Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New York City Opera Unpacks Three Treasures from Its Trunk `Marilyn,' `Esther,' and `Griffelkin' Mark Golden Anniversary

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New York City Opera Unpacks Three Treasures from Its Trunk `Marilyn,' `Esther,' and `Griffelkin' Mark Golden Anniversary

Article excerpt

OPERATING at Lincoln Center for 27 years in the shadow of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera (NYCO) has always found one way not to look like a poor stepsister: introducing new American operas. This month, the struggling company threw caution to the wind and gave itself a no-holds-barred 50th-anniversary celebration, in the form of three world premieres mounted in the same week.

From where this grandstander sat, the tally at week's end was: one single, one triple, and one home run. By the standard of any opera company in America, that's impressive.

The first smart move on the part of NYCO's Artistic Director Christopher Keene was to hire one overall scenic designer for the three pieces.

He chose Jerome Sirlin, a master of illusion who synthesized the two worlds of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" with his slide-projection specials. Sirlin has an unfortunate weakness for black-and-white slides, but when he indulges in color, he uses it sparingly and well. His fluid transitions and masterful lighting collaborators lent a subtle kinship to the three premieres, which was matched by what turned out to be the operas' theme of slippery identity.

In Ezra Laderman's "Marilyn," Marilyn Monroe's wilting sense of self-worth was constantly shaped by others. In Hugo Weisgall's "Esther," Queen Esther of Biblical times withholds her Jewish origins from husband King Xerxes until a propitious moment. In Lukas Foss' "Griffelkin," a 10-year-old visitor from the underworld is torn between performing assigned evil deeds and wanting to engage in good ones on earth.

The unexpected surprise of the week was the overall quality of the librettos.

In "Marilyn," librettist Norman Rosten clearly knew his subject. This was no cartoon cut-out, but a three-dimensional comedienne with courage and humor who wasn't afraid to lecture moguls or talk back to psychiatrists. Unfortunately, purposes of dramatic economy forced Rosten to choose between various husbands and boyfriends, and these generic characters paled in comparison to the heroine.

Cliches abounded, as well as inanities, and Rosten's composer was little help; concentrating on an orchestral palette that was too often at odds with the vocal line, waves of atonal sound provided no empathy for poor Marilyn. …

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