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.

Monday, May 20, 2019

MORE FRENCH

Martin Néron, Jean-Bernard Cerin, Christopher Reames, and Laure-Catherine Beyers

Last night at the National Opera Center we attended the Gérard Souzay Award Showcase presented by Dalton Baldwin in collaboration with Joy in Singing and The Art Song Preservation Society of New York.

Coming on the heels of the afternoon recital by Stéphane Sénéchal and Mark Markham, perhaps the recital did not get the attention it deserved. Perhaps we just overdosed on French mélodies. We found our attention wandering to the pianist Martin Néron to whom we paid insufficient attention on the two prior occasions on which we heard him. He is an absolutely marvelous collaborative pianist and we admired his delicate touch and the sensitivity with which he related to the singers.

During the recital, a certain valuable memory rose to consciousness. It was the advice a prominent conductor/coach gave to a young singer at a master class. "Sing what you love", he said. When baritone Jean-Bernard Cerin (winner of the first Gérard Souzay Prize for Best Performance of a French Mélodie at the 2018 Joy in Singing Song Competition in NYC) performed Maurice Ravel's Histoires naturelles we could tell that he loved those songs.

Earlier in the program we found his involvement a bit wanting; we found his facial expressions excessive to the point of mugging and his gestures underdone. But in the Ravel he blossomed! He was particularly excellent in his portrayal of the courting peacock in "Le Paon" and the embattled guinea hen in "La Pintade".

There are those who like their singers of art song to stand still and use only the voice to tell the story. But as we learned at the Sénéchal recital early in the day (review just below), we like acting. We like gesture. We like storytelling. It's a matter of taste.

Similarly, when mezzo-soprano Laure-Catherine Beyers performed Henri Dutilleux's "Féerie au clair de lune" with generous use of color and gesturewe were captivated as we were not in her earlier performance of Reynaldo Hahn's "L'heure exquise", in spite of the fact that it is one of our favorites. She closed the program with a highly dramatic performance of the tango inflected "Youkali" from Kurt Weill's Marie Galante, convincing us of how cabaret style music can exist comfortably alongside opera.

We have heard and enjoyed tenor Christopher Reames on a couple prior occasions and enjoyed his performances more than we did last night. Curiously, on both occasions it was Debussy's settings of Paul Verlaine's text in Fêtes galantes I; we don't exactly know what was missing. His voice is sweet with a fine vibrato but perhaps we were looking for more "acting". Mr. Cerin had just performed Fauré's setting of "En sourdine" which also left us cold. 

We might have enjoyed hearing the two versions of "En sourdine" back to back, so to speak. We would also have enjoyed the libretto in French, instead of just English, and enough illumination to follow along.

(c) meche kroop



L'ART DU CHANT FRANÇAIS

Mark Markham and Stéphane Sénéchal

Presented by the Art Song Preservation Society (founded and directed by Blair Boone-Migura), was a brilliant recital by French tenor Stéphane Sénéchal and collaborative pianist Mark Markham. The recital was part of a 10-day festival
of master classes and recitals held at the Manhattan School of Music, an annual event.

This was a very special recital and one marked by the revelation of true French technique passed down from father Michel (the legendary late character tenor who knew Francis Poulenc) to son. What an experience to hear French music sung by a tenor of great artistry--to hear it as it is meant to be sung. One could consider the recital to be a lesson in the art of singing French mélodies.

The composers represented on the program comprised many of the greats of the 19th and early 20th c.--Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Duparc, Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, Gabriel Fauré, Charles Gounod, and even Jacques Offenbach who contributed the encore piece.

Instead of performing a set by each composer, Mr. Sénéchal mixed them up and seemed to stick with one theme for each set. For example the first set comprised songs dealing with love and romance. Who can do that better than the French! We confess to being hypnotized.

Reynaldo Hahn's "À Chloris" is very familiar to us but we have never heard it sung with such intense feeling, achieved with delicacy and refinement. A lovely pianissimo cresendoed to a passionate fortissimo. This tenor makes his dynamic changes count by using them sparingly.

