MISSION

We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, August 29, 2014

RICHARD TUCKER DAY, HOORAY!

Bryan Wagorn, Erin Morley, Nicholas Pallesen, Ailyn Perez, Andrew Stenson, Stephen Costello, Anthony Ross Costanzo and Isabel Leonard

Thursday was Richard Tucker Day and New York opera lovers lined up to attend the recital at the Ethical Culture Society; they thronged to the stage afterward to congratulate the group of singers, none of whom were a hair shy of stellar.  All were accompanied by the versatile piano partner Bryan Wagorn.

There are advantages and disadvantages to a program of arias without orchestra.  One might miss the orchestral colors but one has an opportunity to focus on the voice.  The voice, so exposed, had better shine-- and these voices surely did.  The other problem is that the artists must jump into the material without the buildup; they have no sets, no costumes, no stage business to help things along.

Last night's singers succeeded on all accounts.  Tenor Andrew Stenson opened the program with a big bang in Tonio's  famous aria from Donizetti's Fille du Regiment.  He sang it with a clear ringing tenor and an abundance of enthusiasm. The high C's were knocked off with ease and the "money note" at the end was sustained so long and so beautifully that we wondered at what underwater sport Mr. Stenson gained his breath control.

Soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer gave a most moving account of "L'altra notte" from Boito's Mefistofele and an equally impassioned "Tu che di gel sei cinta" from Puccini's Turandot.  Her impressively large voice is never harsh or forced and her characterizations were completely convincing.

Nicholas Pallesen employed his fine baritone as Enrico, showing many sides of his character's mood in "Cruda, funesta smania" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.  We heard his anger, his fear and his despair.

Ailyn Perez and Stephen Costello have become the #1 opera couple and we love to see them perform together as they did last night in two duets from Bernstein's West Side Story.  They also performed alone with Mr. Costello's fine tenor enjoying a Broadway/Hollywood break in "Without a Song" and "Be My Love".  Ms. Perez was touching in  "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante".  She absolutely nailed the faith that keeps Micaela's terror at bay.

Soprano Erin Morley, fresh from her brilliant success in Santa Fe as the titular character in Stravinsky's Le Rossignol, switched from Russian to German and was a complete knockout in selections from Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail--the aria "Marten alle Arten"--and in the duet with Mr. Stenson "Welch ein Geschick!"

Mezzo Isabel Leonard took the deceptively simple lullaby "Cancion de cuna para dormer a un negrito" by Montsalvatge and made such art of it that we were close to tears.  We love her singing whatever but in Spanish she is sensational.  We never knew that gal could tap dance but tap dance she did in an hilarious duet with Anthony Ross Costanzo--"I Got Rhythm" by the Gershwins.  Such fun!

Counter-tenor Mr. Costanzo was also heard in "Venga pur, minacci e frema" from Mozart's Mitridate.  We are extremely fond of Mr. Costanzo's unusual voice.  There aren't many around like him!

All of these sensational artists have been recipients of awards and grants from The Richard Tucker Foundation.  They are all having brilliant careers.  Foundation support is instrumental in getting a career off the ground.  Let's have a big round of applause for the RTF!

© meche kroop


Sunday, August 24, 2014

FEATHERS, FUR AND FRUIT

Seth Shirley as Lysander getting the love potion from Drew Paramore as Puck
photo by Brian Long


The score of Henry Purcell's 1692 masque opera The Fairy Queen was lost upon his death and rediscovered a bit over a century ago.  This obsolete theatrical medium has been made relevant by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble; they made good use of the directorial and choreographic artistry of the esteemed Christopher Caines.  One might say that Purcell's work was "more honor'd in the breach than the observance", to quote the Bard himself.  So, five hours was trimmed down to three, some original text restored and some contemporary references added as a framing device.  The melodic Baroque music was preserved and various types of dance included.

It must have been a challenge to find performers who could sing and dance as well. All the voices were fine but we were most impressed with sopranos Noelle McMurtry (whom we reviewed before) and Tamra Paselk (who was new to us).  They captured the Baroque style with pure tones that floated beautifully in the upper register.

We were familiar with baritone John Callison (also reviewed previously) and were impressed by how his voice has grown in depth.  It was always firmly structured and his phrasing was lovely.  Bass Andy Berry impressed with his secure sound.  Tenor Leslie Tay exhibited fine dynamic control.  Countertenor Brennan Hall was hilarious in drag in a duet with Mr. Callison in which he portrayed a maiden unwilling to be kissed.

The marvelous music was provided by The Sebastians, a well-known Baroque ensemble we have often heard at Salon Sanctuary concerts.  Co-director Jeff Grossman conducted his able musicians from the harpsichord and one could not ask for anything more. Notable were lutenist/theorbist Charles Weaver and cellist Ezra Seltzer.

The performer who virtually stole the show was Drew Paramore in the role of Puck, dba Robin Goodfellow.  We cannot sufficiently praise his wonderful dramatic skills and high energy performance.

Another high note of the evening were several pas de deux performed by Aynsley Inglis and Luke Tucker.  Classical ballet would not evolve from Baroque dance for another two centuries after Purcell's time but who cares!  We welcome any opportunity to see a beautiful couple using the vocabulary of classical ballet in such a fine fashion.

The effective framing device established by Mr. Caines is that a nanny named Carmen (Elisa Toro Franky) is walking in Central Park and her charge Ariel (Gabriel Griselj) is kidnapped by the fairies.  Not to worry, he gets returned at the end.  The fairies of Central Park just love to tease and pinch and tickle unsuspecting humans and, in this case, had a fine time with a pot-smoking slacker.

The scenes from Shakespeare were well directed and acted but the spoken dialogue lacked the poetry one would hope for.  Imani Jade Powers portrayed Titania and also Hippolyta.  Jason Duverneau enacted Oberon and also Theseus.  Seth Shirley was Lysander and Zach Libresco was Demetrius.  The scenes of their rivalry were particularly funny. Cassandra Stokes Wylie made a fine Helena but, as Hermia, Amanda Goble spoke without poetry in an unpleasant high-pitched voice.  Nonetheless, her very physical acting served her well.  A scene from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest revealed just how fine their acting skills were without the challenge of speaking the Bard's poetry.

As Nick Bottom, Andrew Gelles excelled.  The "mechanicals" were transmogrified into an acting troupe and Nick Bottom wanted to assume ALL the parts.  His transformation into a donkey was achieved with a large construction that permitted his words to be heard.  If Titania's affection for the donkey did not make you laugh, then nothing would.

Costuming by Nina Bova was exceptional.  The fanciful fairies bore feathers, fruit and fur.  The two couples with their mating problems were meant to be Dalton graduates on their way to Ivy League universities.  They were identified by Puck by means of the Brooks Brothers labels in their clothing.

The program notes, written by Mr. Caines, contained a fine description of the origins of masque opera and the history of the period from whence it arose. It was clear from the performance that he labored long and hard to apply his artistry and to make the work relevant.  He absolutely succeeded!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, August 22, 2014

OH THOSE MERRY WIVES!

