MISSION

We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

COSI FAN JUILLIARD

William Socolof, James Ley, Kathleen O’Mara, Mer Wohlgemuth, Megan Moore, and Erik van Heyningen (photo by Richard Termine)
One cannot find better voices than one finds at Juilliard Vocal Arts. It was a revelation to hear six healthy young voices interpreting the characters of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte just as they should be. In the incredibly challenging role of Fiordiligi, soprano Kathleen O'Mara fearlessly tackled the high lying tessitura and broad upward jumps of "Come scoglio" and "Per pietà" maintaining clarity of tone in two very different emotional states.

As the somewhat more mutable Dorabella, mezzo-soprano Megan Moore dazzled us with her histrionic outpouring in "Smanie implacabili" and later, as her resolve weakens, with "É amore un ladroncello". We particularly appreciated the varying colors as her intention changed.

The role of Despina was splendidly realized by soprano Mer Wohlgemuth whose acting was completely persuasive and whose singing never showed a hint of "technique" but rather seemed completely natural. Her dramatic intention did not vary but she had an opportunity to show off her style in "Una donna a quindici anni".

The men were similarly outstanding. James Ley made a fine Ferrando and did complete justice to the marvelously tender and melodic "Un aura amorosa", then varied his coloration effectively for the bitter "Tradito, schernito".

As his friend Guglielmo, baritone Erik van Heyningen lived up to his full potential, managing to convey both the triumph in seducing his friend's fiancée as well as disappointment in "Donne mie, le fate a tanti".

We were more than usually impressed with the performance of bass-baritone William Socolof who performed the role of Don Alfonso, lightening his substantial voice sufficiently to perform the most exquisitely precise turns in the vocal line. We love to hear voices that possess both size and flexibility.

Duets and ensembles were effectively rendered with perfect balance among the voices, giving Mozart the attention to detail that his interweaving lines demand.

In the pit we had the superb Juilliard Orchestra responding just as one would expect to the astute conducting of Nimrod David Pfeffer. When we could tear our eyes away from the stage we enjoyed watching his expressive hand working in tandem with his precise baton. It was a performance filled with lyricism and subtlety. Nathaniel LaNasa played the harpsichord continuo.

And what about the production? Da Ponte's story was pulled up by the roots and transplanted to contemporary America. The story is set in a high school in a town called West Naples which could have been anywhere but by name alone, suggested the West coast of Florida. During the overture, the four young people have just graduated. They are therefore meant to be about 18 years old and therefore vulnerable to the machinations of the older Don Alfonso, who seemed to be an athletic coach.

Despina was transformed into a teacher and, in an original dramatic subtext, appeared to have had a one time problematic relationship with the aforementioned coach. Instead of a servant offering the girls their morning chocolate, she delivered academic papers.

Kristen Robinson's sets fell in line with this take on the story. Act I takes place in what appears to be a dormitory bathroom, complete with stalls with open doors. The "poison" taken by the "Albanians" is swigged from jugs of bleach drawn from what must be a janitorial closet.

Other scenes take place behind the bleachers of an athletic field where the two girls seem to hang out on beach chairs surrounded by detritus, including a puzzling broken bottom half of a torso--the kind used as window dressing. Or so we thought.

For the final act, the bleachers were turned around and the characters scampered up and down with some risk of stumbles. At the top was a booth to which repaired the newly formed couples for some canoodling, followed by "walks of shame".

Sara Jean Tosetti's costumes also fell in line with the story. Most effective was Despina's reserved suit with sensible shoes. The four young graduates wore motley costumes with doofy hats and, in a clever and original twist, the men did not fool their sweethearts by dressing in exotic costumes. Rather, they wore preppie clothes and neatly trimmed hair. Guess they could have fooled their sweethearts!

In one puzzling scene, Dorabella, newly mated with Guglielmo, pulls off his wig. We expected this to indicate that she recognized the ruse but the remainder of the scene did not fulfill our expectations.

When the phony rescue of the two "Albanians" takes place, Despina appears in a ridiculous and not convincing costume and when the fake marriage takes place, she appears in a white and gold jumpsuit suggesting Elvis Presley as the marriage officiant.

