N.Y. City Opera: alive and singing!
New York — ''Alive and singing'' could be the motto of any number of opera companies around the country, but it seems most appropriate for the New York City Opera. Happily, the company celebrates its 40th anniversary on an upswing. As general director Beverly Sills points out, there is money in the bank; the company's long-term funding is in the best shape it has been in for years - $9 million over the next five years for starters; and the company has signed a five-year agreement with the singers' union, AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists).
It hasn't been easy, but then again, it never was. From the company's early days at City Center, there was a sense of the underdog fighting the big bad Met. During Julius Rudel's tenure as director, the company had gained both an identity and eventually a new home at Lincoln Center.
But the financial footing started to become precarious: The costs of operating in the new theater were high; the Met, under Sir Rudolf Bing, then general manager, viewed the City Opera as a dangerous, audience-grabbing rival. Still later, turmoil in the ranks of the board-and-management structure led to the premature resignation of Mr. Rudel, and to the appointing of Beverly Sills as company head.
The adjustment for her from diva to director was not easy. At the same time, the company was beginning a financial tailspin; there was an artistic crisis of the first order; and there were increasingly testy union relations, exacerbated by the change from a spring and fall season to a summer-through-fall season that musicians did not take to at all.
As a coddled opera star, Miss Sills had had no idea what a ''life-and-death situation'' really meant: ''My husband was going to feed me if I didn't go out to work in the morning. Life would go on. I was never before in a situation where life was simply not going to go on unless I did something.
''As I look around the offices here, I marvel at the people who have stuck with me and lived through it. How harassed and frantic everything was here. And yet there was the need to put on a rather bold front, because one does not bankroll a potentially bankrupt company. In looking back I feel I've survived a nightmare.''
In this 40th season, there is money. The first few weeks of the summer season - still an unknown quantity as to actual audiences and depth of support - have far outsold expectations. Subtitling is a regular feature at City Opera performances: Audiences can now understand quite specifically what is going on if they care to look above the set; premature laughter seems a small price to pay for comprehensibility.
''This season I think best shows the versatility of this company over the last 40 years,'' Miss Sills declares with pride. ''We're doing contemporary works as varied as Bernstein[''Candide''], Sondheim [''Sweeney Todd''], and Glass [''Akhnaten'']. We're doing our regular Puccini as well as his 'La Rondine' (which hasn't been staged here professionally in a long, long time). The general repertoire, I feel, is innovative. It is a real repertory company, in that the singers are rotating in the parts constantly.
This season boasts eight new productions - an outcome of the damaging strike last year that necessitated their being pushed ahead a season - but normally there will be two new productions a season. Those eight include the above-mentioned ''Sweeney Todd,'' ''Akhnaten,'' and ''La Rondine,'' as well as ''The Barber of Seville,'' ''Lakme,'' ''Carmen,'' ''The Mikado'' and the David Hockney setting of Stravinsky's ''The Rake's Progress.''
And what about what's doing onstage right now?
The opening night ''Barber'' boasted the enchanting, radiant Rosina of Judith Forst, a mezzo who has come into her own in the past few years. Otherwise, there was solid singing from Frederick Burchnial (Figaro); passable performances from William Dansby (Basilio) and Joseph McKee (Dr. Bartolo); and some erratic vocalizing from the miscast Bruce Reed as Almaviva.
Christopher Keene's conducting on opening night was less than smooth. But the problems with the evening sprang fundamentally from Toby Robertson's muddle of a production that never once indicated a viewpoint. It was now vaudevillian slapdash romp, now players-rehearse-the-premiere play-within-a-play (complete with a roaming Rossini), with only caricatures rather than characters on stage. On Lloyd Evans's attractive but cramped set, the singers had to worry more about stage business than singing.
Frank Corsaro, who stages the ''Carmen,'' is also on hand to touch up his ''Cavalleria Rusticana''/''I Pagliacci'' double bill and his ''Rigoletto.'' He also restaged the recent Zack Brown-designed production of ''Traviata.'' Corsaro at his best is a stimulating director. Here, he has essentially re-created his once-admired staging on sets no longer credited to Zack Brown. It all looks dated, fussy, obtrusive. And the performance I attended was all but sabotaged by the conductor, Klaus Weise.
In Marianna Christos, the City Opera has a potentially remarkable star. Vocally, this Violetta grew in strengths to a ravishing, haunting last act. But her stage manner needs fine-tuning, as does her ability to get under the skin of this role and reveal the multifaceted woman behind the notes. Robert Grayson acted stiffly but sang Alfredo tastefully, despite a proclivity to push his high notes. Robert McFarland was seriously overparted as Giorgio Germont. Alteouise DeVaughan made Flora seem like a major role.
But two uneven nights do not a season's profile make. And Miss Sills loves her company. ''I like the idea of the flexibility of this company - the fact that a Frank Corsaro doesn't say to me, 'I'm not going to do a ''Traviata'' that's not done on a new set that I've approved.' And look at our talent - Hadley, McCauley, Mills, Vaness, Rolandi. For Vaness to have a triumph as Alcina here is totally different from going to the Met in 'Cosi.' I'm very high on the talent here.'' Abbado at the Vienna Opera
In last week's ''On Music'' column, the editing in the section about the Vienna Opera made it appear that Claudio Abbado was being identified as a bureaucrat. In fact, the respected Italian maestro has been appointed music director of that opera company.