Heather Antonissen, David Morrow and Marie Masters (photo by Brian Long)

The film Amadeus would lead one to believe that Salieri killed Mozart.  This is a lie. But it is the truth that we nearly died laughing over his opera Falstaff as presented by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble.  The libretto by Carlo Prospero Defranceschi departs from Shakespeare's comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor in many ways but it does preserve the theme of some high-spirited women collaborating to puncture the pride of the womanizing fat guy.  Furthermore, the lively and tuneful music serves to advance the plot.

Readers may have observed how contemptuous we are of "concept" and updating the classics; in this case we applauded it.  First of all, this is not a beloved classic that is rooted in time and place; it comes without baggage.  Secondly, it has no references to period and the only reference to place is Windsor.  Surely there are towns in the USA named Windsor.

Stage director Louisa Proske has chosen to set the opera about a half-century ago, which is nearly as remote as the late 18th c. but a lot funnier--a time when husbands were still possessive and when people could still afford servants.  Stewart Kramer's excellent titles were created by Artistic Director Christopher Fecteau, Karen Rich and J. Spence. The translation from the Italian employed modern American slang without trashing the original language.

Maestro Fecteau had his work cut out for him, lacking a decent manuscript, but the end result was some mighty gorgeous music not very different from Mozart's. With only eleven members of the Festival Orchestra occupying stage left and Maestro Fecteau conducting from the harpsichord, nothing seemed missing.  We particularly enjoyed the frothily charming overture and Samuel Marquez' clarinet solo.

Soprano Marie Masters (a winner of the Osgood/Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble Prize) brought a bright resonant sound to the role of Mrs. Ford.  Her intonation was as secure as her acting.  In this opera, Mrs. Ford is a bit naughty, or rather, mischievous.  She is curvy and dresses provocatively; no wonder Mr. Ford (tenor Erik Bagger) is suspicious.  His friends try to talk him out of his jealousy but he is relentless.

As Mrs. Ford's friend, the excellent Heather Antonissen sang in perfect harmony in her duets with Ms. Masters.  Her voice has the sparkle of a soprano and the weight of a mezzo.  Her character, Mrs. Slender, mostly supports Mrs. Ford's plot to trap Falstaff.  She has a very funny moment with a pair of floral shears in her hand.  Use your imagination!  Her husband was portrayed by baritone Scott Lindroth who was one of the finest male voices onstage; he sang with beautiful tone and phrasing.  His second act aria was superb.

Soprano Joanie Brittingham was a sprightly Betty, servant in the Ford household. Her major moments came in the second act when she imitated Falstaff trying to emerge from the ditch into which he was thrown with the laundry.

Bass-baritone Jonathan Dauermann, sporting a hippie wig, created the character of Bardolfo as an overworked and somnolent fellow.  

As the obnoxious, corpulent and bibulous Falstaff, bass David Morrow created a character that was self-important and self-deluding.  He imagines that he is irresistible to women and means to extract money from them.  In the opening ensemble, he has crashed a party and is making a complete pest of himself.

The ladies spend the entire opera making a fool of him.  But Mr. Ford also suffers the indignity of being proven wrong.  It's a rather feminist opera and way ahead of its time.  

Sets were simple and costumes seemed to be appropriate to the mid 20th c.  Which brings us to the dance moves.  There were entirely too many, not only in the party scene with its line dancing, but all through the production.  There was also an excess of mugging. At times it felt like a sit-com on TV.  But these are tiny flaws in a gem of a production.

We cannot close without mentioning the two female members of the ensemble who portrayed laundry boys.  Sara Ann Duffy and Kristin Gornstein assumed a total deadpan look and were all the funnier for it.  Brave to all the fine women onstage.

There will be one more production on Saturday.  LYAO!

(c) meche kroop



Thursday, August 21, 2014

THAT SCOTTISH OPERA

Mary Ann Stewart as Lady Macbeth (photo by Brian Long)
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's "Summer of Shakespeare" is providing an oasis of opera for thirsty opera-lovers in the midst of summer's desert.  We have only good things to say about the production of Verdi's Macbeth which was given some admirable direction by Myra Cordell.  We favor the traditional and Ms. Cordell hewed closely to period, place and dramatic intent.  (The last Macbeth we saw at the Met involved some peculiar artistic choices so we were especially pleased with this production.)  One coup de theatre that we appreciated -- when Banco is murdered, his body is left on the floor, only to rise as his ghost in the banquet scene.

Musical value were excellent all around.  Maestro Christopher Fecteau marshaled the forces of his twenty excellent musicians and from the very first oboe solo we knew that they and we were in good hands.  The strings were situated to our left and the winds and percussion at the rear of the playing area, leading to a most interesting stereophonic effect.  We particularly liked Ellen Hindson's English Horn; Barbara Allen made some interesting sounds for the witches sabbath.

Mary Ann Stewart, a winner of the Osgood/Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble prize. just about stole the show with her riveting performance as Lady Macbeth.  Her sizable soprano was used effectively with notable skill in the coloratura embellishments that lingered from Verdi's bel canto predecessors.  Moreover, her acting was first-rate as she rotated through encouragement, importuning, shaming and manipulation to get Macbeth to do her bidding. Her "Vieni! t'affretta" in Act I was a real show-stopper.

As the eponymous (anti)hero, tenor Jason Plourde was equally convincing as the weak Thane who becomes greedy for power at the behest of his wife.  One could almost feel sorry for him as he was seduced by the predictions of the witches.

The three witches were outstanding. Soprano Monica Niemi's voice rang out in clarion tones with mezzo-sopranos Elizabeth Bouk and Jackie Hayes in fine collaboration.

We are always delighted to hear new voices in small roles that we hope to hear more of in the future.  Tenor Marques Hollie sounded just grand as Malcolm; we noticed his beautiful sound earlier in the evening as part of the ensemble.  Isaac Assor, reviewed twice before at the Manhattan School of Music Summer Voice Festival, also stood out with his fine full sound.

Milica Nikcevic always gets our attention; she won the Osgood/dell'Arte Opera Ensemble prize in 2013.  And bass Hans Tashjian excelled as Banco, sounding better than ever.

With minimal resources, Nina Bova created costumes that were simple but effective.  The three "weird sisters" wore tattered capes over tights and sported wild hair and gruesome makeup.  The men wore sashes of their respective clans and Lady Macbeth a long dun-colored dress with impressive jewelry around her neck.

Karen Tashjian's simple scenic design comprised a low platform upstage, flanked by slender tree trunks.  Lighting designer Scott Schneider cleverly produced a cauldron substitute into which the three witches could throw their nasty bits.


There will be two more performances on 8/22 and 8/24.  We hope there will still be a couple seats available.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

HOJOTOHO! HEIAHA!

Scene from Die Walk├╝re--Santa Fe Opera Apprentices-Photo by Ken Howard
Ensemble from Il Viaggio a Reims--photo by Ken Howard

The second and final recital of opera scenes by the Santa Fe Opera Apprentices left nothing to be desired.  The packed house greeted these promising young artists with an avalanche of appreciative applause.  Everyone benefits since the apprentices thrive on onstage experience and profit by learning new roles.  No expense is spared in terms of production values: direction, costumes, staging and accompaniment are all first rate.  The only thing missing is the orchestra.

