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

Monday, November 24, 2014


The cast of Bel Canto Gems

Scott Foreman-Orr established Clef Note Productions to offer talented singers a chance to be heard in themed concerts which would showcase their voices.  Last night's theme was Bel Canto Gems and we were delighted since that is our very favorite period of opera.  The definition of bel canto was somewhat stretched but there is no denying that we heard some beautiful singing.  The program included something for everyone.

Two singers made a huge impression--one known to us and one new to us, which is usually the case.  Soprano Zhanna Alkhazova is a singer to look up to, literally and figuratively.  Her imposing appearance is matched by a powerful voice giving her a great deal of onstage presence.  She blew us away with her intensity in Elettra's aria from Mozart's Idomeneo in which she handled the ornamentation with style.  Even better was her "Tacea la notte placida" from Verdi's Il Trovatore.  She was one of the few singers who prepared her arias well and sang off the book.

New to us was mezzo Hayden Dewitt who sang everything with grace and subtlety. She too was excellently prepared; singing without a music stand always permits greater connection with the audience.  From Rossini's Otello she sang the Willow Song "Assisa pie d'un salice" filled with distracted grief.  

She also sang in French--the part of Isolier in the trio from Rossini's Le Comte Ory and, more impressively, the part of Mallika to Julia Lima's Lakme from the Delibes opera of the same name. The harmonies were exquisite.  Still better was her ardent Romeo in Bellini's I Capuletti e i Montecchi.  

Her Giulietta for "Si fuggire" was the lovely soprano Sarah Moulton Faux who beautifully handled the trills and scale passages.  The harmony in thirds was glorious to the ear. There is nothing faux about Ms. Faux.  She is the real thing and was just as winning as Amina in "Son geloso" from Bellini's La Sonnambula.  Her Elvino was the tenor Jon Thomas Olson who has a sweet youthful sound. 

We enjoyed hearing soprano Rosa D'Imperio in several selections.  As Mathilde in "Selva Opaca" from Rossini's William Tell, she exhibited a lovely resonance and floated her top notes effortlessly.  Our only quibble was the use of the music stand. She has a real flair for Rossini and sang in the duet "Non arrestare il colpo" from the composer's Otello, although the role was written for a mezzo-soprano. 

We would like to credit soprano Rachel Hippert for her fine handling of the descending scale passages and syncopated rhythms as Isabelle in Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable.  

Julia Lima, so lovely in the Lakme has a lovely vibrato and was perky as Susanna in "Colle dame piu brillanti" from Mercadante's I Due Figaro.  Singing off the book, she connected well with the audience.  Soprano Roza Bulat made a fine Lucrezia in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia.

Space does not permit discussion of several of the other excellent singers but we are sure to have other opportunities in the future.

Accompanying was deftly handled by Ming Hay Kwong.  It was a long evening although shortened by the illness of some of the singers.  Happily, bel canto always leaves us wanting more.

(c) meche kroop


Amaia Arberas, Hamid Rodriguez, Pilar Belaval, Rafael Lebron and Ilya Martinez

Thanks to Amigos de la Zarzuela we had the opportunity to hear selections from several zarzuelas written by a number of different composers.  The program defined zarzuela as Spanish musical theater but if you enter zarzuela in the search bar on this website you will be able to read a far more complete description.

We are huge fans of zarzuela for a number of reasons: first of all the Spanish language is enormously singable with pure open vowels that rival those of Italian; secondly,the melodies are memorable; thirdly, one hears interesting major/minor shifts, Middle-eastern turns and much melismatic singing; finally, the predominant subject is love--love yearned for, love achieved, love lost, love renewed, love requited and unrequited. Who doesn't care about love!

The program opened with the ensemble of five singing "Vamos andando por la calle de la fe" by Chueca y Valverde's Agua, Azucarillos y Aguardiente.  It closed with the ensemble performing "Mazurka de la Sombrilla" from the well known Luisa Fernanda by Moreno Torroba.

While all the singers were excellent, we were most impressed by soprano Amaia Arbera (more reviews of her by way of the search function) and mezzo Pilar Belaval who is new to us.  Their duet "Aqui estoy ya vestida" from Barbieri's El Barberillo de Lavapies was absolutely charming; both women have superb stage presence.

Ms. Arberas excelled in her solo "Pensar en el" from Arrieta's Marina and harmonized beautifully with tenor Hamid Rodriguez in the delightful duet "Ese panuelito blanco" from Moreno Torroba's La Chulapona in which they revealed a sympathetic connection.  Ms. Arberas' voice has a lovely vibrato and a soaring unfettered top; she always exhibits a gracious stage manner.

Ms. Belaval has a rich chocolatey mezzo that suited "Cuando esta tan hondo" from Chapi's El Barquillero in which the use of the minor key added depth.  She has a fine command of dynamics.

Mr. Rodriguez garnered huge applause for his performance of the familiar "No puede ser" from Sorozabal's La Taberna del Puerto.  We appreciated the variety of the central section in which he colored the words differentially.

Veteran singers Ilya Martinez, a soprano, and baritone Rafael Lebron contributed to the program a fine duet "Que esta esto muy bajo" from Sorozabal's La del Manojo de Rosas.  That work must be a favorite of Mr. Lebron since he rattled off the humorous patter duet "Quien es usted" (with Mr. Rodriguez) from the same work with admirable facility.

We enjoyed Ms. Martinez' duet with Ms. Belaval "Pobre viejecita, que delicadita" from Fernandez Caballero's La Viejecita.

As if that were not enough, dancer Gabriela Granados contributed two dances complete with chattering castanets and the rhythmic percussive footwork of which we are so fond.  One dance was choreographed to Granados' Suite Iberia and the other to Manuel de Falla's La Vida Breve.

We must mention the excellent piano work of Karina Azatyan who was particularly fine accompanying Ms. Belaval in Turina's soulful "Saeta en forma de salve a la virgen de la esperanza". Their partnership moved us deeply.

