Innovative performances at the opera

The vitality of any opera house lies in its ability to introduce new works to its audiences. In New York, the two leading opera houses have always had differing approaches to that challenge. The New York City Opera has traditionally Been the more adventurous of the two, offering brand new works where the Metropolitan Opera would offer carefully selected but established ones.

Of late, the Met has been more adventurous than usual even if not all the offerings have paid off. But the new production of two French operas and a ballet under the title "Parade" is surely one of the most auspicious things the house has done in the "innovative" category.

And the City Opera has finally brought Thea Musgrave's theatrical, compelling "Mary Queen of Scots" to New York, three years after its US premier in Norfolk, Va.

There is so much right and so little wrong with the Met's French evening.The evening is one of the few total partnerships to be seen at the Met: conductor Manuel Rosenthal, set designer David Hockney, director John Dexter, lighting designer Gil Wechsler, and a very large cast of singers have all uniquely fused their talents to bring two intimate and special operas to life.

What is wrong is the insistence of trying the three works together, rather than letting each stand on its own. This particularly compromises -- fatally -- the opener, Satie's ballet, "Parade" which lends its name to the entire evening. Director John Dexter has treated the ballet as the introduction to the evening, bringing in elements of the two other works -- Francis Poulenc's "Les Mamelles de Tiresias" and Maurice Ravel's "L'enfant et les Sortileges" -- within a carnival framework. Perhaps in the hands of a more inventive and imaginative choreographer than Grey Veredon, it might have worked, but as is, "Parade" sets one's teeth on edge rather than setting one up for the evening.

But the ballet "Parade" goes on a mere 15 minutes, and after the briefest of pauses, we are in the world of Poelenc setting Apollinaire to music, and the entire evening takes wing. Here John Dexter's investiveness in sustaining a marvelous wittiness comes to the fore as the ironic tale unfolds OF A woman who foregoes her feminity, dons a beard, and leaves her husband to fend for himself. Before the work ends, the husband makes babies -- over 40,000! -- in Apollinaire's deeply ironic tale.

But it is not just Dexter's comic touches -- and his ability to fill the house with this intimate work -- that makes "Mamelles" (and, in fact, the entire evening) so exceptional. Noted artist David Hockney has designed the sets and for the two operas, they are superb -- atmospheric, nonrealistic yet moody, whimsical, colorful, exactly to the point. "Mamelles," for instance, gives us the essence of a blue Mediterranean village.

"L'Enfant et les Sortileges" gives us a wildly distorted green and purple room that transform into a garden dominated by a huge tree with red slashes of branching. Gil Wechsler, in his best Met effort to date, has lit sets and these productions superbly.

"Mamelles" is a triumph of staging to keep an audience attentive -- one that, after all, must have trouble understanding much of the clever, punny French. But the fantasy- nightmare as seen through a child's eyes of "L'Enfant" has rarely been made to work on a stage.Dexter does not solve all the probLems, but he comes enchantingly close, and also makes it seem intimate in this vast hall. Most of the singers stand on either side of the proscenium while children enact the roles being sung. A few times, the singers wander onto the set, and that, unfortunately, confuses matters quite irreparably. Then, near the end of the work, when all the creatures meld their fury into pandemonium, a terrifying effect is merely confused in the lamest sort of fashion.

But these are quibbles, as in my objection to the barbed wire and spotlights on stage all night long (though hidden by the "L'Enfant" sets) to remind us that World War I was going while these works were gestating. And dragging in the Harlequin (the excellent Gary Cryst, who opens "Parade") at the end of the Ravel is pure artifice, and rings utterly false to the work.

In the final analysis, any production that achieves hushed, haunting, spectacular magic such as the transformation to the garden in "L'Enfant" deserves nothing but the highest of praise.

And the highest of praise must go to conductor Manuel Rosenthal -- who studied with Ravel -- for making the musical contribution throughout as exalted as the visual/dramatic. He was rewarded with waves of acclaim at curtain's end, all gloriously justified. And the Met orchestra played superbly for him.

The collective cast is huge, and space precludes all but a cursory mention of the outstading contributors: Catherine Malfitano (in radiant voice) and David Holloway in "Mamelles" and Hilda Harris as the Child in the Ravel (which was presented with 23 singers).

As to the City Opera's presentation of Miss Musgrave's "Mary Queen of Scots," it is a very good work indeed.Miss Musgrave has eschewed, to a great degree, pure melody for orchestrational development that expands and fleshes out her own libretto, which is a basically accurate telling of the famous queen's return to Scotland, and her brief rule there.

The first act is low key, expositional, preparing gently yet inexorably for the confrontations between Mary and her power-mad brother James Stewart. The second act seethes and crackles with passion, power, and intensity. The third is a skillful devolvement to the hectic and rather enigmatic ending Miss Musgrave has chosen to give the work. Here -- with artistic license -- history is compressed into a few seconds with Mary being forced out of Scotland and James murdered before her eyes.

Ashley Putnam, who first sang the role in the Norfolk premiere, has had her bad vocal patches of late, but in the City Opera run, she seems to have shored up some of those problems. There is little bottom (which makes diction a real problem) but she uses the rest more tellingly and wisely than in the past. And she cuts a very impressive figure on stage. Richard Fredericks gives one of his finest performances to date as James Stewart -- not just a lot of singing, which he usually does reliably, but vivid characterization as well. Barry Busse made a bold, forthright Bothwell. The rest of the cast performed well, except for Rico Serbo who proved a mannered, unconvincing Darnley.

In the pit, Peter Mark Delivered a fiery, cleanly balanced performance supportive of his singers yet true to Miss Musgrave's dramatic thrust. The production is the one seen at the Virginia Opera Association in Norfolk, sets by Muguel Romero, costumes by Alex Reid. The lighting here was by the gifted Gilbert Helmsley. the staging was by VOA's David Farrar -- work marked by his clean eye for balance, simplicity, and clarity of dramatic action.

Now that the work is here, may it not be forgotten, but brought back regularly, as all good operas should be. After all, it is a superb vehicle for three gifted singing actors, and should be extremely useful to any adventurous company.

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