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, May 31, 2017


Maestro Douglas Martin, Director Nathan Hull, and cast of Donizetti's La Zingara presented by Amore Opera

Some folks go to the opera to cherish the old standards and revel in their familiarity; others go to the opera to see something new and daring; and still others love to find something old and undiscovered or neglected. The current season of Amore Opera, like prior seasons, pairs two works, one of which is familiar and the other of which is undiscovered. The old warhorse--Bizet's Carmen, recently reviewed, is paired with an early work by Gaetano Donizetti entitled La Zingara, astonishingly never seen before in the USA.

Carmen is a tragedy whilst La Zingara is billed as an opera semiseria. To our eyes and ears it seems more like an opera buffa with plenty of humor and, like Carmen and Die Zauberflote, written with spoken dialogue. We could not stop thinking of zarzuela, a Spanish art form involving crazy plots like this one.

La Zingara premiered in Naples in 1822; it was Donizetti's 7th opera and the first one he created for Naples. In place of recitativi, he incorporated spoken dialogue; the aristocrats spoke in classical Italian whilst the servants spoke in Neapolitan dialect. The opera was a great success; we wondered what the Neapolitans thought about their dialect being employed in such a fashion but cannot find any commentary from that period.

Wisely, Director Nathan Hull (also president of Amore Opera) eliminated the dialogue which was replete with Neapolitan humor that would make no sense to contemporary audiences, and wrote some clever dialogue in idiomatic English which explained the plot and fleshed out the characters. There was a very humorous moment at the beginning when the Amore Orchestra started playing the overture to Carmen and Argila herself (the titular gypsy girl) comes out and tells the orchestra "no, not that one!"

Donizetti's music never fails to delight and the tunes he penned always tickle our ears. We recognized one which he later recycled in L'elisir d'amore; those more familiar than we are with his entire oeuvre might have recognized more. The 24-year-old composer was initiating experiments that would be fulfilled in his long composing career. One absolutely stunning moment occurred at the end of the first act when three couples sang interlocking and overlapping duets, producing a sextet of impressive complexity and thrilling harmonies.

In the title role, mezzo-soprano Melissa Serluco (whom we have enjoyed at Utopia Opera and New Amsterdam Opera) turned in an outstanding performance. Aside from her fine vocal assets, she created the character of Argilla with such skill and charm that the surprise ending seemed quite natural. We would not want to spoil the surprise for our readers but let it be noted that Mr. Hull's dialogue layered on some really clever references to other more familiar operas in the canon. This spunky Gypsy Girl uses her keen intelligence to manipulate all the other characters--not to hurt them but to solve their problems. We are still smiling about her antics.

The story concerns the nasty despotic ruler Don Ranuccio (portrayed by the always wonderful baritone Robert Garner) who is trying to marry off his daughter Ines (soprano Mary Thorne) to his lieutenant Antonio (Michael Celentano). He has unjustly imprisoned Antonio's uncle Don Sebastiano (veteran bass Jay Gould) and plans to murder him so that Antonio will get the inheritance. The jail is guarded by the humorously inept and clumsy Papaccione (Frederic Rice). 

Ines is in love with Fernando (tenor Jeremy Brauner) whose identity is kept secret. Fernando is accompanied by his faithful servant, the very funny Sguiglio (Bennet Pologe).

The finest singing we heard all night was that of tenor Jed Kim who sang the role of the Duca d'Alziras whom Don Ranuccio also wants to murder.  He began a phrase with such exquisite pianissimo and spun it out like a strand of silk. His breath control literally took our breath away. He has an instrument of very sweet color and employs it well. We want to hear him again!

As Ines' companion Amelia, La Toya Lewis sang well, as did the two lovely young ladies portraying Argilla's gypsy friends. Nicole McQuade was Ghita and Heather Boaz was Manuelita. Everyone's Italian was comprehensible, thanks to diction coach Paul Ferrara, himself a former singer.

Mr. Hull wears his director cap well, likely due to his considerable experience as a singer. In so many contemporary productions, directors are brought in from other branches of the arts, directors who do not understand singers.  Mr. Hull always knows where to place his singers and never asks them to sing in ridiculously awkward positions.

Susan Morton's chorus sang well. Maestro Martin pulled the orchestra together after a somewhat ragged beginning.

Richard Cerullo's set design was simple but serviceable. Lauren Bremen lit them well. Cynthia Psoras' costumes worked just fine, readily differentiating the nobles from the servants and from the gypsies.

We do not know whom to credit for the sound design but the loud clanking sound accompanying the locking of the flimsy prison door was a source of humor, as was the huge splashing when several characters dropped down into the well. Although the story had its serious elements we welcomed the emphasis on the moments of comedy. And it did have a very happy ending; we walked out all smiles.

There will be one more performance tonight and, although there are no children onstage, we recommend that you bring your children. We were so happy to have the opportunity to see and hear a long lost work and you will be too.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, May 28, 2017


Riad Ymeri and Iris Karlin

The success of any production of Georges Bizet's 1875 Carmen rises and falls on the performances of the four main characters, and, by this standard, Amore Opera's production is an unqualified success. The cast we heard last night at The Riverside Theater (yes, Amore Opera appears to have moved uptown)  met the stringent demands both vocally and dramatically. The roles are triple-cast so you may not hear the same cast as we heard, but you are likely to enjoy the performances as much as we did.

This is not at all like the radical condensed version we enjoyed a few nights ago, but rather a complete 3 1/2 hour leisurely telling of the tale, complete with all the subsidiary characters, an excellent chorus, and more than two dozen children. We have just realized the reason for bringing children into the performance. This is a special kind of outreach (or should we call it "in-bringing") a strategy by which children will get to know and appreciate opera. Hello audience of tomorrow!

Founding Artistic Director Nathan Hull, also responsible for the competent stage direction, has fulfilled yet another mission, aside from bringing opera to New Yorkers at a modest cost and providing onstage experience for lots of young artists. Judging by the thunderous applause at the conclusion and our own satisfaction, he has done well.

We will spare you a recitation of the well-known story but when we see Donizetti's nearly unknown work La Zingara next week, you will definitely hear about the story. This is Amore Opera's "Gypsy Season"!

As the eponymous tragic heroine, soprano Iris Karlin could have easily convinced us that she was a mezzo-soprano. Her dark colored voice is on the large size and quite brilliant at the upper end of the register, but there was no denying the strength she exhibited at the lower end of the register. Her "Habanera" and "Seguidilla" were both excellent.

Her vocal skills were well matched by her dramatic portrayal. Her Carmen was seductive, manipulative, and larger than life. She clearly conveyed the sense of a strong and willful character. We are not sure by what magic Ms. Karlin also allowed us to feel sympathy for her character.

As the unfortunate Don Jose, one of her victims, tenor Riad Ymeri gave a vocally strong performance. He is a rare tenor who can produce volume at the upper end of the register without pushing. (That is the main fault we find with dramatic tenors; we can feel the tightness in our own throat.) His acting conveyed the sense that the character's violence comes from powerlessness. He hasn't the strength of character to make a decision but allows fate to make it for him. He is stuck in life and in his obsession with Carmen and unable to extricate himself.

He was particularly fine in "La fleur que tu m'avais jetee", evoking our sympathy.

