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.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

OPERA LAFAYETTE DELIVERS

Sophie Junker and Amel Brahim-Djelloul (photo by Louis Forget)





Count on the highly regarded Opera Lafayette to deliver an early Valentine to the people of New York. Better than a dozen red roses and one of the sweetest confections imaginable, their production of Emmanuel Chabrier's Une Éducation Manquée delighted both eye and ear. Not quite an opera but reminiscent of a German singspiel or a Spanish zarzuela, the work is a slim 35 minute work, barely more than a skit.  But oh what a skit it is! And it found the perfect home in the comfortable theater of the French Institute Alliance Francaise, always willing to foster French culture.

You may be wondering how one gets an audience member to fork over the considerable cost of a ticket for such a brief entertainment. Wonder no longer. The astute direction of Bernard Deletré (also a singer and actor) expanded the tale of two naïfs unable to consummate their marriage by means of a prologue showing their earlier education, the education that was so incomplete.

On one side of the stage we had Hélène de la Cerisale (played by various female children) being sung and read to by her maiden aunt (played by Sophie Junker who would later take the role of the 16-year-old bride). On the other side of the stage we had Gontran de Boismassif (portrayed by various male children) being instructed by his cleric/tutor Maitre Pausanias (sung by Dominique Côté). The children are shown sequentially at 6 months of age, 6 years, and 12 years.

These brief scenes told us all we need to know about childhood education in France when the Royalists of the Second Empire were in charge.  It wasn't too far from the goals of the present day Republican Religious Right--obedience and traditionalism.  Au contraire, the Republicans of the late 19th c. (the Third Republic) were fighting for free public education for both genders and for removing public instruction from the hands of the Catholic Church. Sounds like the secular Democratic agenda of today!

It was in this contentious environment that Chabrier's librettists (Eugène Letterier and Albert Vanloo) wrote this seeming piece of fluff, demonstrating their progressive position by satirizing their opponents. Sometimes the best way to get one's point across is with humor. The satire is pointed but never nasty.

For the story, Chabrier wrote the most delicious melodies that are instantly accessible without being at all trite. The work is within the tradition of opéra bouffe and was presented in 1879 at the Cercle International, a club where illegal gambling was tolerated. The songs that were used by Opera Lafayette to pad out the opera are settings of texts by one Edmond Rostand. They are about animals (ducks, pigs, cicadas, chickens, and a tortoise)--Chabrier's very own "Carnival of the Animals". To these songs he brought interesting harmonies and lavishly applied coloring. The song about the rooster and the hen was particularly entertaining.

As to the story of the work itself, it is a simple one. Gontran and Hélène are newlyweds and totally ignorant about sex. They are simply at loose ends. Gontran would consult his tutor Pausanias but the tipsy cleric knows nothing. A letter from Gontran's grandfather is likewise unhelpful.  Hélène's maiden aunt similarly knows nothing.  She just advises her niece to be kind and obedient.

It is only a thunderstorm that drives the bride into the arms of the groom where nature can take her dependable course!

Chabrier made sure that his performers were as skilled at acting as they were at singing; Opera Lafayette has done the same. Ms. Junker and Ms. Brahim-Djelloul, in addition to having fine voices and musical instincts, are brilliant comic actors, making the innocence of their characters appealing rather than appalling. Baritone Dominique Cöté was the perfect representation of a bibulous tutor.

Artistic Director Ryan Brown conducted the work with panache and Jeffery Watson tickled our ears with his piano. Costumes by Patricia Forelle were original and colorful. She chose to make them amusing and stylish, rather than scrupulous to the period. Lighting was by Colin K. Bills.

Elaborate sets would have been a distraction.  Instead we had table and chairs and tons of books representing Gontran's extensive book learning. The patter song in which Pausanias lists all the disciplines he has inculcated into his student's brain was particularly fine.

We can scarcely wait for Opera Lafayette's return on May 1st when they will present three dramatic scenes referencing the French Revolution. Their work is always intertaining and impeccably done.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, February 6, 2016

PAINTING THE PICTURE AND TELLING THE TALE

John Brancy and Peter Dugan

What does one say when one has run out of superlatives? The recital we heard last night at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall set the bar really high for a song recital.  As many superb recitals as we have seen this season, nothing approached the musicianship, artistry, and dramatic intensity of this one. We have followed the careers of baritone John Brancy and pianist Peter Dugan for several years and have seen them fulfill their initial promise.  We can think of no greater thrill.

