Gil Rose: Conductor
Richard Stafford: Stage Director & Choreographer
New York City Orchestra
Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Piotr Buszewski: Pigmalione
Jessica Sandidge: Galatea
Composer: Jean-Philippe Rameau
Thor Arbjornsson: Pigmalion
Samarie Alicea: La statue
Melanie Long: Cupid
Julia Snowden: Céphise
New York City Opera Chorus
New York City Opera Dancers
Although the myth of Pygmalion as narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is universal and familiar (Who hasn't heard of My Fair Lady, at least?), two of the operas that were inspired by it, Gaetano Donizetti’s Il Pigmalione and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pigmalion, are less so. Thing is, Il Pigmalione was never performed during Donizetti’s lifetime while Pigmalion was one of Rameau’s biggest hits, but neither appears regularly in opera houses nowadays.
Enters the New York City Opera, which knows an obviously complementary yet sharply contrasting double-bill when it sees one. Due to their short running time, both operas can easily be programmed one after the other within two hours, which made the endeavor not only possible, but also very exciting. So exciting, in fact, that the management had to switch the venue to the well-proportioned and comfortable Lynch Theater at John Jay College due to overwhelming demand.
So last Saturday, I first did my political bit marching down Broadway to bring my whole-hearted support to school kids trying to stay alive (What a concept!) earlier in the day. And then I went west to the Lynch Theater to do my cultural bit attending the first of the double-bill’s two performances to bring my whole-hearted support to out-of-the-box initiatives later in the afternoon. And the beat goes on…
The first opera on the program was the Italian Il Pigmalione, which in fact was having its long-overdue US premiere on Saturday afternoon. Donizetti wrote Il Pigmalione in six days in 1816, when he was 19, as a school assignment and apparently did not think much of it after he had moved on to bigger and better things.
Il Pigmalione is worth-knowing though, not just out of curiosity, but also for the sheer pleasure of witnessing Donizetti’s much praised bel canto style and keen sense of drama being born. As presented on Saturday afternoon, the one-act, two-character work was essentially an over-extended one-man show by Pygmalion, with a short cameo by Galatea towards the end, on a mostly bare stage, save for the actual statue smack in the middle of it.
By default the opera’s weight fell squarely on the shoulders of the tenor, who had to convey a mind driven to distraction by its relentless pining for the attractive artwork. And sure enough, Polish tenor Piotr Buszewski showed us all how it’s done with natural charisma, laudable acting skills, and a powerful voice. As the woman behind me pointed out to her companion: “This is a tough part to pull off.”
As the living statue Galatea, American soprano Jessica Sandidge’s voice had the natural luminosity required for the small but critical part, and managed to capture the audience’s attention even from behind her screen. It is a real shame that we did not get to hear more of her, but the opera was over before we got a chance to indulge.
After the intermission, we jumped back 68 years to end up in mid-18th century France, where Louis XV was the leader of the country and Rameau the leader of the music scene. The composer wrote Pigmalion in eight days in 1748, when he was 65, as a crown achievement and did not spare any expenses. Even the relatively small-scale production presented by the NYCO kept up to 17 performers busy at the same time.
After Il Pigmalione’s modern, minimalist and somber staging, Pigmalion’s set looked even more old-fashioned, opulent and crowded. Some smart ideas were efficiently implemented, such as having the statues and the mere mortals become alive at opposite moments as if no connection could be established between the two worlds. Alas, as in any self-respecting opera-ballet, we were also stuck with pleasant but endless celebratory dancing. While every performer gave it their all and put on a very entertaining show, it often felt like the story, not to mention the singing, were stalled for way too long.
On the other hand, when they got an opportunity to make themselves heard, the voices were most enjoyable. Icelandic tenor Thor Arbjornsson was a sweet-voiced Pigmalion totally enraptured by the graceful and endearing statue that was Puerto Rican Samarie Alicea. Mezzo-soprano Melanie Long managed to avoid any syrupy cuteness as the hard-working Cupid while mezzo-soprano Julia Snowden was an appropriately miffed Céphise, the sculptor’s neglected paramour.
Going from Donizetti’s vibrant bel canto lyricism to Rameau’s refined Baroque intricacies can’t be easy, and the much put-upon orchestra had prolonged flashes of true inspiration as well as fleeting moments of perceptible struggle. But musicians and conductor more or less managed to hold everything together and provide commendable support to the unusual, but ultimately totally satisfying, feat.