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.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Joyce DiDonato, Francesca Chiejina, Ané Pretorius, Jose Simerilla Romero, Germán Enrique Alcántara, Shannon McGinnis, and Justina Lee

The master classes given by famed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, as part of the Weill Music Institute, are like no others. This yearly event is so highly anticipated that the dates for next year are already inked on our calendar and we urge singers to apply right away. What makes these classes special can be appreciated both by the young singers selected to participate as well as by audience members who pack the Weill Music Room of the Resnick Education Wing of Carnegie Hall. 

The four young singers, winnowed by Claudia Friedlander from a huge pool of applicants from 47 countries, were of the very highest quality. We can readily appreciate the reasons they were chosen.

Ms. DiDonato is a master teacher renowned for her special talent for identifying exactly what each student needs to move forward in their art and to convey this with humor, originality, and style. She began the 3-day adventure by telling the audience that we were not witnessing performances, but rather participating in exploration, discovery, and the taking of risks. Not every device would work, and each student must decide for her/himself what works and what doesn't.

Certain principles apply to everyone.  Magic happens when the singer drops the "careful" approach. The challenge is to find a physical device that will free up the voice; the best practice is to alternate physical work and vocal work. This will be different for each student.

Soprano Francesca Chiejina came all the way from Nigeria and is a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists' Program at the Royal Opera House in London. She delighted us with Ilia's aria --"Zefferetti lusingieri" from Mozart's Idomeneo. Ms. DiDonato pointed out how Ilia feels safe confessing her love to the flowers and the singer must convey a sense of urgency with considerable variety. The character is very young and very lovesick but also conflicted. The singer must make this clear. The breath must be kept active and energized. She was instructed to exaggerate the rubato and to be less "correct".

There was a big improvement by the second day and on the third day, Ms. Chiejina brought in a new aria which we believe we recognized as "Azaël!" from Dubussy's opera L'enfant prodige, an aria which snagged the Cardiff Singer of the World award for Nina Stemme in 1993. (We wish that singers would announce their names and the title of the aria in a firm clear voice instead of mumbling!)

The coaching took the form of encouragement to stop "monitoring" and to take risks.  An exercise worth trying is to sing on the vowels whilst feeling the pulse underneath, something which Ms. DiDonato calls "subdividing".

Mezzo-soprano Ané Pretorius hails from South Africa and gave us a wonderful "Nacqui all'affanno...non piu mesta" from Rossini's enchanting La Cenerentola. We were particularly glad to hear this particular coaching because it gave us lots of points to listen for in our review of that opera the same night!

Cenerentola's joy and excitement must begin with the first note. There must be strong direction and a seamless legato line in the recitativo. A strategy to deal with the leaps is to stop thinking about the rise and fall of the pitches, and to imagine singing the melody on one pitch.  It sounds counter-intuitive but it worked, giving the brain the center of the pitch, the core of the sound. This is not practiced at full voice.

The line must be kept even when singing staccato or marcato.  It is the singer that controls the tempo and the pacing. There was some practice on the vowel sound "ee", without changing the vowel. Another practice was to imagine that the phonation is taking place way out in front of you, instead of inside your head.

The same instruction served well for Day #3 when Ms. Pretorius sang "Va, laissez couler mes larmes" from Massenet's Werther. A good practice method is to sing just the vowels but to sing them staccato.

Moving on to Argentinean tenor Jose Simerilla Romero, we were as shocked as Ms. DiDonato was to learn that this incredible sound emerged from a 22-year-old who has been studying for only 3 years.  The main counsel for him was to protect himself from doing too much too soon. His natural facility would make him an object of desire for anyone casting an opera but he must not succumb to temptation.

He is a natural both in voice and in stage presence, as we heard in his impassioned delivery of "Amor ti vieta" from Umberto Giordano's Fedora. Ms. DiDonato urged the singer to release the sound instead of driving it, to relax and move the breath, energizing each note.

On the second day, Mr. Romero sang Romeo's aria "Ah! Lève-toi soleil" from the Gounod opera with a beautiful ringing tone. He was instructed to reset with each breath. An exercise of inhaling and exhaling through a straw was very helpful in co-ordinating breath and phrasing. There was a great deal of ease in the uninterrupted flow of air.

On the third day, Mr. Romero sang "Che gelida manina" from Puccini's La Bohême; for us this was the best episode of the three days because we are very interested in the creation of characters. We have heard this aria hundreds of times and we don't want to hear a stock character doing the same old-same old. We want to ditch the stereotype and to meet a real multi-dimensioned Rodolfo, not a generic one!

