Right now, New York City Opera desperately needs some hits. Like a minor league ballpark across the street from Yankee Stadium, New York’s junior opera company makes its home in Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, next door to the Metropolitan Opera House. Living in the literal shadow of world-famous, world-class opera makes attaining distinction hard enough for the company, founded in 1943 as a populist alternative to its then-elitist counterpart. But, recently, it has fallen on particularly hard times: the company’s already tenuous position in the city’s cultural radar suffered when, due to renovations to the Koch, it offered no staged productions last season (only a handful of concerts at Carnegie Hall). The economic collapse led to a severely slashed budget—there will only be five productions this season, in contrast to the Met’s 26—which consequently led to the abrupt resignation earlier this year of the incoming artistic director, who was to be the company’s Peter Gelb. Revenues fell while expenses climbed.
And yet the company has managed to put a season together, to re-emerge as a contender in 2009-2010. But its future remains uncertain. And so, in its struggle for survival, City Opera is trying to strike a careful balance this season between popular repertoire favorites and more distinguishing fare; the company generally separates itself, or tries to, from its higher-profile competitor across the plaza in its embrace of neglected classics, up-and-coming singers, and modern composers—especially Americans. So, while the company will produce Don Giovanni up until around Thanksgiving and Madame Butterfly in the spring, it’s also currently staging a revival (which opened on November 7) of the late Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, which City Opera premiered to critical acclaim in 1993. New York opera enthusiasts have been waiting ever since to see it again. And surely, City Opera is counting on them to come in droves—because they need them now, more than ever. Esther looks like the company’s secret weapon. In case of emergency, break it out.
That strategy seems to be working: Sunday’s matinee was crowded with blue-haired uptowners. And though the theater didn’t look stuffed to capacity (unlike the building’s cramped lobby), empty seats were few.
First and foremost, Esther is an attention-getter because the production, directed by Christopher Mattaliano with extraordinary sets by Jerome Sirlin, is a triumph of staging. In lieu of the opulent constructed-scenery one usually finds at the opera house, Esther uses projections, images on a series of moveable translucent screens, staggered in layers to provide an illusion of depth and tactility. It also allows for rapid changeovers: a scene set in a lush garden transitions nearly instantly to what looks like a prison out of Tron (to represent a character’s exile), avoiding a break in the action and score.
Esther is packed with such arresting images: bodies hang by nooses against a blood-red sky; a prime minister dictates a letter ordering the extermination of all Persia’s Jews while what look like Rosetta Stones, its markings like stars, cover the screens as an ancient script that somehow also looks futuristically digital rolls down them like end credits; our eponymous heroine, draped in bold aquamarine, is surrounded like Jesus among the lepers by gray masses of Jews, begging for mercy, half-disappearing into the projector beams like specters. In short, it’s great theater.
And, in an unusual example of congruity, the technological staging matches the modernity of the score. Esther, adapted from the Biblical book of the same name, tells the story of a queen who prevented an anti-Semitic pogrom devised by Prime Minister Haman, here a Macbeth-type with aspirations to Hitler. The urgency of impending genocide, and the psychological tumult of a queen unsure of her power to stop it, are aided by the intensity of the music. (Though Charles Kondek’s English libretto contains an inordinate number of eye-rolling rhymes: “Do we agree/that I am Xerxes?”) Weisgall adheres to some traditional forms; the opera contains a number of arias and duets. But the music itself rejects such classicism, opting instead for atonal, arrhythmic melodies laid over complex orchestrations: the vocal lines weave through tittering winds, plinkering percussion and scatting horns.
Roy Cornelius Smith was the standout vocalist, singing the part of Haman robustly. At curtain call, some in the audience hissed him, though they may have been playfully carrying out a Purim tradition of booing at the mention of Haman. Lauren Flanigan reprised the role of Esther, which she originated 16 years ago; in quieter moments between she and Stephen Kechulius, as her husband King Xerxes, they both sang transcendently. (Neither was as moving independently.)
But what may be attracting crowds to Esther most isn’t the stunning staging, the complicated score or the notable performances: it’s the post-Shoah fantasy of a holocaust halted. Though an ancient tale that predates the Third Reich by several millennia, the story-of-Esther’s late-twentieth century revival, like Inglourious Basterds (or Defiance or The Retributionists ), is conspicuously tailored to Jews, of which there are no shortage on the Upper West Side, longing for revisionist Holocaust stories in which the chosen people aren’t victims but vanquishing heroes. Particularly in its final act, among admonitions of Never Forget and Never Again, Esther is a celebration of Jewish solidarity and perseverance. City Opera obviously hopes its own future can boast of such resilience.
The final performance of Esther is tonight at 8 p.m. Click here for tickets and more information.