny optimism and pleasure in making any instrument sing; Adès’s brilliantly theatrical way of organizing sound into large-scale statements; and Salonen’s unashamed willingness to make big romantic gestures if that’s what the occasion demands (something new in this Finnish composer’s music, at least to my ears). Adams might have programmed one of his own scores just to make the point even clearer, but apparently modesty forbade that. No matter—we will surely be hearing plenty more from one of America’s most frequently performed composers in the near future.

Ever since young Joan Sutherland scored a huge hit with Handel’s Alcina more than 40 years ago, this tuneful mix of magic and amorous mayhem based on two cantos from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso has been one of the composer’s most frequently revived stage works. Even the City Opera put it on back in 1983, a perverse Andrei Serban extravaganza that drove me into a fine fury. Now the company has opened the current season with a new production by Francesca Zambello, and this time rage has been replaced by ennui.

It’s a bit difficult to see what Zambello and set designer Neil Patel were after here. The stage is lusterless, the direction inert, the action scrappy, and every invitation for theatrical excitement turned aside. Alcina’s castle is an interlocking-brick affair of no particular scenic distinction, and seems mostly in the way as the characters wander about aimlessly looking for something to do. The end result gives the vague impression, no doubt false, of how international opera often works these days: A much in-demand production team rushes around the world putting on operas, stops off in one city for a week or two, quickly throws the piece together, and then dashes off to the next assignment. This Alcina probably didn’t happen that way, but it certainly looked like it. Perhaps I’m still in a spoiled summer mood after trips to Glimmerglass and Glyndebourne, festivals where operas are prepared and rehearsed long, hard, and with time to spare.

Even the cast seems to have been infected by the drab spirit that settles over the stage the moment the curtain rises. Christine Goerke is one of our brightest young lyric sopranos, and her past work, in Handel particularly, has been brilliantly on the mark. Here, as Alcina, she sounded thin and out of sorts on opening night, unable to project the sorceress’s flashing volatility and jealous moods as she gradually loses her magical powers over the one man she truly loves. Goerke must have quaffed one of her own potions during intermission, since her energy level rose markedly in Act Two, but by then it was too late. The real vocal star is Katharine Goeldner as the knight Ruggiero, giving as spectacular a demonstration of mezzo-soprano coloratura virtuosity as you are likely to hear anywhere today. Jennifer Dudley (Bradamante) and Lauren Skuce (Morgana) make modest but pleasant contributions, while Keith Jameson’s firmly focused tenor as Oronte provides a welcome masculine contrast. The orchestra plays brightly for conductor Daniel Beckwith (although about an hour’s worth of the score is missing, along with one whole character), but it really doesn’t matter. The City Opera’s dreary new Alcina is definitely DOA.

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