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, August 31, 2015


Cecelia Hall and Susanna Phillips (photo by Ken Howard)

Dear Dan Savage,

Who else but you could help me with my savage feelings! I recently started working for an important guy in my town. I fell madly in love with his housekeeper but she is hanging in there with high hopes of marrying her boss.  I'm sure she doesn't have a chance with him and I know I am the right guy for her but she is one difficult woman!  She keeps rejecting me.  How do I convince her?  I'm just a working stiff but I'm reliable.  Doesn't that count?

Yours truly,

Nardo the Nebbish


Dear Abby,

I just about convinced my boss to marry me, after several years of keeping house for him.  He's old but he's rich and I'm tired of working.  I thought I had a lock on him but he recently hired a gardener, a woman gardener.  There's something phony about her and she's got him wrapped around her finger.  How can I expose her and get him back?




Dear Dan,

It's tough being a guy with position and money.  I've been alone for years and was thinking of marrying my housekeeper so she could ease my later years.  Recently I hired a woman to tend my garden and, well, how do I put this delicately?  The sap is rising!  She doesn't seem particularly interested but I'm sure it's because she is depressed.  There must be something in her past that causes her to overlook a catch like myself.  How can I get her to look at me and see how much I have to offer her?

Yours in renewed rapture,

Don Anchise


Dear Dan,

I suspect you are going to tell me to DTMFA, but I hope you will not because I am so in love with this guy.  He has anger management problems and, in a fit he attacked me with a knife. He left me for dead but I survived and I want him back.  I know we are meant for each other!  He's really a wonderful guy and I think I could get him to go for therapy. The problem is this--I decided to totally change my life by giving up everything and going to work at something menial. (My boss is interested in me but I can't even look at him.)  Imagine my shock when the man I love showed up at his home and is engaged to his niece.  They blow hot and cold and if he found out that I'm alive I'm sure he would give her up and return to me.  Please help!



Dear Dan,

I am a bad boy.  Here I am engaged to a beautiful woman who is capricious and always wants things her way, a real princess. But I cannot forget my ex-lover who I may have killed in a fit of jealousy. At the time I thought I was justified!  I saw in my fiancée's uncle's house a woman who reminds me so much of her.  I cannot believe it and I think I want to back out of my engagement.  Am I a total A-hole?



Dear Dan,

What a jerk I am.  I have been hanging around this gorgeous gal who keeps stringing me along.  She is so fickle.  Now she just got engaged to someone else. She's independent and bossy but I love her anyway. Do you think there is some way I can coax her away from this other dude?  Please answer quickly Dan.



Dear Abby,

Can you help me with a quandary?  It's time I married.  I have been keeping company with a swell guy but he is so devoted I started to take him for granted.  Along comes this exciting guy who swept me off my feet.  But he is fickle and seems to be flirting with someone in my uncle's employ.  Should I choose the exciting one or the loyal one? I might add that whichever one I choose, I will rule the roost. I am accustomed to getting my way. For the kind of woman I am, which guy would make the best match?  I'm counting on you Abby.



Now that you understand the plot of Mozart's youthful opera  La Finta Gardiniera (LOL), let it be said that the Santa Fe Opera gave it a delightful production.  The cast was all around superb.

The Marchioness Violante, disguised as Sandrina the gardener, was portrayed by Heidi Stober. As the spoiled and demanding Arminda, Susanna Phillips sang and acted up a storm, stepping out of the usual gentle sweetness we associate with her.

Soprano Laura Tatulescu portrayed Serpetta with rather more unpleasantness than wiliness.

As the flip-flopping Belfiore, tenor Joel Prieto made a fine impression. As the Podestà, tenor William Burden more than fulfilled the demands of the role.

Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall was extraordinarily convincing as Ramiro and Joshua Hopkins, in the role of Nardo, impressed us with his superb baritone and sympathetic portrayal.

The production was gorgeous and true to the period.  Tim Albery's direction kept things moving at a swift pace and Harry Bicket's precise attack on Mozart's marvelous music kept up.

Hildegard Bechtler's stunning set took us right back to the 18th c. as did Jon Morrell's lavish costume design. The Podestà's overdone costume and wig were a source of giggles and Ms. Phillips looked exquisite in her gown, with the widest paniers we have ever seen.

Sandrine and Serpetta were drably dressed in black but they were servants and perhaps that is how servants were dressed in those days.

This was not Mozart's first opera and his enthusiasm for the form is unmistakeable. Melodies tumbled after each other all night long. All he needed was a good librettist and thank goodness Da Ponte came along.  Now that was a match made in heaven!

This was the last opera we heard in Santa Fe this season and we were overjoyed to end on such a happy note. By the end of the opera, everyone was happily coupled except for the Podestà and he was hopeful about his romantic future.  Delightful!

(c) meche kroop


Tziporah Miriam Halperin and Rachel Hippert

Finally our passion for Spanish music has been sated, thanks to Scott Foreman-Orr's Clef Note Productions and Project 142.  Not only did we hear some favorites from the world of zarzuela but had the thrill of hearing an aria from a contemporary opera that is (we couldn't believe our ears!) actually MELODIC. 

Salvadoran Luis Diaz Hérodier composed El Mozote in 2006 to a libretto by his sister, the famous poet Claudia Hérodier, dealing with the country's civil war in the early 1980's. The tender aria "Y yo que haré sin vos, Rufina" was beautifully interpreted by the sweet-voiced tenor Oswaldo Iraheta, a fellow Salvadoran, if we are not mistaken. Perhaps the future of opera lies in El Salvador!  

Two other Latin American tenors captivated the capacity audience with their passionate delivery. We particularly enjoyed José Heredia's nicely modulated delivery of Augustin Lara's "Granada".  This popular song has been sung in many languages but there's nothing like the real thing.

