After a bankruptcy beyond Wagnerian lengths, the New York City Opera is having a rocky resurrection, but not without hope.
Having gone down in 2013, City Opera seemed to pop up only days after a reorganization plan was approved by bankruptcy court, with a six-performance run of Tosca at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater (now concluded) that was dogged by mixed reviews and weather-related cancellations.
But having attended the Friday performance that ended just as the first flakes were falling, I see a niche in the making. The balcony's $25 cheap seats felt like the old days of the so-called people's opera, with scruffily dressed urbanites holding forth about hearing Franco Corelli in decades past, and others babbling dementedly after the music started (and being righteously hissed). Premature departures were few, and judging from the ovation, this Tosca made people happy - with a performance level that had probably kicked up a notch since the opening night that most critics saw.
Few of the names on the program were readily recognizable. General director Michael Capasso ran Dicapo Opera for 30-plus years before it collapsed in 2013. Among the two alternating casts, the better-known singers were Academy of Vocal Arts graduates James Valenti and Latonia Moore.
The Lev Pugliese-directed production was said to reproduce the 1900 original - one way to dodge comparisons with the lavish Franco Zeffirelli standard at the Metropolitan Opera.
Lacking star voices, the performance manner was appealingly old-fashioned, with tenor Valenti holding high notes forever, soprano Kristin Sampson being unabashedly histrionic in the title role (Moore was in the second cast, which I didn't hear), and baritone Michael Chioldi singing the villainous Scarpia imposingly and without a shred of class underneath his aristocratic wig (which is how we like him). Pacien Mazzagatti's conducting was workmanlike, while the orchestra was good enough and the chorus (the credible Musica Sacra) was better.
In many ways, the package felt like the Robert Driver era of Opera Philadelphia, which worked for 1990s audiences. But in this era, when the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts have raised standards (at popular prices), is this approach valid enough to support a new company? Common sense would say no.
What kept me engaged was the pure performance aspects - singers front and center with minimal "fourth wall" separating them from the audience. In contrast, the Met's veneer, though something to admire, can keep you at a distance. Even while Sampson's rendition of the aria "Vissi d'arte" showed everything that was strong and weak about her voice, I was taken in by the visceral appeal of being there. If City Opera (NYCO Renaissance, as the new management calls itself) can deliver strong audience connections consistently, the company may just be in business.