The tenor must make his performance all about Mimi. He might show surprise that her hand is cold. He is very taken with her and is trying to find ways to impress her. Make it fresh, tenors!

Argentinean baritone Germán Enrique Alcántara made a very believable Count in "Hai gia vinta la causa" from Mozart's Nozze di Figaro. He was even better when reminded that the Count is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier and he is trying to figure things out . There needs to be a feeling of spontaneous discovery. He is incredulous and should seem to be making it up as he goes along.

The singer should not "test the voice" but should phonate right from the start. He must listen for changes in the music and keep the legato line.

On Day #2, we heard "Avant de quitter ces lieux" from Gounod's Faust. His line was greatly improved by incorporating some body movement. This was carried over to Day #3 when he sang "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen" from Korngold's Die tote Stadt. 

It seemed to us that he caressed each word and sang with great feeling. He was instructed to keep the inner pulse and to let each phrase "hang" until the next phrase and to paint a picture of Fritz' nostalgia. The singer must explore all the possibilities so that he doesn't have to perform an aria the same way every time.  Having options is always a good thing.

The excellent accompanists for the three days were Justina Lee and Shannon McGinnis.

So the three days of intense instruction have ended. The singers will return to their regular lives, taking home the gifts that Ms. DiDonato has given them. We feel as if we are also taking home some gifts.

(c) meche kroop



Monday, April 23, 2018

REMEMBERING DMITRI

The cast of Talents of the World paying tribute to Dmitri Hvorostovsky


Dmitri Hvorostovsky brought us to tears twice.  Once when he sang Rodrigo in Verdi's Don Carlo at the Met, and once when he died prematurely. Honoring this legendary baritone was such a splendid idea! In a recital produced by Talents of the World at Zankel Hall last night, his friends and colleagues from all over the world joined together onstage for a generous program of operatic arias, Neapolitan songs, and Russian romances.

Baritone David Gvinianidze, president and founder of Talents of the World is much honored and also beloved from his hosting a TV show in his native Georgia. He took it upon himself to sing the aforementioned aria  "O Carlo, ascolta...Io morró", which must have been even more emotional for him than for us.

A duet from the same opera--"Dio, che nell'alma infondere" was sung in perfect harmony by tenor Raúl Melo (who actually sang this duet with Hvorostovsky) as the eponymous Don Carlo, and baritone Oleksandr Kyreiev taking the role of Rodrigo.

In a long and varied program such as this, we get the opportunity to hear singers in a variety of roles and languages. We have to say that we enjoyed Mr. Melo the most when he sang opposite another singer. For example, his duet with mezzo-soprano Nino Surguladze--the final scene from Bizet's Carmen--was riveting, not just vocally but dramatically.  We believed every horrifying moment, even minus sets and costumes. We enjoyed this more than his solo song--Leoncavallo's "Mattinata" in which he performed for the audience rather than getting the message of the song across.

Regarding Mr. Kyreiev, we enjoyed him most when he sang in his native tongue. The song was not on the printed program so we were unable to identify it but there was no mistaking Mr. Kyreiev's ease, which allowed the timbre of his voice to be appreciated, along with variety of color and dynamics.

His voice blended well with others but his solo aria "O Vin Dissipe la Tristesse" from Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet seemed unidimensional and needed more variety.  What singer does not love a good drinking song! It's the operatic equivalent of an actor's death scene. He could do so much more with it!

"The impossible dream" from Man of La Mancha revealed an excellent facility with English but was plagued by the same lack of variety noted in the Thomas aria.

Obviously Russian songs (here we must admit to the error of lumping together Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian) bring out the best in Russian singers.  A highlight of the program was Mr. Gvinianidze's performance of "Tolko raz", a sentimental song about longing that was sung with great depth of feeling.

This same intensity of feeling was noted in the performance of "Core 'ngrato" by Giovanni Formisano, a tenor with such an Italianate sound that the scent of garlic permeated Zankel Hall! He also wowed us with Federico's lament from Cilea's L'Arlesiana.

Speaking of being wowed, we took great pleasure in the performance of baritone Junhan Choi. This artist impressed us with his sincerity in every role he sang. There was no trace of "showiness" but rather a dedication to the character he was performing.

He made a believable Dr. Malatesta in Donizetti's Don Pasquale, singing the duet "Pronto io son" with soprano Olga Lisovskaya, who kept trying on faces and gestures with which to convince the titular character that she was an innocent convent girl. 

He absolutely shone in the warhorse "Largo al factotum", bringing new life to an overheard aria, showing a lot of personality and variation in color. Some of the embellishments sounded original to our ear and the tongue-twisting patter moved briskly along.