In Henri Duparc's "Extase" his coloration reflected the underlying Wagnerian harmonic shifts, something that we've heard about but never actually heard. Claude Debussy's "Zéphyr" was downright erotic; Gabriel Fauré's "Après un rêve" offered an opportunity for melismatic singing that reinforced the coloration of the word at the end of a phrase--"mirage", "lumière", "mensonges" and "mystérieuse".

A second set of mélodies seemed to focus on loss. Most of Fauré's works are little gems but "La Chanson du pêcheur" took its time to develop the theme of loss of the beloved by means of death. In Théophile Gautier's poem, the fisherman ends each verse of lament with the intention of going to sea. We wondered if "going to sea" was a metaphor. Mr. Markham's piano was particularly effective in adding to the despair.

There were even more treasures in the second half of the program; we particularly enjoyed Fauré's "Ici-bas" which filled us with sorrow as the artists concluded with an affecting decrescendo, tapering off to a fine filament of sound hanging in the air. In Duparc's "Lamento" the chords in the piano underscored the mournful sentiment.

There were also several songs by Poulenc on the program. The texts he chose seem obscure to us and less direct. Although he is not our favorite French composer, we will say that we enjoyed his pieces more yesterday than we ever have.  It's just that irony is not our favorite; we prefer music that evokes emotions, not ideas. We don't listen to music in order to think, to puzzle out the intent. We listen to feel.

Fortunately, the final work on the program relieved all that sorrow and left us feeling cheerful. It was Charles Gounod's "Viens! Les gazons sont verts!" in which a youth wants his beloved to wake up and enjoy la belle nature with him. As if that were not enough, there was an encore from Jacques Offenbach's operetta La Périchole in which Piquillo complains about his wife's behavior.

Thinking about the recital and why it was so exceptional, our conclusion is that Mr. Sénéchal doesn't "perform". Instead, it seems as if he is improvising. We suppose that every facial expression and gesture has been considered but it doesn't appear that way. There is a spontaneity that feels as if he is inhabiting the world of the song and sharing it with his audience, drawing us into a world.  He is a consummate storyteller. Mr. Markham was with him every step of the way. It was a landmark recital.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, May 18, 2019

MURASAKI'S MOON

John Noh, Kristen Choi, and Martin Bakari


At a time when opera companies are struggling to survive, it is thrilling to watch On Site Opera thrive. In spite of high ticket prices, their productions are always sold out. It would appear that the originality of their concept and the deftness of their execution would account for their success. Snagging a ticket almost guarantees a rare and unusual experience.

In collaboration with MetLiveArts and American Lyric Theater, their latest production, Murasaki's Moon, served to heighten the interest of theater goers in the adjacent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an exhibit which the performance brought to vivid life in the hands of Artistic Director Eric Einhorn. 

The work is based upon The Tale of Genji, an 11th c. epic novel written by the noblewoman Lady Murasaki, perhaps the world's first novel. It is filled with characters beyond counting and illustrated lifestyles and customs of the Heian court. It was written by a woman for women in an archaic language used by women, a phonetic language. It was only in the 20th c. that the work was translated into modern Japanese.

English translations followed and the work has had a major effect on all of the arts of Japan, from 12 c. scrolls and screens to contemporary manga series and TV dramas. There was an opera written in 2000 but we were unable to learn anything about it.

The subject of the novel was Genji, the emperor's son whose mother was a lowly born, but favored, concubine. He led a wild romantic life, filled with illicit liaisons and several marriages. The production we saw, with libretto by Deborah Brevoort, did not attempt to tell any episodes from the story, but rather to focus on Lady Murasaki's relationship with her creation Genji, who served as muse.

So many contemporary issues were touched upon that there was no question of relevance. Take for example the issue of the loneliness of the writer. (Just ask us!) Lady Murasaki has a modest position at court, illustrated by her almost colorless three-layer kimono. She desperately wants a friend, but she is different from the other women at court and is the object of envy and rejection. She writes and Genji keeps her company. Many writers of fiction will tell you that they create characters and the characters write the story!

Although we have come a long way here in NYC, there are plenty of places around the USA where creative women are looked at with unkind eyes because they don't follow the wife/motherhood program. We could certainly identify with Lady Murasaki, the "misfit".

