Verdi Opens the Season

An Almost-there Otello, Golden Hart and El Magnifico, Raul

“Where are all the gowns?” complained TV producer Lina del Tinto as the fall cultural season officially got under way with Verdi’s magnificent “Otello” opening the Metropolitan Opera season on September 20.

The fabulous frocks were there, along with that sole ubiquitous kimono-wearer, but you had to spot them among too many obvious proofs of the old adage “Money can’t buy taste.” Park Avenue still seems to rather dote on knock-off Bob Mackies.

Dixie Carter, with husband Hal Holbrook and an undercover John Wallowitch, took the elegance prize in Yves Saint Laurent, with six-foot trailing scarf. G.O.P. doyenne Georgette Mosbacher was there, looking uncannily like a very well-fed Amanda LePore, while Rufus Wainwright, in his idea of Edwardian black tie mufti, was first one out of the house at intermission for a smoke outside.

James Levine led the orchestra in a truly stirring rendition of our national anthem (the old divas’ voices certainly rang out on the high notes), and we were off.

As Otello, Ben Heppner, the world’s leading countertenor, was, happily, a few pounds heavier and in ringing, glorious voice in this Mt. Everest of roles. Histrionically, he was not as strong, but I am sure his performance will come together over time, from this passionately committed performer. As Desdemona, Barbara Frittoli, despite sharing the first name of the character in her “Willow Song,” the most luminously beautiful music Verdi ever penned, failed to make the kind of magic Renée Fleming did when she stole the opera outright from Placido Domingo in 1995, or Montserrat Caballe, who gave the most transcendent reading of it I ever heard, in concert at Carnegie Hall. (On record, I prefer the perennially underrated, ravishing sound of Eleanor Steber.)

A New York monument as invincible as Lady Liberty, herself, Kitty Carlisle Hart celebrated her 94th birthday with her cabaret debut at Feinstein’s at the Regency on September 21. A crammed-to-the-rafters room became a true love-in, as Hart performed what amounted to an informal history of the Broadway musical song. Deftly scripted and accompanied by David Lewis, the great theater names––Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Lerner & Lowe, and Moss Hart (Kitty’s husband)––were dropped by this grande-est of dames. Indeed, listening to her warble their timeless tunes in a miraculously strong and sure voice was that rarest opportunity to hear these songs sung by an interpreter who knew both lyrics and composers intimately. Her song list––“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” an enchanting “The Man I Love,” a glowing “My Ship,” a girlishly charming “I Could Have Danced All Night,” a haunting “What is This Thing Called Love,” a ruefully touching “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan”––would have daunted any performer a quarter of her age, but Hart made pure magic with each. It was Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” however, that really made the tears fall into our cocktails––a masterpiece, sung masterfully by one who has fully earned the right to.

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo described her to me as “the great ontologist––a person who reveres living. Her whole existence says, ‘Make the most of life; it’s the great gift.’ I worked with her as Rockefeller worked with her, as Carey worked with her, and as Pataki was required to work with her. When you work with her she expects you to work for her and her expectation is always fulfilled because the power of her persona makes you serve her purpose, which is always a good one. I can’t wait for her centennial in six years, and hope that we’ll be able to bring Pres. Kerry to the party to celebrate it with her.”

Joan Rivers, who sat watching her like a rapt schoolgirl, said, “This woman knew them all! If she would only write the truth. I would love to know if George Gershwin was gay. And how chic is she, still slim, still beautiful? Did you see that piece of jewelry hanging off her? I’m wearing Moschimo-Moschino, never know how to pronounce it, and, excuse me, Joan Rivers Collection jewelry. And my purse is vintage Hermès; it was my mother’s.”

A huge birthday cake was rolled out for a champagne toast, and when I asked the ever-glamorous, crème-swathed Hart who she was wearing, she candidly told me, as she had three years ago at a wedding, “This is catalogue; I always shop the catalogues! But my Deco jewelry was my mother’s.”

“I can’t believe this! Not a single one of you made a reservation!” scolded Seth Rudetsky at his “Broadway Chatterbox” to a packed house at Don’t Tell Mama on September 23, gathered together to see him do his thing with Raul Esparza. Is it too early to accord legend status to this actor? In a brief, six-year career on Broadway, Esparza has racked up both rapturous reviews and following, which are testaments to an incandescent, very special kind of talent perhaps unseen since Bernadette Peters. He’s the kind of ultra-generous genius, with a soul-searing need to perform that makes his every appearance, however brief, something to cherish. “Check out his B-flat!” Rudetsky instructed as he played a tape of the recent “Hair” concert, wherein, even on tape, Esparza’s voice shook glasses.

The only child of a Floridian Cuban-American family, Jesuit-educated Esparza described his early intention to be an international lawyer and how, for all of his other accomplishments, he only achieved true success in his family’s eyes when he played a dinner theater Danny Zuko in “Grease.” His Broadway break came with Riff Raff in “Rocky Horror Show,” which he successfully auditioned for in the same way he rehearsed it at home, on two chairs pushed together as a makeshift couch. (He should have played Frank ’n’ Furter.) We were salivating to hear all about “Taboo,” yet he remained a perfect gent about it, except to describe New York Post writer Michael Riedl as “a bottom-feeding pig” for all the nastiness he penned about the production. (According to Esparza, all those dishy Internet postings, you Talkin’ Broadway queens, don’t help either during tryouts.) “You must know, actors do read that stuff and you have no idea how really hurtful it can be,” he said. “But our theater, the Plymouth, is actually joined to the Shubert and the Broadhurst, where ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Never Gonna Dance’ were playing. And, as I walked through them, every night before eight o’clock curtain, I felt such a thrill and knew I was the luckiest person alive to be doing this.” He’d actually had no interest in doing “Taboo”––“Until I got the music” — and even then hesitated. Rosie O’Donnell’s people would come to him, saying, “Rosie’s really disappointed about you. She did a painting of you walking away from her,” (evidently her therapy). “But,” he said, “her belief in this project and in me was so great that I found myself getting more and more excited. Yes, please let me do this! And then you’re in the show, thinking ‘How the hell did I get here?’”

Esparza endearingly brought along his audition book, the size of the Yellow Pages, and it was Judy at Carnegie time again as we all screamed out requests from “Taboo,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Tick Tick Boom” and all the rest. Crafty Rudetsky had something else in mind and exquisitely played the Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes “Lonely House” from “Street Scene,” which, with Esparza reading the lyrics over his shoulder and singing in a way to hair-raisingly make double gooseflesh, constituted the week’s artistic highlight. He followed this with “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked,” and the room fairly exploded.

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com

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