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.

Friday, February 26, 2016


Michael Sherman, Raquel González, and Michael Brandenburg

As part of Opera America's Emerging Artist Recital Series, The Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists Program presented three of their young artists who are moving on to starring roles in this summer's festival.  Raquel González will portray Mimi and Michael Brandenburg will play her Rodolfo. We would have enjoyed a duet from Puccini's La Bohéme and sat in our seats when the program ended waiting for an encore that never happened.

Please don't think that we were left unsatisfied!  On the contrary, it was a most fulfilling recital and we enjoyed hearing two substantial voices. Regular readers will recall how excited we get when we have witnessed a young artist's growth within the conservatory environment, particularly when they rise to greater heights after graduation.

Such was the case with this radiant soprano. Her lovely instrument has broadened and deepened without losing a drop of lustre or brilliance. She chose her own material and chose wisely.  One can usually tell when a singer loves the song. The trio of songs by Joaquín Turino are rarely heard and they are marvelous.

"Olas gigantes" gave collaborative pianist Michael Sherman an opportunity to create a storm in the piano and Ms. González conveyed the poet's desperation. Perhaps we are prejudiced but it seems to us that Juilliard graduates are exceptionally well trained in the art of textual interpretation and drama. Their gestures are always apt and motivated by the text.

"Tu pupila es azul" is a gentle song and Mr. Sherman's piano created gentle waves that matched the delicate coloring of the singer. We loved the typically Spanish turns in the vocal line. In "Besa el aura" we were dazzled by her control of the melismatic passages.

She also showed her skill with Russian, having chosen two delightful songs by Rimsky-Korsakov. In "The Nymph" the text speaks of a mystical being who does NOT kill the admiring sailor.  What a relief!  Not at all like the German "Lorelei".  Perhaps our favorite song of the evening was "Dream on a Summer's Night", a maiden's sexual awakening tenderly and passionately sung with beautiful arpeggios in the piano.

Tenor Michael Brandenburg, like Ms. González, has won many honors and prizes and has an instrument of considerable size. He sang three songs by Rachmaninoff, all repertory standards, with a great deal of muscle. "Spring Waters" seemed particularly apt after the torrential rains New York recently experienced! Our favorite is always "Oh, never sing to me again" which fills us with the pain of longing.

But we enjoyed his singing more in a set of songs by Joseph Marx, a composer we always enjoy.  We wonder why more singers do not choose his works for their recitals. Mr. Brandenburg's German is quite good and we particularly enjoyed "Selige Nacht" which gave the piano some interesting and gorgeous runs.

Both singers exhibited fine English diction and confirmed our opinion that Broadway music is far better in a recital than academic songs in English that tax our preference for beauty. Ms. González was lovely in Jerome Kern's "The Song is You" from the 1932 Music is in the Air, while Mr. Brandenburg was compelling in "Beloved" from Sigmund Romberg's The Student Prince.

We also got to hear the two singers in duets--"Suzel, bon di" from Mascagni's lesser known opera L'amico Fritz, which we would dearly love to see produced in its entirety.

A final duet "And this is my beloved", from the 1953 musical Kismet, was adapted from music by Alexander Borodin by Robert Wright and George Forrest. It was glorious and a fine way to end the recital.

The two voices blended beautifully in harmony and we predict that their Bohème this summer in Cooperstown will be a most worthwhile one.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, February 25, 2016


Amanda Treiber and Steven Melendez (Photo by Yi Chun-Wu)

We are suckers for beauty whether it be aural or visual.  We always go for the "up close and personal" approach, as opposed to sitting in a huge theater far away from the action. Intimacy is what appeals to us.  And so it was that we found many delights in last night's performance by the estimable and long-enduring New York Theatre Ballet, founded by Artistic Director Diana Byer. They performed for the second year at New York Live Arts, a marvelous performing space in Chelsea. Seating is comfortable and sightlines are unobstructed. All the music was live!

The first half of the program thrilled us.  The curtain raiser Chemical Bond, choreographed by Milissa Payne Bradley of San Francisco, was set to music by Gabriel Fauré (Sérénade op. 98, Après un Rêve) performed beautifully by Michael Scales on piano and Amy Kang on cello. Ballerinas Amanda Treiber and Mayu Oguri were partnered by Joshua Andino-Nieto.

It is amazing how the limited vocabulary of positions and steps of classical ballet can be combined in countless ways. There was nothing radical in Ms. Bradley's choreography but it struck us as beautiful and satisfying. That we didn't want the piece to end testifies to its worth.

Ms. Treiber and Ms. Oguri projected an air of delicate femininity while Mr. Andino-Nieto danced and partnered with sureness and strength. Costume design by Sylvia Taalson Nolan was superb. The women's costumes were pale and short, the better to allow full appreciation of their extensions. Floaty patches fluttered as they moved and delighted the eye. Pointe work was lovely.

The second work, Such Longing was choreographed by Richard Alston and restaged by Martin Lawrence. One could not choose a better composer for ballet than Frédéric Chopin and Mr. Scales played the Mazurkas, Etudes and lone Nocturne  with style and variety. The choreography reflected so much about Chopin's nationalistic pride, touched by modesty and sorrowful moments.

