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, March 7, 2020

WITCHES, HELLIONS, AND DIVAS

Juan Lázaro, Manya Steinkoler, Anna Viemeister, Rosario Armas, Sasha Gutiérrez,
and Emma Lavandier

The upcoming International Women's Day was honored last night by Vocal Productions NYC by presenting five women singers in an interesting concert celebrating female opera heroines. Of course, the women were accompanied by a man!  One of our favorite young pianists, Juan Lázaro, managed to keep up with all five!

We love hearing young singers and are aware of how much talent there is in our local conservatories. Gracing the stage of St. John's in the Village were two students from Manhattan School of Music. We remember mezzo-soprano Rosario Armas from her performance last year as Lazuli in Chabrier's L'Etoile, presented by Catherine Malfitano's Junior Opera Theater.

Manuel de Falla's Siete canciones populares españolas was another feather in her MSM cap.  Last night she dazzled us with a deeply felt "O ma lyre immortelle" from Gounod's Sapho, and showed herself to be an accomplished artist comfortable in the French language.

She also sang a cabaret song by Britten entitled "Johnny", demonstrating clear diction and dynamic variety.

Sasha Gutierrez, another student from MSM, performed "Stridono lassú" from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, presenting not just splendid vocalism but a true immersion in the character of Nedda. Through Nedda's eyes we could see the birds flying overhead and feel her envy of their freedom. This dramatic intention adds immeasurably to a performance. Of course, Mr. Lázaro's piano helped to bring the birds to life!

The incredibly difficult "Come scoglio" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte was made to seem like a piece of cake with easeful leaps up and down the register. Was Mozart commenting on Fiordiligi's character or just making things difficult for a soprano he didn't like???

Mezzo-soprano Anna Viemeister has caught our attention in the past by the versatility she has demonstrated, taking on a great variety of roles and doing all of them justice. Last night she gave a stunning performance of "Re dell'abisso", Ulrica's aria from Verdi's Ballo in Maschera. There was an admirable consistency throughout the register and the low notes surely belong in the contralto fach. The "Silencio!" was just as gripping as it should be. 

Ms. Viemeister is an expert at inhabiting a character. She did just as well creating a memorable Princesse de Bouillion in the impassioned "Acerba volutta" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. Léonor's aria "O mio Fernando" from Donizetti's La Favorita allowed her to show off the upper register and her duet "Mira o Norma" showed her ability to achieve harmony and balance.

The Norma to her Adalgisa was sung by soprano Manya Steinkoler who also gave us Lady Macbeth at her most bloodthirsty in "Vieni t'affretta", introducing the aria with a dramatic recitation and following it with a stunning cabaletta.

The oft-reviewed Emma Lavandier was also on hand portraying Hoffman's muse in Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffman; there is nothing like hearing this from a native speaker of French! The same could be said for her "Seguidilla" from Bizet's Carmen, although we would have wished for a bit more seduction.

We enjoyed the evening immensely and left with only one doubt. Why was Adriana Lecouvreur put in the category of "Witches"? We always saw her as a benevolent character and a victim. Likewise for Nedda. Somehow on the program they wandered from "Diva" into "Witches", leaving us with a little laugh. We might have moved Carmen from "Hellions" to "Witches". We guess it's just how one looks at it.

© meche kroop


Friday, March 6, 2020

MADELEINE

Shane Brown, David Seatter, Keith Broughton, JoAnna Geffert,
Claire Leyden, Jonathan Hare, Andrew Klima, and Thomas Woodman

There was much to enjoy in Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!'s production of the composer's 1914 one-act opera Madeleine. The talent onstage was excellent. The chamber orchestra played beautifully under the baton of Jestin Pieper. William Hicks' superb musicianship on the piano was augmented by violin, cello, bassoon, and harp. Alyce Mott's direction was on point, as usual.

Mr. Herbert's enormous contribution to the music theater canon is vast. He can be considered the source for American Musical Comedy. Few people know that he wrote two operas. After finishing the grand opera Natoma, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1911 (and was produced a century later by VHRPL!), he created Madeleine, with libretto adapted by Grant Stewart from a play by Decourcelles and Thibaut. Frankly, the words were dated and stilted, something one doesn't recognize when opera is sung in a foreign language.

Probably, the story was more charming in French. A highly narcissistic opera diva, much spoiled by suitors bearing gifts, is alone on New Year's Day. Every one of her suitors has declined her invitation to dine at her home because each one is dining with his mother. Even her maid has refused her. We guess that spending time with mama on New Year's Day was a French custom.

She throws a terrible tantrum and fires everyone. A visit from a good-natured childhood friend Didier restores her balance. Narcissists require a great deal of admiration and support, rarely considering the feelings of others. However, his invitation to dine with his humble family touches her. She considers the invitation but realizes what an intrusion it would be and stays home dining with a painting of her mother which Didier has restored.