We hope that someday Amigos de la Zarzuela will mount a full-fledged production of one of these zarzuelas in its entirety.  We would probably choose El Barberillo de Lavapies.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Kimberly Van Woesik (photo by Paula Lobo)

The gypsy Carmen has fascinated artist and public alike since Prosper Mérimée published his novella in 1846; a Frenchman traveling in Spain, he was as interested in the marginalization of the Basque and Gypsy cultures as he was in the personal story of Carmen and Don José.

Georges Bizet picked up the story and, with Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy as his librettists, composed an opera in 1875; too shocking and morally offensive for that decade, it soon became one of the most frequently produced of operas and the favorite of many operagoers.  Its melodies, especially that of the Habanera, linger readily on the mind.

The dance history of the story has been somewhat less successful.  Roland Petit choreographed a one-act version for Les Ballets de Paris in 1949.  Alberto Alonso choreographed another for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1967 starring his wife Alicia Alonso in the titular role.  Bizet's music was "adapted" by Shchedrin.  Reviews were not enthusiastic.

A 1983 film by Carlos Saura told the story of a flamenco dance troupe rehearsing a performance of Carmen.

A tale can be told in words, music or dance.  We would have loved to have seen a full-length story ballet of Carmen within the classical ballet idiom--by John Cranko or Sir Kenneth MacMillan for example.  The 2012 work Carmen.maquia presented at the Apollo Theater last night by Ballet Hispanico in its New York premiere was not that work.

Taken on its own terms it is a bold and striking telling of the tale within the idiom of modern dance.  Choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano told the tale tautly and economically, closely following the story laid down in the opera.  The action corresponded closely with Bizet's Carmen Suite with a couple exceptions; a sexy duet between Escamillo and Carmen used music from Carmen's encounter with Don José in Lilias Pastia's tavern.  Strangely, Micaela's theme music was used at the end after Don José has stabbed Carmen.

The dancing was in every respect sensational.  Kimberly Van Woesik made a compellingly seductive Carmen and used her petite and flexible frame to great advantage.  Christopher Bloom made a highly conflicted and sympathetic Don José. His duet with Ms. Van Woesik in the tavern scene was replete with stunningly original lifts and there was no denying the chemistry between them.  His tortured body movements during the overture and at the end were disturbing.  

Min-Tzu Li was appealing as Micaela and Mario Ismael Espinoza made an effectively arrogant Escamillo.

Like much contemporary choreography in the modern idiom, there was a lot of herky-jerky movements which conveyed Don José's torment but were not pretty to look at. Several elements raised questions; i.e. in the tavern scene, several dancers clustered together suggested a bull but one could not be certain. 

The choreography avoided the clichés of flamenco but failed to have a distinguishing Spanish flavor. We yearned for some sazon!  One interesting moment was when Don José's regiment marched in the area below and in front of the stage, while he reflected their gestures onstage.

The set by Luis Crespo comprised a few white elements in various shapes and sizes which were configured and rearranged for each scene. The costumes by David Delfin were mostly white with a backless illusion for the women and sheer billowing skirts. The military men wore skin-tight white long-sleeved tops with black stripes; the pants were unattractive and baggy-seated with tight ankles.  At one point the corp appeared inexplicably in black shorts.

Confining sets and costumes to the non-palette of black and white suggested a denial of moral subtlety. The entire production was abstract but certain touches were jarringly realistic.  In the catfight between Carmen and another factory girl they attacked each other tooth and claw with loud shrieks!  In the guardhouse scene, one of the soldiers kept dozing off.  We liked the realistic touches but they seemed at war with the abstract nature of the overall production.

At the end, Don José recapitulated the tortured body movements of the overture. At the curtain call, the two leads had blue stains down the front of the costumes which we failed to understand.  They were clearly not "blue-bloods".

In sum, we were entertained but remained unmoved.  The image we wish to retain is of the beautiful duet with its original lifts.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, November 22, 2014


Jason Stearns, Hugo Vera, and Kian Freitas

Stella Zambalis and Jason Stearns

The Martha Cardona Theater has been in existence for about five years--growing in stature and reach while accumulating a group of singers that deserve to be widely heard.

Finally, Founder and Artistic Director Daniel Cardona was ready to produce a full-length opera with a full orchestra.

For this landmark event he chose one of our favorite operas--Puccini's Tosca--and he chose to present it in a semi-staged production at the mid-sized and acoustically excellent Merkin Concert Hall.  By semi-staged we mean that there was minimal scenery but there was no shortage of convincing acting.

To present Tosca, one needs a larger-than-life soprano to play the eponymous heroine who is herself larger-than-life. A true diva, soprano Stella Zambalis exhibited such familiarity with the nuances of the role that she actually became the 19th c. diva in love with the painter Cavaradossi.  With a sizable soprano and convincing acting one could not have asked for more.  To see her attack the evil Scarpia was to tremble in one's seat.

The role of Scarpia was performed by baritone Jason Stearns who captured our ears (if not our hearts) with his oily menace.  He made the perfect villain and we would have been happy to see him die, were it not for the fact that we wouldn't hear his voice in Act III!

Bass Matthew Curran made a fine Angelotti, even though onstage only briefly.  His voice had a fine quality and his acting was convincing.

Even more impressive was bass-baritone Kian Freitas who created a most believable Sacristan; he became a real character, a priest who snooped in the basket of food and exhibited a number of other small believable gestures.  Previously unknown to us, we wish to hear more of him.

Tenor Hugo Vera sang well but over-acted the part of Spoletta, over-reacting to every nuance of everyone else's lines.   We picture Spoletta as more contained, more severe and less sneering.  Actually, baritone Samuel McDonald was far more believable as Sciarrone and sang with lovely tone and phrasing.

Lead tenor Ta'u Pupu'a as Cavaradossi was a bit disappointing.  We have heard him before and he was not his best for this performance. He seemed to be pushing his upper register and lacked the requisite chemistry with Ms. Zambalis in Act I.  He did improve over the course of the evening and was most touching in Act III as he faced death.

