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.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

LOVE, LOVE, AND NOTHING BUT...

Gina Perregrino, Devony Smith, Erik Van Heyningen, Danny Zelibor, and Philippe L"Espérance
surrounding Steven Blier at the piano


Is there anything to say about love that has not yet been said?  Is there anything to sing about love that has not yet been sung?  If there were, Steven Blier would have uncovered it and included it in his fulfilling program last night at Merkin Hall for New York Festival of Song. "Love at the Crossroads" was the title of the program which was organized into four parts to reflect the many stages of love. Mr. Blier related that his inspiration for the program was Mozart's opera Così fan tutte which we just reviewed three days ago.

The first "movement" of this Symphony of Love illuminated the early stages of what psychologists call "limerance". Infatuation is a state most people long for when they don't have it, suffer beautifully from when they achieve it, and get depressed over when they lose it or it transmogrifies into another state, as it must.

To express the glories of falling in love, Mr. Blier chose five songs in French by Camille Saint-Saëns, Ernest Chausson, Gabriel Fauré, and Édouard Lalo. The lovely lyrical lines could not have been given better voice than they were by soprano Devony Smith (well remembered from a Utopia Opera production of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia), mezzo-soprano Gina Perregrino whom we followed from Manhattan School of Music to Santa Fe Opera, tenor Philippe L'Espérance (our favorite Prince Charming), and bass-baritone Erik van Heyningen whom we have enjoyed countless times at Juilliard and with Mise-en-Scène Opera. We always enjoy concerts more when we know the artists.

Collaborative Pianist Danny Zelibor is new to us but we loved the way he supported the line of each singer and shared pianistic duties with Mr. Blier.

Getting back to the program, the entire set in French was filled with joy and wonder but our very favorite was Fauré's "Madrigal" performed by the ensemble. The wise and knowing text by Armand Silvestre dealt with one of the "puzzlements" of love--why we pursue those who shun us and shun those who love us.

The second "movement" comprised songs in English from Broadway shows. Mr. Blier's title was The Honeymoon's Over and the songs dealt with the reality of two people with different priorities and values coming to terms with disappointed expectations. 

Stephen Sondheim is a master of setting short punchy phrases to memorable tunes. Mr. Blier's witty description was "spitting Sondheim acid". We particularly enjoyed "Country House" from his Follies; it was both funny and painful to listen to a couple who are just not getting what they want from each other. It was like being a fly on the wall of a therapist's office. Ms. Smith and Mr. L'Espérance captured all the thwarted attempts to connect and did so musically and dramatically. This splendid song never made it to Broadway.

The third "movement" (a Scherzo) covered the subject of philandering--sowing wild oats, as it were. Ms. Smith and Ms. Perregrino were hilarious in "Modest Maid" singing about archery, bitchery, witchery, butchery, and lechery. Who knew that Marc Blitzstein had such a sense of humor!

Similarly, Mr. L'Espérance and Mr. van Heyningen put a gay spin on "The Tennis Song" from Cy Coleman's City of Angels. There were at least a dozen double entendre moments that tickled our funny bone and the two men mined every giggle they could from the risqué material.

Additionally, Mr. Van Heyningen led the ensemble in Ed Kleban's "Do It Yourself", another naughty but very clever ditty. All of these songs were new to us and throughly delightful. English lends itself so well to comedy.

There was an instrumental interlude by Brahms--his Waltz in G#minor played on two pianos by four hands. This is another piece we had never heard before and we could not imagine it in four better hands than those of Mr. Blier and Mr. Zelibor. How interesting it was to hear a smooth segué into Richard Strauß' song "Freundliche Vision" so warmly performed by Mr. L'Espérance with his beautiful tone.

The finale of this Symphony of Love was one of reconciliation. Readers will recall how much we love German lieder and we heard Schubert's "Licht und Liebe, Nachtgesang" sung by Ms. Smith and Mr. L'Espérance; Brahms' "Es rauschet das Wasser" from Vier Duette with Goethe's gorgeous text begging to be read aloud and set to music (so gorgeously sung by Ms. Perregrino and Mr. L'Espérance); and Schubert's "Die Geselligkeit" in which the ensemble of four voices rose in concert to extol the pleasures of companionship.

