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, September 28, 2015


Miriam Leskis and Raehann Bryce-Davis

The title of this review comes from an Amy Beach song brought to life by the glorious mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis. The words, penned by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, seemed to have been written with someone just like Ms. Bryce-Davis in mind. Not only does her singing contain her entire heart but a great deal of soul as well. Last night's recital at the National Opera Center was glorious.

Ms. Beach's songs are lyrically melodic; she is one of the few American composers who knew how to choose poetry and how to amplify and enhance it.  Ms. Bryce-Davis sang the selections with impressive intensity, making each word count. Her English diction is faultless. Her instrument is a large and generous one with a most appealing vibrato.

The second set comprised a cycle of songs by Dominick Argento, settings of entries From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, entries from the period between the two World Wars. We would have no desire to read the ramblings of a disordered mind, nor could we imagine setting such stuff to music, but Ms. Bryce-Davis is such a compelling storyteller that we listened with rapt attention. We couldn't help but wondering if any operas contain mad scenes for mezzos! There surely must be something like that in the singer's future.

The second half of the program was far more in line with our taste.  We generally think of sopranos when we think of Richard Strauss' songs but this artist's special sound, along with her vitality and commitment, made them new again.  We always love "Heimliche Aufforderung, Op. 27, No. 3" as it speaks to a secret meeting between familiar lovers. "Zueignung, Op. 10, No. 1" is a tribute to the benefits of love and always makes us smile. Need we mention that the artist's German was crisp and clear?

Regular readers will recall how taken we are with zarzuela and will understand how delighted we were by the two which Ms. Bryce-Davis sang last night. First she sang Concha's song "De España Venga" from Pablo Luna's early 20th c. zarzuela El Niño Judío; she sang it with passion and pride in perfect Spanish.

The other selection was "Maria La O" from Ernesto Lecuona's zarzuela of the same name. This Cuban work from 1930 involves a young mulata  who refuses to accept the second-class status of a mistress, and rebels against the racial and gender politics of the times. Ms. Bryce-Davis made me want to see the entire work performed. 

The set with which the artist closed the evening comprised two spirituals from Jamaica, her parents' homeland. Part of "No Dark There" was sung a capella and then piano partner Miriam Leskis, who had contributed so much support for the evening, joined the singer for some good rousing music with a Caribbean beat. "Dis is My Word" was sung in dialect and was marked by touches of humor.

As encore, we heard "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands". Let's see what He has in store for the amazing Ms. Bryce-Davis. We foresee a magnificent future.

(c) meche kroop


Kristina Malinauskaite and Michael Celentano

Although departing early from Verdi's masterpiece La Traviata in the middle of Act II seemed like a dreadful deprivation, in a sense it allowed us to retain the image of a happy love affair that just might possibly work out once Germont père was mollified. Our early departure was not due to any disappointment but rather due to a prior reviewing commitment. Still, we were not going to miss the opportunity to hear soprano Kristina Malinauskaite sing the title role.

Everything was there in the performance--the dignified bearing, the depth of feeling, the brilliant upper register, and above all, the ability to convey the conflict between the high life and the love life.  "È strano....fors'è lui" followed by the cabaletta "Sempre libera" illustrated this very effectively. Ms. Malinauskaite had exemplary control over the dynamics and produced a well modulated portamento.

Her duet with Alfredo, portrayed by the appealing tenor Michael Celentano, was quite lovely.  Mr. Celentano must be commended for singing off the book, which helped enormously in his connection with the audience. When the divine Ms. M. was off the book, she too grew in connection.

We also liked mezzo-soprano Christine Duncan as Flora, Violetta's friend and fellow party girl.

In Act II we got to hear baritone Robert Heepyoung-Oh as Giorgio Germont in "Pura siccome un angelo". His is a large and substantial sound and his formal demeanor was just right for the role. His duet with Ms. Malinauskaite "Dite a la giovine" was excellent.

Although the chorus sang well as a unit, some of the voices used in smaller roles did not project well.

Artistic Director of West Side Opera Society David Clenny provided the accompaniment for this semi-staged performance. We barely noticed the lack of a stage set.  It's all about the voices, right?

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, September 26, 2015


Harrison Miller and Nicholas McGegan  

We've had our ear on you, bassoon. We had you figured for the class clown.  But last night at Juilliard we saw you a new light. You're really a rather romantic figure with a lot to say. I guess we missed getting to know you better because you hang out with those Baroque guys. But joining the Classical group gave us an opportunity to get to know you better and we want to hear more of you!

Mozart wrote his Concerto for Bassoon in the congenial key of B-flat Major, K. 191 when he was but 18 years old. And bassoonist Harrison Miller is not that much older than that but seems to have mastered the very special idiosyncrasy of the instrument. We are not sure for whom the concerto was written in 1774 but it may as well have been written for Mr. Miller.

For much of the concerto, we experienced the bassoon as a sheep gamboling across a meadow of strings. Wide leaps and clearly articulated scale passages and trills sent thrills up and down our spine. The solo unaccompanied cadenza at the conclusion of the first movement was riveting; it seemed like someone telling their entire life story. The Andante seemed like an operatic aria with an outpouring of affection and devotion.

The remainder of the evening's program left nothing to be desired. We are not among those who crave the new and different; on the contrary we love the "war horses". There is a reason why some music has endured for centuries; it touches the heart and soothes the ear.  Life today has enough anxiety and sufficient challenges!

