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.

Monday, February 27, 2017


Ken Young, Jeduthun Chung Gu Kim, Mengtao Zhou, Maestro Giovanni Longo, Claudio Mascarenhas, Iris Prcic, Valentine Baron, and Geeseop Kim

New York Lyric Opera Theatre has thrived under the leadership of General/Artistic Director Elizabeth Heuermann. Not only is there a constant stream of recitals but also a summer music program, vocal competitions, and student outreach. Who in the opera world has not been reached by these many activities!

Last night at the National Opera Center, there were two consecutive performances of a judiciously cut version of Mozart's masterpiece Don Giovanni, giving two casts (with some overlap) the opportunity to try out their roles in front of a live audience, and giving a new audience the opportunity to hear the highlights of the score in less than 90 mins. In place of a live orchestra, we had the marvelous Giovanni Longo at the piano, playing the exciting score with appropriate vivacity.

A concert version of an opera does not give the singer an opportunity to emote and the much deplored use of music stands deprives the singer of the chance to connect with the audience.  Furthermore, we believe that if such a performance is geared toward new initiates to opera, titles would have been of value. We personally know the opera well and could tell what was going on without the drama. Newcomers would not have understood.

Voices on the whole were quite good, given the limitations. We are very hard on tenors who push their voices and sound tight. No such complaint about Jed Chung Gu Kim who took the role of Don Ottavio. His sweet sound was just right for the part and he sang with lovely legato and ease of sound production. His "Il mio tesoro" was lovely and someday we would like to hear his "Dalla sua pace". Alone among the cast, he seemed to try to connect with his beloved Donna Anna.

In that role, soprano Mengtauo Zhou exhibited an attractive tone and a facility with the coloratura. We believe that, freed of the music stand, she may develop more variety of color that would make the performance even better. She was quite lovely in "Non mi dir". She and Mr. Kim did beautifully in their Act I duet.

The eponymous Don Giovanni was portrayed by bass baritone Claudio Mascarenhas as an arrogant heel. No charm for this seducer! His powerful sound and stage presence lent veracity to the part. He created a sense of menace throughout.

As his servant Leporello, Geeseop Kim exhibited a less robust type of bass baritone. His Act II aria gave him some stage time, with his best sound at the upper end of the register. We bet that the audience longed to hear his Catalogue Aria.

As the vengeful Donna Elvira, we heard Iris Prcic, who calls herself a "zwichenfach soprano mezzo". To our ears, she sounded like a solid dramatic soprano with her best notes in the upper register.  There is a steely core to her tone that made her just right for the role. The difficult "Mi tradito" with its wide skips was well handled.

The role of the flirtatious Zerlina was sung by Valentine Baron whose light soprano was just right for the role. Her "Batti, batti" was lovely and demonstrated flexibility.

Unfortunately, bass Ken Young has a mature sound that didn't fit the role of Masetto.  However he was just right for the Commendatore, lending gravitas and horror to the role. The final scene in which he drags Don G. to hell was quite chilling. In the opening scene in which he is murdered by Don G. both men sounded great together.

As a matter of fact, all the ensembles were superb, earning credit for the balance of voices. The harmonies written by Mozart are always "music to our ears". 

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, February 25, 2017


John Kaneklides, Shea Owens, and Jessica Sandidge (photo by Tina Buckman)

Little Opera Theatre of New York, referred to as LOTNY, has been around for a dozen years. Grand in ambition and great in execution, we have trouble with the adjective "little". Founder and Artistic Director Philip Shneidman knows how to put on a show; for the premiere of Carlisle Floyd's opera Prince of Players, he has assembled a talented production team and two wildly talented casts and put them through their dramatic paces with great style.

The libretto was adapted from Jeffrey Hatcher's oft revived play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, which also spawned the film Stage Beauty in 2002. The story, inspired by an entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys, seems to have been little altered. There are two main themes: the first is the difficulty of adapting to a radical change of politics (a very current concern!) and the second is reflective of last night's review of Opera Lafayette's production of Leonore--the theme of a woman rescuing a man.

We are in London in 1661 and Charles II has regained the throne, ending twenty years of repressive Puritan rule. Edward Kynaston, so movingly portrayed by baritone Shea Owens, is famous for performing female roles, since women had not been permitted on the stage. Samuel Pepys (spoken by Hunter Hoffman) acknowledged Kynaston as the most beautiful actor on the stage...and the most beautiful woman in London.

His female dresser Margaret Hughes is not only in love with him but wants very much to be him and to strut the boards. She copies his every gesture. Soprano Jessica Sandidge created a most believable character, carefully balancing her love for him with her competitiveness.

As his friend and lover Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, tenor John Kaneklides was totally convincing and delivered a very fine aria in which every word, enunciated in a plummy English accent, was understandable--something which we wish we could say about everyone.

The pompous King Charles II was played by tenor Nicholas Simpson who also managed some fine singing, superb acting, and clear diction, in spite of being in the upper register a great deal of the time.

As his mistress Nell Gwynne, petite soprano Sharin Apostolou (barely half the size of the King) had the spirit of a woman twice her size. She also longed to play upon the stage and was partly responsible for the King's edict to give women the right to perform. Her big moment came when she sang a folk ballad for her audition, a moment we truly enjoyed.

Bass Matthew Curran portrayed the theater manager Thomas Betterton who will do anything to keep his theater afloat and will steer his ship through the eddies of the current political climate.

Smaller roles were just as well cast and performed. Comic relief was provided by two hilarious performances: Soprano Michelle Trovato played Miss Frayne while mezzo-soprano Hilary Ginther portrayed Lady Meresvale. The scene in which they try to find out Kynaston's gender was hilarious. But it turned ugly when Sir Charles Sedley (effectively played by tenor Neal Harrelson) appeared, seeking sexual favors.  Kynaston played along with a prank in which he tried to sell the favors of his two lady companions. Sedley was outraged and humiliated when he discovered Kynaston's male equipment and developed a vengeful streak.

This vengeful streak led him to have our hero badly beaten, giving Ms. Hughes the opportunity to rescue him and nurse him back to health. Then she does something that leads to his transformation.  More, we will not tell you!

Mezzo Jane Shaulis had great fun with her role as Mistress Revels, putting poor Kynaston onstage in a bawdy performance in a tavern, way beneath his talent but the only job he could get once his roles were taken by women. It was the hallmark of a fine performance to witness Kynaston's descent from fame and arrogance to shame and humiliation--and later to....no, we won't tell you the ending!

The direction was right on point and we felt as if we were watching a fine play. The set by Neil Patel and Cate McCrea utilized the stage of the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College to create a playing area in the center with balcony seating created on either side with metal risers. It was most effective, as was Nick Solyom's lighting.

