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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

SIX LANGUAGES

Eric Malson and Joo Won Kang


We confess to being overwhelmed with the wealth of vocal talent in New York City.  Sometimes a young artist has something special that sets him or her apart.  In the case of baritone Joo Won Kang it is the way he sings from the heart.  There is never a shadow of doubt that his thoughts connect deeply with the text and his body, with the music.  We don't mean that he gesticulates wildly or dances about the stage; on the contrary, he exhibits an economy of movement.  But one does get the impression that he is inhabiting the song physically.

His recital last night at The National Opera Center was the first of this season's Emerging Artist Recital Series and coincided with Opera America's second anniversary--a fitting celebration indeed!

Mr. Kang is the McCammon Voice Competition Winner of the year and comes to us from the Fort Worth Opera and the Opera Guild of Fort Worth. Notable to us New Yorkers is the fact that he received his Master's Degree from the Manhattan School of Music; several faculty members were in attendance to cheer him on.

Mr. Kang has a strong but mellow baritone, rich and sweet like a wonderful cup of coffee.  He uses it wisely with fine technique of which the listener is made unaware.  He sang in German, English, French, Korean, Italian and Spanish--all with fine diction.

He opened his program with Beethoven's "Adelaide", a song that disproves the commonplace remark that Beethoven was not a melodist.  Such a charming song!  His "purpurblättchen" gave us a nearly synesthetic experience; he is a master of word coloring.

"Pierrot's Tanzlied" from Korngold's Die tote Stadt showed off Mr. Kang's gorgeous legato (how rare in German!) and was filled with longing.

Gerald Finzi's Let Us Garlands Bring sets Shakespeare's texts to some quite lovely music and expresses many moods, all of which Mr. Kang captured--the morbidity of "Come away, death", the fatalism of "Fear no more the heat o' the sun, and the frisky joy of "O mistress mine" during which Mr. Kang's excellent piano partner Eric Malson let loose with some fine pianism.

With fine French style, Mr. Kang performed Poulenc's Chansons Gaillardes.  Perhaps, however, it was the three Korean songs which touched him (and therefore us) most deeply, especially the last one with its deeply felt homesickness.

To cap the evening, Mr. Kang sang one of our very favorite baritone arias "Di Provenza il mar" (from Verdi's La Traviata) in which Germont père tries to manipulate his wayward son into giving up his scandalous affair with Violetta and return to the family fold.

But there was more to come as Mr. Kang generously offered two encores, one prepared and one more that the wildly enthusiastic audience demanded.  We were overjoyed to hear some Spanish--"Amor, vida de mi vida" from the zarzuela Maravilla composed by Federico Moreno Torroba.  Now we yearn for the entire zarzuela!

"Some Enchanted Evening" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific ended the recital and the title could not have been a better description of our evening.

© meche kroop

Monday, September 29, 2014

GIULIO GARI ANNUAL GALA WINNERS RECITAL

GIULIO GARI

The memory of this fine tenor lives on by virtue of the admirable work of The Giulio Gari Foundation; they provide awards, grants and performance opportunities to young singers on the cusp of major careers.  Few opera goers acknowledge the intense hard work that goes into career development and the high cost of lessons and coaching. We witness the end results and neglect the means.  It was up to Stephen De Maio and Licia Albanese to get together with Gloria Gari to honor Mr. Gari's memory in the best way possible, ensuring that the baton will be passed to younger generations.

The Giulio Gari Foundation presented their awards yesterday to as fine a group of young singers as we have heard. As a matter of fact we have been fortunate enough to have heard many of them before and were thrilled to have the opportunity to hear them again. . The winners we heard deserve every accolade they received. The foundation chose wisely and well; needless to say, each singer chose his/her material wisely and well, with an eye to showing off his/her own particular vocal range and style.  Piano partners Arlene Shrut and Mikhail Hallak partnered the singers with panache and versatility.

First prize winner Marina Costa-Jackson was saved for last. Without drawing any comparisons, let us just say that her family has astonishing musical genes which, along with dedication and hard work, resulted in a stirring performance of  "Stridono lassu" from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci; her gorgeous soprano evoked the flight of birds so envied by Nedda whose life is constrained, to say the least.  As she began, her rich low notes suggested those of a mezzo but then her voice soared into the sky with the most gorgeous vibrato and top notes.

Second prizes were won by Michelle Johnson and Chloe Moore, both sopranos.  Ms. Johnson sang "Io son l'umile ancella" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur and caressed each word and phrase with her silky sound which opened up beautifully in the crescendo.  Ms. Moore used her bright and shiny voice in "La Gavotte" from Massenet's Manon.  When she opened up at the top of the register we thought all the glasses in the room would break.

The brilliant bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, third prize winner, performed "Riez, allez, riez du pauvre ideologue" from Massenet's Don Quichotte with a big round tone and fine French diction.  We made sure to learn how to pronounce his name because we are going to be hearing a lot more from him.

Fourth prize was won by the excellent baritone John Viscardi who sang "Ya vas lyubil" from Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame; his performance was filled with Russian soul.  Oh, how we dearly love Tchaikovsky!

Fifth prizes were won by sopranos Elise Brancheau and Ewa Plonka Nino.  Ms. Brancheau performed Micaela's aria "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvant" from Bizet's Carmen.  Her fine vocalism and acting captured the faith-based courage of her character.  Ms. Nino did justice to "Acerba volutta" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. We enjoyed her pianissimo as much as the grand crescendo in which she spun a beautiful tone.

Grant winners were also on the program and every single one excelled.  Bass-baritone Leo Radosavljevic captured Figaro's outrage with his fine voice and expansive personality as he performed "Aprite un po' quegl'occhi" from Mozart's Nozze di Figaro (which we heard at the Metropolitan Opera and reviewed last night).

Soprano Liana Guberman and tenor Riad Ymeri harmonized perfectly in the tender duet "O soave fanciulla" from Puccini's La Boheme.  We enjoyed the depth of feeling they expressed.  We fondly recall Ms. Guberman's beautiful realized Mimi last season at Loft Opera.