Ms. Lisovskaya is not only a wonderful singer but also a director, teacher, and producer, serving as director of Talents of the World. She made an excellent host for the evening and made a brief appearance as Oscar in a scene from Verdi's Ballo in Maschera in which Mr. Melo used his gorgeous instrument to portray Riccardo's anguish over his illicit love for Amelia.

Mezzo-soprano Nino Surguladze made several appearances, all of them excellent, giving evidence of her versatility. She made a fine Dalila, seducing Samson in "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" from the Saint-Saëns opera. There was a lovely decrescendo to an almost whispered pianissimo, a distinctive timbre to her voice, and variety of dynamics that contributed to a highly expressive delivery.

We had never heard of El Salvadorean pianist William Gomez and we will be ever grateful to Ms. Surguladze for introducing us to his arrangement of "Ave Maria". The lovely melody sounds nothing like other contemporary music but neither does it owe anything to the Schubert setting. The sound of Spanish fell on the ear gently. There is even a humming section!

Her duet with Mr. Gvinianidze--Albinoni's "Adagio" was lovely.

Soprano Anni Kolkhida performed "Vissi d'Arte" from Puccini's Tosca, creating a nice spin in the upper register but not exhibiting enough breath support in the middle and lower parts of the register. Her dramatic skills emerged in "Mira, d'acerbe lagrime", her duet with Count di Luna (Mr. Gvinianidze) in which she tries to save the life of her lover Manrico. The pair also did well in Vincenzo Di Chiara's isolated hit song "La Spagnola".

There was also a strange iteration of Robert's aria from Tchaikovsky's Iolanta performed by Mr. Gvinianidze, Mr. Kyreiev, and Mr. Choi! Not bad, just odd.

Whenever you get a soprano, a mezzo, a tenor, and a baritone in the same room, you just know you will get the final quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto.  And we did. Mr. Formisano sang the Duke, Ms. Lisovskaya sang Gilda, Ms. Surguladze sang Maddalena, and Mr. Kyreiev sang Rigoletto.

The two pianists for the evening were Alexandra Naumenko and Victoria Ulanovskya, who played an improvisation dedicated to Mr. Hvorostovsky entitled "The world is empty without you".

We miss Dima and he is not replaceable, but our world will never be empty as long as there are singers and songs!

The proceeds of the concert will go to organizations researching childhood cancer, a superb way to honor an artist who gave many concerts to benefit children in need.

(c) meche kroop


Sunday, April 22, 2018

MATCHING BRACELETS

Philippe L'Esperance and Hongni Wu in Rossini's La Cenerentola


Once upon a time our parents read us the softened version of Cinderella, cleaned up so as not to frighten small children; you know, the Disneyfied version.  Since then we have read the original violent and scary versions by Charles Perrault and Wilhelm Grimm.  

We do not know which version librettist Jacopo Ferretti adapted but he wrote the libretto in three weeks (repurposing some music already written), replacing the wicked step-mother with an abusive step-father and the fairy godmother with the kindly tutor Alidoro. Similarly, the glass slipper was replaced by a bracelet. It is believed that the circumstances of production in 1817 did not allow for elaborate magical effects.

Nonetheless, there are elaborate magical effects in the music, created by Gioacchino Rossini in barely more than three weeks! That guy could sure work under pressure.  He was but 25 years old and already had Il Barbiere di Siviglia under his belt. We love Rossini for his sparkling tunes, his lively ensembles, and also because he wrote such great roles for the mezzo-soprano fach.

Last night we attended a performance of this comic masterpiece held at the very suitable Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, utilized because the theater at Manhattan School of Music is under construction. We had the most marvelous time!

Everything worked in concert to provide an evening that proved that high culture and entertainment can coexist. Probably, in Rossini's day, opera was just entertainment, but in our time, people expect opera to be a bit forbidding.  It doesn't have to be, as this rollicking production has proven.

A highly talented cast revealed not a single weak link. As the much put upon title character, we heard mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu, whose distinctive instrument and engaging onstage presence made a huge impression. We have heard her several times before and will hear her next Sunday at the Met National Council Finals. She fully deserves to win!

This opera cannot work unless the title character wins our heart. We do not care whether she is spunky or submissive, as long as she is engaging. We must want her to win the Prince!

We do want to say a word about technique. We came to the opera directly from a master class with Joyce DiDonato who coached a young mezzo in the final aria "Nacqui all'affanno...Non piu mesta". We are pleased to report that Ms. Wu was not just engaging but vocally perfect--legato where indicated and bursting with fireworks in the fioritura.

