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.

Friday, January 31, 2014


Alice Coote
Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and collaborative pianist Graham Johnson gave a highly pleasurable recital last night in Zankel Hall.  We have enjoyed Ms. Coote at The Metropolitan Opera in Two Boys and in Der Rosenkavlier, but last night we felt that we got to know her prodigious talent in a new way.  For one thing, she has a consummately expressive warmth in her voice; she seems to caress each word and imbue it with color.  For another thing, her French diction rivals that of a native French speaker.

Instead of performing a set of songs by each composer, she grouped together songs with similar moods.  She appeared onstage in a black pants outfit with a gossamer black and white coat on top and sang songs of nostalgic love.  When singing of rapturous love, a vibrant fuschia coat replaced it; when singing of mournful love she exchanged it for a black coat.  It was not just a fashion exercise; it reflected the way she "wore" each song and made it her own.  This variety ensured that an evening of chanson and mélodie would never be perceived as boring or effete. 

Mr. Johnson is a quiet pianist and perfectly captured the delicacy of the music without compromising the harmonic richness.  He never overwhelmed the voice and never went in for showiness.  We loved his piano work in Saint-Saëns "Soirée en mer" as we heard the rowing and the swelling of the waves.

Hector Berlioz and Charles Gounod wrote some of the earlier pieces on the program.  Gounod's "Sérénade" in waltz time was one of our favorites of the evening with Ms. Coote's  beautifully executed runs and the lovely text by Victor Hugo.  Berlioz' "Spectre de la Rose", a setting of text by Théophile Gautier, delighted us with its charming story and wide vocal leaps.

Later songs by Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson, Camille Saint-Saëns, Emmanuel Chabrier, Alfred Bachelet, Claude Debussy, Reynaldo Han, Erik Satie and Charles Koechlin made up most of the remaining program.  Songs that stood out for us were Hahn's delicate "L'heure exquise" with text by Paul Verlaine, his languid "Fumée" (text by Jean Moréas) and his morose "La chère blessure" (text by Augustine-Malvina Blanchecotte.  Chausson's "Le Temps des lilas" with the sadly nostalgic text by Maurice Bouchor simply broke our heart. And Satie's "Je te veux" with text by Henry Pacory absolutely charmed us with its sumptuous melody.

Songs by Francis Poulenc were the most modern of the evening.  True Gallic nostalgia was evinced by the program opener "Les chemins de l'amour" with text by Jean Anouilh.  Poulenc's music also closed the program with texts by Guillaume Apollinaire--the lively "Voyage à Paris" and the langorous "Hôtel" being our favorites.

Zankel Hall is a mid-sized venue and lends itself to voice and piano recitals far more than Stern Auditorium.  The only thing that interrupted the feeling of intimacy was Ms. Coote's performance "on the book".  We kept hoping she would ditch the music stand but she did not.  We were somewhat surprised that titles were not projected.  The lights were quite dim and we noticed many in the audience squinting at the printed translations.  We guess that the majority are not French speakers and wanted to understand the text. And who could fault them for that!

Ⓒ meche kroop

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Emanuel Ax and Anne Sofie von Otter onstage at Carnegie Hall
Last night at Carnegie Hall, two of the finest artists of their generation performed an evening of Brahms' music (interrupted by a lengthy work by Nico Muhly commissioned by Carnegie Hall).  It was not until the encores that we got to hear what we wanted to hear.  Highly esteemed mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter with acclaimed collaborative pianist Emanuel Ax made a fine team; what was missing was the feeling of intimacy that Brahms' songs require.  It is not their fault; it is just the size of Stern auditorium.  The number of fans and financial considerations likely dictate the size of the venue and this cannnot be helped.

Ms. Von Otter is on the contained side but during the first encore, "Sapphische Ode" her gestures grew in amplitude and somehow bridged the intimacy gap.  In the second encore she enacted, yes ENACTED! the dialogue between a young woman who has trouble expressing what she wants to her mother who feigns ignorance.  The girl gets increasingly exasperated until her mother realizes the girl wants a man.  So far we are unable to locate the name of this charming song but will supply it in the future.

Brahms oeuvre of lieder is vast and he had an affection for setting folk songs, many of which were heard last night.  We enjoyed "Sommerabend Op.85, No. 1" in which our two artists shared moments of exquisite control of dynamics.  In "Juchhe! Op. 6, No. 4" we heard a joyful side of Brahms that was pure delight.  The heartfelt "Von ewiger Liebe, Op. 43, No. 1" has won our admiration time and time again.  In "Ständchen, Op. 106, No. 1", another favorite of ours, the two artists painted a charming picture of three serenaders and their effect on a sleeping maiden.  We observed that when Ms. Von Otter uses her body her voice seems to open up and enfold the audience to a greater extent.

"Nachtwandler, Op. 86, No. 3" had a lovely delicacy; "Am Sonntag Morgen, Op. 49, No. 1" was marked by an impressive range of vocal color as the singer puts on a happy face for the world while suffering within.  There was a lovely rocking feeling in the piano in "Ruhe, Süssliebchen, Op. 33, No. 9".  We recently heard the entire cycle Magelone-Lieder performed by the Brooklyn Art Song Society and were pleased to hear the song again.

Also performed were the Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103 which have somewhat less of a gypsy flavor than those of Dvořak.  We most enjoyed "Wisst ihr, wann mein Kindchen" and the rhythmic "Brauner Bursche führt zum Tanze" which was performed with lavish rubato.

Mr. Ax had the opportunity to perform four of Brahm's late-life short pieces, three Intermezzi and a Romanze.  Our favorite was the "Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2" in which we are sure we heard echoes of Mendelssohn's "Ist es wahr".

About Mr. Muhly's "So Many Things", we have little to say.  Our 19th c. ears could not wrap themselves around the 21st c. music and, although certain words could be heard, entire phrases could not be understood and the text was not in the program.

We  felt privileged to be able to witness these artists onstage in spite of the drawback mentioned earlier.  It is unlikely that we would ever have the opportunity to experience them in a more intimate venue.