Soprano Helaine Liebman made a winsome Micaela who was particularly excellent in her third act aria "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante". When she sang in her high clear voice, she evinced all the terror of a teenager on a dangerous mission, and all her trust in God. Would that her acting might have carried over into the spoken dialogue! That should be easy to amend.

As Escamillo, baritone Robert Heepyoung Oh sang smoothly with fine phrasing, and conveyed a believable sense of self-confidence without the cliched arrogance we usually see. We like the fact that he was rather bemused by Don Jose in the mountain confrontation and neutralized him with ease. Of course the "Toreador Song" is his hit number but we loved his duet in Act IV "Si tu m'aimes Carmen".

Carmen's friends Frasquita (soprano Stephanie Leotsakos) and Mercedes (mezzo-soprano Elsa Queron) added much to every scene they were in and harmonized beautifully. The two smugglers Dancairo (baritone Spencer Leopold Cohen) and his sidekick Remendado (tenor Drew Watson) added some much-needed comic relief. We loved the quintet in Act II "Nous avons en tete une affaire".

As Zuniga, bass Gennadiy Vysotskiy sang well and portrayed drunkenness most effectively. In the non-singing part of the Innkeeper  Lillas Pastia, Trey Sandusky added more humor as he tried to get his customers to leave. We believe we also saw him as the Constable in Act IV, chasing a mischievous boy.

Susan Morton's chorus sang well and moved about the smallish stage as best they could.

Thanks to French diction coach Danielle Feaster, the French was just about perfect, as agreed upon by our Francophone companion. As was originally written for the Opera-Comique, dialogue was delivered in English and, if we are not mistaken, seems to have been modified into some rather contemporary idiom.  Or perhaps just loosely translated. In any case, we liked it and felt it helped to understand the characters better.

Bizet's lush orchestration gave plenty of content for the Amore Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Richard Cordova. We particularly noted the fine flute solos during the interlude before Act III (Richard Paratley). 

Mr. Hull's direction always brings in a few novelties and we loved Carmen lassoing Don Jose with the rope that had been used to tie her up. Likewise the naughty boy who snitched the toreador's cape and was pursued by the Constable.

Cynthia Psoras' costume design was just wonderful, from the gypsies to the soldiers. Especially dazzling was the gown Carmen  wore to the bullfight in Act IV.

Richard Cerullo's sets were simple but effective. We fault Lauren Bremen's lighting for not having spotlights on the main characters who were often left in the dark. 

The audience probably loved the Spanish dancing choreographed by Jorge Navarro but when we think about a tavern on the outskirts of Seville we imagine something a lot more raw. What we saw last night was as refined as one would see at a tourist show. But we liked the sensuous dance Carmen performed to seduce Don Jose.

Our quibbles are small; our pleasure was great. Do catch one of the performances and, if you like it, consider helping this worthy company to survive and grow. New York needs its small companies!

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Doug Durlacher, Sichel Claverie, Brent Reilly Turner
We had barely recovered from the emotional impact of Heartbeat Opera's Madama Butterfly when we were hit with another wallop by their Carmen. When we planned this "double feature" evening, we were expecting a pair of "Cliff Notes" of the two operas.  After all, how much could one say by truncating an opera into an hour and a half?  Surely we were in for a light-weight experience!

How wrong we were! The right people can say a great deal in a short period of time. By knowing just what to strip away and where to put the emphasis, a revised and abbreviated version of a beloved opera can have a huge impact and take us to new places. Co-Artistic Director of Heartbeat Opera Louisa Proske directed a compressed essence of Carmen that left us feeling stabbed in the heart.

This condensed Carmen took us to a new place, a borderland between two places where anything might happen. Kate Noll's set was a guard house with a chain-link fence surmounted by barbed wire. A very athletic Carmen is creeping on the ground, then climbing up and over the guard house. Was it Chloe Treat's amazing choreography that had her crawling in and out of doors and windows trying to escape the guards? In any case, it was raw and realistic.

There is no cigar factory.  There is no bullfight. There is no card game or mountain passes. No Mercedes, no Frasquita, no Remendado or Dancaire.  No Lilas Pastias' Tavern. There is only the story of four people and two triangles. Micaela loves Don Jose. He is conflicted.  His mother wants him to wed this "good girl" and lovely soprano Jessica Sandidge was perfect in the part. She was most affecting in her aria "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante". Her body language and voice joined forces to make us feel both her terror and her faith.

But Don Jose (the fine tenor Brent Reilly Turner) has become entranced by this highly intense Carmen, portrayed with wild abandon and stamina by the impressive smoky mezzo-soprano Sichel Claverie. Her infatuation fades when she encounters Escamillo--a bullfighter by libretto, but in this case a hopped-up coke-snorting hoodlum. In this role, baritone Ricardo Rivera gave an amazingly physical performance that had elements of humor that the audience appreciated.

Mr. Ricardo is no stranger to singing this role but we are quite sure he has never performed it like this before. One funny moment occurred as he entered with "You know who I am? Play my song!". The audience roared with glee but hushed as soon as the jazz orchestra (saxophone, guitar, violin, viola, bass, and piano) struck up a unique arrangement of "The Toreador Song".

Daniel Schlosberg was Music Director for this production, both conducting and playing the piano, as well as arranging the score. In the afore-mentioned scene, the musicians have joined Carmen and Don Jose and a generic smuggler (Parker Drown) to dance and swill beer in an improvised fiesta under colored lights.

Ms. Claverie gave an enticing delivery of the "Seguidilla" and we thought we wouldn't get to hear the "Habanera" but she sang it after Don Jose stabbed her as a kind of postlude commentary. After the knockdown dragout fight with the violent Don Jose (Fight Director was Rick Sordelet) we don't know how she found the breath to fill out the phrases so well but she did.

So we got most of Bizet's luscious music along with a fresh look at an old favorite.

Beth Goldenberg's costumes were a propos.

The opera world is becoming increasingly specialized with so many small companies occupying their own niches. Heartbeat Opera has established theirs in presenting radical adaptations of the classics, being both physically and emotionally right in your face. That they are speaking to the 21st c. is evident from the youthful composition of their audience. Their new home at the Baruch Performing Arts Center appears to be just right with ample student input!

(c) meche kroop


Matthew Singer, Mackenzie Whitney, Banlingyu Ban, Jordan Weatherston Pitts, Siobahn Sung, and Noah Spagnola

Until last night, there were five extant versions of Madama Butterfly, an opera with which Giacomo Puccini couldn't stop tinkering. Our scholarship is insufficient to describe for readers the exact differences among them but we do believe that the original version of 1904 was the one in which librettists Illica and Giacosa did not shrink from portraying Lieutenant Pinkerton as an arrogant and exploitative chap, a depiction that was later softened.

Last night at Baruch Performing Arts Center, the adventuresome and uncommonly successful Heartbeat Opera presented an adaptation of this masterpiece that was radical and ultimately highly affecting. Two issues about Madama Butterfly have always struck us and the production team managed to hit both nails right on their heads. The first issue is that we have never perceived this opera as a love story; au contraire, we have interpreted the story as one of child abuse. A grown man makes a "temporary marriage" with a fifteen-year-old girl and abandons her.

The second issue is our wondering, every time we have seen the opera, what would happen to a racially mixed two-year-old, torn from his mother and taken away by a couple he never met to a foreign land with a completely different culture. This is still happening today with international adoption agencies providing babies for childless couples here in the good old USA. By making little Sorrow important to this performance, Heartbeat Opera has opened up the story and made it both contemporary and also larger than the little house occupied by Cio-Cio San and her maid Suzuki.

