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.

Thursday, March 31, 2016


Daniel Fung and Alexandra Razskazoff at Juilliard

Spring is a bittersweet season for us.  The singers we have been enjoying all year are graduating and giving their final recitals. Many of them take off for distant shores and we never know when we will hear them again. Fortunately, we will have more opportunities to hear the splendid soprano Alexandra Razskazoff who will be awarded her MM degree from Juilliard--first in the upcoming Zauberflöte at Juilliard and then in August in Santa Fe, where she has been invited back as a Second Year Apprentice.

On the opera stage, Ms. Razskazoff is distinguished by her warm generous soprano and excellent acting. How well we remember her performance as the Countess in Nozze di Figaro! She made a fine Eva in Die Meistersinger.  In recital, she is distinguished by a relaxed and confident stage presence and the ability to honor the text in a meaningful manner.

Last night's recital was a challenging one and a rewarding one; she opened by welcoming her audience, describing her program, and graciously thanking her teacher, Robert C. White, Jr., and her most able collaborative pianist Daniel Fung.

Predictably, our favorite part of the evening was the all-too-short set of Rossini songs. We imagined we were at a salon, chez des amis, back in the 19th c.  A glamorous diva has been invited to entertain us guests with "La Promessa" and "L'invito". We do so love to be transported and indeed we were. The songs are pure delight with typical Rossini melodies and they were charmingly sung.

We also loved the Russian songs. Those of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov are not often heard and we love the idea that his "Nimfa" is different from the German "Lorelei" immortalized in Franz Liszt's song. This one does not lure sailors to their death! His "The lark sings louder" is a paean to Spring. This joyful song was followed by Sergei Rachmaninoff's  anxious "I wait for thee!" in which Ms. Razskazoff illuminated the very particular pain of anguished waiting.

Her performance of the Liszt songs was equally fine. Daniel Fung's delicacy on the piano was perfect for "Freudvoll und leidvoll" and the delicacy, so different from the forceful piano we expect from Liszt, extended through "Lasst mich ruhen" and "Du bist wie eine Blume".  But oh, that bad girl Lorelei!

Also on the program was Benjamin Britten's On This Island, Op. 11, which we just recently heard. We grant that Britten rose to new heights in his setting of Auden's text but this will never be among our favorite song cycles. That being said, Ms. Razskazoff lent an appealing resonance to the work and sang with exquisite dynamic control. We related best to the final two songs--the solemn "Nocturne", sung with great expressivity and plenty of room in the lower register with rumbly low chords in the piano--and the ironic "As it is, Plenty" with its jazzy piano writing. The only problem was that several words of the text were lost and needed to be enunciated better.  This was not a problem with the German, Russian and Italian.  English is just so difficult to sing!

Olivier Messiaen's  Poèmes Pour Mi, Book II has never interested us but Ms. Razskazoff gave the four selections an impassioned delivery. It is a tribute to her artistry that we didn't run out of the theater screaming. We do not like his music or his text. Just give us more Rossini!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, March 26, 2016


Samarie Alicea as Susana and José Adán Perez as Figaro celebrating their marriage in Vid Guerrerio's version of Nozze di Figaro (photo by Ken Howard)

It has been a quarter century since our introduction to Mozart's Nozze di Figaro when Director Peter Sellars tackled it and presented it up at SUNY-Purchase-- in  modern dress and taking place in what appeared to be Trump Tower and starring the Trump family.  There were no titles and we hadn't a clue what was going on  We were lost and just enjoyed Mozart's music. 

In that quarter century, we have come to love Mozart's masterpiece above all others and have seen it probably 20 times, if not more. We have never welcomed the idea of updating it to contemporary times because the libretto is so rooted in the 18th c.

We were curious about the latest iteration, Figaro!, with a newly written libretto by Vid Guerrerio; our curiosity was satisfied last night at The Duke Theater on 42nd Street and we are pleased to report that, taken on its own terms, it makes for a delightful and insightful evening of theater. The choice of venue was perfect since the black box theater is just the right size and offers excellent sight lines and fine acoustics. The decision to not amplify the voices was the right one.

Pierre Beaumarchais' story line has been largely preserved, filled as it is with crazy characters and sit-com situations. Mozart's music has been largely preserved (although trimmed to a quick 2 1/2 hours) and valiantly played in a reduction for piano, string quartet and bass. Musical Director Raphael Fusco conducted from the piano.

What has been discarded is Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto. Mr. Guerrerio has distilled the essence of the story, added and subtracted a character here and there, and written a libretto based on contemporary speech and slang that the mostly young audience could readily understand. We could not have predicted how successful this would be. 

In the 18th and 19th c., composer and librettist worked hand in hand to match the rhythm of the native language to the rhythm and phrasing of the music. Mr. Guerrerio was obliged to fit his libretto into music already composed. He deserves a great deal of credit for a task we would have deemed impossible. The cast deserves credit for good diction that made the libretto understandable for the most part, except for some lapses in rapid patter passages. Since the titles were very faint, this clarity was a distinct advantage.

Director Melissa Crespo kept up a rapid pace. During the overture, 18th c. characters in elaborate costumes began with a stately dance that was interrupted by the 21st c. hip-hop character L'il B-Man teaching them some modern moves. This served to carry us into Act I. The action has been moved to Beverly Hills and the emphasis has been placed on the awkward interactions between the working class and the leisure class, with all its attendant power struggles.

Here, the Count has been transformed into Paul Conti (performed by Luke Scott), owner of a large estate. His wife, the neglected Countess, now appears as Roxanne (performed by Raquel Suarez-Groen, looking way to young for the part), an over-the-hill actress concerned about aging and addicted to plastic surgery in an attempt to win back her straying husband.

Figaro (José Adán Pérez) is an illegal Mexican immigrant (or so we think until the "reveal") in Mr. Conti's employ.  His bride is Susanna (Samarie Alicea), who works for the Conti's as well; in this case, it is Susana's debt that needs to be paid off, a debt to a Korean factory owner, Ms. Soon-Yi Nam (Sahoko Sato Timpone) , who advanced her funds to get across the border. This character replaces Marcellina as Susana's nemesis. Dr. Bartolo is now Babayan (Ethan Herschenfeld), an Armenian thug who is the Korean's accomplice.

Barbarina has been eliminated, and as substitute we have the Conti's punk daughter Barbara (Emma Grimsley) who has grown up alongside Li'l B-Man (Dwayne A. Washington), a hip-hop guy whose arias are not well received, filled with "bitch" and "ho" as they are.  He will have to grow up to win her affection. A new character is his mother Donna (Lori Marabal) who doesn't want him to be sent off to military school. 

Basilio has been transformed into Basel (Michael Kuhn), a tutor. The gardener Antonio is here called Atzuko (David Castillo).

There were no weaknesses in the cast but we were most taken with the performance of the lead couple.

Set design was simple--a large picture window overlooking palm trees with some simple furniture suggesting affluence. A swimming pool is created by suggestion and a garden (for the final act), by hedges. Lighting Design is by Gina Scherr and Costume Design is by Lux Haac who did particularly well with Roxanne and Susana's costume and wig exchange for the final act.