One of the features that ensured the success of the recital was the flow of collaboration between the two artists. Although we are sure that a lot of hard work went into the planning and execution of the recital, the overall effect was one of naturalness and ease. We don't often get to hear recitals with a compelling theme, so the selection of "Fantasy" as a theme struck us as original and compelling.

There be fairytales, there be dragons, there be princesses in towers, there be elves and dwarves, there be satyrs, nymphs, nixen und hexen. Subjects of the texts meet their ends in horrifying and grisly ways. For two hours we were transported to a strange world that was immortalized by all the great composers. The first half of the program comprised lieder that were totally familiar to any recital goer.

Schumann's "Aus alten Märchen" was the introductory piece and it set the stage perfectly for what was to follow. Texts for the five songs in the Schumann set used texts by the young composer's favorite poets--Heinrich Heine and Joseph von Eichendorff. Of the five songs, our favorite was "Waldesgespräch"in which the courtly speech of the rider is hiding some not-so-courtly intentions; he is quickly dispatched by the Hexe Lorelei.

The set of lieder by Schubert was equally impressive with his debut entry as a teenage lieder komponist--"Erlkönig" with text by Goethe--being our favorite.  In this case, the tragic death belonged to a small child with the perpetrator being the nasty and seductive king of the elves. From both pianistic and vocal standpoints, this was an incomparable performance.

The entire first half of the program was marked by intensely dramatic storytelling. Neither artist has the slightest reservation about using every color on his palette. Both of them seemed completely immersed in the texts, drawing us into their fantasy world.

If we had one tiny suggestion for Mr. Brancy to take his performance from a 99 to 100, it would be to allow a different color in his voice for the Hexe in "Waldesgespräch", perhaps a more feminine tone, and a more feeble color for the sickly child in "Erlkönig".  Clearly his resonant and firmly grounded baritone is more comfortable in the parts of the rider in the first piece and the narrator, father, and Elfking in the second. But we longed for a bit more contrast.

The passionate piano playing could not have been improved and swept us along in a tide of excitement and wonder. In a most welcome addition, Mr. Dugan performed two solos in the second half of the program.

He played Debussy's "Pour invoquer Pan" from Six épigraphes antiques, reduced from the original flutes, harps, and celesta, all of which we could hear in the piano. The notes and their overtones seemed to hang in the air.  But it was his arrangement of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Peer Gynt that brought down the house. We have never heard the like! The house was electrified. Abrupt changes from major to minor and the rumbling in the lower reaches of the piano were unsettling.

The artistic coupling continued to delight and mystify throughout the second half of the program with songs by Debussy, Fauré, Grieg, and Sibelius.  Only "Le tombeau des naïades" from Chansons de Bilitis was familiar, although we have never heard it sung by a man. What a treat to hear a song by Sibelius sung in Finnish, strange and beautiful to the ear. In Grieg's "Prinsessen" we could hear the sweet song of the boy playing the horn.

We even enjoyed the songs in English, due to Mr. Brancy's impeccable diction.  Not a word was lost! We loved David Long's setting of "Misty Mountains" (text by Tolkien) in which the simple melody and strophic organization were given a variety of moods in the artists' own arrangement.

Britten's arrangement of a French folk song "The king is gone a hunting" was delightful.  The English language lends itself so well to short punchy phrases that rhyme and scan.

Wolseley Charles' amusing "The Green Eyed Dragon" allowed Mr. Brancy to give full rein to his storytelling skills and was pure delight.

The welcome encore was "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha by Joe Darion/Mitch Leigh.  It is obvious that all of Mr. Dugan's and Mr. Brancy's dreams are more than possible! It was the perfect end to a stunning recital. The thunderous applause and the standing ovation were well deserved.

The two artists are far more than collaborators on vocal recitals. They both have impressive international careers in many aspects of their art. Clearly, their experience in the art of opera and cabaret and collaboration with other artists has informed their artistry. Still, if we had no knowledge or experience of their diverse talents, if this recital were all we had to go on, we would still select them as stars of the musical firmament. If the recital were repeated today we would be there. They left us satisfied but somehow wanting more.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, January 30, 2016

OPERA NEW YORK GOES CABARET

Robert Garner and Percy Martinez

We enjoyed Tuesday night's cabaret evening at the Metropolitan Room so much that we returned on Thursday.  The program was largely the same and we refer you to the previous review for details. Here we will focus on the new addition to the program, baritone Robert Garner whom we enjoyed so much in Amore Opera's La Bohème (review archived).