The story opens with little Sorrow (Noah Spagnola) flung on his bed and googling on his laptop. He wants to know where he came from and what happened to his mother.  We don't know what his father and adoptive mother have already told him. He observes the unfolding story from the sidelines and at times he enters the scene, to join his mother and Suzuki as they look out at the harbor for his father's ship, and later to wipe the white paint from his mother's face--or perhaps her tears. At the end he tries to hold onto her.  When he returns to his bed he holds a pillow over his face. We feel his grief.

Our tears welled up too at several points in this emotionally devastating production. We thought the production team had eliminated Act I but it would show up after Act II as a dream or memory of Cio-Cio San in her long night of waiting. The performance began with Act II.  Butterfly believes that Pinkerton will return and tries to convince the skeptical Suzuki. Sharpless, the Consul, also tries to burst her bubble but she resists, believing only that he is coming back. Sharpless is dismayed when she brings out the baby, now 2 years old. Goro the matchmaker/pimp fails to interest her in Prince Yamadori, who was eliminated from the production, along with the Bonze and the Sisters, Cousins, and Aunts.

Then the events of 3 years earlier are replayed.  There is the unmitigated arrogance of Pinkerton, the typical Ugly American. He is enchanted and filled with lust.  Under her wedding kimono, we see Butterfly as a schoolgirl, dressed much in the fashion that is popular now in Japan. Pinkerton does not pin her to a board as a lepidopterist would but binds her in place with red ropes.

In Act III, Butterfly is not just sad but angry. She wields her dagger violently slashing out at the air.  She realizes she has been deceived. We imagine she is lashing out at Pinkerton. We see her give up her child but we are not sure if she kills herself.

This revolutionary reimagining of a classic was directed by Ethan Heard who is Co-Artistic Director of Heartbeat Opera. For the adaptation of the libretto, he was joined by Jacob Ashworth. who also accomplished the excellent translation with dramaturg Peregrine Heard. Movement was directed by Emma Crane Jaster with Momo Suzuki coaching the Japanese movement. Jacob Ashworth was Music Director and Conductor of a chamber orchestra comprising a string quartet plus an extra cello and a harp which contribute enormously to the texture. Daniel Schlosberg was responsible for the arrangement.

Now that you have a mental picture of what this team accomplished, let us add that the singing lived up to the production. We have not yet arrived at a position of appreciating color-blind casting so the fact that Butterfly and Suzuki were Asian was a big plus.  It would not have been so if their voices were not so first-rate.

Banlingyu Ban made a superb Butterfly with a soaring soprano and dramatic skills that conveyed the many shades of feeling that her character underwent, from childish excitement to the depths of despair. Siobahn Sung's pleasing mezzo and self-effacing acting made her the perfect supportive Suzuki. Their relationship made sense and was totally believable.

Mackenzie Whitney's performance as Pinkerton, the entitled and arrogant Lieutenant, may have been a bit over the top, but that just fed into our prior belief as noted above. He sang "Addio fiorito asil" quite well, convincing us that he was just a self-centered lout with his mostly phony remorse. We would love to hear his tenor in a sympathetic role. We were feeling so negative about the character, it was difficult to focus on the voice!

Matthew Singer's mature baritone was just right for the rather more sympathetic role of Sharpless, who has to clean up Pinkerton's messes. His scene with Butterfly was particularly fine.

Jordan Weatherston Pitts' tenor was pressed into service as the whiny slimy Goro--an excellent performance.

The final trio was overwhelmingly gorgeous. Actually, there was not a single musical moment that was any less.

Reid Thompson's set looked like a cage and was highly effective, as was Oliver Wason's lighting.

Valerie Therese Bart's costumes were perfect--the schoolgirl under the kimono showed us just what a 15-year-old girl would look like behind the "Orientalist" fantasy provided by geishas.

There were two choices of props with which we disagreed. When Sharpless comes to break the news to Butterfly, she brings out a doll that should have been much larger to signify a 2-year-old child.  And the new Mrs. Pinkerton was wheeled onstage as a life-size mannequin. She might have better been left to the imagination.

Those two tiny quibbles aside, we recommend this outstanding revisionist Butterfly without reservations. Those new to opera can get a good feel for the musical magic that helps to tell a story in a brief 90 minutes. Experienced opera goers will get a fresh take on an old warhorse. Do go!

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Thomas Muraco and Sandra Hamaoui

We believe that the first time we heard soprano Sandra Hamaoui perform, it was two years ago with the International Vocal Arts Institute and we were more than usually impressed with her crystalline voice, her warm stage presence, her musicality, and her superb French. We heard her again last summer in an IVAI production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and found her to be even better. We were there when she received an award from Opera Index and also for the Metropolitan Opera National Council. It is not difficult to recognize a superstar in the making and here is one to illuminate the stage.

Last night she appeared as the winner of the Mary Trueman Art Song Vocal Competition, selected from 150 applicants. This is the first year in which the Art Song Preservation Society of New York (Founded and Directed by Blair Boone-Migura) partnered with the Manhattan School of Music for a Spring Into Art Song Festival, which we hope will be an annual event. There was a week of master classes and two recitals but this was the only event we were able to attend.

ASPS and MSM share common goals--those of promoting the art song repertoire and giving opportunities to young artists for education and performance. We all think we know what "art song" is but it helps to be reminded that it is a marriage of poetry to voice and instrumental music. The singer interprets the text and the collaborating instrumentalist interprets the music. Our enjoyment is increased when the voice is a beautiful one and the poetry meaningful.

At last night's recital, Maestro Muraco's artistry married well with that of Ms. Hamaoui. The larger part of the program was French and the language appears to have been imbibed with Ms. Hamaoui's (French) mother's milk. We tend to overlook so many of the shortcomings we've noticed in non-native-French-speakers, as long as we understand the words; but hearing the language sung as it is meant to be is very special indeed.

French art song (chanson) can sometimes sound effete when the singer tries too hard to maintain the long lyrical vocal line while avoiding undue emphasis.  There was not a moment last night in which we perceived this flaw. Ms. Hamaoui has a way of slipping gently into a phrase and ending it with grace. This phrasing appears to be due to exquisite breath control. Final "e's" are evident but evaporate the way Emanuel Villaume taught in a master class we attended.

There is a modesty bordering on self-effacement by which this young singer enters a song and inhabits it. She seems to be visualizing whatever the text describes and we seem to be experiencing the moment through her eyes. Her gestures are spare but always meaningful; there is never any "semaphoring" of the arms.  The voice is well placed and the upward skips well negotiated, never interrupting the line.

These fine qualities were evident throughout the French sets, especially that of Debussy, of which our favorite was "Pierrot" in which Ms. Hamaoui's charm was readily matched by Maestro Muraco's. There were three sets of songs by Poulenc, several settings of texts by Louise Lalanne and Louise de Vilmorin. We don't always grasp poetry but in "Paganini", we could comprehend the many imaginative ways of perceiving a violin.

A set of songs by Rachmaninoff brought out different qualities, i.e. a more expansive and passionate style suited to the rhythms of the Russian language and the intensity of the texts. We did not see the translations until later so we tried to guess what each song was about, or, at least, the emotion of the song. It is testament to the artistry onstage that we were correct in our guesses. 