We were ready to cut the young musicians of the Juilliard Orchestra some slack since it is just the beginning of the semester; this was unnecessary. Under the guidance of Maestro Nicholas McGegan, they came together as a unit and did as well with the Beethoven as they did with the Mozart

Maestro McGegan is a no nonsense conductor; we would call him expressive rather than theatrical.  He pointed his finger, he waggled his hands, he wind-milled his arms, he stamped and he stooped and jumped up and down. None of this was self-serving; all of it was designed to pull the performance he wanted from the orchestra. The end result was he got what he asked for.

Mozart's Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385, is affectionately called the "Haffner" since it was a reworking of a Serenade he wrote for the installation ceremony of a friend of his father who was elevated to the nobility. There is a vigorous opening movement followed by a serene and lyrical Andante with a recurring theme alternating with marcato passages in the strings. The Menuetto is stately yet rustic and employs rhythm in much the same manner as Beethoven's music.

And Beethoven did appear for the second half of the evening, in the marvelous Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, known as the "Pastoral". We are not in agreement with critics of the time who criticized it for not breaking new ground.

We don't care one bit if it is "programmatic". If you want to hear birds singing or volcanoes erupting, that is your privilege. For our purposes we are happy to know that Beethoven visualized a day in the country and we did hear the birds. The storm was unmistakable with dramatic peals of thunder in the tympani. We particularly loved the way Maestro McGegan shaped the phrases of the Allegro by knitting together short motivi.

That's the great thing about a "bread and butter" program. One hears new things in old works and comes to love them even more.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, September 25, 2015


David Tayloe

Last night at the National Opera Center we were held in rapt attention as tenor David Tayloe gave a superlative performance of Schubert's Winterreise. It just so happens that the artist's favorite song cycle is our own favorite as well. There is no piece of vocal music to which we would rather listen and none which stands up as well to repeated hearings. There is always something new to discover. 

At the very height of his songwriting powers, Schubert took the 24 poems of Wilhelm Müller, describing a young man's descent into madness, and made magic with his melodies and harmonies. Mr. Tayloe made even more magic as he sang them.

We are not literary critics so all we can say is that the text rhymes and scans, which we consider basic minimum requirements. Making good use of metaphor and symbolism, the poems narrate the journey of a young man, rejected in love, who wanders a snowy icy landscape, . As a young man's story, we love to hear it sung by a young man.

The hero is drowning in misery and self-pity and yet we never condescend to him. Who has not suffered the loss of love! Schubert, Müller and Tayloe took the specific and made it universal so we could all share the sorrow in its many colors--nostalgia, bitterness, grief, longing, false hope, despair, isolation, and hopelessness.  

Schubert's writing is magnificently varied and intense, giving each of the 24 verses a different mood, by virtue of changes of key, rhythm, tonality and color. Many of the songs can stand alone and would be a fine addition to any recital.  But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

There are personal and symbolic relationships to various man-made, natural, and super-natural elements which Mr. Tayloe, aided by the superb piano partnership of Alan Johnson, made quite clear--the weathervane, the signpost, the crow, the frozen brook, the linden tree, the frost--all are painted in vivid colors.

It is a formidable task to learn the 80 or so minutes of music and there are many singers who wouldn't consider approaching it.  Yet Mr. Tayloe not only approached it but he mastered it, giving himself over to the text and the music. He took the journey and he invited us to come along. No doubt the studying and rehearsing took a great deal of time and effort but he made it feel spontaneous.  Quite an achievement!

Mr. Tayloe's technique was terrific but could easily go unnoticed as one tended to focus on the emotional content.  Still, we noticed that his German diction was fine, and the quality of his instrument sweet with a touch of the Irish tenor in it. At times the suspenseful quality was enhanced by a bit of rubato which left phrases suspended in mid-air. Finally, we appreciate that his voice was perfectly scaled to the size and acoustic qualities of the hall. It is an intimate cycle and it felt exactly right.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Christopher Reynolds and Christopher Dylan Herbert

There was a great deal to admire in baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert's doctoral recital at Juilliard; there wasn't much to enjoy.  There we said it! We have probably made ourself out to be of philistine taste. The story we are telling ourself is that this gifted artist was bored with the standard repertory, not having found sufficient challenge therein. So, as the scholar he is, he had to dig deeply for some obscure material that would provide the challenge he needed. That is our story.

Consequently, he constructed a program that was difficult to learn and difficult to interpret and very difficult to listen to.  Apparently Benjamin Britten, of whom we have been hearing a great deal lately, perceived the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake as an exercise in serialism. The program contained a great deal of academic information on 12-tone rows that went way over our head.

We listen to music for sensual pleasure or to access deep feeling, which we did not get from most of the program, not from the Britten, not from the Whitman Songs by Laura Kaminsky, not from the ugliness of War Scenes by Ned Rorem, not even from Bernstein's "To What You Said..." from his Songfest.

It was only at the end when Mr. Herbert performed All the Way Through Evening that we were able to enjoy our sad feelings. The cycle by Chris DeBlasio is a setting of poetry by Perry Brass and relates to the AIDS crisis and death. The sorrow of those losses relate on a very personal level which, paradoxically, becomes universal.

Part of the grief we felt at the recital was for the loss of the composer who died too young. His music is sensitive and beautiful and illumined Mr. Brass' wonderful poetry. And Mr. Herbert's vocal and interpretive artistry could finally be appreciated. We were glad we "stuck it out" for those special moments.

Needless to say, Christopher Reynolds turned in his usual powerful performance on the piano and there was a lovely contribution from cellist Hélène Werner.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, September 21, 2015


Giulio Gari Foundation Competition Winners

The Giulio Gari Foundation was inspired by Mr. Gari's success as a human being and as an artist who sang all over the world and later taught the younger generation. Stephen DeMaio and Licia Albanese joined forces to ensure that his legacy survives and that young singers get the encouragement they need.

