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.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

ERIN GO ROSSIGNOL

Erin Morley (photo by Carlo Allemano)

We have been thrilling to Erin Morley's voice for a few years now, both in recital and in opera. This young artist has a distinctive coloratura instrument with a clarion tone that is both brilliant and focused. As the eponymous Rossignol in the Stravinsky opera, she brought down the house at the Santa Fe Opera last summer and delighted the New York audience on Richard Tucker Day shortly thereafter with some mesmerizing Mozart.

Last night at Avery Fisher Hall, she brought us more Mozart (of course, since it was a Mostly Mozart night) and impressed us with her ability to throw herself into a concert aria with as much dramatic intensity as if she were performing the entire opera. Every phrase had direction, meaning and purpose.

The opera Il Curioso Indiscreto by Pasquale Anfossi,for which Mozart contributed the two arias, has long since been forgotten while the arias remain for our delectation. In the first aria, "Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!" the heroine rejects a suitor and attempts to send him back to the woman who loves him.

In last night's performance, Ms. Morley's stunning artistry was accompanied by oboe soloist Randall Ellis and a sea of pizzicato strings. Clearly she was immersed in the drama and brought the audience right along with her.

In the second aria, "No, che non sei capace", the heroine must defend her honor from false accusations. The wide leaps and over-the-top fioritura would be a challenge for any coloratura but Ms. Morley tackled them fearlessly, thus earning the name we will forever attach to her--Le Rossignol.

We enjoyed Maestro Louis Langrée's conducting, particularly the way he stirred up the drama in the orchestra in between vocal phrases and brought it back down when Ms. Morley was singing. They seemed to have a fine partnership.

The second highlight of the evening was Emanuel Ax's performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major. His attack was firm and assured as his fingers flew over the keys, with every scale passage articulated, which is more than we could say for the string section of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. Their playing seemed somewhat flabby, especially in the curtain-raiser, the overture to Der Schauspieldirektor which we enjoyed last summer in Santa Fe.

The program closed with Mozart's Symphony No. 34 in C major, K. 338. Although there are passages that presage his later more accomplished symphonies, this one failed to ignite much excitement. In both the piano concerto and the symphony, we preferred the lyrical playing of the slower second movements.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, July 26, 2015

ROBERT E. LEE (no, not THAT one)


Eric Sedgwick and Robert E. Lee at the National Opera Center

We do not know Mr. Lee well enough to enquire about his name but there must be an interesting story there.  Likewise, it would be interesting to learn how this artist manages to sing so evenly throughout a wide range, seamlessly combining his counter-tenor head voice with significant chest voice at the bottom. 

Opinions are divided on whether the vocal production of a counter-tenor can be called falsetto or whether its origin is in the size of the vocal chords.  We will leave such discussion to the physiologists and focus on Mr. Lee's excellent artistry.

Acknowledging that we enjoyed an evening of song, sung predominantly in our least favorite language, we are compelled to understand the reasons. To begin, the program was very well chosen, with plenty of old favorites and some unexpected delights--all marked by melodiousness and accessibility.

Furthermore, Mr. Lee's  English diction is so perfect that we understood every word. This is not a quality that we take for granted. Often when we hear singers in English, we have wished for a printed text or titles. Last night we had the printed text and didn't need it.

Mr. Lee's sweet tone is arresting and unique; he employs his instrument with fine technique--the phrasing always lovely and the vocal colors varied. Still more variety was provided by excellent control of dynamics and a high degree of expressivity. Mr. Lee seems to inhabit the material and to share his feelings for the text with the audience.  

Yet another plus was the sensitive accompaniment of pianist Eric Sedgwick whom we enjoyed most in "Del Cabello Mas Sutil" by Fernando Obradors, one of our favorite Spanish songs and one of only two on the program. The gentle arpeggios and Mr. Lee's voice somehow brought tears to our eyes. The other Spanish song, Joaquin Turina's "Cantares" gave the pair an opportunity for increased intensity, building to a striking climax.

