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.

Saturday, February 28, 2015


Nora London and the 2015 George London Foundation Awards Competition Finalists

Attending competitions can be exhilarating, stimulating, and sometimes disappointing. With so much talent onstage it is easy to get very invested in your favorite performances and to count on a particular artist getting an award.  Second guessing the judges just doesn't work.  It is easy to feel upset when an artist you just love gets overlooked.

On the positive side, it is thrilling to hear so much talent within the space of a couple hours.  This year's finalists in the George London Foundation for Singers Competition, held at The Morgan Library, were of such high quality that a director would have no trouble casting an opera with these young artists in major roles.

If you need to know who won the major prizes, we refer you to the Foundation's website.  We prefer to share with you our own perceptions.  Some of the singers we enjoyed did win major prizes, some won Encouragement Grants, others did not and, in our opinion, deserved to win.  Actually, all of them were winners!

A gifted singer can get the listener to appreciate an aria that he/she might not ordinarily enjoy, or a language one does not particularly favor. For example, baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. and bass Adam Lau employed such fine English diction that we understood every word and considered their performances two of our favorites.

Mr. Smith has a compelling stage presence, a rich tone, and a unique way of melding musicality with dramatic intensity such that  "Oh Lawd Jesus, heah my prayer" from L. Gruenberg's The Emperor Jones had us leaning forward in our seat.  When that opera gets produced in New York and Mr. Smith stars in it, we will be there!

Mr. Lau gave a similarly superb performance of "Claggart's Aria" from Britten's Billy Budd, giving the role all the bitterness and envy that was called for without ever compromising the requisite musicianship.

Two terrific tenors injected some longed-for garlic into the proceedings which were strangely short of Italian. The two distinguished themselves from the other tenors by never forcing the voice when a high note was called for.  Michael Brandenburg sang Macduff's grief stricken aria "Ah, la paterna mano" from Verdi's Macbeth, skillfully using dynamics for emotional effect.  Benjamin Bliss' performance of "Un aura amorosa" from Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte was marked by enviable legato phrasing and an admirable messa di voce.

Having just heard Tchaikovsky's Iolanta at the Met, we were delighted to hear "Robert's Aria" once again, sung by the full-throated baritone Sean Michael Plumb who seemed preternaturally comfortable in Russian.  Lovely soprano Mary-Hollis Hundley performed "Iolanta's Arioso", investing Tchaikovsky's lavish melodies with depth of feeling.

German was represented by Julie Adams who employed her ample and expressive soprano in "Einsam in trüben Tagen" from Wagner's Lohengrin.  Amy Owens used her bright soprano effectively in "Durch Zärtlichkeit" from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  Johann Strauss' "Frühlingsstimmen Walzer" was performed by soprano Susanna Biller with great style and an ear tickling trill which roused the audience to huge applause.

Much of the remainder of the program was in French.  Massenet appeared several times and we felt well acquainted with Manon.  Soprano Lara Secord-Haid enjoyed the wild flights of coloratura in "Je suis encore toute étourdie" when the eponymous heroine was still innocent.  Andrea Carroll's well modulated performance of the "Gavotte" profited (pun intended) from her winning personality and fine fioritura.

More Massenet was on hand as soprano Nicole Haslett sang "Ah! douce enfant" from Cendrillon; her ringing tone was perfect for the role of the fairy.  Just another splendid performance! And yet more Massenet appeared as soprano Lauren Michelle sang "Il est doux, il est bon" from Hérodiade in fine French with elegance of line.

Soprano Courtney Johnson gave a most convincing performance of the "Jewel Song" from Gounod's Faust.  Ms. Johnson is only 23 years old but is gifted beyond her years, judging by her technique and commitment to the material.  We have been watching her growth as an artist for a couple years now with great expectations.

Mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges is another artist we have been watching and her performance of "O ma lyre immortelle" from Gounod's Sapho demonstrated a fine liquid vibrato, and equal connection with the material and with the audience. We want to hear the entire opera based on this gorgeous aria.

Meyerbeer's florid vocal line in "Nobles seigneurs, salut" from Les Huguenots was no challenge to mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson who filled the role with ample personality. From Berlioz' Les Troyens, mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko sang Dido's aria "Adieu Fière Cité" with a lovely legato line.

Notably, each singer introduced him/herself and the aria he/she would sing. There were several other performances that we enjoyed but we have already run on and on. As accompanist Linda Hall was peerless and switched styles effortlessly.  

Nora London has been tireless in sustaining the legacy of her late husband George London.  He would have been so happy to see all the generous prizes being awarded to these deserving young artists!

