MISSION

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.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

RUSSIAN DREAMS


Last night's Liederabend at The Juilliard School comprised an hour of Russian songs, curated and coached by Gina Levinson. It is hard to believe that our interest in Russian songs was late in arriving. We have become ardent fans recently; the more we hear of them the better we like them.  It didn't hurt to learn a few words in Russian so that the sound has become familiar to our ears.

The program was beyond wonderful and the artists who took part earned our attention, our affection, and our applause.  Speaking of applause, the members of the audience could not restrain themselves from applauding after each and every song.

What all the singers had in common was stage presence. Each one introduced him/herself with poise and told a little about the songs they would sing. This is a superb strategy to form a connection with the audience, one that is often omitted.

Tenor Joshua Blue and pianist Minjung Jung opened the program with a song by Mikhail Glinka who is considered the grandfather of Russian song. His work fits squarely into the style of the early 19th c. but is filled with Russian soul. Pushkin's text for "I remember that magical moment" conveys despair and the balm of a soothing memory.

Mr. Blue's sweet tenor falls pleasantly on the ear and his use of dynamic variety and vocal colors brought the song to vivid life. He seemed to caress each tone with ease, never pushing for volume or pitch.

He followed this with a pair of songs by Sergei Rachmaninov. "In the silence of the mysterious night" is very much a product of the turn of the 20th c. and also deals with memory.

From much later in Rachmaninov's career, we heard "Arion", the tale of a sailor who survived a storm by singing. The storm was beautifully reproduced by Ms. Jung on the piano, and Mr. Blue convinced us as a good story teller.

Next on the program was bass William Su with Katelan Terrell as his able piano partner.  Although the bass fach is a late blooming one, Mr. Su, whose graduation recital at Manhattan School of Music had impressed us greatly last Spring, seems to be developing at a rapid pace.

We heard four songs by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose Golden Cockerel we reviewed twice this year.  His works date from the second half of the 19th c. The first was about secret dreams and was quite lovely. The second one sets a beautiful stage for a rendezvous but ends with the poet being disappointed when the awaited one fails to appear.

The third song, "Lean thy cheek to mine" was both tender and passionate with text translated from Heinrich Heine. It was the fourth song that we loved the best. A lover singing to an unknown beloved is compared to a nightingale singing to an indifferent rose.  The melody to this song is distinctly Asiatic and haunting. The piano is given some gorgeous arpeggi and the conclusion is whistled! Boy, can William whistle!

We would not be left in a mournful mood however.  The conclusion of the set was Modest Mussorgsky's "Song of the flea". We imagine that this song-- about a king who adopted a troublesome flea that annoyed everyone at court--was a political parable. The humor was effectively conveyed by both Mr. Su and Ms. Terrell.

The concluding set was a cycle of songs by Dmitri Shostakovich, a 20th c. composer whose work has never thrilled us.  However, this cycle appealed to us quite a bit, especially as performed by soprano Meghan Kasanders, mezzo-soprano Myka Murphy, and tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole. The rotating pianists were Candace Chien, Jinhee Park, and Richard Fu.

The cycle Jewish Folk Poetry, Op.79 comprises 11 songs, 10 of which were performed by the three singers in various combinations. Eight of the songs described all kinds of disappointments and sufferings with the final two describing happiness under Communism.  We speculated that this was written for political reasons.

We loved the sound of Ms. Kasanders and Ms. Murphy in the duets "Lament for a dead infant" and "A concerned mother and aunt".  In "Before a long separation", Ms. Kasanders is terribly troubled and Mr. Jonas-O'Toole tries to console her with joyful memories. By the end of the song their roles have reversed. The harmonies were exquisite and unusual with plentiful dissonance.

In "Winter" the three singers created the howling of the wind. On the whole, the cycle paints a grim picture of life on the shtetl--nothing like the joyous murals painted by Marc Chagall.

The hour flew by and we were left wanting more.  "Ochen harasho!" and a big "Spassiba" to the singers.

(c) meche kroop


Monday, December 11, 2017

RICHARD TUCKER GALA

A magical night at Carnegie Hall

Barry Tucker sure knows how to honor his father, the late and great Richard Tucker; he also knows how to put on a great show, one that all of the citizens of Planet Opera must attend. Rarely are so many superstars gathered under one roof and Carnegie Hall is the perfect venue for us to appreciate their gifts, thanks to its formidable acoustics.

Onstage we had the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Nicola Luisotti; they got the festivities off to a great start with the rousing overture to Verdi's Nabucco, one of the themes of which we would hear later, performed by the incomparable New York Choral Society--"Va pensiero".

Headlining the program was the stunning soprano Nadine Sierra, whom we have always called "the diva next door". Rarely is so much beauty, glamour, artistry, and wholesomeness found in one person. The Richard Tucker Foundation awarded her top prize this year and they could not have made a better choice.

We have often thrilled to her performance of Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto, a role she imbues with all the innocence it requires. In "Caro nome", Gilda has just fallen in love with the Duke, whom she believes to be a poor student. Verdi's writing here manifests all the excitement of first love and Ms. Sierra provided ample embellishments without ever betraying the innocence of the character. The a capella section is a high wire act and this artist never missed a step.

What always astonishes us is how a great artist makes a great aria seem completely natural and effortless. Of course we are aware of how much study and practice it takes to make something appear effortless! The greatest astonishment of the evening was her performance of Violetta's scena from Act I of Verdi's La Traviata.

In this aria, Violetta is reflecting upon the new man who has been devoted to her for some time but only just arrived on her doorstep, so to speak. Violetta, in her way, is as innocent of love as Gilda is, but she is also worldly. She lives a life devoted to carefree pleasures as a well-kept mistress; but something deep inside has been awakened by the promise of love. In this scena she considers both options. Verdi's music and Ms. Sierra's delivery told us everything we need to know about this complex woman. Here, her fioritura was suitably feverish and florid.  The standing ovation was well deserved.

The other standing ovation of the evening was earned by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (1999 Award winner) who performed the most unusual version of the Habanera from Bizet's Carmen we have ever witnessed. The uniqueness of her sound, paired with a very over the top piece of acting brought out appreciative giggles and torrents of applause. She was having a great time onstage, interacting with the conductor and the concertmaster.

We got to hear a more traditional aria from her also--"Aure, deh, per pietà" from Handel's Giulio Cesare, accompanied by what appeared to be a theorbo. We felt like our ears had tastebuds and we were drinking thick rich hot chocolate. No one sounds like Ms. Blythe!

Another remarkable performance was delivered by tenor Vittorio Grigolo who actually transformed himself into Canio from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci before our very eyes, so completely did he immerse himself in the role. He milked it for all it was worth and we gained an understanding of Canio's pain that seemed to go deeper than jealousy. The tearful vibrato in his voice seemed absolutely right.

In the role of Tonio who performs the  Prologue to Pagliacci, "Si può", we heard baritone Anthony Clark Evans  We loved the way he created a believable character, miming the movements of an itinerant performer about to face a new audience. We also loved the waves of rich sound he produced. We are so glad that the foundation has been nurturing his career with a Study Grant in 2014 and a Career Grant this year.

Dramatic soprano Tamara Wilson (last year's Tucker Award winner), accompanied by the massive chorus, gave a compelling performance of "In questa reggia" from Puccini's Turandot. In an original masterstroke, she interpolated the tenor's line, right before the high C, as explained by our friend the pianist Michael Fennelly. We were impressed by the modulated quality she achieved without the oft heard shouting.

She also performed the role of Aida in a duet with Amneris (mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk). In "Fu la sorte dell'armi" she gets tricked by her rival for Radames' affection into exposing her love for him. There is a gross imbalance of power, but an excellent balance of voices!

