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, September 28, 2015


Miriam Leskis and Raehann Bryce-Davis

The title of this review comes from an Amy Beach song brought to life by the glorious mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis. The words, penned by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, seemed to have been written with someone just like Ms. Bryce-Davis in mind. Not only does her singing contain her entire heart but a great deal of soul as well. Last night's recital at the National Opera Center was glorious.

Ms. Beach's songs are lyrically melodic; she is one of the few American composers who knew how to choose poetry and how to amplify and enhance it.  Ms. Bryce-Davis sang the selections with impressive intensity, making each word count. Her English diction is faultless. Her instrument is a large and generous one with a most appealing vibrato.

The second set comprised a cycle of songs by Dominick Argento, settings of entries From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, entries from the period between the two World Wars. We would have no desire to read the ramblings of a disordered mind, nor could we imagine setting such stuff to music, but Ms. Bryce-Davis is such a compelling storyteller that we listened with rapt attention. We couldn't help but wondering if any operas contain mad scenes for mezzos! There surely must be something like that in the singer's future.

The second half of the program was far more in line with our taste.  We generally think of sopranos when we think of Richard Strauss' songs but this artist's special sound, along with her vitality and commitment, made them new again.  We always love "Heimliche Aufforderung, Op. 27, No. 3" as it speaks to a secret meeting between familiar lovers. "Zueignung, Op. 10, No. 1" is a tribute to the benefits of love and always makes us smile. Need we mention that the artist's German was crisp and clear?

Regular readers will recall how taken we are with zarzuela and will understand how delighted we were by the two which Ms. Bryce-Davis sang last night. First she sang Concha's song "De España Venga" from Pablo Luna's early 20th c. zarzuela El Niño Judío; she sang it with passion and pride in perfect Spanish.

The other selection was "Maria La O" from Ernesto Lecuona's zarzuela of the same name. This Cuban work from 1930 involves a young mulata  who refuses to accept the second-class status of a mistress, and rebels against the racial and gender politics of the times. Ms. Bryce-Davis made me want to see the entire work performed. 

The set with which the artist closed the evening comprised two spirituals from Jamaica, her parents' homeland. Part of "No Dark There" was sung a capella and then piano partner Miriam Leskis, who had contributed so much support for the evening, joined the singer for some good rousing music with a Caribbean beat. "Dis is My Word" was sung in dialect and was marked by touches of humor.

As encore, we heard "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands". Let's see what He has in store for the amazing Ms. Bryce-Davis. We foresee a magnificent future.

(c) meche kroop


Kristina Malinauskaite and Michael Celentano

Although departing early from Verdi's masterpiece La Traviata in the middle of Act II seemed like a dreadful deprivation, in a sense it allowed us to retain the image of a happy love affair that just might possibly work out once Germont père was mollified. Our early departure was not due to any disappointment but rather due to a prior reviewing commitment. Still, we were not going to miss the opportunity to hear soprano Kristina Malinauskaite sing the title role.

Everything was there in the performance--the dignified bearing, the depth of feeling, the brilliant upper register, and above all, the ability to convey the conflict between the high life and the love life.  "È strano....fors'è lui" followed by the cabaletta "Sempre libera" illustrated this very effectively. Ms. Malinauskaite had exemplary control over the dynamics and produced a well modulated portamento.

Her duet with Alfredo, portrayed by the appealing tenor Michael Celentano, was quite lovely.  Mr. Celentano must be commended for singing off the book, which helped enormously in his connection with the audience. When the divine Ms. M. was off the book, she too grew in connection.

We also liked mezzo-soprano Christine Duncan as Flora, Violetta's friend and fellow party girl.

In Act II we got to hear baritone Robert Heepyoung-Oh as Giorgio Germont in "Pura siccome un angelo". His is a large and substantial sound and his formal demeanor was just right for the role. His duet with Ms. Malinauskaite "Dite a la giovine" was excellent.

Although the chorus sang well as a unit, some of the voices used in smaller roles did not project well.

Artistic Director of West Side Opera Society David Clenny provided the accompaniment for this semi-staged performance. We barely noticed the lack of a stage set.  It's all about the voices, right?

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, September 26, 2015


Harrison Miller and Nicholas McGegan  

We've had our ear on you, bassoon. We had you figured for the class clown.  But last night at Juilliard we saw you a new light. You're really a rather romantic figure with a lot to say. I guess we missed getting to know you better because you hang out with those Baroque guys. But joining the Classical group gave us an opportunity to get to know you better and we want to hear more of you!

Mozart wrote his Concerto for Bassoon in the congenial key of B-flat Major, K. 191 when he was but 18 years old. And bassoonist Harrison Miller is not that much older than that but seems to have mastered the very special idiosyncrasy of the instrument. We are not sure for whom the concerto was written in 1774 but it may as well have been written for Mr. Miller.

