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

Friday, January 30, 2015


Dominik Belavy, Nicolette Mavroleon, Samantha Hankey, Caitlin Redding, Nathan Haller

In terms of "attitude readjustment", nothing beats a Liederabend at Juilliiard. One's workaday stress ebbs away and one becomes flooded with positive emotions.  The music itself is always wonderful and fulfilling but the artists who perform it fill one with gratitude that a fine institution like Juilliard exists to hone their skills and bring them to the point of stage worthiness.

Yesterday's program was headlined by tenor Nathan Haller who has everything one could wish for in a tenor, with none of the common tenor problems.  He is an unfussy singer who manages to sustain his energy throughout the song and to involve the listener in the text.  The tone gleams like silver and there is no sign of strain.  He achieves variety through dynamics and phrasing. Every word could be understood.

He performed four songs from Schubert's Schwanengesang--well chosen for their variety of mood--expertly accompanied by the intuitive collaborative pianist Valeriya Polunina.  In the lighthearted "Liebesbotschaft" we could hear the babbling brook in her piano.  The portentous opening of "Kriegers Ahnung" was in marked contrast. Mr. Haller was even effective in the very lowest part of his register.  He dramatically conveyed the horror and eeriness of "Der Doppelgänger" and moved on to the joyfully lilting "Die Taubenpost".  It was a noteworthy performance.

A pair of Strauss songs were performed by baritone Dominik Belavy, accompanied by HoJae Lee.  Mr. Belavy was listed on the program as a baritone but there was a great deal of depth in his lower register.  Perhaps there is a bass-baritone in the making. He evinced a round tone with a pleasing vibrato and has an easy stage presence. We were astonished to learn that he is only 19 years old.

The romantic "Traum durch die Dämmerung", for example, lies rather low for a baritone but Mr. Belavy was undaunted. The sad "Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden" was sung expressively.  Unlike most very young singers, Mr. B. knows how to use his body.

We were delighted by mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey's performance of Trois Chansons de Bilitis by Debussy.  Her elegant stature and poise contributed to the long elegant French lines and Gallic atmosphere.  Edward Kim's accompaniment was correspondingly light and delicate.  Our only suggestion would be to make the words of this beautiful text better understood.  French seems to be rather more challenging in that regard, not just for Ms. Hankey but for most American singers.

Brahms' folk-like setting are deceptively simple but honestly charming.  Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Redding performed five of them with her excellent piano partner Martha Mingle.  Ms. Redding did her own translations and her expressive singing showed a comfort with the text. The unhappy "Mädchenlied" is one of our favorites; we had hoped for better diction to accompany the quality of her singing but we missed a lot of the phrases.  For some reason, the final lied "In stiller Nacht" was better understood.

Soprano Nicolette Mavroleon was also overcome by the German diction.  Her voice soars into the upper register with great passion and sounds best in the melismatic passages when unimpeded by the words.  Other than that her performance of Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder was vocally exciting.  The low-lying "Frühling" was followed (naturlich) by "September".  The set closed with the lovely "Beim Schlafengehen".  Kristen Doering was a fine piano partner.

What a splendid hour we passed at Juilliard.  Sadly, one gets this opportunity but once a month.  Yesterday's program was coached by the marvelous Vlad Iftinca who seems to know just how to pair up singer with pianist.  We wish we could end every workday in such fine fashion.

© meche kroop

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Barbara Quintiliani

It was during the set of Strauss songs that we had this thought:  "Ms. Quintiliani was born to sing Strauss".  Then we realized that during the Donizetti we thought her voice was perfect for bel canto.  By the end we realized that this abundantly gifted soprano could sing just about anything.

With an instrument that is as flexible as it is ample, this artist also has a delightful and engaging stage presence and a winning sense of humor.  There is not a whiff of diva about her.  She could be the girl next door until she opens her mouth to sing. She possesses a voice of great power that she can rein in with consummate control in the pianissimo passages.

Although she states that she is mostly given work as a crazy harridan, we enjoyed the way she can also express tenderness as in Strauss' tear-jerker "Befreit" in which a couple faces the death of one of them with courage and acceptance.  Nonetheless, our favorite in the Strauss set was "Die Nacht".

The first time we heard Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia was at Caramoor last summer and we were thrilled to get a second hearing of "M'odi, ah M'odi...Era desso" in which the titular character is begging her son to accept the antidote to the poison she has just administered (!).  She goes through a panoply of emotions ending in remorse and abject grief.  Ms. Quintiliani got them all right with a veritable explosion of fioritura.

She gave a fine performance of four early songs by Verdi in which one can hear his bel canto roots as well as the crafting of melodies one would observe in his later operas.  Our hands-down favorite was "Non t'accostare all'urna" in which the ghost of the singer berates the man who grieves-- his love is too little and too late.  Ms. Q's voice dripped with rejection and scorn. There was an enviable portamento as well.

To relieve the intensity, Ms. Q. sang the delightful "Brindisi" to which collaborative pianist Sean Kelly provided the oom-pah-pah accompaniment.

