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

Saturday, October 31, 2015


Piotr Beczala (photo by Johannes Ifkovits)

He dazzled us as Vaudémont in Tchaikovsky's Iolante at the Metropolitan Opera last season and he seemed to dazzle the audience last night at Zankel Hall in his New York recital debut. Sadly, we were not dazzled. There is a great difference between opera and art song. One of the cardinal rules of a song recital is engaging the audience. There are no sets and costumes to help the singer along.

Although this marvelous tenor seemed very much connected to the songs he chose, he failed to connect very well with us and that may be attributed to his use of the music stand for the entire recital, even for the encore. Perhaps he was anxious or too busy to commit the works to memory, but we found the constant glancing down and turning of pages distracting; it left us feeling that we were witnessing a rehearsal, not a performance.

We have lost interest in song recitals held at Stern Auditorium because of the difficulty of achieving intimacy in such a large space; we decided to focus on the vocal series held at Zankel Hall and the even more intimate Weill Recital Hall. At a song recital, we are not at all interested in the fame of the singer; we want to feel what the composer felt when he set the text; we want to feel what the singer feels when he sings it.

That being said, the program was well chosen and we got to hear songs in Polish by a composer with whom we were unfamiliar. Mieczyslaw Karlowicz was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and his work exhibits the same sort of lush melodic invention. They seemed to us like "popular" music (we mean that in the most positive way) in that they are incredibly accessible. One wants to sing along! But who but a Polish artist could negotiate those mouthfuls of consonants!

The poor composer died young and has yet to achieve great renown abroad. We hope Mr. Beczala's performance will change all that. We want to hear them again.  And yet again. They are romantic in nature and replete with the melancholy so extant in music from Poland, whose history has not been a cheerful one.

Dvorák's Gypsy Songs remain among our favorite song cycles and hearing them in Czech is a special thrill. We recently reviewed such a performance by Jamie Barton whose voice touched our heart and made our feet want to dance. Last night we had no such reaction.  Neither Mr. Beczala nor his collaborative pianist Martin Katz evoked the wild gypsy spirit which can embrace both joyful abandon and deep sorrow.

Sergei Rachmaninoff's songs are always a treat and we got to hear a quartet of them with "Sing not to me, beautiful maiden" (please forgive us for not giving you the Russian!) evoking the deep feeling of estrangement that we identify with "In der fremde" from Schumann's Liederkreis Op. 39. Once, we had this feeling listening to a Bhutanese folksong and inquired about the meaning; yes indeed, it was about a man separated from his family!

The first half of the program was the performance of Schumann's Dichterliebe, Op. 48, a loose chronicle of a love affair gone wrong, for unknown reasons. The songs have great variety of rhythm and dynamics and offer the singer an opportunity to express a variety of moods.

There is a beautiful moment of suspension between the tender opening song "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai" and the following "Aus meinen Tränen spriessen". Mr. Beczala captured the rapturous excitement of "Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne" in which the words tumble out right on top of each other.

In terms of vocal production, Mr. Beczala sounded secure in the middle and lower registers but sounded strained in the upper register. His German diction was good enough to be understood but fell short of perfection.

We would like to share our observations about his collaborative pianist Martin Katz. Because we were feeling less than totally involved with the voice, we paid more attention to the piano. We have often experienced Mr. Katz as being heavy handed, having nearly drowned out baritone Jesse Blumberg when they performed Schubert's Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin.

Last night his touch was a bit lighter and we could appreciate just how fine a pianist he is. In the ponderous "Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome" he played the Bach-like chorale in a manner that evoked the cathedral in Köln. In "Und wüsten's die Blumen, die kleinen", his piano sang of the poet's agitation while Mr. Beczala sang the descending scale passages.

Similarly, he produced a haunting hurdy-gurdy sound in "Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen". In "Hör ich das Liedchen Klangen", the quiet song grew into grand grief. In "Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen", the piano goes for a false jolly sound while the vocal line expresses suffering. We also enjoyed the harplike arpeggios of "Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen" and "Die alten, bösen Lieder".

As encore, Mr. Beczala made an effort to connect with his American audience by singing the oft recorded "Bless This House", written in 1927 by May Brahe with lyrics by Helen Taylor. It seemed to us a strange choice but the audience seemed to appreciate it.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, October 30, 2015


Kristin Gornstein

Last night we entered a room jam-packed with young people primed to enjoy opera under the most original circumstances.  The occasion was a benefit drag performance of Miss Handel, an evening of (mostly) Handel's music performed by artists who were not only vocally skilled but outrageously and winningly outfitted in period costumes. Sequins, feather boas, powdered wigs, beauty marks, and size 12 pumps were exhibited in abundance but never distracted from the fine musical values.

Heartbeat Opera, founded by Co-Directors Ethan Heard and Louisa Proske, is one of the small boutique opera companies that have been springing up lately, perhaps stimulated by the demise of New York City Opera. Last year we were completely won over by their highly original Daphnis et Chloé (review archived and available through the search bar).

Last night's extravaganza was wildly entertaining and drew a mostly young crowd. We wondered how many of them had not enjoyed opera before; we further wondered if Handel's music acquired some new fans from among the newbies. We tend to think so and applaud any and all attempts to cultivate a young audience.

As far as musical values, we found nothing to criticize. Co-Music Directors Jacob Ashworth and Daniel Schlosberg produced the lovely baroque sounds of violin and harpsichord, augmented by Hsuan-Fong Chen's oboe, Sarah Stone's cello, and Jude Ziliack's violin.

The superb singing was done by Kristin Gornstein, Lauren Worsham, Stanley Bahorek, Scott Mello, and John Taylor Ward. Ms. Gornstein is known to us through her work with Lachlan Glen's Schubertiade and Ms. Worsham through her performances with Steven Blier's New York Festival of Song. The male voices were new to us but everyone excelled in the baroque genre. It is astonishing how the artists could camp things up and strut around in drag while still maintaining vocal quality.

The gender bending mistresses of ceremony were Ato Blankson-Wood (new to us) and James Cusati-Moyer (whose performance last year as the devil in Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale blew us away). The pair introduced each number in oh-so-clever rhymed couplets written by dramaturge Antigoni Gaitana and Mr. Heard. The identically gowned ladies faced each other through a mirror frame and lip-synched "Myself I Shall Adore" from Handel's Semele. It was hilarious.

The other numbers were all sung and perhaps our favorite was "Iris, hence away" from Semele, sung by Ms. Gornstein. Not all arias were sung in English and we particularly enjoyed the one in Italian.

The only non-Handel number was the final duet from Bernstein's Candide, a particularly humorous example of the exchange of clothes and gender roles. It was deliciously raunchy.

Obviously a mountain of imagination was substituted for a molehill of a budget. The production was designed by Seth Bodie, Jon Carter, Reid Thompson, and Oliver Wason.

It is incredibly gratifying to see how much can be done with a small budget and how exciting it is to experience opera up close and personal. The skin tingles and, YES, the heart beats! What a perfect name for this company.

We heartily recommend this production if you can possibly snag a ticket for one of the two remaining shows tonight.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, October 29, 2015


Natalia Suriano and Gonzalo Llanes Mena

Having just reviewed a recital of young singers from Argentina, we were very much in the mood to hear even more Argentinean music; so last night we showed up at the Consulate General of Argentina for a recital by two young artists from Argentina. This pair, unlike the visiting artists of the prior evening, are studying here in New York at the Manhattan School of Music.

The program was not operatic but rather composed of art songs and the audience comprised mainly Argentineans who were over the moon hearing songs of their homeland. If anyone but us was troubled by the singer's use of a music stand, one would never have known about it.

