The New York City Opera production of La Perichole was a first for us in several ways: our first trip to City Center, our first New York City Opera Production, our first opera matinee experience, and our first experience with opera buffe.
Here is a brief history of the City Opera. You are welcome to skip this part if it’s already old news to you, click to get to the review of the production.
The New York City Opera began in 1943. The idea was to offer opera for the people with low-price tickets, a kind of post-New Deal project that still has New Deal written all over it, fitting for a city where at one time museums, botanical gardens and other cultural institutions were for anyone who had a nickel for the subway. It became a starting ground for many young singers including Placido Domingo and homegirl Beverly “Bubbles” Sills – who didn’t make it over to the Met till long after she was an established star.
The original home of the company was the New York City Center. This bizarrely ornate Moorish theater was originally known as the Mecca Temple and designed for the Shriners. After the depression when they couldn’t pay the taxes, the building stood empty and was slated for demolition before being reborn as The New York City Center for Music and Drama.
The company later moved to another “permanent” home at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center (now named for someone we won’t name) across the courtyard from the Met, where it remained until leaving in 2011 because it could no longer afford the rent. City Opera has since survived by roving to different venues including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and now it’s old home, the City Center.
Because our only opera experience has been at the Met, we couldn’t help make comparisons. When we got to the City Center, we were impressed with the bathrooms. We can report that both the men’s and women’s restrooms were cleaner and in better shape than at the Met, though long lines are still an issue for the ladies. The house is much smaller, with only three seating levels – orchestra, mezzanine, and balcony. Our seats were in row G of the balcony. The renovated rows offer more legroom, but the result is that the seventh row of the balcony is very distant from the first, and while the much smaller house puts you closer to the stage than you would be from the balcony at the Met, the site-lines are nowhere near as good. We were in the center, but at an angle above the stage where we could only see a part of the orchestra pit if we stood up, and the very front of the stage was cut off, especially on the left side which was problematic at times with the staging. Despite the steep levels, because we had to look down to see, peoples’ heads in rows in front of us, could sometimes block the view. The rails between rows are low, so if you have a fear of heights, the balcony is no place for you. There is no balcony lobby so nowhere to go during intermission, and if you need to use the bathroom, you have to walk through the rows of seats to get to it. Compared to equivalent seats at the Met – the full-freight price would be similar, but the view at the Met much more open, including the orchestra pit, and at a better angle, though further away.
As for the production itself, we found it sweet and charming. Offenbach’s music is melodic, though not extremely memorable. The comic tone in the score compliments the libretto. One problem we had was not enough singing. That may strange in the critique of an opera, but this one used dialogue rather than recitative, and there was way too much of it. Now, ignoramuses we may be, but we do understand that operas were written with dialogue and the recitative is a convention that came later. We’re fine with that, but in this case the libretto, while sometimes funny, was often obvious. It slowed things down, and easily half of it could have been cut which would have improved the pacing. This was also our fist experience with surtitles (as opposed to individual “Met-titles.”) We didn’t find the titles distracting in and of themselves, but they were displayed faster than the singing, which created a problem, in that this was a comedy. Timing is as important to comedy as to music, and it had the effect of undercutting the performers by telegraphing the punchlines.
The slangy translations, however, worked well as they seemed to capture the spirit of the piece.
The mostly young cast were all game. Marie Lenormand was charismatic in the title role, and equally as at home in dialogue and singing. Tenor, Philippe Talbot was well-matched to her. It probably helps that they are both French, and completely at ease with the spoken part. While these probably aren’t the most vocally demanding roles, both have good voices. The three cousins were equally adept, as was just about everyone else. Kevin Burdette, as the lecherous viceroy, has a fine bass voice, but we had a problem with some of his way over the top stage antics. We get it. It’s all very French. This is what opera buffe must have looked like in the 19th century, and these are a people who revere Jerry Lewis, but this is America in the 21st century and humor is different here. There was altogether too much writhing around on the stage and thrusting of the pelvis, much of which was met with bewildered silence by the audience. There were some genuinely funny moments and great bits of business, but they got lost in the noise. Less is more, and toning it down a bit would have actually made it funnier.
The set was bare-bones probably owing to budget, but there was one bit of original brilliance – the use of a large screen television. This completely eliminated the usual opera trope of action going on in front of a character that somehow the character doesn’t see, even though it’s all happening on the same stage.
The orchestra sounded fine, but small.
Another big difference from the Met was the number of empty seats. We couldn’t see the orchestra or mezzanine at all from where we were in the balcony, so I can’t report on that, but the balcony was empty. The rows in front of us were mostly occupied in the center, but our row had very few occupied seats and behind us were a total of seven people. There was no one seated behind row H. I get that the names aren’t very big, and the production far from lavish, but it’s a small house, and it seemed a shame. The people behind us continued to whisper throughout most of the performance, despite my attempts to shush them (They would have been beaten at that other place.) As the lights dimmed for the second act, I said to the woman behind me, “Could you please not talk the performance, it carries and it’s very distracting.” She gave me a smile which indicated, “I hear and understand you, but will ignore whatever you said.”
Leaving the theater, we had the chance to get a good look at our fellow opera-goers. Most were old. Very old. Walkers and canes were in abundance. While I made my way from the bathroom, the better-half watched a near-altercation between the crowd, and a woman in a wheelchair with her companion, as they attempted to make their way through to the assess-a-ride van, while the driver was ignoring yells from the masses, angry that he was blocking the street. The attendees were overwhelmingly women, as men die sooner. The few men who were there, usually with a harem of at least three ladies, no doubt were “encouraged” to come because they had that one asset of greatest value to their set – they could still drive. Maybe it was just because it was a matinee, and most of those people don’t go out at night. My theory is that they all used to go to City Opera in its City Center heyday. Maybe the demographic is different in New Brooklyn. There were a few tourists. The better half spotted a very fat man in a very yellow sweater, his stomach popping out and only one button done. None of the beautiful young men one often sees at the Met were there. The only male couple we noticed appeared to be a May/late-December thing, in which both parties wore identical eye-glasses, as though the younger were dressing up as a younger version of the older.
While the sound was excellent, given the site-lines, I doubt I’d go back to that venue, unless I could get better seats. Unless I could get those seats at a discount, I’d have to really, really want to see the show. I’d be more inclined to give their productions at BAM a try. I hate to bring up that other opera house again, but you-know-what offers a better deal to ordinary (non-rich) people through its rush tickets, student discounts, family circle and standing room. The City Opera advertises $25 seats, but you can’t order them online. I couldn’t find information about how to actually buy them, so I called. Apparently, you have to get the cheap seats either through a subscription or for single tickets from the box office for the venue. I’m not entirely sure how that works. Is there a phone number? Do you show up at the Box Office before the curtain? Seriously, if anyone reading this can enlighten me further please do. In any case, I was told the cheap seats are usually on the side, but offer a full view and are on different levels. In any case, performances for 4/23, 4/25 and 4/27 remain, and as I write this there is an online lottery for $40 seats (who knows where) for 4/23 which you can enter through this NYC Opera page.
Taking you out, here’s a clip of the artistic director talking about this production. It has pathetically few hits and no comments at all, probably because most of the City Opera audience still hasn’t figured out that e-mail thing yet or is afraid to go on the internet because they might catch a virus.
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