Almost all music written for this fach comes from the Baroque period or the 20th c. . A set of Handel songs comprised the sweet "Yet Can I Hear That Dulcet Lay", the powerful "Destructive War", the devotional "O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless", and the lively joyful "Up the Dreadful Steep Ascending".

It is unlikely that we will hear the entire operas from which these arias come (The Choice of Hercules, Belshazzar, Saul, and Jephtha, respectively) but it was a treat to hear the arias. The melismatic decorations of the vocal line were marvelously handled.

The next set comprised a trio of songs by the 17th c. English composer Henry Purcell. Our favorite was "Music for a While". We have heard this splendid song countless times but Mr. Lee made it his own with a beautiful decrescendo at the end. "Sweeter than Roses", also familiar, was given freshness with a dramatic change of color in the phrase "Then shot like fire all o'er".  Exciting stuff!

Roger Quilter made use of a Percy Bysshe Shelley verse for his "Music, When Soft Voices Die" and Aaron Copland availed himself of an Emily Dickinson poem for "Heart, we will forget him". Both composers thereby made excellent choices, which contemporary composers rarely do. A set of songs by Cleveland composer H. Leslie Adams included the beautiful "For you there is no song" with text by Edna St. Vincent Millay, another fine choice. 

A final set introduced us to some mid-20th c. music from the world of cabaret and Broadway. British team Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley were famous for writing musicals in the 1960's --The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd and Stop the World I Want to Get Off, among others; many were imported to the USA from Great Britain. We heard "You and I" and "Pure Imagination".

Michele Brourman turned her back on her music education (a music department that discouraged melody) and partnered with her friend Karen Gottlieb to write cabaret songs. We'd like to hear more music like this, especially when sung by someone as talented as Mr. Lee who did just fine with the low tessitura of "My Favorite Year".

As an encore, Mr. Lee performed Apollo's aria from the prologue (Terpsicor) to the Handel Opera Il Pastor Fido, a role he performed recently at the Amherst Early Music Festival. We wished we had been there!

(c) meche kroop 

Monday, July 20, 2015

GOD MEETS GIRL

 Andreas Schager,  Regine Hangler, and Franz Welser-Most (Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger)

You'll want to know the backstory to Strauss' 1938 "bucolic tragedy" Daphne.  Then you can decide for yourself if it's a tragedy or not. Apollo has insulted Cupid by mocking his skill as an archer.  In revenge, Cupid has let loose two arrows.  The sharp one, tipped in gold, has the power to create insatiable lust; this arrow has struck Apollo, god of the sun. The second arrow, tipped in lead, has the power to cause the rejection of all things romantic; this arrow has struck Daphne. God sees girl, god pursues girl, girl rejects him, he turns her into a tree. For a better synopsis, we refer you to Ovid's Metamorphosis.

The last time we saw this infrequently produced opera was in Santa Fe about 8 years ago. It was given an honorable production, directed by Mark Lamos.  Last night, it was performed in concert version as part of the Lincoln Center Festival; this made perfect sense since staging this opera is challenging, at the very least. And this decision allowed us to focus on Strauss' incomparable music which missed no opportunity to depict the events.

We have never scorned programmatic music. We loved the bucolic and gentle opening theme and there was no question about the wildness of the Dionysian celebration. When Daphne sings of her love of nature, one can hear the rustling of the leaves, the song of birds, and the rushing of streams. The storm rivals Verdi's storm in Rigoletto. The final scene of the heroine's arboreal transformation was luminous.

The massive forces of The Cleveland Orchestra filled the stage of Avery Fisher Hall and Maestro Franz Welser-Möst, who has a special interest in opera, made sure that every nuance of Strauss' challenging score was manifest. Also onstage was the fine Concert Chorale of New York, singing the parts of the shepherds attending the Dionysian rites which open the opera. They are directed by James Bassi.