This all works out quite well in conveying the story of a boss trying to take advantage of his power over his employees. This makes the production relevant to our time without sacrificing entertainment value. One tends to forget that opera served an important role in shifting political values in its own time. Here, we find ourselves in a similar time of change, a time when we need the arts to support this change.

We are always in favor of presenting opera in ways to engage young audiences. By the laughter and applause we heard, a good time was had by all. In total agreement was the fellow reviewer who accompanied us and a young soprano we spotted in the audience who also loved the show.

Today, we listened to a thrilling broadcast of Nozze di Figaro (The Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcast). We heard it in a new light.

(c) meche kroop



Fabio Luisi and Angie Zhang

Beethoven's Leonore Overture No.3, Op.72b closed the program at Alice Tull Hall Thursday night giving us a renewed appreciation for the passionate conducting of Maestro Fabio Luisi as he led the Juilliard Orchestra through a stirring performance. 

Principal conductor at The Metropolitan Opera, Maestro Luisi projects a modest and somewhat reserved mien but when he steps onto the podium his animated conducting style is exciting to watch and even more exciting to hear. It was an "on the edge of your seat" performance that left us humming the major theme from Fidelio for hours afterward.  Whoever tried to convince us that Beethoven was a poor melodist was dead wrong.

We have great anticipation for an upcoming presentation of Beethoven's only opera Fidelio (on June 9th by New Amsterdam Opera) for which this overture served as an appetizer.

There was quite a difference when Maestro Luisi conducted Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491 . He was quiet and self-effacing, focusing his attention on the brilliant young pianist Angie Zhang, whose soft hands were a pleasure to watch. His command of the orchestra allowed him to put her front and center.  Indeed, Mozart himself gave the piano several places where it was unaccompanied which allowed us to appreciate the fine control possessed by Ms. Zhang.

We couldn't stop thinking about the vocal lines in Mozart's operas. Here, the piano took over the runs and trills and arpeggios. Ms. Zhang's piano truly sang! We were particularly fond of the middle movement, a lovely larghetto with a deceptively simple folk-like tune, adorned by Ms. Zhang with extremely expressive ornamentation.

The opening number was Brahms' Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90. It opened with a muscular first theme which led to a dance-like second theme. The development section had an interesting dialogue between the violins and the lower strings. But for some reason, the work failed to ignite; we would not consider it our favorite Brahms symphony.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


The Hot Box Girls (plus one)

We just can't stay away from Opera Burlesque performed by The Hot Box Girls! The part of their performances that amazes us is that they can produce such exemplary singing while artistically disrobing. Singing alone requires attention to so many details--breathing, phrasing, diction, communication, dynamic control, etc.  Throw a little ecdysiastic action into the pot and one wonders how these lovely ladies can be so successful.

We have enjoyed their shows, at the opulent and intimate Duane Park on The Bowery, a number of times but this is the first time we got to hear Founder and Artistic Director Rebecca Greenstein, freshly arrived from Vienna, where she is enjoying a great artistic success.  She tells us that the Viennese have edgier taste than we New Yorkers do.  Here in the Big Apple, the material is largely confined to arias that we know and love.  Nothing wrong with that!  We are willing to bet that some members of the audience came for the T&A and left with a taste for opera.

Presenting opera in new ways, in new places, and directed toward a new audience, is all the rage these days. So, we sit on wooden bleachers drinking beer and we sit in elegant nightclubs drinking champagne. All for the sake of art.

The cast of Opera Burlesque changes from month to month.  Who knew there were so many opera singers with ecdysiastic talent! One favorite of ours is Trixie La Fée (née Francesca Caviglia) whom we have requested to never ever drop her act with the two huge red feathered fans. Her artistic manipulation of these props have interesting resonances as wings of a bird or a butterfly.
Not only that but she has a scintillating soprano which she showed off well in "V'adoro pupille" from Handel's Giulio Cesare; she has a commendable coloratura as well as a way with feathers.

New to us this time around was Ladybird Finch (née Rachel O'Malley) who was lovely in "Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle?" from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette.

Dixie DeLight (née Kacey Cardin) is always a delight and we particularly enjoyed her "Ah! non credea mirarti" from Bellini's La Sonnambula. Regular readers will recall our affection for bel canto and Ms. Cardin did justice to this gorgeous aria.

Also on hand and well-remembered from prior performances was Sean D'Leer (née Melanie Long) who put a lot of pizazz into Rosina's aria "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Ms. Greenstein herself, appearing as Jessica DoRight, worked the audience well as Musetta in "Quando m'en vo" from Puccini's La Bohème, strolling through the audience and teasing the men, just as Musetta would have done.

It occurred to us how well the selections were chosen in that they mostly all provided an excuse to flirt, entice, and seduce.

Even the lone male in the show, Lance-a-lot (née Brad Lassiter) was seductive as Escamillo in the "Toreador Song" from Bizet's Carmen and as Sergeant Belcore in "Come Paride vezzoso" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore.

Seth Weinstein as Count von Bang-it-out produced the always reliable piano accompaniment.

Allyson Webb (as Ally Cat) had a non-singing role as a French maid who assisted the singers in unlacing their corsets and picking up discarded garments. She put a lot of personality into the role.

The closing number, sung in English, was the bubbly "Champagne Chorus" from the beloved operetta Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, Jr.  We raise our glasses as well to toast new forms, new venues, new audiences,and new converts to opera.  PROSIT!

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Jakub Jozef Orlinski and Miles Mykkanen

Regular readers already are aware of the high esteem in which we hold these two singers. But nothing could have prepared us for the encore they performed at the Juilliard Vocal Arts Honors Recital last night at Alice Tully Hall. Most people believe that the "Duetto buffo di due gatti" was composed by Rossini but we have learned that it is actually a compilation of excerpts from many works.  

We don't care where it originated. We have never heard it performed by a countertenor and a tenor. Nor have we ever heard it performed with such nuance and panache. The vocal  fireworks were layered with hilarious innuendo and some private references that the singers in the audience must have relished.  Laughter spread throughout Alice Tully Hall and everyone left grinning.

We do not mean to shortchange the rest of the recital but that encore is the piece we will remember after the rest of the program has been forgotten.  Countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski and tenor Miles Mykkanen were selected for this annual event by audition, after being nominated by their teachers. We applaud the choices as heartily as we applauded the performances.

Awards have already been heaped on these two vocal magicians and it appears that their futures are assured. We are glad to have been there pretty close to the beginning, in the case of Mr. Mykkanen, and immediately upon Mr. Orlinski's arrival at Juilliard for advanced training.

Mr. Orlinski's instrument sounds like what you'd expect to hear from an angel, if you believed in paradise. We haven't heard anything like it since Anthony Roth Costanzo. We liked him best in the two Handel arias--"A dispetto d'un volto ingrato" from Tamerlano and the devilishly difficult "Furibondo spira il vento" from Partenope. He exhibited a full emotional range, dynamic subtlety, and ample flexibility in the fioritura.

The quieter songs by Purcell were sung with impeccable English diction, leading us to wonder whether singers with non-English backgrounds just try harder.  Collaborative pianist Michal Biel excelled in the gorgeous piano introduction to "Music for a While" and John Dryden's text was perfectly understood. The wide skips were well negotiated.