ⓒ meche kroop

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Ken Noda, Brian Zeger, Paul Appleby
There are singers who are sensational on the opera stage and can create wonderful characters but who just do not come across well on the recital stage.  Tenor Paul Appleby manages to excel in both places.  What seems obvious to us is that he is totally enamored of the songs he sings and selflessly submerges his own identity so that the soul of the poet shines forth. 

When he steps out on the recital stage, as he did Sunday afternoon as part of a new series at Pace University, he addresses the audience in a way that makes one feel as if a dear friend were sharing his loving feelings with you.  His sweet voice caresses your ear in a way that is almost tactile.  His enthusiasm is conveyed as he tells you about the songs he will sing and you feel as if he is singing them just for YOU.  And that, reader, is a major gift.  His artistry is such that the supporting technique becomes invisible.

The first half of the recital was sung in impeccable German; accompanied by the wonderfully supportive Ken Noda, Mr. Appleby did complete justice to Beethoven's lovely "Adelaide" and sang five songs by Schubert.  Our personal favorite was "Im Abendrot"; according to Mr. Appleby, Schubert was not a particularly religious man, but his setting of Karl Gottlieb Lappe's text as sung by Mr. A. would move anyone into a spiritual state of mind.

We next enjoyed seven songs selected from Schumann's Myrten Op.25; as Mr. A. shared with the audience, this cycle was part of the composer's outpouring of song during the year 1840 when Herr Wieck's opposition to his daughter Clara's marriage to poor young Robert was trumped by the court.  One can hear his love for his bride reflected in the music.  "Widmung", a setting of a text by Rückert, is bursting with all-consuming passion.  Julius Mosen's text "Der Nussbaum" is a gentle lyrical account of a young woman dreaming of her coming marriage.

The set also included a couple drinking songs which allowed Mr. A. an opportunity to appear rather bibulous.  Following were two songs about Venice and gondoliers to texts by Thomas Moore which were translated into German by Ferdinand Freiligrath.

In the second half of the program, the acclaimed Brian Zeger took over the role of collaborative pianist, one at which he excels.  The songs were in English and although Mr. Appleby clearly threw himself into them with the same enthusiasm, we personally do not relate as much to 20th c. works as much as we do to works of the 19th c.  We miss the scanning and the rhyming which elicits a vocal line more agreeable to our ears.

We did enjoy the tinkling piano in Britten's "Fish in the Unruffled Lakes", a setting of text by Auden, and the quiet sombre chords of "Nocturne" in which the text rhymed and scanned in trochaic meter as did "Underneath the abject willow" which was of a friskier vein.

Two songs by Leonard Bernstein followed. "To what you said" is a dissonant setting of text by Walt Whitman.  Cellist Dane Johansen joined Mr. Appleby and Mr. Zeger and made some lovely music.  But we far preferred the accessible "Dream with Me" written for Peter Pan but bumped off the show.

Three songs by Harbison from Simple Daylight with texts by Michael Fried struck us as unlovely.  The very angry "Someday a Seed" could not measure up to Schumann's "Ich grolle nicht" on the same topic.

Two Langston Hughes poems set by John Musto left us similarly cold in spite of Mr. A.'s deeply committed performance.  Just call us a fugitive from the 19th c. wandering lost in the 20th!

© meche kroop

Sunday, January 26, 2014


Alexander Charles Boyd, Bryce Smith
We are happy to report that opera is not a dying art as some would have us believe; it is alive and well in the hands of small opera companies which present operas on shoe-string budgets in small venues.  There is no shortage of talent in New York and some fine work can be produced using available performers in the vocal and instrumental areas; only set designers and costume designers are unnecessary.  Imagination can replace big budgets.

This weekend Utopia Opera presented a stage-worthy production of Massenet's  1910 opera Don Quichotte.  This is their third season and our only regret is that of missing the two prior seasons.  An interesting wrinkle is that the company allows its FB  "likers" to vote on which operas to present.  Don Q was an excellent choice, especially because it is rarely performed and we valued the opportunity to make its acquaintance.

The music is typically Massenet with its lovely expansive melodies, beginning with the muscular overture which then yields to a tender lyrical theme.  Maestro William Remmers hosted the evening with some amusing remarks and then conducted the reduced size orchestra, which was sufficient to fill the Lang Recital Hall of Hunter College with just enough sound.  Notably, he also plays the guitar--a true polymath.

The text by Henri Caïn is not based on the Cervantes tale but rather on a 1904 play by Jacques Le Lorrain.  It is a tragedy but not without its moments of humor.  Don Q is a tragic figure, out of tune with the world he lives in and the object of scorn and ridicule.  He lives in a world of dream and illusion with his only support coming from his manservant Sancho Panza who is a realist--a relationship not unlike that of Tamino and Papageno.  Don Q can be thought of as a holy fool or a ridiculous saint, a knight who champions the poor and the oppressed.

Obviously, the success of the opera rests on the shoulders of the man who performs the role of Don Q and, in this case, bass Bryce Smith rose to the occasion and gave us a character who aroused our sympathy, admiration and ultimately tears inn his final moving duet with Sancho Panza.  Sancho Panza was well portrayed by baritone Alexander Charles Boyd whose loyalty to and protection of his master was inspiring.

Kimberly Sogioka made an excellent Dulcinée; she is a flirt but not a cruel one.  Surrounded by admirers, she is bored and wants something else but cannot yield to Don Q's love.  She sends him on a fool's errand to recover her necklace which had been stolen by bandits.  Don Q is ready to do battle with the entire band of thieves and they are ready to hang him; the eloquence of his words and his saintliness cause them to release him and forfeit the necklace.

The work was staged by Maestro William Remmers himself and it was staged with imagination.  Flamenco dancers with castanets (Ami Otero and Angel Betancourt) were on hand to create a Spanish atmosphere.  Don Q and Sancho Panza rode in on hobby horses.  The most imaginative scene involved twirling umbrellas to represent the windmills that Don Q believed to be giants he should attack.  Mr. Smith's acting was so fine that you could see the scene through his eyes.

Our only disappointment was the lack of bios for the singers.  We heard some fine tenor voices (Jacob Agar and Brian Long as Rodriguez and Juan),and some lovely singing from two sopranos in pants roles  (Maggie Finnegan and Sarah Bleasedale).

