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.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A BIG BITE OF THE APPLE

Ed Parks as Steve Jobs with Santa Fe Opera Chorus

How ironic!  We are sitting here writing about The R(evolution) of Steve Jobs which we saw last night at the Santa Fe Opera; and we are writing on our MacBook because our iMac is home in New York City. Our iPhone is on the table charging even as we write. Our iPad is languishing in our carry-on bag, waiting to entertain us on our trip home. How can one take the measure of a man who has changed our lives so significantly that we cannot imagine surviving without our devices!

Perhaps all we can do to honor such a sea-change is to write about it, play about it, and sing about it. What has been accomplished by the production team for this opera merits all the laudatory words that have been written. What shall we add to the accolades?

Regular readers of this blog will recall how often we denigrate contemporary compositions with their tuneless and abstract music, their wordy unpoetic libretti, and stories that do not lend themselves to musical treatment. None of that is true here. Instead of a story about politics we have a portrait of a fascinatingly inconsistent and puzzling genius who made technology musical, an instrument anyone can play.

In place of sounds masquerading as music, we have composer Mason Bates' eclectic score that seamlessly melds of-the-moment electronics with traditional orchestral music in a manner that honors both genres. Even acoustic guitar, so much a part of Steve Jobs' world, puts in an appearance.

Mark Campbell's libretto is punchy like the English language with short rhythmic phrases, and reminds one of the effective work done for Broadway musicals. It is such an acoustic pleasure to hear words and music acting in harmony, instead of at cross purposes.

In baritone Ed Parks, the opera has found the perfect embodiment of the complicated hero. Every shading of mood was conveyed and we wound up feeling sympathy for this difficult character--a genius troubled by perfectionism, obsessionality, emotional isolation, and narcissism.

As his spiritual guide Kobun, bass Wei Wu created a marvelous character filled with pithy advice delivered with humor. Mr. Mason gave him a splendid aria that would make a superb audition piece for the bass fach. As performed by Mr. Wu, we could understand how he was able to get through to the stubborn Jobs.

The other person who was able to get through to him was his wife Laurene, beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Her lengthy eulogy at the end of the opera was filled with insight and sung to some of Mr. Mason's most gorgeous music.

Garret Sorenson employed his tenor most effectively in the role of Jobs' early partner Steve Wozniak. The scene in which they end their partnership was emotionally devastating, as were the two scenes in which Jobs abandons his girlfriend Chrisann Brennan and denies fathering their chid. Apprentice Singer Jessica E. Jones conveyed all the pain and shock of rejection and did so with fine vocal technique.

Apprentice Singer Mariya Kaganskaya used her fine mezzo instrument in the role of a teacher at Reed College, explaining the significance of the "enso", a calligraphic character that inspired Jobs toward simplicity. For us, it seemed to reflect the concept of coming full circle as exemplified by the opera beginning and ending with a scene from Jobs' childhood, a scene in which his father (former Apprentice baritone Kelly Markgraf) initiates the young Jobs (Joshua Sorenson) into the world of making things.

Mr. Mason's score (conducted by Maestro Michael Christie) is eclectic and eminently listenable. Each character was endowed with his/her own sound world. There were passages of minimalism reminiscent of Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, cheek by jowl with lush and lavishly orchestrated passages; so thoroughly integrated were the various elements that nothing seemed out of place. Acoustic guitar, electronic sounds, and instruments of the Far East were woven in and out at appropriate places.

In what Wagner might have called a gesamtkunstwerk, the sets and costumes were all of a piece with the music and libretto. Victoria "Vita" Tzykun filled the stage with tall rectangular pillars that were moved around to create various effects, with the help of projections by 59 Productions. Some scenes seemed to take place inside a computer with projections of a mother board. Others showed the home page of the iPhone.

We loved the scene in which he and Chrisann are dropping acid in an apple orchard (the only reference to "apple" in the opera). Jobs hears the music inherent in nature and is inspired by the idea that a computer can be like an instrument that one plays. This thought served to justify the use of computer sounds in Mason's music and to justify writing music about someone who appears more technological than artistic.  We left with the idea that there is artistry everywhere and that Ms. Tzykun set design showed the artistic side of technology just as Jobs' made technology artistic--witness the fact that we have never been able to discard our first computer--a 1999 "clamshell", so simple and elegant that it overcame our Luddite tendencies.

Director Kevin Newbury kept the action moving along, with the excellent Apprentice Singers in charge of moving the sets around, in addition to performing in such exemplary fashion as the chorus, under the direction of Susanne Sheston.

Paul Carey's costumes were appropriate to time and place. Responsible for Sound Design were Rick Jacobsohn and Brian Loach. What this means in practice is that the voices were subtly amplified; we say "subtly" because the amplification was barely noticeable and the balance between singers and instrumentalists was preserved.

(c) meche kroop


Monday, August 14, 2017

A CORNUCOPIA OF GOODIES

Nathan Milholin and Andy Berry in a scene from Prokofiev's "The Love for Three Oranges"


We always count on the Santa Fe Opera for five glorious operas every summer, but the highlight of our visit remains the two evening of Apprentice Scenes. The young singers of the Apprentice Program (established in 1957 and flourishing under the guidance of Artistic Director David Holloway) enjoy a summer of training and performance experience--in smaller roles, in Susanne Sheston's superbly rehearsed chorus, and on two Sundays the experience of performing in a selection of scenes--fully staged and costumed with piano accompaniment. Notably, the Santa Fe Opera was the first company in the United States to have established such a program.

The choice of scenes ranges far and wide, from opera house standards to rarities to new works. Last night, as usual, we had our favorites and some head-scratchers. But regardless of the choice of material we found the performances to be vocally and dramatically worthwhile.

For all around entertainment value, our first choice was Ravel's "L'heure espagnole", directed by Omer Ben Seadia. We have only seen this opera once since it is rarely performed, but it is filled with French farce type humor, dealing as it does with a cuckolded clockmaker and his wayward wife. His unanticipated homecoming necessitates the hiding of his wife's lovers inside some of the grandfather clocks in the shop. As the cuckolded clockmaker, tenor Adam Bonanni had just the right sound for the part and was helped in his humorous presentation by the costume design of Jean-Luc DeLadurantaye--that of a pagliaccio--or Pierrot.

Mezzo-soprano Anne Marie Stanley was delightful as the wayward wife. Her three lovers were excellently portrayed by baritone Brian Vu in full toreador regalia, tenor Stephen Carroll, and bass-baritone Nathan Milholin who had quite a time extricating himself from his hiding place. Their congo line dance just added to the fun.

The Ping-Pang-Pong scene from Puccini's Turandot always provides some comic relief and speaks to us as the plaint of Everyman, who would love to escape his job and retire to the country. Director Kathleen Clawson directed a pleasingly traditional scene of the three functionaries of Ancient China, men who never know whether to plan for a funeral or a wedding. Resplendent in authentic Mandarin costumes (designed by Brenda Birkeland), baritone Dogukan Kuran and tenors Eric Ferring and Andrew Maughan passed the vocal ball back and forth in a highly entertaining fashion. It was a true treat.

The previous night's Lucia di Lammermoor left us in a Donizetti mood and we were glad to see a scene from L'elisir d'amore on the program. Director Crystal Manich's decision to update the action to the ugly 1950's and to change the setting to a soda parlor robbed the scene of the intended impact.  Poor Nemorino was obliged to get intoxicated by an ice cream soda in place of the requisite wine of Dr. Dulcamara; this just didn't make dramatic sense to anyone who knows the opera.

But tenor Carlos Enrique Santelli (just reviewed as Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor) has a real flair for Donizetti and shone in the role, in spite of the ice cream soda! A clever directorial touch was having him bang the keys of the cash register in time with the music. Soprano Abigail Rethwisch made a lovely Adina, deftly conveying the ambivalence she feels toward Nemorino and the crack in her resistance. Baritone Christopher Kenney successfully created the role of the blustery Belcore and sang in rich full tone.