When the otherwise engaging tenor Gonzalo Llanes Mena looked at the audience we felt the connection that we so enjoy that makes a song come to life.  But every time he looked down at his score, that connection was broken. It was a short recital, just an hour, and we couldn't understand the reason for not memorizing the songs, since none of the works were modern or esoteric. Just sayin'!

Mr. LLanes Mena engaged the audience by explaining each song in his own inimitable and humorous style in charmingly accented English; this served to include audience members whose Spanish is less than fluent.

His sound is a sweet one but not a slight one, and he had the "garlic" to get across Tosti's "A vucchella", after explaining that Tosti loved all kind of women and this song about a dried-up flower was written about an elderly woman!

His German diction was fine in "Bist du bei mir", attributed to Bach but likely written by Stölzel; he certainly did not neglect the correct pronunciation of the "ch" sound. We wish we could say the same thing about his French diction in Reynaldo Hahn's "A Chloris" but we cannot; the even French line was nowhere to be found and several nasal vowels were mispronounced.

One cannot blame singers not born and raised in the USA for wanting to sing Broadway songs but they just sound peculiar to our ears when sung with a foreign accent.  We wonder what the native born French think of our American singers when they sing in French!  Actually, we don't wonder; we've been told that the French singing that we found acceptable was NOT music to French ears!

In any case, "Be My Love" (Brodzsky/Cahn) was on the program and our game tenor was joined by an excellent soprano, Anna Mayo, and they gave it their all. We do love good harmony and enjoyed the performance. Ms. Mayo has a brilliant voice and a smooth portamento that we admired.

Lerner and Loew's "On the Street Where You Live" was given a charming introduction and gave the superb collaborative pianist Natalia Suriano an elaborate piano arrangement into which she could sink her teeth, or rather her fingers.

It was no small delight that Ms. Suriano provided a piano solo of great distinction--selections from Enrique Granados' Escenas románticas. Our favorite of the three was the "Mazurca".  Perhaps it was only the rhythm that evoked our feeling but we would be surprised if Granados had not learned a great deal from Chopin's music.

Her playing of this melodic music was highly expressive and her fleet fingers met all the technical demands of the devilishly difficult "Lento con éxtasis".

The remainder of the program comprised popular songs of Argentina, likely from the 20th c. Our tenor sported a handsome poncho and ingratiatingly explained its usefulness. We particularly liked "Cuesta abajo" (Gardel/LePera), a tango from a film of the 1930's with the same title.

Suitable for this pre-Halloween week was "Zamba para la viuda", a ghost story which Mr. Llanes Mena explained for the audience.

We were fortunate to hear more from the songwriting team of Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera--the encore piece "Mi Buenos Aires Querido" in the tango rhythm for which that song writing team is famous. It was at this point that the packed house went wild with enthusiasm. We tried to imagine being an expat and hearing singers from the USA singing Broadway numbers.

No, there were no zarzuela arias but we left satisfied that we learned more about Argentinean song.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Marcelo Ayub, Dr. Alejandro Cordero, Nicolás Romero, Gustavo Vita, and Constanza Diaz Falú

Last night we had the privilege of being welcomed by the Americas Society to hear a recital by three young singers from the training division of Teatro Colón, one of the leading opera houses in the Americas. This seems to be something like the Apprentice Program of the Santa Fe Opera or the Merola Program at the San Francisco Opera.

A benefactor named Dr. Alejandro Cordero has underwritten the New York recital of young artists from this Instituto Superior de Arte del Teatro Colón for eight years. These three were chosen by audition and the program was a most agreeable one, comprising familiar opera arias and, happily, some Spanish and Latin American music at the end.

We were most impressed by soprano Constanza Diaz Falú who, of the three, seemed most performance ready. Ms. Diaz Falú has the kind of well-focused bright soprano that we love to hear singing Mozart and Rossini. She negotiated the fioritura effortlessly and has a most engaging stage presence.

Her "Der Hölle Rache" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte left nothing to be desired; her technique was excellent and her portrayal of the angry Queen of the Night was completely apt. Quite different but equally wonderful was "Ah! Donate il caro sposo", Sofia's lovely aria from Rossini's early one-act comedy Il signor Buschino with its excellent ornamentation--lovely even without the English horn solo.

Her rendition of "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's Candide was full of charm but we found the accent (British English combined with Spanish) a slight drawback.

She also performed the part of Zerlina in "La ci darem la mano" from Mozart's Don Giovanni with bass Gustavo Vita as the vile seducer of Seville. Her stage presence was so winning that she swept the otherwise wooden Mr. Vita right along with her.

Mr. Vita has a substantial bass but looks awkward onstage and comes across as effortful.  This interfered with his connection with the audience. He seemed to connect well with his material but it didn't translate. It seemed as if he needed someone onstage with whom to come alive. We were wondering if some kind of body work would be of assistance--some instruction in dance or movement that would loosen him up.

Nicolás Romero has a pleasing tenor and sang "Amor ti vieta" from Umberto Giordano's Fedora--with passion. We liked him even better in "E lucevan le stelle" from Puccini's Tosca in which he employed dynamic variety to good effect.  He also did well with Cardillo's "Core 'ngrato" and Casalino's "Non ti scordar di me". two audience favorites. 

Mr. Romero sings effortlessly in the upper register, even with forte passages, but we wanted to experience more breath support in the pianissimi to prevent his sound from dwindling.

Our favorite however was "La roca fria del calvario" from José Serrano's wonderful zarzuela La Dolorosa, which we had the pleasure of seeing in its entirety about a year ago. We can never get enough zarzuela!

Singers tend to do best in their native language and we loved Ms. Diaz Falú's tender interpretation of Fernando Obradors' "Del cabello más sutil" which she sang in the Castilian dialect. 

Soprano and tenor joined voices for the lovely duet "Caballero del alto plumero" from Federico Moreno Torroba's charming zarzuela Luisa Fernanda, in which the Duchess and the handsome young Colonel are having a flirtation. The final work on the program was the trio "Uno" by M. Mores.

Pianist and Musical Director for this lovely evening was Marcelo Ayub.

We have long lauded Argentina for their tango, their fine wine, and their beef.  Now we can add one more thing--they produce some fine young singers.  Bravissimi!

(c) meche kroop

Monday, October 26, 2015


Jakub Jozef Orlinski, Amaya Arberas and Il Giardino d'Amore

Yesterday we were transported to 17th and 18th c. Venice when we trekked out to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn to hear our favorite Spanish soprano singing arias of Händel and Vivaldi.  Our pleasure was magnified by also hearing some exciting arias performed by countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski and by the marvelous accompaniment provided by a stellar baroque chamber orchestra playing on original instruments or copies thereof.  The founder and leader of Il Giardino d'Amore is one Stefan Plewniak who speaks eloquently through his violin.

The always fascinating theorbo was played by Etienne Galletier while the other string instruments were played by Monika Boroni, Katarzyna Kalinowska, Kinga Augustyn, Magdalena Chmielowiec, and Katarzyna Cichon. The group opened the concert with Vivaldi's Autumn and closed with Vivaldi's Summer, perhaps not a normal progression of seasons but beautifully played.

In between we thrilled to some very fine baroque singing in which both singers distinguished themselves with perfectly precise handling of the fioritura. Our favorite piece by Ms. Arberas was the well known aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Händel's Rinaldo, made even more famous from it's use in the film Farinelli. It's a real tear-jerker and Ms. Arberas brought out every subtle nuance. 

We also enjoyed "Ombre vane ingiusti orrori" from Vivaldi's Griselda in which the eponymous Griselda bewails her fate. We remember this opera well from Santa Fe when Meredith Arwady sang the role of the unjustly rejected Griselda.

Händel's "Agitato da fiere tempeste" from Riccardo Primo Re d'Inghilterra was given a fine performance by Mr. Orlinski and the orchestra created a fine storm of wind and water. We particularly enjoyed his interpretation of Handel's "A dispetto d'un volto ingrato" from Tamerlano which called for a variety of dynamics and tempi.