The four dancers--Steven Melendez, Amanda Treiber, Michael Wells, and Elena Zahlmann--danced in various combinations, portraying Chopin's many moods just as Mr. Scales colored his piano playing. The lifts were particularly lovely. The costumes were in somber hue and the women's dresses longer than we would have wished. We like legs!

Jerome Robbins' Antique Epigraphs, as staged by Kyra Nichols, was set to two lovely Debussy pieces: Mira Magrill's flute gave voice to Syrinx at the beginning and the end while Michael Scales and Zheng Ma performed the four-handed Six Epigraphes Antiques.  Now how lovely was that!

The piece has achieved legendary status but appeared rather dated with Florence Klotz' floor-length costumes a bit shopworn and ill-fitting but in lovely muted hues. We could not keep from thinking about "Ode to a Grecian Urn", and there was one group scene that made us think of Ravels "Song of the Mastic Gatherers" from his Five Popular Greek Melodies.

The second half of the program left us in the dust. We have been avoiding modern dance for some time now because of the herky-jerky movements that we find just plain ugly. We don't like to see dancers in street clothes rolling around on the floor or running around the stage making meaningless gestures.  We are reminded of exercise classes at health clubs.

To see classically trained dancers in such a work displeases us.  We cannot say that Song Before Spring is bad, only that it is not at all our taste.  Zhong-Jing Fang and Steven Melendez choreographed the work which was set to music by Philip Glass and performed by NY STEEL-- a dozen enthusiastic percussionists playing steel drums, led by Josh Quillen. 

We did not grasp what the choreography was aiming for nor did we understand the interactions between the cast members. Occasionally there was a tender gesture but for the most part we saw a lot of meaningless gestures.

We prefer to forget all about it and joyfully remember the beauty of the first half of the program.  We are just so happy that chamber ballet exists at all!

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


Will Kelley

It is incredibly rewarding to witness artistic growth and especially so when an artist you have been enjoying for some time is achieving a master's degree. We arrived at Juilliard last night rain-soaked and wind-blown but by the end of the recital our frown had turned upside down, a phenomenon that will be familiar to music lovers.

Mr. Kelley is an outstanding collaborative pianist, as we already knew.  But last night was an opportunity to hear him work with several different singers and a cellist heretofore unknown to us. He subtly adjusted his prodigious technique to suit each and every circumstance.

First on the program, he was joined by countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski and tenor Matthew Swensen for Benjamin Britten's Canticle II: "Abraham and Isaac" which we saw performed last year at Chelsea Opera. (Review archived). We are never fond of bible stories but this is one of the most immoral and despicable of all. In our opinion, true morality is doing what is right regardless of what one is told, whereas doing what you are told regardless of what is right is nothing more than obedience.

Personal distaste for the subject matter aside, the three artists performed magnificently with Mr. Swensen as the misguidedly obedient father and Mr. Orlinski portraying the heartbreakingly obedient and trusting child. Even with scores in hand they acted with body as well as voice; Mr. Kelley modulated his playing to fit every mood change. The harmonies of the final duet were strikingly accomplished.

The next work on the program was Francis Poulenc's Sonata for Cello and Piano. Mr. Kelley pointed out that both the Britten and the Poulenc were written contemporaneously in the post WWII period. This was an excellent opportunity to hear Mr. Kelley partner with another instrumentalist, a new experience for us. 

Julian Schwarz' playing was just as fine as Mr. Kelley's; the two seemed to have a superb partnership and both navigated the many moods evinced within the four movements. The first was light-hearted; the second was lyrically somber and marked by gorgeous glissandi and a peaceful conclusion; the third was downright frisky by way of staccati given a Gallic shrug; and the fourth exhibited tension, ponderousness, then a music hall type franticness. Whew!

The second half of the program brought us to more familiar territory. By this time we had decided that Mr. Kelley chose his partners well and mezzo-soprano Caitlin Redding was just the right singer for a quartet of early songs by Arnold Schoenberg and three selections from Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire set by Debussy.  

Among the Schoenberg songs we loved the evocative "Erwartung" and the sensual "Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm". It has taken many hearings for us to appreciate Schoenberg but the artistry of Ms. Redding and Mr. Kelley brought us farther along the path.

Among the Debussy selections, our favorite was "Le jet d'eau" in which Mr. Kelley's piano limned all the rippling and splashing of the fountain.  Indeed we decided that Debussy did for fountains what Beethoven did for moonlight.

The final part of the program comprised four selections from Sergei Rachmaninoff's Six Romances, Op. 38 for which soprano Christine Price was an excellent choice.

The more we listen the greater is our admiration for the art of Collaborative Piano. It is not enough to be an excellent pianist; there is so much involved in matching the other artist's tempi, coloring, and dynamics.  We'd say that Mr. Kelley has mastered the art!

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Carmen

Once again The Metropolitan Room played host to Opera New York, which has been creating quite a sensation with their presentation of opera in a cabaret environment, one of the many avenues available to bring opera to a wider audience.

The brainchild of Artistic Director Judith Fredricks (who also directs the scenes), these evenings draw a wider audience every time they perform.  Last night's event "Where Opera and Cabaret Collide!" was part of The First International Cabaret Festival. That the audience was having a whale of a good time was made evident by the thunderous applause, whoops and hollers which followed each number, as well as by the rapt silence during the performances. Did we mention that it was "standing room only"?

