The New York City Opera has always been supportive of French opera, even if only the most popular works have been given productions there. The company revived the Frank Corsaro production of Gounod's "Faust" and the Tito Capobianco production of Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" in its closing weeks.
The "Faust" proved to be just what is expected of City but has not always been forthcoming. The cast was young and impressive. Barry McCauley, making his debut in the title role, proved something of a find. He needs polish as of yet, both in his singing and acting, but his light lyric tenor rises comfortably , securely, and easily to a high "C" (with just a touch of dryness in some high notes) and he phrases with attention to line and nuance.
Diana Soviero, as Marguerite, was in fine voice. The top is the best part of the voice -- warm, well-produced, often thrilling. Her acting is vividly convincing, and her singing always matched the mood of the moment. In baritone Brent Ellis the City Opera has a magnificent Valentin -- ample and clear of voice, and intense and committed of acting style.
Justino Diaz was Mephistopheles. Unfortunately, the role calls for more voice and presence man he mustered at the first performance, though he can be a most personable performer. In the pit, Christopher Keene kept things moving with intensity and a superior sense of the drama of Gounod's score, and the orchestra played very well for him. The Corsaro production holds up extremely well. It is unorthodox in its statement, but utterly faithful to the spirit of this opera which it tackles commitedly in terms of the 20th-century theater City Opera proved that Gounod's "Faust" can be fun and a grand evening of opera.
The revival of "Tales of Hoffmann" was fraught with problems. The production was done for the late Norman Treigle and Beverly Sills (as was the "Faust," incidentally.) Miss Sills played all four heroines in the piece, and Mr. Treigle , all the villains or nemeses. The old standard version of the opera was used, which recent (and not-so-recent) research has oroved is unfaithful to Offenbach's original version, not to mention dramatic credibility.
Capobianco has been accused of tampering with the score to make his effects, but that old version is often so silly (particularly when one knows something closer to the original version) that it almost seems to make no difference at all. Capobianco also drops the Epilogue, which is a pity, for the effect gained -- that of giving the villain, Dr. Miracle, the last theatrical gesture of the show -- does not make dramatic sense.
Casting was also uneven, except in the case of Samuel Ramey who sang all four villains. Mr. Ramey is one of our greatest young singers and dynamic stars. He holds the stage in this sort of role with incredible force of personality. The voice rings free and gloriously true in four roles that challenge a baritone.
As Hoffmann, Riccardo Calleo's good looks held him in good stead. But he must learn to pace himself, for the role offers few chances to show off a gleaming top-of-the-voice, yet is just high enough to be wearing for an incautious singer. June Anderson sang the role of the doll Olympia with fearless assault on the coloratura. But as the languishing Antonia she proved cold and rather characterless -- her large soprano lacking color or tonal appeal much of the time. The smoky-mezzo-voiced Joanna Simon brought genuine glamour to the role of Giulietta -- something one does not find often in an opera house.
Richard Duffalo's conducting lacked dramatic thrust. Had he been more alert to his singers needs, the entire evening might not have devolved so noticeably to a vocally unconvincing third act.