This superb group of young musicians is based in Vienna but is presently on tour and how fortunate for us New Yorkers that they made Brooklyn one of their stops.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, October 25, 2015


Siberia at the turn of the 20th Century

We recently wrote about how a good concert version of an opera can be a very pleasurable experience.  Last night, Teatro Grattacielo's yearly entry in the verismo opera sweepstakes was Umberto Giordano's Siberia, an interesting and mostly satisfying evening for the opera lovers who crowded into the comfortable Gerald Lynch theater at John Jay College. 

This opera premiered at La Scala in 1903 and was not a hit, although it did receive positive notices in Genoa and Paris and reached the New World in 1906 by way of the French Opera House in New Orleans, where so many European operas got their American start.

The libretto is a bit strange (Thanks, Founding Executive and Artistic Director Duane Printz, for a fine translation), not making many issues clear until late in the opera. One would expect more from the fine librettist Luigi Illica who served Giacomo Puccini so well; it is unclear whether the libretto is his original creation or whether he adapted the story from Leo Tolstoy's novel Resurrection.

Perhaps this early 19th c. story might have made more sense to the early 20th c. audience who witnessed it. The tale concerns the beautiful Stephana, mistress of the young Prince Alexis who has furnished her with a beautiful palace and servants and gifts. We do not figure out until much later that the disagreeable Gleby discovered the poor young woman on the streets, recognized her beauty, seduced her, taught her the ropes (so to speak), and sold her to the Prince in exchange for a liberal pension.

It is, of course, in Gleby's interest to ensure her availability to the Prince and he is distressed when she stays out all night. The reason for her failure to live up to her duties is her true love for the soldier Vassili who thinks she is an ordinary working girl of the innocent variety, not the kind of "working girl" she really is.

She has kept her palatial home secret but young Vassili, called to war, comes to the palace to bid farewell to his mother (or so we think) and discovers Stephana who is upset to be found out. Alexis is also upset by Vassili's presence and the two draw swords. Alexis is either wounded or dies.

Vassili is sent to prison in Siberia and Stephana follows him (in a troika and swathed in furs) having given up her glamorous life. This seems to be partly out of love and partly to seek redemption.

Life in Siberia is virtually unendurable but she loves it there because of her love for Vassili and a renewed sense of purity she feels.  But the lovers plan to escape and are caught, perhaps because the jealous Gleby has also arrived at the prison and rats her out (or so we think). She is shot and dies (happily) in Vassili's arms.

Undoubtedly, the libretto could have been more clearly written. Nonetheless, the music is gorgeously orchestrated and was superbly sung by a really good cast. The deservedly famous tenor Raul Melo sang with clear ringing tone and high passion. Stephana was gloriously sung by soprano Marie Masters whose star is on the rise. The strange and undeveloped character of Stephana was effectively filled in by this fine young artist.

Highly impressive as the slimy Gleby was baritone Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee who injected 57 varieties of sliminess into his superb voice, creating an unforgettable villain. We enjoyed mezzo-soprano Jessica Grigg as Nikona, Stephana's anxious servant, and soprano Megan Monaghan in a small role as a woman looking for her father in Siberia.

Baritone Joseph Flaxman excelled in two roles: as a banker in the service of the Prince, and later as an old man who wants to help Stephana escape. Tenor Scott Joiner was the servant Ivan and later The Cossack; tenor Wesley Morgan portrayed Prince Alexis and later portrayed The Sergeant, bass Damian Savarino was Walinoff, also in the Prince's retinue and later, The Inspector.

In the Siberian  part of the opera we would meet The Captain (bass-baritone Sean Cooper), who also portrayed The Governor with appropriate stentorian sound. All the parts seemed well cast and excellently sung.

And what about the music? What made the strongest impression melodically was the "Song of the Volga Boatmen".  This is a traditional Russian song, collected by Balakirev and published in 1866; it has been appropriated by composers of many nationalities and here was most effective in expressing the despair of the Russian peasants in pre-Revolutionary Russia. It is heard many times in the course of the opera. The Cantori New York Chorus did well by it, under the direction of Mark Shapiro.

Conductor Israel Gursky commanded The Teatro Grattacielo Orchestra who did justice to Giordano's  colorful orchestration. When Vassili describes the living conditions in Siberia, the orchestra tells as much as the words. For example, the woodwinds do a great job of illustrating the "unrelenting winds". And a tuba lets us know about the howl of the wolves. (It was at this point that we decided that Siberia does not need to be on our "bucket list").

On the Sunday of Russian Easter in Act III, the chimes and the sextet of mandolins (YES!) took us right where we needed to be. 

There were few arias as set pieces, but Stephana's Act III aria "Qual vergogna tu porti", directed at Gleby, gave her a chance to open up her generous instrument and shine with a variety of emotions. Mr. Lee's high point followed shortly thereafter in "La connobbi quand'era fanciulla" when we finally learn about the origins of their relationship, or his interpretation thereof.

Melo's best moment was in "Stephana!..Dio!" in Act II when she arrives in Siberia. The pair also have a lovely romantic duet.

We only get these treats once a year, generally in October. Most of the luminaries of Planet Opera were in attendance and post-opera conversation was stimulating. 

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Spencer Myer, Steven LaBrie, and Erin Wall

Sunday was the first recital of the season for the George London Foundation with the lovely Nora London present as usual. One of the greatest aspects of the George London Foundation is that if one returns year after year (preferably as a subscriber) one gets to observe the artistic growth of the competition winners when they are invited back to give a recital.

This season got off to a splendid start with baritone Steven LaBrie joining soprano Erin Wall for a program so satisfying that we don't know where to start.

So, let's start at the end because we do so love a good duet. As seen in the above photo, this talented duo delighted the audience with "Lippen schweigen" from Franz Lehar's Die lustige Witwe, also known as The Merry Widow. There was quite nice chemistry in evidence in this wonderful waltz. We were wishing the pair would soon perform the entire operetta.

Mr. LaBrie's voice has been expanding, deepening and darkening since we first heard him several years ago.  It was just right for "Prince Yeletsky's Aria" from Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame, otherwise known as Queen of Spades. This is an aria that we like better with every hearing and we cannot recall hearing it better sung. The messa di voce at the end was gorgeous.

Mexican songs are very high on our list of delights and Mr. LaBrie treated us to an entire set of them. Although we are equally fond of zarzuela, what we love about Mexican song is the sound of New World Spanish, as opposed to the sibilant sounds of Castilian Spanish. 

In "Dime que si" by Alfonso Esparza Oteo, Spencer Myer's piano provided the rhythmic thrust. Agustín Lara's "Humo en los ojos" was our personal favorite both for its sentiment and its melodic line. Maria Greever's much recorded "Júrame" had a lovely rhyme scheme for the singer and some potent rhythm in the piano.

Mr. LaBrie also sang a collection of songs by Claude Debussy La mer est plus belle--Ballades de François Villon. One could discern a foreshadowing of Ravel's Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. The first song was filled with passion and bitterness, the second with religious devotion, and the third with humor and wit. Mr. LaBrie captured the various moods successfully.

Erin Wall is a polished performer with plenty of presence onstage. She has a wonderful instrument with a bright bloom in the upper register that is exactly right for the songs of Richard Strauss. We could not say that we liked his Gesänge des Orients as well as some of his more frequently performed songs but they received a marvelous delivery from Ms. Wall. Actually, we could not discern what these songs had to do with Asia. There must be a story there!

Our preference was for the extravagant sentiment in "Schwung", an encomium to Bacchus; we also enjoyed the tender "Liebesgeschenke".