The wild applause at the end served to confirm our own conviction that this is a company to watch.  How gratifying it is to see an audience comprising mainly young people!  We urge you to "like" Utopia Opera on Facebook so that you too can vote for upcoming productions.  As for us, we already have Die Freischutz on our calendar for the weekend of 3/21 and Falstaff for the weekend of 6/27.

ⓒ meche kroop

Friday, January 24, 2014


Antonio Figueroa, Pascale Beaudin, Jeffrey Thompson, Claire Debono, Blandine Saskiewicz, Alex Dobson
Although we mainly deplore tinkering with the classics, we enjoyed a delightful evening with Opera Lafayette last night.  They presented a clever pairing of Mozart's 1790 Cosi fan tutte in L.V. Durdilly's French translation of Da Ponte's libretto in tandem with Les Femmes Vengées by François André-Danican Philidor which was composed 15 years earlier.  The concept was to show what happened to Da Ponte's four lovers after ten years had passed.  This pastiche made for an evening as long as Tristan und Isolde but far more lighthearted.

It also permitted the use of a single set and a beautiful one at that.  Misha Kachman created a light and airy space--a central room with a room off to each side and a view of an orange tree representing a garden outside; this permitted characters to be closeted away from the main action and to be listening through the walls.  Indeed it seemed as if the Comédie Française had commissioned the opera from Mozart!

Effective lighting by Colin K. Bills washed the set in warm pastels that reflected the sumptuous costumes by Kendra Rai.  Director Nick Olcott kept the action humming along.  A couple arias were sacrificed and spoken dialogue replaced the recitativi.  A non-singing character, a painter, was invented (or borrowed from the second opera) and Gillaume and Fernand were in his studio to pose for a painting; this action was established during the overture.  As it turned out, the painter did have a singing role in the second opera and tenor Jeffrey Thompson was our favorite performer of the evening, both dramatically and vocally.

Ryan Brown, Artistic Director of Opera Lafayette, conducted with gusto and finesse.  Musical values were topnotch overall.  Although Philidor is not Mozart (well, who is?), no apologies were necessary for his tuneful classicism.  Soprano Pascale Beaudin made a fine Fleurdelise and mezzo Blandine Staskiewicz an equally fine Dorabelle.  Tenor Antonio Figueroa and baritone Alex Dobson sang the roles of their suitors Fernand and Guillaume.  When they appeared in their disguises, they were costumed as trappers from Canada, sporting Davey Crockett hats and lots of fringe.  It absolutely worked.

Don Alphonse was sung by Bernard Deletré who has a commanding onstage presence but whose voice sounded a bit frayed.  Claire Debono was a delightful Delphine.  In the second opera she had married the painter and had risen out of the ranks of servant.  Indeed she orchestrated the comic revenge that the two sisters would take on their wandering husbands.  It was interesting that the second opera was taking place ten years later and the costumes were now of the Empire period, even though the opera was composed earlier.

Making a pastiche of the two operas was well conceived; the theme was infidelity and provided a justification for presenting Mozart's beloved opera in French.  We cannot avoid saying that Italian "sings" better; although we are fluent in French we definitely made use of the titles.  Italian is just more singable.

We do hope that the D.C. based Opera Lafayette will return soon to New York with another imaginative evening.

© meche kroop

Thursday, January 23, 2014


 Mary Feminear, Angela Vallone, Michael St. Peter, Kara Sainz
If you've never been to a liederabend at Juilliard let us tell you what you're missing.  You are missing an opportunity to see the opera stars of tomorrow (or maybe next year) in an early stage of development.  They are in no way beginners.  They have been cherry-picked from an enormous field of applicants and given superb instruction and coaching in all aspects of performance.  They are definitely performance-ready and have already been performing around the country and often abroad.

Last night, for example, we heard four fine singers perform songs we love, most of them familiar and a few new to us.  Soprano Angela Vallone opened the program with five songs by Brahms.  With each song her voice opened up and her connection to the text deepened.  She and her sensitive collaborative pianist Jung A Bang made a fine team and exhibited excellent dynamic control.  Her German diction made the words clear.  Our personal favorites were the sad "Mädchenlied" and the charming "Ständchen" which painted such a colorful picture.

Mezzo-soprano Kara Sainz, in fine partnership with pianist Kyung Hee Kim, followed with a set of songs by Fauré .  Together they did justice to "Mandoline", another lied about a serenade that brought a smile to our face. But it was in "Les berceaux" that Ms. Sainz reached a depth of feeling that touched our heart; one could feel the ships rocking in the waves and the cradles rocking at the hands of the sailors' wives.

Michael St. Peter has a sweet lyric tenor that he employed to great advantage in a set of lieder by Hugo Wolf.  We loved the play on the word "elf" in "Elfenlied", a frisky little narrative.  But the tender tale of a man seeking peace at any price with his beloved, "Nun lass uns Frieden schliessen", moved us deeply.  Furthermore we are delighted to report that Mr. St. Peter has mastered the pronunciation of "ich"; as our readers have probably noticed, we are unhappy when a singer pronounces it as "ick", or, worse yet, avoids it altogether.  We didn't even need to look at the libretto to understand his German.  Bravo!  Raymond Wong accompanied beautifully.

The final set of songs by Gounod were performed by Mary Feminear whose rich creamy soprano recently graced the stage at Gotham Chamber Opera.  She has a lovely voice and a facility for French.  In "Sérénade" there was a beautiful arpeggiated melisma on the word "chantez".  There was plenty of excitement conveyed in "Viens, les gazons sont verts!"  Ms. Feminear was accompanied by none other than Brian Zeger himself who coaches the students of the Institute for Vocal Arts.  To hear his piano in "Venise" was to be transported; the minor key and the delicacy of the playing were enough to put us in a traveling mood.

If this description is tempting to you, watch out on the Juilliard calendar for the next Liederabend.  They occur monthly at 6PM on Wednesdays.  A better hour could not be spent--a true mid-week respite.

