|Finale from Falstaff performed by Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater|
After our delightful evening at Juilliard last night it seemed like time to show Manhattan School of Music some love. MSM has a great deal of depth in its vocal department, one of the top training programs in the world, and attracts talented young singers from all over the USA and worldwide. Over 40 countries are represented. Their list of alumni looks like a Who's Who of the opera world.
Last night the MSM Opera Theater, of which the esteemed Dona D. Vaughn is Artistic Director, presented four opera scenes, apparently chosen for variety of mood and language, and to show off the special skills of the current crop of graduate students. There wasn't a disappointing voice to be heard. As a matter of fact, the vocal glories were abundant.
In place of orchestral accompaniment, we had four hands at two pianos--a pair belonging to Jorge Parodi and another to Scott Rednour. Maestro Vlad Iftinca conducted sans baton; he clearly was involved with every singer and every phrase, using both hands to bring out everyone's best.
What made the evening so enjoyable, aside from the splendid singing, was the professionalism of all concerned. Director Laura Alley never fails to honor the piece and does not torture the libretto to fit into a self-serving "concept". The pieces were staged with a minimum of props but nothing was missed. Costumes were not lavish but were appropriate and tasteful. We ourselves prefer creativity and imagination over distracting extravagance.
The program opened with "The Presentation of the Rose" from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, one of our favorite operas. The nouveau riche Herr Faninal (resonant baritone Shuo Yang) is excited about his daughter's marriage into nobility. Young Sophie (crystalline voiced soprano Yesul Yeon) considers her obligations as a wife, whilst her chaperone Marianne (lovely mezzo-soprano Madalyn Luna) tries to keep Sophie's exuberance in check.
Octavian arrives in the person of the marvelous mezzo Hongni Wu in travesti who falls instantly in love with the beautiful Sophie. The two singers created marvelous chemistry together which made the scene work beautifully. Even if you never saw the opera you could tell that Sophie will never ever marry the old Baron Ochs to whom she is affianced. The duet between Ms. Yeon and Ms. Wu told us everything we needed to know. We observed that Maestro Iftinca was in love with both of them!
An abrupt change of mood took place for the second scene which we believe was actually the entirety of Ned Rorem's 1951 opera A Childhood Miracle. The libretto by Elliott Stein was based on a creepy Hawthorne story in which two little girls (convincingly portrayed by mezzo-soprano Charlotte Merz and soprano Kristina Brost) play in the snow and build a snowman (tenor Elijah Graham) which comes to life.
Their mother (mezzo-soprano Monica Talavera) is sitting indoors with her sister Emma (mezzo-soprano Polixeni Tziouvaras) doing needlework and gossiping. Father (bass-baritone Andrew Henry) is upset to see his daughters with a strange man and insists that he come indoors where he melts. The daughters run outside into the snowstorm and turn into snow, or something else which wasn't exactly clear.
It is our opinion that magic realism is best done by Latin Americans, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Perhaps some Victorian touches would have helped. The story seemed more tragedy than miracle. Still, the singing and acting were exemplary and Rorem's writing was more musical than most 20th c. writing. Thanks to English diction coach Kathryn LaBouff, every word was clear.
The mood turned again to a more somber contemplative scene from Gluck's Iphegénie en Tauride. Gluck's music gave us plenty of variety, expressing the mood of the ocean from calm to stormy. If the lovely mezzo-soprano portraying Iphegénie (Yunlei Xie) has not had ballet training we would be rather surprised since her physical movement was as graceful as her phrasing.
In this scene of prayer for protection, she is surrounded by a chorus of Priestesses and we were impressed by the unison feature of their singing and movement. French coach Elsa Querón must get some credit! There is a lot of depth in this chorus and evidence of intense rehearsal. The two chief priestesses were sung by sopranos Si-Yeon Kim and Sasha Gutiérrez Montaño. The staging here was particularly lovely with the chorus dressed in black and carrying candles.
The final work on the program was the final scene from Verdi's Falstaff, fortunately not updated to the 1950's, as it is in "the big house". We think José Maldonado absolutely owns the role of The Fat Knight. His voice is as expansive as his girth and his acting conveyed every nuance of terror, humiliation, abject self-realization, and finally humorous self-acceptance.
The cast seemed to be having as much fun onstage as we experienced in the audience. We cannot deny that we enjoyed seeing ill-behaved men getting their comeuppance at the hands of some aggrieved women, nor can we deny drawing an analogy with the present day politics. Plus ça change! It is so much more fun when the director doesn't shove it down your throat.
The old Dottore Caius (Mr. Graham) gets married to Bardolfo (tenor Samuel White) disguised as Nannetta (soprano Hee So Son) who gets to defy her father's choice and marry the man she loves--Fenton (tenor Philippe L'Esperance). But not until they get to sing a beautiful duet. We have admired Mr. L'Esperance's voice on prior occasions.
The role of Ford was sung by baritone SeokJong Baek who always turns in a fine performance. Soprano Celeste Morales made a fine Alice whilst Meg was sung well by mezzo Elizabeth Harris. Mezzo Michelle Blauman did justice to the role of Mrs. Quickly and bass-baritone Matthias Villwock took the role of Pistola.
The staging was great fun, especially when the huge Falstaff is rolled around the stage with the entire cast prodding him with sticks. If Falstaff isn't fun we feel we've been shut out of something that Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito intended. This scene left us grinning from ear to ear.
The evening was perfect, although we could have enjoyed a few more scenes. The time seemed to fly by.
(c) meche kroop