After a year in the desert, during which its finances withered and its plans dissolved, New York City Opera will finally come home with a November 5 gala, retaking possession of the freshly renovated and rechristened David H. Koch Theater. Okay, so the lofty visions it proclaimed last year won’t materialize — no Einstein on the Beach, no five-hour French opera about Saint Francis of Assisi in the drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory. But the short-order season that the new director, George Steel, has whipped together in the two months since he’s taken over is a taut demonstration of what’s made this company so indispensable. Steel ordered up one new production — Mozart’s Don Giovanni, directed by City Opera stalwart Christopher Alden — and dove into the warehouses for the rest.
He’s chosen well: Hugo Weisgall’s Esther got a jelly-kneed rave from the Times when it had its world premiere in 1993 — and then vanished from the repertoire. The inimitably queenly soprano Lauren Flanigan sang the role of the biblical sovereign back then, and she’ll do so again in November. Launching a new era with such a richly dramatic, recently minted piece signals that City Opera hasn’t backed away from its ambitions. “The number of opera houses that would open the season with a work from after 1990 is ... one,” Steel remarked.
Also on the docket are revivals of Mark Lamos’s luminous and spare production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Handel’s Partenope, and Chabrier’s proseccolike comedy L’étoile; all of which suggests that Steel knows how to pluck from the company’s cornucopia of existing productions. The troubled company’s long-term future is still blurred, but at least next season suggests that New York City Opera has a very promising past.