Nothing more was needed than to close the program with Manuel Oltra's setting of Federico Garcia Lorca's "Eco". Although we always enjoy the manner in which Mr. Blier's curates songs for New York Festival of Song, we enjoyed this program more than any other. When the last note of "Eco" died down, we wanted to hear the entire program again from the top!

(c) meche kroop




Sunday, March 17, 2019

A PERSIAN COURT ON GRAMERCY PARK

Stradella's "Ester Liberatrice del Popolo Ebreo" --Salon/Sanctuary Concerts (photo by Stephen de las Heras)

Guest review by Chris Petit:

Alessandro Stradella, a Caravaggio-esque figure and notorious bad boy who died young-ish at the hands of a romantic rival, knew a thing or two about how to set a text and wake up an audience to the dramatic potential in many a sacred story. He thrived in the 17th-century and is now enjoying somewhat of a Renaissance, with New York performances by Opera Lafayette, the Academy of Sacred Drama, and Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, the Americans joining a veritable Stradella-mania among a panoply of Italian baroque groups.

 Lucky for us that we can now hear so much of his wonderful music, oratorios dramatizing bible stories and lives of other sacred characters, in which the challenges for the performer include virtuoso singing, nuanced acting, and musical chops which enable one to traverse compositional adventures that at times appear to defy logic.

On Wednesday, Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, an intrepid organization never wont to shy away from either an ambitious or adventurous program, offered up the 1673 work Ester Liberatrice del Popolo Ebreo, a setting of the story of the Jewish holiday Purim, in which Queen Ester of the Persian Empire uses intelligence, persuasion and reason to head off the genocidal plot of Hamman (Aman in the Italian version) to eradicate the Jewish people. The mid-19th-century Brotherhood Synagogue provided an ideal setting, its central bima creating a ready made stage set for the drama.

 The choice of this work is timely, and not just because are we headed into the Purim holiday which celebrates Ester’s victory. A story about a clever woman who outsmarts an oppressive bully whose overcompensation issues result in the suffering of a whole ethnic group resonates all too keenly with most Americans today. But before we make any glib Nancy Pelosi/Donald Trump references, let us remember that Ester was a heroine because, unlike bold modern women today, she was constrained to function within the narrow confines of what was a woman’s place, in both the original story’s setting of the Persian empire and the Counter-Reformation Rome of the libretto.

Far from demanding her people’s emancipation, she has to skirt the issue, finding ways to impress her point upon her husband the King without winding up like her predecessor Vashti, imprisoned in a harem for refusing to obey his command (which involved appearing naked at a banquet, but I digress).

This limited space of action creates a compelling character, to say nothing of the music, and soprano Jessica Gould, who is also the Artistic Director of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts and the engine behind this fine organization’s compelling programming, navigated the role skillfully. Showing a clear transition from Ester’s anxiety to certitude under the nudging of her cousin Mardocheo, sung with beautiful, unaffected tone and clear intention by countertenor José Lemos, Gould’s powerful voice embraces both coloratura filigree and weighty lyrical passages with ease, while a dramatic fire, fine Italian diction, and command of the text makes this role her own.

Gould’s is a dramatic instrument with an impressive facility and distinctive color, dark and rich in the depths and brilliant above. She may not match a certain “Early Music” sound that many have in their heads, but it is a voice you remember, reminding us that the depth of passion inherent in these texts must not fall victim to the fussy preoccupations with “authenticity” that doom many a period performance to forgettable homogeneity.

 I am delighted to report that full-blooded vocalism and judicious dramatic choices animated the other principal characters as well, imbuing this age-old story with the kind of life a modern audience needs to keep these works alive.

In the role of Speranza Celeste, an added-on metaphorical figure absent from the original bible story, soprano Sarah Pillow was an ideal foil to Gould, offering a silvery crystalline timbre to the other soprano’s darker palette, the two illustrating a sonic divide between earth and heaven. Wafting through her scenes with the conviction of the righteous, she managed to be convincing rather than supercilious, her delicate phrasing and translucent color a cool and welcome breeze. In the Act I finale duet with Aman (Haman) her diaphanous sound balanced the swaggering bass-baritone of Ian Pomerantz.