Also on the program was an aria from Cherubini's Médée--"Vous voyez de vos fils", in which the heroine gives way to her fury which remains an  undercurrent even when she pleads for Jason's return.  We never heard Callas sing it but we don't think there could be a more fiery performance than the one we heard last night.

We also heard two songs that were new to us by the Dutch/American composer Richard Hageman in which the piano writing was particularly lovely and beautifully played by Mr. Kelly.

"Ocean! thou mighty monster" from Carl Maria von Weber's Oberon closed the program but didn't end the delights, since Ms. Q. provided a most welcome encore--"Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" from Catalanis La Wally.  It was then that we had the thought: "This artist is born to sing realismo opera".  Now we are wondering what she sounds like in something by Wagner.  That's just something to look forward to!  Martha Cardona Theater might just be the one to undertake that!  Daniel Cardona, are you listening?

Let it be noted that diction was equally fine in English, Italian, French and German.

© meche kroop

Sunday, January 25, 2015


Jennifer Rivera and Kenneth Merrill

Last night Salon/Sanctuary Concerts took a step into the 19th c. further than they usually do and it was a welcome step.  To the many Facebook friends who wished us a musical birthday, we would like to tell them that indeed we did enjoy a very musical birthday, thanks to Jessica Gould's astute programming, Jennifer Rivera's thrilling singing, and Kenneth Merrill's warmly responsive accompanying on the piano.  The promised fortepiano was injured and replaced by a modern piano without any loss of musical value.

The program comprised music that Gioachino Rossini wrote in his later years in Paris after he retired from writing all those exciting operas we so love to hear.  It is clear to singers and audience alike that he retained all the excitement of rhythm and melody that infuse his operas.  The songs offer the same opportunity for dramatic expression as do the operas and require only the right singer to give the impression that one is hearing a very condensed version of a scene in an opera.

Take, for example, La Regata Veneziana, of which we never tire.  In Venetian dialect, Rossini gives the singer plenty to work with.  The singer "Anzoleta" gets to adopt three discrete moods, encouraging her lover Momolo, expressing the tension of the gondola race, and finally rewarding Momolo with her affection.  Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera rose to the occasion and filled the venue with color and excitement.

Her superb instrument and technique (influenced by Marilyn Horne and Frederica von Stade) is more legato than that of most bel canto artists.  Her diction sacrificed not a single word on the altar of musicality.  Variety in dynamics and tempi contributed to the sense of drama.

A compelling performance of "Mi lagnerò tacendo" was fascinating in that Rossini set the work four times--for soprano, mezzo, contralto, and finally a version to be sung on  one note.  Ms. Rivera showed strength in the lower register when called for and brilliance on top where necessary.  In fact, her voice is remarkably centered throughout the entire range.  

To our surprise, the setting we enjoyed the most was the last one because there was such variety of color in both Ms. Rivera's singing and Mr. Merrill's piano that the one note kept sounding different!  The text by Pietro Metastasio has been set by Mozart, Handel, Righini, and Hasse, among others.

Ms. Rivera was able to show her stuff in French in a set of three songs.  Every word was enunciated clearly and the French line was sustained beautifully.  "L'Orpheline du Tyrol" permitted the artist to yodel, making large skips sound easy.  "La chanson du bebé" represents Rossini at his naughtiest as the child does everything he can to get the attention of his parents.  What a hoot!  Ms. Rivera squeezed every drop of humor from the song.

We were thrilled to see a set of songs by Pauline Viardot on the program.  She was a singer herself and really knew how to write for the voice.  Clearly Rossini was a big influence on her.  "Madrid" had all the lilting rhythms and melodic riffs associated with Spanish music while "Havanaise" was imbued with Latin rhythms, alternating with highly embellished verses.  "Hai luli" was the lament of a forlorn lover.

There might have been an audience riot had Ms. Rivera not performed an encore of her signature aria--"Una voce poco fa" from Il Barbiere di Siviglia.  It was in this aria that the rich mezzo quality of her voice was most evident.  The fioriture passages were unique and original, creating abundant fireworks.  We heard something for which we need to invent a word; let's call it a "tripletrill"; we have never heard the like.

Mr. Merrill's accompanying skills are legendary and it was easy to see why he is chosen by so many fine singers.  He was always right there supporting but never overshadowing or overwhelming.

We remember Ms. Rivera well from her Juilliard days and from New York City Opera. We have enjoyed her astute essays in The Huffington Post. It was a real treat to hear her up close and personal.  Should NYCO be revived we are sure to hear more of her right here in New York.

© meche kroop

Monday, January 19, 2015


Tony Boutté, Jessica Gould, Melissa Errico and Jonathan Cake

Once again, Salon/Sanctuary Concerts has presented a compelling site-specific work that we were happy to see for the second time and would be happy to see again next year.  The sisters Gould have created this absorbing production--"More Between Heaven and Earth"--from the letters exchanged between two important figures of the 18th c. including music of that period performed by members of the Salon/Sanctuary Chamber Orchestra.