Costumes by Lara De Bruijn were outstanding and completely a propos the 17th c.  Wigs by Rachel Padula Shufelt looked great, except for Kynaston's which always looked unconvincing.

So...as theater it worked brilliantly and we were very entertained and also moved by the characters.  But this is an opera and we have yet to mention the music!

Taste in music is a very personal thing and, in spite of giving Mr. Floyd's music our full concentration, we were unable to find much to enjoy, although he is considered America's preeminent composer. After last night's Gavreau and the prior night's Handel, this music sounded unmusical to our ears. We were sort of okay with the orchestral interludes, beautifully played by the orchestra conducted by Richard Cordova. We heard something of value in the sex scene between Kynaston and Villiers. The pompous music for King Charles sounded about right. 

But for the rest of the time we did not experience the music as adding to the drama or the development of the characters. We felt very sorry about that because the elderly Mr. Floyd was present in the audience and we would have so much enjoyed congratulating him, but could not. 

We have heard these singers on prior occasions and they all have splendid voices but this music could not show them off to their best advantage. For that, one needs long legato lines.  English text discourages that feature.

It is just possible that this story does not require music. Or perhaps it wanted something more melodic. Perhaps Mr. Floyd's music will thrill you in a way that did not thrill us.

We are however pleased to recommend the production and hereby let you know that this superlative cast will be singing the Sunday matinee performance.  Examination of the other cast lets us advise you with confidence that tonight's performance will be just as enjoyable.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, February 24, 2017


Jean-Michel Richer as Florestan in Opera Lafayette's production of Pierre Gaveaux' Leonore

When an opera arrives at legendary status, other iterations of the same story generally fade away. Paisiello's Barber of Seville (produced by On Site Opera) and Salieri's Falstaff (produced by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble) are cases in point. That a libretto for Beethoven's Fidelio was set before was not known to us, but what a revelation it was, in a production by the intrepid Opera Lafayette performed at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College.

Opera Lafayette has the perfect niche, specializing in the French repertoire and performing on period instruments. This production of Pierre Gaveaux's 1798 work Leonore ou L'Amour conjugal is the first in modern times. What a delight to hear a work that has lain dormant for over two centuries, a veritable "sleeping beauty", awakened by the Opera Lafayette kiss. Fear not if you missed it because it has been filmed.

You already know the story--Leonore (soprano Kimy McLaren) has been working at a prison where she believes her innocent husband has been incarcerated after having exposed a tyrant. She has ingratiated herself to Roc, the prison warden (bass Tomislav Lavoie), gaining his trust.

Roc has approved a marriage between his daughter Marceline (Pascale Beaudin)  and Leonore, the former having fallen in love with the cross-dressed Leonore who calls herself Fidelio. Marceline's suitor Jacquino (tenor Keven Geddes) is unhappy about Marceline's rejection of his advances but, not to worry, the story has a happy ending.

After two years of terrible suffering in prison, Florestan (tenor Jean-Michel Richer) is finally liberated by his faithful wife, although his death has been commanded by the evil Pizare (baritone Dominique Cote). The deus ex machina arrives at the last minute in the person of Dom Fernand (bass baritone Alexandre Sylvestre).

There are two important themes to be considered. The first is the fidelity of Leonore who has never given up on finding and freeing her husband and is ready to die with him if she fails.

The second theme is that of unjust and arbitrary imprisonment and the need for liberation. When Jean-Nicolas Bouilly wrote the libretto, France was reeling from Robespierre's Reign of Terror and this theme was a common one in opera of that epoch.   So called "rescue dramas" were familiar to audiences.

By the time Beethoven acquired the libretto in German translation, there were other tyrants and the work transmogrified from the historical to the personal. It is unknown whether Beethoven ever heard Gavreau's score but it was found in his home after his death.

In any case, much about his Fidelio is anticipated in Gavreau's work, which was produced for the Opera Comique and therefore has substantial spoken dialogue and an altogether lighter touch. The opera opens with a comic scene between Marceline and Jacquino in which director Oriol Tomas has provided them with clever stage business that limns their homely existence--folding laundry.

The strophic music is delightfully tuneful and more than usually memorable. (Small wonder that popular music is written strophically!)  Duets were uncommonly beautiful.

When the prisoners are released for a few moments of daylight, they sing a stirring chorus, ending Act I on a hopeful note.

Act II begins on a tragic note with the suffering Florestan pouring out his despair. On a personal note, we were quite moved by his aria which the singer delivered with as dark a color as was a propos.

There was not a weak link in the vocalism; all the singers are Canadian and the French was mostly understandable, a good thing because the stage lighting often faded out the surtitles. We could not have asked for a better cast; they delivered dramatically as well as vocally.

We liked the direction and the opera moved along swiftly, leaving us wishing there were a bit more!

Laurence Mongeau's sets and costumes worked well. The set comprised a series of rectangular forms and pillars which folded into each other and could readily be moved to suggest a different place. The costumes suggested late 18th c. Europe but were less fussy. Everything worked well together and was enhanced by Julie Basse's effective lighting.

Ryan Brown, Founder and Director of Opera Lafayette conducted the sizable orchestra which was at the same level as the first row of the raked orchestra, giving us a welcome view of his balletic style of conducting. We also enjoyed the opportunity to see the individual instrumentalists, including some wooden flutes and oboes. The playing was beautifully integrated with the singing and performed in fine French style.

Given the choice of enduring another jagged-edge modern opera or thrilling to the discovery of a forgotten masterpiece, we will not hesitate to choose the latter and are happy to give credit to Opera Lafayette for another night of pleasure and illumination. We can't help wondering how many more worthy pieces are awaiting discovery. Opera Lafayette remains the Christopher Columbus of the opera world.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, February 23, 2017


Andrew Munn, Cody Quattlebaum, Avery Amereau, Nicolette Mavroleon, Onadek Winan, Samantha Hankey, and Jakub Jozef Orlinski (photo by Richard Termine)

It is a most unusual occurrence for us to wish to see a production a second time immediately after the first time, but if Juilliard's production of Handel's Agrippina were to be repeated we would be over the moon. Thanks to some highly creative direction by Louisa Proske, superlative singing by a dazzling cast, and impressive playing by the musicians of Juilliard 415, Handel's entry in the 1709 Carnevale season "sweepstakes" was a major hit.

From our point of view, it was a grand privilege to be among the small audience fortunate enough to get a seat in the intimate Wilson Theater. But we could not help feeling sorry for opera lovers who did not get the same opportunity. The production deserves to be seen by a wide audience.