It is evidence of the vocal and dramatic artistry of soprano Claire Leyden that we were able to care for this self-centered woman and to consider how narcissists act out their inner emptiness by manipulating and preying upon others.

As Didier we enjoyed the believable performance of baritone Jonathan Hare who has a lovely warm tonal quality. We remember well his charming portrayal of Figaro in Christman Opera Company's Il barbiere di Siviglia.

As the maid Nichette mezzo-soprano JoAnna Geffert created a lovely unselfish character to which she lent her finely textured instrument.

As the suitors we had three fine gentlemen--Andrew Klima, Keith Broughton, and Thomas Woodman--all of whom sang well and created interesting characters. 

The servants were effectively portrayed by Shane Brown and David Seatter, who has appeared in every single VHRPL! performance.

The musical scholarship that went into reducing this work for such an unusual combination of instruments impressed us. William Hicks spent a year and a half performing what one could call a "labor of love". All of Herbert's music was preserved with the lines distributed among the instruments. This "experiment" parallels Herbert's experiment in writing opera, indeed a huge pushing of boundaries all around.

Critics in 1914 were not enthralled with the work and we would be inclined to agree. The story was fine and character driven, whereas Herbert's operettas were story driven.  No problem there. The problem for us was the lack of tunes. What we have enjoyed of Herbert's operettas has been the luscious melodies and the set pieces of waltzes and marches as well as the chorus.  None of that here!

In a lecture by Ms. Mott, we learned of the influences upon this opera by Debussy, Strauss, Wagner, and Puccini--all composers we like. But we were unable to discern the leitmotifs for each character. Possibly if one were to listen to the opera several times it might have become apparent.

There were some musical moments that made the evening worthwhile. To have heard Ms. Leyden sing "When I am Happy" made us happy. Her crystalline soprano opened to a ringing top. For Didier's aria about the pursuit of elusive happiness, Mr. Hare's performance was affecting. We heard a lonely bassoon when he left.

The conclusion moved us, with piano and harp mourning the loss of Madeleine's own mother, whose portrait would be her dinner companion.

In sum, it was a worthwhile project to undertake and a rare opportunity to experience a musical titan pushing his own boundaries. We wouldn't have missed it for the world. We are looking forward, however, to VHRPL!'s resumption of operetta with Mlle. Modiste on May 5th and 6th!

© meche kroop

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

PORT OF ENTRY: NEW YORK

Dina Pruzhansky, Ruoting Li, Alexandra Linde, Pavel Suliandziga, and Rachel Arky

What a thrill! It isn't every day that we get to see not just one but two singers from our Around the World in Song concerts, onstage at Carnegie Hall. What was interesting about last night's concert was that the presenters--New York Artist Management and Composers Concordance--have the same goals as Around the World in Song does--to explore the artistic heritage of musicians from around the world who call New York City home.

These two organizations cast their net wider than we do, including all kinds of musicians, not just singers. We had the opportunity to hear music we had never been exposed to, most of which we enjoyed a great deal.

Renowned and much celebrated composer Dina Pruzhansky grew up in Israel and performed two of her own compositions. From her opera Shulamit, she chose the "Wedding Duet" with text drawn from the highly romantic "The Song of Songs". We regret having missed past performances of the opera and hope we will have an opportunity to hear a revival in the near future. Unlike most contemporary composers, Ms. Pruzhansky writes music that is melodic and accessible.

Mezzo-soprano Rachel Arky performed the female role and tenor Pavel Suliandziga performed the male part. Mr. Suliandziga was featured in our very first Around the World in Song singing Tchaikovsky.

Ms. Arky has been on our radar screen for several years. She made a fine Papagena as a guest artist with Career Bridges (having previously won an award) and we recall her Gianetta in Bare Opera's L'elisir d'Amore. The two made a fine pair with some beautiful harmonic blending in this melodic duet.

Ms. Pruzhansky also shared a solo piano work entitled AM New York which describes a day in New York in a manner that brought to mind Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. But in her composition, the day began with a jangling alarm clock followed by some unhappy chords in the piano. We enjoyed this colorful work immensely.

We were also delighted to hear Swedish songbird Alexandra Linde once more since she had performed some charming Swedish folk songs on the same program as Mr. Suliandziga. Last night she "put on her opera hat" to perform "Linee" an aria from Luigi Porto's Anita Di Laguna, with which we are unfamiliar. She was accompanied by pianist Ruoting Li.

