New York City Opera (NYCO) celebrated the 90th birthday of American composer Dominick Argento, whose operas figured into its repertory at the erstwhile New York State Theater, with a staged concert performance, at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall on November 9, of short monodramas “Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night” and “A Water Bird Talk.” “Miss Havisham,” with libretto by John Olon-Scrymgeour, after Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” was originally intended as a one-act opera for Beverly Sills, but by the time of its spring 1979 premiere, given by NYCO as “Miss Havisham’s Fire,” had become an evening-length opus with Rita Shane and Gianna Rolandi as the protagonist, the former when she’s older and the latter as her younger self. It was reconfigured as a one-act work for Shane in 1981. “Water Bird Talk,” with libretto by Argento, after Anton Chekhov’s “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco” and John J. Audubon’s “The Birds of America,” was first given in the spring of 1977, by a group called the New Opera Theater, at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Effectively realizing the double bill, Gil Rose conducted a 15-piece NYCO Orchestra and directed as well. The composer was present for these festivities.
An opera about a woman, jilted at the altar, who has hung onto and relived that nightmare wedding night for fifty years, and one about a lecturer on water fowl, at a ‘ladies’ club,’ would seem on the surface not to have much in common. However, when we first meet Miss Havisham, in her tattered wedding gown, she’s cheerful, once more hearing her wedding music, sweet and distant, on organ or harmonium, in her mind, seeing remembered figures, in Callie Chapman’s projections, through cobwebs and smoke. The music soon turns jagged, revealing her troubled state, and we find her emitting a pathetic scream and taking up her cane to batter her grandfather clock, standing amid the spider webs, on the floor littered with torn-up letters. The neurotic, pulled-together lecturer of the second work, an absent-minded professor, but scarcely a figure of fun, has decided not to speak about scorpions, spiders—again—and centipedes, but warming to his replacement subject, with Audubon illustrations, turns to the piano to demonstrate a bird call and winds up playing a lyrical hymn from a happier time, before he unravels, breaking his pointer, stomping on his waistcoat, letting his slide-projector overheat, and straying from the birds, and describes his dismal domestic life, to musical strains that reflect his increasingly agitated state.
High soprano Heather Buck made a vivid Miss Havisham, admitting frankly, “I am a little out of my wits.” The high tessitura, written with the likes of Sills and Shane in mind, made some phrases hard to understand, but one that came across loud and clear, a vestige of Miss Havisham’s past life of class, was, “Pas devant la domestique,” i.e. we watch what we say in front of the servants, addressed to her silent adopted child Estella (Victoria Leigh), instrument of her intended revenge against men, before the equally silent maid (Raya Louise Malcolm) left the room. Baritone Aaron Engebreth moved seamlessly from rhapsodizing about the graceful roseate tern and the Atlantic puffin, which “mates for life,” to dissolving into a puddle of self-pity, with his marriage coming undone.
to see what else the company has in store.