In the story we watched, she is angry at Genji for his philandering. He is untrue to her and disappears for periods of time, perhaps representing periods in which writers cannot summon their muse and go silent. On the other hand, putting on our psychological hat, it would seem that Genji is Lady Murasaki's animus, what Carl Jung called the inner representation of a woman's male characteristics. (And yes, men are purported to have an anima, representing their female qualities).

Murasaki makes several pointed observations about women gazing at their images in the mirror and making efforts to be more beautiful. Could anything be more relevant? In any case, we cannot stop thinking about the many layers of the story. 

The music added greatly to the story. Composer Michi Wiancko composed some beautiful instrumental music that combined Japanese instruments (Taiko drums and shakuhashi played by Kaoru Watanabe, percussion played by Satoshi Takeishi, and koto played by Yoko Reikano Kimura) with Western music performed by the Aizuri String Quartet. All was conducted by Geoffrey McDonald who integrated the two seamlessly.

The vocal line was another story altogether. Like so much contemporary music, the vocal line was jagged and not at all melodic. Combined with a libretto that often rhymed but did not scan at all, we found little to enjoy, in spite of admirably convincing performances by Kristen Choi as Lady Murasaki, Martin Bakari as the ultimately repentant Genji, and John Noh as a Buddhist priest who himself became interested in Murasaki's writing, a scene we particularly enjoyed. There was one magical musical moment--a duet with gorgeous harmonies that told us that Ms. Wiancko could do better. We would have loved to hear more Japanese-inflected vocal lines. We would have loved to have heard it in Japanese!

Effective costuming was provided by Beth Goldenberg. Genji's bright blue costume and the Buddhist Priest's yellow robes were in high contrast with Murasaki's pale costume. The work was performed in the Astor Court of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was staged in a long narrow playing area with audience members seated along each side. 

We would like to add a few words about the titles. The three singers had such excellent diction that titles were unnecessary but we were interested in the technology that was used. Audience members were able to download the On Site Opera app on their phones where titles were available and perfectly matched to the singing. This appears to be the way of the future. We tried it to see if it was distracting and it was not.

The dramatic performances aroused our curiosity and we spent some time in the nearby exhibit, particularly enchanted by the court games that were played, utilizing scenes from the novel. Scenes from the novel also decorated so many artifacts. It was obvious how influential this novel was on a millenia of Japanese culture.

We were too lost in thought to consider any way of getting home other than walking through the park, accompanied by a full moon! We thought of it as Lady Murasaki's moon and felt a strong connection. Isn't that what art is all about?

(c) meche kroop

Friday, May 17, 2019

HUMMing ALONG

Benedicte Jourdois and Äneas Humm

It was a little over three years ago that we first heard the then-20-year-old Swiss baritone Äneas Humm. He was already famous in Europe and was invited here by the German Forum who presented him in recital. We were astonished to hear someone so young and so gifted.

Yesterday Mr. Humm completed three years of study with Edith Wiens at Juilliard, earning his Master of Music degree. He arrived as a finely cut gem and Juilliard provided the polish. His voice has expanded in the lower register and rounded out in the midrange.

Most Swiss are adept with several languages and Mr. Humm is no exception. Although German is the one spoken in his hometown Zürich, he sounds terrific in French as well. But he also sang in Hungarian!

Our initial hearing of Mr. Humm involved some Grieg and introduced us to the songs of the prolific  early 20th c. composer Othmar Schoeck who happily avoided atonality and wrote some lovely songs. Both would appear on yesterday's program.

The program opened with Cantata#4 De Profundis by the 17th c. composer Nicolaus Bruhns, composed and sung in Latin. He was accompanied by Caitlyn Koester's harpsichord, violinists Chiara Stauffer and Naomi Dumas, and cellist Madleine Renée Bouïssou. The lowlying tessitura seemed not to daunt Mr. Humm, nor did the alternation of legato and staccato. We particularly enjoyed the melismatic singing which took on the character of a vocalise.

Mr. Humm's attention to dynamics and appropriate gesture marked the entire program. There was a set of three songs by Edvard Grieg from Op. 48, our favorite of which was the familiar and charming "Lauf der Welt" which was perfectly suited to Mr. Humm's personality. Otherwise we heard a finely rendered crescendo .