No one was credited with Stage Direction and one got the impression that each singer contributed ideas.  Most of them worked well.  We are quite sure that Mr. Cardona himself had a lot of directorial input. We forgot that there was no church, no Castel San'Angelo.  The character's interaction told us everything.

We particularly enjoyed the duet between Mr. Freitas and Mr. Pupu'a in Act I, the end of Act II when Tosca stabs Scarpia, and the interlude before Act III when Cavaradossi stands silently contemplating his anticipated death.  Much can be communicated with body language.

There was no problem with diction.  Every word was clear such that when the titles disappeared in Act III, we barely noticed.

Maestro Brian Holman's baton brought the onstage orchestra together for Puccini's glorious music; we were particularly fond of Melanie Genin's harp.

It was a fine evening; the house was packed and the entire cast received a lengthy standing ovation which they richly deserved.

We are looking forward to more fine work from The Martha Cardona Theater.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, November 21, 2014


Martha Mingle and Theo Hoffman

We couldn't imagine a better way to spend "cocktail hour" than attending a Liederabend at Juilliard.  It is a golden opportunity to hear the stars of tomorrow. Indeed we have a rather substantial list of artists whom we first heard at a Juilliard Liederabend who are now onstage at the Metropolitan Opera and other renowned venues.

Last night we heard eight promising artists--four singers and four collaborative pianists--in a program of 20th c. English art songs.  Our 19th c. ears have never taken to 20th c. English or American songs but last night's recital brought us closer to a state of appreciation that we have ever experienced.

For this we credit the superb diction of all four singers whose phrasing and performance style made sense of the poetry.  Additionally, the composers on the program selected excellent texts to set.  Who would not love Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden and Dante Gabriel Rossetti! Their poetry scans and rhymes and is well suited to musical elaboration.

Most impressive was baritone Theo Hoffman who formed a perfect partnership with pianist Martha Mingle.  They delivered a highly polished performance of three songs from Ralph Vaughan Williams' The House of Life.  Rossetti's poetry is highly romantic and Mr. Hoffman sang the songs with an economy of gesture but a lavish application of word-coloring and depth of expression.  Ms. Mingle seemed to breathe with him in a stunning duet.

We enjoyed Hannah McDermott, whose lovely mezzo voice we have admired before. Her time spent with Steven Blier's New York Festival of Song cabaret evenings has served her well and she uses her personality effectively to get a song across.  Last night's performance of four of Benjamin Britten's Cabaret Songs was delightful. Pianist Kathryn Felt joined her for the lilting "Tell Me the Truth About Love"--we loved the way she sang the phrase "Brighton's bracing air" with a charming buzz on the "br"s.  "Calypso" was given the proper propulsion but our favorite was "Johnny", her account of a lively girl dealing with a grumpy boring boyfriend.

Tenor David Smolokoff performed Gerald Finzi's setting of Thomas Hardy's A Young Man's Exhortation.  "The Dance Continued" was deeply felt but our favorite was the bittersweet "The Sigh" in which a man has been unable to forget or understand why his now-deceased wife emitted a deep sigh when he first kissed her.  We enjoyed the mystery.  Ava Nazar's piano was particularly lovely in the searching melody of "The Comet at Yell'ham".

Heard for the first time was soprano Tiffany Townsend with Hea Youn Chung as her piano partner.  These Finzi songs from Hardy's Till Earth Outwears are mournful ones--filled with nostalgia and memories of lost loves.  Anyone who's read Hardy's wonderful novels will have recognized his voice.  Ms. Townsend sang them with lovely phrasing, word coloring and excellent diction.  Our favorite was "Life Laughs Onward".

It will be so rewarding to observe these young artists as they continue their training at Juilliard.  Last night's program was coached by Andrew Harley.  Well done!

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, November 20, 2014


Hyesang Park (photo by Ken Howard)

Of course we are not familiar with every single opera company in the USA but we would be surprised if any of them could put on a better show than Juilliard Opera.  If they presented a couple dozen operas each season we would be reviewing every last one. But of course, that is not possible and we must be content with three every year. We consider them major events on the New York opera scene.

Perhaps each one is a gem because such care is taken to hire the very best artistic and musical staff in the field.  Perhaps it's because so much care is taken with casting from among a group of singers that are so outstanding, all of whom are singing around the country in operas and recitals as well as winning competitions.

Last night's opening of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia was a resounding success. Composed two centuries ago when Rossini was but 22 years old (but with several successes under his compositional belt), the opera was a bit advanced for the moralistic Milanese population but went over far better in Rome and Naples.  The work achieved a second life when Maria Callas sang the lead in Rome in 1950 and hasn't been heard in NYC since Beverly Sills performed the role in 1978 at the New York City Opera.

Scintillating soprano Hyesang Park knocked our socks off last night as the fickle Fiorilla who manages men like a juggler keeping all his balls in the air.  First there is her cuckolded husband Geronio, sung by Polish bass Daniel Miroslaw; then there is her steady companion/lover (cavalier-servant) Narciso, sung by tenor Joseph Dennis; and finally the newly arrived Turkish prince Selim, performed by the very funny bass-baritone Michael Sumuel.

The meta-premise is that a Playwright (baritone Szymon Komasa) is stumped for ideas while visiting a spa in Naples and decides to both observe and manipulate the characters to advance the plot of his play.  The marvelous mezzo Kara Sainz portrays Zaida, a Turkish woman once in love with Selim, but now working at the spa; Albazar (tenor Nathan Haller) is her landsmann, now managing the spa. Just imagine the complications which ensue as Fiorilla tries to ensnare Selim!

We are delighted to report that the voices--every single one--excelled in their handling of the bel canto style.  Furthermore, the comic acting was fine all around; this is not a farce and it's more than an opera buffa.  It is a comedy of manners and the final resolution of the romantic adventures and misadventures is a bit shy of happy, even though the lovers and marital pair are reconciled.