© meche kroop

Friday, February 20, 2015


Hea Youn Chung and Angela Vallone

At Juilliard's latest liederabend, with Natalia Katyukova's coaching, all 10 Juilliard artists performed exquisitely, which is not to say that we enjoyed all of them equally. It was the final set of  songs by Joseph Marx, performed by the lovely soprano Angela Vallone in collaboration with pianist Hea Youn Chung, which captured our heart. Of all the composers on the program, Marx is the one most suited to our 19th c. ears and Ms. Vallone sang the songs most expressively.

Not only do we favor the Romantic period but we prefer songs about love and nature to those about war, depression, religion and conflict. Love is something to sing about!  And Marx carried over the mood of the 19th c. right into the 20th.  We particularly enjoyed "Nocturne" with its A-B-A form and lovely writing for piano.

Benjamin Britten set Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, also about love. These belong firmly to the 20th c. and are not nearly as melodic. They were passionately sung by the wonderful tenor Miles Mykkanen with William Kelley at the piano.  Mr. Mykkanen has been extending himself in new directions, which we applaud.  That being said, we most enjoy his particular artistry in songs of humor and irony.

Soprano Razskazoff joined forces with Valeriya Polunina to perform three selections from Olivier Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi, written for his violinist wife in 1938.  Ms. Razskazoff has a marvelously poised stage presence and a sizable voice just begging for the opera stage. Of the three selections, only "Le collier" expressed a sentiment to which we could relate.  But Ms. R's voice was thrilling, especially in the extended melismatic passages.

Bass-baritone Tyler Zimmerman utilized his voice and body in a most expressive fashion in two songs by Alexander Zemlinsky--both expressing anti-war sentiments with irony and bitterness. Mr. Zimmerman did his own translations of both. He also sang a trio of songs by Shostakovich--of later origin and lesser melodic interest. Kathryn Felt was his fine collaborative pianist.

Tenor Alexander McKissick performed six Poulenc songs with Ava Nazar as pianist. Poulenc chose to set texts by Apollinaire who survived World War I.  The poetry is surreal and said to reflect the visual arts--i.e. Cubism.  Our personal favorite was "Mutation". Notably, Mr. McKissick did his own translations.

It was greatly appreciated that each singer introduced the set of songs to be sung and told a little about their origins.

© meche kroop


Kurt Kanazawa and Avery Amereau (photo by Ken Howard)

We are filled with wonder whenever brought to the point of appreciating that which we might have disdained.  Whom do we credit for the reversal of taste?  In the case of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, credit must be shared by the super-talented young artists and the incredibly astute production team.

The libretto by Ronald Duncan did not sound promising; the evil Etruscan prince Tarquinius rapes the faithful wife of Collatinus, his comrade in arms. But look what director Mary Birnbaum has made out of this slender story.  She has placed the Greek chorus firmly in the 21st c., allowing them to comment on the story through the prism of Christianity and also to address the characters in this 500 BCE story. For the most part, the narrators appear to be reading from a history book.  She has mined the tale for contemporary relevance, highlighting the contrast between the creative productivity of women and the destructive power-seeking and war-mongering of men.

Jocelyn Dueck merits special mention for getting each and every artist to enunciate each and every word clearly so that not a single word was missed, thereby overcoming our dislike of operas sung in English.  The dialogue, based on Le Viol de Lucrèce, a play by André Obey, has language that rivals that of Homer with some beautiful metaphors that deserved to be heard and savored. They were.

And what a cast!  There is such strength in Juilliard's Vocal Arts Department that each role could be perfectly cast.  As the eponymous Lucretia, mezzo-soprano Avery Amereau fulfilled the demands of the role both vocally and dramatically.  She has a rich and resonant instrument that she employs skillfully and flawlessly.  Dramatically, she was totally convincing as the beautiful and innocent Lucretia who, in a fit of self-directed "slut shaming", stabbed herself after being raped.

As the rapist, the good-natured baritone Kurt Kanazawa transformed himself into an arrogant entitled brute who cannot bear the fact that his fellow comrade-in-arms Collatinus is married to the only faithful woman in Rome.  His mellow voice was given a bitter edge that was chilling. His wild ride into Rome was breathtaking.

As the aforementioned Collatinus, bass Daniel Miroslaw, whom we had not previously heard, made a fine showing--the only sympathetic male character amongst the warriors.  We look forward to hearing his booming bass in the future.

Baritone Joe Eletto portrayed Junius, another soldier, with great vitality.  He too has been cuckolded and feels resentment toward Collatinus' good fortune but would not act on it.  All the ambivalence was there in his wonderful voice and body language.

