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.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Sandra Hamaoui and Nenad Ciča in the Balcony Scene (photo by meche)  

The lavish sets and costumes of The Metropolitan Opera were not to be seen last night; Gounod's luscious orchestrations were not to be heard. What we got instead was a 90 minute adaptation of Roméo et Juliette that was astonishing in its intimacy, immediacy, and Gallic flavor. Truncated as it was, it managed to capture the essence of Shakespeare's tragic tale by virtue of astute casting and committed performances.

In cooperation with The New School Mannes, The International Vocal Arts Institute is winding down their annual New York City training program, which has attracted 80 young artists from 16 countries, all on the brink of major careers,  Over the past three decades, Artistic Director Joan Dornemann and Music Director Paul Nadler have been passing the torch and launching international careers with institutes held all over the world. The three-week long NYC Institute is presently winding down after several master classes and performances, all open to the public.

The libretto of Gounod's 1867 masterpiece, adapted by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré from Shakespeare's tragedy, wisely focuses on the plight of the "star-cross'd lovers" with several themes from Shakespeare's play eliminated.  Last night's performance trimmed things down still further, eliminating the page Stefano, the favored suitor Paris, and the choruses (although the cast assembled onstage and sang the opening chorus-- and sang it as beautifully as we have ever heard it). The fight scene was replaced by a dramatically affecting narration by the lovely Dietlinde Turban Maazel, holding a bloodied cloth in her hand.

This abridgement brought the titular pair into bold relief and allowed one to concentrate on the gorgeous arias and duets.  Gounod lavished all his melodic gifts on this score and gave us memorable tunes that rest in the memory for a long while.

As Juliette, Sandra Hamaoui's clear-voiced instrument was employed with great artistry and adept vocal coloration. Her prodigious acting skills gave us a totally believable teenager, motivated by youthful hormones, abetted by adolescent recklessness. Her flawless French made every word understood, a great advantage in the absence of titles.

As her Romeo, Serbian tenor Nenad Ciča was youthfully ardent and impulsive and fulfilled his role in a similarly convincing fashion. We would like to hear a bit more "center" in his voice but that will come. His voice balanced well with that of Ms. Hamaoui and the harmonization was gorgeous.

Another voice that impressed us was that of baritone Lawson Anderson whose rich full voice was perfect for the role of Count Capulet, Juliette's father. In spite of his youth, he sang with authority and evinced a strong stage presence.

Baritone Evan Henke did a fine job as Roméo's friend Mercutio, with his "Queen Mab" aria--another singer we would like to hear more of.

Mezzo-soprano Michelle Siemens had a lovely sound and connected well with her role as Gertrude, Juliette's nurse, proving that there is no such thing as a "small role".

This was also the case with tenor Pavel Suliandziga who sang the part of Tybalt and sang it with such unique timbre that we were disappointed when he was killed off so early!

As Frère Laurent, bass Christopher Nazarian acted the part well but sang with a somewhat grainy tone.

Conductor Paul Nadler has beautifully expressive hands and we could imagine an entire orchestra responding; only pianist Dura Jun was there but her playing left nothing to be desired. The portentously grim music of the final scene with its arpeggiated diminished chords were effectively brought out. The recapitulation of the music from the bedroom scene added to the tragedy.

Direction by Omer Ben Seadia was as creative as it could be in a black box theater with nothing onstage but a stepladder and a few chairs. The Venetian masks used for the opening scene (the Capulet's ball) were a wonderful touch. Seeing Juliet hugging the pillow after Roméo departs the nuptial bed was a touch any woman in the audience would immediately understand.

No one was credited with the lighting but we found it absolutely instrumental in creating atmosphere, particularly in the absence of sets. For example, the lighting became somber when Juliet learns that the boy she fell for is from the family of her father's enemy.

If you were so unfortunate as to have missed this wonderful performance, you will have an opportunity to hear Puccini's La Bohème tonight, which promises to be as wonderful. And on Thursday night there will be a rare performance of Leoncavallo's version of the same story, a performance which we are already regretting missing. Hopefully, readers, you will not have a prior commitment and can attend. As for us, we wish we could clone ourselves.  So much culture, so little time!

(c) meche kroop

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