Dual Opera Premieres Reflect One Composer’s Stage Savvy And Range

The company of Lincoln Center Theaters production of Ricky Ian Gordons Intimate Apparel Photo by T Charles Erickson

NEW YORK – Few composers of the neotonal generation are so themselves as Ricky Ian Gordon. In his two operas that opened nearly simultaneously in January, one could chart how that same self convincingly told two hugely different stories: The fate of upper-class Jews in 1940s fascist Italy in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Black women in 1905 America struggling for a viable, self-supporting future in Intimate Apparel.

The close proximity of the two premieres, which may be unprecedented in the history of opera, was a function of artistic pileup amid COVID lockdown. Intimate Apparel was in production at Lincoln Center Theater when the world came to an end in March 2020 but rose again at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater with a Jan. 31 opening. Finzi-Continis, running Jan. 27 through Feb. 6 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, is jointly produced by the New York City Opera and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.

Both gave ample reason for why these period-piece stories are being retold now. Finzi-Continis reflects how current polarizing politics tear apart previously functional communities. Intimate Apparel concerns a New York seamstress marrying a newly immigrated Caribbean man she knows mainly through his letters, resonating with the modern online world that allows people to remake reality at will. Both operas have extra emotional charge with themes of thwarted homosexuality, both in the unhappy upper-class housewife in Intimate Apparel and the ill, intellectual son in the Finzi-Contini clan.

Rachael Blaustein and Anthony Ciaramitaro in Ricky Ian Gordons The Garden of the Finzi Continis Photo by Alan Chin

Neither piece was tightly bound to the source material. Playwright Lynn Nottage skillfully transitioned her 2003 play Intimate Apparel into an operatic panorama that explores class clashes and opium addiction in addition to racism, thanks to a character count expanded from six in the play to 11 in the opera (plus ensemble). Finzi-Continis librettist Michael Korie eschewed the narrative structure of the lovely 1970 Vittorio De Sica film, opting instead for a flashback format from the 1962 original Giorgio Bassani novel.

I consciously avoided any deep backgrounding prior to attending the two operas (respectively on Jan. 29 and 30), to maintain a clear idea of what had arrived onstage rather than the routes taken to get there. The conclusion is that both are significant works unto themselves. Intimate Apparel has the far better cast and production; Finzi-Contini has many of its virtues somewhat buried.

Though often discussed among his post-Sondheim contemporaries, Gordon is more conceptually descended from the post-Wagnerian world of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Gordon sounds nothing like Debussy, but similarly creates a harmonic pool — sophisticated, expansive, mostly congenial, dissonant when necessary — that encompasses the larger world of the opera at hand. Both operas unfold in an uninterrupted flow. Where there might normally be an aria, the music becomes more concentrated harmonically and melodically, while rarely maintaining the formal symmetry of traditional arias for very long. There are set pieces, but because Gordon generally doesn’t lock himself into anything resembling aria-recitative structure, his musical landscapes make room for, say, Jewish prayers in Finzi-Continis and turn-of-the-century cakewalks in Apparel. Word painting and eloquent harmonic shifts are generously employed as the plot lines hover between external reality and inner fantasy.

Dramatically adept choruses and ensembles — Gordon specialties — play a particularly strong role in both pieces in dramatizing how larger communities define and constrict the lives of individuals. Also apparent is subliminal (and effective) tonal planning to lead the listener from one narrative event to the next. Though Finzi-Continis had curious pacing lapses, the quality of inspiration in both operas is pretty consistent. Gordon, 65, has written at least 15 major stage works, not all of them successful by any means, though the fruits of that experience are apparent in the unostentatious mastery that adds up to affecting, detailed characters.