The three military men have a wonderful scene in their encampment outside Rome as they malign women and strut about emanating testosterone-fueled rage.  It was made clear how humiliation leads to rage and that rape is an act of rage, not sex.

Tenor William Goforth beautifully handled the role of narrator (Greek chorus), telling the story in a meaningful manner and with supernally clear diction. Mezzo-soprano Marguerite Jones held up the female part of the chorus with her customary skill.

As Lucretia's two women servants, mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms impressed as the maternal Bianca as did soprano Christine Price as Lucia.  One of our favorite scenes was that of the three women joining voices in a stunning trio while spinning wool on spindles.  Might we add that they appeared to know exactly how this task is accomplished!  Britten's music at this point was extraordinarily lovely.

The opera itself was composed by Britten as one of a group of chamber operas written in the impoverished post-World War II period when faith and funds were in equally short supply. Members of the excellent Juilliard Orchestra, under the baton of Mark Shapiro, brought the compelling score to vivid life.  We do so love the harp and Marion Ravot's playing was ravishing. The wind section was particularly well employed.

The simple but effective set by Grace Laubacher comprised a simple table and chairs for the two narrators and a large rotating platform for the historical scenes. Lighting was by Anshuman Bhatia. Costumes by Sydney Maresca were effective, particularly the soldiers' garb. Adam Cates choreographed Tarquinius ride and the rape scene most grippingly.

Who could ask for anything more?

© meche kroop

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Jamie Barton --photo by Stacey Bode

When an opera singer gets a lengthy standing ovation with whoops and shouts, the world must sit up and take notice.  This generation has not seen the likes of mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton whose stardom is assured.  If folks outside of the opera world got to hear last night's recital at Zankel Hall, Beyoncé might be knocked off her perch.

When we speak of a complete artist, this is what we have in mind: a thrilling instrument, perfect technique, compelling stage presence, engagement with the material and rapport with the audience.  All this Ms. Barton has in spades.  Her richly textured voice reminds one of a chocolatey porter; it is as smooth and weighty as burnished brass.

The remarkable feature is that every song sounds different as Ms. Barton seems to channel the intent of the poet.  This was particularly evident in the set of Schubert songs, each a very particular setting of poetry by Goethe.  Schubert chose the texts wisely, as wisely as Ms. Barton did in selecting them for her program.

The ballad "Der König in Thule" was a chance to tell a story whereas "Gretchen am Spinnrade", (with Bradley Moore's piano keeping the spinning wheel spinning obsessively), is more of a mood piece, reaching its desperate apogee with the words "sein kuss" lapsing into rapture. On this phrase, Ms, Barton opened up her voice and gave us goosebumps. "Schäfers Klagelied" was imbued with a lovely lilting waltz feeling while "Rastlose Liebe" was, well, restless. It was a stunning set.

No less stunning were Ernest Chausson's elegiac chansons, all delicacy and tenderness.  We loved all three: "Le colibri" was so effective that we saw the hummingbird drowning in the cup of the hibiscus.  The charming "Hébé" speaks of lost youth and "Le temps des lilas" speaks of lost love and the irreversibility of time.  All this was captured by this gifted artist and her fine collaborative pianist Bradley Moore.  The long lyric lines were typically Gallic in character. What memorable melodies he wrote!

Readers will recall how fond we are of Spanish music and can imagine how thrilled we were to be introduced to Joaquín Turina's Homenaje a Lope de Vega comprising three songs marked by classical technique and folky melodies.  Although the first canción "Cuando tan hermosa os miro" addressed romantic disappointment, the second "Si con mis deseos" was filled with spirit, and the final "Al val de Fuentes Ovejuna" told of a knight determined to win over a reluctant beauty.

Antonín Dvořák's Gypsy Songs are deeply emotional and convey all the freedom of gypsy life that we fantasize about.  We have heard them many times in German but this was the first time we heard them in the original Czech of Adolf Heyduk.  It was fascinating to hear the melody follow the sound of the language, even though we don't understand a single word of Czech.  There is much sadness in these songs as well as the thrill of the dance, not to mention the nostalgia for the poet's learning to sing from his elderly mother. The emotional sweep had a huge impact as Ms. Barton dug deeply into her feelings.