It is interesting that we of the audience have learned the names of operas and songs whether they be in Italian, French, or German. This never happens in Russian so that any given song appears to have several names, depending upon the translator. So whether we call the song "It's so beautiful" or "It's good to be here", we can revel in the artists' depiction of wonder.

We particularly enjoyed "The Bird Cherry Tree" for its ardent appreciation and "Fountain" for the gorgeous piano of Maestro Muraco and Ms. Hamaoui's dynamic artistry. Her voice began limning the delicate cloud in pianissimo but grew in intensity as the fountain reached its "sacred height" and then returned to delicacy as it "fell back to earth".

Our notes for "At night in my garden" read "a plaint in a minor key". When we read the translation it was about a weeping willow crying bitter tears! Our notes for the final song "A-oo" read "anxious despair"; the song is about someone searching the wilderness for a loved one.  How effectively these two artists conveyed the emotions!

Since the 93-year-old Ned Rorem was being honored, we feel obliged to mention the set of his songs. Gertrude Stein's brief and punchy rhymed couplets in "I Am Rose" inspired a song we enjoyed. Robert Silliman Hillyer's "Early in the Morning" painted a lovely picture of Paris and we could almost taste the croissants. The other songs did not thrill us, but readers will recall that contemporary English poetry and American art songs rarely please us.  That being said, Ms. Hamaoui could sing a laundry list and give us pleasure!

The encore, Poulenc's "Les Chemins de l'Amour" was dedicated to Mr. Blair Boone-Migura and his husband.  It was performed at their wedding. We have no reservations about this song--the melody is unforgettable, the poetry accessible, and the performance delightful!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, May 20, 2017


John Callison, Katherine Cecelia Peck, Chad Kranak, Heather Jones, Victor Khodadad, Claire Kuttler, Tom Mulder, and Chelsea Bonagura in Jacques Offenbach's The Island of Tulipatan

If you are reading this in the morning you just might have time to get to Theatre 80 on St. Mark's Place in time for today's matinee; if you have missed this delightful production you can still hear it because Light Opera of New York will be recording it, as they have done for several prior productions.

In either case, you are in for a treat. This tuneful and topical one-act operetta premiered in 1868 at Bouffes-Parisienne at the apex of Jacques Offenbach's popularity.  Bouffes-Parisienne had been delighting Parisian audiences since this prolific composer established it in 1855 for the Paris Exposition. The Island of Tulipatan is a protean work and has been heard all over the world. It's good-natured satire makes it easily adaptable.

Light Opera of New York's adaptation was particularly successful with a libretto by Gregg Opelka and dialogue by Jack Helbig. The fact that we enjoyed the English translation so heartily should tell our readers a great deal! The cleverness of the wordplay and rhyme schemes contributed enormously to our delight. We couldn't help thinking about W.S. Gilbert's way with words.

The story involves a Grand Marshal who is dissatisfied with his tomboy daughter and the Duke of Tulipatan who despairs over his effeminate son. It would be spoiling the fun to tell you how this all works out but there is a lot of Gallic wink-wink. And if you've never seen tall handsome tenor Tom Mulder in a dress you haven't truly lived.

We hold that opera is entertainment (in spite of some not-so-entertaining contemporary misfires). Whether serious or comic, the value lies in taking us out of the daily struggle and showing us a different world.  When we leave a performance, there is ample time to consider whether the tale is relevant to our present day. Surely, parental disappointment is very relevant as is gender dysphoria!

Gary Slavin's direction was superb, just as it was for last week's Ballad of Baby Doe at Utopia Opera.

Offenbach's music comprises an outpouring of tunes to delight those of us who cherish melody. Music Director Tyson Deaton at the keyboard ensured that we did not miss an orchestra.

Mr. Mulder's tenor was as splendid as his acting, which involved his galumphing around the stage as the tomboy Hermosa, to his father's annoyance-- and his trying to teach Alexis, the wimpy son of the Duke, how to propose to a woman.  As Alexis, soprano Claire Kuttler was funny but also moving as she sang about the loss of her pet hummingbird with a bright clear tone tinged with sadness. Good comedy must be performed seriously!

Papa Romboidal, the Grand Marshal, was finely portrayed by tenor Chad Kranak and mezzo-soprano Heather Jones did a swell job as his wife Theodorine. They were convincingly French, arguing the way couples do in French film.  Of course, it is her fault that their daughter Hermosa is so unladylike!  Why isn't Maman teaching her social graces!  Haha.  If Papa only knew!

The Duke of Tulipatan was just as dense as everyone else and delightful in his clueless state. Tenor Victor Khodadad inhabited the role perfectly and sang equally well. We grant a huge round of applause to all the singers who managed to sing English very clearly whilst maintaining a Gallic style. Nothing was lost in translation!

As if this weren't enough entertainment for one evening, we were also gifted with a curtain raiser comprising a number of selections from Offenbach's oeuvre, sung in French. One can never go wrong with duets from Les Contes d'Hoffman and "Kleinzach" was performed by Mr. Mulder and baritone John Callison. Soprano Chelsea Bonagura and Ms. Jones harmonized beautifully in the "Barcarolle", and Ms. Kuttler gave us a fine "Elle a fui".

Unfortunately, all of the above were "on the book" which truly impairs the connection with the audience. It felt awkward particularly when Ms. Bonagura, Ms. Jones, and lovely soprano Katherine Cecelia Peck sang "Ah! Quel diner!" from La Perichole. It was an interesting idea to perform it as a trio but every time someone interrupted the acting by looking down or turning a page, the magic was gone. 

So special credit goes to Mr. Khodadad who committed to memory "Au Mont Ida" from La Belle Helene. and for this reason we would call that our favorite selection from that part of the evening. He was able to relate unimpaired to his three goddesses and to connect thereby with the audience.

Aside from the use of scores for most of the songs, the entire evening was very much worth our while and left a smile. We are so fortunate in New York to have such a plethora of small companies, each staking out a special territory and giving us opera lovers such an amazing variety of experiences. Bravo LOONY!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, May 19, 2017


The Golden Cockerel presented by New Opera NYC (photo by Steven Pisano)

We could scarcely believe our eyes and ears last night at the Sheen Center, where New Opera NYC produced an opera that was new to us and presented it in such a fantastic (and we do mean "fantastic") manner that we were completely transfixed. What eye candy!  What ear candy! And also, dare we say, stimulus to the brain, as we consider the tale of a pompous bumbling leader who makes a pre-emptive strike on another country, following some bad advice! How resonant!

On a day remembered as Bloody Sunday in Russia, the Tsar's forces massacred some peaceful protestors who were unhappy about their living conditions but also about the ill-fated Russo-Japanese War.  The composer Rimsky-Korsakov supported the protestors and thereby lost his job as head of the conservatory. Perhaps in protest he chose to set The Golden Cockerel as a satire of autocracy and Russian imperialism. This would be his last opera; he completed it in 1907 but it was banned by the Palace. It premiered 2 years later but the master had already died.

The libretto was written by Vladimir Belsky who based it upon an invented fairytale by Alexander Pushkin who, in turn, based his work on some stories by our very own Washington Irving!  How about that! Real fairytales are folktales handed down over centuries so we feel confident in calling this one invented.