Handel was but 24 years old when he composed his first true operatic masterpiece and seems to have mastered the art of setting the Italian language, delighting the audience with nearly 50 gorgeous arias, many of them tailored from earlier works. In Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, he found a fine librettist who played fast and loose with characters known from historical documents describing the waning days of the corrupt Roman Empire.

The work, although called an opera seria, is actually a black comedy that allows us to laugh at the machinations of evil people. The anti-heroine is the scheming Agrippina herself who will stop at nothing to position her son Nerone on the Emperor's throne--a subject tackled over 60 years earlier by Monteverdi in the darker L'incoronazione di Poppea.

In the title role, originally written for the soprano voice, mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey was completely convincing as the grasping Empress, always devising convoluted schemes to dispatch her many enemies whilst convincing them that she was on their side. The vocal demands are many but Ms. Hankey produced gorgeous tones and showed no evidence of fatigue or strain. Her many facial expressions and gestures revealed her character--resolute, conniving, and power mad.

As her husband Claudio, bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum turned in yet another perfect performance, nearly unrecognizable in elaborate makeup and even more elaborate wig. He created a character both bumbling and lascivious. His sound was generous and secure with a firm foundation.

Agrippina's son Nerone was portrayed as a spoiled weakling, hiding behind his mother's voluminous skirts. Soprano NIcolette Mavroleon bounded around the stage like the nasty youth he was supposed to be, playing violently with his military figures. Ms. Mavroleon handled the fioritura of her arias with great ease.

The only sympathetic character in the story is Ottone, and in this role we had the remarkable counter-tenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski. The role was written for a contralto but Mr. Orlinski sounds the way, we imagine, a castrato might have sounded (without sacrificing any body parts). There is a breadth and depth to his sound that we do not hear very often in the counter-tenor fach and it is astonishing. Equally astonishing is his physicality. When Ottone was happy, he somersaulted and cartwheeled around the stage.

Ottone is one of three suitors for the hand of the vain and superficial Poppea, the others being Claudio and Nero. The role of Poppea was performed in high style by soprano Onadek Winan who played her as a bimbo. She was particularly fine in "Vaghe perle, eletti fiori."

At first she was deceived by Agrippina's deceitful offer of friendship but the second time she too became filled with vengeance and established her own plot.

Two characters are enlisted by Agrippina to serve her ends but they too suss out her deceitfulness and rebel. The role of Narciso, written for alto castrato, was magnificently performed by mezzo-soprano Avery Amereau. The program lists her as a mezzo-soprano but our experience of her unique vocal timbre has us thinking "contralto". So many mezzos sound alike but Ms. Amereau sounds like no one else. It is a gorgeous sound and one that lingers in the ear. Furthermore, the artist had such fun with her role, creating a character as unique as her voice.

Baritone Jacob Scharfman sounded excellent in the role of Pallante, one which we believe was originally written for the bass fach. He too created a unique character, given to foppery and elaborate gestures.

As the slave/messenger Lesbo, Andrew Munn sang well and provided humor as he tried to get Claudio away from Poppea when Agrippina was approaching.

Much of the success of the creation of individual characters goes to director Louisa Proske. Co-Director of Hearbeat Opera, we have thrilled to the originality of her vision on a number of occasions. We have been highly displeased by the work of directors hauled in from film work who are ignorant of opera and create productions that may film well but are unkind to singers. On the contrary, Ms. Proske really knows her stuff and can create vivid dramatic pictures whilst maintaining the integrity of the vocalism.

Additionally, she was able to provide stage business that seemed to motivate vocal flourishes.  As an example we cite Poppea's opening a golden cask and launching into some impressive coloratura as she finds the strands of pearls

Part of the effectiveness evolves from movement training and no doubt Emma Jaster made significant contributions in establishing a unique movement style for each performer. This is particularly useful when vocal colors and phrasing are somewhat limited by the Baroque style.

Beth Goldenberg's costumes were extravagant and dazzling. Homage was paid to the Baroque period with baroque perukes and the lines of the women's gowns. The Roman period was acknowledged by the presence of togas and breastplates. Contemporary fashions made an appearance in Nerone's gold athletic shoes. In lesser hands this could have been an atrocious failure but Ms. Goldenberg's skill and taste made everything work together.

Kate Noll's set was nothing less than miraculous. With the audience seated on three sides of a rectangle in this black box theater, the center was occupied by a room with very low defining walls which were actually benches for sitting, covered with motley rugs and pillows bringing in touches of Asia and Africa. The universality of the story struck home with great force. One wonders if our country faces the same fate as the decadent Roman Empire!

Lighting by Oliver Wason was effective.

Let us not neglect the splendid playing of Juilliard 415, a preeminent period instrument ensemble. Maestro Jeffrey Grossman conducted from the harpsichord with Eunji Li on a second harpsichord. Violinists were Jeffrey Girton and Augusta McKay Lodge; violist was Alana Youssefian; cellist was Matt Zucker; bassist was Hugo Abraham. Fiona Last and Welvin Potter harmonized with the singers by means of oboe and recorder. Neil Chen played bassoon and the pair of theorbos were played by Adam Cockenham and Arash Noon.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


Michael Barrett, Naomi Louisa O'Connell, Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Jesse Blumberg, Chelsea Shephard, Amy Owens, and Steven Blier

Our admiration of and affection for a group of young singers swayed us toward reviewing last night's New York Festival of Song. It was indeed a challenge for our 19th c. ears to relate to a program of late 20th and 21st c. music. We love opera, we love stories, we love lieder that tell us a story. So much contemporary vocal music is abstract and offers settings of texts that we would not enjoy reading for their own merits. The music inspired by these texts does not seem to add much.

Steven Blier's program played to a packed house and comprised works of three generations of American composers. The earliest one was Paul Bowles, the next was William Bolcom, and the newest was Gabriel Kahane.

It was a triumph of singing and acting on the part of the artists that overcame our feelings of being lost in abstraction. Our happiest moments came when the material offered a relatable dramatic situation. 

Paul Bowles' Picnic Cantata is a daffy almost surrealist tale about four women planning and executing a picnic. The four women singers appeared dressed in mid 20th c. summer dresses. Their voices harmonized beautifully.

When mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O'Connell sang the aria "The Sunday paper is full of news", she related the sad story of a married woman in love with a married man, writing to an advice columnist. She filled the story with pathos and sympathy so the accompaniment by Mr. Blier and Mr. Barrett began to make sense.

In that cycle, we also enjoyed "In sun and shade", in which the lyrical piano line seemed to express the image of a warm day spent  in nature with the kites flying. Some interesting sounds were provided by percussionist Barry Centanni.

