New York City Opera 2017-18 Review – Il Pigmalione and Pigmalion: An Unusual & Exciting Double-Bill

(Credit: Sarah Shatz)

One thing I can say, with assurance, about the newly revived New York City Opera’s programming is…that it is anything but the expected.

Productions such as the recent “Delores Claiborne” and “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna,” all reviewed by me for Operawire, could not have been more different. But they all share an excitement and vision that is breathing new, creative life into an art form that many believe is struggling and, perhaps, endangered.

This double bill of one-act operas, with sold out performances, was no exception.

Thematically, this double header of Pigmalions — separated by nearly 70 years, and from two very different schools of music — both confounded my expectations and, as with all of the recent NYCO productions, offered unexpected delights.

But since the two one-act operas are very different pieces, let’s take a look at them independently, starting with the opener, “Il Pigmalione” by Gaetano Donizetti.

Bel Canto Approach

The Donizetti piece is a student work for two singers.

While there is certainly a foreshadowing of the Donizetti to come, a hint of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” or even “La Fille du Régiment,” this piece quite clearly show its roots as a student work.

Much of the opera certainly sounds professionally done, but not terribly inspired. But then, as with a young work of any master to be, there are moments it comes to brilliant, inventive life.

It also is a showpiece — and a demanding one — for the tenor singing Pigmalione.

It is largely his show and, with not much in the way of event and action, one’s attention is held by his ability to connect, and above all to make those powerful moments in the score soar.

This was more that capably accomplished by the young Polish tenor Piotr Busezewski. He worked the stage to connect with the audience — with eyes, hands and, above all, a ringing voice that clearly deserved the ’bravos’ he received at the end.

And while I mentioned that nothing much happens, when Pigmalione does become obsessed by his own creation, a modern sculpture of a woman, with mere suggestions of curve and body, that moment was, for lack of a better word, erotic.

Based on the notes from musicologist Ellen Lockhart, that intent is certainly in the source material, by way of a libretto by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

And when Pigmalione finally sees his creation made flesh, his Galatea, he is joined by another voice of both power and beauty, Soprano Jessica Sandidge.

While this one–act opera doesn’t give Sandidge a great deal to sing, when she does sing to her creator, the opera definitely foreshadows the Donizetti works and classic soprano parts to come.

The young composer will clearly go on to learn to use such a beautiful voice, to shape the extended duets.

But for this American premiere of the work, the singing, though brief, was perfect.

And I did mention that my expectations were confounded, yes?

Here’s the reason why…

A Livelier Approach

I had expected – coming to these two pieces without any previous knowledge – to, most likely, generally enjoy the Donizetti, and well – perhaps enjoy the Rameau as well.

But I assumed I would find it, well, maybe a tad stolid, a little ancient.

A piece to respect perhaps, while the real romance and fun would lay with the opera written 70 years later.

But I was – wonderful to discover – about to be totally surprised.

The Rameau (written when he was 65) music starts lively and never lets up. It reminded me of when I first listened to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and felt the level of invention, the creativity — and the music’s power.

And this was coming to the concertos as someone firmly focused on the music of the Romantic era.

For this opera, the experience was similar. Rameau was also a teacher and philosopher of music theory, and his composition here shines. The music moves, swells, blooms – ever surprising, fluid and, for lack of better word, bright.

You cannot hear it and but smile.

The story is almost identical to the Donizetti piece, but with some key and entertaining differences.

There is a quartet of leads, with Pigmalion and his Statue (not named here) joined by a Cupid and Pigmalion’s spurned female suitor, Cephise.

But also in place, a Belle Époque crowd of art aficionados, wine drinkers, and lovers in general who will get to play a game of hide and seek with an array of statues who — when not being viewed — are secretly brought to life by the Puckish Cupid.

And in the end, when the Statue is brought to life, the party really gets going. And while there is, of course, singing, there’s also a lot of ballet and near-folk dancing, along with sung odes to love’s power, as both humans and statues dance and laugh together.

Plot-wise, again, not much happening there.

But unlike the Donizetti, we don’t really care. So much fun to simply see the groups at play.

And to the emerging art from of opera, this piece is a true ‘work;’ combining dance and singing, with the former often predominating.

But that is not to say the singing wasn’t wonderful, because it was.

Tenor Thor Arbjornsson manages the coloratura with ease, his voice gracefully sliding up and down, the demands of this role as challenging — in a different way — than the Donizetti piece.

And likewise — an excess of riches — Samarie Alicea, is visually perfect as the statue, with a rich lustrous voice that – once again – I wanted a lot more of. And since the opera calls for her to dance, Alicea carried her own with quintet of dancers, all of whom seem to be in giddily motion for most of the piece.

She and her Pigmalion likewise generate a good deal of passion on stage.

While the piece is a bubbly flute about love and dreams come true, the romance and ardor on stage felt real, and was a total joy to observe.

But central to this tale of statue turned human is Cupid.

As a presence, Melanie Long in the role was a delight. She put me in mind of Julie Taymor’s recently staged “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Cupid here is the party organizer and creator of all the romance and dance to bloom on the stage.

And her mezzo is a sweetly perfect element for the opera.

The fourth part, the lovelorn but spurned Cephise, sung by Julia Snowden, is also effective. While the role is brief, she makes her case, with a warm pliant, tone.

Master of Ceremonies

Gil Rose conducted the NYCO orchestra, which included the addition of the harpsichord for the Rameau recitatives, with a precision and pacing that was perfect for the music. Likewise, stage director and choreographer Richard Stafford had – for such a brief work –a lot to do. The inventiveness, energy and sheer fun to be created by the quintet of dancing statues (eventually joined by the chorus of art lovers) was absolutely central to the opera.

One last word about New York City Opera and its venues.

While the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center is its official ‘home’, it has this year staged operas in other venues, such a 59E59th, a small theater that suited the grim intensity of its “Delores Claiborne.”

But the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, at John Jay College, for these two one-acts seemed to be an undiscovered and unknown (to me!) jewel.

A sunken pit meant that, with the Bayreuth-like positioning of the orchestra, one could just enjoy the bright sound that emerged from the stage and below. The acoustics are also excellent, and the sightlines very good.

Not at all sure if the company has plans to stage more productions there, but it is something to be encouraged.

Also to be encouraged: a continuation such exciting programming, both thematically and musically.  General Director Michael Capasso dropped some hints about exciting developments for next year – definitely something to look forward to.

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