The melismatic passages of "If Music be the Food of Love" were transporting and Mr. Orlinski's phrasing was lovely.  Even his catch-breaths were given an emotional subtext. "Strike the Viol" was an emotional tribute to the Patroness and we couldn't help thinking of the largesse of Ellen and the late James S. Marcus who so generously supported their namesake Institute for Vocal Arts.

A trio of Polish songs rounded out Mr. Orlinski's half of the program and we were enthralled by the two early 20th c. songs by Karol Szymanowski whose opera King Roger we so enjoyed in Santa Fe a couple years ago. A third song by a contemporary, Pawel Lukaszewski, offered some very colorful writing for the piano which Mr. Biel performed beautifully.

The second half of the program began with tenor Miles Mykkanen making sense of W.H. Auden's poetry in Benjamin Britten's setting of On this island, Op. 11. He had no problem with the high tessitura of "Let the Florid Music Praise!".  Collaborative pianist Ho Jae Lee kept a throbbing piano underpinning the severe text of "Now the Leaves Are Falling Fast". Mr. Mykkanen brought the song to a dramatic climax with a stunning diminuendo at the end.

Mr. Mykkanen, apart from his prodigious vocal talent, is a splendid storyteller and we like him best when he has something to work with.  The final song in this set, "As it is, plenty" was infused with irony and grabbed us by the throat; there was a kind of music hall flavor to it that just made the text more poignant.

For our taste, it was the set of Schumann songs that touched us most deeply. "Des Sennen Abschied" was given all the ambivalence of accepting the change of seasons. One cannot go wrong setting Friedrich Schiller!

Nor can one go wrong setting Friedrich Rückert and Mr. Mykkanen invested "Mein schöner Stern" with apt phrasing and emotional content. "Requiem" was filled with spiritual transport.

And those songs by Edvard Grieg are gems!  "Takk for dit Råd" was sung with strength and determination; "En svane" was filled with a gentle mournfulness and was quite moving.  We love the repetitive motif. The romantic "En drøm" closed the program and Mr. Lee's delicacy on the piano supported Mr. Mykkanen's gentle delivery.

We understand that the singers chose their own program and it is always wonderful to hear singers singing what they love. Moreover, both singers were engaging when addressing the audience. So, we wound up hearing something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue!

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, March 20, 2016


Robert Garner as Severo and Sara Beth Pearson as Paolina in Donizetti's Poliuto at Amore Opera  

We love Donizetti for his melodic bel canto writing and we love Amore Opera for unearthing one of his rarely performed tragic operas. Donizetti's music is always kind to our ears, whether it is underscoring a frothy comedy or a serious tragedy. If one doesn't care for the story, one can always revel in the music.

The libretto for his Poliuto was written by Salvatore Cammarano, loosely based on Pierre Corneille's tragic 1640 play Polyeucte. The birth of the opera was a difficult one: problems with censorship by the Catholic King of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, rewriting for the Opera Francaise, translating that into Italian, and the suicide of the tenor.

The story has significant resonances today. In third century Armenia, the ruling Romans saw Christianity as a threat to be eliminated. Christians met secretly in caves to hold their baptismal ceremonies. (Indeed, we once crawled into caves in Central Turkey where Christians lived and worshipped in secret.) Today Christianity is an accepted and prominent world religion with some members who would like to annhililate other religions. It seems like just another manifestation of  "My God is the right one.  Yours is the wrong one." Will mankind ever learn?

It would be fair to say that the story is distasteful to us. We don't understand martyrdom or the belief that all will be remedied in some mythical paradise after death.  All we could think of was the current plague of suicide bombers.  In Poliuto, at the end, the heroine joins her husband in just this sort of death without regard to the effect on her father.

Paolina was in love with the Roman Proconsul Severo. Believing him dead, she married Poliuto. He is jealous and mistrustful and a convert to Christianity without being aware that his jealousy and pride are "sinful" by their standards.

Severo shows up very much alive and she resists his blandishments. Misled by Callistene, the evil High Priest of Jupiter, Poliuto believes her to be unfaithful and pridefully resists all her claims of innocence.

Nearco, Poliuto's friend and leader of the growing Christian sect of Armenia, refuses to name him to the authorities but the "noble" Poliuto turns himself in, happily martyring himself, looking forward to his salvation in heaven.

Paolino insists on joining him although Severo does everything to prevent her. The martyrs get thrown to the lions.  And that's that.

But what marvelous melodies we heard, conducted by Daniele Tirilli! This is Donizetti at the top of his game. Even the overture offers one beautiful theme after another--an opening mournful one, then an urgent propulsive one, then a lively martial one.  The opening chorus of Christians filled the theater at the Sheen Center with harmonies.

Soprano Sara Beth Pearson made a splendid Paolina, singing with a substantial sound that was also flexible and just right for the fioritura. Her acting skills matched her singing, as she slowly became enchanted with Christianity. We loved her aria "Di quai soave lagrime, aspersa è la mia gota "
Baritone Robert Garner continues to impress us with his full-throated singing and convincing acting. He actually made us feel sympathy for Severo by showing many dimensions to his character. We liked his tender love aria "Di tua beltade imagine è questo sol ch'io miro ".

Tenor Lindell Carter seemed not quite comfortable in the title role, as evidenced by some mugging and wide-eyed staring.

Tenor Michael Celentano made a fine Nearco while tenor Douglas McDonnell handled the small role of Felice with fatherly grace.

Bass Jay Gould made a formidable Callistene, the man we love to hate.

Christians were portrayed by Daniel Kerr, James Stephen Longo, and Ruben Navarro.

The direction by Nathan Hull was straightforward, as we prefer. When the two major players of a company (Mr. Hull and Maestro Tirilli) have sung opera, you can rest assured that the singers will come first. No one was put in a physically or vocally threatening position. This is something we truly appreciate.

Costumes by Amy Leubke were elegant and colorful, appearing appropriate to the period. Simple painted sets by Richard Cerullo served their purpose.

Special mention must be made of the fine chorus who added so much to the proceedings, thanks to Chorus Manager Janet Johnson. The opera contains several choral pieces, often augmenting the ensemble writing at the conclusion of a scene.

We may never get to hear this wonderful piece again and were so happy to have had the opportunity. Thanks Amore Opera for unearthing this buried treasure.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, March 19, 2016


William Remmers as Merlin and Zoe Hart as Philadel

It was the wizardry of Utopia Opera's William Remmers that made an unusual evening's entertainment out of two works by 17th c. composer Henry Purcell. His concept was to have the 1691 King Arthur performed at the court of Queen Dido of Carthage, in order to cheer her from the grief over the apparent betrayal of her lover Aeneas of Troy. After the intermission, the Dido and Aeneas (Purcell's first opera, dating from the 1680's) was performed.

With works over three centuries old, one does not expect the entire score and libretto to survive, but Mr. Remmers, stepping down from his customary role of conductor, cobbled together a 90-minute adaptation, taking on a number of roles himself. He first played Sir Thomas Betterton, an impresario bringing his troupe of actors and singers to Carthage to perform for the Queen. But the actors were eaten by cannibals and so he was stuck with a bunch of singers who "couldn't act", slipping in a private joke for the audience.