Ms. Semenchuk also sang "O mio Fernando" from Donizetti's La Favorita, accompanied by our new favorite instrumental combination--harp and horn.

Counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo performed "Rompo i lacci" from Handel's Flavio. For this stunning performance, the orchestra was joined by a baroque guitar. There were plenty of fireworks in the A section, delivered with the rapid-fire precision  for which Mr. Costanzo is famous, but we were more interested in the largo B section in which we could appreciate the long legato lines.

Soprano Ailyn Pèrez (the 2012 Tucker award winner) never fails to delight and delight she did with "Ebben! Ne andrò lontana" from Catalani's rarely performed verismo opera La Wally. There was a memorably graceful portamento in this heartfelt aria and Ms. Pèrez brought it to a thrilling climax. Even better was her performance of "Un bel di" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly in which the pathos is punctuated by the percussion in the orchestra.

Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, who has won two grants from the foundation, reprised the performance we so enjoyed at The Greene Space--the "Czardas" from Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus. In this aria, Frau Eisenstein pretends to be a Hungarian Countess to trick her wayward husband. The purposeful overacting brought fun to us and, we hope, to her as well.

Mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught produced some vocal fireworks in the well known bel canto aria which closes Rossini's La cenerentola--"Nacqui all'affanno...Non più mesta". We liked the way she paced it, giving herself room to expand the runs and trills which Rossini produced in cascades.

Tenor Peni Pati sang "La donna è mobile" from Verdi's Rigoletto with a rather covered sound. We liked the variety of dynamics.

Ms. Sierra and Mr. Grigolo made quite a pair in "Tonight" from Bernstein's West Side Story. You may disagree but we see this as an American Opera.  All it needs to graduate from Broadway to the opera stage is topnotch unamplified voices.

The dazzling evening closed with the final scene from Verdi's final opera Falstaff. This elaborate fugue is endlessly inventive and unremittingly delightful.

It was a long evening, 2 1/2 hours without intermission, but it flew by with not a single longueur.  As we said, Barry Tucker knows how to throw a party!
(c) meche kroop

SOME BIG VOICES AT THE MORGAN LIBRARY


Myra Huang, Quinn Kelsey, and Marjorie Owens

For those of you lovers of good singing who don't already know about it, The Morgan Library offers a splendid series of recitals in collaboration with The George London Foundation for Singers, famed for their generosity with awards to promising young singers in an annual competition.

The recitals feature previous winners of these competitions and it is always rewarding for us to see how astutely the winners were chosen and how far they have come in their careers. Yesterday's recital featured two singers who have achieved worldwide fame on the stages of grand opera houses. But we, dear reader, got to see and hear them up close and personal.

Dramatic soprano Marjorie Owens won the Leonie Rysanek Award from the George London Foundation in 2009 and her career has blossomed since then. She has garnered awards from major competitions worldwide and it was easy to see why at yesterday's recital.

She opened the program with a trio of songs by our dearly loved Tchaikovsky. The first one, known as "None but the lonely heart" is a setting of text by Goethe translated into Russian. We know it as "Nur wer die sehnsucht kennt". The melody and accompaniment are completely different but the sentiment remains the same--that of the suffering experienced by those denied love.

Ms. Owens sang it with beautiful phrasing and a pleasing vibrato. She seemed to taste and caress each word.  In the second song, "Again, as before, I am alone", we were thinking about Tchaikovky's choices of text and wondering about the profound loneliness of those who are not accepted by society as they are and who must hide behind a mask. We were impressed by Myra Huang's skillful accompaniment.

But it was the final song that touched us the most. In "Was I not a little blade of grass", each verse of this strophic song is a metaphor for the suffering of a young girl forced to marry an old man she doesn't love. We couldn't keep from thinking about the forced marriages in the Middle East. Here in the USA personal choice in the area of marriage is taken for granted. Ms. Owens conveyed all the pain in the coloration of her voice.

Baritone Quinn Kelsey , also a recipient of countless awards including two grants from The George London Foundation, followed with Old American Songs, a 1950 oeuvre by Aaron Copeland, settings of text by D. Emmett. Mr. Kelsey possesses a large instrument that produces a full throated sound, one which filled the hall with overtones.  He can swell to a passionate climax and bring it back down to a near whisper.

Copeland will never be our favorite composer of song but we enjoyed the jaunty quality of "The Boatmen's Dance" because the music fits the text, and Mr. Kelsey gave it a fine performance. Similarly, the humor of "The Dodger" was well captured by the vocal line and Mr. Kelsey's personalization.

Opera is the best medium in which to appreciate these ample voices. We loved the duet between Ms. Owens' Aida and Mr. Kelsey's Amonasro--"Cielo! mio padre!" Amonasro puts the screws on his daughter to use her relationship with Radames to get information about the Egyptian army. He uses every manipulative device at his disposal to get what he wants.  As he asserts his power over her, she becomes weaker until she submits. The two artists successfully conveyed the shift in power.

After Mr. Kelsey's sensational delivery of "Prince Yeletsky's Aria" from Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame, Ms. Owens delivered Ariadne's showpiece aria from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos--"Es gibt ein Reich". Her German was as perfekt as could be and the resonance at the top of her register had the molecules of air dancing around the hall.

The program closed with the duet "Wie aus der Ferne" from Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer. Ms. Owens has a great deal of experience with this role, as she does with that of Ariadne, but Mr. Kelsey was unfortunately using a music stand. This made it visually awkward but did nothing to impair the glorious sound of their voices. The parts where their vocal lines overlapped produced incredible harmonics and gave us goosebumps.

We hated to miss the encores but needed to rush uptown for the Richard Tucker Gala. If you were there and are inclined to add that to this review, it would be appreciated.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, December 10, 2017

GLORIA TUTTI

Maestro Joseph Colaneri and the cast from Mannes Opera's production of Le Nozze di Figaro

We have often averred that we could attend Mozart's masterpiece of social commentary on a weekly  basis without getting bored. Actually we have been seeing it that often and we haven't changed our mind. Mozart's melodies delight the ear and Lorenzo da Ponte's thoughtful yet humorous libretto provides ample food for thought--and not a few giggles.

At the time of The Enlightenment, society was questioning a number of issues, including the inequalities between master and servant and the place of women in society. Sitting in the audience at the comfortable Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, we mused on the wisdom of Artistic Director Maestro Colaneri and Stage Director Laura Alley who gave us a traditional production, one which allowed us the freedom to see the parallels with our own society in its present state of upheaval.

There is no need to force feed an audience to make them appreciate these similarities by changing the time and place of the opera.  As a matter of fact, references to the droit de seigneur make such updating wrong-headed and despicable. We do not need pandering. We love authenticity.

The performances we witnessed were honest and true to the story. The members of The Mannes Opera performed with true ensemble spirit and, by the end of the evening, we felt that we knew and cared about the characters. We have been writing a lot lately about characterological growth and transformation. Mozart's music limns each character and his/her evolution. It takes a good conductor to bring this out in the orchestra and a good director to show this onstage.

In Laura Alley we had a first-rate director who served the story and not her own ego. It would seem obvious that such is the goal but so many directors nowadays betray that maxim. Ms. Alley not only kept everything moving onstage but provided "stage business" that heightened our awareness of each character's motivation. It's the tiny details that count.  Let us offer just one example. When the Count ships Cherubino off to war, the page joins Susanna and Figaro in a parade around the room. Susanna picks up a curtain rod with a curtain suspended and carries it as a battle flag.  This tells us that she is clever and resourceful. There were many similar touches to come.