King Dodon's astrologer presents him with a golden bird who will warn him of political danger and gets promised whatever he wants in return. War is declared whilst Dodon lazes about at home, relying on the bird's advice. Dodon's sons kill each other on the battlefield and Dodon himself must go. In the kingdom of Shemakh he meets the seductive Tsaritsa  Shemakha who extracts a promise of marriage and returns home with him. The astrologer claims his reward--the Tsaritsa.  He will accept no less. Dodon kills him. The Golden Cockerel kills Dodon.

Once the thrill of the production subsides, we are left wondering whether this was all a plot of the Astrologer and the Tsaritsa to take over Dodon's kingdom. But our thoughts return to the sensuality of Rimsky-Korsakov's melodies and the lusciousness of his orchestration, so magnificently played by a full orchestra under the baton of Maestro J. David Jackson. We recall that it was Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade that captivated us in our childhood, leading to our lifelong interest in classical music. Particularly memorable was the harp of Ata Svetlov, the percussion of Chui Ling Tan, and the flute section. The Asian mode lent a special exotic thrill.

The singing was exemplary. Starring as Dodon was the famed Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov who impressed us on the opera stage far more than he did singing lieder on a prior occasion. The Tsaritsa Shemakha was performed by Julia Lima; the strength of her voice was overlaid with accuracy in the fioritura and accompanied by a very sexy body which added to the believability of her seductive dance. (Think Salome!)

As The Golden Cockerel, soprano Ksenia Antonova's performance left nothing to be desired. In the tenor altino role of The Astrologer, John Villemaire's reedy tone was just right. Baritone Antonio Watts made a fine and colorful Prince Aphron with tenor Dmitry Gishpling-Chernov as his brother Prince Gvidon, equally well performed. 

Bass Gennadiy Visotsky shone as General Polkan and wore his furs well. As the Housekeeper Amelfa, Ksenia Berestovskaya had a fine low mezzo just right for the role, and a spunky stage presence.

We might add that the chorus was superb, led by Chorus Master Alexandre Tchaplinskiy.  And who doesn't love a Russian chorus!

The production was by Igor Konyukhov who has established himself on the opera scene in a short period of time. We don't often meet nuclear physicists who go on to get an MFA but we can definitely relate to finding the arts more compelling than science. This polymath of a man was responsible for both direction and choreography--both superb.

The entire production team brought visual splendor to all this aural delight. The lavish set design was by Zachary Crane and was lit by Greg Mitchell. Special credit goes to Oksana Ivashkevych whose LED Technology was brilliant.

The eye-popping costumes were by Olga Maslova who seemed to combine Russian folk themes with Star Wars and Hair and several other influences. We were reminded of Heartbeat Opera's Mozart in Space last Halloween. We were constantly astonished by the originality which is difficult to describe. We refer readers to the carousel of photos on our FB page.

Separate credit must be given to Giaconda for the headpiece of the titular character which was right on point and totally complementary to the costume. Marina Konyukhova and Elizabeth Tripp were responsible for the outstanding Make-up.

We have fallen in love with this opera and will see it again in August in Santa Fe.  It will be interesting to see what a different production team will do with it but we don't think that anything could surpass this production.

There will be four more performances and if you are lucky enough to snag tickets we think you will also fall in love with this extravagant over-the-top production This is just one event in the two-month-long New York OperaFest. We are happily overdosing.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Jennifer Peterson and Jordan Rutter

We know the songs of William Bolcom as encore pieces at opera recitals. The thought of hearing a bunch of them all together at a cabaret performance was tempting. So last night at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre we joined a crowd of similarly inclined music lovers and heard all 24 songs he wrote with Arnold Weinstein between 1963 and 1996. We were particularly enchanted by the ones we had never heard before.

At the piano was conductor/harpsichordist/pianist/director of Operamission Jennifer Peterson whose Rinaldo we reviewed and loved last year. Singing his heart out was counter-tenor Jordan Rutter whom we haven't heard since the Classic Lyric Arts Gala about a year and a half ago, when he wowed us with a duet from Handel's Serse. We love to see artists pushing their boundaries.

Mr. Rutter began the evening with "Over the Piano"--the perfect opening since he took the title literally, draping himself over the piano and staring longingly at Ms. Peterson. This was a perfect representation of a partnership between two people who adore Handel's music and have worked together to mutual advantage.

Clad in skinny pants, held up with suspenders and sporting a fuschia bow tie at a rakish angle, the impish Mr. Rutter employed every ounce of dramatic ability to make each song an operatic story. Ms. Peterson's piano was supportive but never dominant, although Mr. Bolcom's music, varied as it is, holds plenty of interest.

In no particular order, we recall some of our favorites.  The hymn-like "Waitin'", brief and simple, allows the listener to take away whatever message they wish. Hearing a man sing "Amor" brought fresh interest to that most charming crowd-pleaser. We recall the very first time we heard it as an encore piece, sung by mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore, and pestered everyone we knew to learn who composed it.

Many of the songs are about relationships, a favorite topic of ours. "Toothbrush Time" is one of the best expressions of ambivalence that we have heard outside of Stephen Sondheim's oeuvre. Similarly "At the Last Lousy Moments of Love" reflects a common situation that we can all relate to and deplore. 

"Angels Are the Highest Form of Virtue" was new to us and another favorite. "Georgia" was yet another favorite, a sad tale of a bad end visited upon a generous soul who didn't deserve his fate.  

We might add that Mr. Rutter's clear enunciation of the English contributed to the success of the evening.  With text as compelling as Mr. Weinstein's, one doesn't want to miss anything.

The piano writing seemed an amalgam of many influences but is quintessentially American and we certainly enjoyed Ms. Peterson's jazzy style.

Of course, Bolcom wrote dozens upon dozens of songs and someday we may get to hear more of them.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Eizabeth Bouk, Angela Dinkelman, Maestro William Remmers, Jack Anderson White, and Julia Snowden

We rarely enjoy an operatic performance without taking notes but (note this!) we were so absorbed in the story and the performances last night that we did not. Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe is 60 years old but its resonance is quite contemporary.  Beverly Sills sang the lead with New York City Opera and later the role was taken by Faith Esham and Elizabeth Futral. We understand that it has been often performed around the United States but we had never seen it until last night when Utopia Opera gave it an admirable production.

John Latouche's libretto limns a story that strikes several chords with us Americans. The history of the West, for one thing, with its saloons and dance hall girls, is a favorite theme; even Puccini grabbed onto that with his Fanciulla del West. The rise and fall of tycoons is another favorite theme, as is the defiance of societal norms.  All these are present in the tale of Horace Tabor who, with the help of his wife (the boss' daughter), clawed and schemed his way to the top of the social heap in late 19th c. Colorado.

Augusta had been a fine helpmeet but when Mr. Tabor heard "Baby" Doe sing "The Willow Song", he was smitten (as were we) and left his loyal wife. The scandal led to social ostracism but their love endured until his death. Because of the United States switching from the silver standard to the gold standard, he died impoverished, a broken man.

It is a tribute to some mighty fine performances that we were left caring about all the characters. Angela Dinkelman's soaring soprano took her from a woman of questionable repute in Act I, through to the devoted wife who cradled her dying husband at the conclusion. In the interim, she is pampered with riches--but she unquestioningly relinquishes them when her husband's poor judgment bankrupts him.  We could tell from her vocal coloration that she was a good person and not a hussy.