Another brilliant duet was performed by soprano Mia Pafumi and tenor Mingjie Lei--"Una parola, O Adina" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore. Their characterizations were as admirable as their voices, both of them fearlessly tackling the fioritura. Both have sweet light voices, perfect for those roles.

We loved the way mezzo Shirin Eskandani realized the character of Rosina as she performed "Dunque io son" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia; she tore into the fioritura with gusto. Her Figaro was the fine baritone Christian Bowers; his reactions were priceless.   Instead of writing notes, they sent messages to Lindoro via cellphone.  The audience loved it.

The fiery duet from Donizetti's Anna Bolena--"Ah! Qual sin cercar non oso" was well performed by mezzo Lisa Chavez and baritone Jarrett Ott.  We always love a good bel canto duet and last evening we reveled in an embarrassment of riches.

Last but by no means least, we thrilled to the sound of trumpets.  That is we thrilled to the sound of "Suoni la tromba" from Bellini's I Puritani.  What thrilled us particularly was the big bass sound of Patrick Guetti and baritone Jamez McCorkle. Mr. Guetti, whose performances  we have enjoyed on several occasions, strikes us as one of those "stage animals" from whom one cannot takes one's eyes and ears.

Not only were we thrilled by the quality of the entertainment but we had the pleasure of experiencing the honoring of two renowned singers who have contributed so much to young artists--Marilyn Horne and Richard Leech, both of whom had interesting things to say.

And then...as they say...dinner was served. We would like to honor The Giulio Gari Foundation for their generous contribution to the world of opera.

(c) meche kroop



Sunday, September 28, 2014

LOVE AND MARRIAGE, MOZART STYLE

Ildar Abdrazakov and Isabel Leonard (photo by Ken Howard)

What is there new to say about Mozart's most perfect opera, Nozze di Figaro? It is not only a story of wily servants triumphing over clueless aristocrats; it is also the story of four couples in different stages of their relationships.  Hormonal Cherubino is in the flirtation stage; by the end of the opera he will be betrothed to adorable Barbarina.  Clever Figaro and charming Susanna are madly in love and about to wed--but touched by jealousy.  The nasty lascivious Count Almaviva cheats recklessly on the once-spunky but now lovelorn Countess.  Grumpy Dr. Bartolo and his grasping housekeeper Marcellina were once lovers and will be reunited by circumstance.

Sir Richard Eyre's new "Upstairs/Downstairs" production at the Metropolitan Opera is, for the most part, rather wonderful.  There is a lot going on onstage; during the overture, we see one of the Count's conquests hastily grabbing her clothes and running offstage and, as the grand turntable stage makes its turns, we see servants going about their business.  Characters are always motivated for their "stage business".  Although the production brings out the darkness in the Beaumarchais tale (so magnificently adapted by Lorenzo Da Ponte), there is an abundance of humor in this stage business.  

For unknown and irrelevant reasons, Eyre has elected to set the story in the 1930's. This is not a damaging update; perhaps there were Counts in 1930's Spain and perhaps Cherubino was being sent off to fight in the Civil War.  Whether the droit de seigneur still existed, we know not.  It may not have even existed in Mozart's day and perhaps was used by Beaumarchais with dramatic license.  The real problem with setting the opera in the 30's is the unflattering hairstyles and costumes.  Poor Susanna looks just like every other female servant in the house.

Maestro James Levine received a grand ovation from the audience, actually waved at his adoring fans and gave his customary illustrious performance.  The cast worked well as an ensemble and were almost entirely wonderful.  Chief among the wonderfuls was mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard who seems to own the role both vocally and dramatically.  She just keeps getting better and better.  This time, her sense of humor appeared sharper.  Just to watch her portraying a youth dressed in women's clothes and teetering on high heels was a major treat.

Ildar Abdrazakov made a delightfully sympathetic Figaro with his rich bass filling the cavernous Met.  Baritone Peter Mattei gave a rather darker and more brutal take on the Count and sounded just about perfect.  Soprano Marlis Petersen created a likable Susanna. Only soprano Amanda Majeski disappointed as the Countess.  Vocally, her voice seemed undersupported; she seemed to struggle with Levine's slow tempi in her big arias. We longed to see some of the spunkiness of Rosina and some of the dignity of her position in life but the performance seemed distant and lifeless.

Robert Pomakov made a terrifically pompous Dr. Bartolo and Susanne Mentzer shone as Marcellina.  Greg Fedderly was deliciously oily as the snooping gossipy Don Basilio.

Last but not least, Ying Fang, a member of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, fulfilled the demands of the role of Barbarina better than any we have ever seen.  Her lovely focused soprano and astute acting were a joy to behold.

Although we disliked the costumes, we give kudos to Rob Howell for his imaginative turntable set.  It permitted characters to be seen as they moved from one room of the house to another and lent an overall freedom to the drama.  Paule Constable's lighting was alright but we wish more had been done with the sky behind the house. The action takes place during one long day and the passage of time could have been indicted rather easily.  That dawn lasted forever!

To those readers who think I am opposed to new productions, these opinions may serve to indicate otherwise.  Eyre's production certainly shed light on the darkness of the score and also on Mozart's negative take on males in general.  In this production, everyone is scheming.  Sometimes funny, something not so funny.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

WHITE BOX-BLACK BOX

Jamie Van Eyck and Katharina Hagopian

Artistic values triumphed last weekend when R.B. Schlather directed a unique presentation of Handel's Alcina--and without sacrificing musical values, thanks to a strong cast of singers and  an octet of fine musicians under the direction of Geoffrey McDonald who conducted with admirable verve.

The atmosphere was casual with musicians and conductor clad in grey t-shirts and a mostly young audience crammed into a black box space painted white.  The stage at the far end was raised high enough for everyone to have a good view and the singers entered from below.  Scenography by Paul Tate DePoo comprised only a short staircase and the head of a fierce wild boar mounted on a side wall, representative of one of Alcina's lovers whom she had transformed. JAX Messenger's lighting was atmospheric.

Costumes by Terese Wadden were vivid, colorful and whimsical.  The sorceress Alcina (Katharina Hagopian) appeared in slinky black with a huge black hat, then in snakeskin and later in a flowing blue caftan and an eerie white wig (hair and makeup by Dave Bova).  Her sister Morgana (Anne-Carolyn Bird) was dressed like a Disney princess with a tiny crown and red sequined shoes.

