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Love, War and Madness

New York
Winter Garden, World Financial Centre
06/26/2009 -  
Jules Massenet: La Navarraise (Libretto by Jules Claretie and Henri Cain)
Theodora Hanslowe (Anita), Raúl Melo (Araquil), Eric Jordan (Garrido), Andrew Drost (Ramon), Brian Kontes (Remigio), Jeffrey Tucker (Bustamente), Brian Anderson, Michael Zegarski (Ensemble)
New York City Opera Orchestra, Steven Osgood (Conductor)

Theodora Hanslowe (© Courtesy of NYCO)

Things shouldn’t have gone as right as they did in this rare performance of La Navarraise. The huge atrium space of the Winter Garden in the World Financial Centre is far too resonant for opera. Each singer used a microphone. The opera was unknown to all but the most ardent Massenet-lovers. For an obscure curiosity piece, the plot was relatively complex, and no subtitles were to be seen.

Nor was the story exactly realistic. Poor girl loves soldier, but can’t afford the dowry demanded by the soldier’s father. Girl kills an enemy combatant for the dowry money, but soldier thinks she was sleeping with him. A climax includes madness and of course death.

Yet this concert version of Jules Massenet’s verismo opera, a piece in, mood and music somewhat akin to Puccini’s Il Tabarro, and at about an hour, barely longer, was, for the 1,600 people who arrived on a stormy evening, a surprising success, the liabilities barely noticed once it started.

But it was Massenet’s music—played with fitting bravura by the New York City Opera Orchestra under Steven Osgood—which gave the dash, the élan, the quick and almost vicious pace to the short evening. Like the beginning of Otello, the orchestra began with hurricane force (or quick ominous chords), as the troops return defeated from a battle and never stopped. Hardly was that over before a corps of trumpets—in this case high, high up in a balcony of the Winter Garden—signaled even more battles from far away across the fields.

To its credit, that balcony was used for trumpets, distant church bells, and more military tattoos. No, this opera was not staged at all, but the spatial sounds gave at least the illusion that La Nararraise was in a theatre, not played on a village bandstand.

Mr. Osgood conducted with all the right rat-a-tat pacing. He relaxed the conducting for a the between-acts Nocturne, for a hymn to the Virgin, and a few arias, duets etc.

But in one of the most brilliant bits of inspiration by Massenet, Maestro Osgood kept up the pace for a delicious song “For Wine! For Cider.” The song should be sung by the chorus, but a three-man “ensemble” did the job well. The lower-string pizzicatos, the Spanish-style hand-claps of the trio, and the sweet little theme did the trick.

While the mikes should preclude a real review of the singers, they were all more than adequate. Ms. Hanslowe, the only women, played the title character with a thesaurus of emotions, from prayer to vengeance to madness, allowing the music to carry her emotions. Her lover, the Cuban-born Raúl Melo, is an old hand with verismo, heroes, having played in the City Opera’s Tosca and Butterfly. He was suitably amorous. The father, Brian Kontes, is a regular at the Metropolitan Opera, and his paternal pleadings (one expected him to launch into Traviata’s “Di Provenza il mar, il suol”) were heartfelt and generous.

My own favorite was the other bass, Eric Jordan as General Garido. This was a bass voice of weight, of command, of warmth and understanding.

But again, with mikes must come reservations. There was no reservation about the opera itself. Massenet didn’t leave much room for character development or psycho-babble layers. But he commanded those 60 minutes with dagger thrusts of strings and brass and the tempos of fusillades from the fiercest enemies.

Harry Rolnick



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