Contemporary composer Jake Heggie wrote a cycle entitled The Work at Hand, sung without break, a setting of poetry written by Laura J. Morefield who was struggling with cancer.  In the text there is courage, grace, joy and hope.  The audience seemed to love it and Ms. Barton was accompanied by cellist Anne Martindale Williams as well as piano. The piece was written for Ms. Barton and last night was its world premiere. She will also premiere in the orchestral version with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

The work opens with some punchy nervous music and the cello plays some strange ascending scales while the voice enjoys some lovely melismatic passages.  We preferred the music in the latter part when the piano played a gentle tinkly theme on the upper reaches of the keyboard.  We did not find the vocal line particularly musical but Ms. Barton invested it with meaning.  Every now and then we caught a few words but, like most singing in English, not very many.  Still, the free verse did not seem to lend itself to a melodic vocal line and, for our taste, did not thrill as did the rest of the program.

For encores, Ms. Barton sang two spirituals: "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" and "Ride On King Jesus".  How interesting that every word was clear!

ⓒ meche kroop

Saturday, February 14, 2015


Nathaniel Olson (photo courtesy of Carnegie Hall)
Sometimes we can tell everything there is to know about a singer from the first set of songs.  In the case of the fine young baritone Nathaniel Olson, presented at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall, we didn't really "get" him until the encores, of which there were two.

In the first, Mr. Olson sang "Die Neugierige" from Franz Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin and he sang it with all the youthful wonder and tenderness that is demanded by Wilhelm Müller's text.  We wanted to hear him sing the entire cycle.

The second encore was Aaron Copland's setting of an agrarian protest song from the post-Civil War period entitled "He's a dodger". This folk song was composed to discredit a presidential candidate who has been long forgotten.  But the song remains and Mr. Olson introduced it with a wonderfully original and persuasive preamble that revealed the personality that was rather hidden during the rest of the program.  The song pokes fun at the dishonesty of lawyers, politicians, salesmen, ministers and lovers--indeed, of everyone.

As far as the main body of the program, there was nothing to criticize except for the insecurity and inconsistency of the pronunciation of the final "g" and "ch" in German--a flaw commonly heard in American singers.  Sometimes the sound is omitted and sometimes it comes out as "ick". This should be simple to correct.

And yet, there was nothing in the program that thrilled us.  We wondered if Mr. Olson really loved the songs he sang.  In the program notes, he told of loving German lieder and Swedish songs since childhood.  So why then did his opening set of Schumann's Liederkreis, Op. 24  strike us as bland?  We adore Schumann and expected to be thrilled.  We were not.

Again, nothing was bad, and Mr. Olson clearly showed a lot of connection with his able accompanist and mentor Kevin Murphy.  Was it us?  Our companion was likewise unmoved by these poems of love yearned for, love anticipated, and love lost.  The lovely melody of "Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden" gave way to bitterness.  We heard it but we weren't "feeling" it.

The early 20th c. Swedish composer Ture Rangström set texts by many different poets but seemed to have a penchant for the unhappy. The songs fell on our ears with no more pleasure than the Schumann. Although Mr. Olson himself did the translation, we did not feel the connection we wanted to feel.

It is a rare recital in which we prefer the American songs but we thought Mr. Olson did justice to the lovely "Beautiful Dreamer" by Stephen Foster.  Many singers who have been associated with Marilyn Horne's program have paid tribute to her by including it in their programs and it is always lovely to hear.

Ned Rorem's "Early in the Morning", the setting of a text by Robert Silliman Hillyer, lent a note of charm and good feeling to the evening and Mr. Olson sang it beautifully with his pleasing baritone.  For once, we could visualize the circumstance and feel the pleasure of the poet.

Similarly, Aaron Copland's setting of the traditional folk song "The Little Horses" continued the pleasant feeling.  Mr. Olson and Mr. Murphy took the tempo very slowly allowing us to savor every word, and Mr. Olson exhibited a fine messa di voce.

We were unable to savor the set of Hanns Eisler songs from Ernste Gesänge which were filled with negativity, perhaps not the best choice of material.  The piano writing is jumpy and dissonant and the vocal line verges on the bombastic.

Of the Four Songs, Op. 13 by Samuel Barber, we most enjoyed the lighthearted "The Secrets of the Old" by William Butler Yeats in which three women are relishing the certain privileges of advanced years--the memories and the gossip.

We are holding open our opinion of Mr. Olson, hoping that the next time he presents a recital, he will let loose and reveal his personality. Perhaps someone told him to take it seriously but we'd like to tell him to lighten up!

© meche kroop

Friday, February 13, 2015


Andrew Stenson and Ying Fang  (photo by Marty Sohl)

The production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide was so outstanding we do not know whom to credit first.  Undeniably, conductor Jane Glover had a hand in it, or should we say "two hands" as she used them in balletic fashion to guide Juilliard415 (Juilliard's period-instrument orchestra) through Gluck's lean expressive score.  From the very first theme of the overture, heard at key moments later in the opera, we knew we were in good hands.  We want to call her Jane Goodhands, no "gloves" necessary.