The knight Ruggiero (Jamie van Eyck in travesti) wandered around in a red kimono, dazed and confused by Alcina's magic spell.  His lover Bradamante (Eve Gigliotti) comes to Alcina's magic island disguised as her own brother, complete with funny moustache and an eye patch. She is accompanied by the knight's old tutor Melisso (David Adam Moore) intent on rescuing Ruggiero.

Oronte (Samuel Levine) is Morgana's lover but in true observation of Baroque gender confusion, Morgana drops him in favor of Bradamante, now called Ricciardo.  Got all that?  It's just one small part of a long and fantastical epic poem called Orlando Furioso written in the 16th c. by Ludovico Ariosto. The segment Handel used in 1735 involves a lot of attractions, deceits, betrayals, rejections, reconciliations, revenge, and gender confusion.

Mr. Schlather made the story interesting by directing his singers to be highly physical with the physicality accompanying the heightened emotions of the text. The young singers handled this well in every case while still managing Handel's elaborate embellishments with aplomb. The voices were excellent and the parts well cast.  The artists worked well as an ensemble.  

Some touches we loved were Morgana's LED-lit magic wand and the way she wielded it, and the magic fruit substituted for the magic ring, a device meant to counteract Alcina's magic spell and to restore Ruggiero to sanity.  There were as well some directorial touches that we failed to fathom.  We didn't grasp why Bradamante appears to Ruggiero in clothes that Alcina had worn, unless we were meant to see her through Ruggiero's mistrustful eyes.  And Melisso at one point appears in one of Alcina's costume with a white mask through which he seems to be inhaling a drug that makes him "stupid".

The small orchestra comprised a string quartet augmented by a bass, a harpsichord and a pair of oboes.  We found no fault with the music and particularly loved  what is arguably the best known of the arias "Verdi Prati", beautifully sung by Ms. Van Eyck.

Titles by Steven Jude Tietjen were barely legible during Act I but with the dimmer lighting of Act II were fine.

Although we can get pretty testy when a director tampers with The Ring Cycle or La Traviata, in the case of a rarely produced opera with such a nonsensical plot, we welcome originality and had a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, September 22, 2014

EVE QUELER AND FRIENDS

Musa Ngqungwana, Yunpeng Wang, Ashley Kerr, Shirin Eskandani, Rochelle Bard and Eve Queler


Could the season of vocal music have gotten off to a better start than the Musicians Emergency Fund recital at Alice Tully Hall?  We think not.  Maestra Eve Queler and her fine Opera Orchestra of New York served as background to showcase five superlative singers, all of whom we would happily listen to over and over again. The Opera Orchestra of New York has a long and venerable history in New York City, having presented over 100 operas in concert version and the Maestra has proven her worth, not only as a conductor, but as someone with a great ear for emerging stars. Similarly, the Musicians Emergency Fund has a history going back to the Great Depression and has also brought talent to the public's attention.

The five singers could not have been better chosen, nor could their material which, in each case, served to highlight the singer's special skills.  Let us begin with the sopranos.  Everything sung by Rochelle Bard was nothing short of sensational.  Her glamorous appearance served to augment her vocal skills as she portrayed the eponymous Tosca in Puccini's masterpiece. Her "Vissi d'arte" was deeply emotional and heart breaking.

In"Vivi,ingrato" from Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, her portrayal of an outraged and betrayed woman was so intense that the audience broke into wild applause before the cabaletta.  

This versatile young artist showed off the most beautiful legato in "D'amor sull' ali rosee" from Verdi's Il Trovatore, which ended in a thrilling trill.  As encore, she sang "The Vilja Song" from Franz Lehar's  The Merry Widow.

Soprano Ashley Kerr showed off a gorgeous instrument and an impressive French style in "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's Louise.  She exhibited fine dynamic control and when she sang the word "delicieusement" we thought that was the perfect description of her manner of performing. 

In an entirely different style, she sang Donna Anna's aria "Non mi dir" from Mozart's Don Giovanni; her fioritura was just about perfect. In yet a different vein, she performed Musetta's aria "Quando m'en vo" from Puccini's La Boheme, always a great showpiece.  And "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's Rusalka was another showstopper that revealed Ms. Kerr's seamless transitions throughout the registers.

Mezzo-soprano Shirin Eskandani turned in an excellent performance of "Non piu mesta" from Rossini's La Cenerentola; what made it a standout over other ones we have heard is that her fioritura seemed to emerge from deep within the generous character of the heroine, happy at last and ready to share her joy with everyone. And who wouldn't want to hear "Parto" from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito sung by such a talent.  We wanted to hear more!

There wasn't a tenor onstage but we never missed it because the two male singers were so outstanding.  Baritone Yunpeng Wang opened the program with "O Lisbon" from Donizetti's rarely heard Dom Sebastien which he sang in fine French, making every word clear, a great advantage since there were no translations.  Mr. Wang has a most pleasing tonal quality and ample coloring as he shifted from longing to passionate outbursts.

From Verdi's  La Traviata, his "Di Provenza il mar" was consummately persuasive, coming from a deep place of a father's anguish.  The legato line was a delight and had us wondering whether Mr. Wang is the Verdi baritone we have been waiting for.

Bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana pleased us with one our favorite arias from Puccini's La Boheme.  In "Vecchia zimarra", Colline is bidding farewell to the beloved overcoat he is about to pawn to raise money for the dying Mimi's medicine. He sang this with superb dynamic control and deeply felt grief.

In another mood entirely, his "Serenade" from Gounod's Faust employed the desirable word coloring that makes the devil so chilling.  The "Ha, ha, ha, ha" made our hair stand on end.

His interpretation of Leporello's "Catalogue Aria" from Don Giovanni was original.  We are accustomed to a Leporello who is sick and tired of his master's hijinx and humorously ironic in this aria.  Mr. N. presented the character as serious, severe and nearly menacing.  It was difficult to evaluate presented as a stand-alone but it was surely well sung.

The final work on the program comprised a duet between Mr. N. and Mr. Wang.  "Suoni la tromba" from Bellini's I Puritani offers some delicious harmonies and long lyric phrases.  The voices blended well and all that was missing was some connection between the two artists.