That was an advantage, not a deficit, in the strong opening number "Ride of the Valkyries" since the young singers were not obliged to shriek over massive orchestral forces. Clad in fabulous steampunk inspired costumes by Kelsey Vidic, the lovely ladies entered through the aisles and terraces (direction by Shawna Lucey) and joined voices for Wagner's thrilling music.  Alexandra Loutsion, Rebecca Witty, Sarah Larsen, Daryl Freedman, Bridgette Gan, Allegra De Vita, Katherine Carroll and Annie Rosen were the glamorous warrior maidens.  Manuel Jacobo and Amanda Clark were responsible for the stunning wigs and makeup design.  WOO!

That was a tough act to follow but soprano Amanda Opuszynski was a lovely Lucia in Donizetti's masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor, effectively negotiating the scale passages and acting up a storm in the scene with her brother Enrico, beautifully portrayed by baritone Joseph Lim.  The two succeeded in showing various sides of their characters and eliciting our sympathy-- both for the panicky Lucia who does not want to marry her brother's choice and for Enrico who is desperate for this political marriage to save his own hide.

Hearing baritone Ricardo Rivera and mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen animate the characters of Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer in John Adams' Doctor Atomic was a special treat.  We didn't relate at all to the production at the Met and we were surprised and happy to change our opinion.  Sung English is often difficult to understand but their diction was perfect and we didn't miss a word.  Vocally and dramatically the scene was a hit.  Kathleen Clawson directed.

Alone among the eight scenes, the one from Mozart's La finta giardiniera was updated to the mid 20th c. and made no sense at all. What director Michael Shell seemed to be going for was the awkwardness of waking up in bed with a "one-night-stand".  The audience laughed but the libretto could not be believably bent into that situation and was not what Mozart and his librettist intended.  Nonetheless, the singers sounded lovely and did what was asked of them.  Soprano Jenna Siladie was the disdainful hussy Arminda, smoking under a lamppost.  Mezzo Emma Char portrayed the importuning Ramiro.  As the two "hookups" soprano Abigail Mitchell and tenor Rexford Tester did justice to Mozart and had the audience in stitches.

The opening scene of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, directed by Bruce Donnell, took us back to more traditional territory with Rebecca Witty's lovely soprano convincing us as Amelia who believes she is an orphan.  As her lover Gabriele, tenor Daniel Bates was soulful and ardent.  Erin Levy's costumes were appropriate as to time and place.

In the trio from the final act of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, we were impressed by Joshua Conyers' firm baritone and sympathetic portrayal of Sharpless.  Julia Dawson sang Suzuki and Christopher Trapani portrayed the remorseful B. F. Pinkerton.

William Walton's Troilus and Cressida was a strange choice.  This is not an opera we would care to hear in toto but the scene from Act I was well directed by Shawna Lucey who seems to have a knack for placing singers where they ought to be.  Tenor Jubal Joslyn sang the role of Troilus and mezzo Sarah Larsen brought some beautiful tones and fine diction to her portrayal of Cressida.  Tenor Aaron Short made impressive use of word coloring as Pandarus.

The closing scene was the spirited ensemble from Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims. The spoiled aristocrats were devastated that there were no horses for their carriages to attend the coronation of King Charles X.  As is typical of Rossini, the musical excitement grows and grows. We particularly noticed the gorgeous coloratura work of Amy Owens who handled the embellishments perfectly.  The stunning empire costumes were by Lauren Pivirotto and the direction by Kathleen Clawson was charming with one exception; we did not relate to the ensemble breaking into late 20th c. dance moves.  It was jarring and anachronistic.

We would call the evening a total success and hope to see much more of the rising stars selected by the Santa Fe Opera to participate in this fine program.  Bravissimi e Gloria Tutti!

© meche kroop





Sunday, August 17, 2014

CARMEN



Ana Maria Martinez and Roberto De Blasio (photo by Ken Howard)



The current trend in opera is "concept".  Directors are falling all over themselves trying to make opera relevant, changing locations, changing time periods, doing all kinds of things to attract new audiences.  We are not among those that appreciate this trend.  Occasionally this fiddling works but more often than not the audience is left baffled.  Such was the case last night at the Santa Fe Opera's Carmen; Bizet's masterpiece was updated to mid-20th c. and moved to somewhere on the Mexican-American border, although that was only revealed piecemeal. The time is ripe for an opera about illegal immigration and the plight of Mexicans but grafting that concept onto an opera that we adore in its original time and place seemed ill-advised.

Bizet's music trumps everything else and if you closed your eyes and listened to Rory Macdonald's apt conducting of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, you might have had a fine time.  With your eyes open, you might have expected to be in Spain with vintage black and white films of bullfights projected onto the set.  The picture of the dead bull might have made you wonder if this was meant to be symbolic of Don Jose's stabbing of Carmen in the final scene. Interestingly enough, that scene does take place in an arena-like area.  But why was Carmen trying to escape through locked doors when she was resigned to dying?

Many other inconsistencies and questions about Stephen Lawless' direction distracted us from enjoying the music.  Why were the girls of the tobacco factory behind bars?  They were dressed in identical uniforms so one wondered whether they were meant to be in prison and given time in the yard for a smoking break.  Why was Escamillo's entrance so tacky, passed out on a mechanical bull?  Why was Micaela standing on the American side of a chain-link fence?  We could go on and on about the inconsistencies and ill-conceived ideas.

Carmen is not just a factory-worker (if that is even true) but she and Frasquita and Mercedes don wildly colorful costumes (by Jorge Jara) as onstage entertainers in Lilas Pastias' tavern while the customers dance the lindy to Bizet's music!  There is more coke-snorting than we would ever want to see onstage-- to no meaningful effect.  Were the smugglers smuggling drugs or were they smuggling "wetbacks".  Why are the "wetbacks" pushing the truck right up to the Border Patrol?  Did we need to see a trashy hooker distracting the border guard so a few illegal immigrants could climb the chain-link fence?

Well, let us move on to what we did like about the production.  Most of the video projections by Jon Driscoll served to open up the story in a cinematic way.  The scene of Micaela tending to Don Jose's critically ill mother gave us some insight into their relationship.  The scene of Micaela and Don Jose attending his mother's funeral showed us that Micaela still had some affection for him; she made sidelong glances meaningful.

Benoit Dugardyn's set design was simple enough not to interfere and was flexible enough to create the soldier's locker room, a prison, a bullfight arena, ramparts and a background for projections.  Pat Collins' lighting was sometimes effective,  creating shadows that highlighted the action; at other times the light fell in the wrong place and the action was cast into darkness.

As Carmen, soprano Ana Maria Martinez created a character that had very little by way of redeeming qualities.  Perhaps it is only that we prefer the role to be sung by a mezzo-soprano but her voice seemed uneven through the wide range Bizet wrote; her voice improved as the evening wore on.       Her acting was forceful but appeared to be based on something that she or the director considered to be sexy. The sexiness did not seem to come from within but rather was based on gyrations and cliched mannerism. 
Tenor Roberto de Biasio also got off to a weak start but improved vocally in the second act. He produced a fine messa di voce.  However, his acting was stiff until he reached places where he was given over to violence.  Baritone Kostas Smoriginas struggled to achieve some dignity and the arrogance the role requires; the direction was not kind to him, what with that mechanical bull and having to hold a microphone onstage and gyrate like Elvis Presley.