Ms. Wall also brought Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Drei Lieder to life. "Was Du mir bist" had a romantic flavor.  "Mit Dir zu schweigen" was made meaningful by her expressive dynamics.  But our favorite was "Welt ist stille eingeschlafen" which showed off the artist's expansive upper register and offered a delicate decrescendo at the conclusion.

"No Word from Tom" from Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress was marked by superlative diction.  Rarely do we understand every word sung in the upper register but here we did.  Poor Ann Trulove is steadfast (as her name implies) in her love for Tom Rakewell and here defies her father. It was intense!

It was an altogether satisfying program encompassing both the familiar and the unusual. 

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Lachlan Glen, Dimitri Dover, Steven Eddy, and Lilla Heinrich Szász

Joy of Singing was born in 1958 as an award program to foster the performance of art songs with special attention paid to interpretation and communication.  It was begun by Winifred Cecil, a noted singer and teacher. The program continues and is flourishing under the musical direction of Paul Sperry . Every year the winner of the competition is given a recital. This year, the quality of the competitors was so high that the judges were obliged to share the prize.

Thus it was that we had the opportunity last night at Merkin Concert Hall to hear two gifted singers and two exemplary collaborative pianists perform a program of art songs in several languages and a variety of styles.

Soprano Lilla Heinrich Szász has impressed us since her days at Juilliard, eventually winning their 2013 Honor's Recital among many other honors, all richly deserved. She has a lively winning onstage personality and a glorious ringing instrument that she easily bends to her will.

Her collaborative pianist, Australian Lachlan Glen, is also well known to us for several years, having won us over by his producing all of Franz Schubert's songs over the period of a year--a delicious extravagance never to be forgotten.  If there is a better interpreter of Schubert alive today we would be surprised. Besides this, he has incredible sensitivity to the singer. We noticed him actually breathing with Ms. Szász in rhythm.

Naturally, Schubert songs were selected to open the program and we were glad for it. "Vedi quanto adoro ancora ingrato!" is a bit unusual for Schubert; it is sung in Italian, the setting of a text by Pietro Metastasio. It was the perfect vehicle to show off both passion and delicacy in both artists.

We also heard the sorrowful "Die Liebe hat gelogen", the gentle "Der Jüngling an der Quelle" in which Mr. Glen's piano became rather spry, and the intense "Die junge Nonne", the most familiar of the set. The two artists drew us in totally with Ms. Szász seemingly losing herself in the throes of religious ecstasy and Mr. Glen creating quite a storm in the piano.

From a century later came four folk songs set by Zoltán Kodály which Ms. Szász, whose roots are Transylvanian, sang in Hungarian.  Fortunately she translated them herself for the program. We heard cries of despair and poverty, not the cheerful folk songs of Brahms. Our favorite was the final song which bore a mournful melody. The final note hung suspended in mid air.

The final set comprised songs by Benjamin Britten, the first of which was a setting of a W.H. Auden poem "Fish in the Unruffled Lakes" which did not make much sense to us. We greatly preferred "The Salley Gardens" to a text by W. B. Yeats.  The final song "Calypso" from Cabaret Songs had an urgent rhythm, with Mr. Glen creating the sound of a railroad train in his piano.

The second half of the program was given over to the other prize winner--baritone Steven Eddy and collaborative pianist Dimitri Dover. The two seemed to enjoy a special partnership, opening with one of our favorite Brahms songs "Meine Liebe ist grün". Another Brahms song "Botschaft" was performed later and we would have preferred hearing them in the same set. They are both so melodic and romantic.

Instead, there were two songs by Clara Schumann interposed. The first, "O weh des Scheidens, das er tat" was a sad one and seemed unresolved at the end.  The second "Liebst du um Schönheit" was quite lovely but suffered a bit by comparison to the Richard Strauss setting with which all lied lovers are far more familiar. (We couldn't help thinking of the Löwe setting of Frauen Lieben und Leben which one rarely hears because of Schumann's arguably better setting.)

Mr. Eddy excelled in his interpretation of Barber's Mélodies passagères. We enjoyed Barber's music so much better in French and we think that Rilke's poetry inspired him to new heights. Mr. Eddy's French served the music well and the fact that he translated them himself likely increased his involvement.  Particularly suited to his voice was "Le clocher chante" and Mr. Dover's piano made sure we heard the carillon. We also liked "Départ" a great deal.

Mr. Eddy explained the Jake Heggie songs which followed.  They were written for baritone Nathan Gunn and were inspired by paintings in the Dallas Art Museum. We found the concept more interesting than the music. Mr. Eddy's English diction is better than most but we still missed a lot of the words and there was no text provided to read. Our English-speaking companion was of the same opinion.

Fortunately the remainder of Mr. Eddy's program was thrilling. We love Dvorák's Gypsy Songs and have mainly heard them in German. Mr. Eddy, to our delight, sang them in Czech. We do not understand the language but loved the way the melody and the rhythm of the words lined up It was a spirited song about a folk dance and we were ready to get up and dance!

Similarly, we loved Respighi's "Invito alla danza", a more sedate and romantic song and perhaps our favorite song by this early 20th c. composer. Following along with the dance theme was Camille Saint-Saëns' "Danse macabre" and that's one dance we'd like to pass up!

If all we had heard were the encore we would have considered it a successful evening. That's just how wonderful it was!  From a rare Donizetti opera entitled Il Campanello di Notte, we heard the Brindisi "Mesci, mesci". Mr. Glen joined Mr. Dover for a four-handed accompaniment while Ms. Szász and Mr. Eddy performed with gusto and glee. We considered ourselves well prepared for the champagne reception upstairs!

(c) meche kroop

Monday, October 19, 2015


Sidney Outlaw, Aude Cardona, and Christopher Dylan Herbert (photo by Tony Gale)

We traveled over an hour to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn (Red Hook to be precise) to witness the launch of Floating Opera New York as they presented Debussy's only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande; the opera premiered in 1902 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and has been revived from time to time, but never on a boat, to the best of our knowledge. 

Floating Opera staged the work on a 101-year-old wooden barge, the last remaining one of its kind. The audience was seated on all four sides of the playing area which was demarcated by strings of colored lights. The set by Jian Jung comprised lots of coiled ropes and a dinghy which served as fountain, spring, and nuptial bed.

We heard the original piano score which debuted before the turn of the 20th c. chez Stéphane Mallarmé at a gathering of Symbolist artists, poets and musicians. It would later be orchestrated. George Hemcher beautifully played the diaphanous impressionistic score while Eric Kramer conducted.

The voices were uniformly excellent. As the mysterious heroine Mélisande we heard the French mezzo-soprano Aude Cardona who managed to sing the elusive unhappy woman with a fine rich tone. The compelling baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert shone as the prince Pélleas who is involved in this delicately rendered love triangle with his older half-brother Prince Golaud, so superbly sung by baritone Sidney Outlaw. The role demanded many vocal colors as he went from tenderness to jealous rage; Mr. Outlaw delivered.

As  Genviève, mother to both men, Jazmin DeRice made a substantial impression in her one important scene. As the blind grandfather Arkel, Paul Goodwin-Groen used his booming base effectively and aroused our sympathy. Another base, Brett Vogel portrayed the Doctor and the young soprano Caroline Rose Loeb portrayed Golaud's young son Yniold. Note that most of the important roles involved low voices!

The story is a strange one. Debussy himself adapted the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, an attempt to depart from realism and naturalism. The story is kind of a fairy tale taking place in vaguely Medieval times. The widower Golaud finds Mélisande weeping at a well.  Her crown has fallen into the water but she doesn't want it retrieved.  He comforts her, takes her back to his castle and weds her.