Gluck can be said to have revolutionized opera in the mid 18th c.  By eliminating many excesses of the baroque, he paved the way for Mozart's genius.  By selecting libretti with authenticity of emotion, psychological insight, and sincere simplicity, he engages the listener who can examine his or her own predicaments and find resonant parallels.  Who has not struggled with desires that conflict with duties?  In this case, the libretto by du Roullet was based on the Racine play of 1674.  The opera premiered in 1774 in Paris.

Still, it is the singers themselves that carry the opera and we found the performances to be beyond criticism.  Each and every singer, drawn from the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and Juilliard Opera, was astutely cast, vocally perfect and dramatically affecting.  Were it not for the unexpected happy ending (unexpected because we had not read the synopsis beforehand) we would have gone home in tears.  Thankfully, due to the intervention of the goddess Diane, the innocent Iphegénie gets to live and to marry her beloved Achille.

Soprano Ying Fang made a perfect Iphegénie, using her expressive limpid voice, face and body to convey the nobility of character that enables her to express both despair over losing her young life and submission to her fate as a sacrifice.  At one point, convinced that Achille had been unfaithful (a ruse), she summoned up quite a lot of outrage.

Similarly, her intended husband Achille, as performed by tenor Andrew Stenson, conveyed rage at Agamemnon, tender love and protectiveness toward his bride and also had to exhibit outrage at being falsely accused of infidelity.  He accomplished all this without compromising his warm appealing tone.

As the conflicted Agamemnon, baritone Yunpeng Wang limned the character of a man torn between love for his daughter and duty to the gods who demanded the sacrifice. Mr. Wang has a round sturdy baritone that can sound authoritative when necessary to control others, angry when confronting the recalcitrant gods and yet tender when thinking of his child.

Mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez was stunning as the mother Clytemnestre.  She has a true rich mezzo sound with a great deal of depth.  In the closest thing to a mad scene that one might see in a pre-19th c. opera, she nearly loses it in her rage at her husband--all without losing her magnificent phrasing and tone.  At her entrance she is all regal dignity and it was upsetting yet understandable to watch her decline into near madness as she wished to substitute her life for her daughter's.

As the high priest Calchas, bass-baritone Brandon Cedel demonstrated why he has been winning prizes everywhere.  His lordly tones expressed the matter-of-fact information that Iphegénie must be sacrificed.  It was in different tones that he announced toward the end of the opera that the goddess Diane had arrived.

As Achille's friend Patrocle, baritone Takaoki Onishi gave his usually fine performance, lending truth to the saying in the theater world that "There are no small roles".  

All of the singers mentioned so far are familiar to us as we have watched their growth from one year to the next.  But last night we heard two singers for the first time and enjoyed their performances enormously.  Serbian bass Sava Vemić made a fine showing as Arcas, Agamemnon's lieutenant who is responsible for conveying messages important to the plot.  His rich substantial sound made us want to hear more of him.  As Diane, soprano Liv Redpath had the enviable role of the "deus ex machina" making everyone happy.  It will make us happy to hear her again.

As Three Greek Women, Angela Vallone, Kara Sainz and Mary-Elizabeth O'Neill made a fine showing as well.

Although billed as a "concert version" the young artists, performing onstage in front of the musicians, acted up a storm.  The only features missing were costumes and sets; we never missed them due to the persuasive acting and fine singing.  David Paul directed the enterprise, a collaboration of The Metropolitan Opera and The Juilliard School.

Finally, let us not forget to mention the fine French diction.  Even the chorus, positioned on the sides and at the rear of the orchestra made the language comprehensible.  There is only one more performance on Saturday at 2:00.  Miss this at your own peril.  Don't say we didn't tell you!

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Rosa D'Imperio as Tosca
Alexis Cregger as Salome

Edgar Jaramillo as Edgardo
A few days in advance of Valentine's Day, impressario Scott Foreman-Orr, Artistic Director of Clef Note Productions, presented an evening of operatic arias that encompassed the many faces of love: love fulfilled, love unrequited, forbidden love, desperate love, seductive love, and foolish love.

We always enjoy programs that show off the varied talents of a wide selection of singers.  There are always a couple that stand out--those that we want to hear more of.  Sometimes we have heard them before and relish the opportunity to hear them in a different role. And sometimes we enjoy being introduced to singers that are new to us.