© meche kroop

Saturday, January 18, 2014


Lara Ryan, Kate Oberjat, Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg, Lidiya Yankovskaya, Alexandra LoBianco, Anna Noggle

A work in progress is not meant to be reviewed so let us just call this a "progress report".  Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg's opera The Sleeping Beauty has been presented previously by Chelsea Opera in a piano reading.  Now Act I has been orchestrated and excerpts were presented with the Bloomingdale School of Music Chamber Orchestra and members of the Chelsea Opera Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya.

Our test for new operas is as follows:  "Does the music add anything to the narrative".  In this case it does.  And how!  The sophistication of Mr. W.'s music belies his youth (he is barely 14) and shows skill in writing for the voice with lovely melodies and interesting harmonies and textures in the orchestra.  It is eminently listenable and accessible but not at all derivative.

The scenes excerpted from Act I included the christening of Rosamond with the Evil Wise Woman powerfully portrayed by huge-voiced Alexandra LoBianco who limned every nuance of evil.  The Last Wise Woman was portrayed by Anna Noggle whose beautiful soprano conveyed benevolence in its color; her diction and phrasing were so fine that not a word was lost.

In the second scene Rosamond (Kate Oberjat) is now a young woman wandering the castle yearning for a prince.  The use of the harp was lovely and the melismatic singing on the word "love" was gorgeous.  Lovely harmonies emphasized the phrase "his heart would link in mine".  As the young princess imagines the future there was a sprightly allegro passage.

In the third scene, our heroine encounters the Evil Wise Woman and her spindle.  The brass section foreshadows the evil to come, along with the lower strings.  And when she pricks her finger the bass drum gives us a feeling of dread.

Mr. W.'s work is being supported by a grant from the Nicholas S. Priore New Possibilities Fund, established by Leonarda Priore in memory of her brother.  What an appropriate recipient is Mr. W.!   He has a lifetime of possibilities ahead of him.  We can scarcely wait to hear the rest of the opera.

©meche kroop

Friday, January 17, 2014


Curtain call at Marilyn Horne's 80th Birthday Celebration
Whose birthday would we rather celebrate than Marilyn Horne's?  One of the dearest ladies to take the operatic stage, Ms. Horne celebrated her unbelievable 80th birthday onstage at Zankel Hall in a celebration anyone would envy.  Surrounded by adoring friends who contributed their voices to the evening's celebration onstage and witnessed by worshipful fans, she should have been installed in a royal box.  We felt thrilled to be in her presence and a bit sorry for the throngs outside begging for extra tickets.

The program for the evening was devised by Matthew Epstein, Martin Katz and Jeremy Geffen; it comprised songs and arias that Ms. Horne made famous, and some that she loves to hear--Baroque, Broadway and in between.  Carnegie Hall has been home to Ms. Horne's presence for over half a century and plays host to The Marilyn Horne Legacy.  Hosts for the evening were the delightful mezzo Frederica von Stade and "silver fox" bass-baritone Samuel Ramey who took turns reading from a script that attempted to summarize Ms. Horne's glorious life.  Collaborative pianists for the evening were the esteemed Warren Jones and Martin Katz.

Mezzo Jamie Barton impressed with her musicianship, her vocal colors and unique chocolate sound--rich and creamy in Mahler's "Urlicht" from Des Knabens Wunderhorn; later she melded her marvelous sound with that of countertenor David Daniels in "Son nata a lagrimar" from Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto.  Mr. Daniels also sang one of our very favorite baroque arias "O del mio dolce ardor" from Paride ed Elena.  He also sang one of Ms. Horne's favorite songs "Blackberry Winter" by Alec Wilder, demonstrating that popular songs can achieve the same status as operatic arias when sung beautifully and without straining for special effects.

Mezzo Isabel Leonard contributed the tender Montsalvatge lullaby "Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito" from Canciones Negras.  We always love to hear Ms. Leonard sing in Spanish; it always just sounds "right"!  That being said, we were delighted to hear her aria from Rossini's La Cenerentola, "Nacqui al'affanno--Non più mesta".  She fearlessly attacked the lavish fioritura  with pinpoint accuracy and consummate phrasing.  But, of course, we expected nothing less of her.

Two sopranos also made a fine showing--the lovely Brenda Rae whom we haven't heard since enjoying her Violetta in Santa Fe last summer and Renée Fleming who tore herself away from a rehearsal and performance at The Metropolitan Opera.  Ms. Rae sang the charming "Lied der Delphine" by Schubert with its riveting climax and later wowed the audience with "O beau pays de la Touraine" from Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots.  Undaunted by the runs and skips and trills, it was a goosebump-making performance.

Ms. Fleming sang "Träume" from Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder with its foreshadowing of his opera Tristan und Isolde.  Later she sang the charming duet "Lippen schweigen" from Lehár's Die Lustige Witwe with tenor Piotr Beczala as her romantic interest.  Mr. Beczala also sang Beethoven's passionate song "Adelaide" and made it plain why he is in such great demand onstage these days.

Baritone Lester Lynch sang the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" and "Zion's Walls" and also the wonderful and very sad Verdi aria "Eri tu" from Un ballo in maschera.

There were two unexpected treats on the program: Ms. von Stade and Mr. Ramey performed Lerner and Loewe's "I Remember It Well" from Gigi.  These two veterans injected new life into the delightful duet.  To bring the evening to a rousing conclusion, the famed vocalist Barbara Cook ascended the stage with her accompanist Lee Musiker and sang Arthur Butler's "Here's to Life"; a more fitting tribute to the Birthday Girl could not be imagined.

The curtain call was a real love-fest with Ms. Horne embracing every single artist in turn.  To Ms. Horne we would like to say "Cent'anni"...can one imagine THAT celebration!!!!

©meche kroop

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Mary Feminear reclining atop Joseph Eletto, Benjamin Lund, James Edgar Knight and Alex McKissick (photo by Michael DiVito)
Put together writer P. G. Wodehouse's witty words, composer Jerome Kern's elegant music , pianist and raconteur Steven Blier's narrative gems, and seven singers from Juilliard and what do you get?  Transatlantic champagne, that's what you get!  It was an effervescent New York Festival of Song evening at Juilliard's Peter Jay Sharp Theater-- "The Land Where the Good Songs Go" and the audience lapped it up like thirsty puppies.

