Testing Time for New York City Opera As New Chief Takes Reigns

MUSIC: REVIEW

THE New York City Opera is in a state of transition. Beverly Sills handed the reigns of the company to former music director Christopher Keene this past March, but in effect he is custodian of a season Miss Sills put together. His impact on programming will not be felt until well into the 1991 season. The first weeks of the new season should be seen as a statement about where the company is these days, and where it needs to go. The immediate threat lies in labor negotiations: The threat of a possible strike (the orchestra is without a contract) has forced the company to postpone its scheduled new production of Schoenberg's ``Moses und Aaron'' until further notice. And there remains the chance that the fall season will not happen.

Opening night was devoted to a new production, always a difficult thing to pull off. Mozart's ``Don Giovanni'' was the opera and Hal Prince the director. If it was not a total triumph, at least the apparent jinx on this opera with this company has been broken: The production was often handsome physically, and it offered no serious problems (or startling revelations, for that matter) dramatically.

The choice of repertoire this summer is standard by current City Opera criteria. Two productions unveiled last season - Rossini's ``Il Barbiere di Siviglia'' (``The Barber of Seville'') and Verdi's ``Rigoletto'' - were revived; Mozart's ``Die Zauberfl"ote'' (``The Magic Flute''), first seen in '86, is back; and so is the company's aging production of Puccini's ``Madama Butterfly.''

FOR the lighter fare that seems to have held the company in good stead since it began operating in the summer, Leonard Bernstein's ``Candide'' (which returns this fall) and Lehar's ``The Merry Widow'' were presented. The best that can be said for either show is that it gave the audiences pleasure. Both are treated as Broadway shows in production style, and if neither was sung with distinction, at least there was a certain Broadway authority to both that kept the applause and the laughs flowing.

Clearly, the best show of the opening weeks has been ``Magic Flute'' (which will also be back in the fall). The cast has changed, with the exception of Stephen Dickson as Papageno: As good as he was in '86, he is even better today, singing with a burnished richness of voice and performing with ingratiating ease. Ruth Golden, pinch-hitting for an indisposed colleague, was a poised, musically and histrionically graceful Pamina; Elizabeth Carter, an accurate and often fiery Queen of the Night; and Walter MacNeil, a mellifluous Tamino. Lotfi Mansouri's intentionally old-fashioned production has held up well.

Unfortunately, Mansouri's ``Barber'' has not. The production's relentless pursuit of slapstick is tiresome, and the cast is weak. At least Thomas Woodman showed off a major baritone in the title role, and Sills's music director, Sergiu Comissiona, kept things moving effectively in the pit.

The ``Rigoletto'' was weakly staged last season, and so it remains. Happily, the cast, which included Pablo Elvira in the title role and Paul Hartfield as the Duke, managed to give a sense of Verdian excitement, even when some of the singing lacked real ringing tones.

Maureen O'Flynn (as Gilda) was in a class by herself - a singer of accomplishment and imagination, whose lyric soprano is augmented by a sure coloratura extension (up to an interpolated E-flat).

AS for the new ``Giovanni,'' Prince's direction is straightforward, unexceptional (a few magical moments notwithstanding). Debuting designer Rolf Langenfass's sets and costumes will keep the company in good stead for many seasons to come. But the cast was generally unconvincing in their roles, and and they brought little style to their interpretation of Mozart's music. The only exception was Erie Mills as Zerlina, and to a lesser extent, Jan Opalach as Leporello. As for the others, vocal inadequacies and slouching posture seemed to be the common denominator. And a general imprecision sat on Comissiona's work in the pit.

General director Keene takes over a company on a firmer financial footing than in the past thanks to Sills incessant ministrations, but it is clear that he has a serious challenge.

The time has come for the company try to move back to the artistically searching and inventive profile it had during the bulk of the Julius Rudel years. Casting has to be nudged up to a higher standard; the spread of directors has to be enriched, so that audiences are challenged as well as assuaged.

The orchestra blossomed under Keene's music directorship, and has backslid a bit during Comissiona's brief tenure. As for the conductors, it is good to note that Scott Bergeson, in charge of the ``Flute,'' ``Candide,'' and ''Rigoletto,'' has begun to come into his own as genuine opera man - as endangered a species as exists in the world of opera.

Whether or not ``Moses und Aaron'' ever happens now, it is enough that it was planned. But it must be the beginning of a broader approach to repertoire, presented in a manner that will grab the opera audience's attention and interest rather than alienate it. New York has an informed and knowledgeable audience that no longer goes to the opera. The City Opera is could easily win them back. The gauntlet of challenge is now at Keene's feet.

The City Opera performs Tues. - Sun. through mid-Nov. with revivals of Donizetti's ``Anna Bolena'' and Korngold's ``Die Tote Stadt'' adding particular interest to the season.

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