Thomas Jefferson's philosophy has always held an appeal for us and it was fascinating to find out a little bit about his private life.  Following his wife's death he was sent to Paris as the United States' Minister to France.  There he met and fell madly in love with the young, beautiful and talented Maria Cosway who was unfortunately in a loveless marriage with a man who repressed her artistic self-expression. Notwithstanding, she managed to write music, paint, play the harp and fortepiano, and eventually to found a school in Italy.

The romance was carried on by letters, often delivered with long delays after being subject to interception.  The prose is elegant and subtle; obviously the two of them missed each other, held one another in very high regard and nourished each other not only with words but with music--music which they had heard together in their initial 6 weeks acquaintanceship in Paris (during which they were never alone) and music which Ms. Cosway composed for Jefferson and sent to him.

But she lived in London and he lived in Paris.  At one point she visited Paris without her husband but somehow the two didn't manage to see each other alone until her last night there.  Whether they were kept apart by social obligations or their pride, each hoping for the other to make the first move, we will never know. We do hope that they consummated their love! 

Due to the Revolution in 1789, Jefferson was obliged to return to the United States and Cosway returned to Italy, the country of her birth.  Jefferson became Secretary of State and never returned to Europe.  In 1801 he became President, never to see Cosway again. After a 14 year silence, the couple renewed their correspondence until Jefferson's death in 1826.  Quite a relationship!

This fascinating tale was told in a script constructed by Erica Gould from the letters and writings of the two lovers.  Jessica Gould was responsible for the concept and the curation of the music which she sang along with tenor Tony Boutté.  Antonio Sacchini's opera Dardanus provided both instrumental excerpts and some passionate arias, with further musical contributions from Jacques Duphly played by Elliot Figg on the harpsichord and from Archangelo Corelli, played on the violin by Tatiana Daubek.

Famed actress Melissa Ericco was completely convincing as Cosway and also sang quite beautifully a sad lament of longing "Ogni dolce aura" which Cosway composed expressly for Jefferson. Royal Shakespeare Company actor Jonathan Cake cut a fine figure as Jefferson. Each narrated and read from the letters with additional narration provided by Christen Clifford.

Sumptuous costumes by Deborah Wright Houston and the setting in the Revolutionary period Fraunces Tavern compounded the illusion that we were visiting the 18th c.  If we could go back in time, we would have wanted to devise a way for this couple to have gotten together more!

© meche kroop

Sunday, January 18, 2015


Brian Zeger and Susan Graham

As far as song recitals go, Susan Graham has everything one would wish for in a performer--stage presence, communicative skills, understanding of the text, linguistic perfection, a gorgeous instrument, a sensitive partnership with her collaborative pianist (the eminent Brian Zeger) and that something extra that makes people adore her.

Her performance at the conclusion of the Marilyn Horne Song Celebration at Zankel Hall seemed to be a lesson for prospective lieder singers and a superlative way to honor Ms. Horne, whose contributions to the world of song is legendary.  Significantly she has mastered the rare art of making French comprehensible.  We wish we could say the same for the other singers on the program.

Alfred Bachelet's "Chère nuit" was given a rapturous and romantic reading, as was "Quand je fus pris au pavillon" by Bachelet's contemporary Reynaldo Hahn.  Poulenc came along at a later period and his waltz "Les chemins de l'amour" filled us with nostalgia for our own sacred memories.  As encore, Ms. Graham and Mr. Zeger offered another Poulenc song of a more surrealistic nature--the well known languorous "Violon".

Of the rest of the program, we feel obligated to point out that it was not as celebratory as we had hoped.  Glamorous mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall made some fine music in Arnold Schoenberg's Vier Lieder, Op.2 with its many references to natural elements and colors--poet Richard Dehmel must have been very fond of gold and green, red and blue.  Ms. Hall has a fine stage presence and a fine instrument that sounds rather soprano-y for the most part.  

Her German was excellent but her French diction in Ravel's Cinq mélodies populaires grecques fell short.  A native born French speaker of my acquaintance shared the same opinion.  The words to these charming folk songs deserve to be understood! The melodies nonetheless came through with charm to spare.  Renate Rohlfing's accompaniment was marked by a delightfully soft touch.

A last minute replacement for a singer who was generously "lent out" to the Philharmonic, bass DeAndre Simmons has a marvelously resonant sound.  He and his piano partner, the superb Brent Funderburk, were asked to step in with a program they had already prepared for another engagement.  In the entire Brahms canon, we cannot think of a group of songs we like less than "Vier ernste Gesänge".  To our ears they are painfully preachy and the bible is not what we want to hear quoted in an evening of celebration. Perhaps we are alone in this opinion but that is how we felt.

That being said, Mr. Simmons sang them well with an expressive rich tone and fine German diction.  Mr. Funderburk's piano handled the many scale passages with elegance.  It is obvious that he studied with Mr. Zeger!