The notoriously difficult leading roles were handled successfully. Dramatic soprano Regine Hangler, making her New York debut, was fearless in her approach to Strauss' difficult high-lying tessitura. Her voice literally sailed over the huge sound of the orchestra without losing technical accuracy and emotional expressivity.

Heldentenor Andreas Schager made a mostly fine Apollo, ardent in his Wagnerian forcefulness, but straining at times of high volume plus high tessitura,  It is indeed a punishing role. Apollo has heard Daphne's yearning for more sun in her life and makes a persuasive case in wooing her.  Poor Daphne finally realizes that his offer includes romance and flees.

Likewise, she flees from her childhood friend Leukippos who comes across as a manipulative whiner and a poor loser. Tenor Norbert Ernst sang well but did not make his character as sympathetic as we would have wished. We did not feel much regret when Apollo dispatched him with an arrow.

Ain Anger employed his booming bass to good effect as Daphne's dad Peneios, a fisherman but also a river god. As mum, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby made a believable Gaia, a kind of mother earth goddess.

One of the highlights of the evening was a duet gorgeously sung by Lauren Snouffer and Anya Matanovic. Their part in the plot is to dress Leukippos up in the very feminine garment eschewed by Daphne, so he can "get close to her". (Another example of operatic cross-dressing). Of course, Apollo exposes the ruse in his own courtship.

Equally effective were four wonderful male soloists singing the parts of shepherds. Bass Ryan Speedo Green onstage in a small role like that can be considered "luxury casting". We further recognized the fine Matthew Plenk. And if we have never heard Christopher Feigum before, or Nikola Budimir, rest assured that we would love to hear them again.

So yes, the opera is bucolic.  But is it a tragedy? The heroine realizes her dearest wish to live among nature free from importuning men. Her leaves will be used to honor heroes forevermore. We would like to crown the artists with laurel leaves right this very minute.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

PIAF AT 100

Myriam Phiro
Trixie La Fée (Francesca Caviglia)

Oh, celebrities!  We love them, we hate them, we put them on pedestals and we tear them down.  But Myriam Phiro recreated one Monday night at The Metropolitan Room and told us exactly what she wanted us to believe about Edith Piaf, the "little sparrow" who won French hearts in the 20th c. and went on to captivate the world.


If you were looking for truth, we recommend that you look elsewhere. But if you were looking for legend and fine musical values you had plenty to enjoy as Ms. Phiro, who conceived the show, told and sang her version--with assistance from musical director Benjamin Ickies playing piano and accordion, Lars Ekman playing upright bass, Luis Ebert on drums, performer Leonid the Magnificent in various roles, and Francesca Caviglia portraying Marlena Dietrich and performing her famous fan dance.  WOW!

It makes a great story that Piaf was born on the streets of Belleville but her birth certificate reveals a hospital birth.  Yes, it is probably true that her mother abandoned her at birth and that she was raised in her paternal grandmother's brothel.  It is also true that her own illegitimate child died of neglect.

Much of the rest of her life story is shrouded in mystery and exaggeration. Such "embroidery" is common in the lives of the famous. Ms. Phiro described Piaf's early years as a street performer with her father and her discovery by a nightclub impresario Louis Leplée--but did not mention the fact that this man died mysteriously a year later and Piaf was named as an accessory.

No mention was made of her activity in World War II, during which she seems to have entertained both the French and the Germans. Scandal is no stranger to celebrities. But the world loved her music and forgave all. Alcoholism and drug addiction are also common among celebrities and this too has been overlooked and forgiven. She died of liver cancer in 1967.

Let us forget all this and focus on the music. We would be surprised if anyone in Monday's audience ever heard her sing live, although she made a couple appearances at Carnegie Hall in the mid-20th c.  But many have heard her recordings and most people are at least somewhat familiar with her songs, the lyrics of which she wrote herself.