Rienzi will never be our favorite Wagnerian opera but we definitely enjoyed hearing tenor Stephen Martin (just reviewed as Normanno in Lucia di Lammermoor) sing the title role with authoritative colors and stage presence. As his sister Irene, soprano Tracy Cantin impressed us with her fine singing but Amanda Clark's unflattering wig failed to score. In the trouser role of Adriano we heard mezzo-soprano Hannah Hagerty.  We enjoyed the trio which closed the scene for the tasteful blending of voices. For some strange reason, this tale of 14th c. Rome was updated by director Crystal Manich to something approximating the early 20th c.

Giuseppi Verdi put in an appearance by virtue of a scene from Un ballo in maschera, effectively directed by Susan Payne. One doesn't expect to hear young voices tackle Verdi but soprano Kasia Borowiec showed promise in the role of Amelia with Jorge Espino taking the role of the very angry Renato. The two men initiating the plot to assassinate the Duke, Sam and Tom, were played respectively by bass-baritone Erik van Heyningen and baritone Andy Berry. The duet between Renato and Amelia was most affecting but the final quintet was imperfectly balanced. Soprano Joanna Latini sang the role of Oscar with beautiful tone; a bit more attention to accuracy with the short notes would have made it perfect.

The scene from Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream was peculiarly staged by Mr. Seadia. The scene involves the romantic misadventures of Shakespeare's four young lovers lost in a forest near Athens. Here, they are in something resembling a dormitory with four beds and in various stages of undress (costumes by Ruby L. Rojas). Fortunately, the fine singing made up for the strange and distracting setting. The performances were quite physical and succeeded in conveying the Bard's sense of humor. 

Mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi impressed us with her vocalism in the part of Hermia; she doesn't know what to do with all that unexpected male attention. Soprano Adelaide Baedecker made a fine Helena, suffering the loss of love of her Lysander (tenor Jesse Darden) with baritone Thaddeus Ennen completing the quartet in the role of Demetrius.

Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges was staged by Susan Payne as the fairytale it is. Prokofiev's music for the scene begins with some insistent chords and the stage was dominated by a large multi-colored proscenium arch. Morgen Warner's costumes were appropriately fantastical. The problem was that the scene did not offer the young singers much opportunity to show off their vocal skills. That being said, we did enjoy the humor and fantasy. Mr. Berry made a magical magician in his golden cape, and bass-baritone Nathan Milholin was funny with his feathered fan. Mr. Maughan made a fine Prince, strangely attired in a night shirt; Mr. Darden portrayed the Prince's companion Truffaldino attired in a suit.

We cannot say too much about the scene from Paul Moravec's The Shining. We found the music lacking in the very qualities that make us want to listen, and the scene itself did not hold our interest. Baritone Kenneth Stavert sang the role of an ex-alcoholic starting a new life in a boiler room.  Mr. Carroll portrayed a ghost in the hotel. The libretto did not strike us as singable. We did enjoy Mr. Carroll in L'heure espagnole and hope to get another opportunity to hear Mr. Stavert in music kinder to our ears.

It was a fun evening and we find ourselves trying to anticipate which of these promising artists will thrive in their professional careers and return to the Santa Fe Opera stage.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, August 13, 2017

MAD FOR THE MAD SCENE

Soprano Brenda Rae as Lucia and Santa Fe Apprentices in Donizetti's Lucia de Lamermoor (photo by Ken Howard)

Another brilliant evening at the Santa Fe Opera brought to us another compelling heroine--the fragile and vulnerable Lucia portrayed by the brilliant soprano Brenda Rae who impressed us four years ago as Violetta. What a stunning contrast with last night's Alcina, a heroine who is manipulative and deceitful! Lucia is a an unfortunate young woman who wants nothing more than to wed her beloved Edgardo, sung by terrific tenor Mario Chang who has also impressed us in the past five years since we began writing  www.vocedimeche.reviews. Mr. Chang made an exceptional Edgardo, gathering impact as the evening progressed. His final scene was heartbreaking.

In Salvadore Cammarano's libretto, based on a work by Sir Walter Scott, poor Lucia is thwarted by her desperate brother Enrico, whose political future, and perhaps his life, hang upon his establishing a relationship with Lord Arturo Bucklaw; Baritone Zachary Nelson (about whom we have also been writing for about five years) lent his forceful stage presence and rich voice to the role. Lucia becomes a pawn in this political intrigue and is manipulated into signing a contract of marriage with Lord Bucklaw, here portrayed by a promising member of the Apprentice Program--Carlos Santelli, who has a pleasing, if somewhat covered sound. 

Obviously, this cannot end well! Indeed, by the end of the opera, Lucia has died of a broken heart, Arturo has been murdered on his wedding night, Edgardo commits suicide by grabbing Enrico's dagger, and Enrico will probably suffer the ignominious defeat of one who falls out of favor with the court.

What makes Gaetano Donizetti's opera such a favorite is the theme of a woman's suffering at the hands of men, the torrent of tunes that fell from Donizetti's pen, and the opportunity to hear a favorite soprano unravel to the accompaniment of the eerie sound of a glass harmonica, here played by international expert Friedrich Heinrich Kern. (Thanks Benjamin Franklin for this amazing invention!) The lengthy mad scene requires the casting of a soprano of prodigious coloratura skills-- but the rest of the opera requires her to arouse our sympathy. To this end, Ms. Rae succeeded admirably on both counts. It was a riveting performance that completely deserved the standing ovation at the end of the performance.

Also notable was bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Raimondo the Chaplain and apprentice Stephen Martin as Normanno, Captain of the Guard, who takes the rap for Lucia's death by virtue of having exposed her illicit romance with Edgardo of Ravenswood, her brother's arch enemy.

One of the great pleasures of the Santa Fe Opera is witnessing the rise of the apprentice singers. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit captured our notice when she sang the role of Laurene Jobs in a preview of The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs which we attended in NYC at Works and Process at the Guggenheim Museum.  Last night she sang the role of Lucia's companion Alisa and she sang it with superb vocal resources and appropriate deference to Ms. Rae.

Maestro Corrado Rovaris, a notable bel canto expert, led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra which sounded superb, as always. We thought that his somewhat accelerated tempi for the first act was a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it increased the sense of urgency in the plot; on the other hand, we missed the sense of spaciousness he provided for the singers in the second act.

All of the singers impressed us with their musicality of phrasing; the variations of dynamics and tempi as well as vocal coloration indicated the presence of true artistry. The vocal blending in the sextet (when Edgardo crashes the wedding celebration) could not have been better and was second only to the mad scene in its ability to astonish us with the writing of Donizetti and the performances of the singers.

Also noteworthy were the confrontational duets between Mr. Nelson and Mr. Chang--two powerful artists matching artistry with equivalent artistry.

Director Ron Daniels went for a minimalist approach, such a contrast with last night's overcooked Alcina. He set the opera at the time Donizetti composed it--thankfully not in contemporary times. The principals seemed well directed toward sustaining dramatic verisimilitude but the chorus seemed static, standing in rows and moving rather mechanically and in unison. We take issue with Lucia visiting her brother in his bedroom; it just seemed inappropriately informal. And it bothered us that Lucia's hallucinations were invisible to the audience whilst Edgardo's dying hallucination was presented onstage.  However, it was indeed a gorgeous image of Ms. Rae looking pure and heavenly!

The chorus, comprising the Santa Fe Apprentices and under the fine direction of Susanne Sheston, sang with similar superb musicianship and well-defined diction. We expect no less!

Riccardo Hernandez' set design was also minimalistic. The walls and ceiling comprised square panels done in skewed perspective that emphasized the feeling of claustrophobia that Lucia must have felt. The fateful fountain at which Lucia hallucinates a ghost was a fluorescent plastic tub of water. There was nothing great about the great hall in which the wedding ceremony took place. Edgardo's room was nothing but a chair and tiny table with a lamp. This simplicity is not a bad thing but another double-edged sword in that it allowed us to focus more on the performances than on the background.