She is not happy. Pelléas, the younger half-brother, shares a rather innocent friendship with her that blossoms into love, which is only confessed when he is leaving. Nothing is really spoken but the sensual nature of the two artists' physical movement tells us a great deal. In one thrilling scene in which Pelléas sings of embracing her very long hair, he enacts that by horizontally "climbing" the stretched out rope. They are playful like children. In another scene they actually climb opposing walls of the barge.

Golaud is suspicious and tries to get his young son to spy on the pair. He has no evidence but flies into a jealous rage when he sees them exchange a farewell kiss. He slays his brother. Mélisande will soon die.

The symbolism of water is everywhere--spring, fountain, cave, tears.  How fitting to perform the work on the water!

There was only one aspect of the production that we found very UN-fitting. It was decided to present the work in English, a decision which we deplore. It is a very French work; Debussy matched the rhythm of the French language to his music. It was a poor fit to the English language which never flows like French.

Furthermore, the women's diction left much to be desired and, had we not been familiar with the story, we would have been pretty much in the dark as to what was happening. Even with our familiarity, many fine points of the story were missed. A better solution might have been to have sung the work in French with audience members being given a summary to read.

Direction by Isabel Milenski was exciting and the space put to excellent use. Christina Lorraine Bullard designed the costumes with Ms. Cardona's costume being designed by Jana Jarosz.  Effective lighting design was by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew.

It was a memorable launch of a new opera ship.  Future productions will be staged in other venues.  Hence the title--Floating Opera New York.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, October 17, 2015


Hunter Parrish and Deborah Voigt (photo by Erin Baiano)

So The Collegiate Chorale, after 74 seasons, is now Master Voices. And Gilbert and Sullivan's masterpiece The Pirates of Penzance has been itself press ganged into the service of cheap entertainment. This does not of course mean that the press has ganged up on them!

Actually, the audience laughed wildly and applauded just as wildly at this peculiar performance, which we found ill-conceived and ill-performed. This makes us feel like a cranky scold but we did not have a good time.  And Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas always promise a good time.

W. S. Gilbert's clever words and Arthur Sullivan's highly tuneful music go together like bangers and mash, like fish and chips. We have often held the pair up as examplars who created the perfect melding of text and melody; they created vocal lines that are highly singable and they knew how to handle the English language. Short punchy lines with clever rhymes bring out the best of our mother tongue.

Although the intricacies of the British political system in the Victorian Age may not be known to us, the basics of political corruption and the British national character are familiar sources of satire and we of the 21st c. can look back at their satire with glee.

But satire is not slapstick and the Borscht belt version we saw at New York City Center Thursday night left us in tears. The flaws were many. Let us enumerate.

Although we prefer fully staged opera, we are no stranger to concert versions (as in Opera Orchestra of New York) during which we can focus on the music and the singing. But the hybrid we saw was just irritating with the performers trying to (over)act with books in hand.

The amplification was irritating and the diction was poor with only Broadway star Phillip Boykin (as the Pirate King) and Douglas Hodge (as Major General Stanley) exhibiting good enough diction to catch most of the words.  Gilbert's text is so clever it is criminal not to enunciate clearly.

As Frederic, TV star Hunter Parrish couldn't sing his way out of a paper bag and his usually fine acting was severely hampered by carrying the libretto.

Deborah Voigt, lured from the opera stage, was wasted as Ruth.

Julia Udine, however, made a fine Mabel and has a lovely warbly soprano just right for the part. We would like to hear her someday without the distortion of amplification. There was one piece of satire that passed by without tampering and we were grateful for it.  G&S loved to satirize opera and Lucia Lammermoor's mad scene, in which she sings a wildly embellished vocal line in duet with a glass harmonica, was here rendered as a duet with the flute in "Poor wandering one". Nicely done! And no insult to Donizetti.

Some of Stanley's daughters sang well but we could not differentiate one from another.

The Orchestra of St. Luke's played rather well from the original scoring of the work. We heard a lovely oboe solo in the overture.

The massive forces of Master Voices were on bleachers onstage behind the actors and seemed to be wasted with all the histrionics distracting from the music. Ted Sperling conducted and directed. Presumably the histrionics and pratfalls were his idea.

Costume Consultant Tracy Christensen was guilty of too much and too little.  Tri-cornered hats on the pirates and the costumes of the Police took us back to Queen Victoria's day but Mabel and the Stanley girls looked like debutants from the mid 20th c. with silly little white caps on their heads. Most egregious was Ms. Voigt's pirate costume which was disastrously unflattering, making her look....FAT!

The alternative title of The Pirates of Penzance is the Slave of Duty. And so we did our duty and sat through the entire evening hoping that the memory will not spoil future performances of the piece by, say, New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players who generally do a fairly reverent job in the spirit of the original intent.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, October 16, 2015


Ava Nazar, Michal Biel, Piotr Buszewski, Samantha Hankey, Tatum Robertson, Angela Vallone, Cherie Roe, Andrew Harley, and Adam Rothenberg

A new semester begins at Juilliard and we are so happy on two counts. Firstly we get to hear some new singers and collaborative pianists; secondly we get to reconnect with young artists that we enjoyed so much last year.

Last night's Liederabend was a splendid one, mixing up the familiar and the new. It was the first time we heard soprano Tatum Robertson who did a fine job with selections from Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs. Twentieth century American songs may never be among our favorites, but Ms. Robertson sang them so expressively that we are growing in appreciation.

We especially enjoyed the warmth and affection we heard in her voice when she performed "The Monk and his Cat". "Promiscuity" was brief but given outsized significance by vocal coloring and facial expression. In "The Desire for Hermitage", dynamics were used effectively to convey the longing for solitude. Ms. Robertson's instrument is a sweet one and her diction was so fine that not a word was missed.

Collaborative pianist Cherie Roe matched Ms. Robertson's expressiveness in a most supportive manner.

Another singer was new to us, tenor Piotr Buszewski who performed three songs by Henri Duparc. In "Phidylé", he established a nice line in the French style, evincing a fine delicate vibrato. We loved the delicate messa di voce on the word "repose". Otherwise the delivery was on the restrained side.

The mood changed completely with "Le manoir de Rosemonde" which was filled with drama and excitement, echoed by the piano of Michal Biel. We had no trouble understanding every word of Mr. Buszewski's French.

Soprano Angela Vallone had impressed us last year and we were delighted to hear her once again. Her selections were Claude Debussy's Ariettes oubliées, settings of texts by Paul Verlaine, most of which she had translated herself. We do believe that such an exercise gives the singer a better handle on the song.

The sweet sadness of "Il pleure dans mon coeur" gave way to the wild excitement of "Chevaux de bois". Ava Nazar made a fine piano partner, creating the various moods of the songs along with Ms. Vallone, whose French is mighty fine.

The final set on the program comprised a quartet of songs from Gustav Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, songs of which we never tire. Hearing them sung by mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey, well remembered from last year, was a special treat.

Mahler's music always has a special poignancy, even the humorous and cheerful songs. "Ablösung im Sommer" ostensibly describes the nightingale replacing the cuckoo but has a deeper resonance for us about loss in general, making way for the new. Perhaps our favorite song in this group is "Rheinlegendchen" in which one can discern the same theme. The farmer throws his golden ring into the Neckar when his sweetheart abandons him; but a fish will swallow it and wind up on the King's table where the girl will get it and return to the farmer.  Loss and replacement.

All this was beautifully conveyed by Ms. Hankey accompanied so well by Adam Rothenberg. The two of them captured the painful irony of "Das irdische Leben" in which the mother's stalling leads to her child's death by starvation, a dreadful commentary on the life of the poor. 

The final selection "Wer hat die Liedlein erdacht" allowed Ms. Hankey space for some impressive melismatic embellishment. It was a fine performance needing only one small correction to make it perfect.  More attention needs to be paid to the "ch" sound. So many American singers avoid pronouncing it altogether because they are afraid it will sound harsh. But it is required!