Maestra Queler led her orchestra as well as we have come to expect and we heard some lovely solos emerging from the orchestra.  The wonderful thing about opera (well, ONE of the wonderful things) is that each time you hear an aria you hear something new.  Yesterday, for us, it was some beautiful clarinet work in the "Parto".

To have so much talent onstage in one afternoon felt like an embarrassment of riches.  But we are gluttons for pleasure.  It was like the old adage about champagne--even if you have an excess, you can never have enough.  And if you didn't leave this recital walking on air, you must have been wearing cement shoes!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, September 19, 2014

DOWN IN THE VALLEY

Alexandra Haines, John Kaneklides, Terina Westmeyer, Eric Barsness

The Delaware Valley Opera has been providing live opera performances for residents of the Upper Delaware River Valley and Western Catskills for a quarter of a century, fostering both local talent and the emerging young singers to whom we are so very devoted.  Their summer residence is in Narrowsburg, NY and if we were given to driving we would surely have made the trip.  With our non-driver status, we were relegated to attending their benefit last night, right here in NYC.

Several performances knocked our proverbial socks right off our feet.  We have written before about tenor John Kaneklides about whom, if you haven't heard already, you will very soon.  If you recall the early performances of Rolando Villazon you will know exactly the delights of which I am speaking.  His ringy-pingy tenor, backed by some fine technique and intense involvement with the text, made Edgardo's desperate aria from Lucia de Lammermoor ("Fra poco a me recovero") feel like a stab in the heart. 

New to us but impressive were two very different sopranos.  Terina Westmeyer is one of those big beautiful girls with big beautiful voices, seemingly on the path to roles as a Verdi soprano.  One doesn't often hear arias from Verdi's Attila sung during recitals; her "Santo di Patria" was delivered with a penetrating and powerful sound that set the concert hall vibrating.  Admirable was her flexibility in the fioritura and her dramatic commitment that held the stage.

Alexandra Haines has a very different light lyric soprano that has a youthful brightness just perfect for Susana's final aria in Nozze di Figaro.  We liked the fine resonance and her expressive manner.  There was a lovely change of color toward the end when Mozart shifts to the minor key for just one phrase before ending in a glorious burst of major key exuberance.  Our only cavil regards the use of the music stand.  We hope that the next time we hear her she will have memorized the material and won't have the need for that "security blanket".

We do not have the same enthusiasm for bass Eric Barsness.  He certainly has the low notes but his unattractive voice sounded reedy in the upper register.  More serious is his lack of expressiveness.  We had a hard time staying interested and found our ears reaching out to the expressive piano of Christopher Berg.  The lack of color in his voice was relieved only occasionally and, similarly, the lack of movement vocabulary.  We found this astonishing since Mr. Barsness has a background in dance and choreography.  We generally admire people with the courage to branch out in a new direction but wish that he had brought some terpsichorean influence into his career change.

Part of the problem was his choice of material.  Although we have enjoyed other bass' performance of Sarastro's arias, we have never related to Brahms' "Vier ernste Gesange" with their rather stuffy texts from the bible.  We did hear some variety of color in "O Tod, wie bitter bist du".  The Charles Ives songs, usually so colorful, left us cold.  We missed the childlike excitement of "Circus Band".  In "Tom Sails Away" we missed the narrative engagement we usually experience.

And now…for the big surprise!  Readers may have realized that we have little affection for contemporary compositions but we heard an unusual work that we absolutely loved--loved for the clever text by Mary Griffin and for the apposite music composed by Joe Hannan.  There was a perfect marriage of text and music and a real ability by Mr. Mr. Hannan to write for the voice.  And there was HUMOR!

The work is called Christina the Astonishing and, since we only heard about half of it, we are left with a craving to experience the work in toto.  It is a retelling of the 13th c. biography of Christina, hilariously dubbed the Patron Saint of Psychiatrists by Pope John XXIII in 1950.  Thomas de Cantimpré's biography, written shortly after her demise, describes a shepherdess who died in 1224 and returned to life at her own requiem mass during the Agnus Dei.  She purportedly was sent back to earth to bear terrible sufferings on behalf of the tormented souls she had seen in hell.  Right!

In Ms. Griffin's libretto, Christina (Ms. Westmeyer) appears as a bag lady in NYC in our own times, scorned on the streets and subways.  Even her biographer (sung by Mr. Kaneklides) suspects that her sanctity is insanity.  Ms. Haines with her angelic soprano was just right as An Angel and Mr. Barsness took the role of god.

The work opened with the quartet sounding like church bells in perfect harmony with overlapping voices contributing more delights. Mr. Berg's marvelous piano was augmented by James Byars on the English Horn.  We consider this performance a musical triumph.

As encore, Mr. Barsness sang one of Mr. Berg's own compositions, a setting of Frank O'Hara's lightly humorous poem "Lana Turner Has Collapsed".  He seemed to come to life at this point.  Perhaps irony is his strong suit.

© meche kroop

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

LUCY DOES TENNYSON


Anton Nel and Lucy Rowan

In 1864, Richard Strauss was born; in the same year Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote his poetic tale Enoch Arden, as part of a collection called Idylls of the Hearth. Strauss would set this moving tale to music in 1890, writing music that underscores and illuminates the drama by means of leitmotivs.

We have Manhattan School of Music to thank for bringing this masterpiece before the public in the capable hands of pianist Anton Nel and the thrilling voice of actress Lucy Rowan who narrated the spellbinding tale.

It concerns three children growing up in an English seaside town.  One can hear the waves breaking on the shore in Strauss' descriptive music.  Annie is friends with both Enoch and Philipp.  When they grow up Annie marries Enoch.  They have three children; the last one is sickly. He goes to sea and, due to a shipwreck, is gone for ten years.  Annie believes him dead and marries Philipp.  

When Enoch finally returns he witnesses his children all grown up with Annie and Philipp happy together.  With major self-sacrifice, he steals away and the family, by his own intention, does not learn of his survival and return until after his death. 

Ms. Rowan and Mr. Nel made perfect partners and kept us spellbound for the duration.  Can no one write like this anymore?

