|SeungHyeon Baek, James Chamberlain, Megan Nielson, and Mark A. B. Lawrence
In a small village in Calabria in the 1860's, townsfolk would wait all year for the traveling circus to come and entertain them with circus acts and commedia dell'arte performances. The stories involved stock characters and reflected familiar themes with which they could identify. Last night at The Slipper Room on the Lower East Side, we watched Opera Ithaca's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci with the same absorption that they must have felt.
We were amazed that Ithaca, a small city with a population of 30,000, could support such a fine company. This is, in fact, their fourth season and they have been presenting old favorites as well as new works.
As Director, Zachary James pulled some rabbits out of the hat, proving our point that singers (he's a well-known bass) make the best directors. It was impressive that the company, accustomed to performing this work in a more spacious venue in Ithaca with a chorus of 30, was able to adapt to the small space available for just one night here in New York City.
The Circus Ensemble from Ithaca added a great deal of color to the production with an aerialist, jugglers, unicyclist, and acrobats showing their stuff during the instrumental interludes. It was easy to feel transported to another time and place. As a matter of fact, we were reminded of a decades ago experience on a vacant lot in Little Italy when just such a troupe from Italy performed. We know not if such troupes still exist.
Musical values were fine all around with Maestro Thomas Bagwell playing the piano reduction during the instrumental parts and turning the piano over to Chorus Master Zeek Smith when it was time to conduct the singers. To our amusement, both pianists joined in a kazoo duet!
The prologue was sung by SeungHyeon Baek, one of our favorite baritones; he sang with such gorgeous tone and phrasing and so much commitment to the role that we were immediately drawn in. His acting, as the sneaky trouble-maker and would be rapist Tonio, was so effective that we didn't remember how much we like him personally until the opera ended. Like Rigoletto, Tonio has lived a life of rejection and scorn and we can even feel some sympathy for his plight. Even in the play-within-the-opera, he portrays a servant in love with Colombina and is scorned. Life and art, art and life!
In the role of Nedda, who plays Colombina in the commedia dell'arte performance, soprano Megan Nielson (well remembered as a fine Tatiana in Utopia Opera's production of Eugene Onegin) turned in an excellent performance. Notable was her full rich tone and affecting acting. Just watching her increasing panic as the drama progressed was a lesson in acting.
Her "Stridono lassu" was beautifully rendered but we have never before heard that aria accompanied by an aerialist on a trapeze. We admit that it was a bit distracting but, on the other hand, it did express the freedom of the birds which Nedda so envies. The poor girl has come to resent the man who had rescued her from starvation and given her a home and a job and his love. But he is also possessive and she yearns for freedom. Let's call it a case of hostile dependency.
The role of Canio was performed by tenor James Chamberlain who exhibited a sizable voice that should mature nicely. Tenor Mark A.. B. Lawrence performed the role of Beppe who, in the play-within-the-opera, becomes Colombina's lover and sings a lovely serenade. Colombina's real-life lover Silvio was performed by baritone Erik Angerhofer.
Since you dear readers will not get a chance to see this original production (unless you travel to Ithaca), we have no qualms about sharing the unusual ending, which left us shaken. No knives were drawn. Canio chokes Nedda until she cries out for help from Silvio and he kills Silvio. But Nedda, with her last ounce of strength kills Canio. The last man standing is Tonio who utters the final line "La commedia e finita".
This line is sometimes spoken by Canio but we liked Mr. James' ending. It made perfect sense. Mr. James was also responsible for the colorful costuming and simple set--well lit by Ron Ziomek. Dotty Petersen was Hair and Makeup Designer. We would have loved seeing the full production in Ithaca with the extensive circus contributions but feel grateful that we got to see and hear the trimmed down version. The youthful audience packed the space and we are always thrilled to see young people enjoying themselves so enthusiastically.
(c) meche kroop
|Elad Kabilio, Grace Ho, Luke Krafka, and Caleb van der Swaagh
One speaks of a herd of cattle or a pride of lions, but what does one call a group of cellos? For want of a better collective noun, we have decided upon a "chorus of cellos" since they sing in different voices. If one of our readers can come up with a better collective term, please address the issue in the comment section.
The voices we heard last night at Elad Kabilio's "Music Talks" were magnificent. At the upper end of the register we are reminded of "head voice" in a soprano and at the lower end of the register we feel the resonance in our body that we feel when a bass is singing.
In the works we heard that were arranged for this unusual grouping of instrumentalists (not unusual for Mr. Kabilio however) voices were distributed among the four players-- but not consistently. Each player had opportunities to play the upper, middle, and lower voices.
Although the entire evening revealed a stunning array of Latin American music, the part of the program that left us bedazzled was soprano Larisa Martinez' heartfelt performance of Manuel de Falla's Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas. We have lost track of the number of times we have written about this cycle of songs but last night's performance was like hearing it for the first time.