The audience loved all these sight gags and laughed every time the girls took selfies of themselves or used their cell phones. Did we love it?  No, we did not. We felt that the story was shoehorned into a "concept" which worked only partially. We read the notes of Director David Paul when we got home (as we usually do, to avoid coloring our perception of any work of art). His words made a case for the temporal and geographical transposition in terms of contemporary resonance.

However, regular readers will recall that we like to do the work ourself, instead of being spoon fed. We remember with overwhelming pleasure the production from seven years ago, directed by Stephen Wadsworth. It was true to time and place and told Da Ponte's story well, although darkly, with lots of anger and confusion. We spent quite a bit of time thinking about how consistent human feeling is from the 19th c. to the 21st and also about what is different.

Mr. Paul's view wound up similarly dark with no marriage at the end and no pairing off. We will say that we enjoyed the way he directed his cast and, within the framework he chose, the acting was valid and meaningful. We just didn't care for fitting the story into his Procrustean bed.  We guess it's a question of taste. We don't mind updating if such updating tells us something new but this production did not. 

© meche kroop




Thursday, November 14, 2019

OPERA INDEX RECITAL

Lindsey Reynolds, Ashley Marie Robillard, Alec Carlson, Jane Shaulis, Ariana Wehr, Gloria Kim, and Jianan Huang

Last night was the night.  It was THE night. It was the night when the membership of Opera Index gathers for an annual celebration involving food and wine, fellowship and music. The food was provided by the members (many of whom are excellent cooks) and the entertainment was provided by five of the winners of Opera Index's 2019 Vocal Competition.

Like most competitions there is a lot of winnowing to be done, starting with a huge group of applicants. There are generous prizes to be awarded and a lot of satisfaction following the careers of the award winners as their stars ascend. The list of past winners looks like a "Who's Who" of the opera world.

President Jane Shaulis gave a warm welcome and introduced five of the winners, pictured above with the excellent accompanist Gloria Kim. We particularly enjoyed the plan of the recital in which each singer performed an aria and then all five returned to sing something lighter.

We heard five splendid singers but only one that we've been following for a long time. Tenor Alec Carlson first came to our attention about five years ago as one of the singers chosen by Steven Blier for one of his New York Festival of Song evenings. We gained a better appreciation of his artistic gifts last summer at the Santa Fe Opera. We reviewed his performances at recitals presented by the Gerda Lissner Foundation and Career Bridges, both of which granted him awards. David and Barbara Bender of Career Bridges were in attendance to cheer him on.

Last night he brought the arrogant Duke to life. Verdi gave this reprehensible character in his Rigoletto the most gorgeous aria. Every tenor would love to sing "Questa o quella" and Mr. Carlson filled it out with his generous sound and the requisite arrogant attitude. The Italianate phrasing left nothing to be desired.

Later, he performed "Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert!" from Franz Lehar's light opera Giuditta. His German was excellent and the delivery completely stageworthy. It made us want to see the opera. The only aria with which we are familiar from the work is the famous "Meine Lippen sie kussen so heiss".

We enjoyed three special sopranos, each one special in a different way. Lindsey Reynolds performed "Je suis encore tout étourdie" from Massenet's Manon in a manner that was totally convincing. We just love performances that bring a character to life and her Manon was a sweet and innocent girl who bubbled over with excitement over her first trip. The only hint she gave of her doomed future was her naiveté. Ms. Reynolds' lovely voice was put into the service of the character. And her French was just fine.

Later, she sang "Love is where you find it" from the 1947 musical film The Kissing Bandit. (Nacio Herb Brown wrote the music and Earl K Brent wrote the lyrics.) Ms. Reynolds' voice expands magnificently in the upper register and we were waiting for some crystal to break!

Ariana Wehr gave a lovely performance of Micaëla's aria "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante" from Bizet's Carmen. What made it so special was that she captured the complexity of the character--faith mixed with resolve but tinged by the very fear that the lyrics denied. French diction and phrasing were both admirable. We liked the fine vibrato and the intense central section.