The evening was made extra special by the presence of world renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, fresh from her triumphs at Houston Grand Opera. Ms. Graham always uses her gifts well and amplifies them with her larger-than-life personality. Last night we heard the Habanera from Bizet's Carmen as we have never heard it before. Without sets or costumes Ms. Graham created the personality of this dangerous Spanish temptress from the center outward. When she sang the word "l'amour" she seemed to be not only tasting the vowel but savoring it.

The remainder of the program, emceed by Jason Graae, hewed closely to the prior programs with a stunning addition.  Soprano Veronica Loiacono performed "De España Venga" from Pablo Luna's zarzuela, El Niño Judio.  Readers may recall how beloved zarzuela is to us and to say we were thrilled would be an understatement.

Perhaps because it was a festival, perhaps due to the artists getting more comfortable with the cabaret setting, or perhaps because of the presence of Ms. Graham, everyone's performances seemed to be even sharper than ever before.

Tenor Edgar Jaramillo's "Federico's Lament" from Cilea's L'Arlesianna was even more heart-wrenching than before (with oboe accompaniment from Mr, Graae), as was tenor Percy Martinez' "Vesti la giubba" from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. We felt feelings we had never felt before during prior hearings.

Soprano Elena Heimur was even more extravagant in "Musetta's Waltz" from Puccini's La Bohème and mezzo-soprano Jodi Karem was even more seductive as Maddalena in the quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto.

Baritone Roberto Borgatti swaggered magnificently and wandered the aisles of The Metropolitan Room impressing the ladies as he leaned into the "Toreador Song" from Carmen, with just the right amount of bullfighter arrogance.

Music Director Michael Pilafian handled the piano accompaniment to perfection.

It was a splendid evening and no one wanted it to end to make room for the late show. We are sure they will return for more on March 9th. There seems to be a growing demand for opera up close and personal, especially when performed so well.

(c) meche kroop


Nora London surrounded by a bunch of winners!

The George London Foundation has been generously awarding grants to young singers for 45 years now. Nora London has done a fantastic job of honoring the memory of her late husband.  Last Friday afternoon six eminent judges awarded $73,000. to the 23 finalists, culled from a field of 85 applicants.

The overall quality of the performances exceeded our expectations from prior years. We generally put a star on the program next to the name of the singers we like the best.  By the time we starred the first four singers we realized there was no point trying to second guess the judges. We are glad we were not called upon to put one performance above another.  For those readers for whom the amounts of the awards are of interest, we refer you to the press release...


For our part, we prefer to share with readers our own impressions without regard to the level of the award. Our bias is toward singers who relate to the text and can communicate that to the audience. Having spoken to some of the singers we believe that the singer does best if he/she loves the song.  Each singer submits a list and then is told what the judges wish to hear.

So...here goes! Soprano Jacqueline Piccolino wowed us from the first second with her thrilling sound, a garlic-scented dramatic coloratura, an unusual fach to be sure.  She performed "Bel raggio lusinghier" from Rossini's Semiramide with marvelous flexibility in the cabaletta and a true diva's command of the stage.

This year there was no shortage of big voices. One can always count on soprano Marina Costa-Jackson for a fine performance and she showed her stuff with the heart-breaking "Morrò, ma prima in grazia" from Verdi's Un ballo in maschera.

Antonina Chehovska used her wonderful soprano for the challenging "Letter Scene" from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. She mined every phrase for dramatic meaning and conveyed all the passionate intensity of a young woman in the throes of first love.

Lighter sopranos were also in evidence and we loved Claudia Rosenthal's "Non monsieur mon mari" from Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tiresias. It was an unusual choice but it gave full access to her vibrant personality and acting skills.

Another lovely performance in French was that of mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall who filled "Oh! La pitoyable aventure!" from Ravel's L'heure espagnole with plenty of humor.

Soprano Kirstin MacKinnon excelled in the "Jewel Song" from Gounod's Faust and used her bright instrument effectively, bringing the aria to a stunning climax. 

Mezzo-soprano Shabnam Kalbasi performed "Nacqui all'affano...Non più mesta" from Rossini's La Cenerentola with a lot of charm and evenness throughout the wide-ranging skips and jumps.

Considering the male singers, baritone Steven LaBrie performed "Pierrot's Tanzlied" from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt with a great deal of feeling and artistry to swoon over.

Bass Colin Ramsey was simply wonderful in "The Catalog Aria" from Mozart's Don Giovanni. We haven't heard him sing since his undergraduate days at Manhattan School of Music and were thrilled to hear how his voice has developed.

Speaking of developing voices, we detected something new and exciting in the baritone of John Viscardi who filled the room with glorious sound in "Avant de quitter ces lieux" from Gounod's Faust. He sang with an enviable legato and wisely modulated the dynamic intensity in accordance with the text.

Baritone Sean Michael Plumb used his rich voice and dramatic skills in "O Carlo ascolta...Io morro" from Verdi's Don Carlo.  It was most convincing.

Baritone David Pershall sang "Starbuck's Aria" from Heggie's Moby Dick with power and eloquence, sensitive to the character's moral dilemma.

Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel sang "Blick'ich umher" from Wagner's Tannhäuser and pleased us with his breadth of tone.  The dynamic variety was well achieved and there was some lovely delicacy in the pp passages.

Baritone Jared Bybee sang "Vision Fugitive" from Massenet's Herodiade with lovely alternation between intensity and delicacy.