The more passionate "No puede ser" from Pablo Sorozábal's 1936 zarzuela La Taberna del puerto is another favorite of ours and full-voiced tenor Hamid Rodriguez poured a full measure of Latin passion into it, nicely varying the dynamics and volume to hold our interest.

Although the women on the program were not Latin American, they made an equally fine impression. The harmonies of Maria Malibran's "Le prisonnier" were effectively captured by soprano Rachel Hippert and mezzo-soprano Tziporah Miriam Halperin as they sang about the beauties of nature in fine French. The Spanish Malibran, a famous 19th c. bel canto singer, obviously knew how to write for the voice.  Perhaps what we need today are songs written by singers!

These two women are so in tune with one another! They thrilled us with "Séparation", Pauline Viardot's adaptation for voice of "Mazurka #6" by Chopin. Fine French diction is difficult to find but they nailed it. 

Ms. Hippert shared a convincing duet with Mr.  Heredia--"El duo de la Africana" by Manuel Caballero. This zarzuela was a satire of Meyerbeer's opera L'Africaine. Equally convincing was the final scene of Bizet's Carmen, sung by mezzo-soprano Galina Ivannikova and Mr. Rodriguez.

We heard two versions of "Les Filles de Cadix", one by Leo Delibes which gave Ms. Hippert the opportunity to exhibit a flirtatious personality; the other setting by Pauline Viardot, sung by mezzo-soprano Anna Tonno, who did her best to convey the same flirtatiousness, hampered by being "on the book".

This brings us to the marvelous soprano Alexis Cregger, whose use of the music stand detracted from her ability to connect with the audience. She clearly connected with the material and has a marvelous instrument; there must have been a compelling reason for her not to have memorized her selections but we sadly cannot approve. Attending a vocal recital involves a reciprocal relation between artist and audience. Anything that interferes with this connection is a distraction.

This was particularly unfortunate because her selections were among the choicest on the program: Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona's gorgeous "Escucha al Ruiseñor" and Heitor Villalobos' thrilling "Bachianas #5".

Soprano Rosa d'Imperio showed excellence in performance of an aria from Lecuona's tragedy "Maria la O". We also enjoyed her in an intensely dramatic duet with Mr. Rodriguez "Amor mi raza sabe conquistar" from the 1924 zarzuela Leyenda del Beso by Reveriano Soutullo.

Accompaniment by Winston Vogel fell short. He was mainly focused on the score and neglected to "breathe with" the singers.

We will close with an unsettling fact previously unknown by us: Georges Bizet's "Habanera" from Carmen first saw light of day as Sebastian Yradier's "El Arreglito"!  Bizet claimed that he thought it was a folk song that he arranged.  Uh-oh!  Well, that wouldn't be the first and only example of musical plagiarism. Last night Ms. Halperin sang it and we enjoyed it, no matter who wrote it!.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, August 29, 2015


Elizabeth Bouk, Marie Masters, Christopher Lilley, Marianne Farrell and Min Gu Yeo

Hiram Titus' music is new to us, and we will begin by saying that we yearn to hear more of his instrumental music. As performed by the excellent Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Christopher Fecteau, Artistic Director and Founder of Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, it made quite an impression. We can surely understand why Maestro Fecteau chose to conduct last night. The music is very lush in its orchestration and varied in its moods--one might call it colorful and dramatic. We were not surprised to learn that Mr. Titus composes for movies.

That being said, we would not be in a hurry to hear any more of his operas. We will say that there were several lovely arias in his 1980 opera Rosina. In the first act, the character Cherubino sings a lovely ballad accompanied by guitar (Matheus Souza) which led into a duet with Rosina, also quite lovely. And in Act II, Count Almaviva and Cherubino sang a duet about women that we enjoyed.

Nonetheless, the conversational dialogue is, well, excessively prosaic. Barbara Field's libretto does not lend itself to a singable vocal line.  Part of the problem lies in the rhythm of the English language. One thinks of the few exceptions--Shakespeare, Sondheim, W.S. Gilbert.

In spite of this handicap, the cast performed well. The story is invented but found its way into Dell'Arte Ensemble's Beaumarchais theme by virtue of its dealing with characters invented by the 18th c. polymath, who wrote the trio of plays which inspired Rossini, Paisiello, Rossini and others.

Several years have passed since Cherubino was sent off to be an officer in the Count's regiment. He returned to Seville and eloped with the Countess who was fed up with the Count's philandering. As the opera opens the couple is living in poverty in Madrid with Cherubino trying to sell his paintings. They have a newborn and are in love and happy, troubled only by the aggressive landlady. The Count comes to Madrid to find Rosina, along with his latest conquest, the very young Amparo. Rosina (the Countess) must choose between the two men--or must she? Sometimes women must choose their own pathway, even in the 18th c.

As the Countess (Rosina), soprano Marie Masters made a fine showing with her ample voice and warmth. We remember her well from last year's Falstaff as Mrs. Ford. As Cherubino, tenor Christopher S. Lilley impressed us with his fine singing and acting. His Cherubino was a real charmer! We recall enjoying his performances at Manhattan School of Music on several occasions.

As Pilar, the aggressive landlady, mezzo-soprano Kerry Gotschall added greatly to the comic relief. Sporting a moustache (!) and clumping around the stage, she created a marvelous character. In Act I, she had some great lines--"The rent's been spent". The scene in Act II where she virtually attacks the blindfolded Mendoza, Cherubino's art dealer, was a real hoot. He had come to seduce Rosina who was playing a trick on him by substituting Pilar. 

If the opening scene referenced Act I of La Boheme, this scene suggested the final act of Nozze di Figaro! The art dealer was well performed by Korland Simmons who produced some rich laughter in his sneezing scene which reminded us of the sneezing scene in the Paisiello Barber.

