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The New York City Opera – relatively poor and historically feisty – languishes forever in the shadow of the mighty Metropolitan. Now it finds itself contemplating a cultural crossroads.

The regime of Paul Kellogg, controversial general-director since 1996, lumbers to a somnolent close in June. His successor, who officially takes over in 2009, is none less than Gérard Mortier, the controversial iconoclast who has inspired blood, sweat and tears – also bravos – in Salzburg and Paris. Conservative New Yorkers may regard the Belgian impresario as a dangerous enfant terrible. Others may hail him as a deus ex machina.

Publicity machines are already grinding in high gear. The New York Times ran an editorial welcoming Mortier as a productive counterforce for Peter Gelb, the mastermind making waves next door at the Met. City Opera officials have blown up the editorial for display out front. A Mortier/Gelb rivalry could be stimulating, especially for aficionados of Schadenfreude.

Mortier has been a prime proponent of experiments that exalt in ignoring, if not contradicting, operatic scores. In Salzburg, for instance, he mustered an ugly and leaden Fledermaus predicated on cocaine nightmares and primitive politics. His admirers call the genre Regietheater. His detractors prefer “Eurotrash”.

The City Opera does not enjoy vast subsidies. The chief administrator must assume fundraising duties in addition to aesthetic pursuits. The company concentrates on modest productions employing little-known singers, with a scrappy orchestra and ragged chorus. The State Theater, capacity 2,755, is an ungainly barn designed for ballet. The sound, thanks to Kellogg, is distorted by microphones. Kellogg wanted new quarters; Mortier agreed to stay put. In any case, he stands to inherit and inhabit a brave new world.

The latest NYCO venture is Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, a mellifluous melodrama based on Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake. The often wondrous score, completed in 1819 and seldom revived, makes almost superhuman demands on an ensemble of would-be virtuosos. The libretto celebrates stilted period-conventions. The entity, though uneven, is fascinating. Once again, for better or worse, the City Opera has rushed in where the Met fears to tread.

The production – directed by Chas Rader-Shieber and designed by David Zinn – is shared with the Minnesota Opera, not exactly a big-league organisation. It seems unlikely that Mortier would approve this compendium of clichés. The staging scheme has little to its credit beyond economy. A unit set reveals a raked platform flanked
by faux-brick walls. Back-cloths are moved, chairs rearranged and props replaced in a futile effort to suggest locale changes. Forget the highlands of 16th-century Scotland. The inaction scheme involves awkward entrances, hand-me-down poses and awkward exits. It is possible to use minimalism as an expressive advantage, but here it seems a matter of desperation.

Musical standards proved less problematic than theatrical standards at the opening on Thursday. The canto may not have been invariably bel but the spirits and larynxes seemed willing. Alexandrina Pendatchanska, a sympathetic soprano from Sofia, found the title role something of a tortuous trial. She suffered and simpered prettily, traced the linear curlicues bravely, surveyed the range extremes conscientiously. Still, she strained for the power, clarity and security that marked her work here in Ermione (comparable Rossini) and Don Giovanni. If the performance had a hero, it was Barry Banks of Stoke-on-Trent. As Uberto, aka James V, he sailed the tenor stratosphere with nonchalant elegance, articulated the fiorature with communicative grace and acted with dignified urgency. A paragon. Robert McPherson made an auspicious debut as Rodrigo di Dhu, the king’s rival in romance as well as tessitura. Seconding Banks, the young man from Seattle sang his top notes with comparable fervour if less suavity.

The trouser role of Malcolm Graeme – actually a kilt role – served as a triumphant vehicle for Laura Vlasak Nolen of Dallas. Her exceptionally large and lush mezzo-soprano coped easily with Rossini’s unreasonable demands for lofty ascents, lowly descents and florid accents. Remember the name. Daniel Mobbs’ bass-baritone sounded authoritative, if a bit gruff and top-heavy, in the paternal platitudes of Duglas d’Angus.

George Manahan, the ubiquitous music director, enforced his customary poise and propulsion in the pit, some rough patches notwithstanding. He is a reassuring presence, but his survival with the changing of the NYCO guard has become a matter of conjecture. After all, wherever Mortier goes, his favoured conductor is known to follow. One must wonder if Sylvain Cambreling could become the Manahan for all seasons.

‘La Donna del Lago’ runs in repertory at New York City Opera until April 7, tel: +1 212-870 5570; www.nycopera.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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