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.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Vira Slywotzky and Jesse Blumberg
Is one allowed to have fun at a recital?  We certainly hope so. So many of them are serious affairs; we emerge feeling deeply moved (or not) but it isn't often that we leave grinning from ear to ear.  Before last night, Emmanuel Chabrier was just a blip on our radar screen but today we see him in an entirely new light, thanks to The Mirror Visions Ensemble who presented the work of Chabrier and his circle; it was a lighthearted oeuvre comprising his music (setting of texts by Verlaine and several other poets), his amusing and original letters (which were set by Christopher Berg a few years ago), and also works by Poulenc, Duparc, Chausson and D'Indy.

Chabrier, like so many gifted artists of the latter half of the 19th c., worked as a civil servant but had music as his first love.  He was a man of great wit, judging by a letter he wrote to his boss confessing that his absence from work was due to a trip to Bordeaux to realize his dream of seeing Tristan und Isolde.  This letter was set by Mr. Berg who is, like Chabrier, self-taught; his music is tuneful and nothing like the contemporary music which leaves us with clenched teeth.  Mr. Berg himself played the piano and, along with Gary Chapman, played a four-hand piano piece entitled "Souvenirs de Munich" which included themes from Tristan und Isolde but with irreverent and affectionately sacriligious variations.  The two pianists also performed Chabrier's "Cortège burlesque", a toe-tapping number that pressaged the ragtime music to come in the not-too-distant future.

A trio from Monsieur Chabrier's operetta Fisch-Ton-Kan opened the program; he and librettist Paul Verlaine were barely in their 20's yet the work is totally entertaining as brought to life by soprano Vira Slywotzky, tenor Scott Murphree and baritone Jesse Blumberg who got the chance to show off his terpsichorean skills to the delight of the audience.  All three singers had total command of this material and they closed the program with Mr. Berg's beautiful setting of M. Chabrier's letter to his wife; the phrases were eminently singable and the harmonies gorgeous.

In between we heard chansons by Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson, and Vincent D'Indy whose vocal line in "Madrigal" was beautifully sung by Ms. Slywotzky; the writing for piano was reflective of early music and simply stunning.  Chabrier, like many other composers, enjoyed writing about animals--in this case, turkeys, cicadas and ducklings--charming miniatures all.

But our favorite work of the evening was a duet entitled "Duo de l'ouvreuse de l'Opéra-Comique et de l'employé du Bon-Marché" for which M. Chabrier wrote both text and music.  Ms. S. and Mr. B. portrayed the two lovers, an usherette and a clerk, who were delighted when the Opéra burned down and the government provided a huge stipend so they could finally marry.  It was a perfect storm of singing, acting, music and text.  What fun!

©  meche kroop

Monday, October 28, 2013


Prizewinners onstage at Alice Tully Hall
The venerable Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation awarded prizes to a long list of young artists and also gave a generous gift to the opera lovers of New York--a Sunday afternoon parade of prizewinners who got onstage at Alice Tully Hall and gave their all to the grateful and appreciative audience.  Centenarian Signora Albanese came onstage to greet the audience and merited all the adulation she received, not only for her long illustrious career but also for her unstinting efforts to share her skills and wisdom with younger generations of singers.  Administrative/Artistic Director Stephen De Maio put together a superb program; Midge Woolsey hosted and contributed a great deal by giving the audience a concise explanation of the content of the aria and its place in the opera.

All of the singers performed at their peak; each voice we heard was special but a few touched us deeply. Tenor Anthony Kalil blew us away with a goose-bump inducing performance of "E lucevan le stelle" from Puccini's Tosca; he succeeded in making the aria his own.  Baritone Takaoki Onishi, who has been winning awards left and right, sang Rodrigo's arias from Verdi's Don Carlo, building from a subdued start to a smashing and powerful climax. 

We heard two superb Courtneys, both sopranos:  Courtney Mills has a sizable soprano that is very free at the top, supremely suited to "Ritorna Vincitor" from Verdi's Aida; the "junior" Courtney, still an undergraduate but with considerable promise, sang a charming duet from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia: "Dunque io son".  Her Figaro was the charming baritone Tobias Greenhalgh who captured his character's lovable wiliness.

"Oh Mimi, tu più non torni" from Puccini's La Bohème was movingly sung by tenor Aaron Blake and baritone Ricardo Rivera.  Regular readers know how much we love duets!  From the same opera we heard "O soave fanciulla" sung by soprano Marina Costa-Jackson and tenor Dominick Chenes.  Two more duets graced the program: in the "Brindisi" from Verdi's La Traviata, glamorous soprano Mary-Jane Lee sang Violetta with a lovely vibrato; her Alfredo was tenor Viktor Antipenko who has an open generous sound. The flower duet from Delibes' Lakmé is one of our favorites and Shelley Jackson's bright soprano melded beautifully with Shirin Eskandani's dark mezzo.
Soprano Jennifer Rowley has a lovely liquid sound that flows like heavy cream; she sang "Come in quest'ora bruna" from Verdi's Simon Boccanegra.  There were several fine baritones on the program with superb voices whom we will enjoy far more as they develop more contact with the audience.  With the exception of the following, all singers were accompanied by the Opera Orchestra of New York, conducted by Eve Queler.