As Count Almaviva, Min Gu Yeo's superlative baritone was hampered by a strong accent that made much of his dialect incomprehensible. English is sufficiently difficult to sing when it is one's native language! He was also made to disguise himself with a very silly moustache and cast opposite a woman who was more than a head taller than he--his new mistress Amparo. It felt awkward not knowing whether this was done intentionally for laughs or not.

As Amparo, we really liked Elizabeth Bouk, whose Komponist in Utopia Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos we recently reviewed. Her mezzo-soprano is clean and pleasant to hear and she has a winning stage presence which made us care about this 18-year-old not-so-innocent. We liked her aria about her origins in Barcelona, daughter of a fish monger and a sailor, trying to advance herself in this world. 

Erin Cressy directed and Meganne George was responsible for the minimal but workable set. Costume Designer Carly Bradt finally provided costumes suggestive of 18th c. aristocracy for the women while the men wore street clothes.

It was a real pleasure to see the entire season of Beaumarchais on four consecutive nights.  Thanks Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, August 28, 2015


Count Almaviva (Seung-Hyeon Baek) and Susanna (Alexa Smith) duke it out
(photo by Brian E. Long)

Since last night's performance of Mozart's 1786 masterpiece Nozze di Figaro by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, we cannot stop singing and humming the master's melodies. Such is the Magic of Mozart! This is the centerpiece of the trilogy and the best known. There is a reason why it is.  Not only are we celebrating the marriage of Susanna and Figaro, but the marriage of Mozart and Da Ponte, a match made in music heaven. Da Ponte created some wonderful and complex characters; Mozart composed music that amplifies the characterization.

We were greatly impressed by Seung-Hyeon Baek's performance as the unlikable Count Almaviva who seems to exist to make women miserable. The lovely Countess, whom he so relentlessly pursued in the first Beaumarchais play, is now lonely and neglected as her philandering husband pursues her servant Susanna with importuning and groping, to the dismay of both women.

Mr. Baek has a rich baritone that he employs effortlessly obviating any notice of his technique. He immersed himself so totally in the character that one forgot everything else. Gesture, body movement, and facial expression worked together and was always connected to the moment. This is the kind of theatrical presence that we want to see and hear all the time. 

He certainly met his match in the lovely Susanna of Alexa Smith whom we have long admired since Manhattan School of Music and Prelude to Performance. Her lovely soprano was always on target and the character she created was in some ways different from other Susanna's who have blended together in a generic way. Her Susanna was rather more put-upon--not only annoyed by the Count's attentions but also occasionally irritated by Figaro's denseness. This characterization made her more real; what bride has not been a bit tense on her wedding day!

As the Countess Almaviva, we enjoyed the performance of Elizabeth Tredent who created a sad characterization of a cast-off wife in her two major arias "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono". Her scenes with Susanna and Cherubino were enchanting as the companionship seemed to lift her out of her funk. We were glad to see her blossom at the end of the opera as the machinations of Figaro resulted in a rapprochement of sorts with the Count. 

Cherubino was well portrayed by Natasha Nelson whose "Non so piu" was marked by appropriate variety of tempi. Her "Voi che sapete" was similarly excellent and was marked by dynamic variety.

Figaro himself was performed by Cole Grissom who had excellent chemistry with Ms. Smith. We have rarely seen such a frisky physical performance; this feature added to the contemporaneous nature of the production. We liked his cavatina "Se vuol ballare", which marked the birth of his antagonism to his master, based on Susanna's reporting of the Count's dishonorable intentions toward her.

Jonathan Dauermann made a sturdy Dr. Bartolo, unpleasant at first but becoming rather benevolent when he learns that Figaro is his son. He handled "La vendetta" very well, especially the rapid patter part.

As his housekeeper Marcellina, Kerry Gotschall made a fine showing, especially in her catty duet with Susanna in which the two women insult one another.

Milan Rakić made a wonderfully slimy gossipy Don Basilio, the troublemaker in the court. Joy Tamazo had the sweet light soprano that makes Barbarina such a delightful character; Michael Spaziani portrayed the gardener Antonio without indulging in drunken antics.

The captivating music was played by the Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Spencer, IV. Right from the overture we knew they and we were in good hands. The performance moved right along without a single longueur. In terms of musical values, nothing more could be wanted.

Direction by Eve Summer matched the music-making in tempo. Actions were all well-motivated. A directorial choice was made to set the opera in contemporary times which created a disjunction with the dialogue referencing customs of the 18th c. This did not interfere with our enjoyment but we do feel that better decisions might have been made by Costume Designer Carly Bradt. 

Everyone wore street clothes, likely a budgetary issue. We wanted the Count to dress better than his servant. We wanted Cherubino to wear Nike, not espadrilles. The "costumes" probably came out of the performers' closets but better choices might have been made.  At least the Countess wore a gold necklace to distinguish her from her servant. 

Meganne George's set design was simple but never distracted from the interaction of the characters. Once again, Scott Schneider's lighting design was subtly effective.

The surtitles were better than those usually seen. Karen Rich and Eve Summer are credited. They seemed to give a more complete picture of the subtleties usually glossed over and gave better insight into the characters.

The trilogy continues tonight with the contemporary Rosina by H. Titus. Same venue--the comfortable (but chilly) performance space at Baruch College.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, August 27, 2015


Na Young Ban and Ken Harmon (photo by Chris Fecteau)

Beaumarchais' 1775 play Le Barbier de Séville was adapted by many composers but last night Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble treated us to the Paisiello version which premiered in Russia in 1782. Rossini did not write his version until 1816. It took some time for Rossini's version to eclipse Paisiello's and it is the former that usually provides the delightful belly-laughs for today's audiences. Still, this season we were fortunate enough to hear the latter version twice in one season!  Only in New York, as they say.

The Paisiello is well worth hearing for its charming melodies.  One cannot help but wonder what might have happened if Rossini had not written his version. It is quite likely that this delightful opera would have been part of every company's repertoire.

