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Pop, Opera, and Palm Trees: New York City Opera and Rufus Wainwright on the Riverfront

By Singingscholar @singingscholar
It was New York City Opera's Twitter feed that alerted me to their Tuesday evening concert, part of this year's River to River Festival. The musically eclectic evening was organized around the enthusiasm of Rufus Wainwright, singer-songwriter and opera aficionado par excellence (Olivia Giovetti has an interesting article contextualizing Wainwright's ventures into opera here.) That Wainwright, who acted as a sort of master of ceremonies, was irrepressibly effervescent was not a surprise. More surprising was that George Steel emerged before the performance (to only applause) to welcome the audience in a speech in which he said that it was his "happy job" to be the General Manager of New York City Opera. Although he claimed that they would be soon "bringing the people's opera back to the people" by exchanging the "travertine fastness" of Lincoln Center for venues around the city, no further details were forthcoming, and the circulation of information on a petition by the orchestra hinted at a still-unsettled state of affairs. Mais revenons à nos moutons: we heard a handful of Wainwright's songs, two selections from his opera Prima Donna, and a selection of chestnuts and rarities representing some of his favorite works from the standard operatic repertoire.  The City Opera was well-represented by its quartet of singers, and an audience overflowing the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center lapped it all up. An apt opening to the evening was Wainwright's "Damned Ladies," an ode to soprano heroines and a lament for their fates, ominous and wistful by turns. I didn't know it, but I warmed to it instantly, not only because I also always want to say "Brown-eyed Tosca, don't believe the creep!" Wainwright's account of the plot of Don Carlo was muddled, but Laura Vlasak Nolen gave Eboli's "O don fatale" with dramatic clarity as well as flair. With a full-bodied mezzo, she also milked the gravi for all they were worth, to my joy. Here as for the other operatic selections, Keith Murphy was a more than able collaborator at the piano. Robert Mack, who has been praised for his lyric tenor, sounded pushed in "Che gelida manina"; perhaps "Una furtiva lagrima" would have been kinder. Anne-Carolyn Bird revealed a radiant soprano in "Dans mon pays de Picardie," a selection from Prima Donna in which the ladies' maid muses on the frailty of human loves. I found it reminiscent of nineteenth-century French art song, and quite lovely. Wainwright himself sang the atmospheric, bittersweet "Les feux d'artifice," also from his opera. I still don't have much of a sense of what Prima Donna might sound like as a whole, but the excerpts made me care about the characters. Then bass-baritone Matthew Burns made me cry. Wainwright introduced "O du mein holder Abendstern" as a favorite ballad of the generation which sang around a piano in the evenings (it's a favorite of some of us who still do.) The first ethereal notes came from the piano, Burns sang "Wie Todesahnung Dämm'rung deckt die Lande," and as if on cue, the light outside began to change. Burns had beautiful and expressive phrasing, and... did I mention I cried? Maybe it was the contrast, but "O fond du temple saint," in duet with Mack, failed to ignite for me. Wainwright's ballad "Who are you New York?" provided an interlude of less anguished yearning before Massenet. Thais got a great introduction by Wainwright, and a great interpretation, I thought, by Bird (NYCO's blog did an interview with her here.) To meet the technical demands of "Dis moi que je suis belle" is no small thing, and Bird sang it with sympathetic poignancy. Next, Nolen smoldered in Carmen's "Habanera," the opening notes of which were greeted with a murmur of recognition by the audience. After my translation-synopsis afterwards, my nice seat neighbor asked "So has she just fallen in love?" "No," I promptly said, and then realized that this was a possibly contentious interpretation. Oops? After Wainwright's passionate "Vibrate" the evening was rounded off with the quartet from Rigoletto. I hope some of the opera novices in the audience might have been moved to further investigation by Wainwright's enthusing about the Verdian genius of intertwining vocal lines to express the characters' conflicting emotions and goals. The singers were attentive to each other and expressive in performance, and received deservedly warm applause. I'm looking forward to hearing Prima Donna next spring, but I'll be hoping to hear more from New York City Opera much sooner. As Wainwright said, the great city of New York needs it. The Winter Garden was so neat I photographed it. ("Aren't these palms great?" said Wainwright. "We should stage a production of Aida or something!") By the time things started I was squished in so tightly on the stairs that trying to photograph the singers would have seemed like bad manners to my neighbors. So: I arrived an hour early; the stairs filled up, as did the balconies. My vantage point.

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