Opera Openings

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Moffo Memories, Dombasle Delights, Lady Composers, “Curtains” Sags

Beverly Sills proved herself one of the great enduring New Yorkers at the opening night of the New York City Opera (9/19), appearing just days after the death of her husband, Peter Greenough. She gave an impassioned speech in support of the company, which made her a star and which she said should never be referred to as “that other opera company” or “the cheap one,” as, for generations, it has fed the rest of the opera world with talent and given so many debut opportunities—from Placido Domingo to Renee Fleming. She glowingly evoked house diva, the late Patricia Brooks whom she recalled as “taking the longest stage pause I have ever experienced—60 seconds before starting “Ah forse é lui” in “La Traviata”—under Frank Corsaro’s direction.”

It was inspiring to see Julius Rudel, at 85, conduct with unquenchable passion and Vivica Genaux, Lauren Flanigan, Samuel Ramey, Judy Kaye and Carol Vaness acquitted themselves admirably. But Franz Lehar’s sexy aria “Meine lippen, sie kussen so heisse” (“My lips, they kiss so warmly”), written for the ravishing Jarmila Novotna to sing in “Giuditta” (1934), became the theme song of the week as Elizabeth Futral, stunning in Jean Harlow white satin, stole the evening with a sizzling rendition of it. The following eve, the aria was heard once again, recorded by the late Anna Moffo at the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s touching memorial to her at Alice Tully Hall. Another operatic survivor, Marilyn Horne, who has been battling cancer, touchingly mentioned how, in regard to Moffo’s passing, she, too, has been thinking lately about her own mortality, and the legacy all singers leave behind. Sherrill Milnes hosted the occasion, attended by a vanguard of living opera legends—Risë Stevens, Licia Albanese, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Martina Arroyo, George Shirley, Roberta Peters, Rosalind Elias, Lili Chookasian and Lucine Amara.

Moffo’s considerable vocal and physical beauty were recalled in speech and a number of clips, including some from her Italian TV variety show, in which she sang “Porgy” in blackface. When I interviewed her a few years ago, she dazzled me with her East Side penthouse grand diva style. A maid greeted you at the door with espresso, and then Moffo appeared, in full-blown Chanel, a gorgeously down-to-earth broad who surprisingly announced she was planning to sing “Norma” in Italy. Cecil Beaton had designed Turandot for her Liu and she said, “I had to wear such pathetic rags in that, so I made him promise me he would really outdo himself for my ‘Traviata,’ which he did.”

Operatic glamour reached a boiling point with a Metropolitan Opera ”Madama Butterfly” opening (9/25) to rival the Oscars for excitement. The air positively crackled on the plaza, with the live-feed set-up and red carpet arrivals of Jude Law, Sienna Miller, Meg Ryan, Liv Tyler, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Baryshnikov, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon who exultantly told me, “I’m wearing Han Feng [‘Butterfly’s’ costume designer]. It’s all about her, and all things Asian tonight!” Even the most hardened old-guard New York socialites were jumping up and down in their gowns with excitement.

Anthony Minghella’s production of Puccini is a visual stunner—utilizing mirrored ceilings, stairway perspectives, sliding screens and brilliant lighting effects—but lacking in the human element, especially with the use of that Bunraku puppet for Butterfly’s child. However one feels, though, Minghella has brought, with new General Manager Peter Gelb, a much-needed blast of fresh air to Lincoln Center.

“Her Song,” seen 9/16 at Birdland, is an invigorating journey through American song, all of it penned by women, from Nora Bayes (“Shine on Harvest Moon”) to Dorothy Fields and Marilyn Bergman. It’s a family affair, snappily directed by Dori Levitt, conceived by her parents, Brenda and Barry Levitt, and performed by Emma Zaks, Kelly McCormick, Gabrielle Lee and Trisha Rapier. Zaks was the standout for me, with her pure soprano doing Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro proud. Zaks, a proud out lesbian, is the daughter of Broadway director Jerry Zaks and told me, “On Nyro’s ‘Save the Country,’ I really wanted to get even more political when I scream those words. My Dad is who he is, but I’m a working actor like anyone else and had to audition for this.” It is given to Zaks in the show to inform us that “God Bless America” was written by Katharine Lee Bates, another “out and proud lesbian who lived for 25 years with the same woman.”

She ruled the breakfast den at the Carlyle Hotel, when she described to me shooting what was to be Marcello Mastroianni’s final love scene in “Trois vies & une seule mort.” “He was charming, but quite sick at the time. His liver was hurting, but he was drinking so much whiskey, glass after glass. But he had such a sweet attitude towards people, a gentle man, really.” Dombasle is one half of a real Parisian power couple, married to millionaire/philosopher/journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy, who wrote the book, “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?”

While in Los Angeles, I caught the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical, “Curtains,” and am sorry to say that, despite a raft of Broadway talent—those gifted, recently out-of-commission guys Jason Danieley and Noah Racey, David Hyde Pierce, Karen Ziemba, Edward Hibbert and Deborah Monk (hideously costumed by William Ivey Long)—it’s kind of a mess. Murder and musicals are two genres, which never mix well for me, be it “Assassins” or “Nick and Nora.” After a funny opening number, featuring a particularly inept diva, the show goes slowly downhill with uninspired direction and choreography and so-so songs. More than anything else, it’s Peter Stone’s leaden, vulgar book that’s to blame.

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.