This resourceful Susanna was performed by the winsome soprano Ana Capetillo who captured our attention from the first moment as she tries to get Figaro's attention away from measuring the room to focus on her bridal veil. Ms. Capetillo is full of personality and possesses a sparkling soprano that seems meant for Mozart. We were surprised to learn that she is an undergraduate! Her "Deh vieni, non tardar" elicited torrents of applause.

She is more than a servant to the Countess; she is a confidant and helper. The Countess was portrayed by soprano Lauren Yokabaskas who employed her fine instrument in lovely legato lines to convey the sadness of a neglected wife who has lost her husband's attention. She sang her two arias with despair and dignity. Anyone who wasn't moved by her "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono" must be horribly hard hearted.

Susanna's nemesis in her struggle to get married to Figaro is Marcellina, here performed by the excellent mezzo-soprano Wan Zhao. We loved the scene where they dish each other and we loved watching the lightning shift in attitude when Marcellina learns that Figaro is her long lost son. She is instantly motherly toward Susanna but it takes Susanna a bit longer to be convinced. We wish her aria "Il capro e la capretta" had not been cut. But it generally is.

The role of Cherubino was interpreted by mezzo-soprano Perri di Christina whose acting measured up to her vocal skills. She was quite convincing as a male youth and just as believable as a youth pretending to be a girl. We better appreciated the texture of her voice in "Voi che sapete", in which the more leisurely tempo than that of "Non so piu" gave us the opportunity to really hear her.

As Barbarina, petite soprano Sara Law was exactly what the role called for. She sang with brightness and lightness and clarity of tone.

And now for the men! In the title role we heard Chase Cornett who we believe to be a bass baritone. The darkness of his tone and a bit of stiffness in his acting threw us off at first but we warmed up to his performance when he relaxed physically and allowed Figaro's playful side to emerge. By the end of the opera we were really enjoying his performance, especially watching his indignant rage when he thinks Susanna is unfaithful. 

Baritone Sunyeop Hwang made a fine Count Almaviva--arrogant, clueless, and lecherous.  (Does this sound like anyone we know?) His "Crudel! perche finora" was splendidly sung. Of course, we enjoyed his comeuppance at the end and hoped against hope that his transformation would endure past the final curtain.

Bass Michael Pitocchi impressed us with his interpretation of Don Bartolo.  In spite of his youth, his acting and the color of his voice convinced us that he was an old fellow, grumpy and disdainful of his servant Marcellina but ready to help her win her suit and later willing to marry her. His Act I aria "La vendetta" was brilliantly sung.

Tenor Hyun Ho Cho made a fine slimy Don Basilio, always ready to gossip and make trouble for others. As the gardener Antonio, bass Jongwon Choi avoided all the drunken clichés and gave a fine realistic interpretation of an aggrieved servant struggling to make his case.

The role of Don Curzio the notary is a small role but tenor Andrès Peñalver made the most of it. Every time he sneezed, the hair on his wig flew up, providing a lot of laughs. Wigs are credited to Amanda Miller.

We are not sure who coached the chorus but they sang beautifully and intelligibly, especially in the beautiful chorus that brings the drama to a happy end with "Gloria tutti".

Roger Hanna's sets were simple but effective. We particularly liked the set for Act I which looked exactly the way a storage room in a palace would look--shelves and cubbyholes filled with all kinds of stuff.

Helen E. Rodgers' costumes were perfect.  They were not only accurate to the late 18th c. period but sported flourishes and furbelows of definite Iberian flavor.  We knew exactly where we were!

Where YOU should be is at today's matinée, the final performance!

(c) meche kroop



Saturday, December 9, 2017

THE OTHER CENDRILLON

Amanda Austin and Michael St. Peter in Cendrillon (photo by Carol Rosegg)

This won't be the first time we have heard an opera that was all but forgotten until someone made the effort to discover it.  And it won't be the first time that we heard a different version of a beloved opera--in this case, the Cendrillon of  Jules Massenet.

This Cendrillon, by 19th c. Maltese composer Nicolo Isouard, might have gone undiscovered, were it not for the diligent labors of William Tracy (Head of Opera Musical Studies at Manhattan School of Music), soprano Jennifer Gliere, and conductor Pierre Vallet who joined forces to reconstruct a score for which there were no orchestral parts. The Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater could not have gotten a better gift.

The delightful production they created was directed by the always wonderful Dona D. Vaughn; evidence of its supremely successful debut was the evident joy of the audience. We have never seen so many happy faces exiting a theater; nor have we ever heard such animated chatter.

Mr. Isouard's tuneful score had all the singable melodies of the Italian Bel Canto, but with French refinement. The overture itself was a masterpiece of melody which Maestro Vallet conducted with Gallic verve. That major parts were given to the harp (Hannah Murphy) and the horn (Nicole Rodriguez) was like sweet wine for our thirsty ears.

The libretto by Charles Guillaume Étienne was brief (about 2 hours) and to the point. This was not a spectacle with coach and horses and grand staircases. This was an intimate story about an unloved step-child finding the love she deserves from a worthy man. In the telling of the tale, extraneous characters were eliminated . There was no Disneyfication and no Fairy Godmother.

The only "magic" occurred when Cendrillon fell asleep at the end of Act I in her step-father's home and awoke at the beginning of Act II in the Prince's palace. The two step-sisters are merely selfish, vain, and entitled girls--not horribly wicked ones. In place of a lot of exaggerated humor we felt a sense of reality about the drama.

Dialogue was spoken in English which was translated from the French by Mr. Tracy and adapted by Ms. Vaughn.

Soprano Amanda Austin shone in the title role. In this version, she is obliged to serve her step-sisters and step-father but she is not a drudge. She is not feisty but rather modest and humble with a generosity of spirit. These qualities came through in the coloration and phrasing of her vocal lines. We totally believed her and thrilled to the crystalline quality of her instrument.

Tenor Michael St.Peter was a princely prince and colored his voice differently from tenderness to exultation as the situation dictated.  He has a lovely clear quality to his instrument and fortunately no tendency to force in the upper register. He has superb dynamic control as well.

The pair sing a sweet duet in Act III ,"Vous l'aimez donc avec tendresse?". Oh, how sweet it is to hear beautifully aligned voices joined in harmony!

The roles of the two step-sisters were written for sopranos--but sopranos of a very different type than that of Cendrillon. Their vocal lines are more Italianate and it comes as no surprise that Isouard studied in Italy with musicians of the Neapolitan school. It is only fitting that their vocal lines are as flashy as they are, with lavish fioritura.

As Clorinde, Hyeree Shin fulfilled the vocal demands of the role as well as the dramatic ones. We particularly loved her florid Act II aria "Couronnons-nous des fleurs nouvelles" with its lavish embellishments. The accompaniment sounded a bit like Vivaldi in the string section but filtered through a highly syncopated Bolero rhythm. Since the dialogue was performed in English, we look forward to Ms. Shin improving her English diction.

Abigail Shapiro's Tisbé was equally successful, opening Act III with a dazzling recitativo and aria "Dieu! Quel évènement!" Ms. Shapiro did justice to this show-stopper and we hope she will use it for auditions! Come to think of it, Ms. Shin could do the same with her aria.

Not only were the two sopranos superb on their own but their duet in Act I "Ah! Quel plaisir" was sheer delight, as beautifully performed as it was beautifully written. These two sisters are harmonious at first, much like Fiordiligi and Dorabella in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.  But by Act III they are brawling on the floor, having dropped the mask of refinement.