The cast of The Garden of the Finzi Continis Photo by Steven Pisano

That’s a particular feat in Finzi-Contini, with a dozen or so major characters in and around the Ferrara, Italy-based family that has become too rarefied to see how the Fascist politics would lead to their ultimate demise. John Farrell’s set design, with computer-projection visuals, sketched the diverse settings, from indoor seders to outdoor bicycle trips. But in other respects, the production felt like a trial run. Some good voices were evident in the large cast, though they often over-sang the small hall. In particular, tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro — in the central role of Giorgio, one of the few Ferrara Jews who got out alive — pushed his robust voice beyond having any coloristic possibilities. Other elements suggested that the opera wants to be something more grand than what was possible at the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s 382-seat Edmond J. Safra Hall. The orchestra’s 15 players under James Lowe tried to cover epic ground, though with three hours of often-plodding tempos and little sense of scene shaping, the strain was increasingly audible.

In contrast, Apparel (originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program) worked beautifully in the 299-seat Mitzi Newhouse Theater with a two-piano orchestra under Steven Osgood. That venue’s smallness is perhaps one reason why the piece itself goes so deep under your skin. Even if you see the plot twists coming, the plight of 35-year-old Esther, an unmarried seamstress sung by Kearstin Piper Brown, becomes excruciating as she gambles her life savings on her new husband (Justin Austin) — only for him to gamble more for even bigger winnings.

Much of the piece’s dramatic strength comes from the libretto and score’s compassion for all sides of the story. Knowing Esther so well, you can’t judge her love-has-no-pride selflessness in her marriage, especially when the production shows her husband as she imagined him (rustically handsome) in contrast to the desperate drifter that he is. The prostitute Mayme (well portrayed by Krysty Swann) steals him, in her own need for intimacy. Judgments are further suspended when nobody wins or gets what they want.

Kearstin Piper Brown as Esther and Justin Austin as George in Intimate Apparel Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Director Bartlett Sher used choruses and ensembles as part of the stage pictures, with singers lined up across the back of the stage seen mainly in silhouette. Among the arresting visual images in Michael Yeargan’s simple, revolving set design were period photos seen at the end of each act with captions such as “anonymous Negro couple”, reminding you how the three-dimensional people in this story ultimately disappeared with little trace from a world that was so indifferent to them.

The singing was valiant. Not for nothing does Brown (a presence you truly care about) have the matinees off in this Broadway-standard eight-shows-a-week run. The role is a long sing. But throughout much of the cast, the singing mechanics took precedence over the communicative potential of the words and vocal lines.

Both productions needed more much careful vocal casting. Just because Gordon’s music isn’t radical doesn’t mean that his storytelling doesn’t require a different kind of performance practice. So many young singers these days have one volume setting — loud, particularly in dry acoustics when they can’t hear their voices reverberating back at them, or when they’re in training for big-opera house engagements. The result, in this instance, was a degree of vocal amplitude that bleached out words and obscured contours of vocal lines. Too often, the singers in both casts didn’t let the expressive nuances of Gordon’s vocal lines work for them, one exception being Apparel’s Adrienne Danrich, as Mrs. Dickson. And elsewhere? Vocal heavy lifting. One of the program credits for Apparel was a Metropolitan Opera casting consultant. Maybe a better source would be the New York Festival of Song.

Intimate Apparel plays Tuesdays through Sundays through March 6 at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 56th St. Information: lct.org or 212-501-3100.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis runs through Feb. 6 at National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place. Tickets: nycopera.com or 855-449-4658.

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David Patrick Stearns
David Patrick Stearns is a freelance contributor to Classical Voice North America, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the WQXR blog in New York, Gramophone and Opera News. On screen, he scripted segments of the syndicated PBS show Articulate with Jim Cotter, as well as two documentary films, including David Amram: The First 80 Years. On radio, he was a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition. He has reported numerous news and feature pieces for WRTI-FM in Philadelphia. For the Inquirer and WRTI, he has covered Philadelphia Orchestra tours in Europe, Japan, China, Mongolia and Israel. He studied voice in the studio of Marjorie Lawrence at Southern Illinois University and holds a master's degree in musicology from New York University. His artsjournal.com blog is titled Condemned to Music. He now lives in Brooklyn with four cats in what he describes as "the public library but with more furniture."