In a stroke of luxury casting, we noticed that the chorus comprised several of our favorite singers--including Takaoki Onishi, Avery Amereau, Joe Eletto, Kurt Kanazawa, James Edgar Knight, Tyler Zimmerman and several other.  It was fun picking them out.

We hope you will still be able to get tickets to the subsequent performances and that you will notice some of the highlights we particularly enjoyed: the sparkling overture; Fiorella's aria sung with the arriving Turkish sailors singing a minor key chorale; the playwright instigating a catfight between Fiorella and Zaida, the towel fight between Selim and Geronio; the duet between Selim and Fiorella; Albazar's deeply felt aria. Oh well, there were too many outstanding moments to list them all.

A true coup was getting the superstar conductor Speranza Scappucci to lead the Juilliard Orchestra, equal contributors to the evening's success.  We hope the term does not sound rude but this beautiful woman is a "podium animal".  Rossini's pen never failed to turn out an endless supply of melodies that make our heart sing.  And her baton brought out the joy and sparkle of each one.

Director John Giampietro made some minor adjustments to fit the plot into a new time and place.  The band of gypsies were converted into spa workers and the work took on the flavor of the films coming out of Italy in the late 1950's and early 1960's.  This served the comedy well and did not detract at all.  Mr. Giampietro is a superb storyteller.

Scenic Designer Alexis Distler scored with an impressive spa, replete with palm tree, white latticework, rows of chaises longues and several dispensers of mineral waters. Lighting Design by Derek Wright was effective.  Costume Designer Sydney Maresca contributed smashing red and white uniforms for the spa staff, throwing in a doctor with a stethoscope. Fiorilla was dressed as perkily as her capricious nature called for. 

Our sole quibble was the Turkish-vested fellow wandering around onstage carrying a model of a sailing ship.  We never did figure out who he was!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Elvira and Mustafà's Harem in Utopia Opera's L'Italiana in Algeri

Stage Director and Conductor William Remmers had a radical concept for Rossini's first attempt at comedy--his 1813 L'Italiana in Algeri.  He achieved consistency within this concept, that of emphasizing the terrorism and violence, but paid the price of sacrificing the comedy.  In his version, Mustafà is not the corpulent buffone he was meant to be but a lean, mean and violent military dictator.  When Angelo Anelli wrote the libretto, all Europe was fascinated by all things Turkish, which meant the Ottoman Empire, actually already in decline.  Algeria at that time was part of the Empire, hence the title.

But updating the opera to the 20th c. brought it perilously close to our own time and the military costumes and assault rifles became an uncomfortable reminder of the Age of Terrorism, making laughter difficult.  This Bey was not a buffoon; the portrayal made it difficult to accept his being so easily tricked by the wily Isabella.

Sung by the radiant mezzo Caroline Tye, Isabella is emblematic of the modern woman and her feminine wiles contrasted beautifully with the submissive nature of Mustafà's rejected wife Elvira, sung by sparkling soprano Patricia Vital and her handmaiden Zulma, winningly sung by mezzo-soprano Kristin Roney.  

All three women sang superbly with excellent diction and enviable control of the embellishments.  Their skill at bel canto singing was impressive and made the evening a worthwhile one.  We loved the way Ms. Tye sang "Cruda sorte....Amor tiranno" and "Per lui che adoro", which we haven't enjoyed so much since Stephanie Blythe sang it in Santa Fe a dozen years ago!

One male role stood out as well, that of Taddeo, Isabella's traveling companion.  Jia-jun Hong exhibited admirable comedic skills as well as a fine voice which he used well. Still very young (perhaps as young as Rossini was when he composed this dramma giocoso) he is a talent to watch.

We wish we could have enjoyed the other male leads as well.  Bass Duncan Hartman sang reasonably well in spite of a vocal indisposition but seemed cast to fulfill Mr. Remmers' concept. He just didn't match the ridiculous figure we wanted to see. 

Tenor Chad Cygan neither looked like a romantic hero that the desirable Isabella would have gone searching for nor did he have the vocal chops for the role.  He handled the rapid-fire patter quite well and most of the recitativi but the upper half of his register was uncomfortably and unattractively strained.  This is regrettable since Rossini's melodies are so enchanting.

Roman Laba made a fine captain of the army, wearing a red fez.  Eric Lamp and Victor Ziccardi doubled as soldiers and slaves. They made some fine moves in a little dance. Jordana Rose, Erica Koehring and Winnie Nieh played members of the harem.

The manic energy of the ensembles with which Rossini generally ends each act were quite well done vocally but disturbing dramatically.  Act I ended in a virtual bloodbath with characters all attacking each other with guns, knives and robes.  When Act II began, all the characters wore bloody bandages, braces and crutches.  EWWW! Lindoro looked like Quasimodo.

The 17 member orchestra played well for the most part with occasional lapses of intonation.  We loved the pizzicato opening of the exciting overture after which the melody gets tossed around by the winds. Samuel Marques played some fine solos on the clarinet and Susan Morton was superb on the harpsichord. Mr. Remmers conducted with his customary gusto.

With audience-selected operas and a minuscule budget, it is amazing what Mr. Remmers can pull together.  There was, as usual, no set; costumes probably were assembled from the singers' very own closets.  

The feisty Utopia Opera has a most unusual double bill coming up in March.  Watch for it!  You may wish to vote online for next year's operas.  Participate!

© meche kroop

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Joseph Eletto
Michael Fennelly, Josh Quinn, Evan LeRoy Johnson, Jane Shaulis, John Brancy, Ryan Speedo Green and Opera Index President Murray Rosenthal

We can scarcely believe what goes on in church basements these days!  Luminaries of the opera world joined a roomful of opera lovers to celebrate Opera Index and its 31st competition.  Over $50,000. was awarded to 15 young artists, 5 of whom performed for members of Opera Index, an organization that supports young singers--an organization you should join if you haven't already.  Membership is a paltry $45!

You may notice that only four of these young artists are in the photo above, the reason being that baritone Joe Eletto was obliged to leave for a rehearsal immediately after his vocally and dramatically excellent performance of "Come un'ape ne' giorni d'aprile" from Rossini's La Cenerentola.  He conveyed every nuance of humor as Dandini comments on the pair of stepsisters.  Rossini underscored the humor with a clutch of staccato notes which Mr. Eletto handled effectively.