Standing in for the prince was his servant Dandini in disguise, and baritone Marshall Morrow made the most of his role, garnering hearty laughs from the audience with his exaggerated French accent and gauche wooing of Tisbé and Clorinde. It was the Prince's wish that Dandini be wed to one of the sisters and no one wanted to marry him! Cendrillon got a very funny line "I wasn't attracted to him at all, but his not being a prince did not make him more attractive". We suspect that line was written by Ms. Vaughn but she has yet to admit it!

William Huyler's baritone was just right for the role of the Baron, an aristocrat who had blown his fortune on his own two daughters to get them married off. To watch him standing behind Tisbé as she performed and echoing her movements was a "source of innocent merriment"; we thought of all the stage mothers we have met.

As Alidor, the Prince's wise tutor, we heard Marcel Sokalski who had to pretend to be a beggar in Act I in order to reveal the true character of the Baron's daughters. He is the guiding force of the story, leading the Prince toward a good decision.  His Act I duet with Mr. St. Peter was not only harmonically impressive but emotionally stirring. The Prince expresses his gratitude and filial devotion whilst Alidoro expresses his paternal love.  His acting, however, could be improved during the spoken dialogue which seemed a bit wooden.

The knockout performances of the principals were matched by that of the chorus, especially in "Au doux sommeil" which opened Act II. We have always noted that Chorus Master Miriam Charney does a great job. The same tribute goes to Bénédict Jourdois who ensures that everyone's French is superbe. Nous avons tout compris!

Dona D. Vaughn's direction was so on point that the action always seemed realistic. We might have been watching a drama about a family with all the feelings made clear by their interactions.

Arnulfo Maldonado's set design was simple and tasteful with no particular emphasis on period whereas Tracy Dorman's costumes were most definitely influenced by Paul Poiret, placing us firmly in the pre-World War I period. Cendrillon was simply dressed with an apron but sported a fabulous gown at the palace. The two step-sisters were lavishly dressed and swanned about the stage in their garments and turbans.

We could go on and on, waxing rhapsodic, but we would prefer that you see for yourself. There will be two performances today, matinée and evening, with another matinée on Sunday. The afternoon performances will have some different cast members and some of the same. Performances are at the comfortable Florence Gould Hall of the Alliance Française on 59th St.

We hope that this work, having been brought to such vivid life, will be taken up by opera houses around the country. It deserves a place in the canon.  Moreover, we hope that more works by this prolific composer will be rediscovered.

(c) meche kroop



Tuesday, December 5, 2017

BAD BOY!

Cast of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges at Alice Tully Hall

What a treat!  Last night the Juilliard Orchestra was joined by members of the Vocal Arts Program for an evening of French music, the capstone of which was Ravel's short opera L'enfant et les sortilèges. Although the program notes suggest a somewhat different origin, we had always believed that this work was intended as a ballet for the Paris Opera but wound up as an opera, with ballet sequences choreographed by none other than George Balanchine.  There is no disagreement about Colette's authorship of the libretto. The work made its premiere in 1925 at the Opéra de Monte Carlo.

Until three years ago we had never seen it performed but then enjoyed two performances in close temporal proximity, one by Utopia Opera and shortly afterward as the initial work by Bare Opera. We became an instant fan of this delightful work with its charming story and eclectic score.

That the members of the Juilliard Vocal Arts Program were able to capture the spirit of the work on a very narrow strip of stage in front of the Juilliard Orchestra seemed a minor miracle; the miracle worker must have been the director Edward Berkeley. Credit for the brilliant reading of this enchanting score goes to Maestro Emmanuel Villaume whose feeling for French music is in his genes. But credit for the performances must be shared by the cast of singers whose ensemble spirit could only be realized by a lot of time spent rehearsing.

Heading the cast was mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano who made a very convincing naughty boy, one of those children whose destructive energy emerges when they are given insufficient stimulation, at least that was our conjecture! Ms. Lauritano never hits a wrong note, not vocally and not dramatically. We wanted to jump up onstage and hold her down!

The role of the mother was sung by Myka Murphy who has a very different sort of mezzo and we hear a definite contralto in the making. We couldn't keep from fantasizing about the roles she will take down the road from now.

Soprano Onadek Winan was glorious in her coloratura in all three roles: Le Feu, La Princesse, and Le Rossignol.

Baritone Xiaomeng Zhang always impresses us with his fine tone and phrasing; he excelled as the wounded tree and as Le Fauteil in his duet with La Bergère (performed by soprano Anneliese Klenetsky who handled the scale passages with aplomb).

Another successful duet was that of the two cats. Mezzo-soprano Nicole Thomas and baritone Gregory Feldmann had a rather sexy catfight until they turned their attention to Maestro Villaume who played along in a most sportsmanlike manner. Mr. Feldmann was also memorable as the broken clock, holding his arm askew as the pendulum.

Mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn made an adorable Chinese tea-cup with tenor Matthew Pearce as the teapot, spouting a pidgin Asian mix, accompanied by tuba.

Tenor James Ley made quite a strict arithmetic teacher, known in the script as Le Petit Veillard. Soprano Kresley Figueroa had a sweet duet with mezzo-soprano Marie Engle as a pair of country folk from the torn storybook.

It seemed that for the second part, every cast member took on another role as an animal, with soprano Vivian Yau standing out as a bat whose mate had been killed by the naughty boy. The chorus added to the overall effect.

Quite in tune with this week's theme of behavioral change and redemption (see two prior reviews below) the bad boy of the first part is confronted in the second part by critters he has injured. He is transformed and the audience is satisfied by a successful conclusion to the story. The critters forgive him and so do we.

Although we rarely review instrumental works, it would be churlish not to mention how successfully performed were the two works in the first half of the program. Ravel wrote his Menuet antique when he was but twenty years of age; it took him 34 years to orchestrate it!  And what an incredible orchestrator he was. Someday we would love to hear the original piano version followed by the orchestral arrangement.

We very much enjoyed Debussy's La mer although the programmatic nature of the piece escaped us. Without being told that it was about the sea, we would not have guessed it. What stood out for us were the orchestral colors. First cellist Matthew Chen gave a stunning performance and we also enjoyed the harp and celeste.  No doubt about it, the Juilliard Orchestra rules!

(c) meche kroop












Sunday, December 3, 2017

FIGARO QUA FIGARO LÀ

Cast of FIGARO x FIGARO produced by BARE OPERA

When we were new to opera we used to get Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia mixed up with Mozart's Nozze di Figaro. The characters were the same, all derived from the plays of Pierre Beaumarchais; so why were the vocal ranges sometimes different? Why didn't one composer write the entire story in one opera, or even a trilogy?  Last night, in the farthest reaches of Brooklyn, we experienced a pastiche that came very close to achieving such a perfect union.

The boutique opera company known as Bare Opera is never bare of imagination, creativity, and an adventuresome spirit. For this production, Executive Producer Kirsten Scott (herself a superlative singer) assembled a fine production team and cast which brought Beaumarchais' characters to vivid life.

Director Cecilia Ligorio put a modern feminist spin on the work; the women join forces to deal with restrictive guardians and cheating husbands. Scenes from Il Barbiere are interpolated within Nozze di Figaro to give insight into the origins of the characters. Most of the important arias and ensembles are preserved with tedious recitativi deleted. The entire work came in at a swift two hours. Extraneous characters are also deleted with singers assuming more than one role.

The key to making this work was the high quality of the musical values, not to mention the acting. Characters and relationships were made crystal clear. The singers are well known to us from other productions by Bare Opera, as well as from performances with other companies. They were all beyond excellent.

The trickiest role was that of Rosina, performed by the superb soprano Liana Guberman, whose career has taken off since our first review. The role of Rosina in Il Barbiere is generally sung by a mezzo-soprano but the low register presented no problem for Ms. Guberman who was able to portray the spunky young Rosina as well as the rejected yet dignified Countess in Nozze. It always bothered us that Rossini and Mozart chose different fachs for the same character.  But it didn't faze Ms. Guberman who sounds superb in whatever she tackles.

