NEW YORK — Has the opera war commenced at Lincoln Center?
This genteel parcel of high-priced Manhattan real estate is no arts world combat zone yet. But there has been an invasion, and last week a Handel battle broke out.
With the recent announcement that Gerard Mortier will take over the artistic leadership of New York City Opera in 2009 after leaving the Paris Opera, the competition between the Metropolitan Opera and its poor relation next door seemed inevitable.
In his first season of running the Met, Peter Gelb has been pluckily dragging an operatic 2,000-pound gorilla into the 21st century, as he attempts the kind of audacious innovations Mortier pulled off when he modernized a stuffy Salzburg Festival in the 1990s. Mortier, meanwhile, sees second-class City Opera as a potential theatrical Cinderella.
But both men have their work cut out for them -- as two current Handel productions readily attest. Friday night, the Met brought back a hopelessly dated version of "Giulio Cesare." The same night, City Opera happened to be presenting the second performance of its recent gloss on "Flavio," which I caught Sunday.
The operas are very close historically. "Flavio" had its premiere in London on May 14, 1724, with a gala cast and closed after eight performances. Revived in 1732, with only four performances, it was not to be seen again until 1967. It still gets no respect. A single recording made two years later is out of print.
"Giulio Cesare," Handel's next opera, had its premiere 10 months after the "Flavio" flop. The audience loved it then and loves it now. "Cesare" is the most popular of the composer's 22 operas and had a lot to do with starting the Handel opera revival, which began in earnest with a 1966 City Opera production starring Beverly Sills. Those performances and a subsequent recording were also the famed American soprano's breakthrough.
Both the enormous Met and the New York State Theater, City Opera's acoustically challenged hall, are obviously inappropriate venues for Baroque opera, with its intimate, decorative singing style and small orchestra of soft-sounding instruments. Handel griped about the vastness of the 850-seat King's Theatre, Haymarket, where "Flavio" and "Cesare" were given, and its poor acoustics. The jumbo-jet Met has room for 4 1/2 King's Theatre audiences. The State Theater, which was built for ballet and now employs electronic acoustical enhancement, seats 2,755. That meant that both companies needed to work extra hard to bring off these operas.
The Met's "Giulio Cesare" came with a bit of offstage drama. Soprano Ruth Ann Swenson gave an interview to the New York Times complaining that the Met had no plans to engage her services after this run, despite the fact that she was making a heroic return to the stage in a heroic role just six weeks after completing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Gelb, she figured, wasn't so enamored of her full figure or her maturity (though she's only in her late 40s), what with the Met's new emphasis on staging.
The interview worked; it got her the sympathy vote in the form of a standing ovation Friday. "Cesare" is a long opera (four hours at the Met including two intermissions), and Swenson's Cleopatra was deeply felt, emotive, girlishly flirtatious and grandly sung, somewhat in the Sills style. Her stamina, considering the debilitating physical treatment she had just endured, was impressive, even if her pitch became insecure by the end.
But she was also ill-suited vocally and theatrically (especially in her "I Love Lucy" cutesiness) in the company of rapid-tongued countertenors and mezzos, along with a period-instrument specialist conductor, Harry Bicket, who somehow thought he could bring a hint of historical performance practice into this big barn.
Nothing worked. John Copley's production was first seen at the Met in 1988 and old hat even then. It includes a garish mix of 18th century gowns for the ladies and Roman armor for the gentlemen warriors, plus a lot of standing around and singing along with a bit of flailing about when emotions heat up.
Bicket pushed a Cesare countertenor (David Daniels) beyond any singer's realistic capacity for confident articulation in an effort to equate speed with heroism. Another countertenor, Lawrence Zazzo, nonetheless made an effective debut as Tolomeo, the hysterical despot. It would be interesting to hear him under more convincing circumstances. The one consistently terrific singer was Alice Coote as the fiery father-avenging Sesto.
Musically, "Flavio" hardly stands up to "Cesare," which includes some of Handel's most inspired arias. Dramatically, it's pretty weak too, half comic, half tragic, as courtiers, their lovers and their king, Flavio, get romances all mixed up in a fictional Lombardy. Chas Rader-Shieber, the director of the City Opera production, looks for as much fun as he can find in the libretto's nooks and crannies.