Her Prince Ramiro was portrayed by the princely tenor Philippe L'Esperance, also a familiar voice in our ear. His tenor is just as sweet as we would want it and his bearing was aristocratic. But he was not at all stiff.  Just watching his face as he observed his valet pretending to be him (and playing it way over the top) was a lesson in "reactive acting". To put a "plus" after the "A", all he needs is a bit more float in the top notes.

Baritone Dongwei Shen created a marvelous character--reveling in the opportunity to play the Prince, and playing it to the hilt. Swathed in red velvet and white "fur" trim, he courted the two step-sisters assiduously and successfully, but he couldn't succeed with Cenerentola whose heart was already stolen. We enjoyed his phrasing and pleasing tone.

Bass-baritone José Luis Maldonado has always impressed us with a voice as large as his frame and an easy dramatic focus that convinces us of whatever character he is playing.  Here, he is Cenerentola's mean step-father who has used her patrimony to provide lavishly for his two natural daughters.

Traditionally, Tisbe and Clorinda are played as stereotypically spoiled and vain. We are happy to report that no new ground was broken and we were able to enjoy lots of laughs at their expense. Soprano Kelly Singer as Clorinda and mezzo-soprano Polixeni Tziouvaras as Tisbe were as superb in their vocal harmony as they were vicious in their competitiveness.

The character that makes everything happen is Alidoro, Prince Ramiro's tutor. Bass-baritone Andrew Henry sang with marvelous musicality and was as convincing as the beggar as he was as the guiding force. Who needs a Fairy Godmother when you have such a wise and generous tutor!

Jay Lesenger's direction was always spot on with a number of clever touches that were unique to this production. We loved the scene in which Cenerentola's imagination runs away with her in Act II, Scene 2. Also notable was the scene in which the Prince's courtiers march on in unison, each bearing a rose for the fake Prince to snatch. The courtiers were played by Hyunsung Shin, Zachary Brown, Ethan Fran, Yongjae Lee, Wenjie Ma, Alexander Mason, Tommy Wazelle, and Shuo Yang. Their choral work was stellar, thanks to Miriam Charney.

Less was heard from the Ladies of the Court who only appear in the final scene--Nuriel Abdenur, Xiaotong Cao, Chia-Wen Chen, Qiyu Chen, Sulgi Cho, Peiyao Hu, Shinhye Kim, and Jianing Zhang. Their voices harmonized well and they looked great, thanks to Costume Designer Elizabeth Clancy.

Sets by Peter Harrison worked well. The home of Don Magnifico contained a chimney for Cenerentola to sweep at one end and a vanity at the other end, with dozens of hatboxes stacked up for Tisbe and Clorinda to demonstrate their self-absorption.

To portray the gardens and the vineyards of the palace, there were hedges and arches dropped from the flies and hoisted when not needed. We cannot forget the scene in which Don Magnifico proves his worthiness to become the wine steward with a tastevin around his neck. There is something very funny about well-performed intoxication.

We must say a word about Julie Duro's lighting design. It was an inspired choice to radically darken the stage and highlight the individual who was having a private moment, such as the aforementioned scene when Cenerentola has returned home and is beset by fantasies.

Gary Thor Wedow used his animated hands to elicit a musically marvelous performance from the MSM Opera Orchestra. None of the superb vocal performances could have happened without their devotion to Rossini's melodies.

(c) meche kroop







MICHIGAN OPERA THEATRE STUDIO ARTISTS RECITAL

Michigan Opera Theater Studio Artists at National Opera Center

Dear Readers,

Allow us to introduce you to our guest reviewer Ellen Godfrey, an opera lover with lifelong experience at the Metropolitan Opera, now serving on the boards of Opera Index and Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance.  The recital of the Michigan Opera Studio was too compelling to go unreviewed and we were busy reviewing Mark Padmore's recital.  So...enjoy!


A DELIGHTFUL EVENING AT THE  MICHIGAN OPERA THEATRE CONCERT AT THE  NATIONAL OPERA CENTER

On Thursday, April 19, Opera America presented, as part of the Emerging Artist Recital Series, a concert by the Michigan Opera Theatre Studio, which features promising young singers on the brink of a great opera career.  MOT studio artists, now in its fourth season, fulfilled a dream of Michigan Opera founder and composer Dr. David Di Chiera, to create an advanced training program for young singers. The Director of the Resident Artists Program is the worldwide renowned opera tenor Richard Leech. With the support of the Studio’s principal coach and accompanist Tessa Hartle, they provide outstanding training and performance opportunities for the young singers.