Edward Parks has a marvelous baritone that we have enjoyed to the point of fanaticism on prior occasions.  Last night his delivery of selections from Schubert's Schwanengesang did not live up to his earlier performances. Schubert knew he was dying at the time of their composition and the settings of Heine's poetry are tinged with underlying sadness, even when they appear cheerful at first hearing.

We always love the lilting "Das Fischermädchen" and the eerie arpeggios of "Die Stadt"; the music made by pianist Keun-A Lee was extraordinary.  We just wanted a little more color and variety from Mr. Parks, the color and variety he lent to Schubert the last time we heard him.

We got plenty of color and variety from soprano Alison King, accompanied by Peter Walsh, in a selection of songs by Pauline Viardot. This musical polymath should be included in more vocal recitals!  As a singer, she wrote exceptionally well for the voice.  Her Havanaise had some marvelous melodies and exciting rhythm.  

Ms. King sounded a lot better in German than she did in French, mainly because of the diction.  We understood every word of the delightful "Nixe Binsefuss" and she injected an interesting bit of irony in Ms. Viardot's setting of "Das ist ein Schlechtes Wetter" in which Mr. Walsh conveyed the state of the weather in stormy fashion. We prefer the Viardot setting of the Heine text to that of Richard Strauss.

And so the week of celebration came to a successful conclusion with Ms. Graham's stunning appearance.  Lieder lovers come from all over the world for this glorious week of song.  We hope some new converts were made.

© meche kroop

Saturday, January 17, 2015


Brett Umlauf and Amber Youell

If we were asked to consider sadomasochism in connection with the opera, our first thought would be sitting through Moses und Aron (with apologies to you Schoenberg fans).  But now there is a new point of reference.  The highly original Morningside Opera Company presented an evening of Pergolesi in which there was a serious consideration of the validity of taking pleasure in another's pain.  Serious, but filled with humor, just like Pergolesi's music.

The poor fellow died of tuberculosis at the age of 26 but managed to produce a considerable amount of delightful music, bridging the Baroque and the Classical. Shortly before his death in a monastery, he composed the gorgeous Stabat Mater about the indescribable pain of Mary watching her son's agony on the cross.  The music is nearly frivolous--melodic and lighthearted while the words are excruciatingly painful.  Dare we enjoy it?

The evening took place in a so-called black box theater which was....WHITE!  Just another disjunction. The performing area was situated between the two sections of seats occupying the long walls of the space, giving everyone a good view.  The two superb performers were just as adept in acting as they were in singing.  Soprano Brett Umlauf and alto Amber Youell entered in their undies with their hair compressed by stocking caps.  For awhile they faced each other and mirrored each other's actions.

As the piece progressed, they donned and doffed various articles of clothing--purple tights, black pumps, a black leather corset, opulent 18th c. gowns and white wigs topped by little bird cages.  They enacted various scenarios of power--dominance and submission.  Periodic hand-washing movements reminded one of Lady Macbeth and the interactions suggested Jean Genet's The Maids.  Other images suggested Michelangelo's Pietà.  Choreography was by Laura Careless .

Both women have highly expressive voices and the harmonies were incredibly pleasing to the ear. Musical accompaniment was provided by the superb all-female Siren Baroque, comprising violinists Claire Bermingham and Antonia Light Nelson, cellist Anneke Schaul-Yoder, with harpsichordist Kelly Savage providing the continuo and serving as Musical Director.

The second piece on the program was a short opera buffa composed by Pergolesi a few years earlier--La Serva Padrona.  Initially intended as an intermezzo for an opera seria, it was so beloved that its fame far outlived the opera seria.  It's a simple story of a female servant who blackmails her elderly master into marrying her.

But, in the hands of Morningside Opera it became something completely different. The servant Serpina, addressed as "Mistress", is now a professional dominatrix and Uberto is her client.  He is quite fond of her and can't quite detach himself. She is costumed in a black corset and boots and comes equipped with whip and ball gag.

Although we generally want our opera sung in the original language, there was a very important reason to sing this one in English.  It was astonishing to see how the very 18th c. language which suited the power dynamics of a master and his servant worked so well to limn the power dynamics of a dom and her client.  It is generally understood that the member of an S&M duo that holds the power is the masochist.

Baritone Michael Shaw made an excellent Uberto who rails against his servant but has strong needs for what she has to offer.  As the servant/dom Serpina, soprano Brittany Palmer was effectively winsome. Several modern references were interpolated, such as eHarmony and Face Time.  The music handily depicts the beating of hearts when such is called for.

Stage direction and costume design for both pieces was by Annie Holt (Executive Artistic Director of Morningside Opera) and the Production Design was by Dante Olivia Smith.

Morningside Opera has been delighting audiences since 2008 and we were thrilled to have discovered such a creative group of performers and designers; we hope to review more of their work in the future.

