City Opera opens - at last - with two innovative shows

The first sound at the opening of the New York City Opera season was the tumultuous booing the orchestra received when maestro Mario Bernardi asked them to rise at the beginning of the evening. Unfortunately, the orchestra union's chief was not made the focal point of the demonstration, though it was his stance that had led to the strike that kept the theater dark for two months.

Anyway, the City Opera is back, and that of itself is cause for celebration.

The first two operas of the new strike-truncated season are Massenet's ''Cendrillon,'' in a new production, and a major revival of Puccini's ''Turandot.'' The shows are interesting, not just for the musical value, but because each boasts a novelty: ''Cendrillon'' is surtitled; ''Turandot'' sports a new-old ending - the world stage premiere of the original Franco Alfano version.

Surtitles? It's a technique devised by the Canadian Opera, Toronto, to supply a running translation of the opera being performed. The sentences are flashed on a screen just under the top of the proscenium, something akin to the subtitles you see on televised opera except that they are above the stage (hence surtitles , in the Canadian fashion, though dubbed subtitles in City Opera ads).

Does it interfere with the opera? From my vantage point in the orchestra, not at all. You can glance upward if you wish; otherwise, you're apt to forget they're even there. And when the show is as enchanting as this ''Cendrillon,'' you may never want to look up to catch a single word.

This is the third time around for me with this production, which saw the light of day at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. I first saw it in Washington , D.C., and then in San Francisco. The constants throughout have been the physical production (Henry Bardon sets, Suzanne Mess costumes), conductor Bernardi, Delia Wallis as Prince Charmant, and Maureen Forrester as Mme. de la Haltiere.

This enchanting work, full of sumptuous, haunting Massenet melody, charm, and atmosphere, casts a unique spell. It lends itself to ensemble spirit. In fact, though casting in New York was not quite up to that heard in the other cities, the overall spirit was so vivid, with everyone seeming so happy to be performing , that any quibbles one could have were swept away. It was just the sort of evening one expects at the City Opera - where the cumulative effect of the performance overrides any inherent deficiencies.

Faith Esham - a light-mezzo-turned-soprano - sang the title role acceptably, but without much true characterization or projection of the requisite vulnerability. William Parker was a sympathetic, restrained Pandolfe - though with some straining in the top range. Erie Mills, last year's dazzling Cundegonde in ''Candide,'' was a fine Fairy Godmother, even if she tended to make do with just singing the notes rather than shaping phrases or projecting words. Judith Christin and Lisbeth Lloyd, in her debut, were the riotous stepsisters. Miss Wallis's slim mezzo has taken on a peculiar beat, yet hers was a most involved, heartfelt Prince Charmant. Miss Forrester could by now have turned director Brian Macdonald's excessive staging of Cendrillon's stepmother into cheap gimmickry, but her comic timing and her basic taste have kept the characterization showstoppingly uproarious without being unduly vulgar.

The production has been seriously cut down to fit on the State Theatre stage, but the flavor is still intact. Mr. Macdonald's direction, however, remains overly coy. Each scene could have come from an old-fashioned storybook illustration of the classic Perrault (France's equivalent of Mother Goose) story that is the inspiration for the opera. Massenet's lovely score was sensitively conducted by Mr. Bernardi. The orchestra strove to do its finest, playing with unaccustomed panache, tonal beauty, and clean ensemble. It clearly deserved the ovation it received at evening's end. 'Turandot'

''Turandot'' was a more typical City Opera outing. Things looked underrehearsed, the singing was erratic, the orchestra played noisily and a bit scrappily. And, as in the past, a poor choice was made for director of the show. The familiar Beni Montresor sets remain, though now so poorly lit as to rob them of any vestige of magic and illusion. Director Jack Eddleman's stage goings-on seemed better suited to a high school theatrical event than the stage of an important opera house.

Still, the real interest of the performance lay in the new-old ending. Franco Alfano was called upon by Puccini's family to finish the opera the composer had left incomplete at his death. At the world premiere, Toscanini stopped the performance where Puccini's music ended - after Liu is borne off stage. All subsequent performances had a seriously truncated, simplified version of the one Alfano tagged on, but trimmed to Toscanini's specifications. It is this ending that has come down to us.

As heard at the City Opera, Alfano's original intentions are much more interesting harmonically and even melodically, as well as being some six or seven minutes longer. This is, in effect, a completely new scene. The harmonic shifts and alternate melodies ring far truer in spirit to the opera than the version we now know. One can easily see why some British critics proclaimed that this could become the standard finale of ''Turandot.''

Judith Telep-Ehrlich has the requisite high notes for the title role, but not the security of pitch or tonal production. It's a notoriously difficult part, and at times she was honorable, at other times she was wanting. The Calaf, Jon Frederic West, seemed to be pushing his basically fine tenor and robbing the high notes in particular of openness and gleam in his debut. Neither singer moves well on a stage. Still, the director had them clambering up and down a large staircase as if they were veteran circus performers. Pamela Myers's Liu strove to give an idiomatic sense of the role, though her soprano is a bit unmanageable in dynamic control.

Christopher Keene, in the pit, revealed little affinity for this opera or for the Italian idiom. With a thick scrim down all evening, it cannot have been easy to have full communcation between pit and stage. Nonetheless, the numerous lapses in ensemble and sychronization spoke of more than visual impediments.

There are performances of ''Turandot'' through Oct. 29. ''Cendrillon'' runs through Oct. 7.

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