We liked Joyce El-Khoury's performance as Micaela; she has an expressive soprano and managed to evoke sympathy which the other principals did not.  Her duet with Don Jose was tender and their hands reaching out toward one another was perhaps the most moving moment of the evening.

The smaller roles were more effective.  Bass-baritone Evan Hughes was outstanding as Zuniga, using his booming voice, imposing height and dramatic skills to create a more interesting character than we are accustomed to.  He too has his eye on Carmen and, by the time his pants are around his ankles in her prison cell,  she has escaped.

Baritone Ricardo Rivera was a strong Morales, also making much of a role that usually makes no impression.

We liked baritone Dan Kempson as Le Dancaire and tenor Noah Baetge as Le Remendado, the two smugglers.  It was amusing to watch their interaction with Carmen's two friends Frasquita (soprano Amanda Opuszynski) and Mercedes (mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen).  Grant Neale made a slimy Lillas Pastia.

Before ending. we would like to contribute this factoid.  In Mexican bullfights, they do not kill the bull.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, August 16, 2014

DOUBLE FEATURE

Brenda Rae, Anthony Michaels-Moore and Erin Morley (photo by Ken Howard)











Erin Morley (photo by Ken Howard)











How could one make a marriage out of a 1786 Mozart singspiel and a 1914 Stravinsky fairy tale?  With great imagination!  Did the pairing work?  It depends upon who you ask.  Director Michael Gieleta has presented Le Rossignol as a production of the eponymous impresario of The Impresario and his company of performers.  The two wildly divergent works are bound together by the same cast and by the same scenic elements transformed in shape and purpose.

We have previously seen Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor but never like this.  The hijinks occurring between the frustrated impresario and his three sopranos are here performed with much additional dialogue and interpolations of additional music by Mozart.  For some reason it is given in English.  Some of the dialogue is clever and some isn't.  It comes across as a backstage farce.

Before the opera even begins, we are treated to images of Salome with Jochanaan's head and a Tosca stabbing a Scarpia.  The stage is filled with performers of various disciplines, notably a troupe of very good dancers and three sopranos vying for parts in the new production of Le Rossignol.  The time is 1914 and the place is probably Paris; the impresario himself speaks with a Russian accent and is likely a fugitive from the Revolution.  The Countess who has supported his company is assassinated in front of our very eyes and Mr. Yussupovich fears he will have to close up shop.  Baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore handled the role well both dramatically and vocally.

His business manager Otto van der Puff (bass Kevin Burdette) proposes that Mr. Y produce operas that the public enjoys instead of radical experimental works.  Ahem!  They compromise.  There will be a Don Giovanni but there will also be this new work by Stravinsky.  And that's what we get in the second half of the program.  But not before we hear the three divas perform audition arias.  Soprano Erin Morley is filled with self-confidence as Adellina Vocedoro-Gambalunghi.  Soprano Brenda Rae has an enormous amount of fun as the over-the-top Transylvanian Vlada Vladimirescu who has brought along her husband, sung by the fine tenor Bruce Sledge.

Stepping in to replace the deceased Countess is financier Heinrich Eiler (bass-baritone David Govertsen) who wants his mistress Chlotchilda Krone (contralto Meredith Arwady) to be cast.  If the names of these three divas don't make you laugh then their shenanigans will.  Ms. Arwady is particularly funny as she sings Mozart's male roles in several registers.  We were reminded of Ira Siff's La Gran Scena Opera Company, gone but not forgotten.

After the intermission, we see the same singers onstage in the same roles but a transformation takes place as the clever set design (James Macnamara) is converted into the setting for Le Rossignol.  The piano becomes a boat and Mr. Sledge becomes a fisherman.  The outrageous Poiret-influenced costumes are stripped away and Ms. Morley becomes the eponymous nightingale.  The impresario is dressed as a Chinese emperor and Ms. Rae becomes a cook.  The costumes by Fabio Toblini are as sumptuous in the Stravinsky as they were in the Mozart.

The myth taken on by Stravinsky is that of a nightingale who sings so sweetly that she brings tears of joy to the eyes of the listener.  And that is EXACTLY what Ms. Morley achieved.  Most of her part is without words, a divine vocalise.  The cook will get an important position in the Emperor's court if she brings this splendid creature.  The nightingale does enchant the Emperor and the entire court until some Japanese envoys bring a mechanical bird (the lovely dancer Xiaoxiao Wang) that astonishes everyone.

The real live nightingale flies off; the Emperor is enraged and banishes her.  But when he is on his deathbed she returns and promises to sing 'til dawn if Death will return to the Emperor his symbols of power.  She succeeds and is offered a grand reward but the only reward she wants are the tears in the Emperor's eyes.  The opera is beautifully sung in Russian.

We loved the story.  Our thoughts ran along the lines of how in today's world we have been seduced by the faux, the virtual, the mechanical/electronic.  We need the real and the natural to heal.

Not everything worked.  We found the projections of modernist art to be ugly; they distracted from the gentle beauty of the myth and the music.  The dancers, wearing fake moustaches and glasses and rolling around on the floor dressed in knee breeches didn't make any sense whatsoever.  Sean Curran was the choreographer.

Conductor Kenneth Montgomery went all the way in limning the shimmering textures and dramatic orchestration of Stravinsky's score.  If we have nothing to say about the Mozart it is because the action onstage was so distracting that the music got very little notice.

As the myth concludes, the dancers are stripped of their lavish Oriental costumes and returned to their 1914 clothes, bringing the entire affair to a mostly satisfying conclusion.

(c) meche kroop







SIX RISING STARS

Rexford Tester
Dan Kempson and Annie Rosen
Jenna Siladie and Ricardo Rivera



Amanda Opuszynski




















Six talented members of the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singers Program, accompanied by Robert Tweten, collaborated for an early evening recital that delighted the audience at the First Presbyterian Church.  The artistry of the singers was matched by the enthusiasm of the audience.

Talented tenor Rexford Tester opened the program with "Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fete" from Donizetti's Fille du Regiment.  He sang with panache and fine French diction. He nailed the nine high C's (but who's counting?)  His penchant for French continued later in the program as he sang Faure's "Lydia".

From Verdi's Falstaff, Ricardo Rivera sang Ford's aria.  Mr. Rivera has a lot of depth in his baritone, the type of voice known as a kavalier bariton; we heard an abundance of strength in the lower register, a very Italianate embouchure and an intensity of involvement with the text.

Soprano Amanda Opuszynski delighted with "Je suis encor tout etourdie" from Massenet's Manon.  Her crystalline sound was perfect for conveying the young Manon's innocence and excitement.  The embellishments were carried off with razzle-dazzle.

From Mozart's Nozze di Figaro, we heard "Crudel! Perche finora farmi languir cosi?", the duet in which Figaro (Mr. Rivera) puts the moves on Susanna, sung by the lovely soprano Jenna Siladie who later won audience acclaim with the "Silver Aria" from Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe.

Mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen was simply splendid as Rosina in her duet with the marvelous lyric baritone Dan Kempson.  In this duet "Dunque io son" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Figaro is acting as go-between so that the Count can get together with Rosina.  The pair of singers had great chemistry together and charmed the audience.

Ms. Rosen sang Schumann's "Widmung" with fine dynamic control.  We especially loved the dreamy central section.  It was nearly perfect but we would love to see Ms. Rosen get a better handle on the final "ch" in words such as ich, mich, and dich.  So many American singers seem afraid of this sound and change it to ick, mick and dick or else they drop the sound altogether.

Ms. Opuszynski was charming in her Rossini song "La pastorella dell'Alpi" and gave a fine example of yodeling, complete with echo.

Mr. Kempson was nothing short of sensational in "Pierrot's Tanzlied" from Erich Korngold's Die tote Stadt.  The nostalgic feelings were palpable and his German diction is perfect.

To close the program, the entire cast performed the ensemble "Alla bella Despinetta" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.  The program seemed all too short!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, August 15, 2014

SUN SET

Joseph Dennis and Corinne Winters (photo by Ken Howard)

A rebellious young woman enrages her father by marrying his best friend who is already married. A nation emerges from centuries of feudalism and endures chaos on its lengthy pathway toward modernity.  Do these story lines sound familiar?  Do they sound like the stuff of opera?  Yes indeed!

The Santa Fe Opera is notable for tackling contemporary operas every season and this year's entry was  the very worthy Dr. Sun Yat-Sen by Huang Ruo who composed some very interesting music made dramatic by the liberal use of percussion.  Carolyn Kuan's conducting was exemplary.

Listening to the fine singing in Mandarin (and some in Cantonese) one could easily forget how much effort went into learning a language phonetically that is so very different from European languages. Mandarin is actually a "sung" language with words having different meanings depending upon the tones which rise and fall musically.  These tones must be sacrificed to sing on the proper pitch which makes it difficult, even for speakers of Mandarin, to understand.

Notwithstanding, the superb singers rose to the challenge.  Most astonishing was the performance of tenor Joseph Dennis as the good doctor himself.  Mr. Dennis is a member of the Apprentice Program and expected to serve as cover.  In a life-changing twist of fate, he wound up the star and garnered universal praise for his exceptionally fine portrayal.  He is onstage singing in nearly every scene and the music is difficult.  He sounded even stronger at the end than he did at the start.  Such are the benefits of a healthy young voice!

As his love interest Soong Ching-Ling, the superb soprano Corinne Winters gave a sensitive portrayal of a young woman who idealized this humble doctor who gave up everything to fight for China's future.  Her voice is nicely focused and has just the right amount of vibrato.  The love duet in Act II was meltingly tender and our favorite scene.

As Dr. Sun's first wife from a youthful arranged marriage we enjoyed soprano Rebecca Witty, another apprentice getting an opportunity for a breakthrough.  Her sacrifice was to grant Dr. Sun a divorce so he could marry Soong Ching-ling.  She has a touching aria in which she tells of being neglected by her husband who was so busy with politics and often in exile.  There was even a touch of humor when she told of her wish to marry an ordinary man in her next life.

As Charlie Soong, Ching-Ling's father, Gong Dong-Jian employed his bass well, both in friendship for Dr. Sun and later in rage when he felt betrayed.  As his wife, mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick was a sympathetic character and we particularly enjoyed her scene with her daughter as papa lay dying. Charlie's reconciliation with his daughter was most touching.

The Japanese friends of Dr. Sun, Mr. and Mrs. Umeya, were portrayed by baritone Chen Ye Yuan and apprentice mezzo-soprano Katherine Carroll.

Should you know what was going on in China at the time that the United States and Europe were involved with The Great War, you would recognize how the libretto by Candace Chong simplified a very complicated story; there were long years of chaos and revolution as Dr. Sun labored to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and establish a democratic government.

But this is opera and such simplification is necessary. Sufficient it is to know that this humble idealist is still regarded as the father of his country, not only by the Chinese but also by the Taiwanese. The libretto was somewhat static with not much happening onstage. Director James Robinson did what he could to move the story along.

The set was designed by Allen Moyer with the outstanding element being bamboo scaffolding, symbolic of construction and change, erected on both sides and rear of the stage.  Other elements comprised a few pieces of period furniture.

The gorgeous costumes by James Schuette accurately depicted what was worn by both privileged Chinese women and by Westerners at the turn of the 20th c.  One could appreciate the style changes that occurred during the scenes set a couple decades later.  Much research must have been done.

The addition of dancers was an excellent choice as they illustrated the hard lives of the peasants during the feudal period.  Sean Curran's choreography bound the scenes together.

It was a genuine pleasure to hear a contemporary opera with great music.  It was also a great pleasure to hear it sung in Mandarin.  Translated into English, the dialogue would have sounded silly.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, August 14, 2014

STARS OF AMERICAN BALLET




It's only been a half-dozen years since Daniel Ulbricht, principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, founded a small touring company comprising predominantly principals and soloists from NYCB.  This impressive company was brought to Santa Fe by Performance Santa Fe for two performances.  Last night's program was filled with artistry and athleticism and tonight's program promises to be equivalent or maybe even better.  If you are fortunate enough to snag tickets you are in for a treat.

We will not tell you which dancers are principals, which are soloists and which belong to the corps de ballet because each one was superb in his or her own way.  We have enjoyed these fine dancers in New York City but we enjoyed them even more in the relatively small Lensic Theater.  There is nothing like being up close and personal; thus we were quite willing to sacrifice the presence of a live orchestra.

Because of our predilection for the classical in all things, let us begin with the sensational Odette/Prince Siegfried adagio duet from Act II of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, choreographed by Balanchine, after Ivanov. Teresa Reichlen has the perfect body for classical ballet with beautiful long legs, arched feet, long slender neck, flexible back and a soft porte de bras.  We loved the way she fell back into the waiting arms of her Prince, Ask la Cour, always a fine partner.

The Black Swan Pas de Deux from Act III was performed in the Petipa choreography by Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild.  Ms. Peck has a more athletic body and was perfectly centered for the famous fouettes.  (Thirty-two but who's counting?)  While Odette is gentle and sad, Odile is conniving and seductive.  It is challenging to let the audience in on this while convincing Siegfried that she is Odette, calling to mind Odette's avian qualities. Mr. Fairchild also makes a fine partner and excelled in his variation.  There was a rather confusing mix and match of dancers for the variations but no one seemed to mind.

Another classical piece we loved was Opus 19. Andante which the talented young choreographer Emery LeCrone created to music by Rachmaninoff.  The work was classical, very evocative and was perfectly danced by Emily Kitka and Russell Janzen.  It is admirable that the company is giving a chance to young choreographers.  We are always delighted to see a piece by Ms. LeCrone, a fine dancer in her own right.