To a young singer the encouragement and performance opportunities, not to mention cash awards, are motivating factors to enter competitions and one tends to hear the same voices from one competition to the next. It is interesting how consistent are the judges choices. Artistry will not be denied!

Yesterday at the New York Athletic Club, we had the pleasure of seeing and hearing thirteen emerging artists.  Of course, in the remainder of the world, these "youngsters" are already singing roles both major and minor in major and minor opera houses. If we lived elsewhere, we would be among the audiences happy to pay to hear them. But here in New York they are still considered "young artists" regardless of their artistic maturity.

We were in complete agreement with the judges choices and only a bit regretful that some of the major winners, like baritone Takaoki Onishi and tenor Andrew Stenson, were unable to attend due to contract commitments. But that's the whole point--to give their careers a boost and to get them in front of the public.

That being said, the singers who did appear were uniformly excellent and the audience, many of whom were prominent personages on Planet Opera, was profoundly stirred by the presence of so much talent.

We will not here disclose the prize level of the various participants. Nor will we discuss how many prizes they have won at other foundations, information that is available in the program. Rather, we prefer to focus on the singers who won our heart and made us want to hear more.

J'nai Bridges always astonishes us with her dark smoky mezzo-soprano and the depth of connection with what she is performing.  Yesterday, her rendition of the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen pulled us right into Seville. Perfect French, perfect phrasing, and a special way of connecting with the audience made us eager to hear her perform the entire role.

Soprano Vanessa Vasquez is new to us and we absolutely cannot wait to hear more of her. She is a born storyteller and brought "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" from Puccini's La Rondine to vivid life. She did it with charm and beautifully shaped phrases and brilliant tone.

The small stage was overwhelmed with testosterone as baritone Jared Bybee and bass-baritone Andre Courville joined voices for "Suoni la tromba" from Bellini's I Puritani. We loved the energy they produced together and the way their voices blended in Bellini's gorgeous harmonies.

We do love us some harmony and "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet's Pearl Fishers is so popular that it takes special talent to bring something new to the duet. Yi Li's tenor and Szymon Komasa' baritone were just what was needed. One could actually visualize the object of their obsession off in the distance! It was particularly gracious of Mr. Komasa to appear since he was fresh off a transatlantic flight. The pair could serenade me with this duet anytime!

We have reviewed Jamez McCorkle as a baritone on prior occasions and were a bit surprised to hear him sing as a tenor. Although the switch was recent, he sounded exceptionally comfortable in that fach and "Questa o quella" from Verdi's Rigoletto was delivered with style and secure sound. His risk surely paid off!

Soprano Heather Phillips had delighted us in Santa Fe this summer and we were happy to hear her do justice to "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's Louise.  We liked her dynamic variety, her soaring phrases, and especially the way she spun out the final note.

Another singer we enjoyed in Santa Fe was tenor Galeano Salas and it was wonderful to hear him romancing soprano Raquel Suarez Groen in "O soave fanciulla" from Puccini's La Boheme. She has a lovely vibrato and he has a generous sound that made the duet a complete delight.

Tenor Dominick Chenes has a voice of substantial size that was just right for "Recondita Armonia" from Puccini's Tosca. He has a tendency to "sing to the balcony" and we badly wanted him to lower his head and make contact with the audience.

Baritone Jeffrey Hoos exhibited some rich sonorities in "Oh du mein holder Abendstern" from Wagner's Tannhäuser. We liked his German diction. He never cheated a consonant but still managed to maintain a legato feeling.

We had heard tenor Alasdair Kent before as part of Prelude to Performance and were pleased to hear him in much better voice yesterday as he sang "Dal labbro il canto" Fenton's gorgeous aria from Verdi's Falstaff. It was romantic and heartfelt and his diminuendo to a pianissimo was stunning.

Finally, mezzo-soprano Cynthia Cook sang the "Seguidilla" from Bizet's Carmen in lovely French. Her Carmen was a perhaps a bit more coy than dangerous!

As usual, excellent accompaniment was provided by Arlene Shrut and Jonathan Kelly.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Ben Cohen, Devony Smith, Hanne Dollase, Eldric Bashful, Gary Slavin, William Remmers, Mary-Hollis Hundley, Elizabeth Bouk, Stan Lacy

Maestro William Remmers is game to tackle any opera for which his audience votes. That is one of the unique qualities of Utopia Opera. We have certainly thrown some curve balls at him but he always hits them.  With Benjamin Britten's Rape of Lucretia, he hit it out of the park.

This is not an easy opera to love. The story is both brutal and tragic. The victim Lucretia, suffering from a combination of shame and guilt, pays the dramatic price by stabbing herself. We live in a world containing places where women are killed because of such loss of honor.  But Britten's librettist Ronald Duncan examines the story from the perspective of mid-20th c. Christianity.  In 21st c. New York City it carries an unsettling confrontational load, making us aware of that which we would avoid.

The work itself is largely declamatory with no beautiful arias to comfort us. The music is dissonant and perturbing, although powerful in its effect. However, there are moments of great beauty elicited by Mr. Remmers astute conducting of his 13-piece chamber orchestra. Tomina Parvanova's harp shimmers as Lucretia enters. There are some stunning harmonies in a duet of bass clarinet (Jeffrey Hodes) and horn (Brad Shaw).

Serving as narrators and guides for the audience are tenor Eldric Bashful, whose readings were as dramatic as his singing was lovely, and soprano Mary-Hollis Hundley, whose richly timbred instrument delighted us at the George London Competition.