Pomerantz clearly relished the outrageous evilness of his character, lurking and mugging through his role with great enthusiasm. A large instrument with a lot of potential, his burly approach resulted at times in less than clean runs and what seemed like some indecision about ornamentation (I recall being surprised by cadential trill of distinctly French provenance at one point). Judging from the audience reaction around me, his performance was a crowd pleaser, and even if his instrument spilled over the edge of stylistic precision for much of the evening, (and the evening does belong to Aman with his miles of arias), it fit the arrogance of this bullying character, one of the Old Testament’s biggest bad guys.

Like the finely crafted performance of José Lemos in regrettably too small a role, the magnificent Jonathan Woody in the role of Assuero the King doesn’t make an appearance until the second act. But what an appearance it is. With a minimum of fuss this gifted young bass-baritone spins out a warm and glorious velvety sound anchored by steel in its lowest range. His economy of action created a nobility of both character and timbre that contrasted Aman’s bluster. It is a sound that speaks of both technique and wisdom beyond this young singer’s years, and which provided a moral anchor as all is set right by a wise king who accepts counsel from others.

In the smaller roles Dominic Inferrera was poised and appealing as Testo (the narrator). Amanda Sidebottom and Martha Sullivan as two Hebrew women sang a lovely duet occasionally marred by intonation lapses. This carried over into the choruses that the two sopranos helmed. The alto Wendy Gilles, and lutenist Grant Herreid, doing double duty on the tenor line, joined bass-baritone Inferrera as the strong links in the vocal ensemble. Herreid played a stylish lute continuo, joining veteran theorbist Daniel Swenberg, gambist Loren Ludwig and harpsichordist Elliot Figg in the tight and responsive continuo group.

 I looked in vain for a stage director credit and found none, so it seems that the decision to move about the stage, or bima, as the case is here, was that of the singers, who presumably directed themselves. Books in hand, they created some very effective visuals that belied what must have been a brief rehearsal process. There was an unaffected freshness to the ease with which they moved, welcome in the face of so many “concept” productions, suffocated by overzealous directors with lots to do but nothing to say (my readers know this is a pet peeve of mine). Standard concert wear did the job of indicating character as well, with Queen Ester in a royal purple gown, Speranza Celeste in a dress of luminous and heavenly blue velvet, and the gentlemen in a color scheme of ties to indicate court (magenta), monarch (gold), or bad guy (silver).

(c) meche kroop




COSÌ COSÌ

Nathan Hull, Deborah Surdi, Conrad Bullitt, Iris Karlin, Maestro José Alejandro Guzmán, Perri Sussman, and Drew Watson


We have long asserted that singers make good directors; we have always admired Nathan Hull's direction at Amore Opera but we have yearned to hear his resonant baritone and last night we did--in the role of Don Alfonso in Mozart's Così fan tutte. His performance as the cynical and experienced older friend of Fernando and Guglielmo was spot on--effective without overplaying or grandstanding. He knows how to create a believable character and his diction was crisp. Every word was clear.

Another notable feature of this performance was the vastly improved performance of the orchestra under the baton of Maestro José Alejandro Guzmán. We have grumbled in the past about out-of-tune strings but last night the orchestra was in tune and together. The overture fairly sparkled! Of course, there were some recalcitrant French horns but that's par for the course. The program notes did not identify the player of the (electronic) harpsichord continuo.

The stage direction by Mr. Hull was unobtrusive and served to highlight the singers, rather than calling attention to some irrelevant "concept". There were, as usual, some very clever touches.  For example, when Despina, dressed as a quack doctor, pulls out a giant magnet, she points it at the potted plants which are made to shake and quiver, just like Ferrando and Guglielmo portraying the rejected Albanian suitors who have just taken "poison".

The sets are probably inherited from Amato Opera and were effectively lit by Duane Pagano. Costumes were designed by superb soprano Iris Karlin who created a strong-willed Fiordiligi. In harmony with her was marvelous mezzo Perri Sussman who was equally believable as Dorabella. Every scene between these two lovely ladies resonated with truth. They were supportive and competitive in turn, just like real sisters.

As their suitors, baritone Conrad Bullitt sang with fine tone and we enjoyed his smug glee when he succeeded in winning the all-too-willing Dorabella, his friend's fiancée. The role of Ferrando was sung by tenor Drew Watson who evinced a fine decrescendo. The role of Despina was sung by Deborah Surdi who was not always audible.

The packed house was unusually appreciative of all the humorous touches, most of them intentional, but a few which weren't. There were false mustaches coming loose and wigs worn on top of other wigs and hats falling off. It was all in good fun and just what we want in a comedy.