Craig Rutenberg was the accompanist for the singers and one could not have wished for better. We particularly enjoyed his playing of Wagner and Tchaikovsky.

We have heard the future of opera and we are not worried.  Au contraire, there are plenty of superlative artists.  All we need are the companies to employ them!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, February 20, 2016


Jake Alan Nelson, Dror Baitel, Michal Biel, Katelan Terrell, Sora Jung, Adam Rothenberg, Sophia Kaminski, Kara Sainz, and Liv Redpath

The beautiful program of Wolf songs at Thursday's Liederabend at Juilliard required no lengthy academic introduction. Some folks get a lot out of context, but we prefer to let the music speak for itself. Hugo Wolf's songs are somewhat less accessible than those composed by Schubert but become more interesting with every hearing

The songs on the program were all settings of poetry by Eduard Mörike.  The five singers who performed them were topnotch, as were the five collaborative pianists. We were very impressed by baritone Jake Alan Nelson who is a natural born storyteller. There is a lot of breadth and resonance in his instrument but it is the personality and connection with the audience that got our attention.

In the opening lied, "Fussreise",  he took us for a walk in the countryside with a lot of enthusiasm.  In the quiet "Um Mitternacht" he colored his voice completely differently. He invested "Zur Warnung" with a full measure of bibulous humor. But his performance of "Der Feuerreiter" held us spellbound with its macabre horror. His Collaborative Pianist Dror Baitel followed each mood and color to perfection.

Tenor Seiyoung Kim (who missed the photo op) has a sweet instrument; his voice fell softly on the ear. He exhibited a lot of warmth in "Jägerlied" and "Heimweh" but we liked him best in the charmingly frisky "Der Gärtner".  Sora Jung was his fine CP.

Soprano Sophia Kaminski employs excellent phrasing and we enjoyed her best in "Der Knabe und das Immlein". We attribute this to the fact that she translated the song herself. There was no mistaking the enhanced connection with that particular text. Her excellent CP was Michal Biel.

Soprano Liv Redpath made a fine showing with the excited "Er ist's" but was even finer in "Das verlassene Mägdlein", a mini drama that always breaks our heart. She caught all the humor and double entendre of "Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens". In "An eine Äolsharfe", collaborative pianist Adam Rothenberg magically recreated the sound of a lute on his piano.

Mezzo-soprano Kara Sainz has a distinctive sound that she can open up like a capacious golf umbrella. We loved "An die Geliebte" and in "Nimmersatte Liebe" she sang as if she herself had written the text.  Katelan Terrell was her excellent CP.

As usual, we walked out on air, overjoyed to have heard such fine music-making. The evening was coached by Cameron Stowe.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, February 18, 2016


Jacob Thoman, Alexander McKissick, Sean Lammer, Samantha Hankey, Jakub Józef Orliński (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)

The playing area was filled with nymphs and satyrs, gods and goddesses--strange figures to be sure; and yet their concerns are our concerns today.  The social media generation did not invent unfulfilled romantic longing, sexual dalliances overcoming chaste intentions, rejection, cross-dressing, lesbian love, romantic deception, nor vengeful wives. There was something particularly thrilling about seeing ourselves onstage in a work dating back nearly four centuries.  Not just thrilling but moving as well. Love and sex will always be with us until the robots take over!

A particularly fine cast at Juilliard brought Francesco Cavalli's 1651 opera to vivid life.  It is difficult to believe that this marvelous work lay dormant until 1970.  How fortunate we are that it was discovered and revived.  It lets us in on what the mid 17th c. Venetians expected from a rather new popular art form. Cavalli was there at the birth of opera.

Impresario/librettist Giovanni Faustini had created many operas with Cavalli; this one was their penultimate production. The story was derived from Ovid's Metamorphosis and recounts the story of Jove pretending to be the goddess Diana in order to seduce the beautiful chaste Calisto. The tale is padded out with the love story between the real Diana and the shepherd Endimione. In every case, chastity falls under the weight of sexual desire. 

Let us describe a few of the vocal and dramatic treasures in the production, which was directed and choreographed by the wildly talented polymath Zack Winokur. The wily Mercurio (fine tenor Michael St. Peter) convinces Giove (authoritative baritone Xiaomeng Zhang) that persuasion is no match for deception when trying to seduce a woman. Their duet was musically gorgeous and also quite humorous. 

In the title role, the beautiful soprano Angela Vallone impressed with the grace of her movement and the beautiful tonal quality of her voice as she sang about wanting to lead a chaste life, devoted to the goddess Diana. In a clever bit of stage business, Giove transforms himself into Diana and the exceptional mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey completely convinced us by means of vocal coloring and masculinized body movement. The two women had a tender duet before entering a cave to exchange chaste kisses (which led to much more).

When the real Diana appears her voice and gestures are very different and there is no doubt that she is the real thing. When Calisto refers to their makeout session, Diana is outraged by the inference and tosses Calisto out of the virginal sisterhood. 

Diana, on her part, is secretly in love with the shepherd Endimione who expresses his longing for her in the most exquisite aria. Countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński was the perfect choice for this role, appearing innocent and singing with the sweetest sound.