Also on the program was a soprano from the Belgrade Opera, Snezana Savicic Sekulic who demonstrated a gorgeous upper register in "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. She also performed Rachmaninoff's haunting "Ne Poy Krasavitsa Pri Mne" and we would have preferred a simpler delivery than that used in opera.  We might have enjoyed Villa Lobos' "Melodia Sentimental" more if she had not been obscured by a music stand. With its elaborate fioritura Arditi's "Il Bacio" was a good selection for showing off her consummate coloratura.

The remainder of the program was instrumental and, above all, we favored the refined guitar artistry of Serbian Nemanja Bogunovic whose connection with his instrument is so intense that we thought he must eat, drink, and sleep with it. With each successive selection we thought "Oh that's my favorite"! There was incredible variety of rhythm and mood from one piece to the next and each one dazzled in a different way.

He not only composes for his guitar but also arranges his music for a string quintet that lay down a carpet of sound as a worthwhile background for his guitar.

Pianist Jasna Popovic delighted us with the filigree of Barcelo's "La Grandalla". Pianist Ruoting Li began the evening with Kostabi's "Italian Summer", an accessible piece that started off with a riff on Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" from his Ninth Symphony. This made more sense to our ears than "Away" by Pritsker.

Krstajic's composition "Zasp'o Janko" contained the most delightful folk tune that was ruined for us by amplification, as was the romantic "Solo Una Noche".  They were performed by "vocalist" Tamara Jokic about whom we have nothing to say. Amplified voices just hurt our ears; that being said, the audience seemed to enjoy both her and the accompanying jazz band.

In sum, it was a worthwhile evening and filled with delights--above all hearing music that was new to us.

© meche kroop

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

RESCUED!

Opera Lafayette's production of Beethoven's Leonore (photo by Louis Forget)

Boy loves Girl, Girl loves Another Boy (sounds familiar?).  Wait, the Boy she loves is actually a Girl disguised as a Boy.  Of course, by now you've figured out that we're speaking of Beethoven's Fidelio. But we are not! We are speaking of the precursor to Fidelio which Beethoven wrote in 1804. How come we didn't know about this?

Opera Lafayette, on their too infrequent visits to New York City, is famed for unearthing treasures; but this treasure was missing something important. What's an opera without a tenor aria? Not that Beethoven didn't write one but in the process of revising an opera that didn't go over well with the French soldiers occupying Vienna at the time, much was lost.

Leave it to Artistic Director and Maestro Ryan Brown to engage the services of the renowned Will Crutchfield to work with Beethoven's sketches and recreate the aria. The scholarship involved in this project made for interesting reading in the program book; rather than reveal it, we prefer to urge you to attend the final performance Wednesday night at the Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College. You will be lucky, dear Reader, to snag a ticket and you will thank me.  (You are welcome!)
If you were reading my blog three years ago, you may have read about Opera Lafayette's production of Pierre Gavreaux's Leonore. If you have not, you can enter "Opera Lafayette" in the search bar and read about what might have been the inspiration for this telling of the same tale. If so it was a genius idea to utilize the same set and costumes and much of the same cast. We spoke with some of the singers and got the picture that learning the same role in German for these Francophiles was a challenge, one that they met successfully. The acting remained at the same fine quality.

There is plenty of spoken dialogue which often reminded us of a graphic novel like Maus by Art Spiegelman. The simplicity allowed us to focus on the themes and the music. 

As you probably know, the themes are those of overcoming oppression and the role of woman as rescuer. The titular character portrayed by the splendid soprano Nathalie Paulin has disguised herself (not very convincingly to our eye) as a man and secured a position as assistant to the jailer Rocco  (the fine bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus) who runs the prison where she believes her husband to be incarcerated.

Rocco's lively pixieish teenage daughter, portrayed by delightful soprano Pascale Beaudin, rejects her ardent suitor Jaquino (Keven Geddes) in the delightful opening scene and convinces her father that Leonore is the "man" for her. He consents.

Leonore wins the trust of Rocco, gets into the dungeon, and rescues her husband Florestan (tennorific Jean-Michel Richer) from the evil machinations of Don Pizarro, who wanted vengeance for Florestan's criticism of his evil ways. Let us say at this point that Matthew Scollin, who sang the role of Pizarro, created the most evil villain in our memory.

A deus ex machina concludes the opera with the arrival of the King's Minister Don Fernando (booming bass Alexandre Sylvestre) and the prisoners rejoice and celebrate Leonore's heroism.

The music captivated us from the moment Maestro Brown raised his baton. Please don't ask which of the four overtures we heard. It's like trying to sort out Puccini's four iterations of Madama Butterfly. Whichever it was we enjoyed the descending motif and the portentous theme. There were ascending flute arpeggi to lighten the mood. When the orchestra got into the melody that all Beethoven lovers will recognize, Maestro Brown carefully elicited the modulations from major to minor that make this overture so memorable and affecting.