As the eponymous Lucretia, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bouk made a noble but vulnerable heroine. We have been seeing a lot of this rising star lately--not only as a Utopia Opera regular, but also at Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble. Her voice and acting are equally impressive.

As her two servants, the old nurse Bianca (mezzo-soprano Hanne Dollase) and the maid Lucia (soprano Devony Smith) made significant contributions to the evening's success. Their trio with Ms. Bouk in Act I and their "flower" duet in Act II provided some of the lovelier vocal sounds.

As the despised libertine Etruscan Prince Tarquinius, baritone Stan Lacy created a loathsome character who despises the whores he can have so easily and is stimulated by the thought of taking the only faithful wife in Rome. The rape scene was superbly staged by Director Gary Slavin, as was the rest of the opera.

The Prince kisses the sleeping Lucretia who is dreaming of her husband Collatinus and therefore responds. Is she complicit? In 21st c. America, men have to ask permission to take liberties. In 500 B.C. one supposes that men took all the liberties they wanted since women were property.

Bass Steven Fredericks sang the role of Collatinus, a Roman general of a peaceful and forgiving nature. His fellow general Junius (baritone Ben Cohen) has a slimy nature. He is envious of Collatinus' military glory and jealous of Collatinus' successful marriage.  Spurred on by the humiliation of being cuckolded by his own wife, he manipulates Tarquinius into a midnight gallop to Rome to ravish Lucretia. Although not equal to "The Ride of the Valkyries", Britten came up with some powerful music for this episode.

The libretto is interesting for its magnificent metaphors, i.e. "Thirsty evening has drunk the wine of light". However there were times when the metaphors made no sense and seemed excessive. Great contrast was made between the creativity of women and the destructiveness of men.

Last season we enjoyed a production of this opera at Juilliard. It was powerful then and it was again last night. Part opera, part play with music, and part oratorio, the work stands up to repeat performances.

We will have to wait until December to see and hear more from Mr. Remmers when he is tackling a genre with which he is very familiar--Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida. Watch for it!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Charles Weaver, Nils Neubert, Yuri Kim, Kate Maroney, Dmitri Dover, Michael Brofman, Sarah Brailey, and Jesse Blumberg

"The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of...." No, not Texas, but Brooklyn!  What a splendid season opener was presented by the Brooklyn Art Song Society, helmed by pianist Michael Brofman! It was definitely worth an hour on the subway and that's saying quite a lot.

The Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church has fine acoustics that provided an excellent venue for the soft sounds of Charles Weaver's lute as he accompanied a group of peerless singers, none of whom lapsed into the boring type of interpretations that often present themselves in the face of early music.

John Dowland's songs were composed four centuries ago yet manage to sound fresh today. The texts are in Elizabethan English; they scan and rhyme and match the lovely vocal lines in a way that is heard no more, sad to say, in contemporary song-makers. Mr. Weaver's playing is beyond wonderful.

The opening number "Unquiet Thoughts" was sung in the most handsome harmonies by soprano Sarah Brailey, mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney, tenor Nils Neubert, and baritone Jesse Blumberg. We thought of a tapestry with 5 threads woven together, appearing together, separating, overlapping.

The remaining songs held to that impossibly high standard. Like songs of every epoch, the inspiring texts have to do with love--love longed for, love achieved, love unrequited.  Mr. Neubert has the sweetest tenor and a fine vibrato that was perfect for "Come Again: Sweet Love Doth Now Invite". No less sweet was Mr. Blumberg's baritone in "Sweet Stay a While".

Several songs followed that were not about sweetness ; but perhaps the sweetness of longing is a different kind of sweet. In "Flow My Tears", Mr. Blumberg matched perfectly with Ms. Maroney. and the ensemble returned for "Would My Conceit".

The singing was just as fine in the second half of the program although it seemed to our ears that Benjamin Britten's arrangements of Henry Purcell's delicate songs was a bit heavy-handed and overwhelming. There is nothing new in a composer wanting to put his own stamp on other composers' works but our ears are better attuned to the delicacies of the 17th c.

Several of the songs had been heard mainly sung by counter-tenors and were, last night, strange to the ear.  Accompanied by the wonderful Yuri Kim on the piano, Mr. Neubert and Mr. Blumberg gave an exuberant account of "Sound the Trumpets".

"Music for Awhile" is one of our perennial favorites and Mr. Neubert sang it well over a piano arrangement that sounded strangely portentous.  But that's the way Britten heard it, we suppose.

Mr. Blumberg sang "Mad Bess" with his customary skill at storytelling. We have been enjoying his singing for over a decade and noticed new depth and breadth in the lower register that is most exciting.

Dmitri Dover, always excellent, took over the piano accompaniment for the next set of songs which was given to the lovely ladies to sing. The lyrical "Shepherd, Leave Decoying" united the golden tones of Ms. Brailey with the silvery sound of Ms. Maroney. (Interestingly, their stylish gowns were respectively golden and silver!)

We got to hear Ms. Brailey sing one of our favorite songs "Sweeter than Roses" with a rather romantic piano part and the lovely "Evening Hymn" sung by Ms. Maroney. Ms. Brailey returned for a stunning solo "The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation" in which Mary expresses doubts in her faith, accompanied by Mr. Brofman himself. Very moving.