What we don't want in a comedy (or in a tragedy either for that matter) is an English translation! There was absolutely no justification for presenting this 1790 Italian language treasure in English. Mozart and da Ponte carefully married the vocal phrases to the text and it seemed criminal to come between them the way Don Alfonso broke up his friends' relationships.  

The uncredited translation might have been clever had we been able to understand the words! But Mr. Hull was the only one onstage who was consistently understandable and there were no titles. Fortunately, we know the story very well and there was a clear synopsis in the program for those who did not. Still, it is frustrating to try to understand what singers are singing when you can only catch a word or a phrase here and there. It might as well have been sung in Czech! After awhile we gave up trying and focused on the sound of the voice and the orchestra.

This led to the observation that English may be the worst language in which to evaluate the quality of a singer's voice. Just say aloud "Un aura amorosa" and feel how it rolls off the tongue. Now try "My love is like a flower" and you will see what we mean. Every gorgeous aria Mozart wrote seemed diminished.

Now Arthur Sullivan's music was made to suit the English language and we recall last December when Mr. Hull's libretto for Scrooge (review archived) danced into our ears. This did not happen last night.

We have reviewed Ms. Karlin and Ms. Sussman on many prior occasions and enjoyed their voices; but what if this had been their first time? We would have little idea of their artistry.

If the goal of presenting an opera in translation is to further our understanding, then each singer must have exemplary diction. Strangely, it is mainly foreign born singers who enunciate clearly.

Opera lovers in St. Louis have no choice. The Opera Theater of St. Louis only presents operas in English translation. But here in New York City, we have a choice and we choose opera in its original language.

Amore Opera presents forgotten masterpieces as well as old favorites and we are excited about hearing Meyerbeer's Dinorah next week, sung in its original French (YAY!). This unfairly forgotten masterpiece has not been heard in the USA in a century. Do get tickets before they sell out!

(c) meche kroop


Friday, March 15, 2019

BABETTE SAVES THE DAY

German Forum President Barbara K. Heming, Toby Newman, Marco Amherd,  Babette Hierholzer

Last night's concert program was unusual for the German Forum and so was the venue. We met in the gorgeous and spacious sanctuary of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament which houses an impressive organ (the better to accommodate the gifts of organist Marco Amherd) and an equally impressive piano, so beautifully played by Artistic Director Babette Hierholzer. 

Our favorite part of the program was Mr. Amherd's stirring performance of Zsigimond Szathmáry's arrangement of Modest Mussorksky's Night on Bald Mountain, originally composed for orchestra. Mr. Amherd's brilliant performance demonstrated the vast range of colors in the organ. The music is spooky and terrifying but ends on a peaceful "note" after some lovely liquid ascending arpeggi. If you have never seen the Disney film Fantasia, we are providing a link to see just how horrifying are the images evoked by this music.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLCuL-K39eQ 

An eleventh hour realization of a tuning discrepancy between this organ and piano led to the cancellation of one of the pieces on the program but Ms. Hierholzer saved the day by joining Mr. Amherd at the organ for a four-handed rendition of selections from Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. The result was both sonorous and colorful. What a surprise to learn that Ms. Hierholzer was making her debut on the organ! She played it like an "old hand", although perhaps that phrase is not very flattering!

We were somewhat less enchanted by the vocal part of the evening. We were very much looking forward to another hearing of Robert Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben, one of our favorite song cycles. By an interesting coincidence, we last heard this piece performed by Marie Engle in the basement space of this very same church, almost one year ago; we were left shaken and tearful, as we usually are. Last night we were left unmoved.

Although mezzo-soprano Toby Newman has a pleasing tone, she sang without much variety of coloration and very little involvement with the text until the songs about pregnancy and motherhood. Perhaps her own recent achievement of that status helped things along; still, the excitement of courtship and wedding preparation were not conveyed in the first five songs.

There was another serious problem and that was with Ms. Newman's German. When a singer has problems with words ending in "ich", it torments our ears and distracts us from reacting to the text. American singers often omit the sound entirely or, as in Ms. Newman's case, pronounce it as "ick". This is just "icky"! Since many members of the German Forum are German speakers, we object to assigning such an important work to an American singer.