Comic relief was provided by three nymphs of the sisterhood--all portrayed by men in a delightful gender bending bit of casting. Two of the nymphs (Sean Lammer and Jacob Thoman) were borrowed from Juilliard Dance, as was Nicholas Jurica and Evan Rapaport who, with Mr. Lammer, comprised the three Furies from hell. But oh, that third nymph! We always knew that tenor Alexander McKissick had comedic talents, but here he rose to new heights as Linfea, one of the sisterhood who would very much like to give up her virginity.

In spite of her desperation, there is no way Linfea is going to settle for the importuning of Satirino (the fine mezzo-soprano Caitlin Redding, sporting goat horns and hooves).  He is a member of the clutch of satyrs, of which the leader is the god Pane, marvelously portrayed by tenor Matthew Swensen. As Silvano, one of the satyrs, bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum turned in a fine and physical performance. One of the funniest scenes was the one in which the nymphs win a battle with the satyrs.

Act II brought on new delights as Giunone, the jealous wife of Giove, appears with her furies bearing her aloft under her huge golden skirt, in a stunning bit of stage business. Soprano Julia Wolcott gave her all to the revenge aria in which she instructs women not to put up with philandering husbands but rather to take revenge.  Her particular revenge is to transform Calisto into a bear.

The singing was so fine all around that we could not have imagined better casting. Surely it helped that Cavalli wrote such singable music. As far as the orchestra goes, it was a small chamber orchestra, such as it was in its own time. Juilliard415 is the school's principal period-instrument ensemble and they did full justice to Cavalli's writing, conducted by the renowned Stephen Stubbs. There were theorbos and lutes, guitars and violins, cello, bass, harpsichord and some percussion used for dramatic effect. The bass stood out, playing with force and providing emphasis.

The costumes by Austin Scarlett were stunning. The nymphs wore soft graceful gowns; the satyrs really did appear goatlike; Giove was regal, Giunone was imposing in her golden gown, and Mercurio had appropriate wings on his head and feet.

Scenic design by Charlap Hyman & Herrero comprised backdrops painted like woodlands with a few screens for characters to hide behind when spying on one another. Misha Kahn's golden chandelier and sconces looked just right. Marcus Doshi's lighting design was effective.

The overall result was an evening that was not only entertaining but thought-provoking. We wondered why human nature has not evolved in four centuries! We can only imagine what this opera looked like in Venice in 1650 but we can be fairly certain that the librettist put onstage dilemmas that were familiar to his audience.

Our feeling of connection with the 17th c. left us feeling very joyful;  a time and place that, while very distant, was made to seem so familiar.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, February 15, 2016


Kristina Bachrach, Miori Sugiyama, Michael Brofman, Dominic Armstrong, and Jorell Williams

Neither frigid air nor subway delays shall keep us from our appointed rounds!  Today took us deep into Brooklyn for one of Brooklyn Art Song Society's excellent themed recitals--this one in partnership with the Classical Theater of Harlem, part of BASS' season-long exploration of Britannica.  It was held in the comfortable theater of the Brooklyn Public Library and was very worthwhile.

We enjoyed the music interspersed with readings from Shakespeare by three members of the Classical Theater of Harlem: Dylan Moore, Lelund Thompson, and Shyko Zwambila; we confess that we could not grasp the connections between the recited selections and the songs but that may be attributed to our deficiency in Shakespearean text. Only a few of the readings were familiar to us and we particularly enjoyed the lines from Richard III (who would NOT be familiar with Richard's opening speech!) and the lines from Twelfth Night.

The songs were well chosen to highlight the artistry of soprano Kristina Bachrach, tenor Dominic Armstrong, and baritone Jorell Williams. But, we are sad to say, only Ms. Bachrach performed all her selections off the book and was therefore far more connected with the audience. This is a particular situation about which we are rather demanding.

Accompanied by excellent BASS regular Miori Sugiyama, Ms. Bachrach was particularly fine in Richard Strauss' Ophelia-Lieder Op.67 and Hector Berlioz' "La Mort d'Ophelie". We desperately wanted to hear appropriate readings from Hamlet but there were none. Still, Ms. Bachrach created a sympathetic portrait of Shakespeare's tragic figure. 

We always love Schubert's "An Sylvia" and Mr. Armstrong's sweet tenor did justice to the legato vocal line with Mr. Brofman's piano offering contrasting staccato piano work. But we enjoyed the tenor more when he sang Roger Quilter's "Orpheus with his Lute" because he abandoned the music stand and connected more with the audience. Quilter's "When Icicles Hang by the Wall" seemed particularly apropos!

Gerald Finzi seemed to have handled the English language uncommonly well, or else Mr. Williams is uncommonly gifted since "Come Away Death" and "What is Sylvia?" made a fine impression on us. The vocal line seemed to match the rhythm of the language in a manner not heard from most contemporary composers. We attribute this success partly to Mr. Williams and partly to Mr. Brofman, both of whom seem to have a flair for Finzi.

There will be more recitals in the season's exploration of Brittanica. And how worthwhile is THAT!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, February 12, 2016


Michael Hey, Magda Gartner, Babette Hierholzer, Äneas Humm, Alexander Liebermann, and Henry Meyer-Oertel

Those who love German culture (count us in!) should be aware of the exciting events programmed by the German Forum, of which Henry Meyer-Oertel is President and Babette Hierholzer is Artistic Director. This worthwhile organization gives young German-speaking artists the opportunity to perform in New York City. We have attended several of their events and have always enjoyed them immensely.