The libretto by Giovanni Petrosellini hews closely to the Beaumarchais play and there are only a few differences from the Rossini in the storytelling. The adorable heroine Rosina is still the ward of the controlling Doctor Bartolo who holds her under lock and key. Il Conte d'Almaviva has followed her all the way from Madrid to Seville to court her and, being accustomed to getting what he wants, will find a way to get her.

The wily barber Figaro will help him--for a price, of course. The music teacher Don Basilio also figures in the plot as Doctor Bartolo's ally--until some money changes hands. Beaumarchais has written a comedy, a romance, and social commentary all at once. The only character missing from Petrosellini's libretto is Berta, the housekeeper. Instead we have comic relief from the sleepy and ironically named Lo Svegliato (Vigilance) and the elderly and equally ironically named Giovinetto (Youth).

We were delighted to catch Na Young Ban's sole performance as Rosina. With ample personal charm, a beautiful soprano, and superb Italian diction, Ms. Ban performed the role to perfection. Legato lines were well phrased and the decorations nicely handled. We particularly enjoyed the aria she sings when the Count is pretending to be her music teacher. The B-section is a lament in a minor key with a marvelous bassoon accompaniment. 

The Paisiello Rosina is not the spunky Rosina of Rossini but a gentler character. Her love duet with the Count "Caro tu sei il mio ben" was lovely.  Ken Harmon made a fine Count and his serenade to Rosina "Saper bramate", with her listening from behind the jalousies, provided a gorgeous tune for his tenor, with accompaniment by lute and flute, as well as horn and strings.

As a matter of fact, everything the Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra played was perfect with Maestra Daniela Candillari conducting with classical precision, just right for the period. Her harpsichord introduction to Act II was particularly lovely. Special props for Matheus Souza's lute!

Baritone Jay Chacon performed the very important role of Figaro and filled it with fine sound and comedic instincts.

The buffo role of Dr. Bartolo was performed by Jeff Caldwell who created a character right out of commedia dell'arte. The trio "Giusto cielo" was excellently sung by Ms. Ban, Mr. Harmon, and Mr. Caldwell. Bass Rodolfo Nieto made a fine Don Basilio singing a different "La calunnia" than we are accustomed to in the Rossini.

William Mulligan and Colin Whiteman as Giovinetto and Lo Svegliato respectively had a very funny sneezing scene in harmony.

Stage Director Emilie Rault kept things moving along and gave each character enough motivation to sustain the story. Meganne George's Scenic Design was simple but effective. The chamber orchestra occupied the right side of the wide playing space of the Nagelberg Theater at Baruch College, and the action took place mainly on a bi-level set. Folding screens served as backdrop and shutters. It was up to the singers to mime the opening and shutting and locking of doors. Lighting Design by Scott Schneider enhanced the effect.

If there was a sole shortcoming of the production it would be the costumes which left us scratching our head in puzzlement. We could not fathom why the singers had gems, pearls, flowers and tiles pasted on their faces, nor why Don Basilio's face was painted green. 

The clothes made no sense whatsoever. Even when the Count is supposed to disguise himself as a military man, there was no suggestion of military attire. We learned after the performance that Costume Designer Carly Bradt was going for a Gaudí look. The opera takes place in Seville, not in Barcelona and architecture is not a good partner with clothing.

We are eager to follow Rosina's progress tomorrow night in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro.  She will, by then, be wed to the Count and treated with indifference. Does life imitate art or vice versa?

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Olivia Betzen and Sean Kroll

What an interesting concept to program a season whose theme was inspired by the writings of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais! The excellent Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble generally comes up with a highly worthwhile summer season. The program is always a win-win situation. 

Young singers in the early stages of their careers get everything they need to advance to the next level.  They profit by coaching and collaboration, intense role preparation involving not only singing but dramatics, stage deportment, diction, and whatever else it takes to bridge the gap between academic training and flourishing career. All at no charge!

But the audience benefits as well.  One can purchase low-priced tickets and enjoy high-value entertainment.  Productions are often conceived with originality and flair. Take, for example, last nights concert which celebrated the characters created by Beaumarchais. For the rest of this week, we will be reviewing Paisiello's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, and Titus' Rosina. Something familiar, something unfamiliar, and something treasured since we started attending opera.

But the scenes and arias presented last night will not be heard again this season because they were selected to highlight the characters rather than the operas that we will be hearing. It was a broad ranging program which included some spoken dialogue from Beaumarchais' plays as well as music from the operas based on those plays.

We heard some fine voices that we will look forward to hearing more of for the next three nights. The results of the artists' hard work was quite evident. Everyone sang well and the diction, even in English, was well above average.

There were a few scenes that stood out. Chief among them was Jay Chacon's performance of "Ja för fan det" from Inger Wikstrom's Den Brottslige Moderne. We are completely unfamiliar with this opera but online search reveals only that it was composed in 1939 and the composer is a Swedish woman. It was a captivating performance and we will search further when the season ends and we have time. The aria was melodic and intense.  The vocal line followed the Swedish language in a way that contemporary American composers seem to be unable to achieve.

We also heard arias from Massenet's Chérubin which we have never seen performed. Elizabeth Bouk sang "Je suis gris" with high spirits and fine bright sound. Alessandra Altieri sang "Lorsque vous n'aurez rien à faire" from the same opera in fine French. But our personal favorite was the Spanish inflected "Vive amour" sung by Ashley Alden.

Selections were heard also from John Corigliano's  The Ghosts of Versailles. Christopher Lilley impressed with his powerful voice and cynical attitude in "The Aria of the Worm". He was equally repellent (dramatically) in "Bégearss and the Revolutionary Women".

From Rossini's version of the Barber of Seville, we heard "La calunnia" well sung by bass Michael Spaziani --cheek by jowl with Mozart's "In quegli anni" sung by Korland Simmons, a tenor with a nice ring to his voice. How interesting that the two composers conceived of the character of Don Basilio in such disparate fachs!.

