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.