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.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

THE COCK HAS CROWED

Kevin Burdette, Tim Mix, and Meredith Arwady in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel

We well recall the moment that we fell in love with classical music.  Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade was playing on the radio and we were hooked. What a thrill for us to have seen his final opera The Golden Cockerel twice within three months. Last night we enjoyed the production by Santa Fe Opera (a co-production with The Dallas Opera) and felt the same delight in the composer's exotic melodic line and lush orchestration, so sensitively realized by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume.

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 to battle.. In the kingdom of Shemakh he meets the seductive Queen Shemakha who extracts a promise of marriage and returns home with him. The astrologer claims his reward--the Queen.  He will accept no less. Dodon kills him. The Golden Cockerel kills Dodon.

As the bumbling King Dodon, we heard baritone Tim Mix whose characterization was as on the mark as his singing. Sporting a red "fat suit" and curled up on a huge throne, he made quite an impression on us. But an even greater impression was made when he mounted a large wooden horse, facing backward!

As the exotic temptress from The East--the Queen of Shamakha--soprano Venera Gimadieva tickled our ears with both long lyrical lines of pure sound and volleys of wickedly challenging ornamentation which she made appear effortless. Fortunately, she also possesses physical beauty sufficient for the part, since she was obliged to perform a serious strip tease to ensnare the dense Dodon.

Contralto Meredith Arwady has a sensational instrument of great depth. She created a marvelous version of Amelfa, Dodon's housekeeper/caretaker and brought a great deal of humor to her portrayal. The scene in which she cradles him on his huge throne was unforgettable.

The General of bass Kevin Burdette was perfectly sung and acted. If King Dodon had listened to his advice the entire tale might have ended differently.

The title role was sung by a very special member of the Apprentice Program.  Soprano Kasia Borowiec has been on our radar since her student days at Manhattan School of Music and has always impressed us.  What a joy to witness her artistic growth in last night's dazzling performance. Unfortunately, in this production, she sings from offstage, but we did have the opportunity to attest to her stage presence in Sunday night's Apprentice Scenes.

Several more apprentices delivered auspicious performances.  We heard tenor Richard Smagur as Prince Guidon and baritone Jorge Espino as Prince Afron. The two rivalrous siblings wind up killing each other on the battlefield.

Tenor Adam Bonanni made a fine showing as the First Boyar, whilst bass Simon Dyer did so as the Second Boyar. As expected, the chorus, under the astute direction of Susanne Sheston, performed magnificently.

Barry Banks utilized his very high tenor as The Astrologer, a mysterious character who may or may not be "real".

Director Paul Curran had some truly excellent ideas although we take exception to two choices that seemed to violate the intent of the concept. When the Queen of Shemakha capriciously demands the (offstage) beheading of The General, it seemed tasteless to us to have paraded the severed head around the stage.  Just plain "EWWW".

Secondly, there was no justification for King Dodon to appear in a contemporary suit with a red tie in the closing scene. Similarly, the Queen of Shamakha had exchanged her finery for a white dress and sunglasses. We expect that a large percentage of members of the audience, presented with an autocratic ruler who is an inept politician, might have been considering the present political situation in the United States. But that's the kind of association that should be made in one's thoughts, not concretized onstage.

But we loved the scene in which the Queen is tryig to get the flat-footed Dodon to sing and dance!

The fantastic nature of the tale was realized by the fantastic nature of the sets and costumes by Gary McCann. King Dodon loafed about in red pajamas but went to battle in stylized armor, and courted in magnificent robes. The Queen of Shamakha wore a fantastic headdress and a slinky turquoise gown which she shed in pieces. Amelfa's costume was a wild exaggeration of peasant attire and grotesque make-up.

The other costumes were wildly colorful and fantastically exaggerated with tall black fur hats on the men. The handmaidens of The Queen were dressed in long white gowns and bore huge feathered fans with which they surrounded the Queen as she changed costumes, an impressive visual spectacle.

The set resembled a skateboarding half-pipe, all curves upon which were projected animations of the Golden Cockerel, strange astrological symbols, and line-drawings of the creatures of Dodon's dreams. Driscoll Otto was responsible for this surge of imaginative creativity.

Eye candy and ear candy joined to create an evening in which entertainment was wed to high artistic values.

(c) meche kroop


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