The program also included selections from Claude Debussy's Preludes, Book 2, works just as beautifully descriptive as the Strauss and stunningly performed by Mr. Nel.

© meche kroop

Sunday, September 14, 2014

FEED YOUR HEAD

THE QUEEN OF HEARTS (Photo courtesy of Ballet in Cinema)


We adore story ballets but haven't seen a worthwhile one since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's 20th c. Romeo and Juliet.  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, presented by the Joyce Theater Foundation and performed by The National Ballet of Canada, stands ready to assume the mantle of the quintessential story ballet of the 21st c.

Credit for the adaptation goes to Nicholas Wright who starts the ballet with a scene revealing the circumstances of Lewis Carroll's writing the book for young Alice Liddell--or at least a dramatic recreation of it.  He has "aged" Alice into puberty and given her a love interest, Jack the gardener's son, a choice her domineering mother is quick to dismiss.

The reviewer at The New York Times had a problem with this artistic choice (among other criticisms) but we thought it made the ballet work.  In the prologue, young Jack is given a jam tart by Alice, at which point the mother exiles him; this justifies his being tried for theft as the Knave of Hearts in the final scene of the dream.  The story itself becomes Alice's dream  in which she works through a number of issues which plague adolescents--body changes, rebellion against maternal authority, puberty, and acceptance of responsibility.

A minimal knowledge of psychoanalytic theory allows one to understand the mother's anger when Jack gives Alice a RED rose, symbolic of menarche and sexual maturity. The mother wants everything WHITE for innocence.  Alice's dream about falling down a hole can be seen as a descent into the unconscious, a place where she can work through her anxieties and wishes.

Alice's confusion is understandable as she sometimes feels smaller and unable to "open the door" and sometimes feels so large that she is crowded into a tiny space. Her guide, the White Rabbit, is unpredictable.  Her mother appears as the evil-tempered and threatening Queen of Hearts who dominates her passive husband. (Can you guess why the Queen is revolted by the Duchess' sausages?)  The King of Heart's "hail Mary pass" is Alice's wish that her father stand up to her mother. Alice's assumption of responsibility for the theft of the jam tart is an indication of her growing maturity.

Many more such references are present but it isn't necessary to recognize them to relish the wild and wonderful theatrical effects--the disappearing Cheshire cat, the Busby Berkeley flowers in the garden, the tap-dancing Mad Hatter, the tumbling cards, the voyage in a paper boat, etc. Bob Crowley's designs never failed to enchant, while telling the story.  The costumes were colorful and imaginative.

The choreography by Christopher Wheeldon's struck us as some of his best.  We particularly admired his use of humor.  In an homage to the Rose Adagio in The Sleeping Beauty, the Queen of Hearts balances on point while accepting a jam tart. Using the vocabulary of classical ballet to tell a story is an art we prize highly. Needless to say, the dancing was extraordinary.  There is incredible depth in the corp de ballet.

The music by Joby Talbot, conducted by David Briskin and performed by the New York City Ballet Orchestra,  always underscored the action.  We are not sure why The Times found this too obvious ; we enjoyed it immensely, including the sound effects which seemed to emanate from all over the Koch Theater.  Sound Design was by Andrew Bruce.  Projection Design was by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, Lighting Design by Natasha Katz.

(c) meche kroop









Saturday, September 13, 2014

OH, SUSANNAH!

Shannon Jones and Steven Fredericks (photo by Kate Hess)

Carlisle Floyd's l955 opera Susannah premiered at Florida State University where Floyd was on the piano faculty; we are trying to imagine how the audience of that day took it.  While not exactly "backwater", Tallahassee (home of FSU) is rather far from liberal New York and the 1950's were not exactly famous for sexual liberation.

The opera was produced again at FSU in 2005.  "Autres temps, autres moeurs." We noticed on the FSU website that the university will not tolerate sexual violence. Could it be that the opera affected university culture?

Last night we attended a fine performance by Utopia Opera, the fans of which vote on which operas should be presented for the upcoming season.  No opera is too challenging for Director William Remmers.  Coming in November will be L'Italiana in Algeri.

The story is a brutal one and much of the music is brutal as well.  There is a great deal of dissonance in the orchestra, except for the welcome interludes of lyricism given to the folk music, some of which was composed by Floyd to sound like folk music, as in "The Trees on the Mountain", beautifully sung by soprano Shannon Jones, who turned in a lovely multidimensional performance as the eponymous heroine.

The poor girl, just 18 years old, is an orphan, raised in dire poverty by her much older devoted brother ; they seem to survive on what he can hunt and trap.  The repressive fundamentalist religious community she inhabits in rural Tennessee is, as one might suspect, composed of small minded people who judge her harshly on account of her lovely appearance and the alcoholic tendencies of her brother Sam, brilliantly portrayed by tenor Adam Klein (who also served as dialect coach).  

A quartet of church women (Jennifer Allen, Mary-Hollis Hundley, Mary Molnar and Sarah Marvel Bleasedale) gossip about her at a church square dance while their husbands, elders of the church (Glenn Friedman, Brian Long, Victor Ziccardi and Matthew Walsh), are paying more attention to her than their wives would like.  The green-eyed monster is a dangerous beast indeed!

A new preacher Olin Blitch (superb bass-baritone Steven Fredericks) comes to town hell bent (pun intentional) on saving souls, using every manipulative trick in the book to frighten the congregation with threats of eternal damnation.

The quartet of elders, searching for a suitable creek for baptismal purposes, espies Susannah bathing NUDE!  Overcome by lust, they cover up their feelings with indignance and accusations.  The acting in this scene was particularly fine; their words expressed outrage but oh, how they stared.  They even persuade her friend Little Bat (tenor Mitchell Roe) to lie and accuse her of seducing him.

Blitch tries to get her to confess but she isn't buying it; she knows she is innocent. When her brother is away for the night, Blitch rapes her with disastrous consequences.  No spoilers here!

Polymath William Remmers (both Stage Director and Music Director, not to mention engaging M.C.) led the orchestra of twenty with a huge sound that threatened to overwhelm the small sized Lang Hall.  But they did not drown out the three principals who had large intense voices and forceful personalities.