Last night's excellent program was coached by Andrew Harley. The artists are students from the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts and the Collaborative Piano Department.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


Mikaela Bennett, Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Thomas West, Gerard Schneider, and Theo Hoffman

Appearing at Henry's Restaurant several times a year are special cabaret evenings hosted by pianist/arranger/teacher/raconteur and all-around wonderful person Steven Blier.  Such is the fame of these evenings that the house is invariably packed with music lovers of every stripe.

Last night was the opening of the season and seasonal it was. Entitled "Fall Colors" the program allowed five wonderful operatic voices the opportunity to expand their presentation into the world of cabaret. Songs are generally chosen by Mr. Blier and the singers themselves; Mr. Blier introduces each song with interesting tidbits of information and accompanies the singers.

Baritone Theo Hoffman was there, fresh off a plane from Atlanta where he performed the role of Schaunard in Puccini's La Bohême (wish we'd been there)--to critical acclaim. How astonishing and delightful to hear him cover Paul McCartney's romantic ballad "Here, There, and Everywhere", putting his own spin on the beautiful song, floating the final note in a gorgeous pianissimo.

Even better was his delivery of Steven Sondheim's "Talent", sung with warmth and humor-- in memory of James Marcus. We also enjoyed the sad "Lonely Town" with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Comden and Green. We've been following Mr. Hoffman's career for a few years and he just keeps getting better and better.

Another voice known to us from Juilliard is that of Amanda Lynn Bottoms.  She too was asked to stretch her artistry in new directions. Accompanied by the talented percussionist Josh Vonderheide on bongo drums, she sang a Cuban song from the 1930's--"Lamento esclavo" by Eliseo Grenet/Aurelio Riancho. The pathos of this song found a counterpart in her performance of the spirited and sexy "Palmira" by Moises Simóns. We always love Spanish songs and were delighted to hear different sides of her artistry.

Equally versatile in her performance was a young lady new to us. Mikaela Bennett is but a sophomore at Juilliard and already a poised and accomplished performer with a stunning voice and the ability to form a deep connection with the material. She was equally proficient with the jazzy style of Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer's "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" and their bluesy ballad "I Had Myself a True Love" from St. Louis Woman.

But we were most moved by Adam Guettel's "The Light in the Piazza" (from the show of the same name) in which she totally stepped into the role of the young woman dazzled by Italy and the romantic awakening she lacked words to describe.

No evening is complete without a duet and we just loved hearing Ms. Bennett and Ms. Bottoms singing the suggestive "Two Ladies in the Shade of the Banana Tree" from House of Flowers. It is hard to believe that a show by Harold Arlen and Truman Capote did not have a huge success.

There was another newcomer on the program, recently arrived from Down Under and making his New York debut; he is already on his way to becoming an audience favorite. Gerard Schneider sang "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues" by Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler.

His next song was a challenging one, having been written  originally for clarinet, by Ralph Burns and adapted for voice and piano by Woody Herman/Johnny Mercer.The 1949 "Early Autumn" is a wistful ballad and Mr. Blier's piano deftly added the image of falling leaves.

For the finale, Mr. Blier abandoned the piano and turned the entire performance over to Mr. Schneider who accompanied himself on the ukulele for "I'll See You in My Dreams" by Isham Jones/Gus Kahn. The audience loved it!

Another newcomer, Thomas West, introduced the program with the song we never tire of --"Sing for Your Supper" by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

The encore came as a total surprise, an arrangement by Mr. Blier of Smoky Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me", sung as a barbershop quartet by the ensemble. Oh, what fun!!!!

Not to worry if you missed this extraordinary evening.  There will be several more, as well as New York Festival of Song's regular season at Merkin Hall.  Stay tuned!

(c) meche kroop

Monday, October 12, 2015


Pedro d'Aquino, Jessica Gould, Noa Frenkel, James Waldo, and Diego Cantalupi
(photo credit--Stephen de las Heras)

A full house proved the magnificent Fabbri Library of the House of the Redeemer was the place to be on Sunday for Salon/Sanctuary Concert’s seventh season opener featuring music of baroque Italy. A reprise of last season’s compelling program of Jewish and Catholic cross-pollination through music, From Ghetto to Cappella was completely sold out. While we felt badly for the many concertgoers who were turned away for lack of space, we welcomed the chance to enjoy for the second time this eye-opening array of musical treasures and fascinating  concert, which showed more dialogue than segregation during one of the most oppressive periods in history. 

During the time of the Counter-Reformation, the world’s first ghetto was built in Venice, physically separating Jews from Christians and putting even further limits on their mobility in Christian society. The music from the time reveals more of an exchange than isolation, however, and in true Salon/Sanctuary fashion, the concert explored a theme overlooked by other presenters – in this case, the effect each religious musical culture had on the other.

Fans of Jessica Gould’s roving concert series have come to expect visual splendor with intellectual stimulation from Salon/Sanctuary events, and Sunday’s program served an ample helping of both in the exquisite 1608 Library. Ms. Gould, not only a fervent scholar but a fine soprano, participated in a performance replete with both passion and precision. Five musicians – Ms. Gould, contralto Noa Frenkel, James Waldo on viola da gamba, lutenist Diego Cantalupi and Pedro d’Aquino on organ and harpsichord – did exquisite justice to a delectible variety of baroque treasures sung in Latin, Italian, and Hebrew.

Israeli contralto Noa Frenkel opened the program with a haunting ancient Hebrew chant from Yemen, D’ror Yikra, which segued into Durante’s Vergin tutto Amor, known as a pedagogical piece, here passionately sung by Ms. Gould with striking ornamentation that recalled the phrygian modes heard just moments ago in the preceding selection. The rich timbre and full-bodied sound of both soprano and contralto was a welcome contrast to a the vocal androgyny that has become commonplace and even (mystifyingly) celebrated in some early music circles.

We love duets, and it was lovely to hear the two women’s rich voices blending effortlessly in O immaculata, a sacred piece from Benedetto Marcello’s large volumeL’Estro Poetico Armonico, which integrated the melodies of chants he heard in the synagogue into cantatas and duets with Italian texts.

The Jewish-Italian composer Salomone Rossi has figured prominently in Salon/Sanctuary programming, with four previous seasons including a concert dedicated solely to his work. Rossi got into trouble with members of his own community for integrating the polyphony of the church into Hebrew sacred music that he wrote for synagogue services, because polyphony was considered too sensuous a form for people who considered themselves to be in exile. The two Rossi songs on the concert, Cor mio, sung by Ms Gould, and Ohime che tanto amate, sung by Ms. Frenkel, were performed with tasteful ornamentation and stylistic flair, accompanied with panache by the winning continuo team of gambist James Waldo and lutenist Diego Cantalupi.

Mr. Cantalupi, a visiting guest artist from Italy, shined in two works by Girolamo Kapsberger, a Venetian composer of noble German birth who wrote extravagant works for lute. With his impressive instrument, the long-necked theorbo, Mr. Cantalupi’s turn as a soloist in a Kapsberger Sarabanda and Toccata was marked by technical finesse and stylistic aplomb.

The innovative and trailblazing female composer Barbara Strozzi received a level of recognition in her lifetime that was simply unheard of for women composers of the 17th century, and she received her due on Sunday in two selections, one sacred and one secular. Ranging from soprano heights to contralto depths, Ms. Gould performed a wildly inventive Salve Regina that was equal parts spiritual and earthly passion. Handling the byzantine melismatic passages and striking chromatic descents with ease, Ms. Gould’s dramatic commitment and vocal sheen kept the audience on the edge of their seats. Ms. Frenkel’s chocolate contralto showed an equally expansive range in the gorgeous cantata Lagrime Mie, in which cantorial hebraic chant-like fragments can be heard in the laments of an abandoned lover.