Peter Negrini's projections overlay the walls with images of forests. Effective lighting was by Christopher Akerlind.

Emily Rebholz' costume design worked very well for the women who wore muted ball gowns to the wedding, as one would expect among the Scottish aristocracy. But the men at the ball were dressed in white tie and tails and not sporting kilts or the colors of their clan, which we have come to expect. The men looked more authentic in the first act, wearing dark clothes trimmed in fur.

The ball scene also included some dancing, choreographed by Zack Winokur, which was vaguely "folk" but markedly un-Scottish.

We left at the end of the opera feeling fulfilled on all counts, but especially that of witnessing the success of former apprentices.  We hope to find Ms. Coit, Mr. Santelli, and Mr. Martin following in their footsteps within the next five years!

(c) meche kroop


EAR CANDY EYE CANDY

Anna Christy as Morgana in Handel's Alcina (photo by Ken Howard)


We love our Handel operas with their melodies tumbling out "time-signature over final barline". To hear a perfectly cast group of singers and the perfect orchestra under one (semi-outdoor) roof is a matchless experience. Last night, Harry Bicket, renowned conductor of Early Music, led a spirited reading of Handel's Alcina, one marked by clarity and precision without any loss of emotional range.

Ariosto's 16th c. epic Orlando Furioso visited an 8th c. realm of sorcery and knighthood; it was the source material for many future theatrical works, including Handel's 1735 opera, one that achieved instant success in that epoch and which is given frequent productions in our era. We have reviewed Alcina at least three times in as many years. (All archived).

The story concerns the knight Ruggiero who has fallen under the spell of the beautiful and seductive sorceress Alcina who turns men into animals and rocks when she tires of them. His fiancee Bradamante who, in the Ariosto poem is always rescuing her fiance from some peril or other, has come to the magic island with Melisso, Ruggiero's former tutor, disguised as her brother Ricciardo. The pair must break Alcina's spell. Of course, they succeed.  But not before a lot of deception, betrayal, and some gender bending fun, as Alcina's sister Morgana falls in lust with "Ricciardo".

The singers were uniformly superb and highly invested in their assigned characterizations. As the eponymous sorceress, soprano Elza van den Heever employed her powerful pipes to limn the wide-ranging emotions of the titular character. She is in turn loving, seductive, manipulative, vengeful, defeated, and vulnerable. 

As her sister Morgana, Anna Christy fulfilled the demands of the high-lying tessitura with crystalline clarity and an undeniable facility with the coloratura passages. She imbued the character with plenty of humor in counterpoint with the serious mien of Alcina.

One could not have asked for a better Ruggiero than mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy who must sing accurately whilst wandering around the stage in a state of confusion and bewilderment. We enjoyed her performance so thoroughly that we are arranging to attend a solo recital next week  presented by Performance Santa Fe. It is never taken for granted that a trouser role will be performed with such believability.

As his abandoned lover Bradamante, the marvelous mezzo Daniela Mack must be convincing in the gender bending role of Ricciardo, her very own brother, such that her revelation to Ruggiero as his beloved can delight the audience as well as astonishing Ruggiero. Her dramatic performance equalled the success of her vocal performance.

On her quest to liberate Ruggiero from the clutches of Alcina, she has assumed this disguise and is traveling accompanied by the tutor Melisso; the role was splendidly sung by bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, whose powerful and resonant sound was blissfully interposed among that wealth of female voices.

Tenor Alek Shrader's lovely sound was similarly welcome as he brought to life the character of Oronte, Alcina's general. Oronte is the lover of Morgana and when Morgana falls for the disguised Bradamante, he gets cast off and only reunites with her at the end when she pleads for forgiveness.

It is said that there are no small roles, and soprano Jacquelyn Stucker's winning and convincing performance as Oberto, a young boy looking for his father on Alcina's enchanted island, won a huge and well-deserved round of applause from us and the rest of the house. We felt sad for her character who never found his father!

We were particularly overwhelmed by the music of Act II when there were fewer distracting high jinx onstage. Bradamante's aria was followed by one of Ruggiero's in response. The famous "Verdi prati" in which Ruggiero bids farewell to the enchanted island, always moves us to tears. Alcina's expression of despair over her loss of power was similarly affecting.

If melodies sound familiar, it is because Handel never thought twice about recycling arias from other operas. His inventiveness comes into play in his accurate characterizations and in his liberal and creative use of ornamentation in the ritornelli. As a matter of fact, one of director David Alden's touches that we most enjoyed was his having the singer deliver an aria with the A-B-A sections performed from three different vantage points.

His direction, from our point of view, was "too much of a muchness". Handel's operas seem to lend themselves to wild adaptations (see our prior reviews) and there seems to be a tendency to not trust the music to entertain a modern audience without an elaborate "concept". Perhaps the directors are right because the operas are long and the plots often confusing. We observed that the audience loved the onstage high jinx and laughed out loud.

Mr. Alden's concept was that of replacing the enchanted island with an abandoned theater and Ruggiero's enchantment that of someone escaping a mundane reality. We couldn't avoid thinking of Wagner's Tannhauser in which the eponymous knight is held captive by the goddess Venus in the Venusberg. Duty vs. desire is a common theme in opera.

But we haven't seen so much humping and jumping onstage in quite some time and found it distracting and excessive. The beasts (Alcina's ex-lovers) were portrayed by some truly excellent break-dancers (choreographed by Beate Vollack) whom we would have enjoyed at another time and place in which we could have given them our full attention. There was continual shtick that we found unnecessary and did not appreciate the moments that made no dramatic sense.

Updating an opera requires that the dramatic sense be maintained; it doesn't work for us if the story is "shoe-horned" into a concept. Taken moment by moment there were a number of valid images.  For example, when Alcina loses her power, the symbolic fuschia gloves fall to the floor.  But when dozens of them rain down from above it seemed to be overkill.  And why was Morgana pushing a baby carriage? And were the rows of people sitting back to back and jiggling up and down supposed to be on a train?  So many moments didn't make sense to us. We felt as if high vocal art was competing with low sight gags.

The setting (Gideon Davey) had something like a baroque proscenium on the left and a painting of a huge wave (like a Japanese woodcut) on the right.  From time to time a wall with seven doors descended. People rushed in and out as frequently as in a French farce.  Mr. Davey's costumes leaned toward contemporary streetwear with Morgana and Oronte dressed as theater ushers. At one point Morgana was dressed like Bette Midler.  

Oh well, the music was great! Handel's music will live on and Mr. Alden's concept will vanish.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, August 6, 2017

DON JOSE ON THE COUCH

John Kim, Conrad Schmechel, Bonnie Frauenthal, Michael Celentano, Melissa Serluco, Paul Khoury, Perri Sussman, and Julia Gmeiner

Although we generally take a dim view of updating the classics, what Lenora Eve accomplished with Bizet's Carmen was nothing short of miraculous. As President, Founder, and Artistic Director of Opera Breve, Ms. Eve devised an original concept that shed new light on the opera. She gave herself the role of psychoanalyst Dr. Eve Stone, delivering a paper on "Love, Obsession, and Addiction", illustrating the pathology of one Don Jose whom she had interviewed as he was on death row, awaiting execution for the murder of Carmen.

She did an impressive job of presenting the scenes of the opera onstage as illustrations of the points she made from her offstage podium. This concept appealed enormously to our psychoanalytic self and sounded exactly like papers we have heard at psychoanalytic conferences. The amazing thing was that her theorizing was astute and accurate.

One point that we had never considered is that Don Jose saw himself as a victim and was unable to see his role in the tragedy.  Carmen was portrayed as an insecure woman, fearful of abandonment, using her wiles to bring men close to her and then dumping them before they could abandon her. We found this interpretation thought provoking.

Moreover, the eight performers cast in the opera seemed to intuit Ms. Eve's analysis or were very well directed by her. The entire cast sang well and their French, if not always perfect, was perfectly understandable. The diction and acting were so on point that titles were unnecessary.