The Schoeck songs were deeply felt and beautifully played by collaborative pianist Benedicte Jourdois, whose playing has always given us great pleasure. She seems to breathe with the singer, providing a perfect partnership. In the Fauré songs which followed, Mr. Humm was nominally "on the book" which seemed unnecessary to us since he knew the material. This generally leads us to focus more on the piano and we were rewarded with some gorgeous arpeggi in "En Sourdine".

Four short folksongs by Bartok would have been enjoyed more had their been translations.

The recital closed with Schubert songs, at which Mr. Humm excels. We loved Ms. Jourdois' rhythmic accompaniment in "Der Wanderer an den Mond" and the rocking accompaniment to "Der Jüngling an der Quelle". "Im Abendrot" came across as a devotional prayer and we simply swooned. Ms. Jourdois' slow chords enhanced the exquisite effect of Mr. Humm's tender pianissimo singing.

There was an encore, to our delight--Schubert's "Wanderers Nachtlied". Since travel is in Mr. Humm's immediate future, we can understand his choices! He is heading for the Weimar Opernhaus where he will perform a variety of roles. The one we would most like to see is his Papageno which will give plenty of leeway for him to express his engaging personality as well as his fine voice.

We hope he will return before too long!

(c) meche kroop



Wednesday, May 15, 2019

CAREER BRIDGES GALA

Career Bridges Winners


The designation "gala" is used rather loosely these days but the dazzling evening we experienced last night at The Metropolitan Club was gala in every sense of the word. Luminaries of Planet Opera gathered in force to celebrate the next generation of opera stars, recipients of awards from The Schuyler Foundation for Career Bridges.

The Foundation has been performing a vital service for 17 years now. Founded by David Schuyler Bender and Barbara Meister Bender with the mission of providing vital assistance to young opera singers as they transition from training to stardom. Awardees receive three years of mentoring, financial support, and performance opportunities. A combination of wise selection and this assistance has had a phenomenal rate of success.

What is more, for three years they have provided outreach to youngsters in their Kids Love Opera program, reaching 7000 primary school students at an age that almost guarantees a life-long interest in opera. These kids will grow up and provide the next generation of opera goers. Hooray for the Foundation!

The Benders are one of those beautiful couples--beautiful inside as well as outside. Their welcoming remarks got the evening off to a wonderful start. Guests forgot the damp and dreary weather and basked in the delightful entertainment, which was dispersed between the courses of dinner. Most of the singers were this year's winners except for Teresa Castillo (2017) and Jorell Williams, a winner from 2008, who showed us what happens to the artists when they complete the program.

Ms. Castillo opened the program with a Händel aria that showed off her flexible coloratura in harmony with the trumpet of David Glukh. Mary Beth Nelson performed our favorite Rossini aria--"Una voce poco fa"--demonstrating a personality as pleasing as her voice. Similarly, our favorite Donizetti aria--"Una furtiva lagrima"-- was performed by Tianchi Zhang, with fine dynamic shading. 

From Linda di Chamounix, an opera we know little of, Erika Baikoff sang the familiar "O luce di quest' anima", with fine fioritura. Mr. Williams and guest Ganson Salmon had excellent interpersonal chemistry as Marcello and Rodolfo in "O Mimi tu più non torni".

Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award was centenarian Anton Coppola who looks fit and hearty. Apparently, keeping active is a means of staying youthful. We most recently heard Maestro Coppola conduct a master class for Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance program. His teaching was astute and perfectly personalized.

After the break for Maestro Coppola's award, Ms. Castillo and Mr. Williams gave us the delightful "Papagena, Papageno" duet, an audience favorite. We loved the conclusion in which Mr. Williams carried Ms. Castillo off in his arms. John Noh captivated us with his "Kuda, kuda", giving it a psychologically sensitive performance, enhanced by an affecting decrescendo.

Hannah Friesen's sweet sound was perfect for "Sul fil d'un soffrio etesio" from Verdi's Falstaff. Jongwon Han's secure baritone was perfect for the "Catalogue Aria" from Mozart's Don Giovani which he enhanced with appropriate expression and gesture. The difficult quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto was made to sound easy by Ms. Castillo, Ms. Nelson, Mr. Salmon, and Mr. Williams.