For much of the concerto, we experienced the bassoon as a sheep gamboling across a meadow of strings. Wide leaps and clearly articulated scale passages and trills sent thrills up and down our spine. The solo unaccompanied cadenza at the conclusion of the first movement was riveting; it seemed like someone telling their entire life story. The Andante seemed like an operatic aria with an outpouring of affection and devotion.

The remainder of the evening's program left nothing to be desired. We are not among those who crave the new and different; on the contrary we love the "war horses". There is a reason why some music has endured for centuries; it touches the heart and soothes the ear.  Life today has enough anxiety and sufficient challenges!

We were ready to cut the young musicians of the Juilliard Orchestra some slack since it is just the beginning of the semester; this was unnecessary. Under the guidance of Maestro Nicholas McGegan, they came together as a unit and did as well with the Beethoven as they did with the Mozart

Maestro McGegan is a no nonsense conductor; we would call him expressive rather than theatrical.  He pointed his finger, he waggled his hands, he wind-milled his arms, he stamped and he stooped and jumped up and down. None of this was self-serving; all of it was designed to pull the performance he wanted from the orchestra. The end result was he got what he asked for.

Mozart's Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385, is affectionately called the "Haffner" since it was a reworking of a Serenade he wrote for the installation ceremony of a friend of his father who was elevated to the nobility. There is a vigorous opening movement followed by a serene and lyrical Andante with a recurring theme alternating with marcato passages in the strings. The Menuetto is stately yet rustic and employs rhythm in much the same manner as Beethoven's music.

And Beethoven did appear for the second half of the evening, in the marvelous Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, known as the "Pastoral". We are not in agreement with critics of the time who criticized it for not breaking new ground.

We don't care one bit if it is "programmatic". If you want to hear birds singing or volcanoes erupting, that is your privilege. For our purposes we are happy to know that Beethoven visualized a day in the country and we did hear the birds. The storm was unmistakable with dramatic peals of thunder in the tympani. We particularly loved the way Maestro McGegan shaped the phrases of the Allegro by knitting together short motivi.

That's the great thing about a "bread and butter" program. One hears new things in old works and comes to love them even more.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, September 25, 2015


David Tayloe

Last night at the National Opera Center we were held in rapt attention as tenor David Tayloe gave a superlative performance of Schubert's Winterreise. It just so happens that the artist's favorite song cycle is our own favorite as well. There is no piece of vocal music to which we would rather listen and none which stands up as well to repeated hearings. There is always something new to discover. 

At the very height of his songwriting powers, Schubert took the 24 poems of Wilhelm Müller, describing a young man's descent into madness, and made magic with his melodies and harmonies. Mr. Tayloe made even more magic as he sang them.

We are not literary critics so all we can say is that the text rhymes and scans, which we consider basic minimum requirements. Making good use of metaphor and symbolism, the poems narrate the journey of a young man, rejected in love, who wanders a snowy icy landscape, . As a young man's story, we love to hear it sung by a young man.

The hero is drowning in misery and self-pity and yet we never condescend to him. Who has not suffered the loss of love! Schubert, Müller and Tayloe took the specific and made it universal so we could all share the sorrow in its many colors--nostalgia, bitterness, grief, longing, false hope, despair, isolation, and hopelessness.  

Schubert's writing is magnificently varied and intense, giving each of the 24 verses a different mood, by virtue of changes of key, rhythm, tonality and color. Many of the songs can stand alone and would be a fine addition to any recital.  But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

There are personal and symbolic relationships to various man-made, natural, and super-natural elements which Mr. Tayloe, aided by the superb piano partnership of Alan Johnson, made quite clear--the weathervane, the signpost, the crow, the frozen brook, the linden tree, the frost--all are painted in vivid colors.

It is a formidable task to learn the 80 or so minutes of music and there are many singers who wouldn't consider approaching it.  Yet Mr. Tayloe not only approached it but he mastered it, giving himself over to the text and the music. He took the journey and he invited us to come along. No doubt the studying and rehearsing took a great deal of time and effort but he made it feel spontaneous.  Quite an achievement!

Mr. Tayloe's technique was terrific but could easily go unnoticed as one tended to focus on the emotional content.  Still, we noticed that his German diction was fine, and the quality of his instrument sweet with a touch of the Irish tenor in it. At times the suspenseful quality was enhanced by a bit of rubato which left phrases suspended in mid-air. Finally, we appreciate that his voice was perfectly scaled to the size and acoustic qualities of the hall. It is an intimate cycle and it felt exactly right.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Christopher Reynolds and Christopher Dylan Herbert

There was a great deal to admire in baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert's doctoral recital at Juilliard; there wasn't much to enjoy.  There we said it! We have probably made ourself out to be of philistine taste. The story we are telling ourself is that this gifted artist was bored with the standard repertory, not having found sufficient challenge therein. So, as the scholar he is, he had to dig deeply for some obscure material that would provide the challenge he needed. That is our story.