Our favorite part of the evening was William Bolcom's Suite from Dinner at Eight which was receiving its world premiere. The opera itself, with libretto by Mark Campbell, will receive its premiere next month at Minnesota Opera; we expect it will be a great success. It is based on a play from 1932 written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. 

Accompanied by both pianos, soprano Chelsea Shephard used her ample vocal artistry and dramatic skills to portray Millicent Jordan who is planning a dinner party in the opening aria "Lobster in aspic", endowing the role with imperiousness, anxiety, and the best kind of humor--the unselfconscious type.

Mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms was stunning and convincing as the retired actress Carlotta, reminiscing with Millicent's husband Oliver in "Our town".

Versatile baritone Jesse Blumberg was convincing as Oliver Jordan in the troubled aria "You think you're safe", as he faces the failure of his business in The Great Depression.

Soprano Amy Owens, remembered as a charming Zerbinetta at the Santa Fe Opera (summer 2014), gave a moving performance of "My love will see us through"--sung by the Jordan's daughter Paula to her troubled alcoholic lover.

Ms. O'Connell invested Lucy, married to a cheating doctor, with all the ambivalence of a woman who stays with her man despite the pain he causes her. The work ended with the entire ensemble raising their voices in hopeful harmony in "The party goes on" (even without the guests of honor and the lobster aspic).

A world premiere was on the program as well--Gabriel Kahane's Six Packets of Oatmeal, commissioned by NYFOS. The text was a "poem" by Galway Kinnell which was not at all poetic, just the ramblings of an isolated man who fantasizes about imaginary companions joining him for breakfast. Although Mr. Blumberg sang it beautifully, we kept thinking about Schubert's Winterreise as a far more artistic depiction of isolation and mental illness. 

There were some mighty strange sounds emanating from the piano and something we did enjoy was Mr. Barrett's demonstration of how plucking the strings under the lid of the piano could produce some strange overtones. But the text was too idiosyncratic for our taste.

A shorter piece by Mr. Kahane from 2006 was of more interest to us. "Half a box of condoms" from his Craigslistlieder was sung by Chelsea Shephard and offered ample chuckles.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Giuseppi Verdi

We celebrated President's Day at the Film Forum watching a "lost and found" documentary about the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi--Parma, renowned not only for prosciutto but for their total dedication to opera, particularly the club of 27 Verdi enthusiasts, each one "owning" one of of the master's 27 operas. After the film, the audience sang along with a group of professional singers "Va Pensiero", also known as "The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from the opera Nabucco. George Hemcher played the piano and we all sang our hearts out in this ode to freedom. Who could have thought of such a celebration but film-maker August Ventura, whose film about these appassionati, entitled "27",  is in the works. No wonder the show was sold out!

Last night's film, entitled "In the Mouth of the Wolf", was introduced by George Malko its Co- Producer. As you probably already know, this is an English translation of the expression opera singers use to wish one another good luck--"In bocca al lupo". The film was created over a half century ago and aired on television during an epoch when there were very few channels and cultural programs were not as rare as they are now. The film disappeared.

The film follows soprano Margherita Roberti (nee Margaret Jean Roberts from Iowa) who went to Parma to open the season as the leading lady of Luisa Miller. The 16mm film we saw was resurrected from Ms. Roberti's private collection. What a treat for the audience! We followed her through the streets of Parma and into the Teatro Regio, watching the rehearsal process and observing the trials and tribulations of the artists and the involvement of the production team. 

The major issue was the fear on the part of the artists of the reaction of the loggionisti, the appassionati who crowd into the upper levels of the theater just waiting for a singer to make a mistake so they can hiss and boo. There is a warning "groan" and the severe reactions occur only on the second mistake! What a tough audience! It was pointed out that American audiences are overly kind and will give an extra big hand to a singer who misses a note and soldiers through to the end. The disapproval of these loggionisti has been known to ruin many a career and driven singers to despair.

The film was narrated rather cynically by an American man who moved to Parma because of his opera-singer wife and opened a bar; the bar was filled with men arguing about opera the way Brooklynites argue about baseball. Parma eats, drinks and sleeps opera.  Everyone sings.  Policemen sing while directing traffic; street-sweepers sing as they sweep; children in school want to be opera characters.

 Mr. Ventura's film, the rushes of which we have seen and thrilled to, shows how this fanatic culture, although waning somewhat, is still alive and well in Parma. There is a club with 27 members, each one of which assumes the name of one of Verdi's 27 operas. Those Parmigiani take their opera very very seriously. We rarely attend filmings but rest assured when Mr. Ventura's film comes out, we will be there! Meanwhile, we can listen to Verdi's glorious output and join with him in the belief that the arts preserve our humanity against the incursions of politics.

There is one tiny factoid we wish to share with you, something we did not know.  In pre-Euro days, Verdi's photo adorned the 1000 lira note in Italy. This note was worth but a dollar but Verdi's music is priceless.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, February 20, 2017


Carolyn DalMonte, Allison Gish, Marisa Karchin, Joyce Yin, Kimberly Hann, Kirsti Esch, and  Sara Lin Yoder

Nothing gladdens our heart more than seeing a "Sold Out" sign at the opera. No, opera is not dying in NYC, but it is taking new forms. Last night we were privileged to join Cantanti Project's production of Handel's Orlando. The libretto for this opera was adapted from Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, an epic poem that provided Handel with material for two other operas, Alcina and Ariodante, all marked by complicated plots. Orlando is a fellow who just can't stay out of trouble.

Director Brittany Goodwin thought seriously about the silly plot and came up with an interpretation that worked just fine. Obviously a lot of teamwork went into this tight ensemble piece and it worked well. With astute understanding that this tale is one of delusion and obsession, she has placed the action in the psychiatric ward of a mental hospital with the magician Zoroastro transformed into a psychiatrist. We are not sure whether the creative team was aware of the 2007 Zurich production which was also set in a mental ward following the first World War. Making sense of all the love triangles would challenge an expert in geometry.

The contemporary aspect of the tragic aftermath of combat added to the value of the interpretation. The long history of the joys and pains of loving and losing love, the jealousy, the rejection, the lies and betrayals have all been fodder for the theater since its birth. PTSD would make a person more than usually vulnerable to all that. Truth to tell, this concept would probably not have been welcomed at The Metropolitan Opera. Every time we have seen a director's imagination run wild on a Handel work, we have been unhappy, since the dialogue generally seemed to have been shoehorned into the setting.

But Ms. Goodwin's concept worked well on the small stage at the National Opera Center and a number of creative choices by Set Designer Johanna Asgeirsdottir added to the success. The opening scene takes place with poor Orlando lying on a stretcher requiring sedation from the medical staff. A cabinet of pharmaceuticals was there to make things plain.