Ms. Phiro generously plied us with one gorgeous song after another and impressed us with her expressivity and vocal beauty.  Our personal favorites, unsurprisingly, were "La Vie en Rose", "Padam Padam" (a favorite of cabaret artist Kim Smith), and "Non, je ne regrette rien". It helps that Ms. Phiro is petite, although not as petite as the 4'8" Piaf!

The evening was an effective portrayal of one woman's conception of an artist's life--lived fully, if not wisely. One thought we had during the show was that Ms. Phiro might consider delivering the narrative material in the first person instead of the third.

Francesca Caviglia made a dual appearance, at first as the disdainful Marlena Dietrich, and later in her extraordinary fan dance which we have seen before and would be happy to see again!  The last time we saw her, she was stripping and singing opera at the same time. Trixie is just full of tricks!

(c) meche kroop

Monday, July 13, 2015

QUELLE BELLE NUIT

Christina Hourihan getting wound up by Voce di Meche (photo by Chris Arnau)
Kyungmi Nam, Christina Hourihan, and Abigail Wright

It was une belle nuit, if about 20 degrees warmer than our preferred temperature, but the oppressive heat could not keep us away from a night of songs, arias and duets from some of our favorite works. With the fine accompaniment of pianist Kyungmi Nam, the scintillating soprano Christina Hourihan and the mellifluous mezzo-soprano Abigail Wright graced the stage of the acoustically perfect concert hall at the National Opera Center. The heat could not keep us away, nor did it have a deterrent effect on the audience, gathered together to listen and be entertained.

Above all else, we adore duets and the two lovely ladies joined their voices in harmony for "Sous le dôme épais" from Léo Delibes Lakmé.  The gals not only sang but entered into the spirit of the work with Ms. Hourihan enacting the part of the eponymous heroine and Ms. Wright, that of the nurturing companion Mallika.

Later the two gals made much of the interesting close harmonies of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater" with excellent contributions from Ms. Nam's piano. To close the program, the two joined voices once more for "Belle Nuit" from Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman.  How absolutely perfect! There was also an encore of "Moon River" by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer.

Ms. Hourihan has a bright coloratura sound which is well-focused and well suited to the trills, arpeggios and wide skips of Olympia's aria "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" from Les Contes d'Hoffman. For that aria, she donned a short doll-like dress and ballet slippers, charmingly portraying the mechanical doll, wound up by a large silver key--to the audience's amusement. Guess who was chosen to wind her up!!!

Ms. Wright, on the other hand, has a rich and resonant instrument that retains its power all the way to the bottom of the register. She performed three songs from Georges Bizet' Carmen, of which our favorite was "En vain pour éviter" which is generally overlooked in favor of the Habanera and the Seguidilla.

A fine guitarist by the name of Kenji Haba provided the accompaniment for a pair of songs by Douglas DaSilva--one a tender tale of a ghost appearing to her husband, based on a 19th c. haiku by Yosa Buson--the other a setting of a grim anti-war text by Wilfred Owen.

The audience was as pleased as could be by the program. Old, new, borrowed and blue!

(c) meche kroop


Saturday, July 11, 2015

A NEWBIE CONVERTED

Maria Brea and Jacopo Buora (photo by Jen Joyce Davis)

We find no shortage of Stars of Tomorrow in the opera universe. What we don't find in sufficient number are the audience members of tomorrow who will be there to listen to them. Therefore we make considerable efforts to bring young people to the opera. We love demolishing their prejudices--"Opera is stuffy, boring and irrelevant" is commonly heard. If we choose wisely, it turns out that the newbie is won over.

What better way to introduce someone to opera than at a Prelude to Performance event!  What better opera than Donizetti's comic masterpiece La Fille du Regiment! It doesn't come to mind as a "starter opera" as readily as some others but it seemed to be the perfect choice, what with its young cast, its frothy melodies, and its romantic plot.

