Launching its comeback in perilous financial times, the New York City Opera might well have played it safe with a surefire crowd-pleaser, like its production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."
But Puccini's lush melodies will have to wait until spring. Instead, the company opened its season Saturday night by reviving an atonal opera that it premiered back in 1993 _ Hugo Weisgall's "Esther."
A bold move, but far from a foolhardy one. "Esther," based on the biblical story of the Jewish queen of Persia who saved her people from annihilation, is an impressive piece of work.
Its strength begins with a powerful English-language libretto by Charles Kondek, which retells the story in a series of short scenes spread over three acts. Within the acts, each scene melts into the next in cinematic style, creating a sense of headlong momentum toward catastrophe _ or catastrophe narrowly averted. Kondek admirably avoids sentimentality in his treatment of Esther and the plight of the Jews, and there's a minimum of Cecil B. DeMille-like biblical pageantry.
Weisgall's music, though challenging for an audience accustomed to hearing conventional tunes and harmonies, is grand and ambitious. There are arias, duets, choruses _ even a ballet. And Weisgall, in what would be the last opera he completed before his death in 1997, displays a striking ability to define characters by their musical accompaniment and vocal line.
Esther's progression from dreamy-eyed young girl to concubine and wife to Xerxes and finally to heroic savior of her people is charted in music filled with yearning and uncertainty. Vashti, the wife Xerxes banished because she refused to dance naked before his followers, sings to rhythms that pulsate with her sense of injustice and self-pity. And Haman and his wife, Zeresh, spin their evil plot against the Jews to music that is scherzo-like in its ebullience.
A top-flight cast helps put this uncompromising work across with conviction. Lauren Flanigan repeated her portrayal of Esther from the premiere, displaying a powerful voice filled with passion and sincerity, marred only by an occasional wobble in her highest notes. Mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton made the most of Vashti's two scenes, singing with intensity and allure. In twin debuts, tenor Roy Cornelius Smith as Haman and mezzo Margaret Thompson as Zeresh created characters memorable for their wicked glee. Two baritones rounded out the lead roles: James Maddalena as a dignified, anguished Mordecai and Stephen Kechulius as a lovesick Xerxes.
George Manahan conducted the orchestra, and the production, using evocative flat sets to speed the scene changes, was directed by Christopher Mattaliano.
By choosing "Esther" to open the season (following a gala concert Thursday night), the company's new director, George Steel, was making a statement about continuing its legacy as a home for modern American opera. NYCO sits on the same Lincoln Center plaza as the Metropolitan Opera and has long been overshadowed musically and financially by the larger company.
When renovations to the New York State Theater (now renamed the David H. Koch Theater in honor of its biggest donor) forced cancellation of the entire 2008-09 season, the company's future looked uncertain. It started looking worse than that when the economy melted down and a newly named director, Gerard Mortier, quit before he even arrived.
But now it's back, in a handsome new auditorium with an enlarged orchestra pit, comfortable new seats with additional aisles, and the removal of the sound enhancement system that had been installed to address the poor acoustics. Based on opening night, the singers and orchestra are clearly audible, if not with the warmth of a house like the Met.
Though there were empty seats, the performance was well-attended, and the company said it had added a fifth performance because of ticket demand. "Esther" runs through Nov. 19, and the company will also be performing Mozart's "Don Giovanni" this month. In the spring, the abbreviated season continues with Handel's "Partenope," Chabrier's "L'Etoile" and, yes, "Madama Butterfly."