In the second part, she gave a spirited performance of "I Could Have Danced All Night" from Lerner and Loew's My Fair Lady, demonstrating her flexibility as an artist.

Ashley Marie Robillard captured the character of Susana from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro in her Act IV aria "Deh vieni, non tardar". Starting from the recitativo, we could see and hear that she was teasing her Figaro; she didn't need to paint it in broad strokes and we appreciated the subtlety. We were dazzled by the embellishments to the line, most of which were new to us; the arching phrase at the end was the cherry on top.

Later she sang Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" with heartfelt sentiment, reaffirming our belief in the value of hearing American theater and cabaret music unamplified.

Baritone Jianan Huang sang Don Giovanni's tender serenade from Mozart's eponymous opera--"Deh vieni alla finestra". Verdi was not the only composer to put sweet music into the mouth of a reprehensible character! And Mr. Huang sang it sweetly indeed with lovely phrasing and fine Italian. 

However, it was his second entry that really enchanted us. Readers know how much we love folk music and Mr. Huang sang the most exquisite Chinese folk song, the translation of which was "Father Prairie, Mother River". There was a fine delicacy to it and a deeply felt sentiment that really got to us.

Just in case you didn't read our prior reviews of Opera Index, let us encourage you to join this fine organization which exists to support young singers and to provide an opportunity for opera lovers to get together. We were pleased to see some new faces in the audience and we'd like to see yours. The cost of membership is modest and the benefits are great.

© meche kroop

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

IN THE BEGINNING

Kevin Nathaniel, Yacouba Sissoko, Dawn Padmore, Ayansola Adedeji, and Olusegun Ajayi

We know Jessica Gould as a singer, an expert in Pre-Romantic Music, and as the Founder and Artistic Director of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts. Her original programming and exemplary scholarship in support of these programs have instilled within us a willingness to follow her wherever she takes us. Last night at the Bernie Wohl Center, she joined with Afro Roots Tuesdays to take us to Western Africa with Ensemble Longbor Mor.

This ensemble comprises the engaging songbird Dawn Padmore, kora player Yacouba Sissoko, percussionist Olusegun Ajayi, mbira player Kevin Nathaniel Hylton, and Adedeji Ayansola who can make his drum talk. That's not a misprint!

The music we heard has been passed down for centuries among the various peoples of West Africa and showcases both their diversity and unity. The name Ensemble Longbor Mor takes its name from the Vai language which is spoken in Liberia and translates as "people singing". Ms. Padmore's maternal grandmother has Vai roots.

The evening felt more like a celebration than a concert, although we would be happy to sit still and listen to Ms. Padmore's gorgeous voice for several hours in a formal recital hall.  This astonishing artist comes across as gloriously spontaneous, both in her description of each song and in her vocalism.

There was no awareness of technique, although her voice teacher Ira Siff (present in the audience) is of great renown. Similarly, her vocal coach Brian Holman (also present) must have contributed a great deal. 

Any singer could learn a thing or two from her warm and welcoming stage presence. She made the audience feel like a collection of friends and family at a social gathering. At one point, to emphasize the spirit of the evening, she enlisted an audience member to dance with her. 

Her voice is luxurious in tone and able to negotiate whatever she asks of it, making it all look effortless. Spirited gestures accompanied the singing as she used her entire body. Her generosity of spirit illuminated every story she told, and indeed, most of the songs told stories--stories of birth, death, pregnancy, illness, gossip, and family issues.

We especially enjoyed the a capella singing in the first of six Yoruba Folk Songs and the high lying tessitura of the first of four Igbo Songs.

Ensemble Longbor Mor amazed us with their virtuosic playing. We were reminded in some ways of a jazz group improvising; the spirit of joy in making music was contagious. The rhythms were complex in nature and just as difficult to wrap one's ears around as the rhythms of flamenco music.