More action takes place in the art therapy room where there is an easel and paints and a scroll of paper on which trees and carvings could be drawn. There are three other patients who portray the characters troubling Orlando's mind--Dorinda the shepherdess whose wrist-cutting scars have been covered up by sock puppets, Angelica the Princess of Cathay who sports a crown apparently made from drinking straws, and her lover Medoro. 

The fact that all the parts were sung by women put the work in a different light, so to speak. Pronouns in the score occasionally underwent a gender switch. The psychiatrist (Zoroastro) is a role generally sung by a bass but Kirsti Esch's mezzo (to our ears, a contralto) managed the low tessitura just fine but exhibited enough flexibility for the fioritura. Her "Sorge infausta una procella" was a highlight of the evening as she restored Orlando to sanity.

Orlando's femininity in the person of the beautiful mezzo Kimberly Hann was no problem since female military personnel can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder just as badly as men. Ms. Hahn was as impressive vocally as she was dramatically; she managed to generate sympathy for her distress as she interacted with Angelica who rejected her for the Prince Medoro. We loved her "Fammi combattere", in which she tries to convince Angelica of her love.

The role of Angelica was beautifully sung by soprano Marisa Karchin with impressively bright tone and facility with the embellishments. In "Se fedel vuoi ch’io ti creda" she convincingly pretends to be jealous of Orlando's interest in Isabella, a character he has rescued but who doesn't appear.  

As Dorinda, we heard soprano Joyce Yin herself. (She, along with Laura Mitchell and Sam Fujii, founded Cantanti Project three years ago.) Her character gets a lot of gorgeous arias, our favorite of which was the arioso "Quando spieghi tuoi tormenti" in which she bids farewell to her sylvan home, including the nightingales, like which she sounded. She also has a number of humorous bits such as covering her ears when the orchestra tunes up. 

Dorinda is in love with Medoro who is (of course) in love with Angelica. The role of Medoro was sung by Allison Gish and not as a pants role. In this version, there is lots of lesbian love in the psych ward! Medoro gets some great arias as well, our favorite of which was "Verdi allori".

Another highlight of the vocal score was the trio in which the lovers Angelica and Medoro try to console Dorinda, "Consolati o bella". One is reminded of the gorgeous blending of three female voices in the finale of Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier.

As far as the instrumental score, Maestro Dylan Sauerwald led his musicians in a spirited reading of the gorgeous score which seems to have been judiciously cut. From the harpsichord he conducted the Dorian Baroque Orchestra, comprising a string quartet for this performance. Marina Fragoulis and Edson Scheid played the violins, Edmundo Ramirez, the viola, and Margalit Cantor, the cello. 

There will be one more performance on March 5th at 7:30 at Shetler Studios with some of the same excellent cast, and some other fine singers, accompanied by William Lewis at the piano. We recommend it highly, especially to those who find Handel's plots ridiculous and the performances too lengthy. This adaptation lasts but 2 1/2 hours and is high in entertainment value as well as musical value. No wonder it sold out!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, February 18, 2017


Nora London and 2017 Award Recipients

Award recitals are such fun.  We get to see and hear the young singers we know and love; we get to witness the fruits of their long years of study; we get to participate in honoring them.  All award recitals are fun but the George London Foundation Awards Recital offers something special. The judging takes place at the end of the competition whilst we wait outside the hall at the Morgan Library and Museum. The finalists are there with us so we have the opportunity to speak with them about their selections, their preparations, their anxiety (or lack of), their training, even their gowns.

What a generous history has the George London Foundation!  And an even greater present since the ante was upped this year. $75,000 in prizes was awarded to the 18 singers. Every single finalist received an award. In our eyes as well, they were all winners. About half of them are known to us from prior recitals and competitions and the other half will, we hope, perform in New York City so that we can hear them again.

We have written every year about the foundation and the role of Nora London in perpetuating the memory of her husband, the famous George London. What better way to honor someone than to pass the torch.

As is our wont, we will not tell you the size of anyone's award, information you can find on the Foundation's website. We are more interested in the quality of the performance. Often, we agreed with the decisions of the judges; when we did not, we are prepared to admit that they recognized a quality or a promise that we missed. 

We surely agreed with them about soprano Michelle Bradley who gave an electrifying performance of "D'amor sull ali rosee" from Verdi's Il Trovatore. Here is a true Verdian voice with an expansive top and plenty of strength in the lower register. We loved the variety of color and dynamics and the lavish expressiveness.

Bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum impressed us with the devilish demeanor with which he invested Mefistofele in "Vous qui faites l'endormie" from Gounod's Faust.  The lovely French lines were punctuated with mocking laughter. Sympathy for the Devil indeed!

Aaron Blake's sweet tenor drew us into Edgardo's suffering in "Tombe degli avi miei" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. The resonance was just right for the character and the portrayal was more than usually affecting. We felt his pain.

Some of the choices of arias seemed a bit strange to us but, as we learned, the judges selected from the artists' lists the one they wanted to hear. We observed an emphasis on 20th c. works, some of which we had never heard, some of which we had heard and disliked, and one which we actually had enjoyed at Juilliard. In any case, one can love the singer and not love the song!

For example, baritone Shea Owens did a beautiful job with "Batter my Heart" from John Adams' Doctor Atomic. We truly loathed the opera BUT Mr. Owens made the aria meaningful and intense. Happily he made every word count.

Another example--we don't think we could sit through hours of Alban Berg, but Lara Secord-Haid gave a stunning and expressive performance of "Lied der Lulu" with its jagged vocal lines. Her German was enviable and crisp.

A couple works by Benjamin Britten put in an appearance. A most convincing performance of the "Mad Scene" from Peter Grimes was given by tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven. There aren't too many mad scenes for men in the operatic canon; this one is a doozy. We believed every word of it. Although it is more difficult to evaluate someone's voice in a piece like this, the artist was totally immersed in the dramatic intent. 

"I know a bank" from Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed by countertenor Daniel Moody, who made the aria live with some superb acting, word coloration, and apt dynamic variation. He succeeded in creating an otherworldly character.

We do love countertenors and there were two of them. Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen performed "Dawn, still darkness" from Jonathan Dove's Flight. Having seen the opera recently at Juilliard (and enjoyed it) we were able to put the work in context and understand why the character was feeling such pain--pain that Mr. Cohen conveyed successfully.

Baritone Brian Vu sang Onegin's response to Tatiana's letter and he sang it in excellent Russian, an opinion we got from our Russian speaking companion. His voice has a lovely quality and he employed gentler colors than customary to create a kinder more avuncular Onegin, an interpretation with which we are comfortable. We never think of Onegin as a heel, but rather as a Dutch Uncle. Tchaikovsky surely gave him some wonderful music to sing.