The remainder of the season continues its focus on England. On October 6th one can hear more Britten and some settings of Shakespearean text, at Deutsches Haus at NYU.  And on Oct. 22nd there will be a celebration of Ned Rorem at Bargemusic.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, September 17, 2015


Lula Pena

Did you know that a lusophone is a person who speaks Portuguese?  No?  Neither did we; but we do know what to call someone who sings in Portuguese.  Lula Pena. Brought here by the World Music Institute, now celebrating its 30th year, and performing last night at Drom in the East Village, Ms. Pena is a language unto herself.

We generally eschew "popular" music for several reasons: the venues are generally filled with people who drink a lot and get very LOUD; the amplification hurts our tender ears; the songs are often vacuous.

None of this was true last night. The standing-room-only crowd was silent and the amplification was minimal. The songs, composed by the artist herself, were replete with soul and the soft sensual sounds of Portuguese. Although the language shares Latin roots with Spanish, French, and Italian, it has its own particular nasal quality and a "zh" sound not found in either of those three. We listened up and were able to identify only a few words--words like love and heart and never and girl and moon and fooled and imagine.

So, like most songs, we conclude they were about love. What we loved best was the gentle intensity of the timbre of her voice. We did not hear the raw anger that one hears in Flamenco music. Ms. Pena is an unassuming performer without a whiff of "celebrity" and for that we choose to celebrate her.

We are always amazed when a singer accompanies him/herself without cheating either form of expression. Ms. Pena handles her guitar most artfully; in her hands it sometimes carries the melody, produces harmonies both simple and complex, and finally it becomes a percussion instrument either through use of the lower strings or by tapping. Packed too tightly for dancing, the best the audience could do was to sway to the insistent rhythms.

At times we heard a consistent bass note on the lowest string with an impressive variety of arpeggios and strange chords filigreed against that. At times we heard sounds reminiscent of the rasqueado from Flamenco music. Much of the music is in a minor key with hints of a Moorish mode.

We were held spellbound for well over an hour. We wanted to learn more about this artist who rarely performs; we learned very little online. She seems to be a rather mythic figure in the world of music. But she is memorable!  If you are curious, she has recorded and can be heard online.  We are still listening.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, September 13, 2015


Kathleen Kelly and Antonina Chehovska

Soprano Antonina Chehovska first came to our attention at a pair of recitals presented last June by the International Vocal Arts Institute. (reviews archived). We are delighted to report that her prodigious talent is not just a "flash in the pan" and that there is evidence of artistic growth even in the past couple months.

Thanks to Opera Columbus and the Cooper-Bing vocal competition, of which Ms. Chehovska is a winner, we had the opportunity to hear her perform a challenging program this afternoon at The National Opera Center. The competition was begun by Irma M. Cooper in 1983 just 2 years after she founded Opera Columbus. Current funding has been greatly accelerated by the generosity of Arthur and Hetty Bing who were present at the recital and who seemed to be enjoying it just as much as we were.

"Enjoying" may be considered unduly faint praise. It would be more accurate to say that we were thrilled--perhaps even to the point of being in an altered state of consciousness.

At first, this gifted soprano transported us to the world of the Roma people with Antonin Dvořak's Gypsy Songs, op. 55. The melodies and harmonies leave nothing to be desired and neither did Ms. Chehovska's performance. Her instrument and her technique (both enviable) took a back seat to her interpretive artistry as she expressed the gypsy love of music, dancing, romance, nostalgia, and freedom. Dvořak gave each song a different mood and Ms. Chehovska gave each one a different coloring. Even the joyful songs are tinged with melancholy.

We have heard these songs in English (not so good) and in German (much better) but to hear them in the original Czech was a special treat. We do not speak Czech but it was unmistakeable how Dvořak married the rhythm of the phrases to the rhythm of the music. Ms. Chehovska's special talent lay in her total immersion in the story she was telling; she wrapped herself in each story much as she wrapped herself in a huge shawl. We found ourself smiling along or getting teary-eyed as the text suggested.

Six Romances, op.38 by the late Romantic Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff were given comparable attention to detail. The songs tell of longing, love, and loss--and bring in references to elements of nature. Each one was a deeply felt miniature. As an audience member we felt invited by the artist to share her deepest feelings.

Tatiana's letter scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin followed. We had just last night watched Renée Fleming's performance on a 2007 DVD and felt that Ms. Chehovska's interpretation was more believable; one was able to witness the impetuous teenager with all the features entering into a first infatuation--so far out of her comfort zone. We enjoyed Ms. Chehovska's performance with IVAI enormously but feel she has dug even deeper into the character this time around.

The same care was lavished on three songs by Tom Cipullo from Late Summer, to a somewhat lesser effect, since the text was unmusical.  It would be difficult to make music from phrases like "What makes the engine go?" but the artist did her best.

We were far more enchanted by the final set on the program--songs by a 20th c. Ukrainian composer, Severyn Saprun,  who wisely chose poetry from the 18th and 19th c. which seemed to inspire lavish melodies and harmonies that we would definitely wish to hear again. We never knew how musical a language Ukrainian is!

Kathleen Kelly's sensitive accompanying is not to be overlooked. We particularly enjoyed the pianism in Rachmaninoff's "Daisies" and in Saprun's "I love, I love". Ms. Kelly can be forceful when the song is robust but delicate when the song is melancholy.

The recital was the first in this season's  Emerging Artist Recital Series held by Opera America at the National Opera Center. If you are not already a member of Opera America, we would urge you to join. Membership cost is nominal and the benefits are huge for singers and accompanists, and those who love them. 