Each season MOT selects five singers for either a one or two year commitment from June to April for advanced training in repertoire, vocal coaching, role preparation, acting and language study. In addition, legendary opera singers conduct masterclasses. This outstanding program is underwritten by a major grant from the William Davidson Foundation.  Performance opportunities include featured and supporting roles in MOT main stage productions and an enhanced presence in the community through participation in leading roles in community productions as well as outreach to Detroit Public Schools.

The five talented singers chosen for this season were Monica Dewey, soprano; Briana Elyse Hunter, mezzo-soprano; Michael Day, tenor; Harry Greenleaf, baritone; and Erik Van Heyningen, bass-baritone. All of them have performed in major opera houses. Among them the Santa Fe Opera, the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, San Francisco Opera, and Wolf Trap. Many have received important awards in major vocal competitions.

Wayne. S. Brown, President and CEO of the Michigan Opera Theatre welcomed the audience to the concert. The selections for the concert were carefully chosen to highlight each singers vocal and performing qualities.  

The concert opened with a dazzling display of vocal fireworks by bass-baritone Erik Van Heyningen as The King of Jerusalem in Handel’s Rinaldo. His aria “Sibilar gli angui d’Alletto"…..(the hissing of Alecto’s serpents ) requires an astonishing amount of breath  control and he was more than up to the task.  His burnished bass-baritone projected the power of the king.  Later in the concert, he showed both his language and vocal versatility singing an aria in Russian from Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor --“Ni San ni otdycha”.  Igor can’t sleep and is dejected about being taken prisoner.  Erik pulled out all of the emotions of this great aria. This summer he returns to Santa Fe Opera to perform in Madama Butterfly and Candide.  In the fall he will attend The Juilliard School for an artist diploma in opera studies.

Tenor Michael Day sang a beautiful  "De’miei bollenti spiriti” from Verdi’s La Traviata.  He has a bright tenor sound and a big voice.  His Italian was excellent and through his facial expressions and his body language, he projected Alfredo’s love for Violetta.  Love came calling again later in the program with a sensitive performance of the song “Maria” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.  He started off singing softly and increased the volume slowly as he expressed his undying love for Maria. His final "Marias" in head voice were spell-binding.  He returns next fall to MOT.  This summer he will perform the role of Leo Hubbard in Blitzstein’s Regina at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Michael Day and Erik van Heyningen showed that they are equally good in comic opera as well.. both of them enjoying the comedy.  In  the duet “Voglio dire…Obbligato” from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. Michael Day sang the love sick Nemorino desperate for an elixir of love which Dr. Dulcamara, sung by Erik Van Heyningen was more then happy to supply.  Their voices blended very well and the audience delighted in their performances.

Mezzo-soprano Briana Elyse Hunter sang a heart-felt aria from Gluck’s Orphée et  Eurdice..."Amour viens rendre a mon âme”. Orphée calls on the gods to bring his dead wife back to life or he will join her in death. This is another aria full of fioritura and Briana sang it fearlessly.  Her mezzo voice is distinctive and lush and she has great stage presence.  Later in the program she moved effortlessly from Baroque opera to the 21at century opera Doctor Atomic by John Adams.. “Am I in your light” is a reflection on love and death and was sung with great warmth. 

Briana and soprano Monica Dewey sang a sweet melodic duet from Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera 27…which explores the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The duet “The Bells. That Chime” …the bells chime “genius” ring for each of them. This is very original music. Each time they sang the word “ring” there is an imitation of a ring by going up and down the scale or a slow trill. When they sang together their voices blended beautifully. Both Briana and Monica will be Performing with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Monica Dewey joined with baritone Harry Greenleaf for a duet from Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath. The music had a nice bouncy sound and they were a convincing couple.  They worked well together with clear diction, and nice vocal shading.

Monica showed her spunk in a delightful performance of the cantabile “Par le rang et par l’opulence” followed by the cabaletta "Salut a la France" from Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. The first part of the aria is slow and sad…and she sang it with great beauty ..she is sad because she is separated from Tonio …suddenly she hears the sounds of the soldiers in the distance and her mood changes to joy.  She sings the song of the regiment; "Salut a la France"…full of fioritura and octave leaps. She has a brilliant and sparking sound and her voice grew larger as she ascended to the high notes,

Harry Greenleaf  sang an aria from Britten’s Billy Budd --“Look! Through  the port comes the moonshine astray”which he sang in a a subdued and pensive manner with his attractive and smooth baritone voice and very clear English diction. He captured Billy’s feelings as he contemplates death. Harry later sang an aria from David DiChiera’s opera Cyrano, in which the eponymous Cyrano is contemplating his own death. Once again he created a whole picture of Cyrano’s thoughts and sadness, singing with clear French diction.