© meche kroop

Friday, January 16, 2015


Kenneth Merrill and Diana Yodzis

To some folk, two recitals in one day would be excessive but we confess to gluttony where music is concerned.  Our first event, as part of "The Song Continues" at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall, was a most enjoyable recital by a lovely young soprano named Diana Yodzis.  She employed her pleasing bright soprano to serenade the audience in a varied program.  As she gradually moved away from the piano, she let go and revealed her engaging personality.

She began with Rossini's La regata veneziana which we always love to hear.  It gives the singer an opportunity to express, in turn, anticipation, anxiety, excitement and relief.  This was readily accomplished by Ms. Yodzis; we felt as if we were living through the gondola race ourself.

Hugo Wolf is a more challenging composer with less obvious vocal lines.  His Mignon songs are not nearly as melodic as those set by Schubert but always worth hearing. Word coloring was well employed and the sad story was given ample expressiveness. Our sole (and rather minor) criticism is the singer's insecurity (typical of many American singers) with the final "ich" which is often left unvoiced or pronounced as "ick".  This is a minor flaw and easy to correct.  Otherwise, her German was excellent, particularly with the umlaut.

A trio of songs by Duparc were song beautifully with nicely phrased long even lines. We particularly enjoyed "Phidylé". French diction was fine.

A recital given under the auspices of Ms. Horne would not be complete without a set of American  songs.  The selections from Aaron Copland's Old American Songs were well chosen and we especially enjoyed Ms. Yodzis' rendition of "I Bought Me a Cat".

Kenneth Merrill was a fine supportive piano partner who subtly pulled back the volume whenever the vocal line entered.  Great work!

As encore, the artist dedicated "La Vie en Rose" to her fiancé who is serving in the military.  We couldn't help thinking that this fortunate young man will find himself with a beautiful and talented wife--a fine reward for serving our country!

Bryn Holdsworth, Adanya Dunn, Raphaella Medina, Juliana Han, Kirill Kuzmin, Miles Mykkanen, Robert Bosworth and Marilyn Horne

Still on a high from the lovely recital, we attended Marilyn Horne's Master Class in which four fine young singers had the rare opportunity to be coached by one of the 20th century's iconic singers.

When the singer sings the song initially, one wonders how it could possibly be improved.  And then Ms. Horne supplies the answer.  Her four young singers worked hard to implement her suggestions and reached a new level of accomplishment.

We are very familiar with tenor Miles Mykkanen's fine technique and outsize personality, but last night we heard a different side of him as he essayed Hugo Wolf's "Benedeit die sel'ge Mutter".  Ms. Horne had him work on being more reflective and tinkered with his dynamics to fine effect.  Robert Bosworth served as piano partner.

Mezzo-soprano Raphaella Medina worked on a gorgeous Spanish song by Fermin Maria Alvarez with whom we were unfamiliar.  "La Partida" has ample melismatic passages and stirring Spanish rhythms, the strictness of which Ms. Horne wanted observed. Incisive diction was another feature she emphasized.  Further, she encouraged Ms. Medina to use her arms.  The end result was a stirring performance, to which pianist Juliana Han added a great deal.

Soprano Adanya Dunn took the stage with a wonderful relaxed stage presence and delighted the audience with her engaging personality.  Ms. Horne guided her through Britten's "The Salley Gardens", slowing the tempo and encouraging some sentimentality to good effect.  We truly enjoyed her storytelling in Liszt's "Die Loreley".  Shifts in dynamics and tempi made the performance even better.  Kirill Kuzmin was her fine accompanist.

Soprano Bryn Holdsworth, accompanied by Robert Bosworth, performed Strauss' wonderful "Allerseelen".  Ms. Horne suggested that young people may not have experienced significant losses sufficient to convey the depth of feeling in the song (we beg to differ--loss is not confined to the elderly, nor to the middle-aged) and that a young singer would have to "act".  Ms. Holdsworth did just fine in this regard and brought tears to our eyes.  Ms. Horne worked with her on grounding and on steadying herself through the diaphragm.  There were places that she encouraged Ms. H. to be more reflective and more pianissimo.  This definitely added to the success of the performance.

It was truly a magnificent day--a "double header" of a day.

© meche kroop

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Kelsey Lauritano, Theo Hoffman, Tiffany Townsend, James Edgar Knight, Alexander McKissick, Aaron Mor and Hannah McDermott

Steven Blier, Founder and Artistic Director of New York Festival of Song, is a major presence at Juilliard and a favorite among the students of the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts.  At last night's performance, it was easy to see why.  Mr. Blier prepares the program with the students, accompanies with great panache and serves as charming host and raconteur, introducing the songs with interesting tidbits.  This is the 10th edition of NYFOS@Juilliard and it was a celebration of collaboration.

In the case of presenting some of America's great songwriting teams, he gave the seven students he worked with a great amount of latitude in choosing two solos each wished to perform.  The rest of the evening comprised duets and ensembles.  The entertainment value was top-notch.  Much credit goes to Mary Birnbaum for the stage direction and Adam Cates for the choreography.