He also assumed the role of Oswald, the Saxon King who was battling with King Arthur, the King of the Britons. This was probably meant to be an allegory for the political situation in Restoration England but we do not need to concern ourselves with that detail. Let us just enjoy the outrageous performances--not only as Merlin but also as the Cold Genius in the Frost Scene and later as Comus, god of the Masque.

Singers also doubled in their roles. The beautiful coloratura soprano Madison Marie McIntosh was perfectly cast as the blind Cornish Princess Emmeline, beloved of King Arthur (Lieve Buzard) but kidnapped by the Saxons; she later appeared as Cupid (not the blind boy-child we have come to expect) and had the opportunity to exhibit an impressive skill with ornamentation.  Having awakened the Cold Genius from his long winter's nap, we were treated to a marvelous aria "Tis I that have warm'd ye" which was picked up by the excellent chorus as "Tis love that has warm'd ye".

It was the custom of the time to give singing roles only to supernatural creatures and rustics; so we had the burly voiced Glenn Friedman, wearing elfin ears, as Grimbald, an evil spirit, and the lovely soprano Zoe Hart as the good spirit Philadel who saves the day for the Britons.

A memorable trio was sung by tenor Matthew Hughes as a shepherd with his two shepherdesses sung by soprano Rachel Rosenberg and mezzo-soprano Sidney Dixon; the harmonies were delicious.

Caroline Tye as Dido and Winnie Nieh as Belinda

Friday, March 18, 2016

SECRET LOVEJennifer Moore

Jennifer Moore and Everett Suttle (photo by Tina Buckman)

Love is a carelessly handled state in 21st c. America; people jump in and out of relationships like rabbits. But in 18th c. France, love was a serious issue and many rules of etiquette had to be observed. It was not unusual for folks to pine away for a love object and many chansons were written about unfulfilled longing and desire.

This situation was delicately handled by the prodigious composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, in his 1780 opera L'amant Anonyme which was given a charming production by The Little Opera Theatre of NY, affectionately known as LOTNY--a company which has introduced us to several other rarities.

The composer was born in Guadeloupe to a slave woman named Nanon and fathered by a French plantation owner who brought his family to France when Joseph was but 7 years old, ensuring that his son received a fine education.  Young Joseph exhibited early aptitude for music, dancing, and fencing; his charm, talents, and good looks won him a place in society although at certain times his being a mulatto brought ugly prejudice into his life. From what we gleaned from our reading, his life story would have made a splendid opera in and of itself.

This brief opera, his only surviving one, was premiered at a private theater for the entertainment of aristocrats and it is likely that the composer himself bore within a secret love for a Caucasian woman. Perhaps he was working through his predicament by means of his art.

LOTNY Founder and Artistic Director Philip Shneidman wisely combined episodes from the composer's life to pad out the slender story which, for today's audience, needed a bit of conflict. Dialogue was recited in English with the gorgeous arias, duets, and ensembles sung in mostly excellent French.

Valcour (tenor Everett Suttle) is in love with Léontine (soprano Jennifer Moore) but is afraid to tell her since she seems to have sworn off love. Valcour gets encouragement from his friend Ophémon (baritone Jesse Malgieri) and Léontine gets the same from her Lady in Waiting Dorothée (mezzo-soprano Aude Cardona). There is another couple whose betrothal serves as inspiration to the reluctant couple-- Jeannette (soprano Marie Masters) who is engaged to Colin (tenor Anthony Webb).

We have previously heard and enjoyed in various venues the excellent singers in this cast but, rest assured, we are also well acquainted with the singers of the other cast whom you can count on to deliver performances just as fine as this cast. We might add, since we are not color blind, that casting African-Americans as the composer/Valcour was completely appropriate, lending verisimilitude to the story.

Mozart may have dominated the music scene in Austria but we are less well acquainted with French musicians of the Classical Period in France. It was a fine thing to become acquainted with the lovely music of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges; there is a delicacy to the music that tickles the ear and the melodies are eminently singable.

The eight musicians of New Vintage Baroque included Elliot Figg who conducted from the harpsichord. Instruments were authentic to the period. We are not sure we could tell the difference in the case of the violins, viola, and cello; but there was no mistaking the pair of baroque oboes and the impressive baroque bassoon. The sound was enthralling.

We can only hope that some of these arias and duets will find their way onto the concert stage. Perhaps the singers will take note of this suggestion and perform them at recital. The harmonies of the duets were particularly lovely and songs about reluctance in love and about romantic longing are often heard at recital.

We feel grateful to LOTNY for bringing this previously unheard composer to our attention. One never knows what one is missing until one hears it!

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, March 17, 2016


Paul Appleby (photo by Frances Marshall)

We have been a great fan of tenor Paul Appleby for several years now--not just for his gorgeous instrument and perfection of technique but for the intense connection he establishes with the audience. He is always so immersed in the text and so able to transmit that to the audience that we feel we are going on an adventure with him as our guide. And what an engaging guide he is, addressing the audience as if we were all his friends.

Mr. Appleby is also impressive as a music scholar and his program notes share his insights about what he is singing.  We, however, approach vocal music from an emotional perspective and our appreciation leans more toward the timbre of his voice and his storytelling skills.

So it was that his second encore of the evening, "Kuda, Kuda" from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin left us in tears, feeling all the swirling emotions that Lenski must have felt before his duel with Onegin. We heard Mr. Appleby sing that aria about three or four years ago.  We loved it then but feel his interpretation has grown in maturity and color. 

Mr. Appleby shared that the piece was chosen by Ken Noda, his piano partner for the evening.  How well matched they are!  Mr. Appleby's voice is soft-- and we are not referring to dynamics.  We are addressing the tenderness of texture that goes right to the heart.  And Mr. Noda's touch on the piano is similarly tender. We don't know a pianist with softer hands.

One thing that we respect about Mr. Appleby's programming is that he sings what he likes, not what he thinks will make up a "well-balanced program". And that means that we may not respond equally well to everything he chooses. His love of poetry may take him down some paths where we cannot follow but he always invests each song with a depth of understanding.

The first half of the program delighted us totally. The opening song was Franz Lachner's setting of Heinrich Heine's "Das Fischermädchen". The composer was part of Schubert's circle but we had never before heard his music and we were thrilled to be introduced to him. Indeed, Schubert himself set the same poem (as did a multiplicity of other composers and please don't ask us to choose a favorite).  Mr. Noda's piano suggested the rolling of the sea while Mr. Appleby burst forth with all the colors of a seductive invitation.

From Robert Schumann's "liederjahre" (1840), we enjoyed hearing his Liederkreis, Op.24, all settings of texts by Heine, in which Schumann plumbed the depths of the poetry and Mr. Appleby did the same. All of the colors of disappointed love were painted.  Perhaps our favorite of this set was "Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden" which we well recalled from a prior recital by Mr. A. 