Last night we were introduced to two excellent new singers, a highly talented organist, a 20th c. Swiss composer, and a contemporary composer whose work we actually loved (surprise!); we also enjoyed a lovely cocktail hour with German delicacies. Food for the spirit and food for the body!

Most astonishing of all is the 20-year-old lyric baritone Äneas Humm whose talent surpasses his youth by a huge factor. It is a beautiful instrument with lovely overtones; the manner in which he employs it indicates a great deal of serious study. A Züricher, he is already well known in Europe.  Last night was his New York debut.

He showed vocal expressiveness in two songs by Edvard Grieg and a trio of songs by the 20th c. Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck, a composer to whom we were thrilled to be introduced. Having gone online to amend our ignorance we discovered that he wrote several hundred songs. We can only hope that other singers will avail themselves of this vast collection. The three we heard were lovely, with our favorite being the melodic "Nachklang" with text by von Eichendorff.

Mr. Humm gave a tender performance of "O du mein holder Abendstern", from Wagner's Tannhaüser, exhibiting fine dynamic variety and coloring. Babette Hierholzer accompanied him beautifully on the piano. From Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore, he sang "Come Paride vezzoso" with substantial control of the phrases at the lower end of the register and a nice facility with the fioritura. He made a very good attempt at portraying the arrogant Belcore but his gentle nature kept poking through.

He also sang a pair of songs by the prolific Viktor Ullmann who died tragically during the Holocaust. This is another composer who merits more attention from singers. Mr. Humm sang two songs from The Songbook of Hafis, translated from Farsi and dealing with the jolly and tragic aspects of alcoholism.

As if this were not enough, we heard the world premier of "Le Fugitif" by the gifted young composer Alexander Liebermann. Readers may recall how much dissatisfaction we have expressed with contemporary songwriting and will be surprised to learn that we loved this song, not only the piano writing but the satisfying melodic vocal line. The French text was beautifully sung by Mr. Humm. We want to hear more from Mr. Liebermann!

French seemed to be the language of choice for mezzo-soprano Magda Gartner who excelled in her "Seguidilla" from Bizet's Carmen and also in "Nobles seigneurs" from Giacomo Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. Her French was superb.

We enjoyed "Sei wir wieder gut" from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos and also two arias in Italian from this tri-lingual artist. She graciously introduced us to two of Mozart's ladies going off the deep end. We heard Donna Elvira's "Ah! Fuggi il traditor!" from Don Giovanni which showed off her bright upper register and then Dorabella's difficult aria "Smanie implacabili" from Cosi fan tutte, in which she captured the character's adolescent angst.

We do not consider ourself to be a fan of organ music but we were definitely dazzled by the artistry of Michael Hey who is establishing an impressive career since graduating from Juilliard last year.  He "let out all the stops" (sorry about that) in Léon Boëllmann's "Toccata" from Suite Gothique and in Max Reger's "Phantasy on chorale" which reminded us of Phantom of the Opera.  

He also gave a nuanced reading of J.S. Bach's "Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele".

We always enjoy Ms. Hierholzer's collaboration, giving each artist a fine partnership and being particularly attuned to the varying demands of the music.

This was an almost overwhelming recital, stuffed with delectable goodies. We always enjoy discovering new music and new artists. We are feeling grateful to the German Forum for providing this experience.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Hyesang Park and Kang Wang (photo by Nan Melville)

Initially, we felt a trifle disappointed that Juilliard Opera would be presenting Bellini's La sonnambula in a semi-staged version, hoping to see a production that would wipe from our memory the overly complicated production at the Metropolitan Opera. Within the first few minutes we recognized that the performances themselves created the set and the action, much the way that mountains create their own weather.

With flawless conducting, instrumentalism, and vocal performance, this was a knockout production of which Bellini would have been very proud. It is well known how important to Bellini was the casting.

Two star sopranos took the stage last night and showed their mettle as masters of bel canto style. As Amina, we heard Hyesang Park, who first impressed us exactly two years ago when she performed the famous aria from this selfsame opera "Ah, non credea mirarti" in a master class with Renée Fleming. Clearly she has been working on this role for some time and appeared to inhabit it with ease.

Here, she had the opportunity to portray the modest and innocent Amina, in contrast with the flirtatious Florilla she portrayed in Rossini's Il turco in Italia. She colored her bright voice just right for the role, sounding as young and innocent as the character is meant to be. Her command of the trills, swoops, turns and other embellishments was definitive. Her petite stature abetted the characterization.

Clarissa Lyons was equally impressive as Lisa. We were introduced to this statuesque beauty last month at one of Marilyn Horne's Spotlight Recitals (all these reviews are archived and available through the search bar). It was exciting to see what she can do on an opera stage with her expressive instrument, splendid technique, and fine acting.

We have always found Elvino to be an unlikeable character by dint of his inconstancy. He abandoned Lisa for Amina and was ready to abandon Amina for Lisa when he suspected Amina of infidelity. But his arias and duets are divine, so we can forgive his fickleness! Last night the excellent tenor Kang Wang turned in a fine performance. His instrument is larger and darker than one would expect in this role but he handled it beautifully and musically.

Much of the plot hangs on the shoulders of the mysterious Count Rodolfo who appears in the Swiss town where he grew up and manages to restore sanity to the superstitious townfolk who think the sleepwalking Amina is a ghost. He must convince Elvino that Amina's presence in his room was innocent, as indeed it was.