We never tire of Figaro's aria from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia. Mr. Garner filled it with color and personality, especially limning the contrast between the services Figaro provides for "le donnette" and those he provides for "i cavalieri". It was an expansive delivery and the rapid patter passages were delivered with panache. He excelled as Rigoletto in the tragic final quartet from Verdi's masterpiece.

From Bizet's Les pecheurs du perles, he sang "Au fond du temple saint", a duet with tenor Percy Martinez; it was a thing of beauty. He has a special flair for French and a special affection for Bizet, as heard in his performance of the Toreador Song from Carmen.  He had just the right self-important air and used his red jacket as a cape.  The low notes were strong and sturdy.

We hope he performs again with this terrific group of singers assembled by Judith Fredricks, Founder and Artistic Director of Opera New York.

Stay tuned for information on their appearance in a festival of cabaret on Feb. 20th. also at the Metropolitan Room.

(c) meche kroop

MAHLER AND MORE AT JUILLIARD

Jinhee Park, Ava Nazar, Theo Hoffman, Samuel Levine, Kelsey Lauritano, Fan Jia, Ho Jae Lee, and Erika Switzer

Thursday's Liederabend at Juilliard, coached by Erika Switzer, was a stunning event offering multiple delights. We feel compelled to begin at the end, at which point baritone Theo Hoffman's performance of Viktor Ullmann's "Abendphantasie" segued directly into Gustav Mahler's lied "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen".  It was the only piece on the program that we know well and we seemed to be greeting an old friend who never looked so fine.

Mr. Hoffman is a consummate artist and his depth of understanding of the text revealed to us, in a new and profound way, the very particular situation of the creative artist and his need for solitude. We felt as if Mahler himself had taken the stage and was telling us about his creative passion. The melody and harmony are exquisite and collaborative pianist Ho Jae Lee captured the nuances as effectively as Mr. Hoffman. Had we trekked up to Juilliard and heard that one song we would have been satisfied.

The remainder of the program was unfamiliar and seemed challenging for the artists and the audience. We asked tenor Samuel Levine about the difficulty of performing the 20th c. Five Sonette an Orpheus by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. To us, the vocal line seemed abstract but Mr. Levine was very comfortable with the work and knew it well.

He employed multiple colors in his voice.  We preferred the gentle "Und fast ein Mädchen wars" and the somewhat more melodic "Errichtet keinen Denkstein".  Jinhee Park was Mr. Levine's piano partner. We may never have another opportunity to hear this cycle of songs and were happy for the experience although they will never be among our favorites.

The remainder of the program comprised two cycles by Poulenc. Baritone Fan Jia, accompanied by CP Kathryn Felt, created his own art gallery with Le travail du peintre, in which Paul Eluard's text was brought to life. We couldn't help thinking of Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, since the text described paintings by seven 20th c. painters.

It came as no surprise that our favorite chanson was the one about Marc Chagall who is our favorite modern painter. In line with the playful surrealism of the artwork, Poulenc's music and Eluard's text were equally playful, as was Mr. Jia's delivery. He has a muscular baritone which he modulated dynamically to suit each piece, be it playful or serious, quiet or vigorous.

Mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano performed Poulenc's "Poèmes de Ronsard". She is one of those singers who excels at storytelling. She was frisky in "Attributs", relating what is sacred to each of the goddesses. We enjoyed Ava Nazar's syncopated piano in "Le tombeau". But our favorite part was a song that we are sure Ms. Lauritano favors above the others--"Ballet". Her personality just shone.

Happily, everyone's French and German were both excellent and performances were so polished that no one's technique called attention away from the music, which was well served by everyone.

But it's the Mahler we can't get out of our mind and our ears.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

FROM THE MET TO THE METROPOLITAN

Veronica Loiacono, Elena Heimur, Roberto Borgatti, and Jodi Karem

We didn't expect opera to go so well in a cabaret setting but last night was our second such adventure and we are happy to report that in the right hands it goes very well.  The right hands belong to impressario/singer/teacher/coach Judith Fredricks who created the show at the Metropolitan Room on W. 22nd St. By the time you get to the end of the review, you will probably want to attend the show on Thursday evening if you are lucky enough to snag a table.

