Opera in English in our opera houses?
It's an endless argument, but one that should be examined now and then. Often people say that opera in the vernacular is provincial, but I have always felt that it has its place in our secondary houses, where most singers are American. They gain a richer understanding of a role if they know what they are singing about, word for word, rather than merely mouthing phonetic syllables with some vague sense of their meaning. Besides, audiences really are better off understanding 50 to 60 percent of English than 0 percent of a foreign tongue.
This point came vividly home at the Manhattan School's excellent US premiere production of Zemlinsky's ''Eine Florentinische Tragodie'' (''A Florentine Tragedy''). The student singers rarely conveyed any understanding of the German they were singing. Of course they were also too inexperienced to do full justice to the long arching lines of Zemlinsky's lush music.
American schools do not stress training in body movement; the nuance of language is clearly not stressed at Manhattan or at most music schools in this country. Whereas music director John Crosby gave New Yorkers a chance to hear a dramatically static yet musically beguiling work, it is odd that he did not make it easier for his student cast and his audiences by doing the work in English. Clearly all involved loved the opera -- the production was handsome to look at, well staged, ardently played and sung, and deftly conducted. How much more it would have communicated in our vernacular.
Vernacular singing rarely belongs at our finest houses. But New York's second house should be doing most of its works in English, the way most big European cities' second houses do their performances in their vernacular.
A ''La Boheme'' (Puccini) I saw at the New York City Opera a few weeks back would have gained immeasurably from being sung in a good (and I stress good) English translation. The cast was young, the voices at the very least serviceable. The performance crackled with energy and conviction. It was not ultimately a moving ''Boheme,'' but it certainly was effective -- NYCO at its strongest.
Kathleen Lamy's vibrato-ridden voice marred somewhat her candid, forthright Mimi, but she knows how the music is supposed to be put forth (as most NYCO Mimi's have not of late). Wilhelmina Fernandez's Musetta -- both ladies had recently made their City Opera debuts in these roles -- was effusive, securely projected, and handsomely sung. Robert McFarland made an affecting Schaunard.
Barry McCauley's dry-voiced Rodolfo, Alan Titus's deft, winning Marcello, and Boris Martinovich's Colline were familiar from earlier encounters. Vincent LaSelva conducted a sprightly (one could say hasty) ''Boheme'' that bubbled over with enthusiasm and verve and, finally, touching tragedy. The whole thing would have frothed and touched even more in clearly pronounced English.
The vernacular did not salvage the City's ''Grand Duchess of Gerolstein,'' perhaps the nadir production of my City Opera-going experience. The miscasting was grievous. Director Jack Hofsiss did damage to a score he neither trusted nor seemed really to like. The outdated Ruth and Thomas Martin translation proved unbearable. At the final performance, Antonio de Almeida showed he grasps the essence of Offenbach -- that ebullient comic-opera master -- and was a bastion of understanding in a sea of silly slapstick, jejune sight gags, and parodies of vaudeville turns. Muriel Costa-Greenspun should never have been cast as the Duchess. Her voice does not encompass the role in range, style, or beauty -- and histrionically she utterly missed the boat. Of the rest, only the light-voiced David Eisler gave any sign of understanding what Offenbach singing and acting is all about.
And vernacular did not really help the City Opera cast get through Strauss's ''Ariadne auf Naxos.'' This Sarah Caldwell production presents the prologue and the commedia dell'arte sequences in English, the opera seria in German. The audience laughs during the German stretches because they have been primed to laugh everywhere else.
The production is generally well intended, but a tad too busy. In the pit, Klaus Weise gave the singers all the room they needed to be authentically Straussian, but his efforts eluded veteran mezzo Susan Marsee, who sang stiffly in the role of the Composer. Coloratura soprano Gianna Rolandi was an abrasive, often effortful Zerbinetta; and soprano Stephanie Sundine, a tall, attractive, vocally now-shaky, now-appealing Ariadne.
Secondary casting was acceptable, especially the Cowardly-Lion-like Major-domo of Jack Herold. Scott Bergeson made Bacchus a figure of authority, and, on opening night, he sang the treacherous music handsomely until the final phrase.