Ms. Martinez' warm timbre and commitment to the text brought the emotions straight to the heart--and emotions there were aplenty! She brought out the irony of "El pano moruno", the lighthearted attempt of "Seguidilla Murciana" to hide a broken heart, the sorrow of "Asturiana" (our personal favorite", the rapture of young love in "Jota", the peacefulness of the lullaby "Nana", and the pain of loss in "Cancion" and "Polo". The songs are brief but the feelings intense.
What was particularly remarkable about this hearing of something familiar was not only Ms. Martinez' memorable performance but that the work, composed for voice and piano, was arranged for voice and four cellos by composer Dina Pruzhansky, who also changed the key. This brought an entirely new texture to the work. It was like returning home after a vacation and finding that a designer had come in your absence and done a marvelous renovation.
Ms. Martinez closed the program with a selection from Maria la O, a zarzuela composed by Cuban Ernesto Lecuona. What a gorgeous aria and so magnificently performed! All we can say is if we don't get to see a zarzuela presented soon in toto, we will have to do it ourself!
Ms. Martinez went to Cuba last year as part of an artistic delegation from Turn Around Arts, which was established by Michelle Obama. (And what is the present FLOTUS accomplishing???). We are sure she dazzled the Cubans the same way she dazzled us.
Our first love is always vocal music but the instrumental part of the program was the source of great pleasure for us and for our guest who was unfamiliar with classical music but is now a convert. There is something about four cellos that will do that every time!
What is unique about Music Talks is the enthusiastic manner in which Mr. Kabilio presents the works on the program, instructing audience members in a non-academic fashion on what to listen for--i.e. the five beat measure of the folk-inflected Zortzico of Catalunyan composer Isaac Albeniz, the layered melodies of Argentinian Astor Piazzola, and the intricate manner in which Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos melded Bachian structure with the color of his native folk music.
What a satisfying evening! If you have never attended a Music Talks event, you might consider their upcoming recital in which Metropolitan Opera tenor Aaron Blake (of whose voice we are very fond) will join the string quartet for some exciting music making. Put October 26th on your calendar! And we will also mention that the atmosphere is informal -- up close and personal--just the way we like it!
(c) meche kroop
|William Remmers and Cast of Utopia Opera's production of Hydrogen Jukebox
There are a few people on Planet Opera whose artistic judgment is so superior that we will follow them anywhere-- and that sometimes leads to terra incognita, which was the case last night at the fine intimate Lang Recital Hall of Hunter College when Maestro William Remmers conducted Hydrogen Jukebox from the keyboard.
What was this musical "entertainment" that wandered so very far outside of our conception of opera? This collaboration between "beat poet" Allen Ginsberg and minimalist composer Philip Glass could be considered an oratorio, or a song cycle; but does it matter? It held out attention for two hours and roused the sizable audience to an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Credit for the success must be shared with Stage Director Gary Slavin who turned abstract poetry into theater. Along with Maestro Remmers, supertitles were designed artistically, appearing and dropping off the screen, sometimes in phrases and at other times word by word.
Ginsberg and Glass met by chance in 1988 and collaborated so successfully that they undertook this work, which premiered at the Spoleto Festival (the one in Charleston, South Carolina) two years later. The work has been produced a number of times, most recently at Tri-Cities Opera and at Chatauqua.
The text included poems from Ginsberg's oeuvre written over several decades from the 50's through the 80's. Much of it is socio-political, dealing with anti-war sentiment, environmental despair, and the sexual revolution. Some of it is of a more personal nature, exploring the poet's drug use and interest in Buddhist philosophy. Most of it paints a verbal portrait of a dystopian world, one in which our leaders seem not to care and our media bury important news beneath superficial stories of so-called celebrities. Hmmmm. Does this sound resonant? prescient?
The able cast comprised sopranos K.C. Peck and La Toya Lewis, mezzo-soprano Kristin Behrmann, tenor Matt Hughes, and baritones Nathaniel Sullivan and Jeff Goble. Everyone sang finely with commitment and acted with ensemble spirit but we were glad to have the surtitles since English (in our opinion) does not "sing well". We wished that the spoken text had also been awarded titles.
We found ourselves more fascinated by Glass' music than by Ginsberg's text. The repetition of the interval of a minor third is haunting and the instrumentation is novel to our ears. We do recall liking Glass' music long ago as the soundtrack to the Qatsi Trilogy, films that shared Ginsberg's dystopian view of the world.
The scoring involved two keyboards, played by Maestro Remmers and Brian Victor. There were two players of wind instruments and we spotted saxophones of all registers and a flute; there was a stunning solo on the baritone saxophone.
Most remarkable was the percussion which provided infinite textures for which Tyler Mashek and Shelby McKay-Blezinger were responsible. We particularly enjoyed their work in "Numbers in Red Notebook; To Aunt Rose" which dazzled us rhythmically.