The singing was superb all around and hearing the restored tenor aria was a special treat. Mr. Richer has grown in the role dramatically, in spite of having to sing in a different language. Actually we were quite satisfied with everyone's German diction and barely noticed the missing subtitles at the beginning which were quickly restored.

The score has some fine arias but we were most impressed by the duets and ensembles. The opera was written just five years after Mozart's death but we heard many echoes of him both musically and philosophically. Both composers created characters imbued with humanity and higher values.

Oriol Tomas directed with finesse until the final scene. We didn't care for the way it was staged; the words sung by Leonore and Florestan did not match up with the action. He was chained in place but Leonore, who should have been rushing to him, was lying at the other end of the stage. We just didn't buy it as a reunion scene. Actually there was more chemistry between Marzelline and Jaquino in the first scene who were charmingly directed, interacting quite believably whilst folding laundry.

Laurence Mongeau's set comprised simple interlocking rectangular forms embellished with parallel cables stretched to connect. It was Rob Siler's lighting design that created the appropriate atmosphere for each scene.

The theme of "rescue" has stayed with us all night. Leonore rescued Florestan and Opera Lafayette rescued Beethoven's early attempt at creating the Fidelio that occupies a major place in the canon.

© meche kroop

Monday, March 2, 2020

AROUND THE WORLD IN SONG

Aza Sydykov, Alvar Mayilyan, Kofi Hayford, César Parreño, Maria Brea,
Pablo Zinger, Pallavi Seth, Claire de Monteil, and Dashuai Chen
(photo credit: Bruce-Michael Gelbert)

by Guest Reviewer Eli Jacobson

Meche Kroop introduced this recital program by saying that she started this series of recitals spotlighting young classical singers from around the world performing their native music in response to the xenophobia, prejudice and fear of the “other” being promoted by governments around the world including our own.  Meche feels that music is a healing and uniting force that counteracts hatred and prejudice.  The recital (which was performed on February 28th at St. John’s Church in the Village) had each singer performing the native music of their homeland.  Aza Sydykov was the musical director and pianist.

The recital began with soprano Maria Brea from Caracas, Venezuela singing six songs from her native country.  Brea’s soprano is luscious, rich in overtones with a shimmering fast vibrato.  The songs ranged widely in style from a simple folk lullaby sung a capella (“Duérmete mi niño”) to Latin American pop (“Arrunango”), zarzuela (“Alma llanera”), flamenco (“Quiero sembra”) and jazz cabaret (“La Negra Attilia”) styles.  

I heard music that reminded me of Antônio Jobim, Astor Piazzolla and Heitor Villa-Lobos.  Each song was strongly contrasted from the others.   Brea wasn’t afraid to dig into chest voice or darken or lower her voice to create a different sound.  Throughout this varied program, Brea displayed a distinctive beauty of timbre and projected her music with poise and command.  

The bolero torch song “Desesperanza” by 20th century female Venezuelan composer Maria Luisa Escobar is the favorite song of both Maria’s father and her sister who sings it herself but in a different, more pop-inflected style.  Maria brought a more classical timbre and a thrilling high note at the end that were very much her own.  Hispanic music expert and musicologist Pablo Zinger accompanied Maria on the piano with great insight and stylistic command.  

Delhi-born, New York trained mezzo-soprano Pallavi Seth sang two classical Indian songs – one semi-classical “Huri” and one classical bandish from “Raag Khamaj” both self-accompanied on Tanpura.  Seth began singing classical Indian religious songs under the guidance of her guru and later studied as a Hindustani classical vocalist under the legendary Benares gharana singer Girija Devi.  Vacations in the U.S. led to an interest in European classical music and study at Westminster Choir College and Mannes School of Music.  

Seth performed the two songs seated on the stage with great spiritual insight and self-communion.  The songs began with keening wordless vocalise and then the Hindi text was chanted.  Both songs involved melismatic writing and keening high notes where Seth’s opera background became evident – there was a flexibility of tone and purity of attack that showed her operatic training.  Seth believes in blending cultures and also performs songs by Adele and Amy Winehouse, sings with a progressive jazz rock band, has done American musical theater and loves Bollywood music.  At age 26, Pallavi Seth is open to the entire world of music and eager to explore everything.


Paris-born French soprano Claire de Monteil has studied at AVA where she performed operatic roles like Leonora in Il Trovatore and the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos.  This is a large, forward placed and deeply resonant soprano with a wide range of dynamics.  Monteil did not program French opera which I would like to hear her in (the great falcon roles are something she would excel in).  Nor did she explore the classical French song repertoire of Poulenc, Chausson or Massenet.  