Following the Schumann, we heard four of Hugo Wolf's settings of texts by Eichendorff. Hearing "Das Ständchen" took us back to the summer of 2013 when Mr. Appleby performed an entire recital of serenades in Santa Fe. How wonderful to hear it once more. The poet's nostalgia was echoed by our own!

The second half of the program opened with the world premiere of Matthew Aucoin's Merrill Songs with Mr. Aucoin himself at the piano. It is here that Mr. Appleby lost us. We could not relate to James Merrill's poetry in spite of Mr. Aucoin's elaborate analysis in the program notes.  Nor could we relate to Mr. Aucoin's music, as much as we tried to open our ears to something new. Mr. Appleby clearly relates to it or he wouldn't have chosen it.  He sang with dramatic intensity but we could not wrap our ears around it.

Happily, we returned to more agreeable territory with some gorgeous songs by Hector Berlioz--three selections from Les nuits d'été.  There was the sweetly romantic and seasonally appropriate "Villanelle", followed by the unsettling "Au cimetière" with its major/minor shifts and strange harmonies. The final song "L'île inconnue" was filled with fanciful ideas and multiple colorations. Although this cycle was later orchestrated by the composer, we heard it in the original form with Mr. Noda's piano capturing all the colors of the orchestra.

Finally we heard a trio of songs by Heitor Villa-Lobos, which (we have it on good authority) were curated and translated by Steven Blier and Mr. Appleby.  As the first encore we heard (at the request of Mrs. Appleby) Benjamin Britten's arrangement of the folksong "O, waly waly".

We have been writing about Mr. Appleby for over five years and never fail to be impressed by his expressivity and artistic generosity. The surge of his career has been earned by a lot of hard work but he makes it appear effortless.  That's art!

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Galeano Salas, Will Kelley, Liv Redpath, Abigail Levis, and Justin Austin with Steven Blier at the piano

"At Home", the latest entry in Steven Blier's New York Festival of Song, seen last night at Merkin Concert Hall, was a cleverly constructed program based on the concept of songs for each room of the home. This concept originated at Wolf Trap. We have no idea where Maestro Blier finds the unusual songs that he programs but each one was a gem and all were new to us.  

And do we need to mention how judiciously the singers are chosen?  Each one possesses a fine voice and a dramatic style that conveys the meaning of each song. The group spent a residency up at Caramoor for the past week or so, polishing their performances for the delectation of the audience. It was difficult to say whether they had more fun onstage or the audience.

There were songs for the parlor, the kitchen, the nursery, the dressing room, and the bedroom.  Can you guess where the encore took place? Segments were introduced by quotes from Oscar Wilde, John Ruskin, Gilbert Chesterton, Eddie Izzard, and James Baldwin. Effective dramatic direction was provided by Alison Moritz.

The Parlor offered a number of thrills, comprising pieces commissioned by wealthy 19th c. patrons for private concerts.  Readers will recall our affection for 19th c. music. The opening number, Ernest Chausson's "La nuit" gave soprano Liv Redpath and mezzo-soprano Abigail Levis the opportunity to join voices in delicious harmonies with overlapping voices. 

Massenet's "Sevillanas" permitted Ms. Redpath to launch some vocal fireworks with a Spanish flavor, accompanied by both Mr. Blier and the dashing collaborative pianist Will Kelley.

There was humor aplenty when Ms. Levis performed a tribute to the cigarette in the song of the same name by Herbert E. Haines from 1904. Tenor Galeano Salas teamed up with baritone Justin Austin for "Trust Her Not" by Michael William Balfe. They not only sang together but danced a little vaudeville turn. We wondered what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow might have thought of this delightful use of his text.

Moving on to The Kitchen, we enjoyed lots more humor. Ms. Levis came onto the stage waving a knife and wooden spoon to perform Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Food for Thought", the lyrics of which contained clever internal rhymes by Robert Wright and George Forrest. 

We loved the way Mr. Salas performed the lengthy "Painting My Kitchen", a late 20th c. work by John Bucchino.  Underpinning his humorous delivery was the driving four-handed piano of Maestro Blier and Mr. Kelley.

In The Nursery section, astute direction by Alison Moritz had Mr. Austin entertaining the other singers appearing as children with Xavier Montsalvatge's "El lagarto está llorando", the setting of a text by Federico Garcia Lorca.

We never knew that the marvelous melodist Reynaldo Hahn set any English texts but we loved "My Ship and I", a text by Robert Louis Stevenson; and we loved the way Ms. Levis performed it. 

Darius Milhaud's  "Tais-toi, babillarde", a song from the 1940 Quatre poèmes de Ronsard opened with an extended vocalise in which Ms. Redpath gave vent to all of her coloratura skills, sounding more like a nightingale than the swallow of the text. (To tell the truth, we don't really know what either bird sounds like!)  Mr. Kelley's piano gave us the subtext.

The Dressing Room had only one song which the company performed with narcissistic glee--Edwin Weber's 1923 "I Love Me".

There were some wonderful songs taking place in The Bedroom.  Mr. Austin delivered the romantic ballad "Im Zimmer" written at the very beginning of Alban Berg's creative life. His performance was intimate and accessible--but was followed by the Polish song by Grazyna Bacewicz from 1955, translated as "I have such a headache". Ms. Redpath gave it a very funny delivery as a woman responding to the romantic advances of the prior song.

Perhaps our favorite song of the evening was Pietro Mascagni's "Serenata", a simply gorgeous strophic song which Mr. Salas performed with lots of garlic, supported by Maestro Blier's lilting piano. We could imagine an entire opera surrounding this superb song.

If you haven't already figured it out, the encore took place in (drumroll please) The Bathroom with the entire cast wearing shower caps and carrying sponges and rubber duckies for the 1929 song "Singing in the Bathtub" (Magidson/Washington/Cleary).

It was the perfect end to another delightful NYFOS evening.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, March 14, 2016


Theo Hoffman
Sol Jin
Jakub Jozef Orlinski
Sean Michael Plumb

Brian Vu

Our passion is witnessing the development of young artists and we can think of no greater thrill than seeing them on the stage of The Metropolitan Opera. You will have to look on the Met website to learn whom the judges chose from among the nine finalists.  We prefer to write about the young artists that we have been following right here in New York. They are all winners!

Each young artist had the opportunity to show off two contrasting arias, one in each half of the program.  Baritones were  prominent with Jakub Jozef Orlinski the sole countertenor.  The pure angelic quality of his instrument is ethereal. Although his "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows" from Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream was excellent, we preferred his "A dispetto d'un volto ingrato" from Handel's Tamerlano since it gave him such an opportunity to show off his crisp fioritura.

And now to our four magnificent baritones! Sol Jin evinced a noteworthy mature coloration and was most convincing as Germont Père in "Di Provenza il mar" from Verdi's La Traviata; the dramatic impact of his acting was substantial. Later, hearing him in Russian was a special treat--"Ya vas lyublyu" from Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame. He could definitely handle both roles.

Theo Hoffman was incredibly moving as he filled "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen" from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt with a depth of longing and nostalgia that went straight to the heart. There is something very special about his vibrato. He was also excellent in "Dieux! qui me poursuivez" from Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride in which he displayed his forceful side.