There were two other musical moments that stood out for us. One was when Ms. Lewis performed an "aria" based on the poem "Cabin in the Rockies" and the other was when Maestro Remmers left the keyboard and moved to the onstage piano for the bluesy hymn-like "Wichita Vortex Sutra".
If we have succeeded in intriguing you, there will be two performances today, both matinee and evening.
It has been said that artists hold a mirror up to show us who we are; it seems we are not a pretty sight! But we are left wondering why so much of 19th c. music is so pleasing to the ear! We are sure there were wars and industrial revolutions and disease and upheavals. If anyone can answer this in the comment section below, we will be grateful for your insights.
We think of Utopia Opera as The Little Engine that Could. There is nothing one can throw at Maestro Remmers that he can't catch and run with. His audience votes for what they want him to produce for the following season.
This is Utopia Opera's 7th season and we are particularly looking forward to Flotow's Martha and Sondheim's Passion. Fans have voted for Thea Musgrave's Harriet, the Woman Called Moses, which will require a larger theater with an orchestra pit. Go for it William!
(c) meche kroop
|Onstage--Alexis Cregger, Nate Mattingly, Maestro Fernando Palomeque, Madison Marie McIntosh, Ivan Ramiro, Brian Alvarado, Andrea Howland, and Mark Watson
A couple years ago we learned that opera lives across the East River, and last night we realized that opera lives across the Hudson as well. Under the stewardship of General Director/soprano Mia Riker-Norrie, Opera Theatre Montclair has developed quite a loyal following in the community and created a sizable and devoted audience. Rossini's La Cenerentola was the perfect choice for a full-scale production.
We were not the only outsiders lured to New Jersey. Sharing our enthusiasm was retired soprano Elinor Ross, Maestro Keith Chambers of New Amsterdam Opera, and heartthrob tenor Vittorio Grigolo. What drew us was an opportunity to hear one of our favorite young artists perform what must be called her "signature role". Mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh first came to our attention four years ago when we decided she was someone to watch.
This lovely young woman has it all--talent, looks, and enough intelligence to direct her career, as well as the dedication to make it happen. Having changed her fach from soprano to mezzo-soprano, she has retained the brilliance and flexibility necessary for bel canto singing and seems to be expanding the resonance of her lower register. We have never enjoyed "Non piu mesta" more!
The dramatic skills she evinced in the leading role were matched by the rest of the cast in a theatrically involving production of Rossini's tuneful and touching comedy. Responsible for the inspired direction was counter-tenor Nicholas Tamagna who framed the opera as a silent movie of the 1920's, with the film-director portrayed by bass-baritone Mark Watson, who also sang the role of Alidoro, Prince Ramiro's tutor. David Gillam's gorgeous costume designs evoked the styles of Poiret.
The singing was excellent all around with Alexis Cregger creating a Clorinda of powerful dramatic import. We have reviewed this superb soprano on multiple occasions and have always admired her gleaming tone and connection with the material. As her equally obnoxious sister Tisbe we enjoyed the on point performance of mezzo-soprano Andrea Howland whom we would be happy to hear again. The two nasty sisters worked well together.
As their father, bass-baritone Nate Mattingly, sporting a delightfully ridiculous hairstyle, won us over with a creamy tone, apt phrasing, and excellent comic timing. This is another young artist to watch and we expect that the future holds more development at the bass end of his range.
Tenor Ivan Rivera exhibited an easy bel canto technique and stood out in his aria "Si, ritrovarla io giuro". As his valet Dandini, baritone Brian Alvarado handled his role well and was the perfect foil as he exchanged roles with the Prince and bamboozled Angelina's family.
For us, the most touching moment of the opera was when Angelina tells Dandini, thinking him to be the Prince, that she couldn't marry him because her heart belonged to someone else--the someone else, of course, being the Prince who was disguised as his own valet. At this point, Ms. McIntosh made Angelina's innocence perfectly clear and perfectly adorable.
Adorable in a different way was the hilarious burlesque spectacle of Ms. Riker-Norrie--alias "Mia Vergogna" who sang and tap-danced her way into our heart during a scene change, a lagniappe to be sure!
The chorus of seven men were well-rehearsed and created Angelina's coach in a stunning and imaginative scene. Donning papier mache horse heads, they pulled an imaginary coach the wheels of which were twirling umbrellas. We always appreciate creativity more than expensive sets.
Maestro Fernando Palomeque, whom we heard just this week in a piano recital at the Argentinean Consulate, effectively led the orchestra through Rossini's bubbly score. The orchestra was placed at seating level off to one side so that the opera could be performed both onstage and also below at orchestra level. This arrangement worked well and the United Way Theatre served well as a home for this production.
Finally, it deserves to be noted that the Italian diction was fine all across the board, but was augmented by projected titles.
This same cast will be performing next Friday night at 8:00 with a partly different cast performing today and next Saturday at 4:00.
(c) meche kroop