We did not relate to Darius Milhaud's "La mère coupable"; this will not go down in our book as an opera we are dying to see!

But Rossini's magical sextet "Freddo ed immobile" always tickles us. The entire evening was directed by Desiree Alejandro with Jeremy Weissmann as pianist and music director.

We are very much looking forward to hearing all these excellent young artists for the next three nights. The performance space has excellent sight lines and acoustics. Check it out!  Nagelberg Theater at Baruch College. Very worth your while!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, August 21, 2015


Anna Christy and Alek Shrader in Fille du Regiment at the Santa Fe Opera (photo by Ken Howard)

Santa Fe Opera's production of Gaetano Donizetti's Fille du Regiment hit all the right notes, and Alek Shrader in the role of Tonio hit all the high notes, the ones we heard him sing some years ago when he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council award. His warm and funny performance was matched by Anna Christy, appealing as the tomboy Marie who counted an entire regiment as her collective father.

Ned Canty's direction was delightful, milking every ounce of humor from the story without overlooking the brief periods of melancholy. Physical humor was much in evidence with Mr. Shrader portraying Tonio as a bumbling hick who can't keep from tripping over his own feet.  Mr. Shrader's instrument is not a large one but he uses it well and is a marvelously appealing performer. But the major share of humor came from the hilarious performance of bass Kevin Burdette whose Sergeant Sulpice outdid any of the comedy greats of the silent film epoch.

Mr. Canty not only emphasized the humor but also the pathos by including plentiful spoken dialogue; this served to illuminate the circumstances of the characters in a way previously shortchanged. We felt we really got to know the characters and to care about them.

Ms. Christy's skill at bel canto singing is impressive. Her instrument has a sweet childlike quality and a great deal of tonal clarity. The fioritura was dazzling in its accuracy and organic in its relationship to the text and the emotions. The colors in her voice changed in the sad "Il faut partir" at the end of Act I, eliciting ample sympathy for her plight.
Mr. Shrader is also capable of coloring his voice and although  "Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fete" is the opera's hit tune with it's nine high C's, we enjoyed his "Depuis l'instant, dans mes bras" in Act I and his persuasive Hail Mary pass for Marie's hand in Act II.

As the Marquise of Berkenfeld, a name which Sulpice persisted in amusingly mispronouncing, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella was haughty at first in "Pour une femme de mon nom" but became warm and likable by the end when she relents and accepts her daughter's marriage to Tonio instead of to the favored aristocrat.

Apprentice bass Calvin Griffin again impressed us with his voice and dramatic abilities as he portrayed Hortensius, the Marquise's Major-domo--typically contemptuous of the French army but indulgent toward the Marquise.  His scene at the chateau, where Sulpice is spending months recovering from a battle injury, had us in stitches as he sank into passive-aggressive behavior involving a wine bottle.

Once again we were thrilled by the performance of the apprentices in the chorus, under the direction of Susanne Sheston. The women enacted the Tyrolean  citizens praying for deliverance from the French in Act I and in Act II the guests at the Chateau who were amusingly announced by Hortensius. The men portraying the regiment of French soldiers sounded marvelous in their regimental song.

In the pit Maestra Speranza Scappucci led a spirited performance of Donizetti's tuneful music. Much of the overture was in march time but there were plenty of lyrical moments and the conducting kept up the pace. 

The opera takes place during the Napoleonic wars but there appears to be no bloodshed and the French regiment seems particularly kind to the Tyroliean natives whose land they are occupying. The praying natives have nothing to fear!

Scenic and Costume Design by Allen Moyer was delightful. In Act I, the villagers have erected a monumental pile of furniture as a barrier and in Act II, the Marquise's chateau is on a revolving stage which showed the front of the chateau and also the room behind the door where Marie gets her very funny singing lesson.  The Marquise has been trying to overcome Marie's rustic and tomboyish nature to make an aristocratic lady out of her. The efforts are doomed to failure because the influence of her army upbringing has been just too strong. This is symbolized by her breaking into the regimental songs (encouraged by Sulpice) during her singing lesson.

The soldiers' uniforms are exactly what one would wish for--colorful and accurate to the 1830's. The Marquise's costume is in the newer Empire style, whereas the elderly Duchess of Krakenthorp (a spoken role portrayed by a bewigged and powdered Judith Christin) is dressed in the style of the late 18th c., revealing just how elderly and old-fashioned she is.

Donizetti tossed off this "trifle" (HA!) in a very short period of time; it had its premiere in 1840 and we are still loving the story and the characters and the music nearly two centuries later. Contemporary composers labor for years over operas that we see once and forget about. What's wrong with this picture?

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Alex Penda as Salome at Santa Fe Opera (photo by Ken Howard)

We have always thrilled to Richard Strauss' 1905 opera Salome but the current production at the Santa Fe Opera offered a fresh and Freudian interpretation by director Daniel Slater that kept us on the edge of our seat.  Mr. Slater chose to set the opera at the turn of the 20th c. when Freud's ideas about sexuality and the unconscious were still new and shocking but not yet accepted.  The titular character is revealed by some innovative staging to have observed her father's murder at the hands of her uncle Herod, the same tetrarch who now lusts for her.

This is a family right out of Krafft-Ebing. The lascivious tetrarch Herod makes no secret of his lust for his niece. Salome's mother is unsuccessful at reining him in. She believes that Salome wants Jochanaan's head out of loyalty to her because he has been cursing her from his place of imprisonment. It is not difficult to believe that Oscar Wilde penned the scandalous story on which the opera is based.

The air is heavy with lust.  Herod, Salome, and Naraboth, captain of the guard, are all passionate about beauty. Herod and Naraboth are both driven wild with desire for Salome who is similarly driven wild by lust for Jochanaan who is passionate only about his religious beliefs. Her perceived rejection by the prophet leads her to the final mad request for his head. Hell hath no fury, as they say!