Sean Michael Plumb had a lovely tonal quality in "Bella siccome un angelo" as he tried to "sell his sister" in Donizetti's Don Pasquale. His voice swelled to an impressive climax. His Russian, in an aria from Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, was superb.

Brian Vu used his entire body to convey the dashing personality of Figaro in his "Largo al factotum" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. His versatility was evident when he showed his serious side in "Avant de quitter ces lieux" from Gounod's Faust.

The other winners were all superb and we cannot recall a year with such fierce competition. The nine finalists were winnowed from a field of 1500 representing 42 cities. What an achievement to get to sing on the stage of the Met!

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Jamilyn Manning-White (photo by Russ Rowland)

There is a very fine line between bringing new insights to a work from the 19th c. and trashing it. We are pleased to report that Heartbeat Opera, one of our favorite small opera companies,  belongs to the former category.  Last night we marveled at the insightful adaptation of Donizetti's masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor. More than an adaptation, we consider it a distillation of the essence of Salvadore Cammarano's libretto and a superb introduction to the opera.

The house was packed for opening night of the festival which includes lots of goodies, as you may learn on their website, www.heartbeatopera.org. It did our heart good to see an audience of 20-somethings thrilling to Donizetti's score in a unique arrangement by Daniel Schlosberg featuring a string quartet, guitar, clarinet, and some dazzling percussion by wizard Bill Solomon.

As directed by Louisa Proske (Co-Artistic Director of Heartbeat Opera), crucial scenes of the story are presented as flashbacks or fantasies of the poor heroine who appears in a hospital bed, struggling against her restraints.  Her reality appears upstage behind a sheer curtain with the memories taking place downstage.

All the crucial scenes were there. We loved the scene taking place at the fountain between Lucia and her friend Alisa in which Lucia frightens Alisa with her ghost story.  One can already see the unbalanced nature that will be pushed over the edge by the manipulations of her brother Enrico; he has been alerted by his captain of the guard Normanno of her secret rendez-vous with Enrico's enemy Edgardo.  Her only supporter is Raimondo, the family confessor, but he too has been deceived and abandons her to a forced marriage with Arturo, chosen for political reasons.

As the eponymous heroine, one could not ask for a better interpreter than Jamilyn Manning-White whose prodigious skills with the fioritura of the bel canto period were matched by her dramatic artistry. Our heart broke for this victim of male privilege.

Tenor David Guzman made a fine romantic partner as Edgardo; baritone Matthew Singer conveyed all the brutality of a selfish brother whose deviousness was informed by political desperation. John Taylor Ward was effective as Raimondo and Monica Soto-Gil made an excellent impression as Lucia's friend Alisa.

Maestro Schlosberg conducted from the piano and his arrangement brought out many interesting voices in the score. We were particularly taken by the wizardry of percussionist Bill Solomon who created sounds to rival that of the glass harmonica one never gets to hear.

Scenic Designer Reid Thompson did much with little.  Costumes by Beth Goldenberg were contemporary.

Although the two operas of the festival were presented sequentially on opening night, the rest of the week permits one to see just one at a time. We wish we could be as enthusiastic about Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas but we cannot. The baroque music was gorgeous. Carla Jablonski's Dido sang beautifully. John Taylor Ward's Aeneas fulfilled the promise of his smaller role in Lucia.

However, the English diction was so poor, especially on the part of the women singers, that we felt we were hearing an opera in a language with which we were only slightly familiar.  It was like listening to Russian and recognizing a word here and there.

Nothing about the story was illuminated and the bizarre movements made no sense to us. We sat there totally baffled by the storytelling. There were so-called witches and sorceresses waving branches, occupying a bathtub and masturbating against push-brooms.  This didn't add up to anything meaningful.  Only "Dido's Lament" at the conclusion was meaningful.  We just couldn't figure out what director Ethan Heard (Co-Artistic Director) was going for.

So...we give an unqualified YEA to Lucia and a NAY to Dido. See it at your own risk!

(c) meche kroop


Lachlan Glen and Ben Bliss

It would take a far better writer than we are to fully convey the impact of yesterday's lieder recital. The word that comes to mind is gifting. Carnegie Hall's program of Neighborhood Recitals is a gift to the community and Mr. Bliss and Mr. Glen gifted the audience. Both gifts were majorly appreciated.

We could walk through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, filled with valuable paintings and stop, arrested, in front of one that captivates us completely.  Is it the subject matter?  The colors? The way one's eye is pulled across the canvas? The technique of the application of paint? Inexplicably the eyes mist over. They are not tears of sorrow and not quite tears of joy.  Perhaps they are tears of awe and appreciation for beauty and all that went on in the heart and soul of the artist who produced it.

That is how we felt at Carnegie Hall's Neighborhood Recital at St. Michael's Church, produced as part of the Marilyn Horne Legacy. We were "stirred and shaken", in awe of such talent belonging to two exemplary artists in the early stages of major careers. 

Mr. Bliss' incredible artistry has already been recognized by The Metropolitan Opera (Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail) and the LA Opera (Tamino in Die Zauberflöte). His gentle tenor caresses the ear; his impeccable phrasing makes emotional sense out of whatever he sings; his diction ensures that titles are superfluous.

Mr. Glen has prodigious skills as a pianist with his fingers flying over the keys. On top of that his artistry as a collaborative pianist is legendary. He breathes along with the singer, always supporting and never stealing the show, although he easily could. He is already a successful recording artist.

Together, they were even greater than the sum of their parts and held us in their spell by means of their partnership. Whether the result was achieved by a great deal of practice or by instinctual connection we know not.  But we certainly felt it.

In everything they performed, we sensed a deeply felt connection with the material, which was effectively transmitted to the audience. The program opened with Ottorino Respighi's "Pioggia" in which Mr. Glen's piano produced the raindrops and Mr. Bliss' voice had us inhaling the scent of nature refreshed. Similarly, Respighi's "Nebbie" filled us with the coldness and loneliness of a barren landscape with Mr. Glen's decisive piano making significant contributions.

Three songs by Vincenzo Bellini delighted us: "Malinconia, ninfo gentile",  "Vanne, o rosa fortunata", and "Ma rendi pur contento". All were performed with full attention paid to Bellini's long melodic lines.

Of the four Benjamin Britten songs, we are happy to report that every word was understood, due to superlative English diction. We wish that were always the case but it is not to be taken for granted. We loved the charming "Sally in our Alley".

Two sonnets were performed: Britten's "Spirito ben nato" from Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (noted for some lovely a capella phrases) and Franz Liszt's "Pace non trovo" from Tre sonetti di Petrarca. Having heard this a dozen times this year at various master classes, we thought we were tired of it.  But yesterday we seemed to be hearing it for the first time. The artists brought it to a thrilling dramatic climax.

Opera was not neglected. "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore was absolutely stunning.  Never mind that we just heard it the night before! It was sung with depth and simplicity; the messa di voce at the end was exquisite.

A group of French songs by Henri Duparc and Ernest Chausson were beautifully performed with lovely long Gallic lines and not a whiff of effeteness.  Perhaps our favorite was Reynaldo Hahn's "L'heure exquise" with its delicate piano part and the vocal skips upward.