Mr. Blier made two points with which we are in total agreement.  He described the mutual support of Juilliard students for one another and the lack of envy.  We have witnessed the same phenomenon with pleasure and have often spoken with "outsiders" about it.

The other point he made is that working on "popular" songs is an experience that carries over into the young singers' performance of opera.  Yes indeed.  They get to "let loose" and exercise their dramatic skills in a supersized delivery.  Of course, it is also true that their operatic experience affects their performance in American musical theater.  They perform using all their operatic training to project without the use of amplification. That in itself is a treat for us in the audience who can't stand amplification and love the sound of a human voice.

Verbal clarity was quite good for the most part with some singers getting every single word across.  Tenor James Edgar Knight made a huge impression with "Captain Hook's Waltz" from Comden and Green's 1954 Peter Pan.  The music is tuneful, the lyrics are funny and Mr. Knight used his background in musical comedy to create a wonderful character.  He created a totally different character in "Real Live Girl" from Coleman and Leigh's 1962 Little Me.  Kelsey Lauritano's silent reaction to his country bumpkin character was a masterpiece of acting.

Ms. Lauritano gave a soulful reading to "It Never Entered My Mind" from Rodgers and Hart's 1940 Higher and Higher.  We liked the touch of irony and bitterness. She showed her funny side in "My Father the Gangster" from Bolcom and Weinstein's 1990 Casino Paradise which was not just funny but a moving lament.

Another song from that show, "The Establishment Route" permitted Andrew McKissick to draw some laughs as he donned a wiseguy persona.  He showed his versatility by performing "You and the Night and the Music" from Dietz and Schwartz' 1934 Revenge With Music.  He hammed it up to great effect when he switched to Spanish.

Theo Hoffman excelled in the same team's "Blue" from their 1996 Cabaret Songs and balanced that serious song with the light-hearted (and unpublished) "Luckiest Man in the World" from George and Ira Gershwin's 1933 Pardon My English. Ms. Lauritano was his gum-chewing bimbo, another acting triumph. Mr. Hoffman also excels in verbal clarity and threw himself totally into his supporting roles in the ensembles.

Tiffany Townsend delighted the audience with some bluesy renditions of "Blue Grass" from Dietz and Schwartz' 1945 Inside U.S.A. and was even better in "I Ain't Here" by Leiber and Stoller.

Hannah McDermott performed the romantic "I Was Doing All Right" from the Gershwin brothers' 1937 The Goldwyn Follies and got to show off her funny side in "Arthur in the Afternoon" from Kander and Ebb's " 1977 The Act.  She was a very funny foil to Aaron Mor's delivery of "We Can Talk to Each Other" from Maltby and Shire's 1976 Starting Here, Starting Now.  

Mr. Mor waxed rhapsodic about the couple's communication without allowing Ms. McDermott to get a word in.  There was a surprise ending. Mr. Mor was hilarious telling the 1922 tale of  "The Sheik of Avenue B" by Kalmar and Ruby, which he delivered with a funny Yiddish accent.

Aside from the sensational solos, we enjoyed the staging of "No Other Love" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1953 Me and Juliet in which Mr. Knight was auditioning Ms. Townsend in a charming duet. 

Several ensembles rounded out the evening with our hands down favorite being Lerner and Loewe's "Ascot Gavotte" from the 1959 My Fair Lady, in which the singers had a grand time portraying the pretentious British upper classes--sneers and plummy accents included.  The men were very funny in "Little Tin Box" from Bock and Harnick's 1959 Fiorello.  The women were no less funny in "I Want It All" from Maltby and Shire's 1983 Baby.

The cast was wise to choose songs that are less often heard.  The audience was roused to torrents of applause in appreciation for a very entertaining evening.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Marilyn Horne and John Brancy

Ken Noda

It's been a long time since a man made us weep.  The intensity of last night's recital left us close to blubbering.  Baritone John Brancy's artistry is such that his exquisite technique has become invisible which leaves him free to connect with the audience and to bring his mature comprehension of the text directly to the heart of the listener.

This is not a showy performer; he uses an economy of gesture and a depth of feeling to bring us to the point of view of the poet.  The instrument is an excellent one with a pleasingly mature resonance, but it is the story-telling aspect of the performance that one remembers best.  And it's all done without any artifice whatsoever.

The recital was the initial event in what was formerly called "Marilyn Horne's Birthday Week", now under the auspices of Carnegie Hall.  The intimate Weill Recital Hall was the perfect venue for a recital of this type and Mr. Brancy scaled his voice to the size of the hall.

The theme of the recital was music from around the period of The Great War; therefore most of the songs were a century old.  At this time, the Free World is at war with Muslim Fundamentalists.  It is indeed a very different type of war but the consequences are similar.  There are premature deaths, separations from loved ones, privations and anxiety about the future.  We can identify.

Mr. Brancy's astonishingly fine diction in English, French and German, accompanied by innate musical phrasing, made the words completely comprehensible, along with the message of the text.  At times it seemed as if he were "tasting" the words he sang although "savoring" might be a better word.