In Franz Schubert's passionate love song "Sei mir gegrüßt", the situation was even worse. Ms. Newman was "on the book" and sang it flatly. We hate giving a singer a poor review but we believe that singers should care enough about connecting with the audience to learn what is on their program.

We were left bored by the singing so we do what we usually do in such cases--we focused on the instrumental playing which was, in this case, Ms. Hierholzer's refined pianism. She has a real feel for 19th c. lieder which is our favorite thing to hear in recital.

The program also included Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major and "Oh Rest in the Lord" from Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah.

The German Forum has a lighthearted cabaret evening coming up on May 9th which sounds promising.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

PHILHARMONIA BAROQUE ORCHESTRA at ALICE TULLY HALL

Anthony Ross Costanzo and Anne Sofie von Otter onstage at Alice Tully Hall


The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra presented an unusual program last night that offered delights, both expected and unexpected. Let us begin with the expected delights. Hearing countertenor Anthony Ross Costanzo singing Händel was the main reason we decided to review this evening and he did not disappoint.

Mr. Costanzo's selections served to show off the many special qualities of his instrument and the artistry with which he employs it. In "Inumano fratel ... Stille amare" from Händel's Tolomeo, he began as a victim complaining about how he has suffered at the hands of Fate. When he sang of his beloved, his color warmed and softened, and toward the end, as the poison (actually just a sleeping potion) took effect one could hear the grief and acceptance creep into his voice, accompanied by sobbing strings. We were also impressed by his strength at the lower end of the register.

For vocal fireworks we had to wait for "Vivi tiranno!" from Rodelinda, in which the wild flights of melismatic singing were employed to express Bertando's passion. (Apparently, the aria had the desired effect on Grimoaldo who relents and restores Bertando to the throne.) It was a landmark performance, doing credit to this artist whom we have thrilled to since his student days.

Mezzo-Soprano Anne Sofie von Otter is known to us mainly in her role as Octavian in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, one of our favorite operas. We were very much looking forward to hearing her last night and for the most part we enjoyed her performance but we were disappointed in her use of the loathed music stand. We can understand its use in modern works and in ensemble singing but not for the Händel arias.

We admit that her dramatic skills almost overcame the handicap but it did interfere with her connection with the audience, giving us the chance to focus on the superb oboe solo of Marc Schachman in "Will the sun forget to streak" from Handel's Solomon. (If Handel decided to use an English libretto, we can decide to omit the diacritical marks, LOL.)

We enjoyed "Iris, hence away"--Juno's aria of revenge upon the unfortunate title character of Semele. Ms. von Otter invested the performance with plenty of drama in the florid melismatic passages and brought the aria to a powerful ending. 

The two singers sang a charming love duet from Solomon, one with intertwining vocal lines and a playful aspect. Speaking of playful, there was a lagniappe not on the program which both tickled us and also made us a bit uncomfortable.  Let us explain. Ms. von Otter is a head taller than the diminutive Mr. Costanzo. In the duet "My dearest, my fairest" from Purcell's . Pausanias, the pair played it for laughs in a way that might have diminished Mr. Costanzo were he not so secure. It just reminded us of how awkward we have felt on dates with men who were "vertically challenged", as they say.

Readers will be happy to know that we kept an open mind to the contemporary music on the program and were rewarded by aural pleasures.  Arvo Pärt's Summa was composed in 1977 and revised in 1991 for this combination of voices and string orchestra. Thankfully, it was tonal and not terribly challenging. There was a repetitive motif running through the short work. 

Our two vocal artists were well matched by a solo violin and viola in Pärt's  1984 "Es sang vor langen Jahren", which opened with a lovely string tremolo. The text was by Romantic poet Clemens Brentano.

We also liked two related pieces by Caroline Shaw which confirmed our opinion that singers excel in writing for the voice. We heard the world premiere of "And So" which was related to a work from three years ago called "Red, Red Rose" with a text by Robert Burns--a text which scanned and rhymed--two qualities which we feel tend to inspire melodic music. 

Ms. von Otter limned the pretty little turns in the vocal line and floated some exquisite high notes. The Burns work had the quality of a folk song with repeated verses.

We have yet to mention the instrumental pieces on the program, which opened with the Overture to Partenope by Händel. Maestro Nicolas McGegan has a modest appearance on the podium, without theatrics, but pulled together a consistently excellent performance from his mostly string orchestra which also includes a pair of Baroque oboes, a bassoon, a theorbo, and a harpsichord. During the Shaw we were sure we heard a celeste but could not see one!