Superstar soprano Lauren Flanagan sadly did not sing but spoke eloquently, introducing the recipient of the Distinguished Achievement Award--superstar Isabel Leonard about whom we have written since we began writing. She is as beautiful as her voice and incredibly gracious.

We were happy to hear more of Rigoletto when Alec Carlson took on the role of the licentious Duke in the famous "Questa o quella". Anne Montgomery performed Lehar's "Liebe du Himmel auf Erden". Gabriel Hernandez gave us "Here I Stand" from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The aptly named Kelly Singer gave a deliciously dramatic performance of "Non, monsieur mon mari" from Poulenc's comic opera Les Mamelles de Tirésius.

The tireless Ted Taylor as Music Director did a bang up job accompanying all of these gifted young singers in such a great variety of material.

The entire group joined Mr. Williams for the highly appropriate "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha. The reason we thought it appropriate is that becoming an opera singer seems like an impossible dream but people like The Benders are making it possible!

(c) meche kroop

Monday, May 13, 2019

SORCERESS! DRAGONS!

Katherine Doe, Mithuna Sivaraman, Alaina Logee, Mary Kathryn Monday, Rachel Duval, and Joyce Yin




Cantanti Project is one of our favorite boutique opera companies. They just presented Händel's 1713 opera seria Teseo (renamed Teseo:Medea), replete with sorceress, flying dragons, apparitions, potions, spells, and a deus ex machina in the person of Minerva. Nicola Haym's libretto was based on a Lully opera of 1674 which was, in turn, based on a story in Ovid's Metamorphosis. Händel surely had his finger on the pulse of his London audience which thronged to see his earlier Rinaldo (another opera involving sorcery) but gave short shrift to his pastoral opera Il pastor fido. Teseo had a decent run, marred only by technical difficulties, but the opera was forgotten and lay dormant until 1947. We are glad it was resurrected.

As in so many operas of the period, the story is complicated. King Egeo (Mary Kathryn Monday) has been successful at battle and decides that his betrothal to Medea should be replaced by marriage with Agilea (Joyce Yin), his ward. She is in love with Egeo's military commander Teseo (Rachel Duval). Agilea's companion Clizia (Mithuna Sivaraman) is in love with Arcane (Katherine Doe).

The sorceress Medea (Alaina Logee), incensed at being rejected, does her best to spoil everyone's happiness and create mistrust and dissension. It takes the intervention of Minerva to set things right. A poisoning of Teseo by Egeo is thwarted when the King recognizes the warrior as his long-lost son! His sword was the give-away!

Although Händel's instrumental music doesn't light our fire, his operas set us ablaze. Contemporary composers should study a page from his book. He really knew how to write for the voice with the vocal line emphasizing the words, more so in his Italian operas than in his English ones, of course. His arias, as I recall, are fun to sing! There is ample fioritura with almost ostentatious ornamentation which never detracts from his illumination of the character.

Our favorite scene was in Act IV when Medea blackmails the sweet and lovely Agilea to give up Teseo, whom Medea also wants. With tearful aspect Agilea renounces him to save his life. Her singing would melt an iceberg and it melted Medea's rage--but only temporarily. There was still one more act to fill in this unique five act opera--still more reverses and complications!


Musical Director Dylan Sauerwald led the Dorian Baroque Orchestra from the harpsichord. We particularly enjoyed the sound of the baroque oboe; the mournful sound often echoes the vocal line and sometimes "sings" in harmony with it. We sat there for three hours entranced by the glorious singing and playing. Not only are the arias magnificent but the duets thrill the ear.

What did not entrance us was trying to figure out who was whom and what they were singing about. Had we not read a summary beforehand we would have been completely lost. There was no program and no synopsis. There were titles projected off to the side but they could not be read with the stagelights on.

There was no set to speak of and costumes (Alexandria Hoffman) were as basic as one would expect with a minimal budget. We would far prefer the money be spent on musical values! And that we got in spades.  Wonderful singing, wonderful music!