Along different lines, Mr. Ulbricht himself performed the world premiere of an unnamed work choreographed by Justin Allen to music by Rodrigo y Gabriela.  His remarkable athleticism evoked some wildly enthusiastic applause by thrilled members of the audience and we were among them. The work fit him so well it appeared that he himself had choreographed it.

Balanchine's Who Cares? to music by Gershwin, adapted and orchestrated by Hershey Kay, gave everyone a chance to show off Balanchine's quirky and jazzy additions to the classical vocabulary.  We always enjoy the adorable Megan Fairchild who performed a lovely solo to "My One and Only".  The entire cast dazzled in the final number "I Got Rhythm".

After the performance, the audience was invited to come down to the stage for a "meet and greet" with the artists.  Now THAT'S something that doesn't happen in the Big Apple!

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

BEETHOVEN'S ONE AND ONLY

Alex Penda and Paul Groves (photo by Ken Howard)
How is it that Beethoven only wrote one opera and spent a dozen years doing it?  It must not have come easily to him.  Indeed, he rewrote the overture to Fidelio several times and the opera as well.  It premiered for the first time in 1805 in Vienna which was, at that time, under French rule.  Largely influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution it was denied performance by the censors and only achieved production due to the intervention of Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa.

This was an unusual choice for the Santa Fe Opera.  Although it is considered an opera, it has a great deal of spoken dialogue.  Although it has a happy ending it is not a comedy.  It has two major themes: the sacrifices of marital love and freedom from tyranny.  It's message is as valuable today as it was 200 years ago.

The orchestral music is as ravishing as anything Beethoven ever wrote and the Santa Fe Orchestra under the baton of the illustrious Harry Bicket (newly appointed Chief Conductor) did it justice with clean textures and rhythmic thrust.  The vocal lines are memorably melodic but challenging to sing; the game cast managed to carry it off with style.

The staging began even before the overture and introduced Leonore, disguised as Fidelio and serving as assistant to the jailer Rocco.  We also get to see Rocco's daughter Marzelline fussing about the kitchen of Charlie Corcoran's two-story set.  Jaquino, Rocco's other assistant, is importuning Marzelline to make marriage plans but she has fallen out of love with him and fallen into love with the recently arrived Fidelio.  One by one the voices join for a stunning quartet.

As Marzelline, the strong and silky soprano of Devon Guthrie (seen as an apprentice in 2010 and 2012) contrasted well with the sharper-edged soprano of Alex Penda as the titular Fidelio.  Ms. Penda was totally convincing as a young man but she is also very petite and at least a head shorter than Ms. Guthrie.  Yes, it is true that sometimes very tall women fall for very short men but it did look rather unbelievable onstage.

As the nice-guy jailer Rocco, Austrian bass Manfred Hemm sang with intensity and created a believable character.  As the spurned Jaquino, tenor Joshua Dennis used his fine voice and dramatic skills to make more of the role than is customary.

Leonore's husband does not appear until the second act but tenor Paul Groves made up for it, giving his all to his difficult aria and still managing to look as if he'd been in a dungeon for two years, imprisoned by his vicious enemy Pizzaro, portrayed with nasty gusto by bass-baritone Greer Grimsley.

Appearing at the end as a deus ex machina, Don Fernando comes to free all the prisoners.  The powerful and imposing bass-baritone Evan Hughes filled the shoes well.  Two members of the Apprentice Program made fine showings in brief solos as prisoners: the marvelous young tenor Joseph Dennis and the astounding bass Patrick Guetti.  We fully expect to see both their careers advancing rapidly.  So much talent at such a young age!

Not enough fine things could be said about the chorus, enacting prisoners desperate for freedom. Susanne Sheston gets big props as Chorus Master.

In spite of the superb orchestral and vocal performances we found Stephen Wadsworth's concept and direction to be distressing.  It is true that oppression exists everywhere and in all epochs but we fail to see how the Nazi holocaust has much to do with the political imprisonment of a small group of people. The concept was revealed gradually.  At the beginning it seemed to be anytime/anywhere but then a portrait of Hitler was exposed and Nazi uniforms appeared.

We found this to be at odds with the intentions of Beethoven and his librettists.  (There were several as he continually revised the opera.)  It seemed to be a graft that did not take.  We would have preferred a less specific setting that would have allowed us to make our own connections.

Furthermore, there are references to "the King".  Huh??? Which King?  And British soldiers coming in to liberate the prisoners and to hang the Union Jack? We don't like to see operas manipulated to fit into a Procrustean bed.

We liked Mr. Corcoran's realistic set.  On the ground floor were Fidelio's room and across a passageway, the kitchen.  Behold Ms. Guthrie as a drab German hausfrau! (Costumes were by Camille Assaf).  On the upper level were Pizzaro's office and some kind of waiting room.  Colors were all grey.

Duane Schuler's lighting was effective.  We liked the torches illuminating the dungeon and the sunlight when the prisoners were freed.

German diction was so perfect that subtitles were scarcely necessary.  Even the spoken dialogue was crisp and clear.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

EIGHT GEMS

Hailey Clark and Dan Kempson in Thais
Patrick Guetti, Joseph Dennis and Alexandra Loutsion in Ernani


Denise Wernly and Jack Swanson in Two Boys
Katherine Carroll and Shelley Jackson in Anna Bolena












What is so impressive about the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program, directed by David Holloway, is the high quality of the performances that are given towards the latter part of the season.  The apprentices, gifted young singers all, have been meticulously chosen for their outstanding gifts and given a great deal of coaching that will enable them to move on to the next stage in their careers.  They appear in the SFO's five operas as chorus members and also in small roles.  Sometimes they are given the opportunity to step in for an ailing or otherwise unavailable star.  But, at the very least they get to perform on one of two Sunday evenings for a most enthusiastic packed house.

It is a win-win situation. The Apprentices appear to be having a great time and so does the audience. The young singers work with superb coaches, directors, conductors and pianists.  The scenes are given an entirely professional treatment down to the lavish costuming. It's a great introduction for opera newbies who get to see excerpts from eight different operas from different periods and in different languages, an outstanding opportunity to guide their future opera-going.

Sunday evening's program began with the opening scene from Rossini's Cenerentola in which the heroine Angelina (the winsome Sishel Claverie) sings a sad song which annoys her frivolous stepsisters (the very funny Lindsay Ohse as Clorinda and the equally funny Shabnam Kalbasi as Tisbe). The generous heroine behaves sympathetically toward a beggar who is actually the Prince's tutor in disguise (Tyler Putnam) while the step-sisters are disdainful.  Benjamin Sieverding was hilarious as Don Magnifico, the father.  We loved the voices and Bruce Donnell's direction as well as Eileen Chaffer's witty costumes.  Mr. Holloway himself appeared in the chorus.

Comedy gave way to tragedy and Italian was replaced by French in the death scene from Massenet's Thais.  Dan Kempson as the monk Athanael evinced a fine facility for the long level lines of the French language and Hailey Clark as the eponymous heroine sang as beautifully as she looked . There was irony here as Thais has been converted from her wayward ways to Christianity and Athanael has fallen in romantic love with her.  Kathleen Clawson directed with simplicity and directness.