Instead for this recital, de Monteil turned to the French cabaret songs of German-born Kurt Weill and Hungarian-born Joseph Kosma.  Operatically trained sopranos like Teresa Stratas have sung Weill’s German and French ballads with success as has rock singer Marianne Faithfull and the Italian pop singer Milva.  All these singers are very different from Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife and muse and all have made this music their own.  

Her first song “Youkali” is a song about hope and a mythical place where all your dreams come true: “pays de nos désirs”.  The text was projected with both clarity and specificity and the melody was shaped persuasively.  The brilliant final climax was operatic.  Weill’s “Je ne t’aime pas” is a tormented ballad about a conflicted lover who, as much as they are trying to convince themselves that they don’t want or love the object of their affections – repeating the title phrase over and over – cannot emotionally tear themselves away from this person.  Monteil sang each repeat with a different expression and inflection as the protagonist wrestled with their feelings.  It had the rawness of Piaf with the grandeur of Crespin!  

The last song was the pop favorite “Les feuilles mortes” or “Autumn Leaves” by Kosma.  Here I felt that de Monteil’s vocal scale and brilliance detracted a bit from the sense of intimacy and nostalgic reflection in the song – a softer grain to the tone and a darker color would have brought out the melancholy in the piece.

The first half ended with two short pieces by the Ghana West Africa-born bass Kofi Hayford.   The two pieces were national anthems: the first the official one in English “God Bless Our Homeland Ghana” by Victor Gbeho and the second the unofficial folk anthem “Yen Ara Asaase Ni” by Ephraim Amu in the Akwapim Twi language (only one of eleven languages in Ghana!).  It turns out that Victor Gbeho was Kofi’s great uncle!  

The first was a grand scaled oration which got a new English sung text in the 1970’s.  The second folk anthem which translates as “This is our native land” is a declamatory warning instructing the Ghana people not to lose their native values in emulation of European wealth and power but to respect their own heritage and customs.  Hayford’s focused and resonant bass gave it the declamatory force of an operatic high priest or ruler!  I have admired Hayford’s silken black bass in several performances by local opera groups.  

The second half brought more Latin American music courtesy of Guayaquil, Ecuador-born tenor César Parreño who was also accompanied by Maestro Pablo Zinger (who Parreño confessed he had only met 30 minutes prior to performing! One never would have known!).  Parreño, a Juilliard student, sang five Ecuadorian pasillos which are folk ballads usually sung to guitar accompaniment at parties or fiestas.  The pieces had great variety ranging from “Despedida” a song of farewell by Gerardo Guevara (who studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger) and the dashing “El Aguacate” a love ballad sung beneath the avocado tree of the title composed by César Guerro Tamayo.  Parreño has a plangent, sweet lyric tenor with a bright timbre that bears a distinct resemblance to the lovely voices of Mexican tenors Javier Camarena and Ramon Vargas.

Armenian mezzo-soprano Alvard Mayilyan performed four songs in colorful native costume.  Three of these songs were songs of love: “To Him” by Perperian – a passionate woman awaits her lover willing to give all of herself; “Hoy Nazan” by Komitas has two lovers meeting joyously and finally “Lullaby” by Kanachyan which is the love of mother and child where the two are one and the rest of the world does not exist.  (Mayilyan is the mother of two and sings this to her own children).  

The last song was the dance-like “Drinking Song” by the very famous composer Aram Khachaturian (best known for the ballet “Spartacus”).  Khachaturian also wrote many songs and this was a catchy and colorful piece.  Mayilyan’s voice has a warm vibrant color typical of Armenian voices resembling a rich sparkling red wine.  Occasionally around register breaks the tone would go out of focus briefly – with each song this became less evident.  Each song was vividly characterized and sung with passion.

Our final performer was tenor Dashuai Chen, a native of Shanghai China, with three Chinese songs in Mandarin.  Chen was a 2019 winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.  I was surprised how lyrical and non-Eastern sounding these three songs were – they sounded more Western in style and weren’t reminiscent of Chinese opera or folk music.  “The Three Wishes of the Rose” by Zi Huang sounded more like a European art song in Mandarin.  “Teach me how to forget him” by Yuanren Zhao was lyrical and full of melancholy longing and regret.  The final piece “Love for the sea” by Guangnan Shi started as a reverie to nature but seemed to turn inward with sadness and then outward with an outpouring of passionate melody as if the protagonist’s love of the sea turned to thoughts of their beloved.  

Chen possesses a major instrument: the first two songs were written low in the middle voice which misled me into thinking that Chen was a lyric baritone.  However, the overwhelming climax of the third song had Chen pouring out high tessitura and a climactic high note that firmly announced his tenor status.  Chen seems to have lots of voice everywhere.  Initially in the first song, Chen seemed a little stiff and preoccupied but with each song he loosened up and revealed more of himself culminating in the overwhelming vocal and emotional outpouring of the final song.  The final phrases of “Love for the Sea” could have come from the passionate final scene of an Italian verismo opera sung in Chinese translation! 