The chorus was notably excellent, singing religious hymns in the revival scene. The scenery, as usual, was sparse--a gun rack (hint) and a rocking chair.  Costumes were suggestive of the time and place.

We did not know that the work is the second most produced American opera (after Porgy and Bess); we knew of it only through performances of "Ain't It a Pretty Night" heard in recital and in competitions.  For us, that was one of the highlights, along with "The Trees on the Mountain" and the charming "Jaybird", sung in duet with Mr. Klein.

With our preference for 19th c. works in foreign languages, we are unlikely to visit it again so are pleased that we had the opportunity to hear it last night.  There will be another performance tonight and you may be pleased to attend.

What sticks in our mind is how contemporary the theme is--men of the cloth are still misusing their power over the young. Will this ever end?

(c) meche kroop



Friday, September 12, 2014

DINNER! THEATER!

Lauren Shannon and Matthew Cohn (photo by Peter Sylvester)

A truly unique and special event was given last night at the historic Casa Duse in Brooklyn--an hour train ride but worth every minute.  Two dozen lucky participants sat at long beautifully decorated tables watching the remarkable New Place Players performing William Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.  During the several intermissions we were served a delicious multi-course dinner catered by Chef Max Hansen.  There was food for the body as well as the soul.  The event had absolutely nothing to do with what one thinks of as "dinner theater".

Casa Duse is named for the famous actress Eleonora Duse and the New Place Players are named for the house Shakespeare purchased for his family in Stratford Upon Avon in 1597.  Such was his genius that over four centuries have passed and his plays are regularly studied and performed, not to mention the operas and ballets which were derived from them.  It is not only his poetry in iambic pentameter that delights us but his insight into human nature.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream he addresses the follies of lovers.  Theseus, Duke of Athens, (Matthew Cohn) has won Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, (Lauren Shannon) by the sword and now must woo her on the eve of their marriage.  

Four young people from Athens are brought before the Duke by Egeus, Hermia's father (Matthew Augenbaugh) to resolve the issue of Hermia's disobedience.  Hermia (Heather Boaz) is in love with Lysander (Aaron McDaniel) who returns her love--but papa wants her to marry Demetrius (Will Gallacher).  Helena (Olivia Osol) is crazy about Demetrius who "loves her not".

What a mess! By Athenian decree, if Hermia refuses her father's orders she must enter a convent. So, the couple decide to elope and then get lost in the woods.  Enter Oberon, King of the Fairies and his witty sidekick Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow (Adam Patterson) who try to solve the problem through magic and make things worse, much worse, before they make things better.

Oberon is played by Mr. Cohn and Ms. Shannon portrays Titania, the Fairy Queen. That pair is in a different stage of their relationship--not at all lovey-dovey and involved in a bitter power struggle.  Magic is also used here to win the upper hand. This magic is the juice of a certain flower that makes people fall in love instantly with the first person they see when they open their eyes.

Enter a group of rustic tradesmen who wish to be chosen to present an entertainment for the Duke's wedding.  Perhaps Shakespeare was inspired by the antics of his own theatrical troupe; the actors are not happy with their assigned roles.  Bottom the Weaver (Emilio Tirado) is hilarious as he wants to play every role.  He also gets to play a role he never anticipated as Puck transforms him into an ass and sprinkles the "love juice" on Titania's eyes.

Eventually, this being a comedy, everything works out in the end and the rustics get to produce their ridiculous play, using wonderful sock puppets,  with a great deal of disdain coming from the sarcastic Philostrate, Master of Ceremonies (Adam Patterson).  The Duke himself is more charitable and we can predict a happy future for all concerned.

Readers may have noticed that several actors played two parts and succeeded in portraying very different characters.  The altogether splendid cast also included musicians doubling as puppeteers manipulating Indonesian-style stick puppets, gorgeously illuminated and more convincing as fairies than actors have been.

As a matter of fact, everything about this production, so effectively directed by James Ortiz (a polymath who also designed the costumes, along with Molly Siedel, and the puppets), shone with imagination and originality.  The verses were beautifully spoken with fine diction and yet sustained a colloquial feel.  Costuming was contemporary for the humans and exotic for the fairy kingdom. The action was highly physical which also lent a contemporary feel.  There was not a whiff of staidness.

Musical Direction and Sound Design by Flavio Gaete was subtle but well chosen and effective--much of it by Mendelssohn.  Mr. Gaete also appeared as Snug the Joiner and Titania's fairy Mustardseed..  Co-director Craig Bacon performed the role of Robin Starveling the Tailor. Morgan Auld was Peter Quince the Carpenter; John Wahl was Francis Flute the Bellows-mender and Tom Snout the Tinker was performed by Matthew Augenbaugh.  Each and every performance was perfect in tone.

It was a rare privilege to see and hear Shakespeare up close and personal (which seems to be our theme for the week--see yesterday's review).  We felt as if we were part of the court of Athens and part of the fairy kingdom.  We felt as if we knew the four young lovers, so contemporary were their passions, their despair, their confusions.  Never ever have we enjoyed Shakespeare more.

Should you have the opportunity to attend one of these special events, we hope you will seize the moment.  You would be sure to agree with our assessment.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, September 11, 2014

WHO IS SILVIE?

Nathaniel LaNasa and Silvie Jensen

Silvie Jensen is a versatile mezzo-soprano who has made quite a name for herself in many genres: opera, lieder, oratorio, and commissioned new works.  We were fortunate to be invited to enjoy her artistry in a private recital at Norton Hall--up close and intimate as lieder recitals are best enjoyed (and should always be, were it not for financial considerations).

The first half of the program was devoted to Schubert, and if there was ever a better composer of lieder we cannot think of one.  His setting of Franz Schober's "An die Musik", which opened the program, is the perfect tribute to the musical arts and an expression of the poet's gratitude.  Ms. Jensen sang it with consummate depth of feeling and communicative skills such that we were reminded of our own gratitude.

We are accustomed to hearing Die Winterreise sung by men and rarely hear it performed by a woman although there is a recording of it sung by Christa Ludwig.  Last night we heard Ms. Jensen sing several selections from it and pushed aside any judgments and just listened to the music.  Her artistry was such that we completely forgot the risk she was taking. Accompanied by the fine piano partner Nathaniel LaNasa, we were swept away to the lonely wintry landscape through which the poet plods, trying to escape from the despair of a broken heart.