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, September 12, 2015


Outdoor HD Festival on Lincoln Center Plaza

We are often asked which is better, live opera or HD. We believe they are two different art forms.  Neither is superior.  They are just different. Nowhere is this made clearer than at the Metropolitan Opera Summer HD Festival which we attend every year. We try to see as many as possible to see what additional experiences are provided by this relatively new art form--an art form that has become increasingly popular in theaters across the country.  We will not get into the debate on whether it brings new audiences to opera or steals audiences from the opera house. We see the two forms as complementary.

The HD experience has input from the HD Director who tries to show you the most important visual of any given moment. Perhaps it is a close-up of a singer's face, or perhaps a close-up of the the reaction of the character to whom, or about whom, the singer is singing.  Perhaps it is a closeup of a set element or prop that could not be seen or understood by an audience member beyond the first row--a passed note, something dropped, or something being hidden.

Sometimes it is just an artistic vision of the HD Director.  A good example of this is Gary Halvorson's direction of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette  Mr. Halvorson's artistry lay in highlighting the visual metaphors of Johannes Leiacker's stunning set design. Elements of the astrological calendar, not very visible in the house, remind us that the lovers are "star-cross'd.", especially when he shows us an aerial view.

Additionally, the close-ups of the masks are incredibly beautiful, lending authenticity to the masked ball. So much labor must have gone into designing and executing the designs of those masks--details not even appreciated with opera glasses. The nuptial bed suspended high above the stage in-house seemed risky to the singers; on film it lent enchantment to the concept of lovers floating above the real world.

In Mr. Halvorson's Gianni Schicchi we loved the details of a wealthy Florentine home, details which cannot be taken in all at once in house. The expressions of the greedy family members were priceless, especially those of Stephanie Blythe.

Costume details are thrown into focus as well, as in Mr. Halvorson's loving attention to Michael Yeargan's period-accurate and lavish costumes for Cosi fan tutte. We even got to understand and apppreciate the women's undergarments.

HD Director Barbara Willis Sweete focused on the obscurely lit compartments of Christopher Oram's depressing Joseph Cornell box-like set for Don Giovanni--images that could not be made out in-house. In her direction of Les Contes d'Hoffman, Michael Yeargan's overly busy set design could be best appreciated in various focused close-ups.

Not every opera benefitted from close-ups. As beautiful as Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna looked in R&J, that's how unappealing Mr. Alagna, Olga Borodina and Liudmyla Monastyrska looked in the closing night Aida.  Perhaps it was just the make-up but it detracted rather than added to the performance. Alexei Ratmansky's choreography looked downright silly.

In La Traviata, the visuals were even more striking. But if you objected to Willy Decker's cold modern production (as I do), it appeared even colder on HD. In Act II it seemed as if the Prince of Chintz had upholstered not only the furniture but also Ms. Dessay and Mr. Polenzani. It was the first time we did not break into tears at the end.

Adrian Noble's production of Macbeth also failed to lend itself to this art form. Watching Ms. Netrebko rolling around on the floor of a cold Scottish castle made us feel terribly uncomfortable; the modern dress robbed the story of its power and watching a bunch of mid- 20th c. housewives as witches seemed particularly offensive. And closeups of children vomiting were egregiously unnecessary.

To summarize, HD emphasizes visuals over auditory input. If this emphasis sheds light on the story or  adds to the emotional impact, then HD has done a good job. If it shows us the adorable Susanna Phillips and Isabel Leonard as two stylish sisters, it has added to our appreciation. If the singers happen to be physically attractive so much the better. If the sets and costumes are detailed and authentic, it enhances our involvement.

But if the singers can't act, or don't look the part they are playing, or if the sets are barren and post-moodern, we would prefer not to see them.

Obviously, recorded sound can never give you the auditory thrill of hearing an opera live. That is the price one pays for all the afore-mentioned benefits.

We will close with a formula that works for us. First, see the HD to learn if you like the opera and the production and to relate to the story. Then listen to a good recording to learn the music. Finally, go see the production live and lose yourself in the music, hearing it as it can only sound in the opera house. Then you will have a complete experience.

© meche kroop

Friday, September 11, 2015


Apprentice Scenes Evening at Santa Fe Opera....Richard Strauss' Die schweigsame Frau

It was another star-spangled Sunday evening at the Santa Fe Opera.  Some of the stars were above in the sky and some were onstage showing off their natural talents and what they learned during the time they spent there as young artists. Some of them had taken small roles in the five excellent operas presented last summer; all had sung in the superb chorus.  But on this night they got to be stars, presenting eight scenes from very different operas--accompanied by piano and directed by some impressive directorial talent.

Scenes were chosen by the apprentices themselves with guidance from Directors Mary Birnbaum, Kathleen Clawson, Louisa Muller, and Walker Lewis. The program is helmed by David Holloway and succeeds in turning out some fine artists and also in introducing Santa Feans and visitors alike to a variety of operas.

Let us begin at the end because it was the last thing we saw/heard before saying farewell to SFO. Directed by Ms. Clawson, Leonard Bernstein's Candide shone like the gem that it always was, but was given a new luster by an exceptional cast. All the satire was captured by baritone Andrew Paulson as Dr. Pangloss and mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman as the very funny Old Lady. Tenor Adrian Kramer made a winningly innocent Candide with the adorable soprano Bridgette Gan as his more knowing Cunegonde. Especially wonderful was mezzo-soprano Anne Marie Stanley as the frisky Paquette and baritone Jarrett Ott, disturbingly convincing as the detestable Maximillian. (He's really a very nice fella!) The costumes were spot on and added to the fun.