Premiered in 1840 by L'Opéra Comique, the work took no time in making its way to New Orleans and then to New York. Although the master at some point created an Italian version with recitativi replacing the spoken dialogue, it is the French version we hear today. We remember with affection Natalie Dessay cartwheeling her limber frame across the stage of The Metropolitan Opera with Juan Diego Florez nailing the nine high C's. And that was in 2007!

Last night at Prelude to Performance we heard a superb cast bring the work to vivid life. As the titular character, Venezuelan coloratura soprano Maria Fernanda Brea created a lovable tomboy (minus the cartwheels) and sang the fioritura with accuracy and style. Her affection for all her "fathers" in the 21st regiment was convincing.

As Sergeant Sulpice, Italian bass-baritone Jacopo Buora created a fine figure of a Frenchman and employed his generous instrument with humor and affection. His duet with Marie in Act I "Mais, qui vient?" was charming.

Soon we were introduced to the local Tyrolean Tonio, portrayed by tenor Spencer Hamlin. Although suspected at first of being an enemy spy, he soon wins acceptance when he establishes himself as the man who rescued Marie from peril. He and Marie also have a lovely duet in which they profess their love. Tonio joins the French (the politics here are rather shaky but irrelevant) and, having been accepted, expresses his joy in the famous aria "Ah, mes amis". Mr. Hamlin attacked the nine high C's with aplomb and not a hint of pushing, bringing down the house, so to speak.

Of course, complications ensue.  Marie is the long-lost illegitimate daughter of the Marquise de Berkenfield. One could not imagine a better performance than that of Karolina Pilou, endowed with a very substantial mezzo and an impeccable sense of comic timing. Her equally amusing steward Hortensius was portrayed as a fussy fop by excellent baritone John Callison, almost unrecognizable in his elaborate get-up.

The veteran soprano Lucine Amara was on hand for the speaking role of La Duchesse de Krakenthorp, on hand to contract marriage for Marie with her nephew. The Marquise has been grooming Marie for an unwanted aristocratic life and the efforts and results are hilarious, giving us a second act filled with great music and dramatic reversals.

Laura Alley's stage direction was just as astute as we have come to expect and Charles R. Caine's costume design left no doubt as to the respective social stations of the locals and the aristocrats. Steven Horak's wigs and makeup made significant contributions. Meganne George's simple sets were lit by Joshua Rose.

In the pit, Maestro Imre Palló took excellent command of the orchestra and brought out the glories of Donizetti's delicious score. Noby Ishida's command of the chorus was equally impressive. The female villagers in Act I, fervently praying for protection from the French, sounded wonderful and the soldier's chorus, even better. French diction coach Dr. Susan Stout deserves props for ensuring that every word of French was understood.

In sum, it was a delightful evening and Newbie went home to listen to several more versions of "Ah, mes amis" on youtube. And as for Voce di Meche, we will not have to wait another eight years to hear this opera again; we will be reviewing it at the Santa Fe Opera next month.

The performance will be repeated Sunday 2:30 at Hunter College and we encourage you to catch it before it's gone.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, July 10, 2015

MOUNTING A BUTTERFLY

Brandie Sutton and Hyona Kim (photo by Jen Joyce Davis)

In Puccini's hit opera Madama Butterfly, the eponymous tragic heroine expresses her fears to the American naval lieutenant that in the USA, butterflies are caught and pinned.  Lieutenant Pinkerton assures her that is to prevent them from flying away. He doesn't tell her that they die.

For us, this story of a 15-year-old geisha, high born but fallen on hard times, is a story of rampant colonialism and child abuse.  It is a love story only in the eyes of "povera Butterfly" who is deluded by wishful thinking; she believes that Pinkerton really loves her when he has only purchased her services along with the house in Nagasaki, an arrangement that favors only him and perhaps Goro, the marriage broker who is nothing more than a pimp.

We have no quarrel with those who see it in a different light but we stand by our opinion. Indeed, Puccini himself was obliged to modify the original 1904 La Scala version which, we believe, having seen it many years ago, was too strong for the public to accept. Conventional wisdom suggests that the first version was unpopular because of inadequate rehearsal but we are left wondering. Puccini wrote four more versions until he was satisfied. Or until the public was satisfied.