The room was packed last night and the audience was as good as the singers. In spite of the imbibing of alcoholic libations, the audience was absolutely silent until the end of each aria (or duet or ensemble), bursting into wild whoops and applause at the appropriate time.  We do not know whether the audience comprised seasoned opera goers searching for more intimacy of presentation or cabaret folks new to opera.

Host for the evening was Broadway's own Jason Graae who introduced each number and told a bit of the backstory. He also sang the role of Papageno in the second act duet from Mozart's Magic Flute (in English) with lovely soprano Veronica Loiacono as his Papagena.  Moreover, he accompanied several pieces on the oboe! His introductory number was "Wilkommen! Bienvenu!" from Cabaret.

If there were any skeptics in the audience they must have been immediately won over by "Sous le dome épais" (The Flower Song) from Leo Delibes' Lakme. Soprano Elena Heimur and mezzo Jodi Karem had lovely chemistry together (eye contact!) and balanced their voices perfectly in Delibes' winning harmonies.

Tenor Edgar Jaramillo gave a moving account of "Federico's Lament" from Cilea's L'Arlesiana that brought us to the edge of tears.

Ms. Loiacono has just the right coquettish looks and coloratura skills to be a most convincing Rosina in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Her performance of "Una voce poco fa" included wild flights of fioritura that we so love.

Ms. Karem's dusky mezzo could have seduced tenor Percy Martinez' Samson even if she were not as beautiful as she is.  This Delilah was a double threat as she sang "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix", from the Saint-Saëns opera.

Ms. Heimur's generous soprano filled up "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" from Puccini's La Rondine and did so in a most moving manner.

The final tragic quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto was well handled by Ms. Loiacono as the doomed Gilda, baritone Roberto Borgatti as the eponymous Rigoletto, Ms. Karem as Maddalena, and (surprise!) the very sweet voiced Mr. Jaramillo playing the wicked two-timing Duke. It's a big challenge for him to portray a slimeball!

Mr. Martinez distinguished himself as Canio in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. His "Vesti la giubba" was deeply moving and succeeded in evoking sympathy for the character.

The second scene of Puccini's La Bohème involves Musetta making a big show of herself in "Quando m'en vo" while the other Bohemians are sitting at a table. The scene was well staged by Ms. Fredricks and superbly sung by Ms. Heimur who let out all the stops. Mr. Graae hammed it up as her elderly admirer.

Mr. Martinez and Mr. Borgatti tackled "Si, pel ciel" from Verdi's Otello and nailed it. Mr. Borgatti had to trick Mr. Martinez into believing that his beloved Desdemona was unfaithful.  Another slimeball role, but well done.

A scene from Bizet's Carmen starred Mr. Borgatti in the Toreador song and Ms. Karem as Carmen. Ms. Heimur and Ms. Loiacono (as Mercedes and Frasquita) flirted madly with him. Ms. Karem's Carmen was as superbly seductive as her Delilah and she accompanied herself on the castanets in the "Gypsy Song".  

We were totally satisfied with the evening but there was one more aria coming--Mr. Jaramillo gave us a fine Calaf singing "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot, and drove the audience wild.  He has a generosity of spirit when he sings and can achieve volume at the upper end of the register without tightening his throat.  A real pleasure to hear!

Accompanist and Music Director for the evening was Michael Pilafian who got everything just right.

We have heard all of these singers before and they just keep getting better and better. Thursday's program will have someone new on board and some alterations in the program. If we can shift things around we will go again. Opera and cabaret could be a match made in heaven. Exploring new venues and new audiences need never involve a sacrifice of quality.

(c) meche kroop




Tuesday, January 26, 2016

GIANANDREA NOSEDA CONDUCTS JUILLIARD ORCHESTRA

Concertmaster Kevin Chen and Maestro Gianandrea Noseda

It's some state of affairs when the Juilliard Orchestra sounds much better than the New York Philharmonic! We don't know why but perhaps it has something to do with youthful enthusiasm and dedication pitted against middle-aged boredom.  Perhaps it has something to do with the students being exposed to different conductors and learning from each.