The Kora is the most famous of Africa's stringed instruments. It has no frets and no bow. Rather it is played by the simultaneous plucking of 21 strings by both hands. The strings, each of a different pitch, are affixed to a large calabash cut in half and covered with goatskin stretched and fixed with leather laces. There is a long wooden neck made of hardwood. Mr. Sissoko's virtuosity was impressive, revealing several interwoven melodies. The sound was, to our ears, something between that of a harp and that of a celeste.

The other instrument that grabbed our attention was the talking drum. We couldn't figure out how Mr. Ayansola could make the drum talk but we read the program later and learned its secrets. The pitch is regulated by the player squeezing the drum between his arm and his ribcage which moves the leather tension cords connecting the two heads of this hourglass shaped instrument. It is struck with a wooden stick that has a crook on the end. We refer you, dear reader, to the carousel of photos on our Facebook page--Voce di Meche.

Completing the ensemble is a pair of drums which look like what we call Congo Drums, some shaken gourds (likely ancestors to some present day percussion instruments) and the unique Mbira or thumb piano. This instrument was not so strange to us since we had one of our own some years ago. What was different about Mr. Hylton's Mbira was that it was set in a calabash which enhanced the sound.

Although this was just a taste of what West African music has to offer, our appetite was whetted. Next month's concert by Salon/Sanctuary will also be unusual; Carthage Conquer'd; Dreams of Tunis in the Baroque Imagination will pit a Baroque ensemble and a North African ensemble improvising in the Taksim manner.  Think Queen Dido!

© meche kroop

Monday, November 11, 2019

DINA PRUZHANSKY

Claire Kuttler, Edward Pleasant, Inbar Goldmann, and Pavel Suliandziga

Just as there is an abundance of vocal talent in New York City--talent that merits our attention--there are also compositional talents lurking among the faculty of our conservatories--talents deserving more recognition than they receive. A case in point is Dina Pruzhansky, a gifted and versatile young composer whose name may not yet be on everyone's lips--but one who has achieved recognition from her peers and multiple awards. This situation is about to change when her Suite for Piano, Strings, and Percussion will premiere at Carnegie Hall next March 3rd. We expect that will bring her to the attention of the music loving public.

Yesterday we had an opportunity to witness her versatility. We heard quite a variety of music, from music theater to opera, at the 92nd St. Y.  Bringing her works to life were soprano Claire Kuttler, mezzo-soprano Inbar Goldmann, tenor Pavel Suliandziga, baritone Edward Pleasant, and cellist Tyler James.

The "lightest" selections were from Central Park: The Musical and we particularly enjoyed "Observation", a jazzy setting of a pithy verse by Dorothy Parker that surprised us, in light of the fact that it was written for children!

The most "academic" work was On Love and Land, the texts of which comprised letters written over several decades by a woman to her husband. Although we liked the instrumental writing and Ms. Kuttler's dramatic presentation, we find settings of prose to be rather tedious and unmelodic, with the exception of the final song "When Orange Blossoms are in Bloom". There was a nice interplay between piano and cello.

Not to worry, dear reader, because there was plenty of material that we enjoyed a great deal. A worthy librettist was found in Ethan Kanfer for a musical called The Promotion, based on the 1977 film Office Romance. The lyrics were clever and fit the music hand in glove. Mr. Pleasant brought out the rhythm of the words and music in "Get Yourself a Slice". Even better was "Don't Say a Word" in which the ensemble played a musical version of the telephone game, passing along gossip about a letter that was meant to be private. We were glad it was shared!

Ms. Pruzhansky was born in Russia and still retains a feel for Russian artistry. We loved her Four Vocal Miniatures (after the poetry of Aleksandr Blok) which rhymed and scanned, bringing forth lovely melodies in the mode that is so typically Russian. Ms. Kuttler delivered the first miniature "Her Songs" which was seductive. Mr. Suliandziga (who could enthrall us by singing an IRS document) sang the next three. "The Red Moon at the White Night" had a haunting melody and some lovely rippling piano figures.

With Ms. Pruzhansky's successful 2014 opera Shulamit, she paid hommage to her Israeli upbringing. Ms. Goldmann (whom we have heard before singing in Hebrew) was lovely in the heroine's lament when she is chosen for King Solomon's harem; we heard some affecting melismatic singing. Our favorite was the wedding song for Shulamit and the shepherd she loved "Ma Yau Dodaych"', beautifully sung by Ms. Goldmann in duet with Mr. Suliandziga.