A contemporary opera in English--Nico Muhly's Two Boys--was next on the program and Jack Swanson made a fine Brian, convincing as a 16-year-old seduced by the internet.  Emma Char portrayed the policewoman trying to fathom the stabbing tragedy while Denise Wernly and Lindsay Ohse portrayed Fiona and Rebecca, two "virtual" characters.  The voices were excellent and Lauren Pivirotto's costumes were apposite.

Gian Carlo Menotti's The Last Savage was given an hilarious reading with fine direction by Kathleen Clawson and lavish costuming by Andy Jean.  Kitty was played by Bridgette Gan and the hunky savage by Calvin Griffin.  Kitty's father Mr. Scattergood was played by Tyler Putnam, the Maharajah by Benjamin Sieverding, the Maharani by Daryl Freedman, their son Kodanda by David Margulis, and the woman he loves by Heather Phillips.  In this very funny septet, lives are rearranged and a few surprises are revealed.

A very moving scene from Donizetti's Anna Bolena showed off the dazzling bel canto techniques of two promising young women.  Shelley Jackson portrayed Anna and Giovanna was sung by Katherine Carroll.  We heard it sung at The Metropolitan Opera in the 2012-2013 season and thought these two young artists handled the roles at least as well.  In this scene, Giovanna reveals to Anna that she herself is the rival for Enrico's affection and tries to persuade Anna to save her own life by confessing to adultery.  Anna refuses and eventually pardons Giovanna.  Not only did we hear vocal pyrotechnics but witnessed some very affecting acting on the part of both.

Then it was time for some comedy of the German persuasion--a scene from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in which the sassy and flirtatious Zerbinetta (the adorable and vocally thrilling Amy Owens) tries to teach the dour Ariadne how to "nimm es nicht so schwer".  Her suitors were delightfully portrayed by Shea Owens, Alec Carlson, Adrian Kramer and Peter Tomaszewski.  Siri Nelson gave Ms. Owens just the right costume for this commedia dell'arte role.  Shawna Lucey directed with just the right touch.

More German followed in a romantic scene from Franz Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow.  Camille (Yoni Rose) has been having an illicit affair with Valencienne (Jenna Siladie) the young and restless wife of the elderly Baron Zeta.  It is time for them to separate but they decide to have one last kiss. What a charming scene!  The fine singers were elegantly costumed by Joanie Ming in true period style.

The final scene of the evening was a riveting one--the scene in Verdi's Ernani in which the bandit Ernani (the superb tenor Joseph Dennis) comes to the castle of the nobleman Da Silva (the astonishing bass Patrick Guetti) to rescue his beloved Elvira (the equally astonishing soprano Alexandra Loutsion). Imagine Ernani's shock when he learns they are about to wed.  At first he believes her to be unfaithful so he gets to enact a changes of mood when he learns that she planned to kill herself at the marriage altar.  Silva is shocked that the stranger to whom he has offered hospitality is his rival but he decides to hide Ernani from King Charles V (also a suitor of Elvira) for some later revenge.  Everyone gets to enjoy Verdi's challenging vocal lines; no one failed the challenge.  Michael Shell directed with a firm hand and Kelsey Vidic designed some gorgeous costumes.

The evening was over way too soon; we could have enjoyed eight more scenes. Actually we WILL get to enjoy eight more scenes since we have decided to stay on in Santa Fe for next Sunday's Apprentice Recital. Each and every artist we heard is a prime candidate for a successful opera career.  The Santa Fe Opera has chosen well!

(c) meche kroop

Monday, August 11, 2014

IT'S ALL ABOUT LOVE

In Sun Suh and Brenda Rae
The captivating and versatile soprano Brenda Rae performed a recital yesterday under the auspices of Performance Santa Fe with the gifted pianist In Sun Suh as her partner.  We loved Ms. Rae last year as Violetta; we loved her this year as Norina; we loved her in this recital.  We are trying to imagine what new kind of material she will do next but we are sure we will love it.

The recital comprised mainly songs about love in its many flavors and colors and Ms. Rae did justice to them all with her expansive and expressive voice and her communicative skills.  To open the program we heard five songs by Schubert.  We particularly enjoyed her opening number "Liebe schwarmt auf allen Wegen".  The text is by Goethe and espouses a truism that love is easy but fidelity is difficult to find.  The shift from major to minor in the piano was accompanied by a delicate shift in coloring from Ms. Rae.

"Heimliches Lieben" expresses a sanguine sentiment while "Vergebliche Liebe" expresses a more disappointed sentiment.  We adored the gentle contentment of "Du bist die Ruh" with text by Ruckert. In "Delphine" we focused on the stellar playing in the piano.

Mozart's concert aria "Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio" involved a woman pining for a man and has an exciting vocal line going up into the stratosphere.  We appreciated the exciting timbre of Ms. Rae's voice, her dynamic control and her phrasing.

But it was the three songs by Richard Strauss that really demonstrated what this major talent can do. Her voice seems made for Strauss.  The ethereal "Die Nacht" left a lasting impression.  In "Morgen", Ms. Suh's piano created a dreamy mood like a cushion for Ms. Rae's voice. "Morgenrot" is a joyful paean to the beloved decorated with some graceful arpeggios in the piano.

The recital closed with a half dozen songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff of which Ms. Rae graciously related she had heard first from her friend Erin Morley, another one of our favorite sopranos who was also in the audience.  "At Night in My Garden" revealed some delicious descending chords in the piano. The sadness of "To Her" gave way to the sweetness of "Daisies".   The final song "A-oo" was filled with anxiety in both voice and piano and seemed not to resolve.

Thus, we were very happy to have Strauss' "Amor" as an encore.  Perhaps this was our favorite of the entire recital.  The wild flights into the upper register perfectly suited Ms. Rae's splendid technique.
This recital was the final entry in Performance Santa Fe's Festival of Song.  Perhaps next year we will extend our stay to encompass the entire festival.  The artists chosen were all of the highest caliber.

If you have not yet seen Ms. Rae as Norina in Donizetti's Don Pasquale, we urge you to do so. Perhaps you will enjoy the production more than we did but you will definitely agree on the quality of the singing.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, August 10, 2014

BEHOLD THE DON

Zachary Nelson, Alek Shrader, Brenda Rae and Andrew Shore (photo by Ken Howard)


One doesn't need to be a music scholar to enjoy Donizetti's music.  All one needs to win over the audience is a group of stellar bel canto singers who can animate his abundant melodies and provide the embellishments we so dearly adore. Such was the case last night at the Santa Fe Opera when a quartet of masters of the genre provided two and a half hours of unending vocal delights in a production of Don Pasquale.  Arias, duets and ensembles tumbled over each other like rushing waters over stones creating bubbles and effervescence to tickle the ears of the audience.

Consider British baritone Andrew Shore who inhabited the role of the eponymous hero, an "aging" man approaching seventy who methinks wants an heir and just maybe a playmate.  He falls victim to the machinations of the wily Dr. Malatesta who proposes his "sister" Sophronia, fresh out of a convent, shy and modest, dedicated to sewing, cooking and embroidery.

