OPERATING at Lincoln Center for 27 years in the shadow of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera (NYCO) has always found one way not to look like a poor stepsister: introducing new American operas. This month, the struggling company threw caution to the wind and gave itself a no-holds-barred 50th-anniversary celebration, in the form of three world premieres mounted in the same week.
From where this grandstander sat, the tally at week's end was: one single, one triple, and one home run. By the standard of any opera company in America, that's impressive.
The first smart move on the part of NYCO's Artistic Director Christopher Keene was to hire one overall scenic designer for the three pieces.
He chose Jerome Sirlin, a master of illusion who synthesized the two worlds of ``Kiss of the Spider Woman'' with his slide-projection specials. Sirlin has an unfortunate weakness for black-and-white slides, but when he indulges in color, he uses it sparingly and well. His fluid transitions and masterful lighting collaborators lent a subtle kinship to the three premieres, which was matched by what turned out to be the operas' theme of slippery identity.
In Ezra Laderman's ``Marilyn,'' Marilyn Monroe's wilting sense of self-worth was constantly shaped by others. In Hugo Weisgall's ``Esther,'' Queen Esther of Biblical times withholds her Jewish origins from husband King Xerxes until a propitious moment. In Lukas Foss' ``Griffelkin,'' a 10-year-old visitor from the underworld is torn between performing assigned evil deeds and wanting to engage in good ones on earth.
The unexpected surprise of the week was the overall quality of the librettos.
In ``Marilyn,'' librettist Norman Rosten clearly knew his subject. This was no cartoon cut-out, but a three-dimensional comedienne with courage and humor who wasn't afraid to lecture moguls or talk back to psychiatrists. Unfortunately, purposes of dramatic economy forced Rosten to choose between various husbands and boyfriends, and these generic characters paled in comparison to the heroine.
Cliches abounded, as well as inanities, and Rosten's composer was little help; concentrating on an orchestral palette that was too often at odds with the vocal line, waves of atonal sound provided no empathy for poor Marilyn.
Jerome Sirlin directed this one, along with Paul L. King, and while good ideas abounded, the point of view kept shifting from that of a ``fly on the wall'' to total subjectivity. The audience lost interest, and only Kathryn Gamberoni's admirable grasp of the title role kept one held - if not moved - by the opera's uneven spell.
CHARLES KONDEK'S libretto for ``Esther,'' by contrast, was consistently first-rate.
He created living, breathing people. Composer Weisgall expanded or contracted his orchestra with knowing skill, mixing a typical European mid-century dissonance with lyrical interludes, which became emotional at peak moments.
His use of a full chorus was glorious when used, though sadly not nearly enough. Christopher Mattaliano's production emphasized suspense and emotion. Its chief assets were Lauren Flanigan's Esther and Eugene Perry's Xerxes; both superb. One suspects the opera will earn a place in the repertoire.
Alastair Reid's rhymed couplets of immense charm for ``Griffelkin'' were more than matched by a Lukas Foss score that is two parts Stravinsky, one part Menotti, with some dashes of Mozart thrown in.
The opera's felicitous inventions included a singing mailbox, a pair of equally eloquent stone lions, and choruses of devils and toys. Johnathan Pape's unobtrusive direction caught just the right tone, and Deirdre Sheehan's unpretentious choreography also helped. As for the cast, it rose to the occasion with an irrepressible sense of joy.
How could an opera this enchanting stay hidden for so long? NBC commissioned it almost 40 years ago, and it aired at the time in a greatly truncated version.
Foss might have written a dozen other operas (instead of just two) with any tangible encouragement. Opera companies of the world, please note: (a) not all gold needs to be new, and (b) composers may have treasures in their trunks.
Let's hope it doesn't take the NYCO another 50 years and the excuse of an anniversary celebration to unearth more.