Two Handel selections capped off the program. In the chamber duet Langue, geme, the two dark-hued voices intertwined in langorous legato stretches and matched impressively in lines of virtuosic coloratura. Immediately after, a short but powerful dramtic duet from the oratorio Esther, sung here in Hebrew from the 1759 version commissioned by the Jewish community of Amsterdam brought the concert to an inspiring conclusion. The rollicking allegro from the Langue, gemeduet served as a playful encore.

While our tastes run to polyphony over chant, From Ghetto to Cappella is a beautifully performed, thought-provoking and musically splendid program that we hope to see reprised again on future seasons so that more people can hear it. Special thanks go out to NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò for their role as co-producers of the event.

(c) meche kroop


Susan Morton and Alexis Cregger

"Dramatic soprano" is the way Alexis Cregger describes her fach but the word "dramatic" also describes this artist's way of approaching a song, be it lied or aria. Not only is her instrument of good size but her dramatic skills are brought to bear on everything she sings. Her connection with the text is so deep that we experience the song along with her. We got the impression that she sees in her mind's eye and hears in her mind's ear what the poet or librettist is describing.

Last night at the National Opera Center, her marvelously varied program demonstrated her facility with French, German, Italian and Spanish; it also revealed her artistry in a number of styles. She was introduced by the delightful opera impressario/conductor/raconteur William Remmers for whose Opera Utopia she has performed in numerous Gilbert and Sullivan roles.

The program opened with Maurice Ravel's Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques. Ravel's music paints a picture of the Greece of his fantasies and we enjoyed Ms. Cregger's sharing those fantasies with us. We particularly enjoyed the romantic "Chanson de la mariée", the boastful fellow in "Quel galant m'est comparable" and the joyful "Tout gai!". In this cycle major and minor shift back and forth to fine effect.

Joaquín Rodrigo's cycle Cuatros Madrigales Amatorios also covers the emotional waterfront from the sad lament of a lonely woman in "Con que la lavare?" to the angry jealousy of "De donde venis amore?", an emotion discerned and revealed by Ms. Cregger that we had missed in prior performances by other singers.

If there is one composer for which Ms. Cregger's voice seems meant it is Richard Strauss. For unknown reasons, the marvelous Brentano Lieder are not performed as often as many of the others and we were thrilled to hear Ms. Cregger immerse herself in the first five of the six.  Strauss wrote these rather later than most of his song output, in 1918, after he had written many of his operas.

The poetry of Clemens Brentano is filled with passion for nature expressed with unusual harmonies, chromatic melodies, and lots of melismatic passages, all beautiful revealed by Ms. Cregger and her excellent piano partner Susan Morton. The only one with which we are truly familiar was "Amor", a charming tale of a shepherdess who feels pity for the suffering blind child and gets burned.

And now we come to the most exciting part of the program--the arias! We heard "Martern aller Arten" from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail in which Kostanze sings of her steadfast nature. It was a powerful performance to say the least.

But capping the program was "Regnava nel silenzio...Quando rapito in estasi" from Act I of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia is wandering in the woods with her companion and recounts a ghost story. Ms. Cregger's artistry hinted strongly at the emotional fragility and unbalanced nature of the eponymous Lucia. One could see disaster waiting in the wings. There was astonishing vocal fireworks in the cabaletta.

As if this were not sufficient, we heard an arresting delivery of the punishing aria "Der Hölle Rache" that was absolutely chilling. Ms. Cregger's voice is not only substantial but sufficiently flexible to blow us away with accurate fioritura.

A gentle encore was exactly what was needed lest we fall over in the street on the way out!  We got just exactly that--Ernesto Lecuona's "Escucha el Ruiseñor"Escuchar we did!

Ms. Cregger has a bright and beautiful instrument with plenty of strength to back it up. Everything she sings has dramatic validity. She is on her way to Germany to audition and we are sure she will take the Germans by storm.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Cast of Bonfire of the Vanities....(Photo credit- Lucas Syed)

Let us begin by saying that we had a helluva good time at Bonfire of the Vanities, a contemporary opera based on Tom Wolfe's 1987 page-turner about Wall Street dishonesty and greed, political opportunism and corruption, and the prevalent racism. Has anything changed in 3 decades? The fact that very little about the story needed to be changed seems to answer the question.

Readers may be astonished that we found so much to like in a contemporary opera sung in English. We don't even need all the fingers of one hand to enumerate the contemporary operas that we enjoyed.  Mostly, we are sitting there gritting our teeth and wishing to escape. So let's take a closer look at the grounds for success. 

First and foremost is Stefania De Kenessey's eclectic music. There is not a whiff of academia about it; it is clearly written to appeal to contemporary musical tastes of the public, not to critics; it is totally accessible and melodic.  One can't help recalling that the titans of the golden age of opera wrote for the PEOPLE and addressed contemporary concerns, whether they were obliged to disguise the theme or not.

The 18-piece chamber orchestra played well under the baton of the excellent Daniela Candillari who successfully captured the mood of the scene, whether serious or funny. There is nothing inherently funny about the themes of the opera but there is usefulness in humor. Art holds a mirror up to society and it is easier to accept what we see when we are able to laugh at ourselves.

So, leavened with some funny lines and absurd situations we are able to laugh at greedy hucksters designing bond issues in which people borrow from themselves (we can't claim to have understood the finance logic), mothers singing lullabies to their children on their iPad's while shopping for luxury goods, rich white folk fawning over and throwing money at black hucksters pleading the cause of philanthropy, furious landlords recording tenants who are abusing rent control, frustrated lawyers looking for guilty white folks to skewer, and alcoholic reporters ready to distort the truth to succeed in tabloid journalism.

Indeed, in the entire story, there is only one honorable character--the one who cannot be found in Mr. Wolfe's book--Tamara Kilmore, an Afro-American attorney who defends the hero Sherman McCoy because SHE BELIEVES HE IS INNOCENT. As sung by the terrific Adrienne Danrich, she is the one character who steps out of our preconceived notions and acts like a fully realized human being.

Randal Turner does an excellent job of portraying the (anti)hero and even evokes sympathy for a man who must lose everything to find his soul. Like so many wealthy people he is unable to really see those outside of his race and class. He has never developed empathy. He just wants to be Master of the Universe. How ironic that he lives on credit and has no money! People who work and save are, in his eyes, objects of contempt.

As his wife Judy, Ann-Carolyn Bird is believable. Will she or won't she stand by her douchebag of a cheating husband??

We particularly enjoyed the characterization of Arthur Ruskin. Benjamin Bloomfield did a superlative job and we were sorry that he was killed off in the first act. In the book he lasted longer, but that was just one of a few alterations of the plot made when the book was adapted as an opera.

As his floozy wife Maria who had sex with anyone and everyone who could serve her interest, we heard Ying Jie Zhou, who was pretty and sexy but whose voice was a bit on the weak side and whose acting was riddled with cliché. The role might have been better cast.

As the cynical Assistant District Attorney who wants to advance his career by nailing a guilty white male, Glenn Seven Allen turned in a superlative performance. We loved his duet with Ms. Danrich. Another excellent characterization was that of Kyle Van Schoonhoven as the alcoholic tabloid journalist Peter Fallow. 

As the hospitalized youth Henry Lamb (sacrificial lamb?) whose injury sparked the racial conflagration, Aaron J. Casey gave a fine performance.  We liked him best in his soliloquy which became a moving ensemble piece.

Kevin Maynor's Reverend Bacon, a characterization that was probably meant to represent Al Sharpton., had no problem bilking the Rich White Folk or the two pastors (Matthew Tuell and Brett Mutter) who gave him money to establish a day care center for Poor Black Kids. He was masterful at pushing the racial guilt buttons. 