Bass-baritone Josh Quinn has a large round and mature sound which he employed effectively in "O, du mein holder Abendstern" from Wagner's Tannhäuser.  His ardent delivery made the aria incredibly moving and the size of his voice did not diminish his flexibility in the melismatic passage.  Mr. Fennelly's accompaniment was particularly lovely.

Tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson has a sweet youthful sound with an impressive expansion at the top and a sensitive touch with dynamics which served him well in "Salut! demeure chaste et pure" from Gounod's Faust.  He maintained that lovely even French line and exhibited some very nice diction.

Baritone John Brancy has a soulful delivery that imbues every word with deep meaning and we greatly enjoyed his vocally refined performance of "Pierrot's Tanzlied" from Korngold's Die tote Stadt, much as we enjoyed the two Korngold songs he sang last night at New York Festival of Song.  This one is filled with nostalgia and yearning and went straight to the heart.

Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green ended the recital on a humorous note as he gave an outstanding performance of "La calunnia" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia.  His large frame and expansive sound combined with an abundance of dramatic flourishes to leave the audience smiling from ear to ear.

All of these young artists are busy singing around the country and have impressive resumés.  How fortunate we felt to have them serenading us!  Since there was not a female winner present, Jane Shaulis contributed a delightful performance of the very funny Cole Porter song "The Physician".

As if that were not enough, Mr. Brancy thrilled us with an encore--"Maria" from Bernstein's West Side Story.  He spun the high note so beautifully!  And Mr. Green sang "This Nearly Was Mine" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific with great depth of feeling.  We are convinced that the "American Musical" is just another iteration of opera.

Mr. Fennelly's skill as accompanist has been appreciated for several years.  The evening ended with a buffet dinner supplied by Opera Index members.  It seems unnecessary to say that those who love good music love good food.  We left satisfied in body as well as spirit.

There are ten more winners to be enjoyed and appreciated at upcoming events.  For further information, go to www.operaindexinc.org.  Join the party!

© meche kroop

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

MAN OF THE (50 minute) HOUR

Janai Brugger, John Brancy, Steven Blier and Michael Barrett

Our dear Steven Blier seems never to run out of original ideas for recitals for New York Festival of Song, of which he is the Artistic Director.  Last night's recital was entitled "Art Song on the Couch: Lieder in Freud's Vienna" and Mr. Blier introduced the program from the piano by describing Gustav Mahler's four-hour session walking with psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.  He waggishly pointed out that it seemed to have helped and left Mahler transformed for the better.

We in the audience had but two hours to be transformed for the better.  Reading the program notes describing the circumstances in Victorian Vienna up to the 1930's gave an excellent background for appreciation of the music.  A society pretending to be respectable and controlled was seething with rebellion underneath, just as a person with a conservative exterior may be hiding some pretty wild secrets.

New ground was being broken in all fields and so it was with music.  We no longer hear the strophic melodies and reassuring harmonies of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Instead we are hearing experiments in rhythm, strange harmonies, and a searching quality in the melodies.

Bringing this challenging music to vivid life were two superb artists--one well known to us for several years since Juilliard days--baritone John Brancy-- and the other a dazzling soprano new to NYFOS--Janai Brugger.  It's thrilling to witness the meteoric rise of someone we have long appreciated and it's thrilling to hear someone as a recitalist whom we have previously heard only on the opera stage (as Liu in Puccini's Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera).

The evening opened and closed with Mahler.  The first set of songs comprised Herr Mahler's "Erinnerung" and his wife Alma Mahler's "Laue Sommernacht".  The first made use of Mr. Brancy's baritone and Ms. Brugger's soprano in alternating stanzas exploring the relationship between song and love.  The final couplet was sung as a duet and we found the entire song quite lovely.  

But Frau Mahler's "Laue Sommernacht" was even lovelier with it's intense yet intimate feel.  She was taught by Alexander Zemlinsky and Herr Mahler was disapproving of her composing--perhaps because of societal restrictions or perhaps out of envy.  Who knows?

After many wonderful songs by Hugo Wolf, Erich Korngold, Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Zemlinsky and Richard Strauss, we were treated to an encore of a 20th c. Tom Lehrer song "Alma" which satirizes Frau Mahler's succession of famous husbands. We will spare you the lengthy list of lovers.  What a gal!

The songs were nearly all new to us with the exception of two cabaret type songs which we had heard at the Austrian Cultural Forum.  Hugo Wolf's "Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens" was sung by Ms. Brugger who communicated all the naughty suggestiveness of the lyrics.  She did the same for Schoenberg's "Der genügsamer Liebhaber", a song one would expect to have been sung by a man.

But Mr. Blier is fond of gender-free casting and put Zemlinsky's "Das bucklichte Männlein" into the mouth of Mr. Brancy who picked up the humor ball and ran with it all the way to the goal post.  (Forgive us our sports metaphor.)  Mr. Brancy is usually a contained stage presence, using vocal colors to convey the drama so this was novel and fun seeing him let loose.  Here, although the lyrics are funny, the piano line conveys substantial anxiety.

Ms. Brugger's finest moments were in "Frühlingsfeier" when she cried out for Adonis and in "Drei Ophelia-Lieder" both by Strauss.  Her dramatic instincts are as fine as her beautiful instrument.

We also enjoyed Mr. Brancy's amusing delivery of Korngold's unpublished early song "Die Geniale".  Short but sweet.

The two fine singers joined voices for the final work on the program "Arie aus dem Spiegel von Arcadien".  Apparently we were in a particular mood for humor last night. We had trouble imagining the super-serious Schoenberg setting the light-hearted words of the long-dead Emanuel Schikaneder.  But he did and we enjoyed it.

We measure the success of this type of recital by how many hours of reading they inspire.  We have been reading about the denizens of turn-of-the-20th c. Vienna for hours.  What a fascinating junction of time and place--zeit und stelle.

