In 1978 the long-lost manuscript of Georg Philipp Telemann's opera, Orpheus, resurfaced. NYC Opera selected the neglected piece to close its 2012 season of wandering, coming to rest in the tiny auditorium of El Museo del Barrio on 5th Avenue at 104th Street. The venue was a discovery for me – and, in the end, a bigger discovery than the opera.
I generally enjoy Telemann's music. His concerti, sonatas, and sacred and secular choral music are all quite rewarding, if not in the league of his contemporary J.S. Bach in terms of depth of development and motivic genius. But, at least based on this experience, I would not judge Telemann an exceptional composer for the operative stage. There were a few effective moments, but on the whole the music was less than stellar, leaving one to conclude that history has not judge Telemann unfairly by failing to accord him honors for writing operas.
On the other hand, City Opera did a fine job with the material they had. The staging was minimalist – no sets, just lighting effects and props, but all handled with such ingenuity that nothing seemed lacking. The setting was contemporary. The scene in which Orpheus confronts Pluto in his quest to reconnect with his dead love, Eurydice, is set in corporate headquarters, Pluto a blustering CEO with cellphone in hand, minions arrayed at desks clacking away on the keyboards of their laptops! The plot is a silly riff on the ancient Orpheus legend; it occurred to me that the connection of this opera to the ancient Orpheus story is somewhat like the connection of PDQ Bach's spoof opera, the Abduction of Figaro, to the Mozart originals that inspired it. Credit set and costume designer David Zinn, lighting designer Donald Holder, and production director Rebecca Taichman.
The singers were wonderful. I was especially impressed by the male leads, Daniel Teadt as Orpheus and NIcholas Pallesen as Pluto. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow led a spirited small orchestra in the improvised pit.
For next year, City Opera has again announced a short spring season, this time alternating between Brooklyn Academy of Music and City Center on 55th Street, which post-renovation will be a more comfortable place to hear opera than it was when NYCO started out there half a century ago. But I'm almost saddened that they are not repeating the experiment of El Museo del Barrio. The setting is perfect for chamber opera.