Mr. Suliandiziga delighted us with "You are Youthful Like Never Before", the setting of a text by Peretz Markish which was translated from Yiddish into Russian by Anna Akhmatova. There was ample variety in the dynamics.

Hearing such a variety of styles in one all-too-brief concert served to illuminate Ms. Pruzhansky's versatility and also to reaffirm our opinion that prose does not stimulate vocal melody. We are looking forward to hearing more of this composer's music and feel quite sure that her name will soon be on everyone's lips.

We would like to mention that she is not solely a composer but an educator and superb collaborative pianist; it was a treat to hear her play her own music. 

© meche kroop

Saturday, November 9, 2019

CLASSIC LYRIC ARTS FALL GALA

Glenn Morton and participants in Classic Lyric Arts summer programs


The Classic Lyric Arts Fall Benefit Gala is a highly anticipated annual event; it is a golden opportunity to be introduced to participants in CLA's immersive summer programs in France and Italy. These stars of tomorrow have spent some very intensive time in the country of their choice--studying, coaching, learning the subtleties of the language, the culture, the food, and the music.

After a decade, the program is well established; young artists of promise are able to attend even if they cannot afford the tuition because, this year alone, 18 grants were made to help them along. Next year's goal is 28 grants and lovers of this very special art form could find no better means to make a valuable contribution.

The teachers and coaches have been selected for their dedication and desire to pass along their knowledge and expertise. Artistic Director Glenn Morton gave a wonderfully welcoming address to the select audience, pointing out that not every participant will achieve a major opera career; some will wind up in different capacities within the field and others will choose a different profession. But it seems that each and every participant soaked up what was offered to him/her and was greatly enriched.

Before and after the performance, we enjoyed a generous spread of goodies and an opportunity to mingle with the artists and to learn about their education and career goals, and also to hear them extol the benefits of their summer study. 

Alumna Caroline Lopez Moreno possesses a glorious soprano instrument that she uses well and which has captivated us on prior occasions. She has presence to spare as well, and spoke eloquently of her experience with CLA and her respect for Mr. Morton's astute and encouraging coaching.

She performed a divine duet with mezzo-soprano Sarah Fleiss, who is new to us. Rossini's Tancredi offers opportunities to show off and these two young women ran with it, giving an arresting account of this fraught scene in Act II. Rossini gave these conflicting lovers the most harmonious music; Ms. Moreno made a marvelous Amenaide and Ms. Fleiss sounded just grand as Tancredi. The overtones of each voice bounced off the overtones of the other. The fireworks in the cabaletta were dazzling.

We love listening to mezzo-sopranos who have a true mezzo texture to their voices and Ms. Fleiss surely does have the right sound. She was not the only one. Swedish mezzo Loella Grahn gave a winning performance as Rosina in the "note scene" ("Dunque io son") from Rossini's comic masterpiece Il barbiere di Siviglia. Ms. Grahn had all the right qualities--charm, presence, musicality, and good chemistry with her Figaro, wonderfully acted and sung by baritone Carlos Arcos.

Rossini's music is very kind to coloratura sopranos but Puccini demands a more substantial voice and we heard that in Johanna Will; she has a voice with plenty of substance that can effortlessly soar into the upper register. We greatly enjoyed her Cio-Cio San, singing in the Act I love duet from Madama Butterfly "Vogliatemi bene". Tenor Alexei Kuznietsov, whom we have written about several times, did an admirable job as Pinkerton. He just keeps getting better and better, a trajectory we love to witness in a young singer.

His versatility as an artist showed in the lighthearted "C'est l'amour" from Ganne's comic opera Les Saltimbanques, singing with Rachel Liss. We were excited to be introduced to a work and a composer that were new to us.