There were also a number of performances given by recipients of Distinguished Achievement Awards.  We were most impressed by soprano Jennifer Check who has managed to lose weight without losing any of the gorgeous qualities in her voice; her "Vieni t'affretta", accompanied by Jonathan Kelly, from Verdi's Macbeth was memorable.  Kristin Chavez' "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen was steamy and involved some audience interaction; Arlene Schrut accompanied.  Eglise Guttierez sang Puccini's "Oh mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi and Ricardo Tamura sang "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's Turandot.

"Cent'anni" to Signora Albanese!  Oh wait, she already got there.  Well, here's to another century!

© meche kroop

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Katja Heuzeroth, Rebecca Spence, and Tami Swartz
Whatever type of music you enjoy, there was something on the menu to please at last night's "Over Easy" a program presented by The Production Nest Egg, established in 2006.  At the piano and at the helm is Elizabeth Hastings, well known to music lovers from the Liederkranz Opera Theatre  as well as from her conducting and harpsichord playing around the country.  She put together a delightful program of opera and operetta favorites, all by German composers, and highlighting singers we have enjoyed in the past and some new ones we hope to hear again.  Many of them were heard previously at the Liederkranz.

At the risk of leaving out some of the fine performances, we will just mention a few that impressed us, since the cast was enormous.  We got a kick out of "Oh, show us the way to the next whisky bar" from Kurt Weill's Mahagonny Songspiel, having just heard it the night before at "Baden Baden 1927"; Soprano Tami Swartz and mezzo Erika Person sounded great together and dramatic values were not neglected.  No one was credited with direction but we suspect it was Ms. Hastings herself.

Peter Kendall Clark used his ample baritone and glamorous presence to good advantage in the romantic "Just we two" from Romberg's The Student Prince with soprano Elizabeth Fagan who also did a lovely duet with Laurelyn Watson Chase in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel.  We far prefer the German but Adam Klein (appearing courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera) did a fine English translation.  His travesti performance as the Witch was a high point of the evening as he flew around the stage on a broom!

Soprano Charlotte Detrick performed the "Czárdás" from Johann Strauss, Jr.'s Die Fledermaus, demonstrating a lovely coloratura sound.  We love our Mozart and soprano Sarah Caldwell Smith and Bass Cory Clines did a swell job with "Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir" from Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  We loved the opening number from Das Rheingold "Lugt, Schwestern" (pictured above) and thought Rebecca Spence's soprano and Katja Heuzeroth's mezzo best suited the Wagnerian style.

Scenes from Oscar Straus' The Chocolate Soldier (based on the Shaw play) were admirably handled by sopranos Katie Travis and Charlotte Detrick, mezzo Alison Taylor Cheeseman,  tenor Nils Neubert, and the very funny bass Cory Clines.  Scenes from Zemire und Azor by Ludwig Spohr gave soprano Molly Davey and tenor Rogelio Peñaverde a chance to shine and shine they did.  Another lovely voice was heard when mezzo Rachel Arky performed in songs from Heinrich Marscher's Der Vampyr.  The audience favorite seemed to be the all-male ensemble "Oh the study of feminine ways" from Lehar's The Merry Widow.  

It was a splendid evening and we hope there will be many such evenings to come with operetta treated as seriously as opera.

© meche kroop

Saturday, October 26, 2013


Donata D'Annunzio Lombardi and Sean Christensen
Most master classes are both instructive and educational; they usually focus on interpretation, diction, phrasing--rarely on voice production, leaving such matters to the participants' own voice teachers.  Yesterday's master class was an exception--and it was exceptional.  Sponsored by Classic Lyric Arts which hosts programs of advanced studies in language, culture and classical repertoire in Italy and France, the class was taught by Donata D'Annunzio Lombardi, Director of Daltro Canto, dedicated to R&D of new approaches to vocal pedagogy.  The emphasis is described as "spontaneous vocal production through an understanding of energy flow and increased mind/body awareness".  Doug Han accompanied the artists.

As an observer and auditor, we noticed impressive changes in all four participants, sopranos Tamara Rusque, Elizabeth Novella and Dorothy Gal and tenor Sean Christensen.  We had never heard any of them sing beforehand but were able to compare their performance before working with Maestra Lombardi and after a half-hour of coaching.  The methods were new to us and seemed to involve a profound knowledge of anatomy and bio-energetics.  The guidance was given in Italian and translated by Glenn Morton, Artistic Director of Classic Lyric Arts.

There was some overlap but each participant was handled differently.  Signora Lombardi seemed to know exactly where each singer's tension was located and how to release it.  The entire body was brought into play, from the feet up.  There was a lot of emphasis on the spine and the hip joint.  Singing on one leg with the other swinging back and forth seemed to work wonders, as did wiggling the spine in serpentine fashion.

Much work was also done with the face.  Holding the lower lip between the fingers produced quite a difference as did wiggling the upper lip.  Who knew before today that showing the lower teeth could change the voice?  Or that the diaphragm was connected to the cervical vertebrae?  One singer was given a Ricola to hold between her back teeth.  Another interesting strategy was to bite the lower lip and vocalize.  Lacking the knowledge to understand how these strategies work we are nonetheless sure that the participants who are taking her weekend workshop will come away with a great deal of valuable knowledge.  The maestra is not only an amazing teacher but is a gifted artist herself--well known in all the famous opera houses of Italy as well as Paris, Zurich and Stuttgart.  How admirable that she is sharing her unique discoveries with the next generation.  Bravissima!

