City Opera's Strengths and Weaknesses This Season

THE strength of the New York City Opera (NYCO) these days is in the unusual works this season. The first such work is Sir Michael Tippett's ``The Midsummer Marriage'' (final performance tomorrow). As with all the difficult underperformed operas general director Christopher Keene has offered here, the evening triumphed in matters musical.

He has inspired a new vitality, a more polished virtuosity in his NYCO Orchestra, and they tackled the Tippett with vigor and no small amount of tonal allure. All that was wanting was a real sense of melting tenderness at certain key points.

The cast was excellent, with Elizabeth Futral the standout as Bella. Tenors Dennis McNeil (Mark) and Brad Cresswell (Jack), made much of their respective roles; Nina Warren, as Jenifer, is not yet mistress of a soprano that is undeniably full of promise.

Tippett's awkward, wordy libretto does not survive apart from his music. With the music, however, the trite and silly can become deeply affecting. Unfortunately, director Francesca Zambello was hampered by a set that reeked of financial compromise: One felt much of what had been designed by Kevin Rupnik was left unfinished.

City Opera's problem these days is in the caliber of the day-to-day casting. And whereas it is fitting that this company should offer the provocative but deeply flawed first version (1904) of Puccini's ``Madama Butterfly,'' especially as vividly conducted by Keene, it was dispiriting to hear it less than movingly sung by a dutiful rather than effective cast. The same can be said of Puccini's ``Turandot'' - heard with the complete Franco Alfano ending, rather than the drastically edited (by Toscanini) version that is generally performed today.

Ironically, these two operas are performed ultra-complete, whereas Bizet's ``Carmen'' is performed with serious cuts. Jonathan Eaton's gauche and often silly staging, new last season, still sports those cuts. Guido Ajmone-Marsan remains the drab conductor. At least the second cast this year makes ``Carmen'' sound like the great opera it is, particularly with Emily Golden's seasoned, professional portrayal in the title role and the promising John Horton Murray as Don Jose.

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