No less impressive was the Susanna of Kristina Bachrach whom we hear often at the Brooklyn Art Song Society. It was a definite treat to see this splendid soprano in a new light. Her instrument is a beautiful one and she employs it effectively with fine color. Most importantly we believed her characterization and particularly enjoyed her "Deh vieni non tardar" in which she teases her jealous husband. 

Baritone Suchan Kim seems to own the role of Count Almaviva. His tone is a bit richer than the designation "lyric baritone" would have one expect and he absolutely convinced us as the husband who projects his own philandering nature onto his neglected wife. Watching him do a slow burn was pure pleasure. His shamefaced apology at the end touched our heart, as did the Countess' forgiveness.  Mozart ended his opera with the theme of change and redemption, not so different from last night's Christmas Carol produced by Gramercy Opera. (Review below)

One of the biggest surprises of the night was the Figaro of bass/baritone Paul La Rosa. His voice, his build, and his dramatic presentation are all muscular and, in our opinion, much better suited to opera than to lieder singing in which he tended to overwhelm the material.  He is really a stage animal! He was very severe with Cherubino in his "Non più andrai". We felt his pain when he thought Susanna was cheating on him with the Count. 

Another surprise was the performance of Francisco Corredor in the role of Don Basilio. We know Mr. Corredor as a "character tenor" and always enjoy his comedic skills.  But last night he was given the serenade "Ecco ridente in cielo"  in which Almaviva, disguised as Lindoro, sings to Rosina in Il Barbiere. This was interpolated as a flashback to illustrate how the Count's affections had waned. Mr. Corredor sang it quite well.

As Cherubino, mezzo-soprano Sophie Delphis was engaging. The scene in which Susanna and the Countess undress "him" was just a bit racier than usual and unusually well handled. We can think of no more delightful mezzo arias than "Non so piu" and "Voi che sapete".  We wished we had an instant replay button!

Bass Colin Whiteman made an excellent blustery Bartolo who softened at the end of the opera when he admitted that he loved Marcellina, a non-singing role taken by actor Paola Michelini, representing all servants everywhere.  In Ms. Ligorio's telling of the tale, the entire issue of Figaro's origins was avoided and the reason Marcellina backed out of her resistance to Figaro's marriage to Susanna was that she didn't want to marry him, she wanted to marry Bartolo.

If you are intensely devoted to the original story, this might have bothered you, but we were content to go along with all the plot changes and enjoyed ourself immensely.

The scene that the audience seemed to enjoy the most was the ensemble from the end of Act I of Il Barbiere-- "Fredda ed immobile, come una statua";  In this case Bartolo was knocked out on the floor. 

The chamber orchestra was conducted by the renowned Sesto Quatrini, protégé of Fabio Luisi and now appointed Principal Conductor of Bare Opera, which makes us very happy. His arrangement for a dozen instruments worked exceptionally well with Music Director Laetitia Ruccolo at the piano and Victoria Wolf Lewis as Concertmaster.

What impressed us was how well integrated was the music of Rossini and that of Mozart. The two operas were separated by 27 years with the Mozart premiering in 1786 and the Rossini in 1813. An audience member untutored in music would never have noticed any disjunction, so seamlessly was the music blended.

The excellent titles were devised by Technical Director George Del Barrio and the costumes were designed by Raxann Chin--simple modern street attire adorned with jackets of the historical period.

The action was staged in several areas of a large warehouse so that no set changes were needed. The audience was seated in two areas at right angles to each other so that sight lines were good. The orchestra was behind one of the seating areas which worked well.

If you love Mozart, see it!  If you love Rossini, see it!  If you love a good time, see it!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, December 2, 2017

SCROOGE!

Elizabeth Bouk, Jeremy Hirsch, and Scott Joiner in Gramercy Opera's production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol


Charles Dickens wrote his novella A Christmas Carol in 1843 as a means of engaging his middle-class audience with his concern for the conditions of the poor in mid-Victorian England--a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. The work has an optimistic bent in that Scrooge (the superb Jeremy Hirsch), the main character, transforms himself from a cold and miserly misanthrope to a kind and generous man.

The means by which this is achieved is by confrontation with a series of ghosts--that of his former partner Marley (the effective Angky Budiardjono), the Ghost of Christmas Past (the lovely Eugenia Forteza), the Ghost of Christmas Present (the hilariously campy Tim Stoddard), and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Petra Jarrar).

We see this device as the Victorian precursor to psychoanalysis. The best means of stimulating behavioral change is the process of examining childhood recollections and their effect on shaping the present character, and the subsequent examination of the consequences of unproductive behavior.

For the yearling Gramercy Opera, tackling this rich story was a major undertaking and the results were, for the most part, engaging and entertaining. What we appreciated the most was the creation of a Victorian atmosphere. For this production, the Montauk Club in Park Slope, Brooklyn was chosen and an excellent choice it was, redolent of the atmosphere of the 19th c.

The Production Designer Maria Torffield ensured that the characters were suitably costumed with hairstyling that appeared authentic. Lighting design by Lauren Libretti achieved a spooky Victorian mood but at the expense of audience comfort.  The room was dark save for some very bright spotlights that shone directly into our eyes.  Other seats may have escaped this discomfort.

The immersive nature of the production was also achieved at the expense of audience comfort.  The playing space was approximately 75 feet long with audience members seated on both sides of what became a long corridor. The Cratchit's dining room was at one end and Scrooge's bedroom was at the other end. The awkward effect was like that of attending a tennis match!

Additionally, dialogue became lost with some frequency. Of course, most of us are familiar with the story so it was no big deal to lose some of the dialogue.

The performances were excellent without exception. Jeremy Hirsch was a convincing Scrooge. We liked Nick Fitzer as the carefree nephew Fred and Marie Putko as Belle, the lovely young woman he had courted and lost in his youth because of his concern with money. Scott Joiner and Elizabeth Bouk were believable as the Cratchits, parents of a large family, poor but loving and happy. Peals of laughter greeted the campy performance of Tim Stoddard as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Comic relief is always welcome. This versatile artist was excellent as the serious Young Scrooge!

Readers may have observed that we have not described the genre to which this show belongs. Composer Felix Jarrar calls it a "ballad opera", analogous to the German Singspiel. There was spoken dialogue, most of which we could hear, and sung music as well.

We loved Mr. Jarrar's incredibly interesting instrumental music; he himself conducted and played the piano part with flutist Leia Slosberg, clarinetist Eric Umble, Violinist Danielle Turano, and cellist Thea Mesirow. We wished that we had had a better view of this chamber group. The textures and colors of the orchestration were brilliant.

We cannot approach the vocal writing with the same degree of enthusiasm. We find the same issue in almost all contemporary writing for voice--the vocal lines are just not interesting! Our ears are tuned to melody and we searched in vain for one. (We did love the arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".)

Part of the problem can be attributed to a prose libretto.  Although Dickens wordiness was avoided and key scenes were given the major focus, the text did not sing well. The brilliant director Brittany Goodwin wrote the libretto as a writing partner to Mr. Jarrar and they are working together on future productions.

We couldn't stop thinking that this story would make a swell Broadway musical with short punchy phrases and tuneful music. When we returned home we did some online research and were not surprised to learn that someone had thought of this in 1994! The show was called A Christmas Carol and played at the Paramount Theater every December until 2003. We are not Broadway fans but just reading the titles of the songs made us wish we'd seen it.