© meche kroop

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Cree Carrico and Jamison Livsey
As part of Opera America's Emerging Artist Recital Series, we heard a riveting recital by Chautauqua Operas Young Artist Recital Finalists soprano Cree Carrico and collaborative pianist Jamison Livsey.  Most vocal recitals these days are presented in a limited variety of forms.  Sometimes, the singer chooses sets of songs from a number of different composers; sometimes the focus is on one particular language; sometimes the focus is on one composer alone, as was the case with last season's Schubert&Co. recitals.  Last night's recital was unique in that the artists focused on a particular character from Shakespeare's Hamlet--Ophelia, Hamlet's abandoned love interest who drowns herself.  Indeed, the work was entitled Yesterday I stopped Killing Myself: The Ophelia Project.

We are familiar with Ms. Carrico from her performances at Manhattan School of Music as Marie-Antoinette in John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles and as Jenny in Kurt Weill's Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny.  The Ophelia Project gave her the opportunity to show completely different aspects of her many talents.  The work seemed to tackle the many colors of Ophelia's madness as interpreted by a variety of composers.

The program opened with "A vos jeux, mes amis" from Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet, a mad scene to rival that in Lucia de Lammermoor.  Ms. Carrico appeared barefoot and wild-eyed conveying the madness not just with her diamantine voice in the elaborate coloratura but with her entire body.  The intensity of the performance was overwhelming and one could absolutely not allow one's gaze to waver.  It was so convincing that we imagined Ms. C. had dredged up that pain from her own personal experience.  (We were relieved to learn that it was just good acting and that she is a happy young woman with no evidence of a broken heart or suicidal tendencies).

The remainder of the work comprised Drei Lieder der Ophelia (Op. 67) by Richard Strauss,  Jake Heggie's Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia with texts by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and songs by Ned Rorem and Sergei Rachaninoff that were pressed into service, mainly by references to flowers.  This madwoman tore flowers into shreds which she showered onto the audience, carried on with audience members, threw chairs around and interacted with Mr. Livsey who entered into the spirit of the piece.  She donned red jewelry and red patent-leather pumps, stacked red apples on chairs and delivered Ophelia's monologue into a cell phone--a jarring image and yet making fine sense of Shakespeare's text.

We liked the alteration of intense passionate songs with some quiet gentle ones.  What we missed was some rationale for dividing up the song cycles and interlacing them.  It certainly pulled the work into the realm of the avant-garde which we did not mind at all; we just wanted more of a dramatic arc that has not been made clear.  This is clearly a work in progress and as Ms. Carrico works with her director Christopher Mirto, we hope this arc of madness will emerge and give a sense of madness developing.

© meche kroop

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


HyoNa Kim (photo by Devon Cass) and Bretton Brown (photo by A. Moeller)
Our idea of a great recital isn't that different from our idea of a great meal.  Each "course" has different flavors, colors and textures; there are dishes one has never tasted before; one leaves feeling nourished and replete and yet...somehow wanting more.  Such was the case last night at the Joy in Singing presentation of their 2013 Award Winner mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim with her collaborative pianist Bretton Brown who was with her in total support every step of the way.  What a team!

Ms. Kim is so secure in her terrific technique and so poised onstage that she can afford to immerse herself in the texts and make each audience member feel as if she is singing just to them.  Indeed, she weaves a spell that draws people in.  We witnessed an amazing control of dynamics.  When she lets go the very molecules of air dance to her vibrato; when she spins a thread of soft sound, we lean in to meet her.  The colors in her voice are multiple and augmented by gesture and facial expression.  There are stories to be told and she tells them.

The program opened with Sieben Lieder von Elisabeth Kulmann by Robert Schumann who set the texts of this unfortunate poet who lived a sad life and died at 17.  She lives on in this gorgeous music brought to life by Ms. Kim in German so crisp that we never had to look at the translations.  We particularly enjoyed Mr. Brown's evocative pianism in "Die letzen Blumen starben".  The deeply sorrowful mood was lifted by the humor of Erik Satie's chansons which followed.  Ms. Kim is anything but pompous and had a great time illustrating the bronze statue of the frog who provides nighttime lodging for sleepy insects.  The program notes gave a fine explanation of the French wordplay in "Daphénéo" which we wished we had figured out on our own!  "Je te veux" was incredibly romantic.

Three lovely settings of texts by Pushkin followed and we were delighted to be hearing the seldom heard music of Nikolai Medtner which gave Mr. Brown the opportunity to indulge what must be a Russian soul.  Ms. Kim conveyed two different types of lost love--one that had passed by and one towards a lover that had passed away.  Our eyes were not the only ones that filled with tears at this passionate music.

In this carefully wrought recital, nothing was commonplace.  After the intermission we heard a set of light-hearted songs by a multiplicity of composers dealing with animals--as in Noah's ark.  Ned Rorem composed two songs about the same animal--"Snake" and "Serpent".  We preferred the latter for its clever rhymes.  ("All this is futile, I do not like to bang or tootle").  We do enjoy English most when there are clever rhymes!  David Sisco's "Judged by the Company One Keeps" had the audience chortling with glee.

The final set of the evening comprised songs about biblical King David and his prayers.  We love our Dvořák and his setting of "Sing to the lord a new song" was music to our ears as well.  Ravel's "Kaddish" was movingly sung in Hebrew.  As encore Ms. Kim and Mr. Brown performed a setting of "The Lord's Prayer" by UnYoung La, sung in Korean.  That makes six languages heard in one recital, all beautifully handled--an international meal for the musical epicure.