Count on Schubert to limn a dozen shades of grief.  In "Gute Nacht", we hear the poet's disappointment as he sets out on his journey.  The song is strophic but our two artists made each verse sound new.  In "Der Lindenbaum" the gentle opening yields to the forceful pianistic and vocal depiction of "die kalten Winde" which chilled us, even in the warm room.

Both artists are experts at coloring the words.  The self-pity of "Wasserflut", the nostalgia of "Auf dem Flüsse", the false cheer of the dreamer in "Frühlingstraum", the menace of "Die Krähe", the morbidity of "Das Wirtshaus", and the mysterious resolve of "Der Leiermann" were all communicated.  Even in the repeated notes of "Der Wegweiser", there was not a hint of tedium.

We must add that Ms. Jensen's German diction was flawless and permitted us to pay full attention to the performance and none whatsoever to the translations.  Her French was just as fine in a cycle of songs by Poulenc entitled La Fraicheur et le Feu.

Although we do not understand Czech, we loved the sound of it and the delightful folk melodies of Bohuslav Martinu who wrote in the same time period as Poulenc.  We particularly enjoyed the charming "Touha" with its frisky piano part, as well as the lament "Smutny Mily".  We would love a second hearing of these songs.

Finally, Ms. Jensen and Mr. LaNasa performed selections from Britten's settings of folk songs.  We always love hearing the tale of "The Brisk Young Widow" and "The Salley Gardens" in which the poetry by W.B. Yeats inspired a lovely vocal line.

We were completely satisfied by this recital; but there was an encore that added a special thrill.  We never would have foreseen the smoky seductive timbre with which this cool Nordic beauty invested the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen.  Let us just say WOW and be done with it.

Although we understand that rehearsal time was short, we found the teamwork to be impressive.  Both Ms. Jensen and Mr. LaNasa are excellent interpreters and matched each other beautifully in their phrasing and dynamics.  We would gladly hear the two of them tackle the entire cycle of  Die Winterreise.  Perhaps next Winter?

© meche kroop

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

ONE NIGHT WITH FANNY BRICE

Patricia Dell

In our ignorance of popular culture of the early 20th c., we were not even sure who Fanny Brice was when we entered the theater.  By the time we left two hours later we felt as if we not only knew her but that we really really liked her.  As performed by the excellent actress/singer Patricia Dell (on the Voice Faculty at NYU Tisch School of the Arts) we got a glimpse into the life of a performer beloved by the American public-- and we witnessed how her private life was reflected in her art.

The early part of the show revealed her deep attachment to a charming father whose gambling, drinking and laziness were recreated by her long term attachment to Nicky Arnstein, a slick white-collar criminal and philanderer who went through her substantial earnings like a plague of locusts through a wheat field.  Her tough-minded mother, proprietor of a saloon, broke up the family to get away from the unemployed father but was never able to talk Ms. Brice out of her self-destructive attachment to Mr. Arnstein who served a couple terms in prison.

All of these events affected Ms. Brice's performance.  As a child she performed for her father who worshipped her and encouraged her talent.  Ms. Dell, a woman well into middle-age, was able to convince as Fania the child.  Significantly, in later life at the end of her career, she performed on the radio as a child --Baby Snooks, a character she created.

She started her career performing in amateur shows in Brooklyn, soon learning that men would take advantage of her.  She moved on to burlesque and finally found a welcoming presence in Flo Ziegfield with whom she enjoyed a long association.  As her relationship with Mr. Arnstein brought her increasing disappointment, her style shifted from comedy to torch songs.

The songs were of the period--Irving Berlin, Charles Warfield, Bob Carleton and Harry Carroll were some of the composers represented.  Ms. Dell animated all the songs with heart and soul.  "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" by Harry Carroll with lyrics by Joseph McCarthy was our personal favorite.  No one would be surprised by this since the theme was "borrowed" from Chopin.

The piece was conceived, written and arranged by Chip Deffaa whose concept put Ms. Dell onstage as Ms. Brice's ghost, illuminated initially by only a ghost light.  So there onstage we had a spirit sharing her life retrospectively--a most effective concept.

Musical director Kent Brown accompanied Ms. Dell on the piano.  He walked the tightrope perfectly, always lending a distinct musicality to the proceedings without ever overwhelming Ms. Dell's voice.

Amie Brockway, Producing Artistic Director of The Open Eye Theater, based in Margaretville, NY, directed with a sure hand.  Effective period costumes were designed by Nat Thomas with lighting by Erwin Karl.

That Ms. Dell held our attention for two hours is testament to the fine work of all concerned.  It was a fascinating evening spent in the company of two talented ladies--Ms. Brice and Ms. Dell.

(c) meche kroop




Sunday, September 7, 2014

HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANTHEM

Spencer Myer, Leah Wool, Michael Slattery, Caitlin Lynch, Sidney Outlaw

"A Banner Bicentennial" marked the 200th birthday of our national anthem which has been sung and celebrated, revered and bowdlerized, during its entire existence.  Its birth, according to Paul Sperry, was a drinking song in 18th c. England.   Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics 200 years ago to celebrate America's victory in the "Second War of Independence" from Great Britain.  It took a century to be proclaimed as our national anthem and was established as such by a Congressional bill in 1931.  Prior to that time the melody was co-opted by abolitionists and the temperance movement.

But last night at the gloriously historic Federal Hall, this anthem received some mighty royal treatment as five artists gifted the audience with an evening of American song, produced by 5BMF (Five Boroughs Music Festival) and The Casement Fund Song Series.

As if the entertainment were not sufficient, Paul Sperry contributed interesting tidbits of information.  Until the end of the 19th c. there was no separation between popular song and "classical" song.  We could just visualize clusters of happy folk, friends and family gathered around the piano.

Today, popular music is heard on computers and boom boxes and other electronic devices and we sit in concert halls to hear live "art song" recitals with the very best songs originating from Germany, where all the great poets came from--and a set or two of contemporary American "art songs" that we rarely desire to hear again. Sadly, no one sings anymore!

