New York — Even with two important opera companies in this city (or any other, for that matter), they can never get around to staging all the works of merit one might wish to hear. Therefore, concert operas fill an important gap in the cultural life of any city, and New York is particularly fortunate to have not only Eve Queler's Opera Orchestra of New York but several enterprising choral groups which, throughout this year, have offered works that have either never been heard, or have fallen out of fashion.
Such was the case with Dame Janet Baker's visit to Carnegie Hall last week. Though she has officially retired from staged opera, she was heard in a concert offering in the very role of her operatic swan song - Gluck's Orfeo in his setting of the ``Orfeo ed Euridice'' legend.
There was a time when this opera was constantly on the boards as a vehicle for the great mezzos and contraltos of the age. In fact, Gluck's name was inscribed - along with Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Beethoven, and Gounod - on the old Met's proscenium. Today, both ``G's'' are out of favor.
And yet, listening to Dame Janet intone Orfeo's arias and stately scenes, I was struck once again by the sheer beauty, the eloquent simplicity, the heart-rending pathos of the music. Gluck, it should be remembered, was the man who reformed opera, bringing true human emotions to an art form that had become bound by formula and empty spectacle.
This was clearly what made Baker triumphant in Carnegie Hall - the ability to make us feel every aspect of Orfeo's suffering, particularly when he pleads in song with the Furies to let him into Hades and retrieve his beloved, and then when he loses her again for gazing on her face before they had returned to the land of the living. Baker's voice, per se, may have lost some of its luster over the past few seasons, and she is no longer up to the virtuosics of the interpolated aria that ended Act I. Nevertheless, the overall standards she has set over the years were splendidly in evidence in this deeply moving evening.
Andrea Matthews made a delectable Amor, Brenda Harris an uneven Euridice. The Oratorio Society of New York was presenting the opera, and its conductor, Lyndon Woodside, proved a caring, nuanced maestro presiding over an expert orchestra and the full-voiced, expressive choir.
Another choral group that has presented opera in the past, the Collegiate Chorale, offered the New York premi`ere of Ottorino Respighi's ``La Fiamma'' last December, also in Carnegie Hall.
I have mentioned the event twice in passing, but I have not yet had a chance to say a few words about the work itself.
Respighi is best known for his tone poems, particularly ``Pines of Rome,'' ``Fountains of Rome,'' and ``Roman Festivals.'' But his operas are ignored today. This live airing of ``La Fiamma,'' even more than the uneven Hungaraton recording with Ilona Tokody in the leading role (HCD 12591-93-2, digital, 3 CDs), proved that the work has many beautiful scenes. It offers a stirring showcase for a healthy and expressive soprano and a ringing near-heroic tenor.
The tale of suspected witchcraft in 7th-century Ravenna is dramatically interesting, the scoring is lush, and one can imagine that it would offer a gifted stage director a chance to dazzle with motivation and mood-creations.
And although Robert Bass is not the most expressive conductor, he managed to give a fair sense of the score's potential. His Collegiate Chorale sang robustly for him.
Finally, when one thinks of concert opera here, one must first think of Miss Queler's group. I have already reported on her extraordinary presentation of Janacek's ``Jenufa'' with Gabriela Benackova in the title role and the formidable Leonie Rysanek as Kostelnicka.
Earlier in the season, Queler offered Giordano's ``Andrea Chenier,'' another once-popular work that has been absent from the Met for over a decade. Queler cast Russian 'emigr'e Vyacheslov M. Polozov in the title role and Aprile Millo as Maddalena.
The tenor had a few impressive moments, but despite an often gleaming ringing top, and a great fervor in his interpretive style, his vocal inconsistencies finally defeated any overall favorable impression on this occasion.
Miss Millo, however, offered a crowd-pleasing account of her big third-act aria (which she had to repeat) and managed overall to prove that she can muster the volume and Italianate authority to rouse an audience.
Unfortunately, she tended to push the instrument into an edgy sound not heard just a few weeks earlier at the Met, when she assumed the title role in Verdi's ``Luisa Miller.''
Here she proved that when singing on her natural endowment, rather than beyond it, the voice easily, even lustrously, fills the house. As Luisa, she also proved to be a communicative, uncomplicated interpreter. It was a gratifying performance in just about every way.
Thor Eckert Jr. is the Monitor's music critic.