As the improvident Horace Tabor, Jack Anderson White's manly baritone clarified how he could attract two such exceptional women. His chemistry with Baby Doe was powerful and their duets contained harmonies redolent of their attraction and ultimately of their mutual love.  As Baby Doe tells her mother (the excellent and believable Julia Snowden), her first husband was never the love of her life.  Tabor was.

Elizabeth Bouk's rich mezzo was a fine counterpart to Ms. Dinkelman's high-flying soprano. Her Augusta grew from the sharp bitterness of a rejected wife to the softer compassion she felt for Tabor when fate turned against him. She had tried but failed during their marriage to get him to be more circumspect and conservative, but her primness was not to his liking.

In this day and age, two people falling for each other and divorcing their spouses to be together would scarcely raise eyebrows, but in the late 19th c., where this story took place (and yes, it is based on real historical figures) there was scandal aplenty, and plenty of encouragement toward vengeance from Augusta's female friends. But this impressive figure took the high road and we felt great sympathy for her when she became old and sick.

There is also the interesting feature of primly dressed women assuming a high-brow stance at the "Opry House" in Leadville which was built by Tabor himself. Notably, the husbands preferred to hang out in the saloon with the dancing girls!

In grand opera tradition, there would be a huge cast and elaborate scenes of the wedding, the ball, the political rally, etc. But the modest resources of Utopia Opera served them well, allowing the intimate drama to unfold and touch our hearts.  Indeed, most of the arias are private contemplations and reminiscences. We are privy to the characters' innermost feelings and this allows us to empathize in a way we cannot in a large theater with scene-stealing sets.

Another feature of a small company is that each member gets to perform in several roles. Limitations of space prevent us from crediting the dozens of superb performers who collaborated to make this opera the success that it was.

Gary Slavin's astute direction kept the story moving along successfully.

Under the baton of Maestro William Remmers, the orchestra gave Douglas Moore's music a lot of pizazz. A half dozen strings were bowed on the floor level, whilst 13 winds squeezed onto one side of the stage. We had no problem with the balance and enjoyed the accessible (and happily non-academic) music. Tyler Mashek handled the percussion and Levi Vutipadorn manned the keyboard. No complaints on that account!

Readers may wonder why we have not complained about the English in which it was written. We were surprised at how well John Latouche's writing reflected American speech patterns and the pleasing vocal lines that resulted. It is unfortunate that this was the sole collaboration of Moore and Latouche. If only more contemporary operas could learn from this one.

It is also due to the fine English diction that we were absolved from reading the titles, which were helpful mainly when Ms. Dinkelmann's voice reached the stratosphere.

The stage was bare, except for a few chairs that were multi-purposed. Costuming was sourced from the performers own closets and assembled with imagination. We did not feel at all disturbed by the lack of authenticity to the period. When push comes to shove, we are mostly interested in musical and dramatic validity.

We understand that Utopia's June production will be Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin....in Russian.  Is there nothing Maestro Remmers will not tackle?  We doubt it.  Perhaps The Ring Cycle?

Stay tuned to learn which operas won the Audience Choice competition for next year.  We have been sworn to secrecy and we NEVER EVER leak.  Well, hardly ever!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, May 13, 2017


Erin Brittain, Tim Murray, Oliver Sewell, Madison Marie McIntosh, Hidenori Inoue, and Alanna Fraize

Once upon a time our parents read us the softened version of Cinderella, cleaned up so as not to frighten small children; you know, the Disneyfied version.  Since then we have read the original violent and scary versions by Charles Perrault and Wilhelm Grimm.  We do not know which version librettist Jacopo Ferretti adapted but he wrote the libretto in three weeks, replacing the wicked step-mother with an abusive step-father and the fairy godmother with the kindly tutor Alidoro. Similarly, the glass slipper was replaced by a bracelet. It is believed that the circumstances of production in 1817 did not allow for elaborate magical effects.

Nonetheless, there are elaborate magical effects in the music, created by Gioacchino Rossini in barely more than three weeks! That guy could sure work under pressure.  He was but 25 years old and already had Il Barbiere di Siviglia under his belt.

Last night we witnessed some rather magical effects produced by a fledgling opera company whose future success we anticipate with all the enthusiasm engendered by the creativity we observed. General Director Kathleen Spencer and Artistic Director Megan Gillis share a common mission--to make opera intimate and accessible to one and all, so that the audience can feel a part of the opera. Thus they created ARE Opera--for you, for us, for the singers, for everyone.

Readers will recall how greatly we favor experiences that are up close and personal. Gone are the days when we peered through binoculars trying to figure out who was singing that beautiful vocal line in the midst of overwhelming and cinematic sets. We prefer to feel a part of the action, to feel like we know the characters and understand them. This does not require the huge voices that one hears at The Metropolitan Opera but gives young artists an opportunity to learn a role early in their artistic career and to share in the intimacy with the audience. In complementary fashion, we get to share an intimacy with them as well.

The cast we heard last night was exemplary with many of them graduates of Manhattan School of Music and thus well remembered by us from student productions over the past few years. We appreciated their fine performances then and now we can appreciate their artistic growth.

In the lead role, we heard Madison Marie McIntosh, about whom we have written many many times as she has pursued her artistic journey. At first we were not sure that transitioning from the soprano to the mezzo-soprano fach was such a good idea but every time we hear her we realize that she is a singer who knows her own potential and is fulfilling her mission. Rossini wrote this role for a contralto but there is nothing MMM cannot do well. With no loss to her scintillating upper register and flexibility in the coloratura passages, there is a new depth and breadth at the bottom of the register.

Along with this very special combination of skills comes an impressive dramatic ability.  Her Angelina was much put-upon by Clorinda and Tisbe but she showed an inner strength and defiance in "Una volta c'era un re". In spite of the innocence and humility, one realizes that this character, like the singer, will achieve much. When she reprises this aria in the second act, Ms. McIntosh colored it differently--as a happy woman in love.

As her Prince Charming Don Ramiro, Oliver Sewell produced the kind of tenor voice that we love to hear--pure with a lovely vibrato. The tenor aria in Act II "Si, ritrovarla, io juro" is incredibly difficult and Mr. Sewell negotiated it well. His "9" will be a "10" when he learns to float the money note in the cabaletta. (In this production there is no chorus to hide any flaws.) His chemistry with Ms. McIntosh worked well to the advantage of both of them and their duet was sensational.

Baritone Tim Murray made a fine Dandini, the Prince's valet; he enjoyed being Prince for a Day and enjoyed exposing the unpleasant grasping characters of Angelina's step-family.  He sang with a fluent pleasing baritone and his fine acting added a great deal to the performance.

Bass Hidenori Inoue made a magnificent Don Magnifico, the threatening step-father. His deeply resonant instrument filled the room with sound and his acting was flawless. One can hate the character and love the singer! Just watch him abusing Angelina, encouraging his own daughters, ingratiating himself to Dandini (who is disguised as the Prince), showing false humility on his knees, and trying to make it up to his daughter when he realizes she will marry the Prince. In this wide range of emotion and behavior, there was not a false note, not vocally, not dramatically.

Another bass, Brett Vogel, was just fine as the Prince's tutor Alidoro.  He is obliged to approach Don Magnifico's home as a beggar, putting the two step-sisters to the kindness test, which they fail. Later, he casts off his disguise and brings Angelina to the ball. His character always evokes our sympathy.