As the eponymous Carmen, mezzo-soprano Melissa Serluco turned in her customary fine performance. As befitting Ms. Eve's concept, there was nothing sinister about her seductions and one could feel considerable empathy for the character. Both the Habanera and the Seguidilla were performed with style and substance. Having enjoyed her performances with Utopia Opera and Amore Opera, we were unsurprised by the rich texture of her voice and fine phrasing.

We felt the same appreciation for soprano Bonnie Frauenthal's Micaela, even though her character was presented in the traditional fashion--shy, innocent, vulnerable, but calling upon faith to give her courage. Ms. Frauenthal has a lovely bright instrument and used it well in the service of the music and the character. Her "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante" was incredibly moving. We have heard and enjoyed Ms. Frauenthal's performances with Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble and Utopia Opera.

Both of these young artists seem to be in demand by New York's most impressive boutique companies, as is the terrific tenor Michael Celentano, whose performances we have also enjoyed in lots of major tenor roles. As Don Jose, he sang and acted with distinction, seeming to convey the very points made by "Dr. Stone" at the podium. We loved the way he sang "La fleur que tu m'avais jetee" and the abject manner in which he begged Carmen to return to him.

His duets with Carmen and with Micaela were marked by depth of feeling and lovely vocal balance.

Soprano Julia Gmeiner as Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Perri Sussman as Mercedes added a lot of personality to their roles as friends of Carmen who flirted wildly with Escamillo (Paul Khoury, who managed to sing while twirling his cape and engaging in a knife fight with Don Jose) and accepted money for their sexual favors at Lillas Pastia's tavern cum brothel.

Tenor John Kim made a fine El Remendado and also doubled in a very funny turn as a shy reluctant client at the brothel.  His facial and bodily expressions were priceless. Baritone Conrad Schmechel was a fine addition as El Dancairo.

We always look forward to the humorous scene of the smugglers planning their next adventure. Here, it was particularly well done.

Replacing Bizet's stunning orchestration with a piano reduction is always hit or miss.  In this case, it was clearly a hit.  Pianist Matthew Lobaugh has the normal set of ten fingers but we heard the sound of scores of instruments.

Combat Director Joseph Melendez was so effective that we were holding our breath in anxiety for the artists.  Not to worry.  No one was at risk; it just looked that way.

Kristine Koury's costumes were simple for the most part and contemporary in style. Don Jose wore army fatigues; Escamillo had a fine matador costume with a cape of gold, not red. We like the dresses worn by Frasquita and Mercedes which had a definite flamenco flair. Micaela was dressed like a country girl; it was perfect.

We were delighted to see an old warhorse in a fresh light. If only other directors were similarly original with their concepts and creative in their executions! Unfortunately, most of them seem to come from a place of directorial arrogance and self aggrandizement and have nothing original to say.

The best proof of this production's success was that our companion for the evening had never seen an opera before and has declared himself as an ardent fan, eager for more experiences. If a small and adventuresome company can win converts like that, we must consider them a roaring success!

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, July 30, 2017

FALSE DIMITRIJ/TRUE DIMITRIJ


It is the Time of Troubles in Russia--the interregnum between the death of Ivan the Terrible and the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty--at the turn of the 17th c.  One would never know this from the staging of Dvorak's nearly forgotten opera Dimitrij, taking place in the magnificent Fisher Center of Bard College, as part of the annual Bard Summerscape.

The singers sport contemporary attire and the only clue that we are in Russia is the writing on the rear wall of the set which, according to our best source, means "Victory Begins Here". But Director Anne Bogart (significantly, an alumna of Bard College) has written in her program notes that she was thinking of the unsettled time following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. We would have greatly preferred to experience this story the way Dvorak and librettist Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova intended and to figure out the resonances on our own without being spoon fed.  Frankly, art requires no explanation.  If one needs program notes to explain your thinking, you have failed.

Fortunately, the musical values were exemplary and there was no failure on the part of the American Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Leon Botstein, who is famous for championing forgotten works.

To see one of Dvorak's ten operas, composed two decades before his famous Rusalka, was a rare opportunity, well worth the six plus hours on a bus. We were not so sure during the overture when the gorgeous music was not trusted but was accompanied by a child running around in circles.  Nor were we terribly thrilled during the static first act which did offer some superb choral writing and served to introduce the characters and their supporters.

Dimitrij arrives with his Polish wife, the noblewoman Marina, and an occupying Polish army intent on getting him on the Russian throne. On the other side we have the boyar Shuisky and Basmanov, followers of Boris Godunov, the death of whom has left the country in a state of chaos. Godunov's daughter Xenia is under the protection of Shuisky. For Dimitrij to access the throne he must be accepted by the widow of Ivan the Terrible, the Tsarina Marfa.

It was not until the successive acts that we were able to appreciate the gifts of the singers. We were thrilled to hear some fine arias and duets that were well worth a second hearing.

 As the eponymous Dimitrij, tenor Clay Hilley demonstrated a strong and clear tenor sound which appeared to be well suited to the heldentenor fach. His dramatic chops were equally sound and he generated sympathy for the character who, according to this version (playing fast and loose with history as opera often does) is unaware that he is not the son of Ivan the Terrible.  Indeed, in this version, he is the son of a peasant who has been raised to believe he is who he claims to be.  This makes it easy for us to sympathize with him.

Soprano Melissa Citro made a beautiful and hateful Marina. Her ample soprano has a steel core and her acting was convincing.  She is sufficiently beautiful to convince us that she would capture Dimitrij's love whilst her portrayal of self-interest, arrogance, and jealous rage were so believable that we were happy to see her dispatched. She behaved in such a way as to alienate the Russian people by refusing to accept the Orthodox faith in favor of her native Catholicism. We hope to see this splendid soprano soon in one of her several Ring Cycles.

As Xenia, soprano Olga Tolkmit used her somewhat smaller but highly focused instrument to convey the ambivalence her character must feel when wooed by the new tsar, who has just turned away from his narcissistic wife. Her petite stature and vocal colors contributed to her vulnerability; her death, ordered by the vengeful Marina, was a terribly tragic moment.

Mezzo-soprano Nora Sourouzian made a marvelous Marfa. Her voice is rich and dense with coloration and she totally convinced us of her inner struggle. She knows that Dimitrij is not her son but she believes his ascension to the throne will be good for Russia and publicly recognizes him as her offspring.  It is only at the end when the Patriarch (played by Peixin Chen with booming bass and imposing stature) asks her to swear on the cross that she collapses in fear of damnation.

We were completely satisfied as well with the performances of baritone Levi Hernandez as Shuisky and bass-baritone Joseph Barron as Basmanov. Under the direction of James Bagwell, the chorus was also fine. We could not have imagined better casting or a better realization of Dvorak's magnificent score. We believe this is the first time the opera has been performed fully staged in the United States.

We only wish the production team had given it a more Russian look and one that was authentic to the period. David Zinn's set was peculiar, looking like a recreation hall in a church. It had to serve as the gates of Moscow, the Kremlin, the tombs, Shuisky's house, and Dimitrij's lodging. The lackluster setting was helped by Brian H. Scott's evocative lighting.

As far as Constance Hoffman's costume design, if she had been told to create costumes of contemporary casual she succeeded, but it appeared as if the cast were told to rummage through their closet for any old thing.  No praise there!

The men just wore suits and ties, making it difficult to tell one from the other without opera glasses.  Only the Patriarch was appropriately costumed, looking just as one might have imagined. Marina's wedding costume went beyond casual contemporary but was neither flattering nor appropriate.

We were grateful that the opera was performed in Czech and loved the way the vocal lines parallelled the sound of the speech. Language coach was Veronique Firkusny. There will be a few additional performances and the opportunity to hear this opera is worth the trip.

We will close with an interesting tidbit reminiscent of the "flap of a butterfly's wing" theory.  The terrible famine in Russia in the early 17th c. which added so greatly to the country's turmoil, was attributed to a climate change wrought by the eruption of a volcano in Peru!