A prior reviewing commitment forced us to leave before the final set of songs. We hated missing any part of this recital. This is one recital that will remain in our memory.

(c) meche kroop


Sarah Moulton Faux and Aaron Blankfield

Amore Opera has found an excellent new home at the Sheen Center on Bleeker St. The small theater has a pit allowing the singers to project over the orchestra and is just the right size to permit a feeling of intimacy.  We are gratified that they have chosen Gaetano Donizetti to honor this season with one staple of the repertory and one rarely produced opera. Last night we had the pleasure of experiencing L’Elisir d’Amore up close and personal; next week we are looking forward to Poliuto, a drama about the 3rd century martyr. 

Donizetti is a melodist par excellence and he lavished his 1832 masterpiece L’Elisir d’Amore with a profusion of tunes that gladden the heart and touch the soul. Happily, his librettist Felice Romano adapted Augustin Eugène Scribe’s Le Philtre, a charming story with lovable characters. The setting is a small Italian village and the time has been updated to the early 20th c., which neither added new insights nor detracted from the story. (We have been terribly distressed by productions updated to the 20th c. because they just didn’t make sense.)

The production has been triple-cast and we very much enjoyed the cast we heard. We were quite impressed by Aaron Blankfield's performance as the timid lovesick Nemorino.  Not only did he exhibit a fine sweet tenor but he appeared to be drawing from someplace deep inside to create a most believable character whose ultimate success at love we wished to happen.  His “Una furtiva lagrima”, introduced by the most legato bassoon solo we have ever heard, was the epitome of soulfulness.

As Adina, the wealthy and educated landowner (here the owner of a bookshop), soprano Sarah Moulton Faux graced the stage with her beauty of form and voice. There was a bit of difficulty at the start getting the middle register to sail over the orchestra but that passed quickly and her brilliance with the coloratura passages was pure delight.

Baritone Gustavo Morales made an appropriately arrogant Sergeant Belcore, a rather ridiculous figure but ultimately a good-hearted chap and a gracious loser in the battle for Adina’s love.

As the traveling con man Dr. Dulcamara, we enjoyed the veteran performer Gary Giardina who really knows how to create a character. He arrived in high style and was accompanied by two lovely female assistants, Adrienne Chu and Angela Joy, whose antics were choreographed by Cara Chapman.

Merrin Lazyan sang the role of Giannetta while Marlene Williams filled several small roles. The chorus added greatly to the proceedings, especially the bumbling soldiers that did nothing to destroy the reputation carried by the Italian military. The children’s chorus fulfilled the adorable quotient.

Fine things happen when production personnel have experience in opera.  In this case, Stage Director (also Artistic Director) Nathan Hull and Conductor Daniele Tirilli both have backgrounds as opera singers and this clearly informed their performance of their tasks.

Maestro Tirilli’s conducting created plenty of room for the singers and Mr. Hull’s direction introduced lots of clever and original stage business that did not make the singers uncomfortable. (The Metropolitan Opera would do well to follow his example.) One touch we really liked was in the first scene when Nemorino is expressing his feelings for Adina; the action on stage froze as he enacted his fantasy of dancing with Adina.  This little twist was most touching. Another moment we cherished was the fumbling when Belcore is obliged to present Adina with flowers. 

Richard Cerullo's Scenic Design was simple but effective with a painted backdrop and two opposing shops between which was the village square, crowded with villagers. Simple costumes by Ghislaine Sabiti seemed appropriate to the early 20th c. 

But the most important thing for us was the singing and the lovely connection between Nemorino and Adina.  We were delighted that he overcame his faint heart and won the fair lady.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, March 11, 2016


Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!

Alyce Mott, Artistic Director of VHRP Live!, came up with a great idea a couple years ago--that of opening the treasure chest of Victor Herbert operettas and presenting their glorious music with abridged and tightened libretti which she herself would write.  In lesser hands, this might have been a train wreck; in Alyce's capable hands we have the opportunity to get to know this marvelous composer who achieved phenomenal fame between the Gay 90's and WWII.

Herbert was of Irish background but was raised in Austria and Germany and his music clearly shows the influence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Lavish tunes tumbled from his pen onto the page; last night at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church on W. 69th St., the tunes tickled our ears and brought smiles to our face.

The occasion was his 1898 work The Fortune Teller, his 6th opera which premiered at a theatre but 30 blocks from St. Stephen's.  Soprano Alice Nielsen had started her own opera company after breaking with The Bostonians, and prevailed upon Herbert to write an operetta with three roles for her own dear self.

Thus we get a crazy story of a ballet student (soprano Sarah Caldwell Smith) who, along with her twin brother Fedor (Ms. Smith)  was raised by gypsies and given the name of Musette (Ms. Smith). It might be best not to examine the plot too closely as confusion reigns supreme. 

Ms. Smith, who sang all three roles with a fine agile voice, must juggle three suitors: the Hussar Captain Ladislas, well portrayed by tenor Mitchell Roe; Sandor, the Gypsy leader, marvelously sung by bass-baritone Matthew Wages; and Count Berezowski, a composer of no renown and a great deal of debt, sung by the excellent Daniel Greenwood. Ms. Smith is an engaging stage presence with a fine acting style.

There is the recurring theme of a serpentine bracelet that will bring great fortune if the possessor weds; strangely, the bracelet keeps getting abandoned, although the ballet master, the very funny David Seatter, would like to finalize the match and get his cut.

Also involved is the imperious diva Madame Pompon, marvelously portrayed by Vira Slywotzky who would have chewed up the scenery had there been any. But none was necessary since her marvelously resonant voice and over-the-top acting carried the day.

Music Director Michael Thomas was a superb conductor and William Hicks' piano brought out all of Herbert's melodic gifts. There were two outstanding songs to be relished. One was Ms. Smith's ironic delivery of "Always Do As People Say You Should" and the other was Mr. Wages' stirring performance of the "Gypsy Love Song", which would be a perfect encore piece for a baritone's song recital.

It was quite a spectacle to see the group of hussars (Bray Wilkins, Drew Bolander, and Jonathan Rohr) galloping down the aisle and onto the stage on imaginary horses; sadly, the clever words of their chorus got lost with careless diction. But the humor was never lost! 

There were also three ballet students rounding out the cast: Katherine Corle, Chelsea Friedlander, and Angela Christine Smith.

Effective stage direction was provided by Ms. Mott who has no problem wearing several hats. It was a wise decision to remove the irrelevancies of the plot and to provide just enough to bind the lovely songs. It is most fortunate that we have artists in New York who can devote so much time and energy to keep alive music that is part of our history.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, March 10, 2016


Renée Fleming (photo by Andrew Eccles)

We live in an age in which opera singers are expected to be beautiful and glamorous. An adoring audience was well rewarded last night at Carnegie Hall when the beautiful and glamorous soprano Renée Fleming was joined by the equally beautiful and glamorous collaborative pianist Olga Kern. We wondered whether we were at a fashion show or a vocal recital.  Let us get the visuals out of the way first.