Sopranos Mary Feminear and Raquel González were joined onstage by mezzo Hannah McDemott, tenors James Edgar Knight and Alex McKissick and baritones Joseph Eletto and Benjamin Lund.  What fun to hear these operatic voices try their wings at something new.  There is not only depth but breadth in Juilliard's Vocal Arts Program

The show was directed by Mary Birnbaum who, we surmise, was responsible for the clever choreography and hilarious hijinks onstage.  Hal Cazalet, great-grandson of Mr. Wodehouse, was onboard for coaching and Greg Utzig contributed some string sorcery by way of guitar, banjo, mandolin and ukulele.

Some solos were true standouts:  Mr. Eletto's "My Castle in the Air" from Miss Springtime, accompanied by some delicate filigree by Mr. Blier on the piano; Ms. Gonzalez' singing the original "Bill" from "Oh, Lady, Lady"  (this lighthearted version later altered and darkened by Oscar Hammerstein II for Showboat);  Mr. Knight's hilarious "Napoleon" from Have a Heart, and Mr. Lund's "The Land Where the Good Songs Go" from Oh Boy! and recycled for Miss 1917.

Our favorite duets were Ms. Feminear and Mr. Eletto's performance of "Tell Me All Your Troubles Cutie" from Miss 1917, "We're Crooks" from the same musical performed  by Mr. McKissick and Mr. Lund, and the humorous "You Never Knew About Me" from Oh Boy! performed by Ms. McDermott and Mr. Knight.

Mr. Wodehouse also wrote with Cole Porter and the ensemble performed their "You're the Top" from Anything Goes.  He also wrote with George Gershwin and as encore the ensemble performed "Oh Gee, Oh Joy" from Rosalie.

Mr. Wodehouse's fame as a writer of songs that have endured for nearly a century was eclipsed by his Bertie and Jeeves books.  What a gift Mr. Blier & Company have given us by resurrecting these gems.

© meche kroop


Joseph Lim
Last night's Spotlight Recital as part of "The Song Continues" featured baritone Joseph Lim who has been making quite a name for himself at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and winning prizes from the Met National Council and the Gerda Lissner Foundation.  And he also won the hearts of the audience when his recital encore was dedicated to Ms. Horne herself--the brothers Gershwin's  1927 "Embraceable You".  This entire week has been a celebration of Ms. Horne's (unbelievable) 80th birthday.  As she herself said on Monday "I'm still here!" and we are glad of it.  After her very major opera career she has used her time, energy and talent to guide the next generation of singers and collaborative pianists at The Music Academy of the West.  A big big hurrah for this grande dame!

Mr. Lim's final set of songs was our personal favorite of the hour-long recital.  Ravel's Don Quichotte à Dulcinée offers the singer an opportunity to portray many moods--the grand and the intimate, the funny and the reverent.  Mr. Lim seized the opportunity and ran with it.  In some mighty fine French, he was undaunted by the low-lying phrases and clearly connected with the material.  We loved the delicate decrescendo on the final "amen" of "Chanson épique" and the humorous "Chanson à boire".

His opening set of songs were by Tosti and it took awhile for the unfussy Mr. Lim to open up his creamy baritone and invest the songs with the expansive Italianate style that is called for.  "Non t'amo piu" sat well on his voice and by expressing its passion he demonstrated that he has the goods.

Just this past Saturday night we reviewed Jazimina MacNeil singing Schumann's Liederkreis, op.39 and were delighted to hear it so soon afterward sung by a baritone to different effect.  Mr. Lim's delivery of "In der Fremde" was very moving and in "Zweilicht" we enjoyed some lovely word coloring that we want to hear more of from this fine young singer.  For example, in "Waldesgespräch" we yearned to hear greater differences between the voice of the seductive man and the voice of the Wood Witch.  In any event, Mr. Lim showed fine volume control and lovely phrasing.

We found his German diction somewhat inconsistent.  He was meticulous about pronouncing the final consonants with a few exceptions.  The "er" ending sounded like an "uh" which is commonly called a "schwa".  And the "ich" (the bane of many American singers as well) was on the muddy side.  These tiny quibbles sound nit-picky in the face of the overall delight of the recital but we would feel remiss in letting slide an easily correctable flaw in so fine an artist.

The esteemed pianist, coach and educator Brian Zeger was the collaborative pianist for the recital and, as usual, his playing was sensitive, authoritative and marvelously relaxed.  There is nothing like experience!

© meche kroop

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Caleb Stokes, Kyle Pfortmiller, Laura Pfortmiller, Jason Plourde, Monica Niemi, Jeffrey Mandelbaum, Jill Dewsnup, Jennifer Moore, Sarah Heltzel
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble has much of which to be proud.  Dedicated to nurturing emerging opera singers and helping them bridge the gap between academia and stageworthiness, they can rightly take pride in the success of their alumni.  Last night nine alumni of their program took the stage and presented scenes from various operas.  Such talent deserves to be celebrated and the informality of the event felt very much like a celebration.

We were delighted to witness Kyle Pfortmiller's interpretation of Papageno as a tipsy fellow growing tipsier with each verse.  He elected to sing an English version entitled "I'd Give My Finest Feather" which, we were relieved to learn, rhymed, sang well and fit the melody.  No credit was given for the translation but it was a good one and Mr. Pfortmiller used his charming personality well and engaged the audience.  His fine baritone voice is versatile as we learned later in the program when he sang Marcello's duet with Mimi from Act III of Puccini's La Boheme.  Mimi was sung by Laura Pfortmiller and she created a sympathetic character with her generous soprano.

The Act I duet from Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos was performed by brilliant voiced soprano Jennifer Moore as Zerbinetta and full-voiced mezzo Sarah Heltzel as the Komponiste.  The voices blended superbly but performing "on the book" always strikes us as a barrier between singer and audience.

The same issue detracted from the final duet and trio from Verdi's Luisa Miller.  Reprising his role as the Father, Jason Plourde was even better than last November when Dell'Arte presented a concert version of the opera.  His fine baritone and sympathetic stance make him a good choice for Verdi!  We well remember coloratura soprano Monica Niemi who performed Luisa in Act I at that same event.  We were pleased to see her transformation into the more mature and troubled young woman of Act III without any loss of luster in her brilliant voice.