More Russian was on hand from Rimsky-Korsakov. Baritone Will Liverman has a substantial sound that seemed just right for "Grigory's Aria" from The Tsar's Bride.

We were even treated to some Wagner as tenor Errin Duane Brooks sang "Siegmund heiss ich" from our favorite part of The Ring Cycle when Siegmund pulls his father's sword out of the ash tree in Hunding's hut. This always gives us goosebumps.

A tenor of a different type, Jonas Hacker sang "Salut demeure chaste et pure" from Faust--and he sang it in excellent French with a nice easy delivery. It was great to hear someone sing it without any straining.

We witnessed a high quality of singing in several women. Andrea Nunez generated a lot of coloratura excitement in "No, no, I'll take no less" from Handel's Semele. Her upper range was so scintillating we kept thinking "Queen of the Night".

Soprano Danielle Beckvermit sang "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's Louise. We liked her French and the attractive resonance of her voice which has a nice bloom in the upper register.

Mezzo-soprano Megan Marino sang "Connais-tu le pays" from Ambroise Thomas' Mignon, another iteration of Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. I liked the pronounced vibrato which lent additional sympathy to a sympathetic character.

Soprano Lauren Margison sang one of our favorite Mozart arias--"Porgi amor" from Le nozze di Figaro. This one is a real heartbreaker!

Mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule invested Charlotte's "Air des lettres" from Massenet's Werther with a great deal of emotional power.  Her French was quite good.

Good English is even more difficult to find but mezzo-soprano Evanna Lai made every word understandable in "Things change Jo" from Mark Adamo's Little Women. It was a persuasive and lovely performance.

We heard 18 singers in two hours and enjoyed them all. We hope that the awards will further their careers so we can hear more of them.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, February 16, 2017


Renate Rohlfing and Samuel Hasselhorn

To the casual audience member, last night's recital at the acoustically excellent and comfortable Merkin Concert Hall must have appeared relaxed and effortless. To those of us who have studied voice, it was obvious that a great deal of labor was performed behind the scenes, and for long years, to have produced such a recital of unsurpassed excellence. There are a few singers who have astonished us upon first hearing (and we do believe our reaction was not kept secret!) and whose careers have taken off like a jumbo jet.  

Of course,  German baritone Samuel Hasselhorn is already well on his way, garnering prizes from several esteemed foundations. This debut tour in the USA was the result of his winning First Prize at the 2015 Young Concert Artists International Auditions and it is to this organization that we owe our thanks for a spellbinding evening. We abstained from reading his bio until after the recital but were not surprised to learn of his awards, his recording, nor of his appearances on the opera stage.

There is very little one can say about a voice that is so well trained and flawless in its diction, phrasing, timbre, and color. But there is a great deal that can be said about an artist that lives every song he sings. We have no doubt that Mr. Hasselhorn designed his program very carefully and included only songs that he truly cared about. There was no filler; there were no attempts to include a dozen languages to show off linguistic ability or a wide range of periods to show off facility with varying styles.

Let us share a very personal reaction we had during the recital. The walls of the hall vanished and we felt as if we were a child being told some bedtime stories by a highly indulgent grandfather who had lived a life in the theater. He told us sad stories and happy ones. He told us scary stories and supernatural ones.  He related tales of love both sanguine and fatal. He told of heroism and patriotism. He told us a tall tale about a gigantic crocodile. "More, Pop-Pop, more", we begged. Grandfather indulged us.

After all those tales, there would be only one more--an encore summing up of the recital--Schubert's magnificent tribute to the art form that means so much to us--"An die Musik", the most sacred of the arts.

Pardon us our flight of fantasy but we found the entire recital to be spell-binding. However, to restore our reviewer's hat to our bewitched head, let us just point out a few notable elements. Mr. Hasselhorn included a set of folk songs by Britten in which the clarity of his enunciation allowed us to comprehend every word; this rarely happens with a native English speaker. The songs themselves are charming and the artist performed them with the warmth and personality such folk songs require. There was no whiff of the "artsy-fartsy".

A set of songs by Francis Poulenc were offered in finely phrased French--anti-war sentiment delivered with style and wit overlaying the pain.

Two intense songs showed Mr. Hasselhorn's dramatic ability. We always love Schubert's "Erlkonig" since it gives the singer an opportunity to color his voice differentially for the narrator, the reassuring father, the frightened child, and the seductive Erl-king. Mr. Hasselhorn made the most of it with well placed pauses providing additional suspense.

Hugo Wolf's setting of Morike's "Der Feuerreiter" also offers ample opportunity for drama and suspense. Mr. Hasselhorn's performance was so powerful that it prompted some online research into the role of the "fire rider".  Apparently, as we learned, the subject of the poem did NOT go around setting fires as we formerly believed. He was a man with a unique ability to anticipate and detect fires and, in this case, he tried to use magic to quell the fire; using magic was a sacrilege so he lost his life in the fire. But, at the conclusion of the poem, his soul is redeemed and put to rest.  This is a brief summary of what we learned but we hope it will suffice.

There was a marvelous set of songs by Robert Schumann of which our favorite was the familiar "Du bist wie eine Blume" which showed off the singer's tender side, as did Franz Schubert's tranquil "Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen".

In Renate Rohlfing, Mr. Hasselhorn has found a worthy accompanist who matched him mood for mood. Since we always need to find some tiny quibble, let us just say that at the beginning of "Der Feuerreiter", she nearly drowned hm out. If I'd told you, dear reader, that the recital was perfect, you wouldn't have believed me.  Now you do!

If you are as excited to hear Mr. Hasselhorn again as we are, we expect that the German Forum, one of our favorite organizations, will invite him here next year.  We will keep you informed about this exciting young artist.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


Bass Alex Rosen, Tenor Matthew Swensen, Mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano, and Soprano Julia Wolcott
Concertmaster Carter Coleman, Maestro Gary Thor Wedow, Soprano Felicia Moore, and Collaborative Pianist Yun Wei

Mozart would have been completely satisfied with last night's dazzling evening which comprised his music, both sacred and secular. Where else but at Juilliard would one find the depth and breadth of talent in the vocal and instrumental areas to fill out such an ambitious program!

The first half of the program was devoted to secular music. Although our favorite Mozart symphonies remain his final two, there was plenty to enjoy in his Symphony No. 38 in C Major (the "Linz"). We have no idea why all the musicians, save the cellists and the tympanists, played in a standing position; if any readers have insight into this unusual configuration we hope they will comment below. We enjoyed most the melodic Andante and the spirited Presto Finale. 