For the first half of the program, Ms. Fleming appeared in a striking charcoal gown with a voluminous skirt and black elbow length gloves, the fingers of which were adorned with rings (bling credited to Ann Ziff for Tamsen Z) with Ms. Kern in a skin-tight strapless red gown that hugged her gorgeous figure right down to the knees at which point it flared out into a fishtail.  For the second half of the program, the singer wore a far more flattering red satin gown with matching stole, while Ms. Kern became the wearer of the charcoal, a stunning gown with lines similar to the one she wore for the first half. We were surprised not to find designer credit in the program.

And now we may move on from the arresting visual images to the aural impressions. The highlight of Ms. Fleming's performance was, for us, her third encore--"O, mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. If she never performed in that opera she certainly should have! The aria was delivered with all the passion Puccini wrote and we left Carnegie Hall singing it to ourselves, singing it all the way home. Ms. Fleming seemed far more comfortable with opera than she had been with lieder, although there were several highlights that lifted the evening out of the mundane.

The main problem was the unwelcome presence of the music stand which hampered her connection with the audience. She was not constantly relying on the score but kept it to one side. Still, every occasional glance down and every page turn broke the delicate thread that connects the audience to the singer and the song. 

Ms. Fleming announced that this was the first time she had performed Robert Schumann's magnificent song cycle Frauenliebe und leben and it seemed to us as if she were not quite comfortable with it. It was an appropriate choice of material, coming on the heels of International Women's Day and it is one of our favorite pieces of music; but the performance seemed flat and lacking in variety of color. The performance picked up toward the end with the sweet "Süsser Freund, du blickest" in which the young married woman reveals her pregnancy to her husband.  The final song "Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan" is a real heartbreaker but we were less moved than we generally are by this incredible work.

A group of songs by Rachmaninoff fared better and seemed to be a more comfortable fit for Ms. Fleming's lush instrument. We loved the heart rending "Sing not to me, beautiful maiden", filled as it is with depths of homesickness. The gentle "The Waterlily" was short and sweet, while the passionate "Spring Waters" seemed seasonally appropriate.

We particularly enjoyed Ms. Kern's piano solo. Rachmaninoff himself arranged "Lilacs" for solo piano and she imbued her performance with delicate filigrees of sound that took us right into Central Park's Lilac Walk which we visit every April.

Ms. Kern had another solo during the second half of the program and she dazzled us with "Feux d'artifice" from Debussy's second book of Préludes from 1913. One might say that the performance was filled with fireworks!

The set of Debussy songs was well performed by the two lovely ladies. We always love the langorous "C'est l'extase" but the final song "Chevaux de bois" was our favorite with its dynamic variety and excitement, all of which was captured by the two artists.

The final set comprised five songs by Patricia Barber and we would agree with Ms. Fleming that these are art songs; be they jazz or blues, they surely deserved to be on the program, even though they are not our taste. Ms. Fleming seemed very comfortable with them and appeared to be having a fine time, especially in the final song in which the singer gives the boot to a man who has served his purpose.

As encores we heard "Danny Boy" with Ms. Kern providing a most interesting accompaniment, and "Shall We Dance" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I  now playing on Broadway.

And then....to waft us homeward, the glorious "O, mio babbino caro".

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


The stellar cast of Verdi's Rigoletto produced by Martha Cardona Opera

Last night we had the great pleasure of witnessing yet another triumph of the Martha Cardona Opera. One never tires of Verdi's 1851 masterpiece Rigoletto, with libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, based on Victor Hugo's scandalous play Le roi s'amuse. In mid-19th c. Italy, it was quite a challenge to negotiate with the Austrian censors and many plot compromises were made. Thankfully there were no compromises made with the music and conductor Gregory Ortega led a crisp and insightful reading of the score, from the portentous opening to the lively party music.

Presenting opera in a semi-staged version is a challenge for the audience as well as for the singers. Audience members must mentally invent the setting and the costumes; singers are generally confined to a shallow playing area in front of the orchestra and may have difficulty balancing their vocal  volume with that of the orchestra. None of this seemed to be a problem last night. Minimal but effective direction was provided by Founder and Artistic Director Daniel Cardona.

The singers were undeniably first rate and of the caliber that delights audiences world wide. Highly impressive was baritone Jason Stearns as the eponymous Rigoletto. His acting was so powerful and convincing that his firm baritone seemed only to serve the various nuances of his character. Without any "help" from an artificial hump, he contorted his muscular body and adopted a limp that told us plainly that this poor man had experienced a lifetime of suffering and humiliation. His soliloquy was moving and his duets with Gilda were heartbreaking. This was a performance to be remembered.

Such characters often turn their anger at their bodies toward other people in their pathway and Rigoletto turns his anger onto the corteggani of his employer, the Duke of Mantua. As court jester, he mercilessly pokes, prods, and skewers these courtiers. Thus he incurs the wrath of the elderly Monterone who has come to court to protest the dishonoring of his daughter. Monterone curses him and this maledizione is tragically fulfilled at the end of the opera by the death of Rigoletto's beloved daughter Gilda, the only person toward whom he feels tenderness and love.

Last night's Gilda was played--no, inhabited, by the lovely soprano Yunnie Park, whom we well remember from Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance.  She has a scintillating sound marked by a liquid vibrato and great ease with the fioritura. The very picture of innocence, she is an easy mark for the licentious Duke who has been making eyes at her in church, the only place the lonely girl has been permitted to visit. Ms. Park sang the "Caro nome" with such feeling that she made us remember our first delirious crush.

As the Duke, tenor Galeano Salas, whom we greatly enjoyed in Santa Fe last summer, used his generous sound well and has grown considerably since winning an Opera Index award. His instrument is full-throated with a great deal of breadth to the sound and, happily, no pushing. His appearance is so sweet that we didn't sense any nastiness in his portrayal.  His Duke was more carefree than devious.

Bass-baritone Kian Freitas overcame his youth to effectively portray the aforementioned elderly courtier Monterone. He did this by coloring his fine voice with dignity mingled with outrage.  There are no small roles! He is a Martha Cardona regular and we are glad of it.

As Maddalena, mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel sang well and was believable as Sparafucile's seductive sister whose duty it is to set up the victims for her brother's assassinations. She too is taken in by the Duke's flattery and convinces her brother to betray his code of honor as an assassin.

Another mezzo-soprano Meghan Sands did well with the small role of the Countess Ceprano who has captured the Duke's attention. Jeffrey Perez was fine as her husband. As Giovanna, mezzo-soprano Fiorella Velez sang well but did not create a distinctive character.

Our one disappointment was with bass Matthew Anchel who sang well but was dramatically hampered by being "on the book". There must be a story behind this which we do not know.  Tenor Eamon Pereyra sang the role of Borsa;  baritone Lane Johnson made a fine Marullo.  Patricia Vital sang the role of the Page and the other courtiers were sung by Ray Calderon, Lindell Carter, Tim DiFiore, and Robert Pagnani.

The titles were reasonably well translated but unfortunately not always coincident with what was being sung.  At times they fell behind and at other times rushed ahead.  This was our sole quibble with an outstanding performance.

It is an extraordinary pleasure to hear opera up close and personal. Merkin Hall is a fine venue for this purpose. 

(c) meche kroop