ⓒ meche kroop

Monday, November 10, 2014


Ken Noda, Amanda Majeski, and Ryan McKinny
In an all-too-brief George London Foundation for Singers recital at the Morgan Library yesterday we had the opportunity to hear a program in which both singers, soprano Amanda Majeski and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, were able to exhibit their talents in both opera and in lieder.  Significantly, each chose an aria from an opera in which they recently starred.

Ms. Majeski has had quite a success singing the role of Vitellia in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito--both at Semperoper Dresden and at Teatro Real in Madrid.  Luckily for us, she performed the character's final aria "Ecco il punto, o Vitellia...No piu di fiori" in which the manipulative woman finally examines her conscience and decides to confess her guilt to avoid the death of her loyal friend Sesto.  Ms. Majeski threw herself into this role heart and soul.

We heard Ms. Majeski when she won a George London award a few years ago; we heard her again in Santa Fe in 2011 when she sang Ottone in Vivaldi's Griselda, in which she was the highlight of a deplorable production. Yesterday she sang with all the involvement that we missed when she stepped into the role of Countess Almaviva in Mozart's Nozze di Figaro.  In this case we found her dramatically moving, tracing Vitellia's evolution from one mood to the next.  Her embellishments were as lovely as they were in the Vivaldi.  We heard a lot of power in the lower register and a big blooming top.

Equally impressive was her encore--"Song to the Moon" from Dvořak's Russalka.  She also sang three songs by Richard Strauss, including our favorite "Die Nacht".  Although suffering from some kind of vocal distress, it was barely noticeable as she employed word coloring and dynamic variety to augment the fine resonance of her sizable instrument.

It was during the Strauss that we most appreciated the artistry of collaborative pianist Ken Noda.  Always supportive and never overwhelming, he seems to sing along with the singer through his fingers.

Also a George London Foundation winner, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny is a most versatile artist, known in many genres but not heard often enough in New York.  He wisely chose to sing "Die Frist ist um" from Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer, a role he succeeded in at the Glimmerglass Festival.  We Wagnerphiles in the audience were blown away.  His voice has power and nuance in equal measure; he painted the aural picture of a desperate man at the end of his rope.

He also excelled in the opening piece on the program "Bravo, signor padrone!...Se vuol ballare" which he sang with vocal subtlety and dramatic energy, creating the Figaro character we all know and love.

That is why we were puzzled by his duet with Ms M. "Das war sehr gut, Mandryka".  This scene is the culmination of a stressed-out courtship and we desperately wanted Mandryka to just look at Arabella; if he wasn't feeling it, we weren't feeling it.

Their encore duet from the close of Act I of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel was nicely sung but Mr. McKinny as Bill again did not relate to Ms. Majeski's Julie.  He sang ardently but he sang it to the audience, not to his stage partner.  How odd!

His solo performance of three selections from Schubert's Schwanengesang was powerful; the tender but passionate "Ständchen" was followed by the lugubrious "Der Atlas" and the anguished "Der Doppelgänger". We cannot recall ever hearing an American singer with such perfect German diction.  He should be teaching a master class!  Every umlaut was observed, every final consonant enunciated, every diphthong clear.

Speaking of master classes, we are overjoyed that Mr. Noda supplements his many other duties and accomplishments by giving masterclasses at Juilliard and coaching young singers in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

We are already witnessing the results; anyone under his tutelage bears evidence of his genius.  He gives the piano part the same colors as the singer gives the words.  We are mystified about how this is achieved but the mystery is part of the magnificence.

ⓒ meche kroop

Sunday, November 9, 2014


The Doll and the Soldier--photo courtesy of Salzburg Marionettes

We have been great fans of the Salzburg Marionette Theater ever since we saw them in Salzburg.  At that time we enjoyed their versions of our favorite Mozart operas. When they visit New York, we call it a special occasion.  The last time they came to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, we reviewed their amazing Ring Cycle; they used recorded music of course, but gave delightful representation to the characters of Wagner's magnum opus.

This visit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, was something entirely new but operatic in its own way.  The program was entitled La Boîte à Joujoux and if you expected it to be strictly for children you would have been mistaken. We cannot speak about the afternoon performances but at the evening performance the mainly adult audience was entranced while the few children present laughed out loud at the episodes of violence and dismemberment (!).

The program began with a curious curtain raiser in which a girl in a green mini-dress accompanied by her friend is courted by two very different men--one shy, awkward and affectionate, the other a dashing show-off with some dazzling moves.  What was most interesting about this episode was that despite the blank featureless faces of the marionettes, the highly articulated bodies told us everything we needed to know.

In a meta-dramatic move, one of the puppeteers came around in front of the white panels which composed the set, removed the legs of the two men and exchanged them.  Now, the awkward young man had the moves while the cocky guy stumbled around.  This did not solve the girl's dilemma. We couldn't help thinking about the ending of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in which the women are torn between two men.

Although it was surreal, our thoughts ran to the philosophical--in many respects we are not responsible for the gifts we are given in life and feel powerless when these gifts are lost. Of course, our special situation as sentient human beings provides us with tools to deal with our fates; marionettes can only be victims.

Obviously, that is something the kids did not get.  What they did get was the cartoon-like humor of the legs skittering away across the stage and the head-banging of the disappointed would-be lover as well as the head-butting rivalry of the two boys.

Meanwhile, gorgeously costumed characters from several Mozart operas waltzed in and out of the scene, often imitating the physical actions of the four modern youths. This was artistically and visually pleasing if not immediately comprehensible.  Equally strange was the large red boot that waltzed across the stage.

The music by Robert Schumann was nothing short of glorious, as performed by Orion Weiss on the piano.  We heard "Papillons, Op.2", "Blumenstück in D flat, Op. 19", and "Novelette No. 8 in F sharp minor, Op. 21"--each a jewel with melodies galore. Perhaps modern music lacks melody because Mozart, Schumann and Schubert used them all up!