But the pleasure of the symphony was far overshadowed by the knockout performance of the concert aria "Ch'io mi scordi di te?...Non temer, amato bene". Soprano Felicia Moore is as ample of voice as she is of stature, commanding the stage and owning the work. Her resonant voice filled Alice Tully Hall with overtones, the very molecules of air vibrating. There was plenty of bloom on top with substantial weight in the lower register. 

Ms. Moore has such command of technique that she was able to submerge herself in the text and to lean into certain notes with consummate expressivity. The various sections were differentially colored, lending the work enormous dramatic impact.  As her piano partner, Yun Wei's delicate hands flew over the keys, successfully limning Mozart's elaborate embellishments, also negotiated accurately and tastefully by the singer.  What a performance!

Monday, February 13, 2017


Max Lifchitz, Celia Castro, Celeste Mann, and Anna Tonna

It's almost Valentine's Day and we were in the mood for love. "Songs of love and longing by composers from Spain and the Americas", a program, presented by North/South Consonance at the National Opera Center, sounded just about right. Readers will recall how fond we are of Spanish songs and this was an opportunity to hear new music--not "new music" but music new to our ears.

It is interesting how some of the academic "innovations" that have toxified American song have completely bypassed Latin America. There probably is some music that would fail to fulfill our melodic requirements but we haven't heard much of it. Most of the music we are hearing from Spanish speaking countries provides singable melodies that delight the ear.

Maestro Max Lifchitz bookended yesterday's program with his own compositions, settings of text by the famous nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. The program opened with "Rosa Divina", a sonnet about the evanescence of beauty. Soprano Celia Castro, dramatically dressed in black with a black mantilla, poured her heart and beautiful voice into the work and made the best impression when she stepped away from the music stand. (Oh, loathed music stand!)

The piano part was highly varied, at times spare to highlight the lovely vocal line, at other times staccato, at still other times employing blocked chords and arpeggiated runs. Ms. Castro was lovely in the Moorish-inflected melismatic passages.

The program ended with a duet for contralto Celeste Mann and mezzo-soprano Anna Tonna entitled "Me acerco y me retiro" which provided the opportunity for some gorgeous harmonizing.

There were two other compositions by M. Lifchitz--His Three Concerted Madrigals, based on 16th c. Italian texts, were introduced as parodies but we found them more charming than humorous. Ms. Tonna is always a highly engaging presence onstage and uses her instrument well to convey the text.  We particularly enjoyed the spirited "Non Rumor di Tamburi"  which dealt with an amorous "assault". Her personality made it particularly charming.

Ms. Tonna also performed the world premiere of a cycle of songs by Miquel Ortega entitled Pascua Florida, based on poetry by Maria Lejarraga, written when she was on a trip with Manuel de Falla. "Noche estrellada mirando a Gibraltar" ended with a gorgeous vocalise, but the text we liked best was the sad "Nana del amor perdido".

"Eres tu" was composed by M. Lifchitz to his own text and given full expression by Ms. Mann who has a voice like rich expresso, lightened with some foamy milk. Of Ms. Mann's performance of Cancoes de amor by Claudio Santoro, we were quite taken with "Acalanto da rosa", a tender lullaby for a sleeping lover.

We were moved by Ms. Mann's performance of "Lua branca" by the Brazilian composer Francisca "Chiquinja" Gonzaga who composed at the turn of the 20th c.  Clotilde Arias of Peru composed "Huiracocha", a song of spiritual despair in which Mr. Lifchitz' playing sounded like the Peruvian flute it referenced.

Of Ms. Castro's performance of Tres Sonetos by Joaquin Turina, we favored the least romantic one "Vade retro!" in which a man makes fun of a woman who has been around the block too many times.  Her personality truly brought it alive.

As encore we heard Ms. Castro and Ms. Mann in a duet by a Brazilian composer and then Ms. Tonna joined them for a song by the prolific 20th c. Argentinean composer Carlos Guastavino. There is something so special about hearing beautiful voices in perfect harmony!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, February 11, 2017


Michael Gees and Anna Lucia Richter

We heard a very special recital last night at Weill Recital Hall. What made it special was not just the high quality of the performances but the fact that it was largely improvised! Jazz lovers are accustomed to improvisation but we lovers of classical music are not. The very idea of classically trained musicians making things up as they go along is novel. The successful execution of the concept left us stunned in amazement.

The extemporized duets were interlaced with previously composed songs, many of which were happily based on folk music, which always provides a lovely melody. Many of the songs on the program and all of the improvised ones utilized texts by Joseph Eichendorff. There were songs by Britten which we enjoyed more than most of his other vocal music, and several selections from Robert Schumann's Liederkreis, which we always love to hear. A few settings by Brahms also made it onto the program.

What was so amazing was that each half of the program was performed without a pause, one song melting into the next. There were no abrupt transitions to break the mood. The improvised songs were initiated by one member of the duo with the other joining in with relevant musical material. Each musical partner seemed to deeply feel the text and to listen intently to the other and to meld voices. Eichendorff's "Wunschelrute" appeared twice on the program, sounding different! The English translation is worth quoting.

"A song sleeps in all things
That dream on and on
And the world begins to sing
If only you strike upon the magic word."

Soprano Anna Lucia Richter has an unusual soprano--bright and focused, yet delicate. We imagined our ears were being penetrated by a feather. There were high notes, the overtones of which lingered like an echo, a phenomenon we never noticed before. Her immersion in the text was so complete she seemed lost in the music. We have heard teachers of master classes instruct students to never close their eyes; and yet, in this case, it did not seem to shut out the audience.

We have complained bitterly about the use of music stands but opined that it was probably necessary when Ms. Richter was improvising on one of the Eichendorff poems. She was composing in her head as she went along, inspired by Michael Gees' piano which sometimes led and sometimes followed.  It was haunting and evocative music they were creating right in front of us!

Aside from the improvised selections, there were a number of standouts on the program. Schumann's "Waldesgesprach" was given a very personal reading with all the colors of the arrogant suitor and the beautiful but vengeful hexe Loreley.  We also enjoyed Brahms' "Ich weiss mir'n Maidlein hubsch und fein" from Deutsche Volkslieder, No. 40.  The first encore "Och Mod'r, ich well en ding han!" was absolutely delightful and delivered in authentic Koln dialect. (Ms. Richter comes from Koln). A daughter is very irritated with her mother who is unable, at least until the last stanza, to divine just what it is that the girl wants.

Michael Gees is an unusual pianist with abundant subtlety and inventiveness. Just imagine recreating the world of 19th c. German Romantic nationalism in the 21st century without sounding derivative! Being able to utilize the expressive texts of Eichendorff and to convey such feeling was a remarkable achievement. Some improvisations should be committed to paper and published as part of the canon.