In the former category is up-and-coming tenor Edgar Jaramillo whose rapid rise we have witnessed for the past few years.  Mr. Jaramillo is one of those rare singers who sings from the heart and doesn't hold back. His round Italianate tone was perfect for the love duet "Verranno a te" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, with the fine soprano Heather Kelley-Vella in the titular role.

We had never before heard him sing in French and his Don Jose was a revelation.  With the convincing Carmen of mezzo Galina Ivannikova, the pair created the final tragic scene of Bizet's masterpiece in a manner so powerful that we forgot our surroundings totally.  It was a triumph of acting that this kind sweet singer could muster such murderous rage.

As far as tenors go, we were glad to hear another one of the same ilk with a similar warmth of tone and dramatic commitment. José Heredia made a fine showing as the Duke in Verdi's Rigoletto.  It's no surprise that he could seduce Gilda with a performance like that.  His Gilda, soprano Heather Kelley-Vella, has such a sweet young sound! She was equally convincing as Gilda and as Lucia.

Mr. Heredia was just as fine portraying the victim of seduction when he became helpless in the face of Manon's wiles in the Massenet opera named for this dangerous young woman, nicely sung by soprano Rachel Hippert.

Strauss' heroines are not cut from the same cloth.  We particularly enjoyed Alexis Cregger's encore piece from Salome as she exulted over the head of Johannan.  She has a voice of great amplitude and beauty and was also a standout as the Marschallin in the final scene from Der Rosenkavalier with Page Lucky taking the role of Sophie and Leslie Middlebrook performing the role of Octavian. This is such a perfect trio with three characters each having her/his own thoughts.

Another sizable voice on the program belongs to soprano Rosa d'Imperio who impressed us with the "three questions" aria from Puccini's Turandot.  Her acting chops were evident as she performed a little later as the eponymous Tosca venting her jealousy on poor Mario, and still later as the seductive Manon in Manon Lescaut.  We don't know how Puccini's name became associated with "piccole donne". There is nothing small about any of these heroines and Ms. d'Imperio gave them each their due.

Accompanist Ming Hay Kwong shifted styles well and added something extra to the evening when he performed the challenging third movement of Beethoven's Appassionata, fingers flying over the keys.

We opera lovers must do everything we can to support the folks on the other side of the curtain who give of themselves so generously. Why not see what you can do on Indiegogo.  Here's the link.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Anna Noggle, Sara Beth Pearson and Justin Ryan

Most of us grew up with the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty which began as a tale handed down orally for a very long time before being recorded by a succession of chroniclers, with Perrault and Grimm being the most well-known.  It is the Grimm version that Disney used for his classical telling of the tale which is sufficiently "grimm" without Perrault's references to cannibalism and child murder.

As a ballet, the story succeeds brilliantly with an entire act being devoted to the celebration of Aurora's marriage to The Prince and entertainment being provided by various characters from children's literature.  To the best of our knowledge, there has been no operatic treatment....until now when wunderkind Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg undertook to compose an opera meant for families with children.

We have been fortunate to have witnessed the evolution of the work which the young Mr. W. began composing at the age of eleven.  His creativity has not gone unrecognized.  Indeed the work won a 2014 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and the Charlotte V. Bergen Scholarship prize.  He is this year's National Young Arts Foundation Merit winner in Classical Music Composition.  He has won the affection and support of the Chelsea Opera as well.  We have heard him sing and play piano brilliantly but we sadly missed his conducting debut at age 11 at the Crested Butte Colorado Music Festival.

Last night we heard the entire work performed onstage at the York Theater with Mr. W. conducting from the piano.  Against a painted backdrop of what appears to be Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, a stellar cast brought the work to life.  All that remains is for Mr. W. to finish orchestrating the second act; we wouldn't miss that for the world.

This young artist shares our goal of bringing young people to the opera so they can come to love it as much as he clearly does.  The love emanates from his shining face and enthusiastic body language.

The score is impressive; it is melodic and accessible without being derivative.  In the overture and the prelude to the second act, he makes use of heraldic themes which likely will be orchestrated for brass.  The melody literally jumps when the frog, winningly portrayed by Nicole DeLuca, announces an upcoming pregnancy to the Queen (Sara Beth Pearson) who has a lovely aria with much melismatic singing.  And there is a finely written duet with the King (Justin Ryan) involving some lovely harmonies.

He has also written a wonderful aria for Rosamond the Princess (Kate Oberjat) who can trill with the best of them.  Interestingly, her bel canto vocal line was supported by some pretty energetic and jazzy writing in the piano as she wishes for her prince to come.  Happily, her diction sufficed to make the words understood, even at the top of her register.

