NEW YORK - Reports of the New York City Opera's decline have been exaggerated, at least at the moment. Though the company has the perpetual challenge of living next door to the glittering Metropolitan Opera, it's gambling sizably with
Séance on a Wet Afternoon
, a stage adaptation of the 1964 film by Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz, best known for
Well-prepared and handsomely produced at Tuesday's opening, the opera had the sort of audience reception that overrides the mixed reviews likely to greet any operatic interloper. But will box-office business justify an intensive 10-performance run through May 1? A spot check of City Opera's website shows there definitely are tickets to sell, but disaster isn't looming.
Schwartz, whose Broadway scores feature ultra-catchy tunes and inspirational ballads that yield huge profits but no respect, isn't the most likely candidate for opera. But what composer wouldn't yearn for that more music-driven medium, spurred by visions of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess? And what opera company wouldn't take a chance on it, hoping for new, younger audiences?
In Séance, the opera crowd might find the music underwhelming but deceptively effective, thanks to sound theatrical pacing and the power of understatement. The Broadway crowd might be overwhelmed by the plethora of arias; even secondary characters have more than their share. But with some tightening, Séance could enter the repertoire, not in big Verdi/Wagner houses, but with smaller companies that foster singing actress like Lauren Flanigan, who inhabits the main role as magnetically as the Oscar-nominated Kim Stanley did in the film.
As in the operas of Daniel Catan, Séance poses the question: Must weighty stories be told with weighty music? Though ostensibly about the kidnapping death of a child, the story's substance is in a quieter psychological world. The psychic medium Myra and her husband Billy have hatched a questionable ransom scheme, supposedly suggested by the deceased son whom Myra regularly channels. She uses him as a trump card - assuming dead children have superior insights to living adults. Such is their deluded, circumscribed life. They abduct a rich young girl - they prefer the word borrow - so Myra can make headlines by psychically predicting the outcome.
Typical opera composers would write something more imposing. Perhaps taking a cue from the creepy simplicity of John Barry's film score, Schwartz maintained the clarity of intent and lack of abstraction of his Broadway musicals (Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, etc.), but strayed far from the strict forms of Broadway song. At its best, his light touch becomes cumulatively excruciating, more like Chinese water torture than American waterboarding. You're drawn in under false, reassuring pretenses that everybody is basically nice and nobody will die. But that's not how it ends. The fate of an innocent girl naturally tugs at one's heartstrings. The fact that Schwartz doesn't underscore it is in no way a minus.
The skillfully compressed libretto resorts to a few hoary devices, like aggressive crowds of newspaper reporters creating an outside-world backdrop. Also, Schwartz's version of Myra is driven more by inner torment than outward egotism, allowing her music to maintain sympathetic gentleness. Too much, in fact. The superb pacing of Act I unravels in Act II for lack of speed and teeth. Though the opera had a previous production at Opera Santa Barbara and extensive development by American Opera Projects, there's more work to be done.
One thing is consistent: The opera looks terrific. The Heidi Ettinger-designed production uses an extensive beaded curtain that suggests rain as well as the veil separating the living and the dead. Myra's gothic residence revolves to reveal the plot's many compartments - convincingly utilized by the composer's stage-director son, Scott Schwartz.
As good as the cast is, the show inevitably belongs to Flanigan, whose voice shows its vocal mileage in what must be the exhausting role of Myra, but is ideal for a middle-aged woman making one last attempt at achieving fame and fortune. However, Kim Josephson as her husband evolved into an important, insinuating presence. Orchestra and chorus are well in hand under George Manahan.
This final production of City Opera's season is yet another instance of the company's crucial presence - important to acknowledge as its fall season announcement is delayed to late May, pending assessment of financial resources and labor negotiations.
Earlier this season, Leonard Bernstein's sprawling late-period opera A Quiet Place was rehabilitated with a cohesion I never thought possible. A triple bill collectively titled Monodramas treated important but marginally theatrical works by John Zorn and Morton Feldman with stage environments so visually entrancing with intense color and surreal effects as to be an art installation on an operatic scale. Such work is rarely seen outside heavily subsidized European theaters.
The Met delivers the familiar in peak form, City Opera the unimaginable on a large scale. With works like Séance, it also reaffirms its opera-of-the-people mandate.