(Above: View of Grand Tier lobby from NYCO's David H. Koch Theater)
Sixteen years after its world premiere at the New York City Opera, Hugo Weisgall's atonal grand opera, Esther, was a cunning attempt from George Steel to level the playing field for the newer audiences that he's actively rustling. Opera Chic didn't attend the 1993 unveiling for a few good reasons (OC was too busy with Pokemon and the Spice Girls). Esther's a win for NYCO because it's contemporary American opera wrapped in an easy sell: a classic heroine worthy of Puccini's and Verdi's craftiest lionesses coupled with a digestible English libretto (by Charles Kondek) aided by a familiar plot. But what's clear after its 16 years of absence (where Weisgall's opera was virtually untouched upon), is that for such grandeur -- twelve scenes spanning over three acts -- Esther remains an opera that flits soon from memory, and the goddess fails to inspire.Although we don't blame Hugo Weisgall, the late Jewish American composer -- who passed away in 1997 -- for his oft-soaring composition nor Kondek's streamlined libretto. Instead it's a dreadfully pseudo-minimalist production that turns a potential masterpiece into a footnote of American contemporary opera.
Weisgall had always shared a healthy relationship with the NYCO, having premiered his "Six Characters in Search of an Author" in 1959 and "Nine Rivers from Jordan" in 1968 under NYCO's auspices. Esther, after a blighted commissioning process in the late 1980s, was ultimately conceived as a joint commission with San Francisco Opera and premiered in the Fall of 1993 as part of NYCO's World Premiere Festival for their 50th anniversary.
The Old Testament tale is about young Persian-Jewish maiden, Esther, who becomes queen and uses her pardoning powers to save her fellow Jews from extermination via bargaining prowess with King Xerxes, while ordering the death of the King's anti-semitic Prime Minister, Haman (of the delicious Hamantaschen legacy) -- scarily barbaric, 5th Century B.C. stuff.
But in the NYCO production, the brave and cunning Queen Esther claims her strengths nominally via the libretto. The biblical story is set in ancient Persia, although costumes by Joseph Citarella look more like Aida/Nabucco sketches from an Egyptian-themed Reno casino, Tukahamen's Palace. Act I costumes hint at the post-modern, apocalyptic, Beyond-the-Thunderdome theme that would have been more effective -- rich gray textiles that unfortunately gave way to garish turquoise and flimsy, blue silks.
NYCO's promotional identity for Esther (image above) -- Rachel Papo's gritty and penitent female desert solider captured in a frame of stark photorealism -- is indeed a worthy starting-point for a meaty dialog. Effective and powerful, in the end it was disappointing: we wanted a kick-a$$ Jewish Queen, AK-47 in hand, a Golda Meir mecha who eats the bad guys for breakfast. Instead, on stage we have a carbon copy of the cold, exacting Puccini/Verdiesque heroine, Callas poised as Medea, an old-skool interpretation via Christopher Mattaliano's direction. Esther is supposed to start as an innocent teen who metamorphoses into a steely manipulator, but instead she's directed as coldly stoic from start to finish, omitting the progression into a kick-a$$ heroine. There was no vulnerability, no trebling and no drama.Nor did Jerome Sirlin's projection-heavy sets inspire: gardens, temples, and halls were visualized by stock photography silhouettes in an utterly forgettable montage of screensavers that filled strips of white screens. And without a hint of anchoring props (aside from a stray chair and table in Act III), the singers were given the exhausting, untethered impression of treading water.
Soprano Lauren Flanigan returned as Esther, having mastered it 16 years earlier for the work's well-received premiere. Flanigan sang the teenage tyrant in a ringing and metallic-tinged voice, but the harsh, unforgiving overhead lighting made her look haggard. A dramatic soprano role, Flanigan bravely plowed through the three demanding acts.
Wiesgall's composition was atonal but harmonic, intricately woven with familiar conventions of the old school via sparse duets, choruses, arias, and trios (and even an Act III ballet), although there were no finite endings to vocal lines, leaving a somewhat unsustainable and ruptured sound. Frenzied passages transitioned flawlessly into arias. Kondek's libretto showed a deep understanding of shaping ("So young a goddess"), poetic and sparse. An evening of glassy, vitreous, at times aloof conducting provided a sleek background to keep one out of the mire and muck of the faux-minimalist production.
The excellent, unified New York City Opera Chorus excelled in their prominent role. Beth Clayton's vengeful, dismissed Vashti was adept, while the others followed with well-prepared appearances: Margaret Thompson's Zeresh, Stephen Kechulius's Xerxes, Roy Cornelius Smith's powerful yet strained Haman, James Maddalena's Mordecai, and Gerald Thompson's countertenor, Hegai.
The November 2009 revival of Esther marked NYCO's first foray into resurrecting the faded work, which keeps buoyant George Steel's commitment to supporting contemporary American opera, and a chance to hear new(ish), live American opera compositions is indeed reason enough to celebrate. In 1993 they wondered if Esther would become a classic. Sadly upon its revival, the answer is probably not what Weisgall would have wanted to hear. His thoughtful manuscript needs a much leaner, tighter treatment...more fashion and slickness, instead of the uninspiring drudgery of the out-of-date production. Which leaves us wondering: why would you pour so much faith into reintroducing this modern opera only to play it safe by reviving such a mediocre production? We're going to blame this one on budgetary limits and credit crunches, all which are enormous concerns of NYCO, and give them a free pass on the pop-up production.