Pictured above is a scene from the rarely produced Strauss opera Die schweigsame Frau, an opera which was banned by the Nazi regime. The subject of the opera is a man who hates "noise" and must be won over by a troupe of opera singers. The irony is that this troupe of singers won over the audience.  The eight singers worked well together as an ensemble.  We heard Andrea Nuñez, Olivia Vote, Bridgette Gan, Cullen Gandy, Peter Tomaszewski, Michael Adams, Nicholas Davis, and Tyler Putnam. Ms. Birnbaum directed with a sure hand.

Another ensemble piece that delighted us was the quintet from Rossini's L'italiana in algeri  with mezzo Megan Marino performing the role of Isabella.  This brought back happy memories of 2002 when SFO produced this opera with Stephanie Blythe in that role. Tenor Galeano Salas was her Lindoro; Mr. Paulson sang Taddeo, Mr. Putnam was a funny Mustafa, and soprano Chelsea Basler was the cast-off wife Elvira. Mr. Lewis' direction kept things moving right along.

We had quite a few laughs with the opening piece as well. The last time we saw Francis Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésias was at Juilliard. This opera is also not high on the list of frequently performed works.  Ms. Muller's direction emphasized the surreal quality. Tenor Aaron Short took the lead and was joined by a fine ensemble comprising Nicholas Davis, Jacquelyn Stucker, Alexandra Raszkazoff, Briana Hunter and Jorell Williams.

In Verdi's Aida, directed by Ms. Clawson, Ms. Freedman made an exceptionally fine Amneris with tenor Cooper Nolan, well remembered from Manhattan School of Music, as Radames. We enjoyed witnessing his growth as an artist.

We always jump at the chance to hear Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea and Mr. Lewis gave it some intensity in his direction. As bad girl Poppea, Ms. Basler captured the style very well, as did mezzo Shabnam Kalbasi in the pants role of Nerone.

The quartet from Verdi's Luisa Miller (directed by Louisa Muller!) gave us a chance to pity the poor heroine (soprano Heather Phillips) who has fallen into the clutches of the evil schemers Walter (bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee) and Wurm (bass Kevin Thompson).  Poor Federica suffered collateral damage as the unloved Countess (mezzo Cynthia Hanna).

Only the penultimate scene failed to deliver. Even the fine direction of Ms. Birnbaum and the excellent singing of soprano Adelaide Boedecker, tenor Roy Hage, and bass-baritone Adrian N. Smith were unable to bring this inert piece to life. Perhaps we had already seen too much of the Civil War; perhaps we just don't like conversational dialogue in English. Unlike the other seven scenes that night, we were uninspired to pursue a further hearing of Matthew Aucoin's Crossing. Although Mr. Aucoin can write some powerfully evocative orchestral music, his unidiomatic libretto did not seem to inspire an interesting vocal line--so often the case in contemporary opera.

We were thrilled that the program ended on that joyful Bernstein note (pun intended).  Even the great Bernstein got help with his libretto from quite a number of people, including Richard Wilbur, John LaTouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Stephen Sondheim. No wonder we have been humming the tunes 3 weeks later!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, September 4, 2015


Brian Zeger and Paul Appleby
Brian Zeger and Jamie Barton
Brian Zeger and Christine Goerke

What do these three artists have in common beside being Richard Tucker Award winners?

What sets them apart from the huge pool of excellent singers we have heard?

It would seem to be a combination of audience rapport and a deep understanding of the text. Singing is communication from the heart. If the singer understands on an emotional level what he/she is singing about and can get you to feel it too, you experience a connection that goes way beyond listening, way beyond hearing. The feeling borders on mystical.

Dramatic soprano Ms. Goerke, mezzo-soprano Ms. Barton, and tenor Mr. Appleby have all that and more. The technique of producing the sound totally disappears and one loses oneself in the song.  The listener becomes one with the singer. That's a rare gift.

Thanks to WQXR and their Greene Space we got to hear all three artists and to learn a bit about them as William Berger conducted interviews.  All three have exceptional personalities and were willing to share about themselves with candor.

Mr. Appleby's "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubern schön" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, was given a most winning performance. "Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden" from Schumann's Liederkreis is a real heartbreaker in strophic form and Mr. Appleby completely captured the shades of regret in each verse. The joy of William Bolcom's "New York City Lights" was equally captured.

It was during the interview that we learned about the contributions made to Mr. Appleby's love of language by his university studies as an English major. His love of poetry and the words it comprises is unmistakably evident.

Ms. Barton, known as The Down Home Diva, hails from Georgia and has deep feelings for music with a Southern slant.  Her bubbly personality would be enough to win us over but when she opens her mouth to sing, great depth colors everything. She generously spoke of her nurturing at the hands of the Tucker Foundation and from Marilyn Horne.

A pair of songs by Jean Sibelius--"Var det en dröm" and "Svarta rosor"-- were given a passionate performance in Swedish.  Equally fine was an aria from Ponchielli's La Gioconda--"Stella del Marinar". Everything Ms. Barton sings is golden. In the interview she told of how she loves to try new things.  What a future this young woman has!

Ms. Goerke is another fascinating artist and related how her lyric soprano changed rather early to a different fach and now she is singing Wagner and Strauss. She sang Strauss' "Cäcelie" and proved her point. But it was her performance of the Immolation Scene from Wagner's Götterdämmerung that totally blew us away.

At first, we thought she was channeling our favorite Brünnhilde, Hildegard Behrens, but we soon realized she brought her own essence to the part. It was noteworthy (no pun intended) and memorable.

Her performance of this scene was greatly assisted by Brian Zeger who was the collaborative pianist for all three singers. In the Wagner his pianistic skills were so finely honed that we could see the flames dancing.

We have been home for hours but we think the walls of the Greene Space must still be vibrating!

