By Anne E. Johnson
NEW YORK — When was the last time you attended a Donizetti opera and nobody applauded after the arias? Although that was the case at the New York City Opera’s U.S. premiere of Donizetti’s Il Pigmalione on March 24, it was no reflection on the singing; most likely it was because the audience didn’t know any of the tunes.
Il Pigmalione was a student work, written in 1816 when 19-year-old Donizetti was at the Bologna Academy. The lyric scene wasn’t premiered until 1960 at the Teatro Donizetti in the composer’s hometown of Bergamo. This ancient Greek tale comes from the Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid, a book with a huge influence on opera from the genre’s birth at the turn of the 17th century. The story is best known to the modern world in Lerner and Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady, which is in previews at Lincoln Center Theater in an all-star revival.
Pygmalion is a sculptor who carves a woman so beautiful that he falls in love and prays for her to become real. And so she does. It’s not much of a plot, but Donizetti was not the first to be inspired to set it as a musical stage work. In fact, this City Opera performance included Pigmalion, a 1748 French one-act by Jean-Philippe Rameau. And Donizetti’s libretto is thought to be an Italian translation of one used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1770, according to program notes by musicologist Ellen Lockhart. It takes longer to explain these theatrical bon-bons than it does to view them.
Donizetti’s scene is simplicity itself, with only two characters, Pigmalione and the eventually humanized sculpture, Galatea. Set designer John Farrell kept the stage at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater nearly bare, with just a pedestal for the sculpture, a moveable staircase so that Pigmalione could reach his masterpiece, and a tall window (which later turned out to be a translucent scrim).
The title role was a bit beyond the reach of Polish tenor Piotr Buszewski, who is still in his residency at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. Honestly, even a seasoned veteran would have been challenged by what is practically one giant solo. Buszewski’s voice sounded tired (no surprise), and he struggled to control his rhythm and intonation, especially at cadences.
Il Pigmalione has all the hallmarks of the nascent bel canto style: ritornello-like introductions that don’t actually repeat like ritornellos used to, orchestration so rich that even the recitatives sound like songs, gloriously melodic cavatinas, overwrought yet compelling cabalettas. This is Donizetti, all right. Does it tell us anything new about him as a composer? Only how gifted he was at this early age.
One strange thing about such a short, self-contained operatic exercise is the way it tries to present the full dramatic arc of a real opera, but in microcosm. Within 15 minutes, Pigmalione was already singing the words “I desire my own death!” And Galatea came to life only a few minutes before the curtain fell, just long enough to sing a short aria and a duet.
Director Richard Stafford used the interesting conceit of leaving the stone statue on stage and having the living Galatea — elegantly sung by soprano Jessica Sandidge — stand behind the window-shaped scrim upstage. That choice made us unsure whether the gods really delivered this miracle, or whether perhaps Pigmalione just conjured it in his fervent artist’s mind.
You know the transformation really happens in Rameau’s Pigmalion because there are many witnesses. At the opening and closing of this longer one-act, the stage was teeming with chorus members dressed as guests in 19th-century garb (costumes by Janet O’Neill) and dancers draped in marbled robes and posed as statues against the five windows of Farrell’s set.
Unquestionably the true stars of Rameau’s work were the members of the corps-de-ballet. Kelly Loughran, Sarah Marchetti, Adam Rogers, Joseph Tudor, and Jessica Wu danced director Stafford’s witty choreography with buoyant charm that even a King Louis (pick your Roman numeral) would have appreciated.
Thor Arbjornsson’s light lyric tenor was well suited to this Baroque Pigmalion, executing the tricky melismas and ornaments with grace. Rameau and his librettist, Sylvain Ballot de Sauvot, provide the sculptor with a girlfriend, Céphise, who’s basically a discomfited art widow. She knows Pigmalion loves his sculpture more than her. But the libretto doesn’t delve into her character, and in the end she’s conveniently paired off with a guy at the party where everyone’s celebrating Galatea’s new life. Julia Snowden sang Céphise with a strong, accomplished voice, but in a style better suited to bel canto or even later works. Maybe the casting was symbolism: her voice and Pigmalion’s were not destined to belong together.
This time, Stafford had the flesh-and-blood Galatea already posing as the statue under the tarp and ready to step from her pedestal. Samarie Alicea, as La Statue, was rather illogically painted bronze instead of stone-colored. She stood out not only for her rich voice and ability to dance right along with the ballet pros (this production required the whole cast to be triple threats), but also for the fluid movements of her body and face that gave her character a naturalness contrasting perfectly with the sculpture she once was.
Another delight was mezzo-soprano Melanie Long, who brought a wry impishness to her portrayal of Cupid. And wig designer Georgianna Eberhard deserves applause for Cupid’s head of fetching ginger curls.
Conductor Gil Rose and the New York City Opera Orchestra fared better with the Donizetti than the Rameau. The former work allowed the strings in particular to relish lush writing in support of tuneful bel canto lines.
The Rameau started with the ensemble not quite in sync, and while the orchestra got itself together and turned in a serviceable reading of the score, they didn’t try for basic Baroque-performance elements such as tight vertical alignment and notes inegales that make Rameau’s harmonic motions sparkle. (For a performance that relishes these historical elements, I recommend the 2017 recording by Les Talens Lyriques, conducted by Christophe Rousset.) Nevertheless, there were some moments of beautiful playing, especially by principal oboe Randy Wolfgang.
One directorial decision deserves mention: At the party in Pigmalion’s studio, the eight members of the chorus paired off as the company sang about how love triumphs over all. Cupid happily blessed the four couples — two straight, one gay, and one lesbian. Representation matters, and directing old operas in a way that acknowledges changing societal norms is one way to keep these works relevant. Not that Rameau needs our help.
Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.