(c) meche kroop


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

MOZART AND THEN SOME

Opening Night of Mostly Mozart

Sometimes in life we get more than we bargained for, more than we expected, more than we hoped for.  We were thrilled with the idea of six singers, all of whom we have cherished and written about, having their simultaneous debuts with the Mostly Mozart Festival. They are all rising stars and they would be onstage together performing the solo roles in Beethoven's Fantasia in C minor, also known as the Choral Fantasy--a work we have never heard performed. What excitement!

We will get to the astonishing features of the rest of the program but we will start at the end, as we sometimes do.  Brilliant young pianist Kit Armstrong distinguished himself in the prolonged opening of the work. Beethoven's wild energy was captured by Mr. Armstrong's lightning fast fingerwork in the rapid scale passages and the lyrical moments were rendered with expressive introspection.

Beethoven distributed some splendid solos to the wind instruments and we particularly admired the lengthy flute solo and the clarity of the clarinet solo. Louis Langree's conducting style is emphatic and balletic, effectively limning all the voices of Beethoven's orchestration.

The six vocal soloists we came to hear were outstanding in their handling of the vocal lines, overlapping and weaving together in a tapestry of gorgeous sonic brilliance. One could not have asked for better singing than that delivered by sopranos Janai Brugger and Brandie Sutton, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenors Miles Mykkanen and Jack Swanson, and bass Adam Lau. Once young artists have reached this level of international fame, we have less opportunity to write about them and were doubly thrilled.

When we planned our attendance, we paid no attention to the rest of the program and were therefore non-plussed by our experience of the Young People's Chorus of New York City, a group of which we were previously unaware. Artistic Director and Founder Francisco J. Nunez must be some kind of wizard to have pulled such performances from these youngsters.

The lovely young ladies of the chorus were flatteringly dressed in royal blue dresses with red petticoats peeking out from under the skirts and matching headbands. The voices were, of course, far more important than the garb but it would have been churlish not to mention how visually attractive a picture they presented as they entered down the side aisles and took their places onstage.

The program opened with a stunning performance of the Kyrie K.90, written by the teenage Mozart. The harmonies were absolutely exquisite. But the piece that mostly astonished us was Marcos Leite's arrangement of Tres Cantos Nativos dos Indios Krao. There seemed to be no extant translation and none was necessary. What we heard (and we did NOT read the program in advance) were the sounds of a rainforest and a coming storm, just as effectively rendered as in Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.

The young singers used their bodies in unison to create all kinds of natural sounds emulating birdcalls and finally raindrops falling. They clapped their hands and tapped various parts of their bodies to create a miraculous soundscape, the beauty of which brought tears to our eyes.

The thought came to us that talent knows no age. These youngsters seemed to represent a mosaic of our wonderful New York City with complete diversity of size, shape, and color.  Glorious!  We need not worry about the future of music!

Not only were the aisles put to use for conducting, entrances, and exits--but also the balconies, giving us a "surround sound" experience with overlapping voices in the other numbers they performed--"Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal" and "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel".

The Young People's Chorus was joined by the Children's Chorus for Maestro Nunez' own arrangement of "Ah vous dirai-je maman".  They were also wonderful. We thought a golden opportunity was missed to pair that with Mozart's own variations on that childhood tune.

The encore was the finale of Bernstein's Candide, a true crowd pleaser.

There were features of the programming that bothered us. Splitting up symphonies into their component movements may have been common in the 18th c. but we failed to appreciate the dissection of Mozart's "Haffner" symphony.  To our ears it was disruptive and we object to the loss of continuity and the feeling of completion we usually experience when a symphony is brought to its conclusion.

Still, we agree that the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra played beautifully under Maestro Langree's dramatically wielded baton. There were places in the first movement with such suspended energy that we wanted to stage it in our mind's eye as a scene in an opera, a scene ripe for explosion.

Although the program notes, which we finally read when we returned home, tried to justify the interpolation of songs by the Young People's Chorus between the movements with an overall theme of youthful energy, we thought that was working very hard to justify a peculiar decision.

There was one further decision that didn't sit well with us.  We adore Bernadette Peters on the Broadway stage but choosing her as host for the evening was not a fortuitous one. Her baby-doll voice was over amplified and her reading of the narration was frequently incomprehensible. Additionally, a host should be able to name the conductor and the composer without reading from cards.  Sorry, not sorry, dear readers--but we calls 'em as we hears 'em.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, July 13, 2017

LOVE TRIANGLE AT THE SAWDUST

Davone Tines, Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Ambur Braid

We are accustomed to gender bending at National Sawdust (Heartbeat Opera's Mozart in Space) but we confess to being rather confused by this production.  Let's see if we can get this straight. The role of Aci (a man in the ancient myth which inspired the story in Book XIII of Ovid's Metamorphoses), was sung by soprano Ambur Braid. The role of the (female) sea nymph Galatea was sung by counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. No wonder we were confused. There was no confusion about bass-baritone Davone Tines in the role of the monster Polifemo.

If Director Christopher Alden wanted to make a point about gender stereotypes, he did not succeed. The result in our case was to stop trying to figure out who was whom and to just relish the gorgeous Handelian melodies so well played by the Ruckus Ensemble and so well sung by the three artists.

Handel composed this one-act work in impressive Italianate style when he was but 23 years old in 1708. He would go on to compose another more famous version ten years later with an English language libretto. We are glad to have heard the Italian version in which the music and lyrics are as beautifully committed to one another as Galatea was to Aci.

The devotion was so strong that when the jealous Polifemo kills Aci,  Galatea transforms him (her?) into a stream. The musicians, including two theorbos (theorbi?), not only played music but created the most dazzling sound effects. We were not close enough to them to witness the method but the results astonished us. Or perhaps it was the sound design of Mark Grey.

The singing was sensational all around. We first heard Mr. Costanzo about 9 years ago at Manhattan School of Music, before we began writing about opera. He starred as the eponymous Griffelkin and we were totally taken with his startlingly beautiful instrument, the way he employed it, and his stage presence. We have written about him several times since then and his gifts have grown. The unique timbre of his voice ignites all kind of molecular vibrations in our head.

Soprano Ambur Braid is new to our ears but a welcome onstage presence with equivalent facility in her fach. We would be happy to hear her sing again. The timbre of her voice is brilliant and crystalline with great flexibility in the ornamentation.

Bass-baritone Davone Tines, on the other hand, is well known to us from Juilliard where we enjoyed his sturdy voice in numerous productions and particularly appreciated his operetta and zarzuela singing with Stephen Blier's New York Festival of Song. We recall that he also played the violin! What is impressive about his voice, beside the coloration, is the range. At the bottom of the register, the bass is rich and full but there is no shrinking when the tessitura is high.

All three singers provided variety to Handel's music by keen control of dynamics. There were times when the vocal line was spun out like a fine silken thread, causing us to hold our breath. So we would have to declare the evening 100% successful in its musical values.

As far as the production goes, we had difficulty relating to it. As it opened, Aci and Galatea were two janitors wearing what appeared to be surgical scrub suits. Costuming was by Terese Wadden. They were pushing brooms and polishing the back wall of the set (design by Paul Tate dePoo III) which was a projection of tiny squares with designs related to the sea--boats, fish, etc.  There was nothing else onstage but a large bathtub. Mark Grey is credited as sound and video designer.

If we failed to appreciate the perplexing concept of Mr. Alden, it did not spoil our pleasure in hearing three magnificent voices filling our ears with music.

(c) meche kroop


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

LONGING FOR JERUSALEM

Inbar Goldmann, Avigail Malachi-Baev, and Elad Kabilio

When Music Talks, we listen! There is a reason for Elad Kabilio's success with his Music Talks. One reason is his enthusiasm and commitment to his work; the other is his giving the music world something unique. Perhaps these two features are common to all successful people.

Last night's presentation, given at the Center for Jewish History, attracted such a large audience that there was standing room only. The theme was Jerusalem-- as a symbol of longing for peace, for home, for a place of one's own.