Tessa Hartle, Principal coach and accompanist for the young singers was supportive throughout the whole concert.  She never overpowered the singers and was certainly attentive to everything they did.   It was clear that the singers enjoyed working with her and appreciated her support.

Congratulations to all the singers and to the wonderful supportive staff of MOT Studio Artists for a memorable evening.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, April 21, 2018

UNCOMPROMISING ARTISTRY

Julia Bullock and John Arida onstage at Weill Recital Hall


There is an air of devoutness about soprano Julia Bullock!  There is such devotion to her art and to whatever she chooses to put on her program that she inspires devotion in her audience. Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall was not nearly large enough to hold the legions of her fans; but her artistry is so intimate that the hall is a perfect fit! Perhaps she should have been given a second night to accommodate everyone that clamored to hear her. We feel a sense of privilege to have been there.

We have been writing about Ms. Bullock since we began this blog. However, she first came to our attention when Lachlan Glen presented his year-long Schubertiade, employing the services of his fellow students at Juilliard. Sadly, the website for which we wrote is no longer extant and we cannot access those reviews.

But for the past 6 years, Ms. Bullock has had our admiration in a number of operatic roles (Cendrillon and Vixen Sharp-Ears are best remembered), at New York Festival of Song, in solo recitals, in Juilliard liederabende, at a Juilliard Vocal Arts Honor Recital, at a Young Concert Artists recital, and a Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert. Did we miss anything? Oh yes, a master class with Eric Owens.

Let us take a closer look at the reasons for our consistent admiration. Ms. Bullock is blessed with a gorgeous instrument which has darkened and expanded with time. We heard some impressive tone at the lower end of the register in the last set of songs on the program.

But there is so much more to her artistry. She does occasionally repeat a song from one recital to the next but mostly she tackles new material. She translates the songs herself and there is never any doubt that she is immersed in the text.  We have no doubt that she is visualizing what is in the text and we see it through her eyes.

Her programming is highly personal and a bit idiosyncratic. We go where she leads and take pleasure in the novelty. She began the program with four lovely Schubert songs which reminded us of our first exposure to her artistry in a church on the Upper East Side, at the Schubertiade we mentioned above.

Ms. Bullock clearly expresses her feminism and anti-racism. The opening song "Suleika I" was written not by Goethe, as she pointed out, but by his lover Marianne von Willemer. Accompanied by the superb collaborative pianist John Arida, we could feel the breeze created by rippling piano figures. The last verse was repeated twice, deeply felt, and differentially colored each time.

Friedrich Rückert's charming text for "Lachen und Weinen" provided opportunities for major-minor shifts. The confused adolescent mood was sustained through the piano postlude. Goethe's text for "Wandrers Nachtlied II" held us in a peaceful place.

The strophic "Seligkeit" was written by Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty, a man of the cloth who abdicated for a life of poetry. In this song we hear a tribute to earthly bliss.

Dear readers, were you waiting for me to complain about Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs?  You will be surprised to learn that we actually enjoyed them. Props to any singer who can show us what there is to appreciate about a  previously disparaged work of art. It's something like sitting down with a person you thought little of and learning that they have a lot to offer!

So what helped us turn that particular corner?  We suppose it was that Ms. Bullock's aforementioned devoutness gave us insight into people who choose a life of devoutness and monasticism. Her intense involvement with the songs was matched with superlative English diction such that we understood every word. In "Saint Ita's Vision" we saw in our mind's eye the woman clasping the baby Jesus to her breast!

The good cheer of "The Heavenly Banquet" gave way to the grief of "The Crucifixion".  But our favorite was and always will be, "The Monk and His Cat" which struck us as a great recipe for a good relationship--alone together, each with his own work, neither hindering the other, without tedium or envy.

Focusing on feminism, Ms. Bullock chose selections from a late work by Gabriel Fauré--La chanson d'Ève. She spent some time explaining the work and its theme of unfolding as the biblical Eve tries to find her place in the world.

There was quietude and simplicity in the piano at first but we heard some lovely rippling figures in "Veilles-tu, ma senteur de soleil".

The last set comprised bluesy and jazzy numbers highlighting the Afro-American experience, and especially that of women. Ms. Bullock took pains to tell us when the female member of the composing team had been neglected, like Pat Castleton, the wife of the credited composer Spencer Williams, for the song "Driftin' Tide". It was here that we began to appreciate the artist's strength at the lower end of the register.