The major instrumental work on the program was Händel's Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, of which we preferred the graceful Minuet and the spirited Gavotte.

The program closed with a Suite from Purcell's The Fairy Queen in which the theorbist occasionally swapped his theorbo for a Baroque guitar.

What an interesting concept it was to combine Baroque music and Modern music on the same program--all played by a Baroque ensemble!

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, March 10, 2019

VIVA VERDI

Mikhail Svetlov, Alla Perchikova, Zoya Gramagin, Jacqueline Quirk, Francisco Casanova, Kristian Benedikt, Natasha Novitskaia, and Gustavo Ahualli


Writing as we do about young artists, most of the voices we hear are light lyric ones. Last night we had the opportunity to hear some seasoned voices of larger dimensions singing the hell out of Verdi. The arias and duets we heard were those from operas that one must hear at the Metropolitan Opera. What was interesting about the performances we heard last night at the National Opera Center was how successfully the artists were able to summon up the entire opera in a single aria or duet.  It was like feeling the ocean in a single wave.

There was something else all of the singers had in common--a very Italianate embouchure--something every voice teacher tries to get her students to emulate. We are not sure how many of these singers studied in Russia but we'd guess at least half. There must be some wonderful training there or else it's genetics!

The arias we heard came from some of Verdi's best operas--Aida, Forza del Destino, Otello, Un Ballo in Maschera, Macbeth, Il Trovatore, and Don Carlos. The "Recordare" from his Requiem reminded us how Verdi can make religious music sound so very secular--very operatic indeed, as sung by sopranos Zoya Gramagin and mezzo-soprano Natasha Novitskaia.

Ms. Novitskaia lent her powerful voice to the creation of the character of Ulrica in "Re dell'abisso, affrettati" from Ballo in Maschera. The way she used the texture of her mezzo instrument created an aura of suspense. We loved the final "Silencio!". In the lower register she has a contralto quality.

She "plays well with others" as we saw in the numerous duets. She was a very commanding and devious Amneris in the duet "Fu la sorte dell'armi a' tuoi funesta" from Aida, tricking her rival Aida. The Ethiopian princess was well portrayed by dramatic soprano Alla Perchikova who showed her character's panic and ended the duet with a delicate pianissimo.

We heard more from Ms. Perchikova's Aida in "Qui Radamès verra...O patria mia". The phrase "mai piu" occurs at least a dozen times and she managed to make each iteration different. She also excelled in "Vieni t'affretta" from Macbeth in which she limned Lady Macbeth's resolute character by judicious use of her fioritura. The last time we enjoyed that aria as much was when we heard Lauren Flanigan sing it.

Our favorite Verdi opera, one seldom heard, is Forza del Destino--mainly for the insistent recurring theme that weaves in and out. Soprano Zoya Gramagin sang "Pace, pace mio Dio!" convincingly with gorgeous tone. There was plenty of strength at the bottom of the register and we enjoyed the fortissimo climax. Craig Ketter, Music director and accompanist for the evening, did a superlative job all evening long but was particularly remarkable in this aria, bringing out the theme that we love so dearly.

With all due respect to the attention paid to women this month, we must move on to the male singers of which there were four celebrated exemplars. Tenor Francisco Casanova is famed for his Verdi heroes. As the remorseful Otello who has killed his dear wife Desdemona in a fit of irrational jealousy, he mined every ounce of torment and remorse in "Niun me tema". As any actor does, he made the most of his death scene. What a performance!

We also enjoyed his resolute Radames in the duet "L'aborrita rivale a me sfuggia" with Ms. Novitskaia as his Amneris.

Another tenor, Kristian Benedikt, used his fine instrument with gravitas as he interpreted "La vita è inferno...O tu che in seno agli angeli" from La Forza del Destino.

Verdi did indeed enjoy writing for the baritone fach and Gustavo Ahualli used his dark instrument in a measured and deeply felt performance of "Eri tu che macchiavi quell'anima" from Un Ballo in Maschera in which Renato expresses his anger and sorrow. Mr. Ahualli achieved characterological complexity by means of dynamic variation.