Tenor Caleb Stokes sang Rodolfo and, although he sounds fine when pianissimo singing is called for, he seemed to be pushing his voice during the forte passages.  Later in the program, he came across better as the "soft-spoken" Königssohn in a scene from Humperdinck's Königskinder, an opera we adore which was presented by Dell'Arte a couple years ago to great critical acclaim.  Jennifer Moore was perfect for the role of die Gänsemagd employing her high bright soprano to portray an innocent young maiden.

Countertenor Jeffrey Mandelbaum sang "I know a bank" from Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream; he sang it beautifully and he sang it "off the book", permitting him to enact the role of Oberon and to make excellent contact with the audience.

The final scene of the evening was the final trio from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, in which Ms. Moore reappeared as the bewildered Sophie, Ms. Heltzel as the ambivalent Octavian and impressively large voiced soprano Jill Dewsnup as Die Marschallin.  She seems made for Strauss and Wagner.  The three voices harmonized to perfection conducted by Maestro Christopher Fecteau.

Maestro Fecteau, Founder and Artistic Director of Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, was a busy man all evening.  He accompanied the singers and when he wasn't at the piano he was conducting while Andrew Sun accompanied.  The musical values of the evening were excellent all around.  It was a real pleasure to get a second hearing of these talents on the rise.

© meche kroop

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Ken Noda (Christian Steiner)

Cecelia Hall (Pat Arnow)

The week of recitals, concert and master classes celebrating Marilyn Horne's birthday (she can't really be 80 and is still beautiful!) got off to a breathtaking start last night with a Spotlight Recital that literally left us breathless.  Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall and collaborative pianist Ken Noda teamed up for an hour that seemed to last but ten minutes and left us totally satisfied and yet eager for more.

The program was perfectly designed to show off Ms. Hall's numerous assets and Mr. Noda's uncanny ability to match her, phrase for glorious phrase.  The aforementioned assets are vocal, dramatic and linguistic.  Ms. Hall sang in English, Italian, German and French with equally fine diction.  A native French speaker in the audience who comes every year for this event (and is rarely satisfied with a singer's French) confirmed my favorable opinion.

Ms. Hall's vocal assets are remarkable.  The voice is pleasing to the ear and the technique is so invisible that the listener can focus on the interpretation.  And it is here that Ms. Hall shines.  She used her voice, which has as many colors as the rainbow, her facial expression and her body to communicate the text--be it sad, joyful, nostalgic or coquettish.  She demonstrated what we want every singer to demonstrate--connection with the material and connection with the audience.

The program went from the Baroque Period to the 20th c.  Let's take a closer look.  We loved the melismatic phrases of Purcell's "If music be the food of love" in which she reveled in joy and "I attempt from Love's sickness to fly" that was no less expressive.  When she sang the only existing fragment of Monteverdi's L'Arianna-- "Lasciatemi morire" we felt the pain in our own heart.

Music from the Romantic Period was handled with the same devotion.  If you wanted to know what Robert Schumann felt about his marriage to Clara Wieck, all you'd have to do was  listen to Ms. Hall sing "Widmung".  In his "Mondnacht", Ms. Hall literally spread her wings in a glorious balletic gesture while Mr. Noda created the sensation of moonlight on the piano.

And just hear how Mr. Noda created the sounds of the lark, the bees and the rustling of the linden branches in Mahler's "Frühlingsmorgen"!  Ms. Hall dedicated "Liebst du um Schönheit" to her husband and this may have been the most expressive singing of the evening and also offered her the opportunity to let loose in her upper register, to great effect. Four early songs by Schoenberg were erotic and mysterious.

The French conclusion of the recital was pure delight.  André Messager's "J'ai deux amants" from L'amour masqué allowed the singer to show her coquettish side and delighted the audience.  The lassitude of Poulenc's "Hôtel" was never made clearer nor the nostalgia of "Les chemins de l'amour".  The final selection was a 1929 cabaret piece entitled "Quand je danse avec lui" which was re-created by our talented duo from a film because the sheet music n'existe plus!  Mr. Noda's waltzy arrangement probably surpassed the original.

As encore we enjoyed the brothers Gershwin's fine song "Lorelei".  We were enchanted and emerged from the recital on a cloud of joy.

After an hour's break, Ms. Horne herself took the stage for a master class and generously coached four young singers and pianists.  We were quite impressed with mezzo Kate Jackman who gave a lovely reading of Elgar's "Where corals lie", accompanied by Mario Antonio Marra.  Ms. Horne gave her some useful suggestions about where to take her breaths and counseled her to add a little lilt to the key phrase.

Soprano Natalie Conte, accompanied by Nathan Salazar, sang Strauss' "September" and was helped to make the delivery more ethereal.  In Ms. Horne's own words "Put a halo around it".

Baritone Leo Radosavljevic, accompanied by Brent Funderburk, offered Copeland's folksy lullabye "The Little Horses" and was coached to imagine holding a baby.  Let it be noted that Mr. R.'s talent for baby-holding needed more coaching than his excellent singing!  The audience really enjoyed the spectacle.

Tenor Christian Ketter, accompanied by Marek Ruszczynski, got some fine help with Cordillo's "Core 'ngrato" regarding placement of the voice.  Ms. Horne most definitely favors placing the voice in the "mask" and the advice seems to work wonders.

As long as Ms. Horne is around, we do not have to worry about the future of the art song!  All is well in studio and onstage.  There are lots more events to come, culminating in a grand recital Thursday night at Zankel Hall.

© meche kroop

Monday, January 13, 2014


Kamala Sankaram (photo by Carl Skutsch)
Presented by Prototype for their second annual festival of new chamber works, Thumbprint is a profoundly moving work dealing with social justice for women.  An illiterate peasant woman named Mukhtar converted a tragic event into an advantage for herself and other young women; composer Kamala Sankaram (performing the lead role herself) and librettist Susan Yankowitz have converted her story into a most effective work that is musically and dramatically valid.  If dramatic liberties were taken it matters not.  There is such a thing as dramatic truth and Thumbprint has it in spades.

