Fire hasn't damaged spirit of New York City Opera

FOR the New York City Opera, it is the best of times and the worst of times: The company has just unveiled a delightful production of Prokofiev's ``The Love for Three Oranges'' while it is trying to recover from the catastrophe of a Passaic, N.J., fire Sept. 5 that destroyed almost all its costumes. The Prokofiev opera is directed by Frank Corsaro, with sets and costumes by Maurice Sendak. Another Corsaro-Sendak production, of Leos Janacek's ``The Cunning Little Vixen'' (seen on TV a few seasons back), was one of the 74 productions of costumes lost. As general director, Beverly Sills noted during a press conference Sept. 11, the stock is lost as well -- the petticoats, hoops, bustles, undershirts, socks, shoes, etc., that are common to all productions and help reduce the cost of new productions.

Happily, the costumes for the 16 productions the company is doing this season were stored in the theater. The new costumes will cost considerably more than their originals. She cited her own ``Roberto Devereux'' Act II dress, which cost $2,500 to build in 1970. Now it will cost $15,000. Miss Sills stressed that this was only a setback, not a fatal blow. ``New York City Opera has passed its survival test. We are alive and kicking.'' And it proved her point with ``The Love for Three Oranges.''

This opera, given its world premi`ere in Chicago in 1921, is a rollicking farce that tells the story of the Prince of Clubs, whose well-being is foiled on numerous occasions by sorceress Fata Morgana -- who curses him to fall in love with three oranges guarded by the evil witch Cr'eonte. Prokofiev's music is witty, parodistic, often beautiful, always colorful. The celebrated ``March'' comes back again and again somewhat like a leitmotif.

Director Corsaro has chosen to make it a play-within-a-play, set in a delectably Sendakian version of post-Revolutionary France. It is all whimsy, silliness, and -- in the case of Cr'eonte's cook -- inspired madness. She is a huge puppet, a gargantuan creature with scale-cups for earrings, alert and lascivious eyes, a huge mouth and grotesque tongue, which all turn coy when she eyes a pretty ribbon proffered by a potential victim.

Corsaro's contributions are lively, if a bit too frenetic at times. Not all his choices at sustaining the play-within-a-play are effective, or even necessary, but the energy level remains high throughout the evening. It is very much a director's opera and was cast accordingly, with singers who could move and project comedy, rather than ones who could really do justice to Prokofiev's vocal lines. Overall, it's a good, solid ensemble evening.

In the pit, company music director Christopher Keene kept things moving at a lively pace. The orchestra sounded at all times full-toned without swamping the singers, and the Prokofiev humor was everywhere to be heard. Mr. Keene has come under some fire of late. One New York critic has gone even so far as to wonder if he really likes music. It seems an unnecessary drubbing, and what is consistently overlooked is just how good the orchestra has become on a regular basis. For this, Keene

deserves tremendous credit.

His work with the orchestra is particularly evident when a guest conductor is on the podium. Two debuters this past summer, Edoardo M"uller and Jos'e Serebrier, were able to conjure things from this orchestra that have eluded other guests in years past. Mr. M"uller, at the helm of an uneven run of Bellini's ``I Puritani,'' brought a suppleness of line, an impressive awareness of his singers' phrasings, and a consistent beauty of orchestral tone to his work. Mr. Serebrier's reading of Massenet's `` Manon'' proved authentically Gallic in flavor, considerate of his singers, and full of passion and lyricism.

The ``Puritani'' marked the return to the City Opera stage of American soprano Faye Robinson. She radiates a remarkable amount of personal warmth on stage; unfortunately, the role of Elvira gave her consistent problems. The Arturo, tenor John Fowler, had all the high notes in a role that does not really suit him. Robert McFarland, a last-minute replacement Riccardo, is sadly forcing his handsome baritone these days. At least bass Harry Dworchak was on hand to remind us that bel canto (``beautiful song'' ) is alive and possible at the City Opera.

The vocal star of the ``Manon'' was Jerry Hadley as Des Grieux. He possesses a remarkable, affecting lyric tenor, which he uses with considerable skill. He is tall, good-looking, a poetic musician, a splendid actor. His interaction with Faith Esham's Manon made their big scenes particularly believable. And once Miss Esham broke away from her fluttery mannerisms and her acting improved, she was able to put her somewhat unruly, rather cooly efficient soprano toward some genuinely musical and dramatic ends .

Clearly, things are on an upswing musically. Yet the company now faces a major challenge. Miss Sills has announced a $5 million Fire Emergency Fund drive for costume replacement. ``I have to raise in excess of $81/2 million every year just to keep the company functioning,'' she noted with a sense of frustration. The company had been doing well financially, at long last, and this fire is a monumental setback. But the Ledler Foundation and PepsiCo have each pledged $500,000. Insurance should make up

some of the loss. The City Opera board should be able to raise $1 million internally, which leaves $3 million to be raised from the general public and corporate world.

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