Matthew Tuell reappeared heavily disguised as the landlord Kovitzky who garnered a lot of laughs.

What about the libretto? Michael Bergmann, who also directed, wrote short punchy lines that did well in terms of colloquiality and in terms of working with the music. We have observed that ponderous texts in the English language yield incomprehensible music but in this case the short rhyming lines, bordering on doggerel (NOT meant as criticism!) worked extraordinarily well.

Video projections by Doug Underdahl succeeded in creating a New York City atmosphere. Costumes by Christina Hribar were perfect for Reverend Bacon and for the ghetto kids. For the "social X-rays" at the cocktail party and the Wall Street hustlers, they seemed only approximate. Hair and makeup by Ron Wolek were particularly effective for Mr. Bloomfield and Mr.Tuell.

Having updated the work by 30 years, iPads and cell phones could be introduced without detriment and nothing was lost. 

The 3 1/2 hours (including two intermissions) flew by without a single longueur. This is what contemporary opera should be--and that's entertainment! It doesn't matter whether you call it opera or American musical theater. The voices were almost all good and they were unamplified.  And that's more than enough for our satisfaction.

Finally, let us add that the theater at El Museo del Barrio is the perfect size for this type of work, and that the acoustics were fine. In addition to clearly enunciated English (much easier because of the way the language was employed) the excellent titles were useful in case one missed a word here and there.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, October 9, 2015


Craig Ketter, Rebecca Wilson, Pamela Lloyd, Olga Bakali, and Ryan Kinsella

Opera Dolce has been delighting New York audiences for six years.  In the past few years they have been bringing the works of Antonio Carlos Gomes before the public. It is unfortunate that the works of this 19th c. Brazilian master have been overlooked. He was the first New World composer to be accepted in Europe; indeed his operas thrived in opera-hungry 19th c. Italy. It would be fair to say that his pot-boiler plots were no worse than those of the Italians.

Several of his operas dealt with themes of the Portuguese aristocrats rubbing up against the indigenous people of Brazil. This must have seemed exotic to the Europeans who lauded his work. We are unaware of his operas being presented in the United States in the present time, but it would be a pity to overlook his writing. Presenting his arias as "stand alones" is the approach taken by Opera Dolce and we are thrilled to hear his marvelously melodic arias and duets.

Last night's recital, Oceans Apart: Wagner and Gomes United in Music, presented his music alongside that of another titan of the 19th c., Richard Wagner, the great German Romantic whose lush orchestrations and new harmonies astonished the opera world. Gomes wrote in the Italian style but managed to incorporate influences from the senior Wagner.

New to us, but not new to the world of opera, was dramatic baritone Ryan Kinsella who made a superb long-suffering Dutchman in the duet "Wie aus der Ferne" from Richard Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer. Mr. Kinsella's substantial voice was finely balanced by the brightly resonant voice of soprano Pamela Lloyd who portrayed Senta. There appeared to be no chemistry between the two characters at first but by the end of the aria, the Dutchman responded to Senta's earnestness.

Mr. Kinsella is masterful in using his full-throated voice to convey emotion while being spare in his gestures, making them all the more effective when he employs them. He barely moved his body in "O du mein holder Abendstern", Wolfram von Eschenbach's aria from Wagner's Tannhäuser but shaped his phrases with great beauty and dynamic precision. 

He was far more theatrical in his other duet with Ms. Lloyd--"Fra questi fior che adori" from Gomes' Lo Schiavo in which the two singers got quite worked up. Gomes' minor key melody was gorgeous.   

Ms. Lloyd, with her brilliant upper register demonstrated a great deal of strength in the lower register as she sang "Quale orribile peccato" from Gomes' Fosca, the tale of a really really bad woman who ends the opera by taking the poison she intended for her rival.

Soprano Olga Bakali was also new to us and impressed us with her powerful voice in "O ciel di  Parahiba" from Gomes' Lo Schiavo. There is plenty of strength at the bottom and some beautifully drawn out pianissimi. She showed equal facility with Wagner, giving her all to "Elsa's Dream" from Wagner's Lohengrin. It was a nicely modulated performance, notable for her emotional connection.  She was equally fine in the rapturous "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

There was a third fine soprano on the program, also new to us and recently arrived from Chicago. Rebecca Wilson met "Dich teure Halle" head on, filling the exultant aria from Wagner's Tannhäuser with a huge sound. We hope our first hearing of this sizable voice will not be our last.

Accompanist for the evening was Craig Ketter who has a fine light touch at the piano and always seems supportive of the singers.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


August Ventura

Giovanni Reggioli and Victoria Cannizzo

Last night was well spent, enjoying all kinds of stimulation--intellectual, musical, and gastronomic.  The occasion was the Thirteenth Annual Savoy History Lecture, delivered by writer-filmmaker and Verdi scholar August Ventura. It was entitled "Exploring Giuseppe Verdi's Enduring Legacy: Italy's Risorgimento, Unification under the House of Savoy, and Beyond."

A wealth of fascinating details were covered, illustrated by means of film excerpts curated by Mr. Ventura and accompanied by some superlative singing by soprano Victoria Cannizzo. Ms. Cannizzo has a warm and generous sound, a gracious stage presence and fine technique. She produced a lovely legato line with plenty of resonance.

Aida, as we learned from Mr. Ventura, was commissioned for the opening of the new opera house in Cairo, but also had a veiled message for Verdi's homeland, as did many of his operas. Ms. Cannizzo  sang "O, patria mia", the heroine's song of despair over never seeing her homeland again. The final note was beautifully floated.

Ms. Cannizzo also sang "Mercè, dilette amiche" from I Vespri Siciliani, an altogether lighter aria in bolero rhythm which showed off the artist's skill with fioritura and a light-hearted style. Accompanying her on the piano was Giovanni Reggioli.

There were some highly valuable take-home points made by Mr. Ventura regarding Verdi's role in the unification of Italy. Today's opera audiences in the United States do not seem to be terribly interested in contemporary political issues, presumably because we have a high degree of freedom.  But the 19th c. Italian people lived under highly resented Austrian domination in a plethora of nation-states, scarcely aware of their common culture and language.

Verdi worked mightily with his librettists to get what he wanted--stories that would galvanize the Italian people to unify and to throw off the yoke of their colonizers. How skillful he was in slipping his messages past the Austrian censors!

Today it is easy to recognize that the chorus of the Hebrew slaves wanting freedom from their Babylonian oppressors stands in for all oppressed people. "Va pensiero" from Nabucco, one of Verdi's earliest successes, could be considered the anthem of the Risorgimento.

Similar evidence can be found in other operas such as Macbeth into which Verdi inserted a chorus of politically oppressed folk, a scene outside of Shakespeare's play.  Likewise, we can see the same theme in Attila.

Another very interesting point was made by Mr. Ventura.  In our culture, information and attitudes are disseminated electronically. The entire world was clued into the Arab Spring almost instantaneously. In 19th c. Italy this "viral spread" took place through music. People heard music in the opera house, then sang it at home and in the streets. Opera was a most effective tool for popularizing ideas inasmuch as the Austrians were in control of the press.

Verdi's humanitarian ideals have particular resonance in our own time with people all over the world chafing under the yoke of terrorism and fleeing their homelands. The human cost of war and fighting for freedom as expressed in his operas are no stranger to our own time with military men returning home damaged and troubled. Verdi indeed speaks to us today as loudly as he did to his contemporaries. If only we would listen!

This brief report can scarcely do justice to Mr. Ventura's ambitious and comprehensive lecture. We would also like to mention that the Dynastic Orders of the Royal House of Savoy are among the oldest orders of chivalry in the world, dating back a millennium. The American Foundation of Savoy Orders sustains the humanitarian goals of the House of Savoy.

(c) meche kroop