This story is a timely one in that our present day culture is obsessed with greed; it is a good thing to be reminded of the value of generosity towards those less fortunate. We wish our legislators had been there last night.

(c) meche kroop




Thursday, November 30, 2017

ANOTHER JUILLIARD LIEDERABEND

Äneas Humm and Tomomi Sato

A liederabend at Juilliard is such a consistently fine experience that one is at risk for taking them for granted. Since we have been reviewing them, we have watched the audience grow as fast as asparagus; one can barely secure a seat these days. That is understandable because New Yorkers can listen to the stars of tomorrow without cost. Many of them have performed already around the world and are at Juilliard to acquire a final polish.

Take Swiss baritone Äneas Humm for example. We first heard Mr. Humm through The German Forum a few years ago whilst he was still an undergraduate  and immediately recognized his artistry. He has had quite a career in Europe and  recently recorded an excellent CD. He is now under the tutelage of Edith Wiens, as were so many of the excellent singers heard last night. We reviewed a recital of her students last week.

Last night, accompanied by the lovely collaborative pianist Tomomi Sato, he treated us to a set of lieder which took on new luster when sung by a native German speaker. Two lieder by Hugo Wolf  ("Verschwiegene Liebe" and "Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben sehen") stretched his instrument to the lowest part of the register. We preferred "Nimmersatte Liebe" which allowed Mr. Humm to express his lively personality.

Following were a pair of lieder by Viktor Ullmann whose early 20th c. works merit a wider hearing. "Vorausbestimmung" and "Betrunken" are colorful songs about intoxication and we are reminded how much singers enjoy songs about inebriation.  As do audience members! Mr. Humm had a swell time with these colorful songs and so did we. Ms. Sato was particularly fine in the last one, attacking the wild accompaniment with gusto.

We have been particularly aware of the artistry of soprano Felicia Moore who impresses us more and more each time we hear her. She absolutely commands the stage with a secure and welcoming stage presence, drawing us in with her magnificent instrument and connection with the material. She seemed to know exactly what she was singing about and when we returned home and looked at the translations we noticed that she had translated the songs herself. We wish all singers did so!

In "L'invitation au voyage" we enjoyed the expansive soaring top of her voice and the artistry with which she employed vocal coloration. The word "volupté " gave us goose bumps. In "La vie antérieure" she captured all the elusive nostalgia of the Baudelaire text which was matched by the passionate pianism of the always excellent Adam Rothenberg.  "Phidylé" moved from languid affection to passion.  In the entire set, the French was beyond reproach.

Georgian Mezzo-soprano Natalia Kutateladze performed that glorious Spanish cycle by Manuel de Falla--Siete Canciones Populares Españolas--a cycle of which we never tire. Ms. Kutateladze imbued the songs with her own intense personality which amplified the intensity of the songs. After the ironic cautionary tales "El paño moruno" and "Seguidilla murciana" came our very favorite--"Asturianas" which she colored with appropriately deep sorrow.  The combination of the text, the music, and her interpretation had a profound emotional effect.

Happily the charm of "Jota" cheered us up. We couldn't figure out why the lullaby "Nana" seemed so sad but mining works for their subtext keeps a work interesting and we were captivated. "Canción" was so filled with pain, as was "Polo" that we had to sit still for a while to collect ourself. This is artistry at work. It is a compliment to collaborative pianist Cameron Richardson-Eames to say that he kept up with her.

Some of our favorite Strauss songs were offered by soprano Rebecca Pedersen and pianist Candace Chien. Ms. Pedersen warmed up with "Allerseelen" and reached more of her potential with "Cäcilie" which she had fortunately translated herself. We are quite sure that was responsible for an increased sense of involvement. We liked the way she brought out the climactic moments and we related to the heartfelt nature of "Befreit". Her German was a bit four square and will benefit from more work on phrasing.

Mezzo-soprano Khady Gueye was accompanied by Rosa Li on the piano and, just from the point of view of our very own idiosyncratic taste, we hope to hear her sing something we like in the future. We have never warmed to the songs of Charles Ives and find the vocal lines uninteresting, causing our attention to rest on the accompaniment. Ms. Li has lovely soft hands and we enjoyed listening, especially in "Tom Sails Away" in which she evoked the mysterious nature of memory.

In "Feldeinsamkeit", we wanted crisper enunciation of the German consonants, as we did in the two Schönberg songs which followed--"Erwartung" and "Erhebung". These songs are not our favorites either but they did serve to bring out the texture of Ms. Gueye's instrument.

We can scarcely wait for the next liederabend.  No taking things for granted at this end!

(c) meche kroop


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A DAY OF GIVING

Emerging artists of Vocal Productions New York City

A benefit to celebrate Giving Tuesday was held last night at the Church of the Holy Apostles where renowned Bulgarian bass Valentin Peytchinov assembled a group of talented up-and-comers to provide an evening of favorite arias. Some of these emerging artists are well-known to us and some were new discoveries whose careers we plan to follow.

It is no secret that VPNYC is presenting Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Baruch Performing Arts Center from December 12th through the 17th, with Mr. Peytchinov himself singing the role of Don Basilio on the 16th. It was fitting that members of the cast presented excerpts from Rossini's comic masterpiece and we heard just enough to know that it is a "must-see".

Mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh has been on our radar for a few years and we have witnessed her transition from soprano to mezzo; we are delighted to report that every time we hear her we hear more expansion at the bottom of the register, with absolutely no loss of ping in the upper extension.  She has also contributed some really interesting ornamentation to Rosina's famous "Una voce poco fa" (with some help from Will Crutchfield) that served to maintain interest in this oft heard aria. There is nothing like an original cadenza to grab our attention.

As the scolding Dr. Bartolo we heard newcomer Keith Milkie who overcame youthful good looks by means of his resonant low voice and fine acting to convince us in the role. We have heard handsome young basses and bass-baritones accomplish this feat with appropriate makeup and costuming completing the illusion. We will be alert to this when we attend the performance!

Another singer we have been following is baritone Lawson Anderson who performed Prince Igor's aria from the Borodin opera of the same name. He performed it with such passionate intensity and such fluent Russian that we were absolutely riveted. The texture of his voice is perfectly suited to this aria and we would very much like to hear him perform the opera someday. We heard it three years ago at the Met with Ildar Abdrazakov in a reconstructed version.

Perhaps it was because we had a moment of silence in memory of our beloved Dmitri Hvorostovsky or maybe Mr. Anderson was just that good --but perhaps he will fill those sadly empty shoes.

Dramatic soprano Anna Viemeister stunned us with "Vieni t'affretta" from Verdi's Macbeth. Not only was her instrument compelling in its intensity but she convinced us of the qualities of the power hungry character--powerful but seductive and manipulative. Her fioritura shone in the cabaletta.

Emma Lavandier is new to us and we heartily enjoyed her performance of Siébel's aria "Faites-lui mes aveux" from Gounod's Faust. She has a bright crystalline sound and an affecting delivery. But most important, she is a Francophone and it was a distinct pleasure to hear the language sung the way it should be sung.

Charlotte's aria "Je vous écris de ma petite chambre", from Massenet's Werther, was given a lovely performance by Viktoriya Koreneva, one which was notable for its excellent French but also for a convincing portrayal of the varying moods of a woman torn between duty and romantic longing she is trying to suppress.

Highlights from Verdi's Il Trovatore ended the program and both singers were superb and new to us. Dramatic Soprano Julianna Milin exhibited a fine rich tone and dramatic import in "Tacea la notte placida" in which she tells her companion how she came to fall in love with Manrico. In the cabaletta we were impressed by the neatness of the skips, runs, and staccati.