ⓒ meche kroop

Monday, October 21, 2013


Ken Noda, Matthew Polenzani, Corinne Winters
The George London Foundation for Singers got their recital series off to a stellar start with yesterday's recital.  The "trio" that wowed a "full house" comprised celebrated tenor Matthew Polenzani, rising star soprano Corinne Winters and beloved collaborative pianist Ken Noda in a well-thought-out program that gave each artist a chance to shine.  We know Mr. Polenzani only from his onstage appearances at the Metropolitan Opera and Ms. Winters only from her enchanting performances with the New York Festival of Song.  What a treat to see and hear Mr. P. up close and personal and to hear Ms. W. treat a New York audience to the kind of singing for which she has been acclaimed worldwide.

She has a rich resonance in her voice, belying the claim that petite singers have petite voices.  She performed a set of songs by Reynaldo Hahn and Camille Saint-Saëns in fine French, employing dramatic word coloring and emphasizing the dark richness of her voice.  In "Dis-moi que je suis belle" from Massenet's Thaïs she conveyed the character's insecurity with total conviction.  We loved Rimsky-Korsakov's "Dreams of a Summer Night" in which a young maiden dreams of a romantic awakening.

Mr. Polenzani mastered all the subtleties of "Wie singt die Lerche schön" in a lovely set of songs by Liszt; our favorite in this set was the gorgeous "Die stille Wasserose" in which the silence between the notes maintained the delicate mood most effectively.  In contrast, "Es rauschen die Winde" was an expression of anguish and loss.  The tenor's secure technique allowed him to immerse himself in the text.  Later in "Pourquoi me réveiller" from Massenet's Werther we felt the hero's heart breaking in passionate lament.  An exquisite diminuendo heightened the effect.  In this French-heavy recital we were delighted that Ravel's Cinq mélodies populaires grecques were included.  Mr. P. showed his humorous side in "Quel gallant m'est comparable" and the audience loved it.  They also appreciated his charming informality, waving to his children in the audience.

We literally could not wait to hear the two artists in a duet and were amply rewarded by the entire St. Sulpice scene from Act III of Massenet's Manon.  Manon, that manipulative bad girl, enters the church where Des Grieux is about to take orders and seduces him away from his religious calling.  Although the voices were perfectly matched, poor Des Grieux is no match for Manon's wiles.  The scene was so well done that sets and costumes appeared in our mind's eye.  Well, not the sets and costumes of the current unloved incarnation at the Met but from an earlier production that we loved and lost.

Another duet was performed as an encore--the one from Bernstein's Candide in which Candide and Cunégonde sing their very conflicting views of what their marital bliss would be.  It was lighthearted and amusing and sent the audience out on a (ahem) high note.  Throughout the recital Ken Noda supported the singers with the kind of attention that we must never take for granted.  We particularly enjoyed the way he conveyed the tinkling of the fountain in the opening chanson "Les fontaines" and the many colors in Rachmaninoff's "Dreams".

We want to urge everyone who loves vocal music to get on board for this tantalizing series of recitals in which the George London Foundation pairs an artist who is a recent prize winner with an artist who was awarded a prize in the recent past.  May they continue forever to award prizes to such deserving artists!

ⓒ meche kroop

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Meredith Hudak, John Kaneklides, Violetta Zabbi, Julie-Anne Hamula, Wayne Line, Carol Castel, Georgios Papadimitriou
How much of an opera can you strip away and not lose the essence?  If our experience of Delaware Valley Opera's stripped-down version of La Traviata last night taught  us something it is this:  it's all about the music.  Given good voices who can create convincing characters and some astute direction we can walk away feeling incredibly satisfied.

We are sitting in the small acoustically marvelous theater at the National Opera Center, aware that it is Columbus Day and it is an important year for Giuseppi Verdi celebrations, his 200th anniversary.  How fitting to mount one of his greatest creations!  DVO will be presenting the work in its entirely with the North Duchess Symphony Orchestra this Sunday at 3PM in full costume, but as a special gift for us New Yorkers we got the same gifted principals and a piano score performed by the talented Maestra Violetta (!) Zabbi who never missed a trill.

Violetta (our favorite opera heroine) was given an astonishing performance by soprano Julie-Anne Hamula whose brilliant soprano and thrilling embellishments were augmented by the most subtle and heart-rending acting.  This was a Violetta any woman could understand and relate to.  In Act I, her ambivalence about giving up her shallow life of pleasure for the richer but scarier life of love was made plain vocally and amplified by gesture, facial expression and body language.  Her death scene moved us to the very core.

Similarly, her Alfredo was beautifully sung and enacted by talented tenor John Kaneklides.  His commitment to the character of the young provincial man who loses his heart to the beautiful courtesan was total; his ringing tenor, a young yet manly sound, is one to watch.  We witnessed his moods of romantic adoration, disappointment, anger and remorse with never a false moment.

Baritone Wayne Line was not quite as convincing in his portrayal of Germont.  His transition from arrogance to sympathy didn't quite make it.  Mezzo Meredith Hudak supported the enterprise in the roles of Flora and Annina.  Georgios Papadimitriou was onstage briefly as Dr. Grenvil and has a lovely baritone.

The esteemed Carol Castel directed with a sure hand.  We have always loved the Zeffirelli production at The Metropolitan Opera, now sadly retired; we will never forget the fine production with Renee Fleming and Rolando Villazon.  But the new "stripped down" version mounted at the Met with it's gigantic clock, ugly chorus and ever present Dr. Death left us cold.  Not so this DVO production.  Minus chorus, minus sets, minus the gambling scene--we were left with what amounts to a very intimate opera in which we were allowed to care deeply for the ill-fated Violetta and her remorseful lover.  Bravi tutti!