I was impressed with how Maestro Aza Sydykov managed to learn all this unfamiliar music of widely disparate national styles and genres adapting so well to each singer’s different needs and methods.  

Meche asked each singer to sing something that meant something to them – music that they had a personal connection with.  Too often in recitals the encores outshine the main program.  Usually (and especially in student recitals), the recitalist performs European classical music from a distant culture and time period that is foreign to their culture that they have been carefully coached in.  So, the recital has the feeling of a lesson well learned and dutifully executed without personal engagement or identification.  

The encores include pieces that the singer chooses themselves, often popular songs in their own language.  Suddenly, the performer’s own personality and temperament shines through and they relax and connect with the piece and through the piece connect with the audience.  That was what we saw with this recital – each singer had probably heard or performed this music as a child or student in their home country.  Perhaps they first sang these songs with their families or at school concerts discovering music and their own joy of singing.  The words are in their language and reflect their sense of self.  Nothing here was dutiful or by rote and each singer projected a very distinctive and highly developed individuality of sound, interpretation and communication.  They connected with the music and through the music connected with us – and we connected to them and to cultures from around the world through a shared love of music.  

Mission accomplished.

©meche kroop\

DEGENERATE MUSIC

Nathaniel LaNasa and Gregory Feldmann

Guest Review by Ellen Godfrey:

Friday night in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, the audience was treated to a performance by this year’s winners of the 2019 Joy in Singing International Art Song competition. This marks the 56th award debut recital and is the second year that the competition took place in Weill Hall. 
The mission of The Joy in Singing, Art Song Institute is to nurture the love for art song, and to explore the variety in classical songs through education and performance.  This mission is implemented by developing and refining exceptional vocal talent. It also offers workshops and training in all facets of song performance.

Thanks to the generous support of patrons and other music lovers, the foundation is able to offers multiple prizes each year and one grand prize. This year’s competition’s grand prize was awarded to baritone Gregory Feldmann and pianist Nathaniel LaNasa. 

New York based Gregory Feldmann is a rising young singer, both in opera and art song recitals.  Just a few weeks ago he sang the role of the Composer in Juilliard Opera’s sold out performances of Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, held at the Met Museum. This summer he will return to Opera Theatre of St. Louis to sing Morales in their production of Carmen and also will cover Oliver Sacks in the world premiere of Tobias Picker’s Awakening.

Mr. LaNasa is very interested in contemporary classical music and is discovering fresh possibilities for sonority and gesture in music; he has had several works written for him. He is a vocal coach and a staff pianist at the Juilliard School of Music. He has also performed in musical venues in NYC, including Alice Tully Hall and in the New York cabaret, Le Poisson Rouge. The two artists are frequent collaborators.

On February 27th, the pair made their Weill Recital Hall debut performing songs that were written by composers who were censored under the Nazi regime. The mission of the Nazis was to destroy and suppress what they considered to be “degenerate” music. The pair were amazed how such music has been ignored and felt that the wonderful music created by these great composers, in the face of such stressful conditions, should be heard.

The concert was made up of six groups of songs. Before each group of songs, the two men gave a short preview of the songs and composers. Mr. Feldmann and Mr. LaNasa, both superb musicians, have a wonderful connection, obviously enjoying working together.  Each seems to know what the other is thinking. Mr. LaNasa plays with great sensitivity and deep feeling which is the best way to also describe Mr. Feldmann’s singing. His beautiful baritone is even from top to bottom and he has great control of his fine instrument. He is indeed a master storyteller, a quality we look for in singers of art songs.

The first group of songs was a light-hearted group, beginning with “Berlin im Licht”, a cabaret song by Kurt Weill, who fled the Nazi’s in 1933 and remained in New York the rest of his life.  The artists had just the right feel for this music.  The next three songs were written by Franz Schreker.  The Nazi’s removed him from the directorship of two of his posts in the 1930’s; he died in 1934.  His song “Sommerfaden” (summer threads)  is about the end of summer. Mr. LaNasa's delicate playing conveyed the light spirit of summer and the rushing waters. Mr. Feldmann colored his voice with tenderness.

The next group of songs was composed by Alexander von Zemlinsky, who fled from Austria to the United States in 1938 to avoid the Nazis. His song ”Entbietung” or “Invitation” is perfect for the baritone voice. The song concerns a man praising his loved one and asking when she will come to him. The singer's diction was very clear as he started off singing lightly with a crescendo toward the end.. Another song, “Nun schwills Der See so bang” (“Now the sea swells so fearfully”) is a short exciting song requiring a good sized voice with wonderful arpeggi supporting the singer. Both artists excelled.

