Conductor: James Meena
Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Stefan Szkafarowsky: Aleko
Inna Dukach: Zemfira
Jason Karn: Young gypsy
Kevin Thompson: Old gypsy
Composer: Ruggero Leoncavallo
Francesco Anile: Canio
Jessica Rose Cambio: Nedda
Michael Corvino: Tonio
Gustavo Feulien: Silvio
Jason Karn: Beppe
After generally satisfying productions of Tosca and Florencia en el Amazonas last season, The New York City Opera was officially opening its boldly wide-ranging new season on Thursday night in the Time Warner Center's wonderful - if frigidly cold - Rose Theater. And the sight of the vast majority of the seats being filled by an excited crowd only reinforced my hunch that I was not the only one rejoicing at their return.
It is true that the double bill of Rachmaninoff's Aleko and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci was compelling for many reasons. Aleko's lush Russian Romanticism and Pagliacci's hot-blooded Italian verismo may sound drastically different in theory, but both operas were in fact premiered a few days from each other in April 1892, and both tell the story of a love triangle made of an older, ferociously jealous husband, a rebellious wife, and the de rigueur hot young lover, all evolving in an exotically bohemian environment. Needless to say, neither has a happy ending.
Composed in only three weeks when Rachmaninoff was a 19-year-old student at the Moscow Conservatory, Aleko surprises by its unexpectedly assured, if still resolutely conventional, nature. Although it earned the composer the highest grade, it has perplexingly remained a rarity in opera houses, and therefore any opportunity to experience it should be whole-heartedly welcome.
Fortunately for us, the NYCO has successfully dug it out and on Thursday presented a downright engaging production of it. The stage, which was occupied by a freight car in the background and some vague buildings on each side, had the advantage of discretion and versatility.
The singers came through efficiently, with dependable bass Stefan Szkafarowsky forcefully tearing through his scenes as the aging and raging Aleko who cannot for the life of him stand betrayal, let alone taunts about it.
Velvety-voiced soprano Inna Dukach brought the right combination of darkness and fire to Zemfira, the free-spirited gypsy who is not afraid of displaying her thoughts and feelings, and who will pay dearly for her cheekiness.
Ardent tenor Jason Karn was the quintessential dashing young lover, and dark-voiced bass Kevin Thompson was the perfect ominous story teller. The ubiquitous chorus was decidedly in top shape when bringing the gypsy people to life.
The opera also happens to feature a long and elaborate dance sequence, which was energetically handled by members of the Moiseyev Dance Company.
While clearly not a masterpiece, Aleko turned out to be a curiosity totally worth-checking out. Already then Rachmaninoff had a solid grasp on the luxurious lyricism he would soon become famous for, and the beautifully melodic score received a fully engaged treatment from the orchestra under the baton of James Meena.
Pagliacci for sure does not need any introduction and on Thursday night the NYCO production proved as popular as could have been expected. Not the final school project of a promising young student, Pagliacci was written by a composer in his thirties who was becoming increasingly anxious about breaking through the Italian opera scene. And boy did he accomplish just that with this one.
Using the same decor has for Aleko, but smartly turning the train car into a make-ship stage for the commedia dell'arte play within the opera, Pagliacci briskly unfolded with plenty of intense drama, high-flying coloratura and one creepy clown.
In the all-important role of Canio, the betrayed husband turned murderer, assertive tenor Francesco Anile impersonated the larger than life Pagliaccio with confidence and gusto. His "Vesti la giubbia" was the heart-breaking cry we were all hoping for and indisputably got in spades.
Versatile soprano Jessica Rose Cambio did not spare her ultra-flexible voice any acrobatics, but could also be tenderly emotional as well as fiercely self-protective as Nedda, the straying wife with the whip.
Veteran baritone Michael Corvino was convincingly conniving as hunch-backed Tonio, a lesser Iago who nevertheless had his revenge gruesomely played out in front of him after sexually harassing – and being harshly rejected by – Nedda.
Hunky baritone Gustavo Feulien made a short but memorable appearance as Silvio, Nedda's lover boy from the village. And the chorus continued to amaze us with its powerful and subtle singing.
All the non-stop action was reliably supported by the vibrant and supple performance of the orchestra, which vividly underscored all the passionate turmoil going on.
With a two-level plot, well-developed characters and a highly colorful score, there is no doubt that Pagliacci is overall a superior work, but then again, it is not really fair to compare the final school project on a promising young student to the work of a seasoned composer who had been working at his craft for a while. In any case, the clever combination of the two proved to be a winner for the audience, and for the New York City Opera.