© meche kroop

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Chad Kranak, Samantha Britt, Robert Balonek, Darcy Dunn (photo by Sheryl Liu)
If you shed a tear or two during Richard Wargo's Ballymore-Part One: Winners, not to worry because Seymour Barab's La Pizza Con Funghi will send you out with a grin from ear to ear.  Chelsea Opera Co-Founders Leonarda Priore and Lynne Hayden-Findlay wisely chose to balance tragedy with comedy much as Puccini did when he followed Il Tabarro with Gianni Schicchi.  Irish dramatist Brian Friel penned Lovers as a two-part play comprising Winners and Losers.  That he chose to see the 17-year old couple Mag and Joe, fated to die in a boating accident on the same day as the play takes place, as winners is an interesting concept.  Perhaps they are winners because they died with their hopes for the future intact before life came along and whupped 'em upside the head.  We saw the play exactly one year ago (The Actors Company Theater) and recall that Losers was about a middle-aged couple trying to have some intimacy under the watchful eyes of the woman's bedridden mother who did everything to prevent it.  That was indeed humorous and we understand that Mr. Wargo similarly adapted Part II which we would be happy to see/hear in view of how greatly we enjoyed Part I.

The work was introduced by some lovely lilting music, played by Jerry O'Sullivan on the Uilleann Pipes, which went a long way toward setting the mood.  Scenes of the pregnant Mag (not just pregnant but 1960's Ireland pregnant) and her fiancé Joe are commented upon by two Ballad-Singers, beautifully costumed in ancient attire, looking very much like Isolde and King Marke.  Costume Design was credited to Ms. Hayden-Findlay herself.  In the play, they were merely narrators so this was quite a lovely touch.  They described how the two young people arrived at the hilltop overlooking the town of Ballymore and what happened to them afterward, a rather dry and factual commentary offsetting the intensity of the interaction between Mag and Joe as they planned their wedding and life together.  One senses that all is not rosy since Joe will have to give up his goal of a university degree to assume responsibility for a family.  Mag is so exuberant that he is unable to study for his maths exam, which had been the goal for the day.

The role of Mag was sung by the bright-voiced soprano Samantha Britt who did a great job of convincing us that she was but 17.  Her opening aria looking down at her hometown was splendid. Tenor Chad Kranak portrayed Joe, appearing somewhat older than the part called for; he sings her a lovely lullabye as she sleeps.  We would have appreciated titles since there were times when Ms. Britt's voice was overridden by the 14-piece Chelsea Opera Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Guest Conductor Steven M. Crawford, or when the diction was insufficiently clear.  The Ballad-Singers were mezzo Darcy Dunn and Robert Balonek, both in fine voice.

The music was far more accessible than that of most contemporary operas and the arias quite beautiful.  We always ask ourselves whether the music has added anything to the play and in this case the answer is a resounding yes, although some of the recitatives might as well have been spoken for better comprehension.  Friel's writing is rather musical on its own and Mr. Wargo's writing emphasized it.  Special note was taken of Stephanie Barbirak's harp and Kevin Willois' flute.

How amazing it was to witness the same four artists in radically different roles in the second half of the program.  Seymour Barab, in writing both music and lyrics, created an hilarious sendup of opera seria that had the audience rolling in the aisles from the very first moment when Guest Conductor  Samuel McCoy assumed the podium in high camp style.  If he were mimicking someone particular, do not ask us to reveal the name!  The work was adapted from Michael Green's play Il Fornicazione (seriously) and takes place in the 18th c. with the most outrageously elaborate wigs and quite gorgeous costumes.  An adulterous wife named Voluptua (the versatile Ms. Britt, this time perfectly audible) confides in her maid Phobia (the very funny Ms. Dunn) that she is bored with her husband of six weeks, Count Formaggio (Robert Balonek) and has taken a lover Scorpio (Chad Kranak, this time looking perfect for the role) who suffers from chronic tardiness.  Every trope of opera seria is burlesqued and references to Falstaff, Il Trovatore and Nozze di Figaro (among others) are slipped in.  We will not spoil the fun any further because you will have an opportunity to catch the final performance today at 4PM at St. Peter's Church in Chelsea.

What makes this comic opera work so well is Mr. Barab's facility with fitting words and music together, much like Gilbert and Sullivan combined into one person.  The rhymes are inventive and hilarious and the music emphasizes each one.  We would gladly see this again!

The minimal set design by Sheryl Liu worked well and the outrageous wigs and makeup by Andrea Calabrese were a further source of hilarity.  Sure-fire direction was by Ms. Hayden-Findlay who never missed a trick.

© meche kroop

Friday, October 11, 2013


Ari Livne and Takaoki Onishi
No way!  We just cannot get enough of Takaoki Onishi's burnished baritone.  We have occasionally said of a singer that he/she could sing the phonebook but this pagan has NEVER admired anyone for singing the bible.   But there is Taka onstage at Juillliard making vocal sense of Brahms' Vier ernste Gesänge, Op. 121.  The texts are grim and moralistic (taken from Ecclesiastes and Corinthians) but Taka's gorgeous instrument, intense involvement with the text and clearly understandable German made the experience a highly worthwhile one.  In "Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh" we thrilled to the resonant sounds in his lower register.