We do not know whether Judaism is a religion, a race, a nationality, a birthright, or a chosen identity; but we do know that there is a culture that has been sustained over centuries in spite of persecution, ethnic cleansing, and the holocaust. To many Jews, Jerusalem represents a state of mind as well as a geographical place.

What Mr. Kabilio's Music Talks offers is education and illumination along with entertainment. What he relates is always interesting and conveyed with gusto, then illustrated with music. (If there is a word for aural "illustration" we hope one of our readers will comment below!)

These programs are so interesting that we find ourselves widening our musical horizons beyond opera. That being said, we were delighted that the program featured a most unusual arrangement (by the three artists themselves) of Verdi's "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from his opera Nabucco. The strong voice of mezzo-soprano Inbar Goldmann carried the melody with Avigail Malachi-Baev's clarinet playing some gorgeous arpeggios and the cello filling in the bass line.

In the opera, the Hebrew slaves are held captive in Babylon and long for their homeland. This chorus is famous in Italy as "Va pensiero" and was important in Verdi's time. Although there is some historical revisionism occurring, it has long been thought to be important to the Risorgimento and a rebellion against foreign rule. It almost became the Italian national anthem; it succeeded as the anthem of one of their many political parties.

The rest of the program was new to us. We heard songs about Jerusalem coming from both traditions of Judaism--Sephardic (Middle Eastern) and Ashkenazic (European). We did not hear that much of a difference but we did very much enjoy the singing in Ladino, a form of early Spanish spoken by Spanish Jews. Prior to the Inquisition, Spain enjoyed an artistically fertile period during which the three Abrahamic religions coexisted peacefully!  Imagine that!

In any case, the language sings beautifully and much of it was easy to understand to anyone who speaks Spanish. 

Hebrew, on the other hand, was resurrected when the state of Israel was formed. This new country needed a language and its own music. Much of this music was created by women. Tzvi Avni set psalms to music and we heard "Yefe Nof".

We also heard klezmer music which we had thought of as Ashkenazic, but to our ear it didn't sound all that different. There was a definite Middle-Eastern feel to it in the melodies played by the clarinet. There was also a section with a very high tessitura. The second piece was identified as a celebration song; it is played at Jewish weddings and all the guests rise and join in a circular dance; it is called "Hava Nagila". Interestingly, this melody was brought to Palestine by Hasidic Jews from Europe and has an interesting history, available online to the curious.

We heard a song known as "the second anthem" of Jerusalem in which the cello initiated and played an embellished line filled with turns and trills; the voice joined in, and finally the clarinet. This was composed by a woman.

We also heard "Kaddish" from Deux Melodies Hebraique by Ravel, transposed for cello.

It goes without saying that the musicianship was excellent. We have always enjoyed Mr. Kabilio's cello but this is the first time we heard Ms. Malachi-Baev's clarinet and it was quite lovely. Ms. Goldmann's voice is strong and passionate and she clearly connected to the music she sang.  But it wasn't until the final piece about peace ("Salaam") when she sang "off the book" that we felt her connection with the audience.

We are always grateful to Mr. Kabilio for expanding our musical horizons!

(c) meche kroop







Monday, July 10, 2017

MANHATTAN OPERA STUDIO--NO GROWING PAINS

Hyungjoo Eom, Sigal Chen, Roselin Osser, Alyson Sheehan, Aaron Halevy, Christian Kas, Rocky Sellers, Cassie Machamer, Matias Moncada, and Lisa Parente
We have cherished Mozart's Nozze di Figaro perhaps more than any other opera. We have probably seen and heard it more than any other opera. Do we care if the production says anything new about the opera?  No, we don't! We are totally content to hear the music afresh each time, to hear the care Mozart lavished on limning each character and the humanity expressed in Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto.  Each character is flawed but loveable.

Last night's iteration was presented by Manhattan Opera Studio which we were introduced to last summer in a performance of Hansel und Gretl (review archived and found through the search function). This summer training program for young artists has grown rapidly from performing at Scorca Hall to the much larger and more comfortable theater that was formerly occupied by DiCapo Opera. The small orchestra which was squeezed into Scorca Hall now numbers 19 and occupies a proper pit, giving conductor Keith Chambers plenty of room to conduct an orchestra comprising many instrumentalists that play under his baton at New Amsterdam Opera.

Once upon a time we asked a famous symphony conductor where was the best place to sit.  He replied, "As close to the conductor as possible". So it was that we decided to sit just behind Maestro Chambers on the front row, getting a first rate view of him and the musicians in the pit. This provided new revelations of just how marvelous Mozart's orchestration is and just how effective Maestro Chambers' conducting is. His style is restrained and not at all theatrical and there is a terrific rapport with the instrumentalists.

Kudos to Leesa Dahl for the harpsichord accompaniment to the recitativi.

The singing was excellent and gave evidence of some fine coaching. The acting revealed the fine hand of Stage Director Walker Lewis. We always appreciate the bits of stage business that make the characters seem like people we know personally rather than caricatures.

Pride of place goes to the eponymous Figaro, brought to vivid life by Matias Moncada. His characterization was so astute that we almost neglected to note his fine singing.  His fine rich sound was differentially colored since Figaro has different feelings for his bride Susanna than he does for his arrogant boss. Just listen to how the color changes when Marcellina is known to be his mother and not an unwelcome creditor!

As Susanna, Lisa Parente created a sweet spunky character, smart enough to help her Figaro to foil those who would block their marriage. With blond braids and a petite figure, she looked absolutely perfect for the part. Her voice is a bit on the smallish side, but Maestro Chambers kept the orchestra down and her Act IV aria "Deh vieni, non tardar" was well done.

As Count Almaviva, Hyungjoo Eom made a fine foil, an arrogant and entitled aristocrat with designs on Susanna. He gets baffled and outwitted a lot. Mr. Eom used dynamic variation and vocal coloration to express his many moods. His arrogance and lechery made us think of Trump; this self-induced connection was far more valuable than if the director had placed him in a red wig! We object when directors try to spoon feed us!

As the neglected Countess, Sigal Chen sang with a rich full soprano that was notable for some impressive legato and beautiful phrasing. For most of the opera she is either depressed or disgusted with her husband's philandering and her two major arias ("Porgi amor" and "Dove sono") were appropriately colored. It was lovely to hear her voice change at the end when she forgives her wayward husband.

Mozart ensured that each major character got at least two arias and so we heard Roselin Osser as Cherubino perform "Non so piu" and "Voi che sapete". The acting she did with her body truly amplified the character but we wish she had not mugged quite that much.

We enjoyed the Marcellina of Cassie Machamer and were absolutely thrilled to hear her Act IV aria "Il capro e la capretta" which is very rarely included these days. This would make a fine stand-alone audition piece for her.

Rocky Sellers' Bartolo made a fine impression and he created a character not as stuffy as he is usually made out to be. He too has an Act IV aria that is rarely heard and we were glad for the opportunity to appreciate his fine voice. He showed special skills in the patter singing.

Aaron Halevy made good use of his tenor and mobile body to create a Don Basilio that was more colorful and humorous than loathsome in his gossiping. We barely recognized him in the role of the sober notary Don Curzio.

Alyson Sheehan made a sweet Barbarina and Christian Kas was very funny in the role of the bibulous gardener Antonio who unwittingly nearly foils the elaborate plot of Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess.

The singers performed exceptionally well in the ensembles, particularly the quartet in Act II.  Ms. Chen and Ms. Parente sounded exquisite together with their two very different timbres.

The singing and acting were so impressive that we scarcely missed the lavish sets that are generally employed.  A few packing cartons indicated the room Figaro was measuring for the marital bed (and, in a cute directorial touch, measuring Susanna). The Countess' room needed only a desk and a chair for Cherubino to hide behind. The garden was represented by some tall poles standing in for trees.

That the costumes were contemporary streetwear was disjunctive since aristocracy and the custom of droit de seigneur belonged to the 18th c. We can understand the decision made for budgetary reasons and overlook the issue. It would appear that the singers chose clothes from their own closets that would best express their character's station in life.