Mr. Noda's sensitive and supportive accompanying made the piano part an essential part of the communication.  There were instances when the poet was being, well, poetic but the piano revealed the anger and pain underneath.

We particularly enjoyed the six songs from George Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad with texts by A.E. Housman. The songs are about youth, nostalgia, aging, separation and death.  Their power lay in their universality of message and the richness of the melodies. It was particularly painful to read that the composer died in the war shortly after composing the songs.

The quartet of song by Carl Orff were powerful and evinced a substantial heap of anger with their dissonant chords.  A trio of French songs captivated us.  Ravel's "Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis" utilized the colors of the French flag to symbolize messages from an absent lover.  Debussy's lament for the children suffering from the consequences of war "Noël des enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons" was so effectively performed that we were way beyond dabbing our eyes with a tissue.  We were close to sobbing.

There were also two songs by Charles Ives--the angry and dissonant "In Flanders Field" and the gently nostalgic "Tom Sails Away".  "Popular" songs of the era (and how are they any different from "art songs" we may ask) included Ivor Novello's rousing encouragement to "Keep the Home Fires Burning" with Mr. Noda's piano contradicting the optimism.  The prayerful "God Be With Our Boys Tonight" involved some lovely tender arpeggios in the piano.  "Danny Boy" was a fitting and soulful final song, sounding quite different from when sung by an Irish tenor.

We have reviewed Mr. Brancy often, since he was an undergraduate at Juilliard. The seeds of his artistry were there from the start and we have revelled in witnessing the flowering of his talent.  It is no wonder that he is achieving recognition worldwide and garnering prizes from prestigious institutions.  His selection as the winner of the Marilyn Horne song Competition in 2013 was well deserved.  It was a major delight to experience him in a new light.  Truth to tell, some of those tears were tears of joy.

ⓒ meche kroop

Monday, January 12, 2015


Craig Rutenberg, Danielle Orlando, Nicholas Pallesen, and Angela Meade

Some songs were old and some were new; perhaps some were borrowed and many were blue.  It was a most unusual program at the Morgan Library as Nora London's birthday was celebrated yesterday.   As you have read here, the George London Foundation for Singers is renowned for supporting young singers.  Winners of the annual competition are invited back to perform in a series of superb recitals.

Both baritone Nicholas Pallesen and soprano Angela Meade have been setting the opera world on fire and garnering lavish praise and precious prizes for their dazzling vocal artistry.  Yesterday we got to see and hear them "up close and personal".

Mr. Rutenberg, a peerless piano partner, opened the program with some introductory remarks about Francis Poulenc's 1942 song cycle Chanson villageoises, written under the German occupation of France.  France under siege is a topic that cannot help but resonate with us today.  Poulenc's songs are spiky, filled with irony and somehow reminiscent of the cabaret.  We have never heard this cycle before but hope to become more familiar with its treasures.

Mr. Pallesen is a singer of great artistry, demonstrating a consummate ability to communicate the intentions of the composer.  He is equally comfortable with the charming, the frisky and the angry.  His technique is so refined that one doesn't notice it.  We found ourself overwhelmed by the drama, particularly in the bitter "Le mendiant" and the sad "Le retour du sergent".  Poverty and war are never pretty but Mr. Pallesen made them moving and upsetting.

Continuing in the French language, Ms. Meade offered a quartet of songs by Giacomo Meyerbeer that we had likewise never heard before.  Her piano partner Danielle Orlando leapt right into "Le voeu pendant l'orage" with some rumbling in the piano which shifted to some rather tinkly figures.  She is fearless in her accompanying and a perfect partner for Ms. Meade who grabs a song by the throat and doesn't let go. Her operatic expressiveness served her well in these songs of melodic richness and rhythmic intensity.  These songs also merit a second hearing.  Truth to tell, we would happily have had an instant replay of the entire recital!

This ground-breaking portion of the program was not over yet.  Mr. Pallesen and Mr. Rutenberg returned for "Ha! noch einen ganzen Tag!....Ha! welche Lust aus schönen Augen" from Der Vampyr by  Heinrich Marschner, a contemporary of Meyerbeer. This is a role Mr. Pallesen has been performing and he filled the aria with great excitement and power without neglecting German diction.  Every word was clear as crystal; consonants were crisp without cheating the vowels.  We never noticed the absence of titles.

The second half of the program took us to more familiar territory.  Ms. Meade initiated with "Crudele!...Non mi dir", Donna Anna's aria from Mozart's Don Giovanni. This was the perfect vehicle for Ms. Meade to show the ample size of her beautiful instrument, her elegant phrasing, and ease with embellishments.

Five songs by Charles Ives were then sung by Mr. Pallesen; our favorite was "Charlie Rutledge" which he sang with a Texas accent with some contributions from Mr. Rutenberg.  What fun!