Mukhtar is a Pakistani woman from a small village who does what women do in that culture.  She stays indoors with her mother and sister, embroidering and cooking.  The women discuss finding a good husband who won't beat them; mama tells them that they cannot expect a man to be attractive or young since they have no dowry.

Bad news arrives; their 12-year old brother has been accused by a girl from a wealthy powerful family of "touching" her.  That this is a falsehood is of no consequence.  As is said so poetically in the libretto "Truth dies in the mouth of power".  He will be whipped perhaps until death.  The family is told that their only recourse is for a woman of his family to go to the girl's family and beg for forgiveness.  This is apparently a trick.  Her pleas are ridiculed and she is raped by four men of the powerful family.  She survives by detachment in a heart-breaking aria "This is me; this is not me".  The consequence is that she is disgraced and shamed; the only avenue left to her is suicide, which is something such victims are encouraged to do.

But Mukhtar's mother will not accept this.  She reminds her daughter that Mukhtar means courage.  The girl goes where none of her kind have gone before, having also been encouraged by the local imam.  She goes to the police and the case is brought to trial.  The wealthy family defends their position as one of tradition.  If someone dishonors your daughter, you dishonor theirs!  It is difficult for us 21st c.  Westerners to believe that people still live by such archaic codes.

Mukhtar wins the case and decides to get educated so she doesn't have to rely on a thumbprint in place of her signature.  She becomes an advocate for other women and promotes their education.

Ms. Sankaram's music is haunting and original.  Conducted by Steven Osgood, piano, harmonium, violin, viola, bass, flute and percussion are employed to create an Eastern-Western soundscape of memorable beauty.  The eminently singable vocal lines, marked by melismatic singing, are perfectly handled by the composer, by mezzo Theodora Hanslowe as the mother and soprano Leela Subramaniam as the sister.  The father was sympathetically portrayed by Steve Gokool and the other male roles by Kannan Vasudevan and Manu Narayan who were convincing in their arrogance.

Rachel Dickstein directed with a fine hand, emphasizing the concept of the heroine being on a pathway.  Kate Fry's costumes were appropriate; set design by Susan Zeeman Rogers was minimalistic.  Full attention was focused on the dilemma of the individuals.  There were video projections which we found innocuous when they were not distracting; the screen might have been put to better use for surtitles.

Anyone who reads or goes to the cinema is aware of the dreadful indignities and crimes to which women are subjected under sharia.  Can these tribal customs be fought?  Can those battles be won?  This work gives us hope.  Clearly this work earns its place by virtue of its storytelling and artistry but one cannot deny the superimposed political value of exposing evil and illuminating the courage to overcome it.

© meche kroop

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Erika Switzer, Jazimina MacNeil, Michael Brofman, Michael Kelly, Tyler Duncan
1840 was a great year for Robert Schumann.  His legal battle with Friedrich Wieck  was won and he married his beloved Clara; he composed three impressive song cycles which were presented last night at Bargemusic by the Brooklyn Art Song Society which is also having a great year, garnering praise from the press for its thoughtful programs.  In spite of the rain, wind, flooding and subway delays, the floating barge was filled with lovers of lieder who maintained exquisite silence the better to hear three gifted interpreters give their all.

The program opened with Tyler Duncan who performed the nine songs of Liederkreis von Heinrich Heine, Opus 24.  Along with collaborative pianist Erika Switzer, he conveyed the many moods in a most pleasing baritone.  The songs are about love--the anticipation, the sorrows, the bitterness of disappointment; Mr. Duncan did well conveying the passionate anger in the penultimate verse of "Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden", the bitterness of "Warte, warte, wilder Schiffman" and the gentleness of the final song "Berg' und Burgen schaun herunter".  The final verse of the latter draws a comparison between the lover and a river that conceals darkness and death in its depth--a painful ending to be sure.  Ms. Switzer matched his skill continually and beautifully conveyed the pounding of the poet's heart in "Lieb' Liebchen, leg's Hänchen".

Mezzo-soprano Jazimina MacNeil did equal justice to Liederkreis von Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, Opus 39.  From the first phrase of "In der Fremde", one could sense her total immersion in the text with its profound feeling of alienation.  A quick change to bliss followed in "Intermezzo".  Our personal favorite was "Waldesgesprächt" which permitted Ms. MacNeil to change colors from the seductiveness of the man and the revenge of the witch Loreley.  We also loved the joy of "Die Stille" and the gentle expansiveness of "Mondnacht".  There was not a single false note in the emotional content.

Ms. Switzer also got to show her stuff especially in the different types of rustling.  In "Schöne Fremde", the treetops rustle and we heard a different sort of rustling of the brooklet in "In der Fremde".  Hunting horns could be heard in "Im Walde" and the excitement of triumph was heard as the cycle ends with the poet claiming his beloved.  There was one heart-stopping moment of the cycle in "Auf einer Burg" which limns the stone statue with ponderous chords, evokes a wedding party then in one line mentions that the bride is weeping.  One is left with unresolved feelings as the music never quite resolves.  Piano and voice just seem to hang there suspended.

The final cycle of this generous program comprised baritone Michael Kelly's performance of Dichterliebe, Op. 48, setting of texts by Heinrich Heine.  From the very first phrase we recognized the voice of an artist.  His light baritone has a beautiful tenorial quality and was employed with a depth of expression that left us hanging on every word.  Mr. Kelly somehow manages to caress each word as if he could taste it; and therefore we do as well.  The excitement of "Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne" was palpable.  The ponderousness of the cathedral in Köln could be felt as well as the tenderness toward the Virgin Mary.  The false gaiety and irony of "Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen" could not be missed, nor the hyperbole of the burial of the angry old songs in a huge coffin in the final song "Die alten, bösen Lieder".

Mr. Kelly's totally fulfilling performance involved Michael Brofman, the Founder and Director of the Brooklyn Art Song Society, as collaborative pianist, a role in which he too shines brightly.  We particularly liked his work in "Ich will meine Seele tauchen" and his fleet fingering in "Und wüssten's die Blumen"; he brought out the lyricism of the memorable melody of "Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen" that we cannot get out of our head.  The two artists make a fine pair!