Maceo Pinkard's "You Can't Tell the Difference After Dark" was written for Alberta Hunter. Sometimes humor can be a good method of confronting prejudice.  We also heard "Downhearted Blues" made famous by Bessie Smith, and "Our Love is Different" by Billie Holliday.

Two Nina Simone songs made an appearance. "Revolution", in an arrangement by Ms. Bullock herself, was sung a capella and ended in a stunning vocalise. Using a prepared piano, Mr. Arida accompanied Ms. Bullock in the very upsetting "Four Women", utilizing a repetitive and insistent motif.

As encores, we heard Connie Converse's "One by One" and finally, to make sure the audience left in a cheerful mood, Josephine Baker's "La Conga Blioti" which was so well done that we speculated on Ms. Bullock doing a one-woman show about Ms. Baker.

What an incredible evening!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, April 20, 2018

LINCOLN CENTER GREAT PERFORMERS--MARK PADMORE AND PAUL LEWIS

Paul Lewis and Mark Padmore at Alice Tully Hall


There were four people onstage last night at Alice Tully Hall, as part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series.  There was the veteran interpreter of art song Mark Padmore, there was the sensitive collaborative pianist Paul Lewis, there was the 19th c. Romantic poet Heinrich Heine, and there was the remarkable 19th c. composer of art song Robert Schumann.

How wonderful to have an entire evening devoted to the Schumann settings of Heine's poetry, so movingly interpreted by Mr. Padmore and Mr. Lewis, whose intense sensitivity to the music and to the singer contributed greatly to an evening of pure delight. We confess to being completely mesmerized.

Mr. Padmore made a few opening remarks about Schumann sending his songs to Clara as a means of communicating his feelings. Surely the young Robert did not mean to communicate the negativity toward love and toward women that we read in Heine's text. We know not what romantic injury Heine suffered to inspire such anger.

We have been reading the poetry aloud and reveling in its astute use of the German language, it's rhythm and its rhyme. Would that a contemporary American poet could so inspire a contemporary American composer!

In any event, Schumann's melodic vocal lines and luscious piano accompaniment went a long way toward softening the harsh sentiments found in Heine's poetry, poetry that inspired so many 19th c. composers.

In the performances of Mr. Padmore and Mr. Lewis, we barely noticed the superlative technical aspects and chose to dwell on the communicative aspects. Mr. Padmore has had a long and illustrious career to focus on communicating emotions to the audience. By virtue of alterations of color and dynamics, and by means of sensitive phrasing, every ounce of emotion was conveyed.

Mr. Lewis' attention to both the piano part and the vocal line made him the perfect partner for Mr. Padmore. He is the type of collaborative pianist that we most enjoy, always light of touch and leaving the final note suspended in the air. There was no mention of his collaborative work in the biography in the program but it was evident that there is a great deal more to his artistry than his solo performances and those with orchestras.

The program included two cycles Schumann composed in 1840. As Mr. Padmore pointed out, they were never meant to be performed in a concert hall, but rather to be played and sung at home. We have observed the incredible intimacy they elicit when performed by students in recital at small venues. To our surprise, Mr. Padmore evoked the same feeling in the vast reaches of Alice Tully Hall.

Liederkreis, Op.24 comprises nine songs about love and loss and was less familiar to us than the cycle that closed the program, Dichterliebe which we have heard countless times.

In "Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen" we loved the tender coloration and the way the quotation of the bird song was differentially colored. In terms of piano and voice working together, we favored "Lieb Liebchen" which not only enjoys a memorable melody but also a piano part that recreates the hammering of the heart. 

The passionate "Warte, warte, wilder Schiffman" is remarkable for its scale passages in the piano and the touch of humor at the end. As a matter of fact, in almost every song Schumann employed a graceful postlude to somewhat undercut Heine's bitterness. He seems to want us to feel consoled.

The familiar Dichterliebe is another story altogether; we have always thought of it as a spurned young man reflecting on the sanguine origin of his romance and the final despair when his beloved marries someone else. In the resolution of the final song, he buries all his sad songs in a coffin and sinks it in the Rhein, a fitting way to find what today is called "closure".

One could not keep from being charmed by the melodious introductory lied"Im wunderschönen Monat Mai", or puzzled when the song just trails off without the lovely piano postlude referred to earlier. It segues immediately into the tearful "Aus meinen Tränen sprießen", followed by the exuberant "Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube".