The Dance of the Seven Veils, in Mr. Slater's version, has no veils and no nudity. Salome dances for her father using mainly her graceful arms in a most seductive way.  Part of the way through the dance, her mind drifts to her childhood memories of Herod murdering her father and leading her away. (Shades of Hamlet!) Although this is a directorial innovation, it seems right there in the music.

In the role of Salome, Alex Penda shines like the star that she is. She is sufficiently petite in form to convince as an adolescent with a powerful soprano that cuts right through Strauss' sizable orchestra. 

As Herod, tenor Robert Brubaker tackled the high-lying tessitura without strain and injected his character with a real personality--not a sympathetic one but an interesting one. He is clearly at odds with his wife Herodias; he is a bit frightened but also fascinated by Jochanaan and his preaching while Herodias is offended by Jochanaan's attacks on her and wants him eliminated. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens fulfilled her role in a most believable way. This is a marriage like many we have seen in contemporary times, a marriage in which husband and wife barely tolerate one another

Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny made a swell Jochanaan with his resonant portentous instrument.  He does not appear as a filthy starving prisoner chained in a cistern, but rather an intellectual writing at a desk in a room of the palace.  This of course goes a long way toward helping us understand Salome's attraction to his white skin, black hair and red lips.

The opera opens with tenor Brian Jagde as Captain of the Guard mooning over "die Prinzessin Salome".  Pun intended. He compares her to the moon. Page Megan Marino tries to talk him out of it. He kills himself when he realizes that she is lusting after the prophet and not him.  Mr. Jagde's singing was filled with luster and passion; we were sorry to lose him so early in the opera!

Just as Shakespeare provided comic relief in his tragedies, Salome provided a few giggles in the form of five Jews arguing theology. We were delighted to see several of our favorite apprentices in these roles: Christopher Trapani, Roy Hage, Cullen Gandy, Aaron Short, and Kevin Thompson. Nicholas Brownlee and Tyler Putnam appeared as soldiers.

We could not have asked for a better conductor than David Robertson who captured the passionate sweep of Strauss' thrilling music. Although this opera scandalized audiences at the time of it's premiere, it established Strauss' career as a composer of operas. The work has earned its place in the canon.

Set and Costume Design by Leslie Travers worked out well. We particularly liked Salome's virginal white dress and Herodias' elaborate gown. The men all wore military uniforms, replete with sashes, epaulettes and emblems. This only struck us as peculiar on the bodies of the five Jews!  Who knew that Jews were so honored in fin de siecle Austria!

(c) meche kroop


Isabel Leonard and Nathan Gunn in Cold Mountain at Santa Fe Opera (photo by Ken Howard for SFO)

You read Charles Frazier's best-selling novel.  You saw the movie with Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renee Zellweger. Do you want to see the opera premiering this season at the Santa Fe Opera?  Yes, you do! You want to hear mezzo-sopranos Isabel Leonard and Emily Fons create the roles of Ada Monroe and Ruby Thewes, two characters who bond in sisterhood and change each other's lives for the better.  You want to hear baritone Nathan Gunn as the war-weary defector W.P. Inman and you want to hear tenor Jay Hunter Morris as the slimy villain Teague. They were as excellent dramatically as they were vocally.

Will you want to see this opera a second time?  Probably not.  And why is that?  Like so many contemporary operas in English, the language itself has not inspired award-winning composer Jennifer Higdon to write any memorable vocal lines, indeed, not any melody whatsoever.  And what is opera without melody?  A play with music is what it is. We were reminded of the soundtrack of a film. We have only good things to say about Ms. Higdon's instrumental writing which is highly textured and interesting.  Even in its dissonant passages illuminating battles, it is accessible.  But the vocal lines are strictly conversational and without lyricism. They might as well have been spoken.

We sensed a number of missed opportunities. When Pangle and Storbrod appeared onstage with a banjo, we became all excited, hoping that Ms. Higdon would have chosen an unorthodox path by including a banjo in the orchestra and by employing some folk tunes indigenous to that part of the South. No such luck! And when apprentice soprano Chelsea Basler (in an excellent performance as Sarah) sang to her baby, her vocal line did not even begin to suggest a lullabye, although we heard some lovely sounds coming from the harp. When the group of men-starved young women (beautifully sung and acted by apprentices Heather Phillips, Shabnam Kalbasi, Megan Marino, and Bridgette Gan) try to seduce Inman and Veasy (Roger Honeywell), we longed for more seductive music.  We were thinking of the Rhinemaidens!

Miguel Harth-Bedoya's conducting cannot be faulted and the orchestra sounded crisp and clear. The chorus sang magnificently, as usual, under the direction of Susanne Sheston. We particularly enjoyed the chorus of dead soldiers at the end which was quite moving.

Dramatically, everything worked. Leonard Foglia's effective direction had us experiencing Ada and Ruby's hardship on the home front in alternation with Inman's frightening and tortuous efforts to evade the Home Guard and come home to the waiting Ada. Librettist Gene Scheer wrote some fine texts that added to the drama and hewed closely to the spirit of the novel.

The scenic design by Robert Brill was a chaotic jumble of wooden planks, appearing somewhat dangerous for the artists, but fortunately there were no mishaps.  The set  worked best when some planks were repurposed as a boat in which Inman is crossing a river, a boat which sank. David C. Woolard's costumes were superb, giving us a good picture of the stylish but helpless Charleston lady that Ada had been and the capable farm woman she became under Ruby's tutelage and exhortation.

As a matter of fact, the relationship between the two women was more interestingly portrayed than Ada's relationship with Inman. For the latter, there is only a brief scene of their meeting and then their final ill-fated reunion for which we yearned to hear a more lyrical and tender duet. (This parallels the construction of the novel, of course.) Still we were intrigued by the idea that two very different women could form such a loving and worthwhile bond.  Ada teaches Ruby to read and to appreciate some of the finer things in life while Ruby teaches Ada to be independent and strong.

