New York. City Opera's 'Student Prince': all that glitters is not grand

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Once again, New York City Opera has opened the fall music season with a salutary dose of "small is beautiful." Actually, there's nothing small about their lavish new production of Sigmund Romberg's "The Student Prince." But it is an operetta rather than an opera in structure, and it has a lightweight texture that fits well with City Opera' s policy of leavening its schedule with works of less than utter seriousness. All that glitters is not grand.

"The Student Prince" is a creaky old story. City Opera's own program note calls the plot "an operetta cliche," and its events unfold so s-l-o-w-l-y it's like listening to your 78s at LP speed. It takes about an hour for the prince to become a student in the first place, and even the carousal scenes -- princes don't have to study much, it seems -- move at a pace tha|s not exactly heady. The music similarly takes its time, with Romberg milking every nice tune for all the reprises he can get. The praises of Heidelberg are sung endlessly, with the relentless glee of a travel- agency commercial.

Theatrically, the keenest virtues of the new City Opera production are visual rather than dramatic. Under the direction of Jack Hofsiss -- best known for his splendid work with "The Elephant Man" on Broadway -- the entire show is an opulent feast for the eyes. Some effects are marvelously expansive, as at the beginning of the first act, when a storybook setting positively swarms with atmospheric action.

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Other moments are daringly minimal, as when the stage goes completely dark except for a lone rose solitarily spotlighted behind a transparent scrim. Hofsiss even pulls off a startling suprise or two: It's breathtaking when a swain blows out his lantern, only to find himself and his beloved illumined more brightly than ever in the light of their own affection. This is a gorgeous production, every step of the way.

And it sounds fine, too. At the Saturday matinee I attended, conductor Andrew Meltzer might have picked up some of the tempos a bit, but he kept the orchestra alive and singing. Henry Price made an attractive prince, and Elizabeth Hynes was in fine voice as his girl friend Kathie.

Charles Roe had a staunch presence as the avuncular Engel, while Muriel Costa- Greenspon and Jack Harrold (with a portly charm recalling Hollywood's great Eugene Pallette) provided plenty of laughs with their love affair, the silliest of the several in the plot. The other roles were handled fetchingly by a large contingent of soloists and choristers.

In shaping "The Student Prince" for 1980 audiences, Hugh Wheeler (who adapted the book) and Mr. Hofsiss have not removed as much flab as they could have. The most predictable story twists are spun out as if they were of major importance, and there's a lot of mooning about when you yearn for things to pick up momentum. Many scenes of exposition and development could stand a good deal of tightening and energizing.

"The Student Prince" continues at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater through Monday, with two casts alternating in the main roles. The cast not reviewed here includes Leigh Munro, Jacque Trussel, Dominic Cossa, and James Billings.

Other new productions of the City Opera season include Bizet's "Les Pecheurs de perles" on Sept. 25 and Nicolai's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" on Oct. 23, plus the world premiere of "An American Trilogy," comprising three one-act operas, on Oct. 9. Major revivals are Donizetti's "Anna Bolena" on Sept. 11 and Handel's "Giulio Cesare" on Nov. 2. The fall schedule continues through Nov. 9, and should -- as City Opera promises -- run the musical gamut from love to mayhem, from rapture to revelry.

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