So, it was a great pleasure to hear an evening of American songs culled from all genres with no distinctions made. Of course, the evening began and ended with "The Star Spangled Banner".  (Well, there were two fine folk songs that REALLY began the program but please allow us a bit of literary license.)

Mezzo-soprano Leah Wool sang the 1814 version, complete with an additional stanza that we'd never heard before.  The challenging high notes were so easefully reached that for a moment we thought Ms. Wool was a soprano but, as it turns out, she is a wonderful full-voiced mezzo with a stunning upper register.

The program closed with the quartet of fine singers in thrilling harmony singing an arrangement by Ross W. Duffin.  Versatile pianist Spencer Myer, so excellent in his partnering of the singers, had a chance to shine as a soloist when he played Charles Grobe's "The Stars and Stripes Forever: Brilliant Variations on the Star-Spangled Banner, Op. 490".  This was a mid-19th c. salon piece and required some fleet and fancy fingering.  We had a giggle when strains of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" made their appearance.

Our taste favored the folk songs and spirituals on the program.  Baritone Sidney Outlaw knocked our socks off with an a capella performance of "City Called Heaven". There was such conviction involved that we couldn't help but share the depth of his feelings.  That his baritone is so mellow and caressing just added to the aural pleasure.

Caitlin Lynch's bright and shining soprano did justice to Bernstein's "Simple Song" from his Mass.  In a lighter vein, she charmed us with Cole Porter's "Please Don't Make Me Be Good" from Fifty Million Frenchmen.

Tenor Michael Slattery dazzled us with Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom", accompanying himself on an Indian instrument related to the harmonium.  His fine vibrato and tender tone were perfect for Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" (made famous in our own time by Marilyn Horne) and in Bernstein's "Maria" from West Side Story.  His high notes seem to float in the air above his head.

Ms. Wool, so perfect throughout her entire range, was just as fine in Cole Porter's "So in Love" from Kiss Me Kate as she was in the more academic material.  Allowing each of the four singers to sing songs that they loved was likely responsible for the intensity of involvement that we experienced.  That is the essence of a fine song recital--it's all about communication.  The more involved the singer is, the more feeling is communicated to the audience; we leave such a recital feeling fulfilled.

As encore we were treated to the quartet of singers harmonizing in Barber's "Sure on This Shining Night" with beautiful lyrics by James Agee.  In spite of the rain that began just as we left Federal Hall, we knew that we had experienced "a shining night".

(c) meche kroop

Friday, September 5, 2014

AS ONE

Kelly Markgraf and Sasha Cooke (photo by Ken Howard)
What a unique and brave subject for an opera--the struggle of a transgendered individual for self-acceptance.  The concept came to composer Laura Kaminsky who found willing associates Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed to co-write the libretto.  The work certainly held our interest from start to finish--words such as TRANScendent and TRANSformation kept popping into our brain.

In a casting coup, married couple Sasha Cooke and Kelly Markgraf shared the role of the protagonist--a likable and sensitive individual born male but feeling very much like a woman. Forty years ago such individuals were thought of as having a mental disorder and the surgeons who dared to perform sex-reassignment surgery were attacked by their medical brethren. Nowadays, the condition is readily treated by hormonal manipulation and surgery.

One might think that the story of one such individual would be difficult to relate to; on the contrary, most people are in touch with parts of themselves that they feel are unacceptable and therefore repressed and denied.  Thus, we may feel a kinship, compassion and understanding.  If we are open to it, we may even feel better integrated ourselves by bearing witness to this story.

Mr. Markgraf performed the role of Hannah "before".  Although his physique and forceful baritone are completely masculine, his skillful interpretation allowed us to witness the woman within.  Ms. Cooke's gleaming mezzo and soft appearance was tinged at appropriate moments with the called-for masculine quality as she portrayed Hannah "after".  The roles could not have been better acted or sung.

A remarkable feature of the work is the way the various artists were called upon to cross artistic boundaries.  At times, the singers were called upon to dance and used their entire bodies to express their emotions.  The superb conductor Steven Osgood was called upon once to lay down his baton and assume the role of a schoolteacher.  (He exhibited a fine commanding voice.) The members of the Fry Street Quartet (violinists Robert Waters and Rebecca McFaul, violist Bradley Ottesen and cellist Anne Francis Bayless) not only played Ms. Kaminsky's music with consummate artistry but also participated in the drama just a bit.

One must give ample credit to Stage Director Ken Cazan who created the magic of having us see in our mind's eye what was not onstage. Although there were videos projected onto four asymmetrical screens, we found them distracting and preferred to use our imagination under Mr. Cazan's meaningful direction.  Although there were titles projected, they were unnecessary since the pair of singers exercised exemplary diction.

Since this was called a chamber opera, let us consider Ms. Kaminsky's music.  Her writing for the string quartet was nothing short of thrilling with interesting motives operating on a semi-conscious level.   There was ample melody and attractive harmonies.  There was nothing disagreeable to the ear, save for the scene when Hannah escapes a man with evil intentions.  There were snippets of Grieg when Hannah retreats to Norway.  The music created a portrait of a sensitive protagonist, someone we would want to get to know, someone we could care about.

We cannot express such enthusiasm for her writing for the voice. We understand that the librettists wanted the writing to be direct and colloquial, a task at which they succeeded admirably.  But, and this is a big but, such direct lines in English do not lend themselves to melody.  One could hear the potential beauty of the vocal lines only during short periods of melismatic singing when there was no dialogue to interfere.  And there were some thrilling moments when Ms. Cooke and Mr. Markgraf sang in gorgeous harmony (symbolic!) and in unison (even more symbolic!).

This problem is not unique to Ms. Kaminsky.  Most contemporary operas in English seem like plays with music rather than operas in the sense that one usually thinks of as opera.

Scenic and lighting design by David Martin Jacques was spare. Costume design by Sara Jean Tosetti consisted of jeans for both Hannahs and bare feet all around.

The work was commissioned and developed by American Opera Projects and will have two more performances on Saturday and Sunday at BAM Fisher.  If you are fortunate enough to get a ticket, don't be surprised if you walk out TRANSformed.

(c) meche kroop