On the broad shoulders of bass Sava Vemič rested this task and he acquitted himself admirably, as he always does. He has a wonderful instrument that can only grow with the years and the physical presence to assume a variety of roles in that fach.

We have always read between the lines of Felice Romani's libretto. If the Count observes that Amina bears a strong resemblance to a woman he once loved, and if he restrains himself from taking advantage of her sleepwalking into his room at the inn, and if he defends her honor vigorously, isn't it possible that he is her father?

We have never read the play by Eugène Scribe nor have we seen the ballet on which the opera is based, so we have made up the backstory for ourselves. "The Count got a local girl pregnant and disappeared. The woman died in childbirth and Teresa adopted her". Seeing some of this "backstory" acknowledged in the program notes gave us quite a sense of satisfaction!

As Lisa's rejected suitor, bass-baritone Thesele Kemane managed to be both ridiculous and touching. We look forward to hearing more of him.

Tenor Miles Mykkanen excels at putting a personal spin on a great variety of roles and last night he took the role of the Notary which offered little room for characterization but space to appreciate his characteristic sound.

Mezzo-soprano Sara Couden sang the part of Teresa, Amina's caring and protecting mother.

On the podium we had the compelling conductor Speranza Scappucci whom we always admire. She is one of those conductors who uses her entire body to elicit what she wants from the orchestra and The Juilliard Orchestra gave her exactly what she wanted.

The balance was perfect, particularly between the orchestra and the off-stage musicians. The woodwinds made a particularly fine showing and cellist Philip Sheegog's duet with Ms. Park was exquisite. Maybe not as terrifying as Lucia's mad scene with the glass harp but replete with gorgeous harmonies.

As noted above, the artists created the set, so to speak, but Kate Ashton's lighting design surely helped things along. There was one dramatic shift of lighting that deftly underscored the shift in the plot.

David Paul was dramatic consultant.

The chorus of townsfolk supported the action beautifully.

There was a moment when the townsfolk onstage were riveted by the apparition of Lisa sleepwalking. Elvino, the Count, Lisa, and Theresa seemed spellbound. This was a perfect parallel to the audience's rapt attention to the stage.

This production was a product of the fruitful partnership between Juilliard Opera and The Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. 

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, February 7, 2016


Sophie Junker and Amel Brahim-Djelloul (photo by Louis Forget)

Count on the highly regarded Opera Lafayette to deliver an early Valentine to the people of New York. Better than a dozen red roses and one of the sweetest confections imaginable, their production of Emmanuel Chabrier's Une Éducation Manquée delighted both eye and ear. Not quite an opera but reminiscent of a German singspiel or a Spanish zarzuela, the work is a slim 35 minute work, barely more than a skit.  But oh what a skit it is! And it found the perfect home in the comfortable theater of the French Institute Alliance Francaise, always willing to foster French culture.

You may be wondering how one gets an audience member to fork over the considerable cost of a ticket for such a brief entertainment. Wonder no longer. The astute direction of Bernard Deletré (also a singer and actor) expanded the tale of two naïfs unable to consummate their marriage by means of a prologue showing their earlier education, the education that was so incomplete.

On one side of the stage we had Hélène de la Cerisale (played by various female children) being sung and read to by her maiden aunt (played by Sophie Junker who would later take the role of the 16-year-old bride). On the other side of the stage we had Gontran de Boismassif (portrayed by various male children) being instructed by his cleric/tutor Maitre Pausanias (sung by Dominique Côté). The children are shown sequentially at 6 months of age, 6 years, and 12 years.

These brief scenes told us all we need to know about childhood education in France when the Royalists of the Second Empire were in charge.  It wasn't too far from the goals of the present day Republican Religious Right--obedience and traditionalism.  Au contraire, the Republicans of the late 19th c. (the Third Republic) were fighting for free public education for both genders and for removing public instruction from the hands of the Catholic Church. Sounds like the secular Democratic agenda of today!

It was in this contentious environment that Chabrier's librettists (Eugène Letterier and Albert Vanloo) wrote this seeming piece of fluff, demonstrating their progressive position by satirizing their opponents. Sometimes the best way to get one's point across is with humor. The satire is pointed but never nasty.

For the story, Chabrier wrote the most delicious melodies that are instantly accessible without being at all trite. The work is within the tradition of opéra bouffe and was presented in 1879 at the Cercle International, a club where illegal gambling was tolerated. The songs that were used by Opera Lafayette to pad out the opera are settings of texts by one Edmond Rostand. They are about animals (ducks, pigs, cicadas, chickens, and a tortoise)--Chabrier's very own "Carnival of the Animals". To these songs he brought interesting harmonies and lavishly applied coloring. The song about the rooster and the hen was particularly entertaining.

As to the story of the work itself, it is a simple one. Gontran and Hélène are newlyweds and totally ignorant about sex. They are simply at loose ends. Gontran would consult his tutor Pausanias but the tipsy cleric knows nothing. A letter from Gontran's grandfather is likewise unhelpful.  Hélène's maiden aunt similarly knows nothing.  She just advises her niece to be kind and obedient.

It is only a thunderstorm that drives the bride into the arms of the groom where nature can take her dependable course!