The four Strauss songs chosen by Ms. Meade for the next set are very familiar to us but that never detracts from the pleasure we get from the passionate importuning "Stänchen", the joyful "Zueignung", the soulful "Allerseelen" and the enthusiastic "Cäcilie".  Indeed, Ms. Meade brought her unique communicative skills to the performance and made the songs new again.  Her voice seems made for Strauss!

To close the program, both singers joined to perform one of Verdi's father-daughter duets--"Figlia t'avanza...Tu pur lo sai" from I Due Foscari.  In this duet, a woman begs the Doge of Venice, her father-in-law, to intervene on behalf of his son.  It is beyond our understanding how he could resist!  It was such a captivating performance that we now yearn to hear the entire opera, if and when we get the opportunity.

So...happy birthday Nora London and many thanks for the fine way in which you honor your husband's memory.

© meche kroop

Sunday, January 11, 2015


Steven Fredericks, Gilad Paz, Caroline Tye, Terina Westmeyer, Halley Gilbert, Heather Roberts, Christopher Grundy, and Erik Bagger

Albert Herring proved that Benjamin Britten could create comedies that were just as successful as his dramatic masterworks such as Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. A turn-of-the-last-century English village is shocked to discover that chaste young women are in perilously short supply, so bashful Albert is crowned "King of the May Festival," only to launch a night of revelry that leaves his elders aghast and his chums impressed.

The libretto, adapted by Eric Crozier from a short story by Guy de Maupassant, offers splendid opportunities for storytelling involving a motley collection of colorful characters inhabiting a small English village at the turn of the 20th century.

Britten's music, written in 1947 for a chamber orchestra (The English Opera Group), provides excellent opportunities for musicians to show their stuff, limning the stunning orchestration and sneaking in several musical references such as a motif from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde when Albert drinks the spiked lemonade.

The opera was an excellent choice for the Bronx Opera.  They have been producing opera for nearly a half-century but this is the first time we have reviewed their work.  The weather was bitterly cold and perhaps the best compliment we can pay them is that the evening was well worth the two-hour round trip.

The venue, the Lovinger Theater at Lehman College, is absolutely perfect with fine sight lines and acoustics, and an orchestral pit that descends below stage level. Musical values were splendid all around.  The dozen musicians were individually and collectively superb and finely balanced under the expert baton of Michael C. Haigler.  There was one long duet for alto flute (Lisa Arkis) and bass clarinet (Monte Morgenstern) which took our breath away.  The singers were also well-balanced, particularly in the sextet of Act I, Scene 1.

The singers were exceedingly well cast.  Each singer created a character with a distinctive personality--the aristocratic and domineering Lady Billows (Terina Westmeyer) commanded the stage with a room-filling Wagnerian soprano and a walking stick, justified by a limp; her much put-upon housekeeper Florence Pike (Caroline Tye) kept things in order with a low and resonant timbre; the straw-hatted schoolteacher Miss Wordsworth (Halley Gilbert) who used her fine soprano in a very funny scene leading her three students in a musical encomium to Albert; the controlling Mrs. Herring (Heather Roberts) who kept poor Albert tied to her apron strings with a fine mezzo; and the flirtatious Nancy (Yselle Blum) whose equally fine mezzo managed to captivate her boyfriend Sid, Albert, and the audience.

Among the men, we enjoyed tenor Erik Bagger's portrayal of the eponymous hero--at first under his mother's thumb, shy and stooped over, later intoxicated and silly, and finally joyful and liberated.  Steven Fredericks employed his rich bass to portray Superintendent Budd of the police force; Tenor Gilad Paz made an excellent conciliatory Mayor Upfold; baritone Christopher Grundy was perfect as Vicar Gedge and had admirable diction. Baritone Steven Eddy portrayed Sid, the butcher's assistant who plotted with Nancy to lead poor Albert down the primrose path.

The singing and acting could not have been better but the diction could have been improved.  The men fared better on this account than the women, with Ms. Blum being an exception.  This is a common problem when operas are sung in English.  The Bronx Opera chooses to perform all of its operas in English and one would think that the goal were to make the story clear to the audience.  In fact, the synopsis in the program made the story clear but a significant part of the dialogue got swallowed.  Fortunately, the acting was so effective that the humor succeeded.  Titles would have been welcomed.

Production values were way beyond what one would expect from a small company. Professionalism of the highest degree was noted in the fluid direction by Rod Gomez, the perfect costuming by Peter Fogel and the effective sets by Meganne George. Simple elements combined to create Lady Billows' black and white parlor with its Victorian silhouettes and Mrs. Herring's grocery with its colorful baskets of fruits, vegetables and flowers.  Lighting by Joshua Rose contributed a great deal, especially during scene-changes which recreated the images of the Victorian silhouettes.

We haven't seen Albert Herring since the Santa Fe Opera performed it 4 1/2 years ago with an all-star cast.  The production we saw last night was in no way less impressive.  If you live in the Bronx you may wish to catch today's matinee.  Otherwise there will be two more performances next weekend at Hunter College.

(c) meche kroop