Consequently, he constructed a program that was difficult to learn and difficult to interpret and very difficult to listen to.  Apparently Benjamin Britten, of whom we have been hearing a great deal lately, perceived the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake as an exercise in serialism. The program contained a great deal of academic information on 12-tone rows that went way over our head.

We listen to music for sensual pleasure or to access deep feeling, which we did not get from most of the program, not from the Britten, not from the Whitman Songs by Laura Kaminsky, not from the ugliness of War Scenes by Ned Rorem, not even from Bernstein's "To What You Said..." from his Songfest.

It was only at the end when Mr. Herbert performed All the Way Through Evening that we were able to enjoy our sad feelings. The cycle by Chris DeBlasio is a setting of poetry by Perry Brass and relates to the AIDS crisis and death. The sorrow of those losses relate on a very personal level which, paradoxically, becomes universal.

Part of the grief we felt at the recital was for the loss of the composer who died too young. His music is sensitive and beautiful and illumined Mr. Brass' wonderful poetry. And Mr. Herbert's vocal and interpretive artistry could finally be appreciated. We were glad we "stuck it out" for those special moments.

Needless to say, Christopher Reynolds turned in his usual powerful performance on the piano and there was a lovely contribution from cellist Hélène Werner.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, September 21, 2015


Giulio Gari Foundation Competition Winners

The Giulio Gari Foundation was inspired by Mr. Gari's success as a human being and as an artist who sang all over the world and later taught the younger generation. Stephen DeMaio and Licia Albanese joined forces to ensure that his legacy survives and that young singers get the encouragement they need.

To a young singer the encouragement and performance opportunities, not to mention cash awards, are motivating factors to enter competitions and one tends to hear the same voices from one competition to the next. It is interesting how consistent are the judges choices. Artistry will not be denied!

Yesterday at the New York Athletic Club, we had the pleasure of seeing and hearing thirteen emerging artists.  Of course, in the remainder of the world, these "youngsters" are already singing roles both major and minor in major and minor opera houses. If we lived elsewhere, we would be among the audiences happy to pay to hear them. But here in New York they are still considered "young artists" regardless of their artistic maturity.

We were in complete agreement with the judges choices and only a bit regretful that some of the major winners, like baritone Takaoki Onishi and tenor Andrew Stenson, were unable to attend due to contract commitments. But that's the whole point--to give their careers a boost and to get them in front of the public.

That being said, the singers who did appear were uniformly excellent and the audience, many of whom were prominent personages on Planet Opera, was profoundly stirred by the presence of so much talent.

We will not here disclose the prize level of the various participants. Nor will we discuss how many prizes they have won at other foundations, information that is available in the program. Rather, we prefer to focus on the singers who won our heart and made us want to hear more.

J'nai Bridges always astonishes us with her dark smoky mezzo-soprano and the depth of connection with what she is performing.  Yesterday, her rendition of the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen pulled us right into Seville. Perfect French, perfect phrasing, and a special way of connecting with the audience made us eager to hear her perform the entire role.

Soprano Vanessa Vasquez is new to us and we absolutely cannot wait to hear more of her. She is a born storyteller and brought "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" from Puccini's La Rondine to vivid life. She did it with charm and beautifully shaped phrases and brilliant tone.

The small stage was overwhelmed with testosterone as baritone Jared Bybee and bass-baritone Andre Courville joined voices for "Suoni la tromba" from Bellini's I Puritani. We loved the energy they produced together and the way their voices blended in Bellini's gorgeous harmonies.

We do love us some harmony and "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet's Pearl Fishers is so popular that it takes special talent to bring something new to the duet. Yi Li's tenor and Szymon Komasa' baritone were just what was needed. One could actually visualize the object of their obsession off in the distance! It was particularly gracious of Mr. Komasa to appear since he was fresh off a transatlantic flight. The pair could serenade me with this duet anytime!

We have reviewed Jamez McCorkle as a baritone on prior occasions and were a bit surprised to hear him sing as a tenor. Although the switch was recent, he sounded exceptionally comfortable in that fach and "Questa o quella" from Verdi's Rigoletto was delivered with style and secure sound. His risk surely paid off!

Soprano Heather Phillips had delighted us in Santa Fe this summer and we were happy to hear her do justice to "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's Louise.  We liked her dynamic variety, her soaring phrases, and especially the way she spun out the final note.