Similarly we got a kick out of  "Non, non jamais les hommes" from the Yvains operetta Ta bouche--another work and another composer new to us. The delightful Shannon Delijani was joined by Hannah Klein in this very cute number about how men can't understand women. In another number from this operetta, we heard Ms. Klein sing a duet with Wesley Diener entitled "Ta bouche a des baisers".

Soprano Lena Goldstein had a winning presence as Susanna in the scene from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro in which Susanna misunderstands the marital intentions of Figaro, here performed by Mr. Arcos who had to take a slap to the face which was quite convincing.

Marcellina was sung by mezzo Nanako Kato who also made a fine Isabella  in a scene from Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri with Chang Liu singing the rejected wife of Mustafa (Mr. Arcos). 

There was a charming fluffy trio from Berlioz' Béatrice et Bénédicte with the voices of Temple Hammen, Bela Albett, and Melanie Dubil achieving perfect harmony.

We also enjoyed a sweet duet from Puccini's La Rondine--"Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso"-- with Ms. Lopez Moreno's Magda partnered by tenor Travis Benoit as Ruggero and a rousing "I Could Have Danced All Night" from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady with Courtney Sanders singing Eliza Doolittle, joined by the chorus.

There seemed to be varying levels of experience in the singing. Some were "performance ready" and other showed promise. But all exhibited the kind of enthusiasm that warms our heart. And everyone sang with Italianate or Gallic style as the piece demanded. All had excellent diction which speaks well for their training with CLA.

Let us not forget the artistry of the collaborative pianists: Jake Landau, Migeun Chung, Vladimir Soloviev, Xu Cheng, and Ariela Bohrod. They too seem to have picked up a lot of French and Italian style during their residency abroad.

© meche kroop




Wednesday, November 6, 2019

LA SERVA PADRONA

Fabrizio Doria, Pamela Jones, and Daniel Klein (photo by meche kroop)

Guest Review by Ellen Godfrey:

The audience at the National Opera Center, on Sunday afternoon, was treated to a delightful performance of the 18th century comic opera La Serva Padrona, presented by the Lighthouse Opera Company. The founder and director of the company, which was started two years ago, is Dr. John Banks, a classical musician and a high school music teacher. The company’s mission is to help shine a light on classically trained singers of all backgrounds by performing operas in their original language, for new and diverse audiences in the Bronx, New York City, and beyond. The company also brings new and emerging opera talent to the public’s attention with live opera performances.

La Serva Padrona, (The Servant Turned Mistress), was composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710 -1736), based on a play by Jacopo Angello Nelli. This opera buffa, (comic opera), was originally performed as an intermezzo (intermission) for an opera seria  (serious opera) called Il Prigionier Superbo, (the Proud Prisoner).  The opera had its premiere in 1733 in Naples, and enjoyed great popularity throughout Europe for many years. Eventually, the two intermezzi were separated from the serious opera to become a 45 minute opera. It quickly grew very popular throughout European and is still being performed today.
In 1752, Pergolesi’s opera buffa sparked a great argument in France. It was called the querelle des bouffons (the war of the comic actors) and argued about  the merits of reverent French and irreverent Italian music theatre. These discussions further led to reforms by the composer Christopher Willibald Gluck, (1714-1787), who grew tired of the overly ornate operas of the Baroque period. He moved to the simplicity of the Classical style. Gluck’s reforms influenced the great Mozart, who composed operas in the same style.

Between the 16th and 18th century, Italian strolling players, known as La Commedia Dell’arte, performed throughout Europe and had a great influence on drama and music. The troupes used improvisation, stock characters, and a few standard scenarios to tell the funny stories. In La Serva Padrona the female stock character is Serpina, a bossy woman; Uberto is the grouchy older man, and Vespone, a mute servant.  The joke in the opera is a domestic argument which involves a reversal of roles; the servant is the mistress of the home while the older man is under her strict command.  He can’t decide if he wants to marry her or not. Serpina makes sure that he will marry her by pretending to marry a soldier (who is a mute servant in disguise).  In the end their roles reverse and they have a joyous marriage celebration.