Chabrier made sure that his performers were as skilled at acting as they were at singing; Opera Lafayette has done the same. Ms. Junker and Ms. Brahim-Djelloul, in addition to having fine voices and musical instincts, are brilliant comic actors, making the innocence of their characters appealing rather than appalling. Baritone Dominique Cöté was the perfect representation of a bibulous tutor.

Artistic Director Ryan Brown conducted the work with panache and Jeffery Watson tickled our ears with his piano. Costumes by Patricia Forelle were original and colorful. She chose to make them amusing and stylish, rather than scrupulous to the period. Lighting was by Colin K. Bills.

Elaborate sets would have been a distraction.  Instead we had table and chairs and tons of books representing Gontran's extensive book learning. The patter song in which Pausanias lists all the disciplines he has inculcated into his student's brain was particularly fine.

We can scarcely wait for Opera Lafayette's return on May 1st when they will present three dramatic scenes referencing the French Revolution. Their work is always intertaining and impeccably done.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, February 6, 2016


John Brancy and Peter Dugan

What does one say when one has run out of superlatives? The recital we heard last night at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall set the bar really high for a song recital.  As many superb recitals as we have seen this season, nothing approached the musicianship, artistry, and dramatic intensity of this one. We have followed the careers of baritone John Brancy and pianist Peter Dugan for several years and have seen them fulfill their initial promise.  We can think of no greater thrill.

One of the features that ensured the success of the recital was the flow of collaboration between the two artists. Although we are sure that a lot of hard work went into the planning and execution of the recital, the overall effect was one of naturalness and ease. We don't often get to hear recitals with a compelling theme, so the selection of "Fantasy" as a theme struck us as original and compelling.

There be fairytales, there be dragons, there be princesses in towers, there be elves and dwarves, there be satyrs, nymphs, nixen und hexen. Subjects of the texts meet their ends in horrifying and grisly ways. For two hours we were transported to a strange world that was immortalized by all the great composers. The first half of the program comprised lieder that were totally familiar to any recital goer.

Schumann's "Aus alten Märchen" was the introductory piece and it set the stage perfectly for what was to follow. Texts for the five songs in the Schumann set used texts by the young composer's favorite poets--Heinrich Heine and Joseph von Eichendorff. Of the five songs, our favorite was "Waldesgespräch"in which the courtly speech of the rider is hiding some not-so-courtly intentions; he is quickly dispatched by the Hexe Lorelei.

The set of lieder by Schubert was equally impressive with his debut entry as a teenage lieder komponist--"Erlkönig" with text by Goethe--being our favorite.  In this case, the tragic death belonged to a small child with the perpetrator being the nasty and seductive king of the elves. From both pianistic and vocal standpoints, this was an incomparable performance.

The entire first half of the program was marked by intensely dramatic storytelling. Neither artist has the slightest reservation about using every color on his palette. Both of them seemed completely immersed in the texts, drawing us into their fantasy world.

If we had one tiny suggestion for Mr. Brancy to take his performance from a 99 to 100, it would be to allow a different color in his voice for the Hexe in "Waldesgespräch", perhaps a more feminine tone, and a more feeble color for the sickly child in "Erlkönig".  Clearly his resonant and firmly grounded baritone is more comfortable in the parts of the rider in the first piece and the narrator, father, and Elfking in the second. But we longed for a bit more contrast.

The passionate piano playing could not have been improved and swept us along in a tide of excitement and wonder. In a most welcome addition, Mr. Dugan performed two solos in the second half of the program.

He played Debussy's "Pour invoquer Pan" from Six épigraphes antiques, reduced from the original flutes, harps, and celesta, all of which we could hear in the piano. The notes and their overtones seemed to hang in the air.  But it was his arrangement of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Peer Gynt that brought down the house. We have never heard the like! The house was electrified. Abrupt changes from major to minor and the rumbling in the lower reaches of the piano were unsettling.

The artistic coupling continued to delight and mystify throughout the second half of the program with songs by Debussy, Fauré, Grieg, and Sibelius.  Only "Le tombeau des naïades" from Chansons de Bilitis was familiar, although we have never heard it sung by a man. What a treat to hear a song by Sibelius sung in Finnish, strange and beautiful to the ear. In Grieg's "Prinsessen" we could hear the sweet song of the boy playing the horn.

We even enjoyed the songs in English, due to Mr. Brancy's impeccable diction.  Not a word was lost! We loved David Long's setting of "Misty Mountains" (text by Tolkien) in which the simple melody and strophic organization were given a variety of moods in the artists' own arrangement.

Britten's arrangement of a French folk song "The king is gone a hunting" was delightful.  The English language lends itself so well to short punchy phrases that rhyme and scan.

Wolseley Charles' amusing "The Green Eyed Dragon" allowed Mr. Brancy to give full rein to his storytelling skills and was pure delight.

The welcome encore was "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha by Joe Darion/Mitch Leigh.  It is obvious that all of Mr. Dugan's and Mr. Brancy's dreams are more than possible! It was the perfect end to a stunning recital. The thunderous applause and the standing ovation were well deserved.

The two artists are far more than collaborators on vocal recitals. They both have impressive international careers in many aspects of their art. Clearly, their experience in the art of opera and cabaret and collaboration with other artists has informed their artistry. Still, if we had no knowledge or experience of their diverse talents, if this recital were all we had to go on, we would still select them as stars of the musical firmament. If the recital were repeated today we would be there. They left us satisfied but somehow wanting more.

(c) meche kroop