There is a drinking song in a tavern in Act II in which Mr. W. showed his skill in complex choral writing.  In the forest scene there is a fine hunting chorus and a gorgeous aria for the Prince.  Dominic Armstrong made a handsome and vocally firm Prince.  There were some light moments of swordplay of sorts as the Prince fought first with an Old Man who tries to prevent him from tackling the bramble covered castle and then an hysterical sword fight with the Evil Wise Woman, his nemesis.

These two opponents wound up being our favorite characters of the evening.  The Old Man was sung by baritone John Hancock whose diction was remarkable.  His aria was a recapitulation of the story up until that time and served to compensate for some not so perfect diction in Act I.

And who was that making the Evil Wise Woman the evilest wise woman ever seen and heard??? None other than star soprano Lauren Flanigan who used every vocal and dramatic asset at her disposal to avenge her being left out of the christening party. (You see, the royal couple possessed only a dozen place settings so she got left out.)

Soprano Anna Noggle created the role of the Last Wise Woman (the good fairy) and used her voice and dramatic skills well to create a beneficent character that did what she could to protect Rosamund from the death spell and to guide the Prince to her chamber.  Her scene competing with Ms. Flanigan for control of the Prince's sword was hilarious.

There are lots of predictions in the story.  The Frog predicts the pregnancy; the Evil Wise Woman predicts the spindle accident; the Last Wise Woman predicts the Big Sleep.  And now we would like to make a prediction.  Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg has a great future in store.  We can't wait to witness it.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, February 8, 2015


César Delgado and Amaya Arberas

We spent many years in South Florida so WE KNOW ALL ABOUT CUBA!  Take THAT, Sarah Palin!  In honor of the current highly-hoped-for Cuban glasnost, we celebrated Cuban culture from two angles yesterday--first the classical unamplified voices of two splendid young singers at the upper end of Manhattan, and later at a wild and frenzied concert/dance in the farthest reaches of Brooklyn.

Our first event took us to the grand Hispanic Society of America where the Cuban Cultural Center of New York presented "En un salón de La Habana", a recital of Cuban lyric songs.  The recital took place in the Salón Sorolla, lavishly decorated with colorful paintings by Joaquin Sorolla which formed a perfect backdrop for the artists and would be worth a return trip just to see.

However the music and its performance were so compelling that we scarcely noticed the paintings until intermission.  We have written several times before about the engaging soprano Amaya Arberas who hails from San Sebastián in Spain and represented the Iberian member of the duo.  Her vocal partner was Mexican tenor César Delgado who represented Spain in the Nuevo Mundo.  Ever since our first hearing of Rolando Villazón we have been impressed by the quality of tenors turned out by our neighbor to the south.

Our readers know by now how fond we are of Spanish songs and how much we enjoy duets; so imagine how sobre la luna we were when Ms. Arberas and Mr. Delgado joined their voices in heavenly harmony several times in the course of the recital.  Arguably the best known of the composers represented on the program, Ernesto Lecuona was responsible for "Como arrullo de palmas" and, even better, "¡Ay, quién pudiera morirse!" from his zarzuela Rosa la China.

Two more duets enchanted us: "Duetino de Isabel y Leonardo" from Gonzalo Roigo's Cecilia Valdés and "Te odio/Me odias" by Félix B. Caignet and Ernestina Lecuona (Ernesto's older sister), the latter duet being notable for NOT being loving.

Notably, nearly every other song on the program involved love.  One had no trouble understanding the lyrics with a minimal knowledge of Spanish --los besos, la vida, mi amor, tu boca, mi corazon, l'alma, tus ojos.  Also notable is the alternation between a lyric section and a rhythmic section.

Accompaniment was provided by the Florida Chamber Orchestra Duo.  Musical Director Ana Ruth Bermúdez arranged the songs such that the lyrical sections were played by herself on the cello (and magnificently played!), echoing the vocal line.  The rhythm was mostly provided by the excellent piano of Ileana Cortizo Boza who also had the opportunity to perform several solos.

We have nothing but admiration for the two singers.  Not only did they sing duets with perfect harmony and connection but their solos were marked by expressive phrasing, passionate intensity and just the right amount of vibrato.  The audience particularly loved Ms. Arberas' performance of Lecuona's "Pregón de Flores" and Mr. Delgado's performance of José M. Varona's "Es el amor la mitad de la vida".

All of the music on the program was composed during the late 19th c. and early 20th c.

The latter part of the evening presented us with contemporary and highly amplified Cuban dance rhythms, performed by the famous Cuban vocalist José "Pepito" Gómez who has recently immigrated to the United States.  It was easy to see why he created such a sensation not only in his homeland but on world tours.  His highly energetic rhythms and effective brass section galvanized the crowd and the dance floor was rapidly filled.  You might possibly have glimpsed us trying to dance the timba in our clumsy snow boots!