What a wonderful programming feat it was to assemble three magnificent song cycles and three magnificent singers to share them with the audience!  As long as Mr. Brofman and BASS are around we do not have to worry about the future of art songs in the USA.  Long may they thrive!

© meche kroop

Saturday, January 11, 2014


Michael Slattery, Erin Sanzero, Melissa Wimbish, James Shaffran, Amanda Crider, Keith Phare and Jonathan Blalock lying on the floor. (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)
Here in New York City in 2014, we love our misfits.  But in 1906 Pittsburgh, they did not.  Willa Cather's short story "Paul's Case" is an incisive study of a high school student who is just such an outlier.  Prototype has presented an opera with the same title that musically and visually illuminates this character study.  Composer Gregory Spears has written music that reflects both the claustrophobic external environment and the inner world of Paul's yearning imagination; unlike much contemporary music, it avoids tedium and holds the ear from the portentous opening chords until the shattering finale.

The libretto by Mr. Spears and Kathryn Walat tells the story in an expressionistic way with much repetition which is a good thing because the English was not always intelligible.  Titles would have been welcome.

It is to the credit of tenor Jonathan Blalock that we in the audience come to understand this strange young man who was apparently dropped down the wrong chimney.  Motherless since birth, he is acutely aware of being out-of-place and hides his contempt for his bourgeois surroundings with peculiar behavior that his father and teachers cannot understand.  He wears a red carnation in his lapel, bows, smirks and manages to confound and infuriate people.  He is disinterested in school but enjoys working as an usher in Carnegie Hall (Pittsburgh) where he can enjoy music and theater and art.

Mr. Blalock misses no vocal, facial or gestural note in his portrayal.  We sense his joy as he liberates himself from his drab surroundings and flees to New York where he outfits himself handsomely in fine attire and installs himself at the Waldorf-Astoria where he finally feels as if he belongs.  Mr. Spears' music deftly underscores the expansion of his spirit.  Unfortunately his sudden wealth was ill-gotten and his theft is is discovered.  He comes to a bad end as represented by the final tableau.

His three teachers are well portrayed by sopranos Erin Sanzero and Melissa Wimbish and mezzo Amanda Crider; in the second act, in an especially delightful scene, they enact three maids at the Waldorf who are making up Paul's room.  The two sopranos also portray opera singers onstage at the theater.

Baritone Keith Phares makes a fine father, wanting Paul to succeed on his terms.  Baritone James Shaffran sang the roles of the puzzled principal and a hotel bellboy.  Tenor Michael Slattery sang the role of a Yale freshman who accompanied Paul on his night on the town.

The challenging music was conducted by Robert Wood with Keith Chambers on piano.  The string quartet was enhanced by a bass, two soulful clarinets and a harp--The American Modern Ensemble. 

The fine directorial hand of Kevin Newbury kept the movement right on target and built tension throughout the piece.  Amanda Seymour designed the costumes with fine detail for that period.  Set designer Timothy R. Mackabee kept things simple; the masterstroke was the lowering of the grid of pendulum lamps at the end, leaving the audience with a riveting image.

© meche kroop

Friday, January 3, 2014


Cullen Gandy, Daniel Curran, Yungee Rhie, Jamilyn Manning-White (photo by Richard Termine)
Pluto, god of the underworld, never permitted an arrival to his domain to return to the world of the living; no, not until Orpheus, encouraged by his father Apollo, used his prodigious gift of song to soften the heart of Pluto and charm him into releasing Eurydice.  At the Gotham Chamber Opera's production of Charpentier's 1686 work, La descente d'Orphée aux enfers, we the audience are charmed by the gift of song.

In a master stroke of site-specific staging we are invited into St. Paul's Chapel, the oldest continually inhabited building in New York, to hear one of the oldest surviving operas.  Although this is not the first opera to be based on the myth of Orpheus, (that honor goes to Peri's 1600 version) nor the most frequently performed (that honor likely goes to Gluck's l762 version) nor the favorite of early music fans (that honor might go to the 1607 Monteverdi version) it was well worth the gorgeous production it received from Gotham's completely effective production team comprising Stage Director Andrew Eggert, Set Designer Julia Noulin-Merat, Costume Designer Vita Tzykun, Lighting Designer Mark Stanley, Choreographer Doug Elkins  with projections by S. Katy Tucker.

The set was simply a slightly raised platform with a white scrim obscuring the sight, but not the sound, of eight early music specialists producing the most gorgeous sounds, conducted by Neal Goren.  The circular staircase and the balcony were put to good use for the gods Apollon, Pluton and Proserpine.  Apollon was magnificently sung by rising star baritone John Brancy, costumed in golden tunic with a curly blond wig.  Pluton and Proserpine, costumed in black with steampunk influence, were finely sung by appropriately booming bass Jeffrey Beruan and the scintillating soprano Mary Feminear.

That staircase was also used for Orphée's descent to the underworld.  Daniel Curran's winning tenor was persuasive in expressing the many moods of the young bard--joyful at his impending marriage, grief at losing his bride, imploring as he pleaded for her release.  Since the third act (in which he loses her again when he disobeys the instructions to not look back) was either never written or was lost, we the audience can leave without despair.

We have witnessed happy shepherds and nymphs celebrating the impending marriage in charming dance and song.  We have witnessed poor Euridice (lovely soprano Jamilyn Manning-White) felled by a snake bite and Orphée's grief.  We hear Apollon's advice and Orphée's pleading his case.  We thrill to Pluton's majesty and Proserpine's hard heart softening.  We see the happily reunited couple climbing out of Pluto's realm. We are satisfied without the tragic third act.

The contrast between the verdant first act and the threatening second act, which takes place in the underworld, were effectively conveyed by projections on the scrim and the spectacle of three bad boys suffering torments that were relieved by Orphée's singing.  Light-hearted shepherds were transformed into agonized souls by virtue of vocal color, scary makeup and tattered costumes.   Until we recognized the superlative voices of Cullen Gandy and Mr. Brancy, we would never have identified them.

The performance was a perfect example of all elements coming together with nary a weak link.  The Gotham Chamber Opera is known for producing unusual chamber works in unusual venues.  Our New Year's wish is that all future productions be as effective as this one.

© meche kroop