Following an intermission, one of the puppeteers came out with a giant key and wound up the sleeping Mr. Weiss for the titular work which Claude Debussy called a "children's book ballet". The entire evening was marked by the puppeteers, all dressed in black but with no pretense of invisibility, interacting with the puppets as well as with Mr. Weiss.

There was an adorable doll with golden curls and a yellow dress whose perfectly articulated feet allowed her to dance on point; her arabesque could not be faulted. She was courted by the stalwart wooden soldier and the lewd and long-armed Pulcinella who required all the puppeteers to animate him.  Another love triangle! (See yesterday's review).

There was a wonderful battle in which the squad of wooden soldiers pelt Pulcinella with a pea shooter and canned peas.  Pulcinella retaliated with a cannon ball and the doll's soldier falls in battle.  Not to worry, because in a touching scene she brings him back to life and a standing position.  It was difficult not to be moved.  One is surprised at how rapidly the marionettes and puppets become "real" to us in the same way that animated characters in films do.

Finally, the doll and the soldier buy a farm with lots of sheep and ducks.  Twenty years later they are successful, fat and prosperous.

Mr. Weiss' performance of the Debussy work was filled with wonder; he is a quietly sensitive pianist who brought out all the subtleties of the score with technical perfection.

The Salzburg Marionette Theater has been performing for over a century.  For many years travelling puppet theaters were the only theatrical performances permitted by the Catholic church.  Now, of course, with theater and opera available and cherished all over Austria, they exist because they have created a unique and enchanting method of storytelling.  We hope they will be around for another century to delight and entertain many generations to come.

© meche kroop

Saturday, November 8, 2014


Benjamin Robinson and Molly Mustonen (photo by Robert J. Saferstein)

The Little Opera Company That Could--Chelsea Opera--having won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, is on a roll.  Last night they presented two one-act works by the prolific Henry Mollicone, with libretti by John S. Bowman.  Each opera was commissioned by an opera company with the stipulation that the work relate to the home town of the company.  The theme of each would appear to be a blending of the past and present.

The brief curtain-raiser, The Face on the Barroom Floor, was commissioned by Central City Opera in 1978 and has been performed annually in Colorado ever since. It involves a love triangle from Gold Rush days, one that comes to a violent end. The story is told within the framework of the present day; the love triangle and its violent end are recapitulated.  

The beautiful Molly Mustonen used her lustrous soprano to good advantage as she portrayed a present day chorister as well as the historic saloon singer.  Lyric tenor Benjamin Robinson sang sweetly as the chorister's beau in the present and also as the starving artist of long ago who pays his bar tab by painting the saloon singer's portrait on the floor.  Baritone John E. Callison, whom we have been hearing and enjoying more and more lately, made a fine bartender.

With meager financial resources, set designer Anna Yates managed to create a very believable saloon with faux stained-glass windows, a simple bar and a few tables and chairs (amusingly occupied by company co-founders Leonarda Priore and Lynne Hayden-Findlay playing denizens of the bar).

Mr. Mollicone was present for the occasion; his piano was accompanied by flutist Kevin Willois and cellist Emily Brausa from the Chelsea Opera Chamber Ensemble. The music is jazzy and there are touches of American folk melodies woven in.

The second and more substantial work on the program, the 1981 Emperor Norton, was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera and deals with a legendary character in that city's past.  He was at least eccentric and probably quite mad as he declared himself Emperor.  He died as a derelict on the street.

The interesting treatment of the story is told in a somewhat mystical way.  Two actors are mysteriously summoned to audition for a role in a play about Norton.  The playwright, magnificently performed by one Vira Slywotzky (a singer we just love to hear, calling herself a soprano but with a voice that suggests strong mezzo coloring), uses their help to finish the play.

The two actors--the excellent soprano Rosa Betancourt and the fine tenor David Gordon--are soon joined by an imposing figure from another time.  We shall know him by his costume!  He is, of course, the spirit of Norton (big-voiced baritone Justin Ryan) and he has come to offer correctives to his reputation and the way he is being represented in the play.  The ending has a lovely twist and is marked by a marvelous quartet.

For this opera, conductor Noby Ishida took over. Mr. Mollicone at the piano was joined by violinist Stanichka Dimitrova and cellist Emily Brausa. Thankfully, the music is tonal and lyrical.

We particularly enjoyed Ms. Betancourt's impersonation of the dancer Lola Montez, which had the audience laughing out loud, and her impersonation of a Chinese woman who sang a stunning melismatic aria.

Stage direction by Ms. Findlay was always effective.  Costumes in both operas were also designed by Ms. Findlay with some contributions from the Theater Development Fund Costume Collection.  We particularly admired Ms. Mustonen's saloon singer gown and the period-appropriate 1940's costumes for Emperor Norton.

The only thing missing was titles.  Somehow they are not deemed necessary when an opera is sung in English but, as we frequently point out, English is more difficult to sing and more difficult to understand than Italian or German, especially in the upper registers.  We missed quite a bit of Norton's story because of this.  We heard enough and the acting was sufficiently effective that we understood the story but we would have enjoyed it more if we'd heard all the details.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, November 6, 2014


David Zobel and Joyce DiDonato (photo by Chris Lee)

A glamorous and revered superstar of the opera stage, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato revealed her mettle as a recitalist Tuesday night in Carnegie Hall.  All wrapped up in one woman are the engaging and communicative entertainer and the naturalness of the proverbial girl next store-- from Kansas no less.  With flawless technique and enough expressiveness for two artists, she wowed the audience with a program the theme of which was "A Journey Through Venice".  Accompanied by the excellent David Zobel at the piano, she exhibited a lovely liquid tone and superb phrasing in every selection.  