There is a feminist side to this opera and other themes including ambition, equality of men and women, and recognition of respect for each other.  The wonderful director for this performance, John Tedeschi, has a real feel for comedy and he kept the action alive and funny. He changed the original location of the opera to the Civil War period. He was inspired by some similarities to a 19th century woman, Lydia Hamilton Smith, a servant and also mistress of her house. During the Civil War, both she and her husband, Thaddeus Stevens, were active in the underground railroad and helped shelter southern slaves to escape to the north. 

Daniel Klein and Pamela Jones made good sparring partners in this delightful comedy.  Bass-baritone Daniel Klein was a wonderful Uberto.  He is tall and has a big gorgeous bass-baritone voice with lots of resonance.  His frustration with his bossy maid, Serpina, was strong and humorous. He is an excellent comedian; he fidgeted, he twirled his mustache upwards, got angry, and contorted his face, especially by bulging his eyes. 

Coloratura soprano Pamela Jones has a beautiful clear big voice which she uses very well.  She never pushes the voice so it carries very beautifully.  She also has excellent diction. Having performed in opera, musicals, and straight plays, she is very much at home on the comic stage. Her Serpina was a strong character who knew just what she wanted and how to boss Uberto around.  As good as the acting of the performers was, it would have been even better if they did not have to look at the score.

Fabrizio Doria played the mute role of Vespone perfectly with lots of comic touches.

For this production, Maggie Ronck created costumes for the three principals that were appropriate to the period.  Uberto was costumed in a stunning suit with a long coat and tie and a big hat.  Serpina’s mid-19th century costume was a beautiful long checkered dress.  Later in the opera,when Serpina and Umberto were finally  ready to marry, they had broad hats of the period.  Pamela’s hat was adorned with flowers.  Ms .Ronck’s costumes for Vespone, the mute, were also designed well.

The music for this opera is absolutely delightful. The Sepia Baroque Ensemble was elegantly conducted by Maestro Stephen Francis Vasta. The ensemble of 5 string instruments (2 violins, a viola, cello, and bass were accompanied by the harpsichord. This small ensemble was very vibrant and supported the singers very well.

Everyone in the theatre enjoyed seeing this 18th century masterpiece.

© meche kroop
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Sunday, November 3, 2019

GERDA LISSNER WINNERS CONCERT

Collaborative Pianist Arlene Shrut and winners of the Gerda Lissner Foundation Lieder/Song Competition

Young singers need all the help they can get in building their careers and the Gerda Lissner Foundation is unmatched in this role. There are yearly competitions for both opera and for song, with generous awards for the winners. Being present to hear these young artists in concert after the competitions is a special treat. It's an even tastier treat to witness their development as they achieve the fame they deserve. When we have time to read bios of successful singers we cannot fail to notice how many of them have begun their success by winning these competitions.

Friday's recital of 2019 winners presented ten young singers of great promise, all accompanied by the legendary collaborative pianist Arlene Shrut who matches her accompaniment to the special skills of each young artist and also takes into account the great variety of material they choose to present. Every singer was superb, each in a different way.

Tenor Eric Finbarr Carey had us trembling in our seat with a searing performance of Schubert's "Der Erlkönig". Goethe's text is tragic and dramatic; in contrast with so much contemporary poetry, it does beg to be set to music. What we look for in an effective performance is good storytelling. This means that the singer must play the part of the narrator with neutral coloring. When the story quotes the father, he must darken and age the coloration; when he quotes the child, he must lighten and whiten the color; and when he voices the titular Erlkönig he must begin seductively and end horrifically. Mr. Carey held us spellbound, sustaining the tension throughout a pause before the final grim "tod"!

Baritone Jonathan McCullough struck us as a complete artist with a mature round sound that conveyed everything one could possibly say about a man watching his beloved marry someone else. Mahler based this song (the first lied of his cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) on Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of folk poetry. Beginning in the mournful key of D-minor, it makes a brief excursion into a verse in the major mode as the poet witnesses the joys of nature. Then it sinks back into minor, since his grief blocks his appreciation of these joys. Mr. McCullough illuminated every nuance.

