Commissioning new operas is not only important, it is vital to the renewing of the art form. New York City Opera is to be commended for the support is has given to the so-called "American Trilogy" it recently unveiled at the State Theater in Lincoln Center, even if the substance of the three works performed -- Stanley Silverman's "Madame Adare," Thomas Pasatieri's "Before Breakfast," and Jan Bach's "The Student from Salamanca" -- is somewhat removed from the company's laudible intentions.
On the plus side, Marilyn Zschau was alone onstage throughout "Before Breakfast." She commanded the stage with brilliant ease, managing to be a tragic figure of tremendous vulnerability. She made one feel for the woman she portrays, who is forced into a marriage she never wanted and is eeking out a petty existence with her unfaithful (offstage) husband, finding solace in Jazz dancing (an especially memorable sequence as executed by Miss Zschau).
And in "Student from Salamanca," Beverly Evans shone like a welcome beacon in a pitchblack night. Her mezzo is apparently bottomless, her ability to inflect each gesture and flick of the wrist with persuasive meaning is amazing, as is her comic timing. She is a true performer in a day when such a being is fast becoming an endangered species.
As far as standard fare goes, Bizet's "Pearl Fishers," is exactly the sort of opera City Opera should have in its repertoire. That the new production has problems of set and direction is lamentable, but it offered the sort of evening this company does best.
Bizet's first real hit boasts lovely melodies, and offers three great singers a chance to dazzle an audience with vocal oppulence. As Leila, Diana Soviero found the frills and trills of the first act less than comfortable, but the role generally suits her well, and she is just the sort of star the City Opera needs and is rightfully encouraging.
None among the newly commissioned opera, unfortunately, had anything new to say. "Madame Adare" purported to be contemporary in plot device. A simpering shrinking violet tries to shoot her psychiatrist because he insists she pay her bills. She misses. Her agent tells her to become either an opera star or a sex symbol. Since she cannnot make up her mind, the Devil assists her. She becomes an opera star then murders her psychiatrist for not taking her money -- her sublime debut was payment enough, he had said. She becomes a sex star from the publicity surrounding the murder. The cast glares at the audience saying, "You'd do it too!"
It's not the stuff of interesting or original theater, especially as staged by librettist Richard Foreman. The big sop to currency was the blinding row of lights aimed at the audience for most of the 42 minutes of this dreary thing. An odd onstage vamp was appreciated, some pistol shots made for the high point of liveliness. An occasional dance tune in the orchestra, and a certain unexpected swerve to another period or idiom kept Silverman's music occasionally entertaining. Lloyd Evans's pedestrian set was lit by Gilbert helmsley as annoyingly as (one assumes) the director wished it to be.
The performances were all more or less adequate, but Madame Adare has to be a real personality if this questional "vehicle" is to find any life at all. Since Carol Gutknecht put little fire in her character and little presence in her voice, this threadbare pastiche was a genuine fizzle.
As for "Before Breakfast," its plot -- Eugene O'Neill's -- is very dated. Adaptor Frank Corsaro has compounded the cliches, and composer Pasatieri has highlighted them all with music that lacks personality or persuasiveness. It is a faceless rehashing of Poulenc's "La Voix Humaine" without Jean Cocteau's compelling Libretto, and with Music that lacks any harmonic interest. Corsaro's direction keeps things moving along on Lloyd Evans's distinguished set.
If "Before Breakfast" smacks of "Voix Humaine," Student from Salamanca' veritably reeks of Ravel's "L'Heure Espagnole. Jan Bach's command of the art of fugues and counterpoint become tiresome after a while, and the incessant couplets endlessly repeated are a source of constant annoyance. At many a moment, one wants to stand and scream "Let's get onm with it!" and one does question Bach's taste (he wrote his own libretto) when the ribaldry bubbles over into something much more rauchy, euphemisms notwithstanding.
That said, it is consistent -- tedious though it may be -- and as such must be deemed the most successful of the trilogy operas, although Susanne Marsee was all empty gesture and shallow voice. John Lankston as the aged Craccio made the most of his part, Allan Glassman proved suitably boyish in looks, though somewhat passive and dour of demeanor and lightweight of voice as the young student Stephano who is supposed to rakishly spice up this unusual household. Jack Eddleman's direction waxed as lively as the repetitive music allowed it to be.
Each production had its own conductor. Brian Salesky tried to convince the audience that Silverman's meanderings had meaning and cohesive power, Imre Pallo played up what drama there was in Pasatieri's musical porridge, and Judith Somogi attempted, by means of lively tempos and crystalline textures, to make us feel that Bach's opus was not a long hour tediously spent.
Robert O'Hearn's niggardly sets in the production of Bizet's "Pearl Fishers" consist of about four Ceylonese temple tops moved from one side of the stage to the other. But Cynthia Auerbach's direction fussed and bothered so much with inconsequential details, all that remained was some Victorian tourist guide leading silly people with their quaint, risible customs. What we should have had were whatever essentials there were of this admittedly slender drama.
Barry McCauley, one of America's rising young lyric tenors, is unsettingly wooden on stage. Sometimes a dryness creeps into an upper voice that, one suspects, may never melt an audience with luscious tone. But most of Nadir suited him well, and in those sections he sang handsomely. NYCO veteran Dominic Cossa's baritone has lost much of its quality, and his onstage manner has become too aloof for dramatic credibility.
In the pit, debuting Calvin Simmons proved again that he is alert to dramatic motion, lyric intensity, and to the firm and loving support his singers need.