We realize that the female-centric Cantanti Project had an axe to grind about female power; much was written on their website and Facebook page about gender. That is all well and good; we are glad that castration of male singers ended long ago and are happy to see women fulfill the roles. But for our purposes, it is the music making that counts.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, May 12, 2019

BRITTEN'S GHOST STORY?

Scene from Little Opera Theater of New York's production of Britten's Owen Wingrave

Encouraged by three recent positive experiences of Benjamin Britten (two productions of Albert Herring and Xeni Tziouvaras' performance of his Charm of Lullabies, we approached a performance of his Owen Wingrave with enthusiasm. We left with disappointment verging on despair. 

Written for television in 1970, Myfanwy's Piper's libretto is an etiolated adaptation of Henry James' eerie ghost story, here made into an anti-war screed masquerading as a family drama. The horror is as absent as the vowels in Ms. Piper's given name. (Even the homosexual hints have been removed, although that did not create a problem in terms of focusing on the hero's determination to resist the military.)

The absence of titles and the unclear diction of many members of the cast obviated a clear understanding of the finer points of the story although the superior acting abilities of the cast got the major points across. 

We have come to think of operas written after the middle of the 20th c. as "plays with music". In this case, the "play" was insufficiently dramatic and the lines were often like lectures, not like dialogue.

The music was unmusical. We didn't expect any gorgeous melodic arias but we were dismayed by the dialogues and especially the monologues which could have told us something about the character "singing" it. (By contrast, the arias heard last night in Massenet's Hérodiade each told us something about the character and his/her situation.)

Maestro Richard Cordova probably enjoyed conducting this challenging score but it was difficult to listen to. No doubt the musicians in the chamber orchestra (orchestration was by David Matthews) played well but we got no pleasure from listening.

The spare set by Josh Smith comprised tables, chairs, and a bed. Nothing more was needed. His lighting design went a long way toward creating an eerie mood that James' story called for.

Lara de Bruijn's costumes were drab and perfectly appropriate to the late 19th c.

Philip Shneidman's direction seemed as static as the story. People stood around or sat. Seeing someone climb a flight of stairs seemed compelling by comparison.

Alex Basco Koch's projections were perhaps the most interesting element of the production, helping to repurpose the simple set from one scene to another. The grand outward appearance of the Paramore ancestral manse was projected above the set and the interior was decorated by projections of portraits revealing the family's military heritage.

Coming from a military family, the hero's refusal to complete his martial education arouses the disgust of his family, his girlfriend, and his ancestral manor. They vilify hime and drive him to his death, which should have been more "ghostly" but wasn't. He is accused of lacking courage and his "intended" insists he demonstrate his courage by sleeping in a room in which a father and son had previously died.

The theme of the tormenting and rejection of the outsider is a theme dear to Britten's heart and baritone Robert Balonek did a fine job of portraying this self-determined young man who refuses to follow the life plan for which he was intended. His diction was clear and, for the most part, understandable.

Similarly, as his military instructor Spencer Coyle, bass Matthew Curran cut a fine figure and made the words clear. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast were only occasionally comprehensible, which may be due partly to the fact that the vocal line was not designed to be understood and the lengthy phrases did not resemble spoken or sung speech. Instead they came across as written text.

We have no criticism of any of the voices. Indeed it is impossible to appreciate a singer's technique with material like this. Fortunately, we have heard and enjoyed their voices under more felicitous circumstances.

What we can say is that the acting was persuasive with soprano Emily Pulley portraying a very rejecting maiden aunt. Presumably, Mrs. Julian is a family hanger-on and soprano Mary Ann Stewart was as fine in the role as mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht was as her daughter Kate, the one who eggs on Mr. Wingrave to his death. Tenor Bernard Holcomb portrayed Owen Wingate's friend Lechmere.

As the grandfather General Sir Philip Wingrave, tenor Rufus Müller was appropriately nasty, disinheriting his grandson. The only kindly character was Coyle's wife, nicely portrayed by soprano Janice Hall.

Nothing pains us more than seeing a waste of talent, time, and resources. With so many undiscovered gems out there, it's a pity to see this happen.

(c) meche kroop

Coming from a military family, his refusal to complete his martial education arouses the disgust of his family, his girlfriend, and his ancestral manor.