Soprano Monica Dewey injected Rachmaninoff's "Noch'yu v sadu u menya" with an anguished coloration that was deeply affecting. With brilliant tone she sang of a weeping willow and a sad girl. It was the last song Rachmaninoff wrote before leaving Russia and perhaps that it why he chose that sad story.

Coloratura soprano Alexia Mate selected a French song that was well chosen to show off her bright tone, her lovely French, and her flexibility. Dell'Acqua's "Villanelle" offers a lovely legato passage and some challenging staccato passages with trills and arpeggi, all successfully negotiated. There were also some melismatic passages. Mentally, we cast Ms. Mate as Queen of the Night! Sometimes,we just cannot keep from extrapolating from a sole performance to a singer's future.

With the kind of German diction one only hears from a native born German singer, Dennis Chmelensky gave a perfect performance of Schubert's "Willkommen und Abschied", the setting of a text by Goethe. Schubert's music and Mr. Chmelensky's singing gave us all the anticipation and fulfillment and also the pain of parting. He made good use of variation of tempo and dynamics to tell the tale. We sincerely believe that any singer who wants to sing lieder should master a few of Schubert's prodigious output of over 600 songs.

Tenor Alec Carlson has a sizable voice with the right weight and intensity to convey the despair of "Der Atlas", one of Schubert's more morose songs. This one is a setting of a text by Heinrich Heine and, although it is not among our favorite Schubert songs, Mr. Carlson's dramatic delivery put us right in the middle of Atlas' burdensome task.

Baritone Dongwei Shen made a daring choice of singing a Chinese song by Zaiyi Lu called "Overlooking my Homeland". Most Americans lack a frame of reference for an appreciation of this eminently singable language and the Chinese penchant for the retention of melody. No 12-tone serialism for them, thank goodness! The song offered opportunities for emotional connection which Mr. Chen conveyed successfully by means of vocal color, gesture, and dynamics. 

There was no translation but as we listened we felt pain and longing in our heart for something we were about to lose. After the concert, we asked Mr. Shen about the meaning of the song and it is about life passing by us. What a mark of success for a singer to convey such meaning in another language. Incidentally, we had a similar experience once in Bhutan of knowing what a song was about. Oh, the miracle of music!

Another baritone, Sung Shin, chose to sing Tosti's "L'ultima canzone", another song about a man losing his sweetheart. It's our favorite Tosti song because we love the alternation of moods and melodies in the verses; this feature gave Mr. Shin an opportunity to show off his impressive artistry. His instrument has an appealing tweedy texture and his Italianate vowels were scented with garlic. He shaped his phrases with great artistry, making use of occasional rubato. There was also some nice melismatic singing on "ah". We loved it!

Mezzo-soprano Erin Wagner's selection was the final one of Barber's Hermit Songs--"The Desire for Hermitage". The cycle is a setting of songs from Irish monasteries written down between the 8th and 13th c. We confess that these are not our favorite songs, although we do like the tranquil "The Monk and His Cat", the slightly irreverent "The Heavenly Banquet", and the short but bawdy "Promiscuity". But Ms. Wagner's choice was of a more ascetic bent, although we picked up a subtext of spiritual fervor. She sang it well and had a beautiful ringing top. Still, we would like to hear her sing in a different language.

Mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova, whom we just heard at a concert of winners of the Premiere Opera Foundation Competition, sang a beautiful song by Rimsky-Korsakov called "The Clouds Begin to Scatter", the setting of text by Pushkin. Ms. Sidorova, as we noted in our review a couple days ago, has a lovely instrument that she knows how to use. If only she could loosen up and use her body! We hoped that singing in her own language would work to her advantage but were a bit disappointed. We wanted more connection with the audience as well as more connection with the song. We hope that someone at her conservatory will work with her on this; it's like a pot on the stove with all good ingredients that just needs some heat to release the aromas and flavors! Tap into your Russian passion Anastasiia! Go for it!

Host for the evening was the engaging Midge Woolsey who introduced each singer and told us the theme of the song after it was sung. We would have preferred the description before it was sung.

The concert was produced in association with the Liederkranz Foundation.

© meche kroop