Last night, we heard a performance of the opera by a superb cast of young artists--the culmination of six weeks of intense study in Prelude to Performance, Martina Arroyo's decade-long program devoted to developing the talents of those fortunate enough to be accepted. Master classes and coaching are provided in all areas of performance from movement to language to character creation.

We believe it is Ms. Arroyo's emphasis on the latter which enabled us to see artists in non-traditional casting and to forget the inconsistencies. Try to imagine an American naval officer of the early 20th c. and the American consul both portrayed by Asians! Imagine a Caucasian Prince Yamadori!  An Afro-American Butterfly! (Of course, Ms. Arroyo accomplished that feat years ago.)

The entire affair somehow worked, thanks not only to the conviction of the cast members but to the superb direction of Gina Lapinski who provided concrete motivation for each action of each character. Stereotypes were avoided--i.e. Prince Yamadori was anything but the clown he is usually portrayed as. There were no inebriated relatives celebrating the wedding but a chorus of beautiful maidens in kimonos the colors of flowers, raising their voices in delicious harmony, directed by the excellent Noby Ushida. The chorus was heard again in the "humming chorus" at the end of Act II and we have never heard it performed better.

Typical of Prelude to Performance productions, the set was simple but effective--shoji screens suggesting the hilltop house, some flowers, and some panels suspended from on high. Meganne George's set design was significantly enhanced by the evocative lighting by Joshua Rose. In the final scene of hara-kiri, the colors disappear into chiaroscuro with the desperate act taking place behind the screen in silhouette--surprisingly more chilling than the usual "out there" bloody deed.

The singing was excellent for the most part.  Not only did Brandie Sutton grow in stature as the story progressed but her voice bloomed into great beauty. In Act II, her"Un bel di" left the audience astonished with a chorus of "bravas" that might have been heard from Lexington Ave. to Park Ave.

One could not have imagined a better Suzuki than Hyona Kim whose rich mezzo has impressed us on several prior occasions. Every movement, every reaction, every gesture and facial expression revealed depths of character in a fresh manner.

Baritone Young Kwang Yoo made an effective U.S. Consul Sharpless whose thankless duty as the voice of reason goes unheard. But his own voice was very much heard and a pleasure to hear.

Yet another baritone left us wanting a second hearing. Alexander Boyd was regal as Prince Yamadori, the much married aristocrat who would like to add Cio-Cio San to his list. We enjoyed his regal bearing and fine voice, relieved that we were not subject to so-called comic relief.

In the role of Goro, tenor Alexander Lee created a character not a caricature. It was clear that he was an opportunist who lost no opportunity to ingratiate himself. He has a fine instrument and a lovely legato, filling each vowel to its proper metric value.

As The Bonze, Hangzhi Yao, a bass-baritone, impressed us with his onstage authority and deep rich voice. Lindsay Mecher in the small role of Kate Pinkerton appeared suitably uncomfortable. We hoped that she would make a good mother to little Dolore (the adorable Akari Wientzen) and spitefully wanted her to make her husband miserable for the rest of his life!

Tenor Taehwan Ku  had the thankless role of Pinkerton--the entitled exploiter, the child abuser. At the end of Act III, when he sang "Addio, fiorito asil" we could not bring ourselves to pity him. He's a coward who makes a mess and expects other people to clean up after him and cries crocodile tears. The fact that we took the story so seriously is just further evidence of the artists' skill in portraying John Luther Long's tragic story, so beautifully transformed into the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

Should you be inspired to share our intense involvement in this excellent production, there will be one more performance Saturday night at the Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College.  Should you be inspired to give financial assistance to the Martina Arroyo Foundation and contribute to the development of these young artists, please keep in mind that it is a rare program that not only provides the six-week training gratis, but also provides stipends for the young artists.  Now that's what we call generosity!

(c) meche kroop