- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - The New York City Opera has kicked off its spring season with a one-two punch that shows the scrappy company staying true to its historic dual mission.

Donizetti’s delightful comedy “The Elixir of Love” showcases a cast of promising young singers in a repertory staple, while a triple bill of short pieces for solo soprano offers a chance to hear challenging, less-familiar works.

“Elixir,” in a cute though derivative production by Jonathan Miller, updates the action to the American Southwest, where the heroine, Adina, runs a diner and the lovesick Nemorino works at a gas station.

At Saturday afternoon’s performance, the best singing came from baritone Jose Adan Perez as the preening Sergeant Belcore, Nemorino’s rival for Adina’s affections. Perez has a compact, vibrant sound with secure high notes and fine technical agility.

Tenor David Lomeli, the audience favorite, makes an endearingly oafish Nemorino and has a pleasant voice with lots of potential, but at this performance he tended to wander off pitch. Soprano Stefania Dovhan is a pert Adina, with a powerful voice that lacks only sweetness to make her ideal in the role. Baritone Marco Nistico sounded dry and disengaged as the jovial huckster, Doctor Dulcamara.

Conductor Brad Cohen led an energetic performance, marred by a surprising number of coordination problems between the pit and the stage.

It’s a bit of a chronological jump from Donizetti’s 1832 opera to the three 20th-century works performed Sunday afternoon under the title “Monodramas.” But in musical terms it’s an even greater leap _ from the richly tuneful to the relentlessly atonal.

By far the highlight among the pieces is Arnold Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” (Waiting), composed in 1909. It’s a powerful half-hour psychodrama in which a disturbed woman searches for her lover at night in a forest, only to come upon his body. By the end, it appears he had betrayed her and she may have killed him.

The program opened with a composition written in 2000 by John Zorn called “La Machine de l’etre” (The Machine of Being). As the composer explains in a program note, the work has “no text, no plot and no stage directions predetermined whatsoever.” Instead, a soprano sings a wordless aria in three movements that lasts about 10 minutes and ends with a scream.

After intermission came the longest work, “Neither,” a one-act opera (or “anti-opera”) by composer Morton Feldman set to the only libretto ever written by Samuel Beckett and first performed in 1977.

Beckett said he hoped his 10 brief lines of text (It begins: “to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow …”) would provide “something that just hovered.” And that ominously suspended sense of expectancy is precisely what Feldman captures in his music. It’s an effective piece for about 20 minutes, but unfortunately it goes on twice that long. (Feldman, after all, is the man who composed a string quartet that lasts more than six hours!)

The company assembled a strong group of sopranos to present these daunting works. Anu Komsi poured great feeling into the cryptic utterances of Zorn; Kara Shay Thompson was a strikingly haunted figure in “Erwartung”; and Cyndia Sieden carried off the Feldman work with charismatic presence and considerable vocal allure.

Each piece got its own abstract production, designed by Michael Counts and choreographed by Ken Roht, with costumes by Jessica Jahn and lighting by Robert Wierzel. An ensemble of mimes played various roles in the different dramas.

Counts’ efforts to provide a visual counterpart to the music seemed at times overly elaborate. But there were intriguing elements, such as the array of women in Muslim garb in “La Machine”; the red petals falling from the night sky in “Erwartung”; and the shiny metallic walls reflecting cubes that descended from the ceiling in “Neither.”

The company’s music director, George Manahan, conducted the orchestra, which sounded terrific in this difficult music.

The two programs are running through April 8-9. Then the final offering of the brief season opens April 19, “Seance on a Wet Afternoon,” composed by Stephen Schwartz, best known as the man behind such Broadway blockbusters as “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked.”

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