Mezzo-soprano Lorna Case grew in power as she delivered "Condotta ell'era in ceppi", the aria in which the gypsy Azucena relates the terrible story of her mother's gruesome death, burning at the stake. The horror of throwing her baby into the fire can be conveyed even though the story defies rationall belief. Ms. Case brought the tale to a dramatic conclusion.

This review is growing longer than the concert but let us mention the ardent performance of the serenade "Ecco ridente in cielo" by tenor Raymond Storms, baritone Yun Kwan Yiu's effective "Largo al factotum", and bass-baritone Claudio Mascharenas' creation of the nasty character of Don Basilio in "La Calunnia". You will be able to catch these performances at the December run described above.

Perhaps a Faust is in the works as well.  We got to hear baritone Jeremy Griffin sing "Avant de quitter ces lieux" and Charles Gray sing the devilish "Vous qui faites l'endormie".

The evening ended with the Act II Finale from Il Barbiere di Siviglia with soprano Sangying Li singing Rosina, Mr. Yiu taking the role of Figaro, and Samuel Varhan singing Count Almaviva. The renowned Francisco Miranda was accompanist for the evening and matched the glorious singing with some impressive piano playing.

We hope that the artistic generosity of the singers will be matched by the financial generosity of the audience. It is organizations like VPNYC that provide opportunities for emerging artists to learn new roles and gain performance experience.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

POLISHING THE GEMS

Felicia Moore, Kady Evanyshyn, Ryan Hurley, and Äneas Humm

We think of Juilliard students as precious gems, already possessing beautiful color, clarity, and fine cut.  We think of the faculty as gemologists who refine and polish them.  Last night we heard a memorable recital celebrating Johannes Brahms (who merits even more celebration than he gets), performed by a dozen outstanding students of Edith Wiens who is polishing these gems in what must be a very special class. 

The excellent mountings for these gems were provided by pianists Michal Biel and Chris Reynolds, two collaborative pianists who always impress us with the degree to which they are tuned in to the singer and the song. The recital opened with a pair of Four-Hand Waltzes from Op. 39, No. 11 in B minor and No. 4 in E minor.  Even in a minor key Brahms' music has an inner joy for life that both pianist elucidated.

Following this we heard ten singers in one song each and two in a duet (and oh how we love duets!) German baritone Äneas Humm opened the program with "Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund" a delightful volkslied in which the charming Mr. Humm extolled the virtues of a woman, punctuated by his eyebrows. It was a real audience pleaser and set a very high standard for German diction which was almost equalled by those who followed.

Soprano Meghan Kasandera sang "Meine Liebe ist grün" with a bright resonance that tickled the ear.  The text was by Felix Schumann but to our ears it had the same quality as volklieder. We enjoyed this exuberant expression of young love.

Tenor Ryan Hurley employed his fine instrument with a sweetness that was just right for "Minnelied" (the one with text by Ludwig Hoity) which pays tribute to a woman.

Soprano Shereen Pimental captivated us with the captivating Ständchen (the one with text by Franz Kugler). Three students serenade a young woman and the warmth of Ms. Pimental's vibrato created a lovely atmosphere.

Mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn has a richly textured instrument and a sincerity that was just right for "Kommt dir manchmal in den Sinn", yet another love song with text by Hugo Conrat.

Bass Alex Rosen has an expansive sound that suited the serious tone of the next lied, "O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück", with text by Klaus Groth, expressing sehnsucht for a carefree childhood.

"Da unten im Tale" is another volkslied that we love and it was sung by mezzo-soprano Carlyle Cooney and bass Cameron Liflander.  If we are not mistaken, it is in Bavarian dialect.

A deeply felt performance of "Unbewegte laue Luft" was given by mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano. Georg Daumer's text paints a word picture of peaceful nature inhabited by a man of not so peaceful desires. Ms. Lauritano painted an aural picture, beginning in stillness and ending with passionate intensity.

Tenor James Ley sang another song with text by Daumer--"Wie bist du meine Königen", yet another paean to a woman. He sang it ardently and we loved the way he colored the word "wonnevoll".

Mezzo-soprano Natalia Kutateladze connected deeply with "Sapphische Ode" in which the poet Hans Schmidt draw an analogy between the dew on a plucked rose and the tears of a lover. The melody is both erotic and exotic and Ms. Kutateladze captured the mood beautifully with a graceful decrescendo at the end.

Soprano Felicia Moore impressed us with her performance of the dramatic lied "Von ewiger Liebe" in which a young man worries about damaging his sweetheart's reputation but she reassures him of the strength of their bond. Poet Hoffman von Fallersleben's text gives the singer an opportunity to distinguish between the voices of the narrator, the boy, and the girl. Ms. Moore's total involvement with the text ended the first half of the program on a very high note.

The second half of the program comprised all 18 songs of Liebesliederwalzer, Op. 52. The work is not performed as often as we would like and we were thrilled to hear it so well sung by varying combinations of the singers of Ms. Wien's class. We particularly enjoyed the frisky "Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel" sung by Ms. Kasanders, Ms. Evanyshyun, Mr. Ley, and Mr. Humm.  

We also singled out the ironic "Nein, es ist nicht" and "Schlösser auf" sung by Ms. Moore, Ms. Lauritano, Mr. Ley, and Mr. Rosen.

It was an evening filled with incomparable pleasure. Brahms' output of lieder is almost as vast as that of Schubert and, mixed in with our favorites were several new ones to be discovered. The singers sang in excellent German and with a great deal of spirit.  That must be some class!

(c) meche kroop


















Sunday, November 19, 2017

FOUR SCENES-FOUR MOODS-FOUR LANGUAGES

Finale from Falstaff  performed by Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater


After our delightful evening at Juilliard last night it seemed like time to show Manhattan School of Music some love.  MSM has a great deal of depth in its vocal department, one of the top training programs in the world, and attracts talented young singers from all over the USA and worldwide. Over 40 countries are represented. Their list of alumni looks like a Who's Who of the opera world.

Last night the MSM Opera Theater, of which the esteemed Dona D. Vaughn is Artistic Director, presented four opera scenes, apparently chosen for variety of mood and language, and to show off the special skills of the current crop of graduate students. There wasn't a disappointing voice to be heard.  As a matter of fact, the vocal glories were abundant.

In place of orchestral accompaniment, we had four hands at two pianos--a pair belonging to Jorge Parodi and another to Scott Rednour. Maestro Vlad Iftinca conducted sans baton; he clearly was involved with every singer and every phrase, using both hands to bring out everyone's best.

What made the evening so enjoyable, aside from the splendid singing, was the professionalism of all concerned. Director Laura Alley never fails to honor the piece and does not torture the libretto to fit into a self-serving "concept".  The pieces were staged with a minimum of props but nothing was missed. Costumes were not lavish but were appropriate and tasteful. We ourselves prefer creativity and imagination over distracting extravagance.

The program opened with "The Presentation of the Rose" from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, one of our favorite operas. The nouveau riche Herr Faninal (resonant baritone Shuo Yang) is excited about his daughter's marriage into nobility. Young Sophie (crystalline voiced soprano Yesul Yeon) considers her obligations as a wife, whilst her chaperone Marianne (lovely mezzo-soprano Madalyn Luna) tries to keep Sophie's exuberance in check.

Octavian arrives in the person of the marvelous mezzo Hongni Wu in travesti who falls instantly in love with the beautiful Sophie. The two singers created marvelous chemistry together which made the scene work beautifully.  Even if you never saw the opera you could tell that Sophie will never ever marry the old Baron Ochs to whom she is affianced. The duet between Ms. Yeon and Ms. Wu told us everything we needed to know. We observed that Maestro Iftinca was in love with both of them!