Susanna's simple white blouse and skirt were a good choice. The Count's suit and tie seemed right, with Figaro's more casual attire illustrating the difference in their station. Bartolo's outfit fell in the middle but we couldn't understand what was intended by the white lines painted under his eyes and across his scalp.

Basilio's get-up was sufficiently "rainbow" and Antonio's garb was perfect for a working man. Cherubino's outfit just seemed wrong with a particularly unflattering hat. And we wished that the Countess' cocktail dress had been more on the elegant side.  No big deal, just sayin'.

The Italian was so well sung and the acting so effective that the lack of titles was not at all distressing, although we imagine that some people in the audience felt the absence.

All in all, it was a terrific evening; we would have been happy to see it once again the weekend of August 11th, along with The Magic Flute, which will alternate.  But we will be reviewing opera in Santa Fe.

If you love Mozart, put it on your calendar!

(c) meche kroop







Sunday, July 9, 2017

IL BELLISSIMO BELLINI


Angela Meade

Santiago Ballerini
What a superb farewell for the "Bel Canto at Caramoor"' program.  After twenty years of bel canto, the opera program at this beautiful Venetian estate will revert to its original mission of presenting opera from many different traditions and to continue training and fostering the development of young singers through its Schwab Vocal Rising Stars program; Maestro Will Crutchfield will move his Bel Canto program to the nearby Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase. The new program will be called Teatro Nuovo and we will keep our readers informed as details become available.

The glorious farewell piece was Vincenzo Bellini's third opera Il Pirata. Inspired by Mozart and admired by Wagner, Donizetti, and Chopin, Bellini was a child prodigy trained at the conservatory in Naples. He came from a family of musicians and attended by virtue of a scholarship.

The head of the school gave him a valuable lesson that we wish the composers of today would heed.  To paraphrase, if you don't master melody, you will wind up as a church organist in some small town. This must have stung since that pretty much described Bellini's family!

Fortunately, young Vincenzo heeded the advice and became known for his melodic gifts.  It seems to us that he spun out long silken melodies like a silkworm whereas Rossini's melodies tumble out helter skelter. If his brilliant fioritura is reserved for moments of heightened passion, it permits long lyric lines to unspool at leisure.

So it was with Il Pirata, so magnificently performed by some major stars with Maestro Crutchfield conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke's. Soprano Angela Meade, about whom we have written before, needs no introduction. She is a confirmed superstar with a luxurious sound that sets the air to vibrating and a generous palette of vocal colors. Her coloratura in the final mad scene drove the audience wild with appreciation.

On the other hand, Argentinean tenor Santiago Ballerini just appeared on our event horizon but we recognize a star when we hear one. His physical stature is on the slight side but his vocal stature towers over most of the tenors we have recently heard. Not yet thirty years old, he has created a sensation in South America and is just achieving recognition in the United States.

The timbre of his voice is hugely appealing and he does not push or oversing. He possesses a stunning messa di voce and manages to float the high notes without apparent effort. We consider ourself a fan.

The opera itself does not have the most interesting libretto but Felice Romani worked exceptionally well with Bellini and the poetry of the text is outstanding, especially as married to Bellini's gorgeous melodies.

The story concerns two rivals for political supremacy and for the love of a woman. Gualtiero, the Count of Montalto (Mr. Ballerini) had been defeated by Ernesto, the Duke of Caldora (bass Harold Wilson) and lost everything except for his love for Imogene (Ms. Meade) who was obliged to wed Caldora to save her father's life. That's the backstory.

When the opera opens, Gualtiero is a pirate and he is losing his ship. This is recounted by the superb chorus, comprising the Bel Canto Young Artists who performed magnificently throughout the opera.

In the subsequent two acts he and Imogene recognize one another and realize that their love will never be consummated. The two men duel. The Duke dies. The Count turns himself in and is executed. Imogene goes mad.

Not much of a story but this was only 1827 and the beginning of the Romantic period of opera. Since the opera was semi-staged there was no ship and no shipwreck, just a lot of fantastic singing--not only arias but some impressive duets, trios, and ensembles.

We were particularly happy to hear tenor Sean Christensen, one of Caramoor's Young Artists in the substantial role of Itulbo, Gualtiero's lieutenant. We have been writing about Mr. Christensen's pleasing tenor for some time now and admired his growth as an artist.

As Goffredo, Gualtiero's former tutor, bass-baritone Joseph Beutel (well remembered from Santa Fe Opera) made a fine showing as well.  And soprano Robyn Marie Lamp excelled in the role of Adele, Imogene's companion, a more generous role than that usually given to companions.

It was a splendid evening and a genuine pleasure to hear such grand voices all onstage together. As Caramoor's operatic interest will expand to include different orchestras and conductors and Teatro Nuovo will continue to present bel canto masterpieces, there will be a strong impetus to pull this city girl upcountry! Caramoor's 2018 offering will be Handel's Atalanta.

We wish both programs well as we reflect on all the wonderful singing we have heard at Caramoor and all the special artists to whom we have been introduced.

(c) meche kroop


Saturday, July 8, 2017

DANTE'S GIFT

Cast of Prelude to Performance's production of Gianni Schicchi

We have already written extensively about Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance and we have just reviewed the first half of an evening of Puccini which we thoroughly enjoyed. The second half comprised a superb production of Gianni Schicchi, based on a minor character in Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.  Giovacchino Forzano created a compelling comic libretto and Giacomo Puccini created some sparkling music that tickles the ear.

The success of this masterpiece requires ensemble work of the highest order and that is just what we got last night at the Kaye Playhouse.  You can get it too if you move quickly, as there is a final performance Sunday afternoon and you may never again have the opportunity to see the tale this well told.

This is a story requiring authenticity of time and place in order for us to relate to its generality and its marvelous message.  We all love to see the greedy and grasping get what they deserve. We can recall so many plays based on squabbling families fighting over their inheritance.

In this case, la famiglia Donati is noisily and disingenuously grieving their newly deceased patriarch. All sorrow is gone when they learn that old Buoso (Steven Mo Hanan) has left all his money and property to the monks.

Young Rinuccio (tenor Spencer Hamlin) is in love with Lauretta (soprano Anna Adrian Whiteway) who is the daughter of the wily peasant Gianni Schicchi (baritone Joshua DeVane). Rinuccio's snooty aunt Zita (marvelous mezzo-soprano Leah Marie de Gruyl) forbids his marriage to a girl without a dowry.

When you hear Ms. Whiteway sing "O mio babbino caro" you just know that her father will relent and agree to help the family that disparages him, and help himself in the process. And when Rinuccio sings the praises of Firenze we know he deserves the girl! The duet of the two lovebirds was beautifully sung.

The opera revolves around Schicchi's elaborate and risky plot to create a new will through the offices of the notary (Ben Reisinger, who also played Dottore Spinelloccio ) and his assistant Pinellino (Charles Carter).

The squabbling relatives included Melanie Ashkar as La Ciesca, Nicholas LaGesse as Marco, Vincent Grana as Simone,  Nicole Rowe as Nella, Hao Hu as Gherardo, Frida Werner as Gerardino, and Karl Buttermann as Betto, the poor relation.

The entire cast played off each other with great humor and laughter rang through the theater on numerous occasions. That the singing was superb throughout could almost be taken for granted. Ian Campbell's direction kept things moving at a fast pace and provided many small touches that distinguished the characters from one another. The bit about forgetting the manner of crossing oneself was just one of many. Snuffing out the candles that were initially lit to honor the deceased--(post revelation of Buoso's will) was another funny moment.

Joshua Rose's set was far more elaborate than that for Suor Angelica and is exactly what we would imagine for Renaissance Italy. Costuming by Charles R. Caine was even more elaborate with each character dressed according to their age and station. The beard and makeup for Simone was notably convincing and accomplished by Steven Horak.

Maestro Willie Anthony Waters brought out all the humor in Puccini's score. There is a repeated motif of a downward inflected pair of notes, a whole tone apart, and all one has to do to burst out laughing is to hear that motif.