He was totally different as the Conte di Luna in "Mira, d'acerbe lagrime" a duet from Il Trovatore with Ms. Gramagin as the disdainful Leonora; Ms. Gramagin handled both the low register and the fioritura with grace.

We needed a bass voice to round out the evening and one couldn't have asked for anyone better than Mikhail Svetlov who managed to create "sympathy for the devil", with some help from Verdi of course. King Phillip has stolen his son's intended bride and then feels sorry for himself that she never loved him! How can one feel sympathy for this evil man who will order his son killed!!! We don't know; all we know is that Mr. Svetlov's impassioned but introspective delivery left us feeling pity for a man facing the consequences of a bad decision.

We heard very little of soprano Jacqueline Quirk but would like to hear more. She appeared in the Act IV Finale of Il Trovatore which closed the program, alongside Ms. Novitskaia, Mr. Casanova, and Mr. Ahualli.

Of course we had an encore and nothing beats "Libiamo" from La Traviata which put us in a perfect mood for the champagne reception.

It was a splendid evening and left us feeling grateful for the opportunity to hear such voices up close and personal. Dramatic voices mature rather late and we doubt whether we will hear them in our tours through the local music conservatories.

(c) meche kroop


Friday, March 8, 2019

ON ARTISTS, MARRIAGE, AND CHILDREN

Irina and Lucas Meachem

Only fifty fortunate folk can be accommodated in the spooky subterranean Crypt of the Church of the Intercession. This makes every event there, produced by Andrew Ousley for Unison Media, a major exclusive event.

In the 1830's, poet Friedrich Rückert poured out his grief over the loss of two of his children in a massive way--over 400 songs which were never intended for publication. Fortunately, they were published posthumously; we say "fortunately" because his working through of grief may have helped countless grieving parents. In his day, children died of scarlet fever; today children die of cancer and accidents. The poems reveal anguish, despair,  perhaps even a touch of guilt, fantasies of restitution, and ultimately acceptance and peace.

Gustav Mahler selected five of the poems to set in the early 20th c. His wife Alma thought he was tempting fate, and, strangely, a few years later, he lost his beloved little daughter, also to scarlet fever. The songs are written in the late Romantic style, one which we love hearing.

The choice of Kindertotenlieder by baritone Lucas Meachem and his lovely and very pregnant wife seemed to us to be a form of what mental health people call "reaction formation"--flying in the face of fear. We cannot help but say reassuring things in our mind. We cannot help but wish well to this artistic couple before we even address the performances.

Mr. Meachem has a huge voice which was magnified by the acoustics of the Crypt, an appropriate venue for songs about death. He made no attempt to scale his voice to the size of the room and the audience faced the full force of these songs that one would never have experienced elsewhere.

Far more important than his enormous instrument is the artistry with which he employs it. Here's a man who sings from the heart; he knows just how to phrase and how to color and how to play with dynamics for maximum effect.

The program touched some unexpected bases. He opened with "La calme rentre dans mon coeur" from Act II of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, performed in finely flowing French with exquisite attention to line. It is almost a self generated lullaby sung by Orestes to himself.

Our favorite part of the program was Mr. Meachem's delivery of Onegin's response to Tatiana's letter from Act I of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Lacking a Russian keyboard, we cannot give you the title. Nonetheless, we love this opera and loved Mr. Meachem's performance.

Before he sang "They Wish They Could Kill Me" from Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, Mr. Meachem gave a few riffs from other iterations of Figaro by Rossini and Mozart. Truth to tell, we prefer the music of those titans to that of Corigliano but we did enjoy the baritone's characterization of Figaro, now aged.

Copeland's Old American Songs don't do much for us but they were engagingly performed. The folk song "Shenandoah" made much more of an impression on us and seemed to have a special meaning for Mr. Meachem.

His other encore surprised us!  Even after he announced that it was sung by a king, we didn't get the joke until the singing began.  Elvis Presley's 1969 hit "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You" never sounded so good and did wonders for relieving our dark mood left over from the Kindertotenlieder.

His wife Irina is a gifted collaborative pianist and gave perfect support to the singing throughout the performances.  We wish she had had a solo!

Mr. Ousley always comes up with original ideas well suited to his available venues. Summer is a-comin' in and that means The Angel's Share series at Greenwood Cemetery. We ain't spillin' the beans unless you twist our arm!

(c) meche kroop