The event was a recital of collaborative piano with Ari Livne at the piano, working sensitively with three different artists in an all Brahms program.  He was joined by the excellent Matthew Lipman on viola for the Sonata for Viola and Piano in E-flat Major, Op. 120 #2.  In the Allegro amabile, piano and violin were equally melodic.  But it was in the Allegro appassionato that we were swept away.  The familiar melody seems like a folk song begging for words and the rapid switches between major and minor played havoc with our emotions.  One wonders how Clara was able to resist!

Mr. Livne was joined by the fine clarinetist Jonathan Cohen for the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in f minor, Op. 120, #1.  The first movement was tempestuous and the second melancholy.  It was a fine performance.

Mr. Livne also had the opportunity for some solo playing in Vier Klavierstücke, Op. 119, comprising three Intermezzi and one Rhapsody.  The variations in mood and color were, well, music to our ears.  Gentle dreamy melodies gave way to frisky rhythms.  The closing Rhapsody in E-flat Major was energentic and forceful.  It was a most satisfying evening of music.

© meche kroop

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Maestro Richard Bonynge
Is there no limit to the ways in which Juilliard serves the world of music?  Last night the Georg Solti Accademia celebrated its tenth anniversary in collaboration with the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts by bringing in the esteemed maestro Richard Bonynge to teach a master class--a gift to the capacity crowd that jammed the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.  There is no peer in the world of bel canto like Sir Richard.  The singers chosen were also peerless in bel canto technique and not one of the five failed to benefit from the maestro's gentle but firm instruction.

Although each singer received individual instruction on his or her aria, certain themes repeated themselves from one participant to the next.  The beauty of the tone should be emphasized far more than the volume.  The long legato lines should not be interrupted by unnecessary breaths.  The singer should not work too hard but should keep the sound light and expressive.  High notes should not be pushed.  It is alright to "sit on" the most exciting note but otherwise not alright.  Care must be taken with triplets not to emphasize the second note.  The recitative must not be sung as if it were an arioso; keep it moving.  Portamenti must not degenerate into "scooping".  There must be variety of color and an element of surprise.  Start a long phrase pianissimo and build it to a climax.  Do not cut off the ends of phrases but rather let them float away.  Do not give all the beats equal emphasis.  Scales must be articulated.

All five singers made us sit up and take notice.  Soprano Elizabeth Sutphen negotiated the huge skips, the trills and the even scale passages of Verdi's "Caro Nome" (Rigoletto) with great aplomb.  Soprano Hyesang Park was lovely in "Eccomi...O! Quante Volte" from Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi.  Soprano Raquel Gonzalez demonstrated her beautiful bel canto chops in "Piangete voi...Al dolce guidami castel natio" from Donizetti's Anna Bolena, prompting Maestro Bonynge to urge her to learn the entire role for future performance.  (We definitely want to be there when she sings it!)

Mezzo Virginie Verrez also chose an aria from the same opera, "E sgombro il loco".  She has a lovely sound and abundant stage poise with excellent connection with the text.  It always amazes us when a singer comes out on a recital stage and sings an aria that creates, with just her voice and gesture, the presence of invisible sets and the missing characters.

Baritone Takaoki Onishi sang "Ah! per sempre" from Bellini's I Puritani; we enjoyed it so much that we plan to return to Juilliard tonight to hear more of him.  He sounded even better when he eliminated some unnecessary breaths, doing justice to Bellini's long legato lines.

No one knows bel canto like Richard Bonynge and it was quite a thrill to be in attendance.  We not only had the pleasure of hearing five exemplary singers but we learned a great deal about the finer points of bel canto singing.  We could have sat there all night long.

© meche kroop

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Natalie Ramirez as Lolita--Photo: Michael Portantiere, FollowSpotPhoto.com,
We have been widening our view beyond opera and examining musical theater, especially as it relates to opera (thanks, Steven Blier, for opening our eyes).  We were eager to see the work of Musicals Tonight!  founded by Mel Miller in 1997.  The company has a loyal base of subscribers, musical theater lovers who cherish the opportunity to see overlooked and forgotten treasures brought to theatrical life.

Last night was opening night for Cole Porter's Mexican Hayride and a wild ride it was.  It opened in 1943 and was a huge hit on Broadway for well over a year.  One can easily see why.  It is lighthearted entertainment, starred June Havoc and Bobby Clark,  and must have delighted an audience filled with servicemen on leave and theatergoers longing for distraction from the anxiety of being at war. 

The major draw of reviving this show not seen in seventy years would have to be Cole Porter's music.  Granted this is second-rate Porter but second-rate Porter is far more listenable than most composers writing today.  He knows his way around a rhyme and gets a great synergy going between words and music.  Music Director James Stenborg did a fine job of arranging.  We enjoyed the onstage trumpet during the mariachi scene.

However the book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields is absurd and terminally dated.  The humor is often smarmy and old-fashioned.  Interesting how an opera written in 1843 never seems dated but a musical written a century later does.  The clichés are abundant and often embarrassing.  The preposterous story concerns a numbers racketeer on the lam from the law in the USA who catches a bull's ear thrown at him after a bullfight and thereby becomes celebrated in some North/South of the Border fellowship festival.  He can't stay hidden for long since his abandoned wife comes looking for him and her sister is the famous bullfighter of the ear-throwing episode; of course he assumes a number of ridiculous disguises to avoid being caught and extradited.  It's quite a part to play but M.X. Soto overplayed it with an excess of mugging, rather than finding the charming core that sociopaths generally exhibit.  But we did enjoy his duet with the bullfighter "Count Your Blessings" toward the end of the show.