As a great fan of bel canto, we were thrilled to hear so much beautiful singing on one program. She opened the program with two arias from Antonio Vivaldi's opera Ercole su'l Termodonte, written in 1723 while the composer was in Venice.  "Onde chiare che sussurrate" was gloriously baroque and filled with trills in both piano and vocal line, all executed to perfection.  The text is one of anxious longing on the part of the Princess Ippolita and the rippling stream can be heard in the constant arpeggios in the piano.  The same character sings the aria "Amato ben" and we felt the aching longing when Ms. DiDonato stressed the appoggiatura before the final note. Although the plot is not of the ilk favored by today's fashion, if the other arias are halfway as good, we would love to see/hear the entire opera. 

The use of the microphone for speaking between songs was welcome because we wanted to hear every word Ms. DiDonato had to say as she related anecdotes about each set of songs.  Paul Verlaine's text for Cinq melodies de Venise is so lovely that it has been set by Debussy, Saint Saëns and Sokolov.  But Ms. DiDonato chose the setting by Gabriel Fauré for her program and we were delighted to be hearing it for the first time.  We are always reminded of the Fragonard paintings when we hear the lively slightly satirical "Mandoline". The peaceful quality of "En sourdine" was a lovely contrast.  We found "C'est l'extase" somewhat less languorous than the setting by Debussy but nonetheless quite lovely.

As many times as we have heard Rossini's "La regatta veneziana" we never tire of hearing the three distinct moods of Anzoleta and her feelings for Momolo, her gondolier lover.  She encourages him in the first song; in the second she is cheering him on and we feel her breathless excitement and anxiety; in the third song she is all warm and fuzzy, rewarding her Momolo for his win with kisses and compliments.  Ms. DiDonato made us feel as if we ourselves were watching the race.  Rossini composed this brief cycle in the Venetian dialect as part of his Péchés de vieillesse, long after he stopped writing operas.

In contrast to that cycle from his mature period, we heard an aria from his youthful opera Otello.  While we do no wish to take anything away from Verdi's masterpiece, we would love to see a production of Rossini's Otello, based on the gorgeous "Assisa al piè d'un salice…Deh, calma", known as the Willow Song.  There is a gorgeously melodic introduction by the piano followed by the sorrowful lament of the distracted Desdemona.  Even without an orchestra, the two artists brought the scene to dramatic life.  The piano becomes turbulent when Desdemona gets distracted by her grief and anxiety.

Compared with most 20th c. English composers we would have to grant Michael Head a lot of credit for his ability to write for the voice and to match the vocal line to both text and music.  His Three Songs of Venice were evocative and Ms. DiDonato sang the text with far better diction than that to which we are accustomed.  That quality can make or break a performance in a recital of art songs in which the words are so important.  Ms. DiDonato's artistry in word coloring added to the pleasure.

Still, for melody and singability, we must give the prize to Reynaldo Hahn, from an earlier generation.  We heard selections from Venezia sung in gorgeous Italian and were swooning.  The rippling rolling chords in the piano and the melismatic singing in "La barcheta" made this romantic tale our favorite.  We also enjoyed the much less romantic "L'avertimento" in which the poet warns his friends against a beautiful girl with the heart of a tiger and the irony of "Che pecà" in which a man expresses his ambivalence about getting over a frantic passion.  Ms. DiDonato's acting was incomparable.

Rossini's "Canzonetta Spagnuola" with its vocal fireworks and gradual accelerando made the perfect encore.  We were totally satisfied but--wait--there was one final encore "Non ti scordar di me" by Ernesto de Curtis. We felt sorry for the lone couple who were running to catch a train; we wouldn't have missed a single note of it.

meche kroop


Daniel Cardona and cast of I Pagliacci at SOPAC
It was an out-of-state journey but it was worth it to hear one of our favorite realismo operas with a fine cast of worthwhile singers.  As Founder of the Martha Cardona Theater, Daniel Cardona has a keen ear for good voices and tonight proved himself to be a fine director as well, in a semi-staged production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's beloved 1892 opera which deals with the theme of life imitating art.

The composer claimed that his libretto was based upon the murder of one of his family's servants when he was a child, but a French playwright believed he stole the story and sued him for plagiarism. We may never learn the truth.

The action takes place in Calabria a few decades earlier.   Nedda, sung by the exciting soprano Kristin Sampson, is married to Canio, the head of a troupe of traveling actors (sung with ringing tone by Mexican-Italian tenor Mauricio Trejo).  The backstory is that he found her starving in the streets and gave her a profession and matrimonial legitimacy.

He is a good-hearted man but jealous and possessive.  When he learns from another member of his troupe, the crippled and embittered Tonio (performed with power by baritone Daniel Lickteig) that Nedda has been seen embracing one of the men of the town--Silvio (sung by the romantic lyric baritone Kevin Wetzel), his rage gets the better of him and intrudes upon that night's performance.

The performance, so popular in Southern Italy in that period, is one of commedia del'arte and the stock characters include Columbina, the flirtatious wife--enacted by Nedda; Pagliaccio, the cuckolded husband--enacted by Canio; Arlecchino the lover--enacted by Beppe (interesting young tenor Chaz'men Williams-Ali); and the Servant Taddeo--enacted by Tonio.

Without scenery and with minimal playing area, the artists made the story clear and believable.  It was a directorial masterstroke to have Silvio sitting in the offstage audience.  When he observes (SPOILER ALERT) Canio losing control and stabbing Nedda he rushes onstage and suffers the same fate.  We in the audience feel more involved than usual since we were also subjected to Nedda selling us tickets for the "performance".

Highlights of the performance include Mr. Lickteig's prologue, Canio's heartbreaking "Vesti la giubba", Nedda's aria about freedom "Stridono lassu" and the affecting love duet between Nedda and Silvio as he persuades her to elope with him after the performance. The Italian was so clearly sung and the acting so effective that the occasional problems with the projected titles mattered little.

The production at the South Orange Performing Arts Center was a collaboration between the Martha Cardona Theater, The Mid Atlantic Opera Orchestra, conducted by Jason C. Tramm, and the Seton Hall University Chorus which sang the vesper chorus quite beautifully.

For more information on the upcoming Tosca, see their website.
www.themarthacardonatheater.com.  We are familiar with the cast and you won't be disappointed.

(c) meche kroop