As Ruby's father Storbrod, bass Kevin Burdette turned in his usual fine performance.  Tenor Jay Hunter Morris not only sang magnificently as Teague, but created a character of menace who chilled us to the bone.

The Civil War was indeed a disgraceful event in our nation's history and, after a century and a half has passed, we observe that the wounds have still not healed.  That makes the topic eminently suitable for a great American opera. Our dismay over the evils of war will always be relevant to contemporary times.  The topic of damaged lives strikes very close to home as we deal with veterans of wars in the Middle East. So this is a valid subject for operatic treatment.  We only wish that the music had reflected our musical history as well.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, August 17, 2015


QuinnKelsey and Georgia Jarman (photo credit: Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

It was indeed a "buona notte" at the Santa Fe Opera when a perfect storm of casting and direction created a Rigoletto to Remember. Although there was no actual weather event as there was five years ago here, when Mother Nature provided real live lightning and thunder for Act III, there were fireworks aplenty onstage.

Baritone Quinn Kelsey's portrayal of the eponymous character was both chilling and moving.  Like every other character in this work, his complexity was captured by the artist and one couldn't help but think of Shakespeare's characters, always so multidimensional. Warped in body and spirit, Rigoletto expresses his rage at his condition by verbally attacking the courtiers comprising the court of the licentious Duke of Mantua--provoking, embarrassing and humiliating them under the protection of the Duke. But he has a soft and tender side as well, expressed in his duets with his lovely daughter Gilda. Mr. Quinn's rich baritone and expressive skills worked as well in his mocking mood as they did in his tender scenes with Gilda.

Gilda is also a complex character. She is the very incarnation of innocence, having been sheltered from the world by her overprotective father. She too has another side.  She hides some very essential facts from her father and lies about the fact that  she has been oourted by the Duke himself in the guise of a poor student named Gualtier Malde. Soprano Georgia Jarman used her gorgeous instrument and consummate phrasing to show the tender caring of daughter for father in their duets together. Her admirable coloratura skills were employed for her flights of fioritura in the famous aria "Caro nome". Her prodigious vocal skills were complemented by total immersion in her character. We believed her and cared about her.

The Duke  is a more consistent character, imbued as he is with licentiousness and depravity.  But the tenor assigned this challenging role, Bruce Ledge, needs to hide his true character and convince Gilda that he is a poor student feeling the most honorable feelings toward her. Yet Verdi's music tells us everything we need to know about this scumbag. Ledge delivered his "Questa o quella" and "La donna e mobile" with the same spirit as that with which he tossed women onto the floor.

As Sparafucile, the hired assassin who is too ethical (!) to cheat a client, bass Peixin Chen made a fine chilling appearance and, as his sister Maddalena, mezzo-soprano Nicole Piccolomini made a fine showing with one of the most powerful voices we have heard recently in this fach. It was easy to see how she could overpower her reluctant brother in her wish to spare the life of the Duke, who has managed to work his seductive magic on her as well.

Gilda's caretaker Giovanna, sung by mezzo Anne Marie Stanley, was given an unusual emphasis. She was portrayed as a poor wretch, hungry enough to lick the crumbs off Rigoletto's plate. Her resentment toward her master was so great that she not only betrayed him by accepting bribes from the Duke but also from the courtiers who abducted her charge.  To add insult to injury, before her treachery can be punished, she gathers her few belongings, spits on her master and runs off.

Baritone Jarrett Ott stood out as a fine Marullo, one of the courtiers, and veteran Robert Pomakov's sturdy base lent emphasis to the aristocratic Count Monterone whose daughter (Andrea Nunez) has been disgraced by the Duke. Bass Calvin Griffin was fine as Count Ceprano whose wife, portrayed by Shabnam Kalbasi, is also in the Duke's sights. It is always a pleasure for us to see and hear so many fine young artists getting a chance to shine onstage.

Musical values were superb all around with Maestro Jader Bignamini leading a propulsive account of Verdi's score.  The evening seemed to fly by all too quickly but never felt rushed. The fine points of Verdi's orchestration were fully realized. Today's audience would scarcely believe that this major hit from Verdi's middle period (premiered in 1851) was perceived as revolutionary in its compositional innovations and was also subject to great difficulties from the Austrian censors who were occupying the north of Italy. They saw Francesco Maria Piavi's libretto (adapted from Victor Hugo's play "Le roi s'amuse"), as highly immoral.

We could just imagine how they might have reacted to Director Lee Blakeley version of 2015!  He chose to set the work in the period of The Risorgimento, Verdi's own time, also the time of the Counter-Reformation and the Restoration of the Catholic Church.  In Blakeley's version, the court is wildly lascivious and seems to be in full orgy mode at all times. Along the same lines, Sparafucile's tavern is actually a brothel with Maddalena performing sexual duties along with other "sex workers". Although one might interpret this as overkill, the concept did work as a manifestation of extreme depravity.

Other directors have updated the work from the 16th c. There was a Mafia version by Jonathan Miller, there was the Doris Dorrie version set on the Planet of the Apes (!) , the Linda Brovsky version set in Mussolini's fascist Italy, the Las Vegas version by Michael Mayer and, most recently,  Lindy Hume's version set in Berlusconi's paparazzi-driven world. For our taste, Mr. Blakeley's version suits us best. We can believe that Monterone's curse la maledizione was received with credulity and fear during that period, but not in the 20th c. We are waiting for a version set in Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion so we can howl with laughter.

We found the Scenic and Costume Design by Adrian Linford to be a bit distracting and unsatisfying. A rather undersized revolving stage permitted the audience to see the court, Rigoletto's house and Sparafucile' tavern in rapid succession.  This made for a speedy evening without lengthy intermissions and kept the drama moving forward.  But the set itself was crowded and puzzling. Why would the Duke tolerate threadbare furniture? Why is everything atilt? There was an overall emphasis on poverty: Giovanna seems to be starving and Sparafucile is dressed in rags like a hobo. Some characters are dressed according to the mid 19th c. and others seem to be wearing contemporary streetwear.

