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We're Number Two!

New York
New York State Theater
09/12/1999 -  and 16,18,22,25 September; 2,9 October 1999
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Magic Flute
Elisabeth Comeaux (Pamina), Jami Rogers (The Queen of the Night), William Burden (Tamino), Mel Ulrich (Papageno), Gustav Andreassen (Sarastro), Jonathan Green (Monostatos)
Chorus and Orchestra of the New York City Opera
Steuart Bedford (conductor)

On the plaza of Lincoln Center are two opera houses. One, the Metropolitan Opera, is world famous and world class. The other, the New York City Opera, shares its theater with the New York City Ballet and presents alternative and much less expensive operatic fare for the discerning public. Over the years, City Opera has made its reputation as the more daring of the two houses and, under the capable administration of the recently deceased Christopher Keene, presented many significant premieres of modern operas and the occasional scoop of its sister house (Keene produced a sold out run of Moses und Aron after the Met board refused to mount it under James Levine citing forecasted poor ticket sales). In addition to tiny budgets, the City Opera has been plagued for years by the poor acoustics of the New York State Theater, specifically designed for the ballet to deaden the sound of the dancers' feet. In an effort to rectify this auditory anomaly, the new management has begun just last night an experiment in electronic miking designed to make every singer audible over the large pit orchestra. The stated purpose of aural accessibility is certainly achieved, however the resulting mix of sound is extremely disconcerting. Under the new miking system, all of the singers perform at exactly the same volume and remarkably similar timbres, producing the looking-glass effect of a live orchestra accompanying a taped group of singers who are only lip-synching their roles. There is no difference between the strength of the Pamina and the weakest of the three ladies, nor any discernible change between Tamino and any one of the young boys. Much fine tuning is necessary before this new system is even remotely acceptable to an educated ear.

Also making his City Opera debut was Steuart Bedford, known affectionately by this reviewer as a good friend to and a fine interpreter of the works of Benjamin Britten. His Magic Flute, however, just plods along, leaving any sense of gossamer or playfulness behind in a gray dust of pedestrianism. Perhaps it is Maestro Bedford's English heritage that led to the worst insult of the afternoon. This wonderfully playful German work was presented in another language, an English so poor in its diction that one was left longing for the absent supertitles which normally dominate the sight lines of the State Theater's stage. Mozart wrote this piece with the meters of conversational German in mind and it is pure philistinism to desecrate the mixture of poetry and music by ripping away the language just for some misguided sense of audience friendliness. Even if the justification is the singspiel dialogue, it would have been much better to sing in German and speak in English.

One can obtain a good seat at City Opera for under twenty dollars (you would have to pay four times that at the Met) but in this case you get what you pay for. These are the same cardboard cutouts that they used for this production fifteen years ago and the look of the stage throughout is that of a medium sized high school version of Bye, Bye Birdie. The singing is also of a questionable character and in this surreal production the standard hierarchy of roles is stood on its ear. Mozart harbored some definite misogynistic tendencies and nowhere are his notorious female roles more difficult than in the legendary pyrotechnics of The Queen of the Night. Usually this is the role which is the undoing of a Zauberfloete production, but Jami Rogers actually got through the first act in good form (although missing the climactic high note) and dazzled with her flawless traversal of the thorny second act aria in fine imitation of a Baroque E Flat trumpet. At the final curtain calls, she was accorded significantly greater applause than any of the other principals who, after all, have much more significant roles.

Elisabeth Comeaux as Pamina was the least satisfying of the main characters while the men in general were adequate but not exceptional. Of course it was absolutely impossible to determine whether any of these singers have any real vocal power, because the acoustical engineers had prearranged to make all of their voices homogenously loud. Imagine the worst souped-up CD engineering tampering and double it; that is the current effect of this musical funhouse of mirrors. Mel Ulrich was an animated Papageno with a good sense of clownish stage business, but in this staid and limp production he reminded me of Roberto Begnini at the Oscars, just plain out of place with his colorful antics.

Perhaps the strength of City Opera still lies in their more adventurous repertoire. For standard fare, I would suggest saving up your money and going less often to the Met, where at least what you pay for is worth the price of admission.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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