And now we get to the two step-sisters. Soprano Erin Brittain as Tisbe, and mezzo-soprano Alanna Fraize as Clorinda. Again, we love the singers and laugh at the characters--two silly, vain, and spoiled girls. Both performers have lovely voices but it is the facial expressions and gestures that we remember best; caricatures of disagreeable people can be very funny and provided a fine balance with Angelina's sweetness.

Rossini's music always sparkles and everyone in the cast got a chance to shine--but it is the ensemble writing which never fails to impress us. The arrangement of the playing space allowed physical separation of the singers such that we experienced the ensembles stereophonically. That was a new and exciting experience.

Maestro Jonathan Heaney conducted with verve; he just coached and played for Mr. Inoue's graduation recital at Manhattan School of Music which we so enjoyed. Andrew Sun played the piano score so effectively that we didn't miss the orchestra.

Stage Director Claire Sparks was most effective in telling the story. Although the space had a stage, most of the action took place in the center of the large room with audience members facing each other across the performance area.  This gave the cast plenty of room to move around; it was a highly kinetic performance. Simple props included a table and chairs, a bench, and a large trunk.  Nothing more was necessary.

Costuming was simple, as befits a shoestring company. Vast quantities of tulle were utilized to create costumes both romantic and silly. Even the make-up was on point.

This company will not remain at the shoestring level; we are sure of it. There are exciting plans for the future, including a double bill comprising Puccini's Gianni Schicchi and....a surprise.  This is opera for the entire family--sufficient in musical values to please experienced opera goers and accessible enough for "newbies" and children.

The only improvement we could offer would be to show the titles on the opposing walls. Having them at one end of the room obliged audience members to choose between the action and the titles. Fortunately, even a modest knowledge of Italian would serve because the acting was so illustrative. Italian diction was flawless.

There will be two performances remaining. The cast will remain the same except for Ms. McIntosh who will sing at the late matinee on Sunday.  Since it is Mother's Day, consider treating your mother or surrogate mother to two hours of enlivening entertainment that seems to fly by within an hour.  Just hearing Ms. McIntosh's "Non piu mesta" at the end will melt her heart!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, May 12, 2017



Sitting in the fragrant and manicured West Side Community Garden on W. 89th St. we couldn't help thinking of that classic rock tune by Crosby, Stills, and Nash with the lyrics "And we got to get ourselves back to the garden".

Had On Site Opera's production of Mozart's The Secret Garden not been so compelling the gorgeous colors of the Spring flowers might have upstaged it.  Happily, nothing could have upstaged this production, one that left us with a big smile which should last us at least through the weekend. Looking at the faces of the audience members indicated that our joy was a shared experience

The wildly creative stage director Eric Einhorn has so many tricks up his sleeve that we never know what he will come up with next.  Except we do know and we will tell you a bit at the end of this review. The entire premise of On Site Opera is to match the production to an appropriate setting. Regular readers will know exactly what we refer to but others can enter "On Site Opera" into the search bar to fill in their knowledge, lest we repeat ourselves.

Right now, it is the current production that commands our attention and mobilizes our face into a goofy grin. What an inspiration to present Mozart's La finta giardiniera in a garden! The site was perfect with the audience sitting around the perimeter of a large grassy circle with the action taking place both within the circle and in the aisles around and behind the audience. The cast of seven could remain interacting with each other whilst the principal participants in that scene were "center stage". Occasionally, cast members interacted with members of the audience.

It seemed so organic but probably an incredible amount of labor was necessary to produce that effect of spontaneity. To our surprise the acoustics were excellent. Calzabigi's libretto was translated and obviously adapted by Kelley Rourke, and a very fine translation it was. The scene in which Sandrina and Count Belfiore go insane was wisely cut and the 90 minute production moved along swiftly, relying on spoken dialogue in place of recitativi to move the action forward. Readers may be shocked to learn that we enjoyed the English but there was great skill involved in converting this silly and unwieldy story into an hour and a half of pure delight. Focus was placed squarely on the interactions of the lovers.

The story concerns seven would-be lovers all at odds with one another until they learn certain lessons. The three male suitors must learn how to court the women they desire. Count Belfiore (beautifully sung by tenor Spencer Viator) has anger management issues that drove away his beloved Lady Violet (the marvelous soprano Ashley Kerr) who is hiding out working for the Mayor (performed by terrific tenor Jonathan Blalock), as a gardener named Sandrina,

Superb baritone Jorell Williams (a product of Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance some years ago) portrayed Lady Violet's servant who has accompanied her, also disguised; he learns to court the Mayor's servant Serpetta (splendid soprano Alisa Jordheim) in a foreign language which she clearly finds far more romantic than English.

The modest Ramiro (portrayed by marvelous mezzo Kristin Gornstein, well known from Heartbeat Opera) must overcome his diffidence and pursue the Mayor's niece Arminda. Soprano Maeve Hoglund created quite a character--what the French would call exigent. She only accepts Ramiro when he gets forceful. Faint heart never won fair lady, as they say.

We find mating behavior fascinating--pursuit, rejection, betrayal, reconciliation--far more than stories about terrorism, politics, and inventions. We wish more contemporary composers would write about romance. Don't we all love to see our foibles onstage?

There were plenty of sight gags to add to the fun. Props like rakes, spades, and garden hoses were put to good use which you will want to see for yourself.

So the story was engaging, the singers splendiferous, the setting delightful, the English diction perfect. Even the lighting (designed by Shawn K. Kaufman) was inventive with strings of white lights encircling the garden, changing to blue when the Count was desperate and to red when things heated up. Costume design by Beth Goldenberg was right on point with Arminda appearing quite glamorous in her Schiaparelli pink costume and hat. Even the shoes were perfect with Sandrina (Lady Violet) wearing yellow Wellies and the Count wearing violet patent leather.

But this is opera and we have yet to say a word about Mozart's music.  He was but 18 years old when he composed the work (and what's YOUR 18-year-old doing?). The melodies that tumbled out one after another from his teen-aged pen were brilliantly conducted by Maestro Geoffrey McDonald with his customary stylish verve. The reduced orchestration was accomplished by horn player Yoni Kahn and Thomas Carroll. Orchestration was effectively distributed among a pair of oboes, a pair of period clarinets, a pair of bassoons, a pair of horns, and a double bass. The group calls itself Grand Harmonie and lives up to its name. The vocal lines are all melodious and the ensembles filled with pleasing harmonies.

The fact that On Site Opera presented this gift to our community (a new initiative of theirs) is astonishing and surely merits one's consideration of a generous donation.

This is a co-production with The Atlanta Opera and will be presented at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens next weekend. So, unless you want to travel south, we strongly urge you to show up tonight and to show up early. The production begins at 7 so don't say we didn't warn you. Saturday night is the final performance. The address is 123 W. 89th St. in Manhattan.

W promised to tell you a bit about what On Site Opera has coming up.  The United States premiere of Darius Milhaud's The Guilty Mother will be presented at The Garage, 611 W. 50th St. on June 20, 22, 23 and 24. If you've ever wondered what happened to the folks DaPonte wrote about, this will be your chance.