Don't miss this outstanding production.  You are not likely to see such a fine production again!

(c) meche kroop

TRAGEDY TONIGHT! COMEDY TONIGHT!

Cast of Suor Angelica


Although Giacomo Puccini wrote a trilogy, Prelude to Performance wisely decided to present only two parts, focusing their attention on the two one-acters that employed a large cast and which provided a fine balance between the tragic and the comic. We are pleased to report a stunning success in that we were moved to tears and then to laughter. This only happens when a committed cast dedicates themselves totally to the work and the original intention of the composer and librettist are honored with fidelity.

The tragedy of Suor Angelica is both personal and cultural. The cultural tragedy is related to the sexually repressive period in late 17th c. Italy. Poor Suor Angelica has borne a child out of wedlock, probably due to innocence and ignorance; she has been hustled off to a convent and hasn't seen anyone from her family in seven long years.

The personal tragedy is that she finally receives a visit from her aunt La Zia Principessa who comes on a mission of getting Angelica to sign over her inheritance in favor of her sister who is about to be married, after a presumably chaste courtship. The aunt treats her niece with scorn and derision. What news of the male child?  He died of an illness a couple years earlier but no one had seen fit to share this news with the mother. "Everything was done to save him", claims the aunt. Somehow we did not believe her.

Angelica, an expert in herbology, takes poison then realizes she will be damned and prays to the Virgin for forgiveness. She experiences a vision or hallucination of the child she lost and dies believing in her salvation.

This is very much a story of its time since women can now choose to have a child without the questionable benefit of matrimony! Thankfully, the story was not updated and we did not spy a single sister bearing a cell phone.

What we did spy was a superlative cast working in concert and creating a supportive society filled with individual characters, each unique in spite of the uniform habits.

Soprano Michelle Johnson's performance of the lead role left nothing to be desired. During her scene with the rejecting aunt, she lost her convent cool and exhibited profound flashes of the anger and despair that had been suppressed and finally erupted.  Her "Senza mamma" was as moving as any we have heard. This is a sizable instrument used judiciously!

Similarly, mezzo-soprano Leah Marie de Gruyl created a hateful character that was just as totally believable as the one created by Ms. Johnson.  So effective was she that we couldn't keep from imagining what kind of upbringing she endured that made her place family reputation above familial love. Ms. de Gruyl has an impressive instrument that should take her far in the world of opera; she employed it in the service of characterization, coloring her voice with icy coldness.

The remaining nuns were also excellent. We were quite moved by soprano Nicole Rowe's Suor Genovieffa, a former shepherdess, who admitted to missing the pleasure of holding a baby lamb in her arms.

We also liked the two nuns who were responsible for provisioning the convent--Jenna Buck and Renee Richardson.  Melanie Ashkar sang well as La Maestra delle Novizia. There was not a mediocre voice onstage. Everyone sustained the beautiful legato line of the Italian. Molly Burke portrayed La Suora Zelatrice, Crystal Glen was Suor Osmina, Yulan Piao was Una Novice, Amy Guarino sang Suor Dolcina, Wan Zhao was La Suora Infermiera, and two Converse were portrayed by Hillary Hei Lee Law and Maria Zollo.

Ian Campbell's direction was superb with plenty of onstage business to keep the nuns busy. Joshua Rose provided the simple set with projections of a cloister for the first part and a sky filled with stars for the final part.  His lighting was equally effective. Charles R. Caine designed the costumes.

Under the baton of Willie Anthony Waters, Puccini's gorgeous lyricism shone brightly and limned the various characters and situations.

Review of Gianni Schicchi to follow!

(c) meche kroop


Friday, July 7, 2017

PRELUDE TO PERFORMANCE DOES CARMEN

Emily Righter and Ben Werley

Last night we attended opening night of the 13th season of Prelude to Performance, Martina Arroyo's summer program in which 75 participants study for 6 weeks learning roles. They are given instruction in language, dramatic interpretation, recitativi, and stage combat; they receive coaching and also participate in several master classes, some of which we have reviewed. This program is unique in that the young artists receive stipends, thanks to the generosity of the donors who support the program. Many graduates go on to major careers.

Judging by the tumultuous applause that greeted the curtain call of Bizet's Carmen, the program is, as it has been, a major success. Participants learn a great deal and walk away with a role "under their belts" that should serve them well in the future. And the audience, comprising a Who's Who of Planet Opera, walks away happily entertained.

If you share our taste, it's likely that you have longed for a traditional production of Carmen. We have gotten rather tired of updatings and novel interpretations, with the exception of one very radical Carmen produced by Heartbeat Opera. One can always count on Prelude to Performance to do a traditional production and to do it exceptionally well.

Last night's Carmen can be seen again Saturday night and we hope you will still be able to secure tickets. You will see the beautiful mezzo-soprano Emily Grace Righter as Carmen and tenor Ben Werley as Don Jose. This tragic character must evolve from a rather buttoned up corporal as the opera commences into a raging murderous maniac at its conclusion. Mr. Werley's plangent tenor was most remarkable in his second act aria "La fleur que tu m'avais jetee"; he was totally convincing as the lovesick corporal and evinced a lovely legato.

We recall Ms. Righter from four years ago when we reviewed her performance in a small role in Rossini's Mose in Egitto, presented by New York City Opera. She is maturing into a fine performer with a very lovely instrument and fine stage presence.  As she grows into this role, we hope she will dig deeper into the earthiness, a difficult task given her refined appearance. There was nothing wrong with her seductive acting but we feel that there is a need for a deeper more organic approach.

Baritone Brian Major has a fine instrument well suited to the role of Escamillo but also needs a bit more work in creating the character from the inside out. Soprano Sarah Cooper performed the role of Micaela and grew in stature such that her third act aria "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante" brought down the house.

We greatly enjoyed the performances of soprano Shana Grossman (Frasquita) and mezzo Olivia Johnson (Mercedes) who threw themselves into their roles with abandon. As a matter of fact, our favorite part of the opera was the second act quintet which provides some necessary comic relief. Baritone Dan Ewart as Le Dancaire and tenor Hector Mir as Le Remendado turned in some fine performances as they joined the three women in the humorous planning of a smuggling operation.

Bass Zaikuan Song handled the role of Zuniga, Don Jose's superior and competitor. Phillip Bullock used his mellow low voice in the role of Morales, pressing his attentions on the shy Micaela at the beginning of the opera.

The chorus sang well and there was no fudging the French anywhere.

The work was finely directed by Laura Alley with some very lively business on the streets of Seville in front of the tobacco factory, and later at Lilas Pastia's tavern. There was also a twist at the end which we decline to reveal but it worked well. Recitativi were sung, not spoken. The long scene in Act IV with the parade of picadors was cut but no one seemed to miss it.

As usual, costuming (Charles R. Caine) was lavish, as one can see on the carousel of photos which we posted on our Facebook page (Voce di Meche). The tobacco factory girls were scantily clad (for that time period) and the gypsies and smugglers looked just the way one wants gypsies and smugglers to look. The military men looked exactly right.

Also as usual, the set (Joshua Rose) was simple but effective, making use of projections. The lighting was fine, especially in Act III where the dark lighting elicited a sense of menace, leaving the audience to imagine the mountain pass.

The overture began somewhat raggedly but Maestro Daniel Lipton brought the unruly strings under control rather rapidly and we particularly enjoyed solos by flute, clarinet, oboe and the brass section. 

Tonight we will be reviewing an evening of Puccini and hearing the large cast of women in Suor Angelica, most of whom are new to us. We are particularly looking forward to hearing Leah Marie de Gruyl as La Zia Principessa, having heard her in a master class.

No one will leave depressed because that opera will be followed by another one-acter by Puccini that always leaves us laughing--Gianni Schicchi. Remember "O mio babbino caro"? This is the opera from which that aria comes. But you knew that already, didn't you?

Do consider catching both the Puccini double feature tonight and Carmen tomorrow night!

(c) meche kroop