What we in the audience know, and Don Pasquale does not, is that Sophronia is really Norina, the young widow loved by his nephew Ernesto.  The Don is peeved with Ernesto who has refused to marry the wealthy widow chosen by himself.  By way of retaliation, Don Pasquale means to disinherit his slacker nephew and find his own wife. What is interesting about the character created by Mr. Shore is that he evokes our compassion.  He is not a doddering old fool but just more than a bit gullible.  His generous voice is never used solely for effect and he easily rises above the over-the-top stage business he is required to perform.  This is an artist at work, or rather, at play.

As the conniving Dr. Malatesta, baritone Zachary Nelson, a former member of the Apprentice Program who rose to stardom within the year, justified our early faith in his talent.  His fine voice was employed with great style and his acting skills were no less than Mr. Shore's.

Brenda Rae, so admired last year as Violetta, showed a completely different side of herself as the strong and manipulative Norina who will get what she wants by any means, fair or foul.  Her dazzling soprano was taken to dizzying heights with florid displays of bel canto technique, always used to build character.  She has trills that thrill and executed the plethora of runs with pinpoint accuracy.

Tenor Alek Shrader, whom we so heartily enjoyed four years ago as Albert Herring, possesses not only a gorgeous instrument but a real flair for comedy.  In Act II, his solo aria made a huge impression even as it began offstage.  He has lovely phrasing and no fear of high notes which he performs effortlessly,  Those of us who witnessed his winning Tonio at the Metropolitan Opera National Council  were not surprised.  This astounding young man was made for Donizetti.

Corrado Rovaris led the orchestra through Donizetti's sprightly music.  From the opening theme played on the cello we knew we were in good hands.  Melodies were beautifully articulated.

With such fine musical values and four superb voices such as these, we could have closed our eyes and happily shut out the unattractive sets by Chantal Thomas and the equally boring costumes of Laurent Pelly who also directed the production.  Having seen several of Mr. Pelly's productions, we can not consider ourself a fan.  Onto this delightful period piece, so largely attuned to Italian dramatic history and commedia dell'arte, he has imposed a concept that clashed with the story and did nothing to illuminate the characters.

He has set the production in some vaguely modernist  period and indeterminate land in which there would be nothing unusual about a man in his 60's seeking a trophy wife and in which we do not speak of horses, carriages and stables.  He has directed the show with a superfluity of shtick, or should we say slapshtick.  Don Pasquale wields his cane as a violin bow.  Why?  Norina is shown smoking, drinking, and vomiting in contempt over the romantic novel she is reading and from which she is supposed to be deriving inspiration.  Ernesto is depicted as a toddler with "the terrible twos", having a tantrum on the floor.  In a lengthy scene of his departure from his uncle's house he is shown struggling with suitcases that open and spill out his clothes, a scene suggestive of Abbott and Costello.  When Malatesta visits Norina to set up the nasty plot, he pockets her underclothes and a shoe.  Again, why?  To what end?

The four principals gamely followed through on the direction and it was only their fine voices that allowed them to rise above the ridiculous direction.  But that ridiculous direction distracted from the music and made us dislike the characters and to not care what happens to them.  We want to love Ernesto and Norina!  We want them to triumph over adversity, even if Uncle gets a painful lesson.  Instead, we found our sympathies tilted toward Uncle.

The set appeared suitable for farce with wildly uneven doors through which characters entered and departed as if in the game of Whack-a-Mole.  That is, when they were not walking through walls that weren't there.  In Act II, the set was turned upside down to symbolize....well, you can guess the obvious can't you?

Strangely, the audience laughed constantly and seemed to be having a grand old time--even when poor Mr. Shrader was obliged to climb a precarious ladder to hang a paper moon over the garden which, in Mr. Pelly's world, doesn't even have a plant.

So, we give the singers and musicians all A's and Mr. Pelly's production a big fat F for failure.

Let us add that the chorus of Apprentice Singers performed admirably and Calvin Griffin made a fine Notary.

To all those who admire Brenda Rae as much as we do, she is giving a recital this afternoon at 4:00 for Performance Santa Fe at St. John's United Methodist Church.  We will be there with review to follow.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, August 9, 2014

PAUL GROVES IS FEELIN' IT

Joseph Illick and Paul Groves
We sometimes get teary-eyed at an art song recital when a song is very sad, but at yesterday's Performance Santa Fe recital we wept from the sheer beauty of witnessing an artist totally in touch with his material and completely able to communicate with his audience.  One might raise that comment by the power of ten in order to convey the intensely intimate experience created by tenor Paul Groves and his piano partner Joseph Illick, Artistic Director of Performance Santa Fe and wearer of many other hats. Mr. Illick introduced Mr. Groves by saying that an opera singer makes the best interpreter of art songs. After that recital we are inclined to agree.  Every song on the program became a drama in miniature.

Henri Duparc was a troubled soul, as Mr. Groves shared with us, a man who burned most of his works. Very little survives and he is best known for sixteen songs that are perfect miniatures and which appear consistently on recital programs.  Yesterday Mr. Groves brought them to vivid life by his mastery of the French style with its long even lines.  Any young singer wanting to succeed in the French repertory would do well to study Mr. Groves' technique.  It appears effortless, belying the amount of hard work it must have taken.

Mr. Groves' tenor has a steel-strong core that seems covered in velvet.  The initial song of his Duparc set was the highly dramatic "Le manoir de Rosemonde"in which the poet (de Bonnieres) moves from passion to resignation and Mr. Groves emphasized first the steel and then the velvet.  The contrast was chilling.  "Extase" allowed the delicate line of Mr. Illick's piano to interact with the equally delicate vocal line. Mr. Illick shone again in the arpeggios of "Chanson triste".  In "Soupir", we swooned over the final diminuendo.  But it was "Phidyle" that stole our heart.  Mr. Groves obviously loves words and enjoys communicating their significance.  Just listen to what he did with the word "repose"!  Magic!

Our tears gave way to smiles when he moved on to Britten's Folksongs.  "The Brisk Young Widow" related the tale of a courtship gone awry.  "Sally in Our Alley" made us care about the light-hearted goofy young lover waiting for his apprenticeship to end so he could wed.  Next we heard about "The Lincolnshire Poacher" and his war with the gamekeeper.  The entire set transported us to the British Isles in days of yore.

We have heard Liszt's Victor Hugo Songs many times but enjoyed them particularly well as performed by Mr. Groves without any breaks.  "Comment, disaient-ils" is a sprightly ditty about three riddles.  The closing song of the set "Oh! quand je dors" was perhaps the most affecting.  Just hear how our wonderful tenor shed his special light on the word "s'eveillera"!

The recital ended with three songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff, of which our favorite was "Oh, Never Sing to Me Again" with sad homesick words penned by Pushkin.  The piano and vocal lines echo each other in an avalanche of unbearable suffering.  It offered Mr. Groves the opportunity to show off some lovely and haunting melismatic singing.

Lest the audience leave on a tearful note, Mr. Groves performed the delightful "Au fond du temple saint" with the fine baritone Kostas Smoriginas.

Both will be heard onstage at the Santa Fe Opera so stay tuned for upcoming reviews  We are particularly looking forward to hearing Mr. Groves as Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio.

(c) meche kroop