Another singer we enjoyed in Santa Fe was tenor Galeano Salas and it was wonderful to hear him romancing soprano Raquel Suarez Groen in "O soave fanciulla" from Puccini's La Boheme. She has a lovely vibrato and he has a generous sound that made the duet a complete delight.

Tenor Dominick Chenes has a voice of substantial size that was just right for "Recondita Armonia" from Puccini's Tosca. He has a tendency to "sing to the balcony" and we badly wanted him to lower his head and make contact with the audience.

Baritone Jeffrey Hoos exhibited some rich sonorities in "Oh du mein holder Abendstern" from Wagner's Tannhäuser. We liked his German diction. He never cheated a consonant but still managed to maintain a legato feeling.

We had heard tenor Alasdair Kent before as part of Prelude to Performance and were pleased to hear him in much better voice yesterday as he sang "Dal labbro il canto" Fenton's gorgeous aria from Verdi's Falstaff. It was romantic and heartfelt and his diminuendo to a pianissimo was stunning.

Finally, mezzo-soprano Cynthia Cook sang the "Seguidilla" from Bizet's Carmen in lovely French. Her Carmen was a perhaps a bit more coy than dangerous!

As usual, excellent accompaniment was provided by Arlene Shrut and Jonathan Kelly.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Ben Cohen, Devony Smith, Hanne Dollase, Eldric Bashful, Gary Slavin, William Remmers, Mary-Hollis Hundley, Elizabeth Bouk, Stan Lacy

Maestro William Remmers is game to tackle any opera for which his audience votes. That is one of the unique qualities of Utopia Opera. We have certainly thrown some curve balls at him but he always hits them.  With Benjamin Britten's Rape of Lucretia, he hit it out of the park.

This is not an easy opera to love. The story is both brutal and tragic. The victim Lucretia, suffering from a combination of shame and guilt, pays the dramatic price by stabbing herself. We live in a world containing places where women are killed because of such loss of honor.  But Britten's librettist Ronald Duncan examines the story from the perspective of mid-20th c. Christianity.  In 21st c. New York City it carries an unsettling confrontational load, making us aware of that which we would avoid.

The work itself is largely declamatory with no beautiful arias to comfort us. The music is dissonant and perturbing, although powerful in its effect. However, there are moments of great beauty elicited by Mr. Remmers astute conducting of his 13-piece chamber orchestra. Tomina Parvanova's harp shimmers as Lucretia enters. There are some stunning harmonies in a duet of bass clarinet (Jeffrey Hodes) and horn (Brad Shaw).

Serving as narrators and guides for the audience are tenor Eldric Bashful, whose readings were as dramatic as his singing was lovely, and soprano Mary-Hollis Hundley, whose richly timbred instrument delighted us at the George London Competition.

As the eponymous Lucretia, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bouk made a noble but vulnerable heroine. We have been seeing a lot of this rising star lately--not only as a Utopia Opera regular, but also at Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble. Her voice and acting are equally impressive.

As her two servants, the old nurse Bianca (mezzo-soprano Hanne Dollase) and the maid Lucia (soprano Devony Smith) made significant contributions to the evening's success. Their trio with Ms. Bouk in Act I and their "flower" duet in Act II provided some of the lovelier vocal sounds.

As the despised libertine Etruscan Prince Tarquinius, baritone Stan Lacy created a loathsome character who despises the whores he can have so easily and is stimulated by the thought of taking the only faithful wife in Rome. The rape scene was superbly staged by Director Gary Slavin, as was the rest of the opera.

The Prince kisses the sleeping Lucretia who is dreaming of her husband Collatinus and therefore responds. Is she complicit? In 21st c. America, men have to ask permission to take liberties. In 500 B.C. one supposes that men took all the liberties they wanted since women were property.

Bass Steven Fredericks sang the role of Collatinus, a Roman general of a peaceful and forgiving nature. His fellow general Junius (baritone Ben Cohen) has a slimy nature. He is envious of Collatinus' military glory and jealous of Collatinus' successful marriage.  Spurred on by the humiliation of being cuckolded by his own wife, he manipulates Tarquinius into a midnight gallop to Rome to ravish Lucretia. Although not equal to "The Ride of the Valkyries", Britten came up with some powerful music for this episode.

The libretto is interesting for its magnificent metaphors, i.e. "Thirsty evening has drunk the wine of light". However there were times when the metaphors made no sense and seemed excessive. Great contrast was made between the creativity of women and the destructiveness of men.

Last season we enjoyed a production of this opera at Juilliard. It was powerful then and it was again last night. Part opera, part play with music, and part oratorio, the work stands up to repeat performances.

We will have to wait until December to see and hear more from Mr. Remmers when he is tackling a genre with which he is very familiar--Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida. Watch for it!

(c) meche kroop