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Nicholas Davis, Jarrett Ott, and Daniel Bates (photo by Kate Russell)

We are always filled with anticipation when planning our annual summer trip to Santa Fe. The quality of the operas is always top-notch and the mountainous location of the opera house is magnificent. But the highlight of the trip is always the evenings of Apprentice Scenes on Sunday night. 

Selected from a vast pool of applicants, these 40 young artists never fail to delight with their native talent, honed by the superb training they receive. For two consecutive Sundays evenings, eager audiences are able to enjoy these stars of tomorrow with all their artistry and enthusiasm. We have heard from several of them how greatly they prize this performance opportunity.

Indeed, the two couples we introduced to opera this season have become fans. Did we mention that the cost is excessively modest?  It's a fine way for newbies to see excerpts from several operas and learn about their preferences.

Although a piano is substituted for the orchestra, production values are flawless; costuming is always appropriate, as are the simple sets. Direction is superb.

Today we will tell you about evening #1, with tales of evening #2 to follow. The program got off to a delightful start with scenes from the first act of Mozart's Cosí fan tutte. If ever an opera was more perfectly written for young performers, we could not name it. Two soldiers, Ferrando (played by the sweet-voiced tenor Daniel Bates) and Guglielmo (portrayed by the rising star baritone Jarrett Ott) boast about the fidelity of their sweethearts Fiordiligi (bright soprano Rebecca Krynski) and Dorabella (mezzo-soprano Alyssa Martin, who has a nice counterbalancing weight to her instrument).

An older man, a bartender in Director Kathleen Clawson's modern dress interpretation, scoffs at them and designs a bet to prove that all women stray. In this role, Nicholas Davis employed his fine baritone voice and comedic skills to good advantage. The horseplay among the three men was hilarious. The two women did a great job of depicting vain silly girls and their duet was divine.

A scene from Händel's Serse followed, a scene that left no comedic stone unturned, thanks to Louisa Muller's fine direction.  Mezzo-soprano Megan Marino in a giggle-worthy moustache portrayed a Russian general.  (We know it was Russia because there was a large upraised communist fist towering over the set). Her Serse was an irredeemable skirt chaser; her over-the-top portrayal provided ample opportunity for coloratura, in which her attack and execution garnered wild applause.

As rejecting Romilda, the unwilling recipient of his attention, soprano Adelaide Boedecker gave a stylish performance. We enjoyed the duet between Elviro (bass Kevin Thompson) and Amastre (mezzo Shabnam Kalbasi).

On a more serious note was the famous duet from Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles in which Nadir and Zurga express their rivalry. Tenor John Myers gave a well-modulated performance that harmonized beautifully with baritone Jorell Williams, from whom we have never heard a performance less than first-rate. The French diction was truly excellent. A real audience-pleaser that "Au fond du temple saint"! Never fails--two gorgeous male voices and the audience swoons.  As we did. 

From our favorite Wagnerian opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, we heard the glorious closing quintet from Act III, beautifully directed by Mary Birnbaum. This is the scene in which Eva (the fine soprano Alexandra Raszkazoff) comes to Hans Sachs (Adrian Smith with his burly bass-baritone) to get her shoe fixed.  It is the scene in which Sachs becomes aware of the very evident chemistry between Eva and Walther (tenor Benjamin Werley). And shoemaker apprentice David (tenor Derrek Stark) gets promoted to journeyman. Mezzo Olivia Vote portrayed his sweetheart Magdalena. Every vocal and dramatic moment was made crystal clear. German diction was great.

We never pass up a chance to hear Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann. How well we remember the 2010 production in Santa Fe!  Ms. Birnbaum staged the Venice scene with creativity. Mezzos Briana Hunter as the courtesan Giulietta and Anne Marie Stanley as Nicklausse sang a most sensuous duet. Bass Calvin Griffin as Dappertutto sang "Scintille diamant" as well as we have ever heard it--with a great deal of menace. Tenor Christopher Trapani made a fine Hoffman with tenor Tyson Miller and Mr. Williams as Pittichinaccio and Schlemil respectively. More fine French was heard.

Verdi's Otello will never be replaced by Rossini's but as an enormous fan of bel canto, we were very very happy to hear our young artists demonstrate fine flexibility in the fioritura. Tenor Jack Swanson sang Rodrigo, tenor Aaron Short sang Otello, and soprano Alyssa Martin sang Desdemona. The story unfolds rather differently but Ms. Clawson's direction made things clear.

The only scene on the program which didn't thrill us was from Moore's Enemies: A Love Story. Three women sang monologues--not very interesting dramatically or vocally. Sadly the diction was so flawed we failed to determine what they were singing about. English is notoriously difficult to sing in a manner that is comprehensible but the final piece on the program proved that it can be done.

It was the scene of the "Mechanicals" from Act III of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. This early 20th c. work is pure delight and the large cast threw themselves into the fun with great gusto. We can never figure out who's who so we will just list all those wildly costumed craftsmen as a group. They were all hilarious and sang well!  Tyson Miller, Galeano Salas, Michael Adams, Nicholas Brownlee, Calvin Griffin, and Peter Tomaszewski. We wish we had a video of their antics.

As the bored and supercilious royal audience, we heard bass Tyler Putnam as Theseus with a (feminine) Ms. Marino as his Hippolyta, Ms. Krynski as Helena, Mr. Ott as Demetrius, Mr. Stark as Lysander and Ms. Hunter as Hermia. Ms. Muller's direction was outstanding and the evening ended on a joyous note with the audience walking out grinning into the crisp night air.

(c) meche kroop