The performance we enjoyed the most was Natalie Ramirez as Lolita, the local lounge singer.  Ms. Ramirez performed off-book and we admired her moves in a very sexy gown as well as her willingness to learn the part and throw herself into it. Her two solos "Tequila" and "Carlotta" were delightful.  We enjoyed Jessica Wagner as the bullfighter Montana and her romantic duet "It's Just Yours" with Jacob L. Smith, an attaché at the American Embassy.  Amie Bermowitz was entertaining as Dagmar with a great song "Humble Hollywood Executive".  Unfortunately her Russian accent was intermittent.  David Marmanillo made a fine Lombo, Lolita's manager who gets unwittingly embroiled in the racketeer's nefarious activities in Mexico that steal business from the national lottery.

Hearing unamplified voices singing good music was a special treat for us; performances hampered in their connection with the audience by the presence of scores was not.  There are probably some good reasons for their presence but it was distracting, particularly during the choreographed moments.  It would appear that Director/Choreographer Thomas Sabella-Mills did the best he could on the tiny stage of the Lion Theater and we expect that as the two week run wears on the direction will get a bit tighter.  We would like to offer a kind word to the Costume Designer if only one were listed; the costumes were very appropriate to the 1940's.

In two weeks, Musicals Tonight! will present Smile! by Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Ashmen.  1986 may seem a bit more au courant than 1944.

© meche kroop

Monday, October 7, 2013


Mr. Myer, Ms. Sugiyama, Ms. Maroney, Mr. Brofman, Ms. Strickland, Mr. Williams
A chance to hear songs we hadn't heard before sung by singers heretofore unknown to us was enough to bring us to Brooklyn for Part II of Clara, Robert and Johannes, presented by the worthy Brooklyn Art Song Society.  Discovering a new performance space, Old Stone House, was the icing on the cake.  Who knew?

What an excellent opportunity it was to hear the complete lieder of Clara Schumann; unlike other women composers of the day, Clara was able to compose and perform with the support of her husband in what must be considered one of the great love affairs of the 19th c.  Having defied Clara's recalcitrant father, the couple married and enjoyed a life of musical partnership until Robert's untimely death.  In spite of the adoration felt for her by Johannes Brahms, she ostensibly remained faithful to her late husband. But she sadly stopped composing when her husband died.

With her generous soprano, Laura Strickling opened the program with  Clara's Sechs Lieder, Op. 13. partnered by Miori Sugiyama on the piano.  We were quite taken with "Sie liebten sich beide", a tale of missed opportunities in which the gorgeous piano line drifts away without resolution, like the couple that never expressed their love.  Choosing a text by Heinrich Heine is never a mistake!  Of course one could say the same about Rückert; and Clara's setting of von Geibel's "Die stille Lotusblume" was incredibly tender and sweet.

We enjoyed Ms. Strickling's singing even more in the six lieder of Op. 23.  Her blooming upper register gave joyful life to these texts by Rollet, particularly "Was weinst du, Blümlein".  We enjoyed the gentle arpeggios in Ms. Sugiyama's piano in "Geheimes Flüstern".  In "An einem lichten Morgen" we were treated to the metaphor of the loving sun addressing an opening flower.  Could this be 19th c. eroticism?

"Zwölf Gedichte Op. 37" comprised a dozen songs by the loving marital pair, settings all of Rückert's texts.  Clara's "Er ist Gekommen", sung by mezzo Kate Maroney, had some intense passion in the piano part, giving Michael Brofman (Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Art Song Society) an opportunity to show the range of his formidable interpretive skills.  We have always adored Mahler's setting of "Liebst du um Schönheit" and were delighted to learn that Clara's setting is equally melodic, if not as well known.  Ms. Maroney sounded quite lovely.  Several of the songs were sung by baritone David Williams who has a pleasing tone and a nice lower register as heard in "Rose, Meer und Sonne".  We particularly enjoyed the Maroney-Williams duets, particularly the song that ended the first part of the program "So wahr die Sonne scheinet" with its gorgeous harmonies; the voices blended beautifully.

Accompanied for this set by pianist Spencer Myer, Ms. Maroney performed Frauenliebe un leben Op. 42.  She seemed most invested in the excitement of "Helft mir, ihr Schwestern" and "An meinem Herzen".  We have always been able to overlook the anti-feminism of Adelbert von Chamisso and to just enjoy the music.  The poetry of the early 19th c. scans and rhymes in a way that delights the ear and inspires some gorgeous vocal writing that we rarely hear in contemporary music.

The recital was made even better by the projection of texts in both German and English, a wise decision in our opinion.  But it was made somewhat less enjoyable by the use of music stands which imposed a barrier between the singer and the audience.  We understand the need for them in modern music in which the vocal line is unmelodic and the text doesn't scan.  But for music of this period we would have hoped that the singers would have  made the effort to memorize.  Perhaps that is asking too much.  One further thing that detracted from this delightful evening of song was the occasional mispronunciation of German vowels and consonants; it was probably of no consequence to 99% of the audience but our ears pick it up as much as we aim to shrug it off.

On the whole, it was a fine evening and we were thrilled to hear songs that have been overlooked in so many lieder recitals.  We will have still more gratitude for B.A.S.S. as they continue with Part III of Clara, Robert and Johannes on November 17th in another charming venue, the Firehouse in Williamsburg.