The final group of the first part of the concert comprised songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a pianist and classical composer, best known for his music for Hollywood movies. As the Nazi party was gaining strength in 1934, the famous theatre director Max Reinhardt invited Korngold to Hollywood. “Austrian Soldier’s Farewell” tells of a soldier saying farewell to a girl as he is about to leave for war; the music has a modern sound.  In "Vesper" Mr. Feldmann kept his voice high, still maintaining the beauty of the sound while Mr. LaNasa was brilliant in his imitation of the bells. Composers can't go wrong setting text by Josef von Eichendorff!

After the intermission we heard songs composed by Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas, and Hanns Eisler.   Both Ullmann and Haas ended up in Theresienstadt after having been fired from their jobs in music. In 1944 both of them were gassed in the death camp Auschwitz-Berkenau. Eisler escaped death by going into exile in other countries when these works were banned by the Nazis.  He arrived in America in1938 and Brecht arrived there in 1941 after many long journeys. The program ended, as you will see, with the product of their collaboration!

Ullman’s  humorous Liederbuch des Hapis was composed in the face of the horrors of the war. “Worausbestimmung” was set in waltz rhythm and was marked by some dissonance. There was a jaunty tune played with great fun by Mr. LaNasa.  “Betrunken” began with some dialogue underscored by the piano  and then morphed into a drinking song.  Singers seem to love drinking songs and Mr. Feldmann revelled in his performance without losing his stellar vocal technique.

The next song cycle Four Songs on Chinese Poetry was composed by Pavel Haas to a text in Czech. In “Far is my Home, O Moon” the piano started with a dark color and mysterious sound, played gently.  One can feel the glow of the moon; the ending is very quiet.  In the song “I hear the cry of the wild geese”, the poet laments being so far away from home. This was sung with great care and understanding.

The program ended with “Friedenslied,” a strophic song composed by Hanns Eisler after World War II with lyrics by Bertold Brecht.  This song calls for peace to the earth, to the home, to all nations and all people. The song is both simple and profound, affecting the audience due largely to its superlative and sincere performance.

There was a standing ovation at the end calling for an encore, which brought forth Zemlinsky's "Empfängnis". Cheers to the artists for this inspired program and masterly performances. The unique program merits future performances both here and abroad.

© meche kroop





 



 








Saturday, February 29, 2020

MSM DOES LA TRAVIATA

Daniel Espinal and Sophia Santiago in La Traviata at Manhattan School of Music
(photo by Anna Yatskevich)

A TRAVIATA TO REMEMBER--Guest review by Ellen Godfrey

Those of us assembled in the Gordon K. and Harriet Greenfield Hall at the Manhattan School of Music Sunday afternoon, were treated to a remarkable semi-staged production of Verdi’s immortal opera La Traviata. In my many decades of attending operas and seeing multiple performances of this beloved masterpiece, I must say that this was one of the best performances I’ve  ever seen. By the end of the opera, there was barely a dry eye in the auditorium.

The young talented group of singers were led by Conductor, Collaborative Pianist and Music Director Thomas Muraco, who has accompanied great singers and instrumentalists in the United States and around the world. Since coming to the Manhattan School of Music 25 years ago, he has trained pianists in the art of accompanying and coaching, and trained young singers at the MSM Opera Repertoire Ensemble in numerous staged opera productions. He conducts the singers with firm but gentle hands; he does not use a baton. Instead, his expressive hands work with the singers to encourage them to get as much from their characters and the music as they can.  This results in a truly professional performance from not only the singers, but the two pianists as well.

Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave were looking for an opera for Carnival time in Venice. They decided on a play by Alexandre Dumas fils, who, when he was 23 years old, had fallen in love with a country girl, Marie Duplessis. She had become a successful and well-known courtesan in Paris and  enjoyed many parties.  Sadly, she died of TB in 1847.  A year later, Dumas published a novel about her entitled  La Dame aux Camellias, (The woman of the camellias). A play followed four years later. Verdi and Piave had read the novel and play and decided it would be their next opera. The opera La Traviata has become one of the most beloved and most performed operas throughout the world.

The Opera Repertoire Ensemble production was semi-staged; a chair, a sofa, a quilt, and a long table with chairs were the only props needed to convey the story.  Director A. Scott Parry did a wonderful job of directing the singers around this small stage.  His direction was keen. He moved the singers on the stage very well and even had space for them to dance. He did a brilliant job, especially considering how many young singers were on the stage.

In place of an orchestra, two grand pianos were at the rear of the stage, head to head. The two wonderful pianists were Sungah Baek and Anneliesa Trethewey. They did a fantastic job for almost three hours of taxing music replacing a full orchestra. Their playing was sympathetic, dramatic, and also joyful in the party scenes.  Along with Maestro Muraco, they kept the opera moving forward. Clarinetist Alexander Parlee and violinists Jennifer Awn and Christine Wu were fine instrumentalists who also played with great feeling.