In sum, the Santa Fe Opera has mounted a real winner that scored well in the areas we value most highly--Verdi's tuneful yet character-driven music given its full due, and the high level of characterization and drama that led us to experience the involvement we so greatly appreciate.The casting was astute; the singers all had fine voices and enacted characters one could believe. The chorus, comprising apprentices directed by Susanne Sheston, added enormously to the musical value and to the drama.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Apotheosis Opera--cast of Tannhäuser (photo by Abel Sandman)

In spite of the death of New York City Opera and the slow decline of The Metropolitan Opera, we are not concerned about the future of opera in New York. The slack is being picked up by small adventuresome opera companies led by the next generation of impresarios producing operas with roles taken by gifted young artists. Over time, new forms will evolve that will suit the next generation of opera goers.

There is a highly promising young conductor at the helm of the newly formed Apotheosis Opera, yet a student in the Master of Music Program in Orchestral Conducting at Mannes College the New School for Music. His name is Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz and you will be hearing more about him without a doubt.

With a great deal of help, he managed to stage Wagner's mythic/spiritual opera Tannhäuser and to lead his orchestra through their paces with all the grandeur and sensitivity required by the composer. The overture opens with a brass chorale, joined by the lower strings and swelling to the skies with the entry of the upper strings. Such attention to dynamics and balance were well handled for the duration of the opera.

But....big but....Mr. Jaroszewicz took it upon himself to do the staging and there were some lapses that might have been avoided had he shared the duties. Perhaps choreographer Maayan Voss de Bettancourt must share the responsibility for these lapses of judgment.

 In the opening scene while Tannhäuser and Venus are sharing an intimate moment in the Venusberg, Bacchantes are performing (simulated) lewd acts. In our opinion, followers of the Goddess of Love do not need to demonstrate licentiousness. We do not consider ourself to be a prude but we do not want to watch intercourse  (anal or otherwise) onstage any more than we appreciated Scarpia appearing to be fellated onstage at the Met's current iteration of Tosca. Indeed, the chorus appeared as uncomfortable as the audience. Shocking people is a meretricious choice at the opera. 
Also, there were some silly moments when, in Act II, Elisabeth and our eponymous hero are reunited. They do a few twirly quasi-ballroom dance steps that resulted in much tittering among the audience members. A good director might have reined in these two most obvious lapses of judgment.

A greater lapse was the decision to perform Wagner's masterpiece in English. Wagner was so invested in the text that he wrote the libretto himself. Each phrase rises and falls in rhythm with the music--a perfect partnership. The German language is special in its sentence structure with the verbs occurring at the end. Even the best translator could not form a translation to work with the vocal line. 

But the English translation used here, by Natalia MacFarran, was deplorable, appearing to come out of the King James Version of the Bible. It never roseth but continually falleth. It was almost as unreadable as it was unsingable. We ask, why torture the singers with mouthfuls of unsingable syllables when you are providing titles?  How much better to have performed the work in its original German with some easy to read titles!

That being said, we credit the singers for their fine diction. Each one rose to the challenge and were almost always understandable. Tenor Nicholas Simpson was a full-throated hero who carried the role from beginning to end without strain. As the devout Elisabeth, soprano Amber Smoke made a fine vocal showing, hampered only by a most unbecoming contemporary dress and pumps. Mezzo-soprano Jodi Karem inhabited her role with seductive tone and movements. Her costume was very appropriate.

As Elisabeth's uncle Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia, bass John Dominick III held the stage with commanding authority. We could definitely see him as a fine Sarastro.

Wolfram von Eschenbach was sung by Jacob Lassetter and we were most disappointed in the last act by his "O du mein holder abendstern"; we believe the English translation was partly to blame and we would be happy to re-evaluate his performance in the future if he sings it in German.

As Walther von der Vogelweide, tenor Walker J. Jackson demonstrated a fine sweet tone and also created a character with a touch of humor that distinguished him from the other nobles. Bass Hans Tashjian sang the role of Biterolf (the combative noble who attacks the hero) while Joseph Beckwith sang the part of Reinmar von Zweter and Ethan Fran took the part of Heinrich der Schreiber.

Soprano Ginny Weant, a graduate student at Mannes, did a fine job as a young shepherd. The chorus was excellent as well. They overdid their shocked reaction to Tannhäuser's praise of Venus, but that was not as egregious as the directorial choices mentioned earlier.

Set design by Galen Kirkpatrick and Celine Schmidt was minimalist but the uncredited lighting design was most effective in demonstrating changes of mood by altering the color wash on the rear backdrop. Costume Design by Ned Christensen and Eliyana Abraham was likewise minimalist with mere hints of the medieval brought to street attire. None of this was distressing and could have worked well if the language and titles had not been so distracting.

We feel ourself to be in an awkward place because the stated goal of this company is to present operas in English. We are in strong disagreement with this goal, one that has been discredited since the advent of titles. As far as we know, only the Opera Theater of St. Louis (thank you Spencer Viator) and the English National Opera hews to this outmoded line. But the English pronounce "Beauchamp" as "beechum" and pronounce "pasta" in a way we wouldn't even recognize. So, there's that!

We wish to hear what the composer and librettist intended, not a bastardization of it. There are plenty of operas written in English one might present without trashing those written in other languages.

So...we wish Mr. Jaroszewicz the best of luck with his promising conducting career while hoping he will reconsider the mission of his company and also consider working with a skilled director.

In closing we just wanted to give some props to the uncredited harpist who accompanied all the songs and to the fine oboist (Beatriz Ramirez-Belt) whose solo we loved.

(c) meche kroop