© meche kroop

Saturday, October 5, 2013


The Black Swan Pas de Deux
We "Fall for Dance" every year, joining hordes of New Yorkers willing to wait in line for $15 tickets to see diverse dance companies strut their stuff, aiming to win the hearts and minds of people who may not have otherwise been exposed to dance performance.  Although there is an attempt to demonstrate this diversity, there is very little nourishment for those of us whose affection lies with classical ballet.  We have not succeeded in appreciating companies that produce works that look embarrassingly dated nor companies that knock themselves out trying to be original, nor companies that appear to be everyday people wearing unbecoming street attire showing us what their aerobic classes at the health club look like.  We are alone in our state of disinterest.  The audience appears to go wild with whoops, hoots and wild applause no matter who is dancing.

Interestingly, it is the drag ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo who demonstrated the most respect and reverence for the dedication, artistry and hard work mastering classical technique.  Their campy sendups of our classical treasures manage to delight the uninitiated with their humor and simultaneously impress us balletomanes with their stunning technique.  Their Black Swan Pas de Deux was the highlight of the week.

American Ballet Theater performed José Limon's "Moors Pavane" with Julie Kent and Stella Abrera looking marvelous.  But with so little classical ballet on the five programs, we had hoped they would have chosen to demonstrate something from the classical canon. demonstrating the glories of point work... like The Black Swan Pas de Deux for example.  Perhaps they didn't want to be outshone by the "ladies" of The Trocs!

More was hoped for also from the Royal Ballet.  Two beautiful dancers with beautiful bodies performed some beautiful moves in a piece commissioned for the festival.  They were on point.  As an added benefit, they performed to live music by Arvo Part, although the cello playing was a bit unfortunate.  The sad part was that Liam Scarlett's choreography was devoid of meaning and feeling.

As for the rest of the programs, there was a lot of sound and fury without significance.  Unmusical music, uninspired gyrating, lots of herky-jerky-twerky motion, rolling around on the floor, ersatz copulation, meaningless rushing to and fro.  Long on energy, short on artistry.  Lest you conclude that we just hate modern dance, stand by for our review of Lars Lubovich later this month.  Now there's a choreographer who knows what to do with dancers!

© meche kroop


Tamar and Judah--photo by Richard Termine
Billed as "music theater", we found Prospect Theater Company's Tamar of the River to fulfill the artistic requirements of an opera.  In case you are unfamiliar with our taste, that is high praise indeed.  It is the seriousness of Marisa Michelson's music that informs our opinion; it is original but accessible and never derivative; it is clearly written by someone who understands writing for the voice both in the solos and in the choral work .  It contributes to the storytelling in a major way.  This compelling work began its life as an oratorio but achieves strength by way of impressive production values.  Daniel Goldstein directed with a sure hand.

The stage is long and narrow with audience members sitting on both sides, referring to the river of the title, red with blood,  which divides two warring nations, one in the east, the other in the west.  Props are simple, mostly a bunch of 6 foot poles used as staffs, weapons or as a dining table; Scenic Designer Brett J. Banakis has done much with little.  Costume Design by Candida K. Nichols is likewise simple, just some rough robes of the biblical variety.

The lyrics by Joshua H. Cohen who shared writing the book with Ms. Michelson are likewise simple.  The story is derived from an Old Testament tale involving a woman named Tamar who married two sons and later seduces their father by donning a veil and pretending to be a prostitute.  This tale has been adapted toward the end of being a plea for peace.  The eponymous heroine, played effectively by Margo Seibert, hears the voice of the River Angel, a marvelous Margot Bassett, giving her a mission to make peace between the warring nations and giving her three mysterious pieces of advice.  Her mother, played by Ako, worries for her since Tamar's father died there at the source of the river.  All of the cast members contribute to the chants of the river, which is perhaps the finest piece of vocal writing heard during the course of the evening, with many strains of what these days is called World Music.

Tamar confronts Son #1 named Onan (Mike Longo) who is a warrior, but she prefers Son #2 called Er (Vincent B. Vincent)  a rather inarticulate builder who joins her in building a Garden of Peace. We particularly enjoyed his aria and was sorry when he was killed by a bellicose friend of Onan.  Later Tamar kills Onan.  (So much for peace!) Somehow she never goes for Son #3 Shelah (Jeremy Greenbaum).  Father Judah (a strong Erik Lochtefeld) at times seems to accept her but rejects her peaceful ideas at other times.  She veils herself and seduces him but ultimately she fails to achieve her goal. The river tells her it will take a long time.  We would have wished for some clearer motivation for the characters in the storytelling but the music got the points across.

Musical Director Matt Aument conducted from the piano and was joined, not in the pit but on high, by Blake Allen playing violin and viola, Brian Sanders playing cello, Ingrid Gordon playing dulcimer and percussionist Mike Lunoe.  Mr. Aument also conducted the chorus in some otherworldly chanting that delighted our ears.  What a perfect combination of instrumental and choral music!

Movement compensated for any lack of clarity in the storytelling.  Chase Brock is credited with the choreography with Christian Kelly-Sordelet as Fight Choreographer.  Effective lighting was by Brian Tovar and Sound Design by Jeremy J. Lee.  Although the amplification worked very well for the voices of the river, lending them an otherworldly quality, we longed to hear the principal's voices without distortion.  The theater is small and we thought it would have worked better.

It isn't often that we get to hear contemporary music that is so original and listenable.  We urge you to see this work before October 20th at the Baruch Performing Arts Center.

© meche kroop