In any event, the young instrumentalists gave Maestro Gianandrea Noseda exactly what he asked for.  And ask he did! Among so many varied styles of conducting, we give Maestro Noseda the Terpsichorean Prize. He uses his entire body and uses it dramatically to elicit the passion that he wants from his players.

Last night's program at Alice Tully Hall opened with Sinfonia, the overture to a 1932 opera entitled La donna serpente; we have never heard this opera and probably never will but we were happy to hear the overture.  It's a vigorous work that opened with a strong initial attack. There was a sprightly theme in the brass and another theme introduced by the woodwinds. Percussion was there for emphasis and the entire work involved an interesting harmonic language. Our companion heard echoes of Stravinsky.

Second on the program was the expansive 1909 Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor by Rachmaninoff, known as "Rach 3". The orchestra played well but the work never quite came together as the piano soloist Colton Peltier seemed to be rushing through the highly challenging piano part, not giving the work a chance to breathe. The romantic sweep somehow got lost.

The final work on the program was Schumann's 1845 Symphony No. 2 in C major, an idiosyncratic work that provided much aural delight. We were particularly fond of the Scherzo in which we heard echoes of Mendelssohn and several changes of mood that reminded us of the concept of following an aria with a cabaletta.

Most affecting was the third movement, an Adagio filled with lyricism and sorrow. There were horn calls throughout the work which lent unity.  The final movement was forceful and a contrast with the Adagio.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, January 25, 2016

A RISING STAR UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Martin Katz and Leah Crocetto

We were thrilled to have the opportunity to experience the auspicious New York recital debut of soprano Leah Crocetto-- up close and personal.  We have not seen this glorious rising star since August of 2014 when we thrilled to her performance in Rossini's Maometto II at the Santa Fe Opera (review archived and available by means of the "search" bar). 

The Schimmel Center at Pace University is not easy to get to from the Upper West Side but it was well worth the travel. We had a completely different experience of this gifted singer in a space that manages to be capacious but also intimate.

We had planned to use all the information gleaned from the week of master classes we attended but the experience of the recital was so absorbing that we forgot everything but the intense pleasure of listening and hearing.  Ms. Crocetto's voice, both powerful and soothing, envelops one like a warm embrace.  The sound is ample but especially so at the upper register when it opens up like a parasol.

Her stage presence is relaxed and compelling. She has arms as graceful as a ballet dancer and uses them expressively. Her onstage ease just pulls you into her world. Her connection with the text allows you to see through her eyes.

How many singers could open a program with a set of Strauss songs? With absolute confidence, she sailed into "Zueignung" letting her voice swell to a stunning climax. We loved her interpretation of "Die Nacht" in which she took some highly expressive breaths. In "Morgen" we noticed the way she caressed each word.  She finished with the passionate "Cäcilie". We heard these songs coached all last week but we seemed to be really hearing them for the first time yesterday.

It was no challenge for Ms. Crocetto to shift gears into some fine French for a quartet of chansons by Henri Duparc, each one a gem. Her legato is so fine that the feeling carried right through the silences. So this is what is meant by "long lines"! We particularly enjoyed the delicacy of "Extase" and the intensity of "L'invitation au voyage". We heard all the colors of the rainbow.

Her performance of three songs by Lizst came as a complete surprise. We are accustomed to hearing "Pace non trovo" sung by a man and sung often in master classes in which a lot of improvements are proposed. Yesterday not a single note needed improvement. Her interpretation of this tale of obsessive love was completely convincing. "I vidi in terra" permitted a different color and a sweetness of tone.

The second half of the program began with an aria from the aforementioned Maometto II which allowed her to show off her coloratura skills and evoked pleasant memories of her Santa Fe performance as Anna.

In three Barber songs her English was totally clear but we preferred the aria "Ain't it a Pretty Night" from Carlisle Floyd's Susanna.

In the Cole Porter set we realized that American song can compete with lied and chanson, without apology. We do not have to set them apart as "cabaret". Sung without amplification, they surely belong in any singer's repertoire, if they can sing them as well as Ms. Crocetto did. We have Steven Blier to thank for opening our ears on this point!

Our rapt attention won us two encores and they were not "throw away" pieces. We heard "Somewhere" from Bernstein's West Side Story, followed by "Il bel sogno di Doretta" from Puccini's Rondine.

The esteemed Martin Katz was her collaborative pianist. We will think of this recital as a yardstick against which all future recitals will be measured.

(c) meche kroop