|Catherine Malfitano's third-year voice students at Manhattan School of Music|
Getting a crowd to spend their Saturday night listening to third-year music students sounds like a hard sell but then Greenfield Hall at Manhattan School of Music was filled to the last row with enthusiastic music lovers who were there to celebrate the unique achievements of this wildly talented group of young artists, talented beyond their years. There must be a cause! Of course there is!
The ebullient soprano Catherine Malfitano has taken this class of 26 singers and, over the course of a year, transformed them into an ensemble that can use nothing but their voices and their bodies to lead you down the path of enjoyment of works both familiar and lesser known. Sets are superfluous when the acting is so on point. Although we enjoyed the familiar works, we were most interested in the introduction we received to operas we have never seen produced.
The evening comprised French opera scenes, most of them lighthearted, and we are pleased to note that French diction was held to the highest standard. Even when the scenes were new to us, the French was so well enunciated and the emotions so well revealed that there was no difficulty understanding what was happening.
Gounod and Bizet were represented but the most scenes were given to works by Jacques Offenbach and Jules Massenet. Casting was accomplished with a great deal of flexibility with many roles shared by two or three singers. Occasionally, roles were given to singers from a fach variant to that which the composer intended, but it was never a problem. Every singer sounded absolutely right. That in itself is a small miracle.
We love Offenbach and have seen and adored his 1868 opera bouffe, La Perichole. The heroine is a sassy piece of work and was here performed jointly by sopranos Aleksandra Durin and Tzuting Tsai with tenor Mimi Chiu as her lover Piquillo. The staging allowed for some competition between the two Pericholes. The music, performed on the piano by Eric Sedgwick, was filled with music hall joy.
The composer's 1858 parody of Gluck's Orfeo, Orphee aux Enfers involved a Eurydice who is not losing any love over her Orphee. We were impressed by the fine tenor Ramon Gabriel Tenefrancia who had two superb Eurydices to annoy with his virtual violin--Ashely Lea and Hyejin Yoon.
The final work on the program was Offenbach's more serious 1881 work, Les contes d'Hoffmann. We got to hear three Giuliettas, all admirable--Shelen Hughes, Monica Gonzalez, and Makila Redick. Baritone Yichen Xue gave a fine performance of "Scintille, diamant" in which Dapertutto convinces Giuietta to steal Hoffman's reflection. Hoffman was portrayed by Joshua Ross with Rong Yue as Nicklaus. This is one of our favorite operas and we were delighted to get a hearing.
Massenet was represented by his often seen 1884 Manon, a tragedy, and his 1905 comedy Cherubin, which seems ripe for revival with its convoluted plot and gorgeous music. In the former, we enjoyed the first scene in which the aristocrats from Paris arrive with their three "actress" companions and, express their quality of entitlement to the beleaguered innkeeper (Clayton Matthews). The aristocrats were sung by Yiqiao Zhou and Yichen Xue. Their companions were portrayed by Blair Cagney, Melanie Hope Long, and Shelen Hughes. We have never seen singers have so much fun with their roles!
Manon herself was sung by the tiny powerhouse Lauren Lynch who captivated one and all with her "Profitons bien de la jeunesse". In the Act IV quartet, Ms. Long exchanged roles with Ms. Lynch.
Massenet's Cherubin is yet another entry in the tale of the Count and Countess Almaviva and Cherubino, but done more as a French farce. In the scene from Act II, soprano Juliana Levinson sang the part of L"Ensoleillad with mezzo-soprano Gabriella Chea singing the eponymous hero. It was difficult to tell who was seducing whom but the audience loved the uninhibited body language and we loved the way the voices blended.
This opera goes on our wish list, as does Charles Gounod's 1864 Mireille in which the title role was shared by two lovely sopranos who harmonized to perfection--Ms. Redick and Ms. Hughes.
There were also two scenes from Carmen, Georges Bizet's 1875 masterpiece. We always love the scene in which Carmen declines to join her smuggler friends and elicits their hilarity with her protestation of being amoureuse. Mezzo-soprano Catarina Veytia mad a fine Carmen with Gabriella Will and Ms. Cagney as Frasquita and Mercedes. Mr. Matthews sang El Dancairo and El Remendado was sung by Mr. Zhou.
The Act III fortune-telling scene had Cynthia Soyeon Yu as Frasquita and Ziyi Dai as Mercedes. Mr. Sedgwick's piano was particularly wonderful in this portentous scene.
It was a most delightful evening from start to finish and left us incredulous that third-year music students could perform in such an accomplished fashion. What a pleasure to hear healthy young voices in the service of drama, entertainment, and artistry. Ms. Malfitano's magic never ceases to amaze!
(c) meche kroop