Summertime opera: fresh `Cav/Pag'. Sills's New York City troupe meeting a need

Beverly Sills's effort to bring opera to New York in the summertime seems to be paying off. The summer season of her New York City Opera is not only a fixture on the summer scene here; it is a well-attended one as well. Granted, the mix of repertoire between fairly standard classics and operetta - Puccini's ``La Boh`eme'' and Romberg's ``The Student Prince'' - may not be to all aficionados' tastes, but it does fill a need.

What about the quality the company is offering these days?

I caught up with four evenings - one new production, one major reworking, and two carryovers from recent seasons. Although there are still problems with choice of directors for new productions and how to deal with aging stagings, casting continues to be solid.

The new production was of the popular double bill of Mascagni's ``Cavalleria Rusticana'' and Leoncavallo's ``Pagliacci'' (known popularly as ``Cav/Pag''). Clarke Dunham's sets were generally effective in an eccentrically stylized fashion, as were Andrew Marley's costumes.

But director Arthur Masella's ideas in both works tended to intrude on the action and create all sorts of extraneous ``business.''

To begin with, he staged both preludes - for me, the sure sign of a director who mistrusts the music's descriptive power.

In ``Cav'' we were treated to the spectacle of Turridu leaving Lola's house and singing his serenade front-stage, center - quite contrary to Mascagni's explicit wishes. We then were treated to a borrowing from Broadway's ``Les Mis'erables'' - marching-in-place peasants - before the set finally pulls together and lands us in the middle of a rather naturalistic Sicilian village, except for a pint-size, leaning church.

The ``Pag'' prelude mime show was an awkward piece of stage business. But at least the casting gave us seasoned performers. Marianna Christos' intense, vocally lovely Nedda; Jon Fredric West's manic, stentorian Canio; and Frederick Burchinal's solid, malevolent Tonio - all performed admirably.

In the ``Cav,'' Kathryn Bouleyn was drastically miscast as Santuzza, her frayed soprano and too-slatternly gestures rarely suggesting the character's core. Stefano Algieri's tenor was very loud, but not very attractive, and he was somewhat lacking in stamina. By this one-act opera's end, he all but ran out of top notes. Rodger Hugh Wangerin's Alfio (a last-minute debut) was honorable. Janis Eckhart's Lola was not.

This was conductor Sergiu Comissiona's first new production since his appointment as music director. He led both works with authority, a consistent flair for drama, and only occasionally a willful, unsupportive sense of what tempo a singer might need to negotiate an aria comfortably.

This tendency toward willfulness also intruded on his reading of Gounod's ``Faust,'' but one still gets the feeling that, overall, Comissiona is going to be a valuable addition to the City Opera. His theatrical sense is keen. The orchestra plays well for him. If he can shed the proclivity toward staking his own claim on tempos rather then really helping his singers at all times, he will be even more valuable.

As to ``Faust,'' there were several major casting changes. John Cheek, the new M'ephistof'el`es gave a fine musicianly reading of a role that allows for many points of view. Ruth Golden was standing in at the last minute as Marguerite. Her performance proved at all times confident and poised, and most of the time she used her lovely lyric soprano radiantly.

The point of interest in the ``Tosca'' revival could have been Frank Corsaro's restaging of the old Tito Capobianco production, had Corsaro's work not abounded in anachronisms and wrongheaded ideas.

The cast was good. Elizabeth Holleque's statuesque beauty and often lustrous soprano held her in good stead in the title role, and she knows her Tosca traditions.

Tenor Robert Grayson forced more than he needed to as Cavaradossi, but was otherwise most satisfactory.

Robert McFarland's Scarpia was a bit too nice, but he cuts a strong stage figure.

Under most normal circumstances, this would have been an engaging, dramatically viable performance. Conductor Alessandro Siciliani, however, seemed so wayward and self-indulgent, so uncaring of his young singers' needs, as to be a potentially damaging influence on a houseful of young singers unskilled in handling this sort of personality.

Verdi's ``La Traviata'' was back with a new Violetta, debuting Marilyn Mims (I attended her second performance). She is a confident performer who has some things to refine in terms of stage deportment and of coping with all the musical challenges of the role itself. But the voice gained in beauty as the evening progressed, and by the last act she was phrasing with imagination and communicating the drama with earnestness and power.

In Pablo Elvira, the evening boasted a Germont seasoned in the correct Verdian style, and his second-act scene with Miss Mims was another highlight of the evening. John Stewart's Alfredo was awkward of gesture and hollow of voice.

In the pit, Michael Morgan's insistently metronomic performance gave little sense of operatic suppleness and Verdian beauty.

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