The concert was part of a series called "World to Brooklyn" presented by the well known World Music Institute.  This series is designed to present music from other countries in a totally immersive fashion including dance lessons, socializing, imbibing and of course listening to music.  Upcoming concerts will feature Colombia and Haiti.

We wish we could have concluded our Cuban "day into night" with a "medianoche" but, sadly, our favorite Cuban restaurant on 8th Avenue was closed, destroyed by Chelsea's gentrification and the concomitant higher rents.  Still, we do think we had sufficient Cuban culture for one day.

© meche kroop

Friday, February 6, 2015


Matthew Polenzani (photo credit -Dario Acosta)

Perhaps there is no tenor in his generation who can fill the Metropolitan Opera with so much beautiful sound.  Nonetheless it is a special thrill to experience his artistry in a smaller house.  It is over a year since we heard his recital at the Morgan Library as part of the George London Foundation recital series--a return which celebrated his 1998 award.  And this week we had the pleasure of hearing him once again, this time at Alice Tully Hall as part of the Lincoln Center Great Performers series  "The Art of the Song".

And Art it is with a capital A!  Mr. Polenzani's generous Italianate tone is replete with resonance and his diction, thankfully, makes every word count--even in French which seems to be the downfall of most American singers.  Still, the house lights were kept at a level that permitted those who do not understand foreign languages to read the translations.

The sound is huge and operatic when passionate intensity is called for-- but our preference was for the tender passages in which he mined great depth of feeling at even the most pianissimo level of dynamics.

Accompanied by the fine pianist Julius Drake, he opened the program with Beethoven's youthful masterpiece "Adelaide", in which he achieved variety in the many repeated phrases.

His set of five songs by Liszt included "Die stille Wasserrose" which we had hoped to hear him sing again, having enjoyed it so much at the George London recital.  It's just one of those memorable moments that linger and bear revisiting. To hear what he did with the word "vergehn" was to be thrilled to the very toes.  As a matter of fact, there were several instances where a single word achieved great importance, often at the climax or end of the song.  In "Wie singt die Lerche schön" the vibrato on "sonnenschein" was incredibly lovely.  In "Der Glückliche", something special was going on in "schlummernden" and "geruht".  We wondered whether anyone else felt that special feeling.

We loved the rippling arpeggios in Mr. Drake's piano in "Im Rhein, im schönen Strome".

After the Liszt songs in German, the duo moved on to four Liszt songs in French, all settings of texts by Victor Hugo.  What a gorgeous Gallic line we heard in "S'il est un charmant gazon".  In "Enfant, si j'étais roi", the sweetly imploring "Pour un regard de vous!" and "Pour un baiser de toi!" moved us deeply.  But it was "Oh! quand je dors" that held the audience spellbound, hushed and breathless until Mr. Drake ever so slowly lifted his hands from the keys.  Magic!

On a lighter note, Erik Satie's Trois mélodies injected notes of humor into the program.  The wit of "La statue de bronze" was reinforced by Mr. Drake's bouncy accompaniment and Mr. Polenzani's swallowing of the insects at the conclusion. Wisely, Mr. Polenzani explained the wordplay of "Daphénéo".  As a matter of fact, he frequently introduced his songs with small bits of information that served to engage the audience on more than one level.  

His Cinq mélodies populaires grecques were well remembered by us from his George London recital and we delighted in hearing them again.  His performance of "Quel galant!" was well served by his portrayal of a cocky fellow addressing his lady love. So much was said with vocal color and physical posture in a short minute!

We do not consider ourself fans of Samuel Barber but Mr. Polenzani sang the Hermit Songs very well and we enjoyed the very brief sardonic "Promiscuity" and the charming "The Monk and his Cat".

Of course the audience would not let Mr. Polenzani off the stage without an encore. It was here in "La Barcheta" from Reynaldo Hahn's Venezia that we got to hear the artist in his gentle mode, singing in Venetian dialect, which he translated beforehand for a grateful audience. We would love to hear the entire cycle and hope that Mr. P. will offer that at his next recital.  His diminuendos are like no others!

Yet another encore was offered, Frank Bridge's "Love Went a-Riding", a setting of a poem by Mary Coleridge, composed in 1917.  A standing ovation paid tribute to this amazing artist and his fine collaborative pianist. Our wish for the future would be to hear the entire Venetian cycle by Hahn.  Always leave them wanting more!

© meche kroop