The opera opens with a brooding prelude that returns later in the opera. The two pianists played delicately and lovingly, thoroughly embracing the music. Coloratura soprano Sophia Santiago is seen in bed reading, aided by her maid Annina, mezzo-soprano  Hyunji Kim who has a rich mezzo sound. 

Suddenly the tempo changes as the party guests enter to a typical Verdi "um pah pah" beat. The MSM chorus of 24 men and women came on stage singing and greeting their friends. The chorus was wonderful, perfectly trained big voices. The women were dressed in party clothes and the men in suits and they were all having a good time.

Among Violetta's friends at the party were Gastone de Letoriers sung by charming tenor Travis Benoit; the pure toned baritone Gavon Mitchell in the role of  one of Violetta’s lovers, the Baron Douphol; the Marchese d’Obigny was sung by the big voiced bass Michael Leyte-Vidal. Violetta’s friend Flora was the dark voiced mezzo-soprano Gabriella Chea, who returns in the third act. She has a beautiful mezzo quality and a good presence on stage. All of these singers acted very well.

The taxing role Violetta has Ms. Santiago onstage most of the time and her emotions go from happy to sad to grieving throughout the opera. She entered in a stunning red dress and greeted her guests. She has a lovely voice which blooms as she ascends to the upper register; her high notes are right on pitch. In the first act, she joined tenor Daniel Espinal, as Alfredo, in a rousing drinking song. He is secretly in love with Violetta.. After the guests leave to go to another room. Alfredo, in a luxuriously sung aria, tells Violetta that he has been in love with her for a year.  I was very impressed with Daniel’s big warm tenor sound.  He can sing quietly and also make the voice bigger when needed. He sings easily with a lot of tenderness and is a good actor as well.

Violetta is left alone to contemplate this new lover, wondering if he is the man for her.  Ms. Santiago fearlessly tosses off the difficult and long aria and cabaletta (fast moving end of an aria). It is a big challenge for any Violetta, requiring a singing actress, which indeed Ms. Santiago is.  
   
In the second act, Alfredo and Violetta are living in a house outside of Paris.  Violetta has gone out and Alfredo sings the great tenor aria “De miei bollenti spiriti". He joyously sings of his happiness with Violetta.

Alfredo’s father, sung by the rich sounding baritone, Geraldo de la Torre, arrives to tell Violetta that she must stop seeing his son, as her behavior would make it impossible for his sister to find a man to marry.  Mr. de la Torre is an impressive big voiced baritone with good high notes as well as a well colored middle and low voice.  He uses his voice well. Like all of the singers in this performance, he has very good diction. He is totally believable as the father, although he is a much younger man. 

Violetta and Germont sing a great duet as Violetta struggles to come  to terms with losing Alfredo.  She finally agrees to leave him in a quiet aria of resignation. She says they will never see each other again and tells him to let Alfredo know about her sacrifice. Germont leaves and she writes a letter of farewell to Alfredo. When Alfredo returns, Violetta is no longer in the house. Germont returns and in a famous aria "Di Provenza il mar, il suol" tells his son that he will no longer see Violetta. Mr. De la Torre sings it with great empathy and love for his son. Alfredo runs off to Paris,

Act III opens with another rousing party. Violetta comes in and is comforted by Flora. Violetta regrets coming to the party. The wonderful chorus sings with great gusto and joy.  When all of the guests go into another room. Alfredo re-enters followed by the crowd of party goers and lets out his anger on Violetta for leaving him. This is very dramatic singing and Mr. Espinal handles it well. Germont enters and berates his son for being so cruel to Violetta. At the end of the scene, Alfredo regrets his outburst.

The final act starts with the quiet somber prelude again played with great feeling by the two pianists. Violetta is dying and Dr. Grenvil, sung by the dark voiced bass Fernando Watts, tells Annina that Violetta does not have much time left.  Violetta is alone and re-reads a letter from Germont telling her that he has told Alfredo of her sacrifice and he is on his way to see her. Ms. Santiago sang the great aria “Addio del passato" (farewell to my past) at first quietly, singing a sad farewell to life. 

When Alfredo comes running in both he and Violetta express their happiness. There is a lot of excitement in the music and both singers blend well together. Violetta’s mood changes as she knows she is about to die. She is determined not to die so young. Germont arrives begging forgiveness.  Suddenly she feels stronger and gets up and suddenly with a cry falls down and dies.

When the opera ended there were great cheers from the audience who appreciated this performance. Congratulations to all of the artists for their wonderful performances.

© meche kroop