An abrupt change of mood took place for the second scene which we believe was actually the entirety of Ned Rorem's 1951 opera A Childhood Miracle. The libretto by Elliott Stein was based on a creepy Hawthorne story in which two little girls (convincingly portrayed by mezzo-soprano Charlotte Merz and soprano Kristina Brost) play in the snow and build a snowman (tenor Elijah Graham) which comes to life.

Their mother (mezzo-soprano Monica Talavera) is sitting indoors with her sister Emma (mezzo-soprano Polixeni Tziouvaras) doing needlework and gossiping. Father (bass-baritone Andrew Henry) is upset to see his daughters with a strange man and insists that he come indoors where he melts. The daughters run outside into the snowstorm and turn into snow, or something else which wasn't exactly clear.

It is our opinion that magic realism is best done by Latin Americans, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Perhaps some Victorian touches would have helped.  The story seemed more tragedy than miracle. Still, the singing and acting were exemplary and Rorem's writing was more musical than most 20th c. writing. Thanks to English diction coach Kathryn LaBouff, every word was clear.

The mood turned again to a more somber contemplative scene from Gluck's Iphegénie en Tauride. Gluck's music gave us plenty of variety, expressing the mood of the ocean from calm to stormy. If the lovely mezzo-soprano portraying Iphegénie (Yunlei Xie) has not had ballet training we would be rather surprised since her physical movement was as graceful as her phrasing. 

In this scene of prayer for protection, she is surrounded by a chorus of Priestesses and we were impressed by the unison feature of their singing and movement. French coach Elsa Querón must get some credit! There is a lot of depth in this chorus and evidence of intense rehearsal. The two chief priestesses were sung by sopranos Si-Yeon Kim and Sasha Gutiérrez Montaño. The staging here was particularly lovely with the chorus dressed in black and carrying candles.

The final work on the program was the final scene from Verdi's Falstaff, fortunately not updated to the 1950's, as it is in "the big house". We think José Maldonado absolutely owns the role of The Fat Knight. His voice is as expansive as his girth and his acting conveyed every nuance of terror, humiliation, abject self-realization, and finally humorous self-acceptance.

The cast seemed to be having as much fun onstage as we experienced in the audience. We cannot deny that we enjoyed seeing ill-behaved men getting their comeuppance at the hands of some aggrieved women, nor can we deny drawing an analogy with the present day politics.  Plus ça change!  It is so much more fun when the director doesn't shove it down your throat.

The old Dottore Caius (Mr. Graham) gets married to Bardolfo (tenor Samuel White) disguised as Nannetta (soprano Hee So Son) who gets to defy her father's choice and marry the man she loves--Fenton (tenor Philippe L'Esperance). But not until they get to sing a beautiful duet. We have admired Mr. L'Esperance's voice on prior occasions.

The role of Ford was sung by baritone SeokJong Baek who always turns in a fine performance. Soprano Celeste Morales made a fine Alice whilst Meg was sung well by mezzo Elizabeth Harris. Mezzo Michelle Blauman did justice to the role of Mrs. Quickly and bass-baritone Matthias Villwock took the role of Pistola.

The staging was great fun, especially when the huge Falstaff is rolled around the stage with the entire cast prodding him with sticks. If Falstaff isn't fun we feel we've been shut out of something that Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito intended. This scene left us grinning from ear to ear.

The evening was perfect, although we could have enjoyed a few more scenes. The time seemed to fly by.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, November 18, 2017

THE GARDEN OF JUILLIARD

Christine Taylor Price, Marie Engle, Joshua Blue, Tamara Banješević, and Jacob Scharfman (photo by Hiroyuki Ito)

Mozart was just shy of 19 years of age when he composed La finta giardiniera which premiered in Munich in 1775. In spite of a trivial libretto (insecurely attributed to Calzabigi), one can readily appreciate Mozart's exuberant melodic invention and skills at orchestration. The opera achieved but 3 performances and fell out of the repertory until a copy of the score was rediscovered in the 1970's.

That we have seen the opera three times in two years gives some indication of the many glories of the score and the challenging roles it provides for seven singers. The seven we heard last night at Juilliard Opera seemed to enjoy their performances as much as we in the audience did. What vocal glories!

We love to see romantic foibles onstage--the mismatches, the betrayals, the fights, the reconciliations. We have no need for modern sets or costumes to recognize our own passions and obsessions.  The blind child shoots those darts and we are helpless.

The Marchioness Violante Onesti (splendid soprano Tamara Banješević) had been stabbed by her jealous lover Conte Belfiore (terrific tenor Charles Sy) on their wedding day. Left for dead, she recovered, took the name of Sandrina, disguised herself as a gardener, and sought refuge by gaining employment at the estate of the Podesta Don Anchise (tremendous tenor Joshua Blue) who has fallen in love with her.

The Podesta's housekeeper Serpetta, portrayed by the gifted soprano Christine Taylor Price, would like to marry her boss and fights off the courtship of the gardener Nardo, Violante's servant Roberto in disguise--a role delightfully inhabited by Baritone Jacob Scharfman.

Meanwhile, the Podesta's bossy-pants niece Arminda (glorious voiced soprano Kathryn Henry) arrives at the estate to be joined in matrimony with none other than Belfiore. If we could overlook his tendency to commit violence on his brides, we might even feel a tinge of pity for the ambivalent count. He thinks he recognizes Violante in disguise but she denies her identity.

In the role of Cavalier Ramiro, Arminda's rejected suitor, we heard the marvelously convincing mezzo-soprano Marie Engle in travesti.

To make this crazy mixed up story clear, we had the talented young director Mary Birnbaum who has a very special way of getting her cast to work as an ensemble and to interact in believable ways, no matter how preposterous the story.

The first act moved along at a lively clip but there was a scene at the end of the second act that baffled us and our companion. It is the scene in which Belfiore goes mad and Violante gets kidnapped by Arminda (or was it vice versa?). When Tim Albery directed this opera at Santa Fe Opera, it didn't make much sense either and when Eric Einhorn directed it for On Site Opera, he omitted the scene entirely which was probably the best choice!

Both Ms. Henry and Ms. Prize dazzled us with their coloratura but the aria we remember best belonged to Ms. Engle who managed the extensive fioritura while conveying masculinity at the same time in "Va pure ad altri in braccio". Not only does everyone get an aria but there are interesting ensembles that foreshadow Mozart's later works.
 

Another memorable moment was Nardo's courting of Serpetta in several languages; Mr. Scharfman was irresistible in the role.  Mr. Blue pompously strutted around the stage but also conveyed the manner of a kind man. Ms. Henry did a great job creating a real bitch of a character. We loved the moment when she arrived with a horse and her servant Giuseppe (bass William Guanbo Su).

The Juilliard Orchestra performed in their usual exemplary fashion under the baton of Joseph Colaneri who brought subtle understanding to the various and changeable moods of the work. The continuo comprised Michael Biel on the harpsichord and Clara Abel on the cello.

Much favorable comment could be devoted to Amanda Seymour's luscious period costumes and even more to scenic designer Grace Laubacher's witty sets. After a clever prologue in which Joan Hofmeyr and Olivia McMillan portrayed two gossipy housemaids relating the backstory in English (another one of Mary Birnbaum's clever inventions), servants carried in trompe l'oeil set pieces. Even the horse was two dimensional but reared convincingly.

Lighting Designer Anshuman Bhatia spared no effort in changing the mood; one scene takes place in near darkness and the ensuing confusion reminded us of the final act of Nozze di Figaro.

Once again, Juilliard Opera has given us a memorable evening in which superlative production values provide a setting for the splendid singers--the jewels of Juilliard.


(c) meche kroop