Finally, we would like to mention that we have a lot more to say about this opera which we reviewed two years ago at the Santa Fe Opera. If you enter "Crazy in Love" into the search bar above, you will be directed to a funny psychological analysis which we wrote about their very fine traditional production.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, May 11, 2017


Kenneth Merrill and Guanbo Su

We had only heard basso Guanbo Su on one occasion--but he showed such vocal and dramatic skills performing two very different characters in the same production that we were most eager to hear him again. It was about six weeks ago that we enjoyed Janacek's The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears at Manhattan School of Music; Mr. Su portrayed both the starchy Parson and the grumpy Badger whose den gets preempted by the heroine. We wondered who was the possessor of that incredibly mature sounding bass.

The basso fach is a late blooming one (and also a long-lasting one) so it is an astonishment to find one so young and so well developed. Another astonishment was to hear a program for bass that wasn't ponderous. On the contrary, Mr. Su's voice is dark and rich, but also with a lightness that makes it difficult to describe but very agreeable to listen to.  Think Italian roast espresso capped with milk foam!

There is one thing we noticed that may be a contributing factor--his embouchure probably adds some height and resonance in the head, but we are no voice teacher and that is just a speculation. We would love to ask his teacher Cynthia Hoffman.

With excellent German, Mr. Su performed Richard Strauss' "Morgen" with stunnng expressivity. We don't think we ever heard it sung by a bass but there's always a first time.  Robert Schumann's "Die beiden Grenadiere" showed off Mr. Su's gift for storytelling. The discreet use of dynamics injected variety into the lengthy lied.

Schubert songs seemed a natural for Mr. Su's storytelling.  He produced markedly different coloration for the frightened Maiden and the reassuring Death in "Der Tod und das Madchen". But it was "Erlkonig" that captured our admiration.  In this dramatic masterpiece, Mr. Su used facial expression and direction of glances along with vocal coloration to indicate the identities of the four characters. How we would have loved to share with our readers photos of his face  but, truth to tell, our attention was so rapt that we forgot to pick up the camera!  This was the first time that happened to us and says a great deal about the intensity of the performance. We may never forget the twisted snarl of the titular character.

Jacques Ibert's Chansons de Don Quichotte revealed a fine facility with French and impressive melismatic singing.  In "Chanson a Dulcinee", he floated the final note in a manner we've not observed in the basso fach.

From Gerald Finzi's 20th c. setting of Shakespearean text (Let Us Garlands Bring) we heard three selections sung in clear English. Setting English generally results in an unappealing vocal line but Shakespeare's iambic pentameter is a whole 'nother story.  The songs were quite lovely and we particularly enjoyed the jolly "It Was a Lover and His Lass".

Stefano Donaudy composed in the early 20th c. but his music harks back to the Baroque period. We have always loved his "O del mio amato ben" and Mr. Su was nicely flexible in the melismatic passages and ardent in his delivery.

The final work on the program was Giuseppi Giordani's  18th c. "Caro mio ben". This is every beginning singer's "first song" so we may have been taking it for granted.  No longer!  Mr. Su gave it a beautiful pianissimo in the ritornello with some interesting embellishments.

Renowned coach and collaborative pianist Kenneth Merrill utilized both his talents last night and added a great deal to this exemplary recital.  The vociferous audience demanded an encore and we heard a passionate delivery of a song in Mandarin which Mr Su said was a folk song, not an art song.  Well, we could not have discerned  the difference but wish we'd had a translation.

Mr. Su has some interesting plans for the summer including Glenn Morton's Classic Lyric Arts program in France. Having graduated from Manhattan School of Music, he will return for his Master of Music degree and we are looking forward to hearing more from him as his voice develops.

(c) meche kroop


Christopher Cooley and Justin Austin at Manhattan School of Music

What a relief!  Two terrific recitals back to back, not simultaneous! Each brilliant event deserves its own review so let us begin with baritone Justin Austin who has truly earned his Master of Music degree.  We first heard Mr. Austin in Cavalli's La Doriclea some three years ago and have been a fan ever since.  We have heard him singing art songs with New York Festival of Song, and most recently heard him as Dr. Malatesta in Donizetti's comedic masterpiece Don Pasquale, playing off the Norina of his beautiful wife Amanda. Imagine our pleasure as we saw that a scene from this opera would be reprised as the finale of Mr. Austin's graduation recital!

We just loved the interaction between Dr. Malatesta as he imitates the old Don and instructs Norina in how to portray his convent-educated sister Sofronia in order to prank Don Pasquale. Thomas Muraco was credited for help with this "Pronto io son" and we recall that Maestro Muraco coached and conducted the opera just 6 months ago. We might add that Mrs. Austin's soprano is just as dazzling in her fach as her husband is in his.  A true operatic power couple. 

There were plenty of goodies before the finale, of course. What we love about Mr. Austin is the expressiveness and depth of involvement that he lends to everything he sings. He has a sunny stage presence that the members of the audience appreciated as much as we did. The texture of the vibrato is as ear-pleasing as one might wish.

We loved his accuracy in German and understood every word of his Wolf and Schubert. He sang a sole selection from each of our two favorite song cycles. From Winterreise he invested "Die Krahe" with a tinge of horror and madness such that we seemed to experience the entire cycle as a hologram.  In "Halt!" from Die Schone Mullerin there was excitement to spare and the piano of Christopher Cooley kept those mill wheels turning.

Mr. Cooley also excelled in Ravel's cycle Don Quichotte a Dulcinee, establishing a rocking rhythm in support of Mr. Austin's finely nuanced interpretation. It came as no surprise that a program insert, which thanked all the people who had helped his artistic advancement, credited his teacher Catherine Malfitano for working with him on that cycle. We all know what a fine flair the divine Ms. M. has with the French repertory. The phrasing was Gallic and so was the pronunciation. We didn't miss a word!

Significantly, at least to us, was the fact that his English was also exemplary. We heard two very different soliloquies; the first was Billy's from Rogers and Hammersteins's Carousel, for which he credited his coach Erick Sedgwick, and the second was Coalhouse's from Stephen Flaherty and Terrence McNally's Ragtime. Mr. Austin captured all the hopefulness and pride of the first, and all the sorrow and despair of the second.

We also loved his performance of Aaron Copland's "The Little Horses" which was sung with tenderness and a lovely intermittent pianissimo. Mr. Cooley's piano was delicate and helped to sustain the hypnotic mood. For this piece, Stephanie Blythe's assistance was credited.

Margaret Bonds' setting of Langston Hughes "Minstrel Man" was deeply affecting, as was Mark Hayes' arrangement of the hymn "Amazing Grace" for which Mr. Austin was joined by baritone Kenneth Overton. The two men achieved a fine balance in their harmonies.

We are not sure why we didn't relate to Ricky Ian Gordon's "When Sue Wears Red", another setting of a Langston Hughes text. The piano seemed to drown out the words and we didn't care for the music. But the rest of the audience seemed to love it so perhaps it was just at odds with our taste.

The concert ended with a love fest! Mr. Austin is gracious to a fault and thanked and embraced his teacher Ms. Malfitano and spoke most movingly about all the people who helped him along the way in his 6 years at Manhattan School of Music. He also thanked his parents profusely and his wife's parents as well. His parents came up to the stage and his father, a tenor, announced that the two would join forces for duo recitals in Switzerland. Now that's something we'd love to hear!

He dedicated his encore to his family--"I Want Jesus to Walk with Me", sung a capella. We walked out feeling all warm and fuzzy.

(c) meche kroop