We would like to say something about the second encore which was improvised and purported to be from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. We have searched online for  a text about a "verschwunden Sternlein" without success.  If any readers know of it, please provide information in the comments below.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, February 5, 2017


Julius Drake and Alice Coote

Winterreise! We know of no other piece of music that can keep us spellbound for well over an hour. Wilhelm Muller's poetry may have been meant to be satirical of Romantic era themes but taken up by Franz Schubert, it became art of the highest order. It is the kind of text that begged for musical setting. Schubert heard the call and answered by composing a cycle of songs that are unmatched in variety and depth of feeling. We are almost as fond of Die Schone Mullerin which keeps our interest by virtue of telling a story, whereas Winterreise relies solely on an inner journey of despair and madness in 24 shades of black.

Composed in 1827, shortly before Schubert's death, the work's exploration of the inner life of an isolated human being, tipped over the edge by a romantic rejection, is just as relevant today as it was then.  Just as the poetry begged to be set, the composition begs to be interpreted by a singer and pianist of great artistry.  Last night at Zankel Hall the work received just such an interpretation.

As the performance began we experienced two reservations, one of which disappeared within moments and the other remains one upon which we stand our ground. The first reservation was about a woman performing a work that we associate strongly with a youthful male voice. Still, famous mezzo-sopranos have tackled the work with varying degrees of success and the work received its first performance at Carnegie Hall 60 years ago, by a contralto. Within moments we lost all sense of gender.

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, receiving superb support from collaborative pianist Julius Drake, conveyed every nuance of madness, loneliness and despair by means of widely varying dynamics and highly effective word coloration. Moreover there was an arc to the performance--not one of starting gently and building to a climax, but one of ups and downs--just as a depressed individual may achieve moments of hopefulness before crashing into despair.

Each song was a gem all on its own but the work as a whole was given a shape.  Mr. Drake's participation was remarkable. He was always right there supporting the vocal line, but let loose when Ms. Coote was silent. He brought out every element of nature in the text and made the visual audible.

It is obvious that the pair invested a great deal of time and effort to make the performance seem spontaneous. And now we come to the reservation that just won't leave us. Regular readers will recall how we feel about singers performing on the book. Our experience was that every time Ms. Coote drew us in with a moment of deep connection, there was a downward glance, a flip of the page, and the spell was broken.

As an experienced recitalist performing for a Carnegie Hall audience, Ms. Coote might have considered committing the work to memory, as so many others have done before her. That would have made the evening perfect.

Of course, audience members are not expected to commit the work to memory and, therefore, projected titles would have been welcome for those who do not understand German. It was unfortunate to see so many people with their noses buried in their libretti and missing Ms. Coote's excellent performance.

And now, we are wondering if Schumann's Frauenlieben und Leben has ever been performed by a man. The idea does not particularly appeal to us but neither did the idea of a woman singing Winterreise.  One never knows!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, February 4, 2017


Ginny Weant, Anna Slate, Zen Wu, Melanie Ashkar, Chloe Schaaf, Eric Alexieff, Kevin Miller, and members of the Chorus

OperaRox is a company that is new on our radar screen but has achieved a major success in a very short period of time. The black box theater on MacDougal Street was completely sold out last night, seats occupied by a mostly very young and very appreciative audience. The hallway was filled with folks clamoring to get seats but there were none. You are hereby advised to show up early for Sunday's matinee performance wait list, or to attend the covers' performance.

OperaRox, like many other small companies springing up around NYC these days, has a mission that is a win-win all around. Young artists get the opportunity to learn a role that will serve them well when seeking work in the future, and audiences get to hear a fresh take for a modest ticket price.

Director Maayan Voss de Bettancourt has credited Jennifer Choi for a highly original concept which gave us this fresh take on Handel's Alcina, an opera we get to hear about once a year. The opera was Handel's first production for the London stage and premiered in 1735, and then lay dormant for two centuries! The story is based on an episode from Ariosto's 16th c. epic poem Orlando Furioso.

It 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 unique concept devised by Ms. Choi was to present Alcina's power as a metaphor for addiction. The inhabitants of the island seem to be heavy into alcohol and prescription pharmaceuticals. Bradamante and Melisso have an antidote on hand to destroy Ruggiero's benighted state and restore him to the brave and loyal knight they know him to be. Of course, he has to go through some withdrawal symptoms first! Once the illusions are destroyed, the island's denizens are restored to humanity and Alcina's power is destroyed.

The concept worked well, thanks to some fine acting on the part of the young artists. The dramatic success was equalled by the fine musical values.  Music director Dmitry Glivinskiy employed an orchestration devised by himself, Friedrich Chrysander, and Producer Kim Feltkamp. He himself played the keyboard with Katie von Braun on violin and Spencer Shen contributing some fine work on the cello.

Ultimately, of course, the success of an opera rests upon the shoulders of the singers and we found much to like in the performances. As the eponymous Alcina, soprano Zen Wu let out all the stops in a fiery and convincing performance. We got to see her seductive side in several arias and a very angry side in the cabaletta "Io sono regina". The role calls for vocal fireworks and we surely got them.

An interesting feature of the opera is that a pair of lovers comprises two mezzo-sopranos and, in a casting coup, we heard two very different voices in that fach. The role of Ruggiero is a trouser role and was beautifully and lyrically sung by Chloe Schaaf who impressed us with "Verdi prati", arguably the most famous aria of this opera.

Interestingly, it was Melanie Ashkar playing Bradamante who had the weightier mezzo, perhaps signifying that she is the stronger member of the couple. We loved the rich texture of her voice and also her acting as she tried to deal with the seductiveness of the lustful Morgana. We liked her anger when her fiance failed to recognize her.

As Morgana, Anna Slate turned in a fine sexy performance and performed "Credete al mio dolore" with great humility as she tries to win back Oronte whom she threw over for the cross-dressed Bradamante.

The role of Oronte was well sung by Eric Alexieff who has the sweet kind of tenor that we love to hear.

The wise tutor Melisso was sung by bass Kevin Miller.

We particularly enjoyed the sweet soprano of Ginny Weant who portrayed Oberto, a youth trying to get Alcina to release her beloved father from his captivity.

Handel even managed to write a trio for Ruggiero, Bradamante, and Alcina in which the three voice blended beautifully.

Costuming was simple but apropos. There were no sets to speak of but the stage was littered with bottles of booze and pill bottles. Lighting was subtly effective. Titles were accurate and peppered with colloquialisms.

Although the run is sold out, we understand that Sunday evening will offer a performance by the covers. We do hope that some of you can get squeezed in by arriving early for the waitlist. We'd consider it worth your while.

(c) meche kroop