Love is like that, especially in the young. Observe any teenager with his cyclothymia!  She loves me, yay!  She loves me not, woe is me! In "Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome", the poet sees his beloved everywhere, even in a portrait in the cathedral in Cologne!

We were waiting to hear what Mr. Padmore would do with "Ich grolle nicht". He held back on the bitterness until the end, a valid and interesting interpretation. 

We heard such rapid figures in the piano in "Und wüsten's die Blumen" and in the bitter "Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen" that the quiet spare piano part of "Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen" came as a surprise. 

Also of interest was the contrast between the jolly piano part of "Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen" and the painfully ironic text. Perhaps our favorite song was "Ich hab' im Traum geweinet" in which the voice begins a capella and the piano part comprises a punctuation of chords. We think of the evanescence of dreams and Mr. Padmore conveyed the intimacy of a confession.

In between these two major Schumann cycles we heard some of Brahms' settings of Heine's poetry. It seemed to us that Brahms, a protegé of Schumann, chose texts of less emotional import. Truth to tell, we mostly prefer Brahms' settings of folk songs and cannot say why. There was nothing wrong with the later life songs we heard last night but presenting them in between two such major cycles probably did not give us a chance to appreciate them fully.

(c) meche kroop



Thursday, April 19, 2018

CANDIDE-LY SPEAKING

The cast of Leonard Bernstein's Candide onstage at Carnegie Hall


In celebration of the Bernstein Centennial, Carnegie Hall presented a one-night benefit performance of Candide, with Rob Fisher conducting the huge orchestral forces of the Orchestra of St. Luke's, and the enormous Mansfield University Concert Choir, all onstage.

Let us avoid any discussion of whether this charming work is an opera or a musical comedy. No matter how many times we have seen the work, nor in whatever venue, we have always enjoyed it and walked out humming numbers from Bernstein's tuneful score. 

The work is an enduring one, and an endearing one, and its arias have appeared on countless recitals, especially "Glitter and Be Gay", a favorite of coloratura sopranos. The work seems to be critic-proof and, in spite of it's initial cool reception, continues to appear in various iterations, each worthy on its own terms.

The concert version we saw last night at Carnegie Hall was new to us, since our prior experiences have been with the Harold Prince version. This one was Bernstein's final intention, realized and recorded shortly before his death in 1989. What a thrill to hear songs we hadn't heard before and to see scenes we hadn't previously seen. We are reminded that opera composers of the 19th c. also revised their operas many times such that a definitive performing version can be negotiable.

Not only do we love the music but we adore the book by Hugh Wheeler, which touches upon so many serious themes, beneath a comic facade.
In this story of innocence betrayed and reality accepted, we are exposed to countless trials and tribulations; we witness the heroes of the story pursuing their ideals and surviving their hardships. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the public has such affection for the work.

The literary work upon which it is based is Voltaire's 1759 novella, a satiric attack on war, religious persecution, and the positivist philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who claimed that whatever happens in this world is divinely ordered and for the best.

What we didn't know was that one of the episodes is based upon true events. In Lisbon, the horrendous death toll of an earthquake resulted in religious persecutions meant to "appease God". Well!  If that doesn't sound like some contemporary stuff going on in the Middle East we will eat the score for breakfast!

If anyone doesn't know the story, it involves the picaresque adventures of an innocent youth named Candide and his beloved Cousin Cunegonde who were tutored by one Dr. Pangloss, a stand-in for Leibniz. The two survive the horrors of war, shipwrecks, deceits and betrayals, as well as the aforementioned auto-da-fe;  they get continually separated and reunited more than once until at the end they decide to have a quiet life with modest pleasures.

One couldn't ask for a better Candide than tenor Paul Appleby, about whom we have written since his student days at Juilliard. No opera or concert appearance or award gala performance has failed to impress us artistically or to touch us emotionally. With the ensuing years he has grow as an artist but has not lost the sweet freshness of his tenor. Once again, last night, he touched our heart as his innocence kept him afloat from one disaster to the next.

He was particularly memorable in his ballads "Life is Happiness Indeed" and in his lament in Scene 2. His duet with Cunegonde "You Were Dead, You Know" was a knockout.

As Cunegonde, the brilliant soprano Erin Morley, another favorite of ours, turned in a landmark performance. Repeated hearings has never dulled the sharp character delineation created in "Glitter and Be Gay" which shows Cunegonde's ambivalence about her stint in a brothel, being patronized on alternate days by an Archbishop (Len Cariou) and Don Issachar the Jew (Danny Burstein)--a scene that drove the audience wild. 

The poor girl laments the loss of her honor but revels in the pleasures of the jewels showered upon her. We think of Marguerite's "Jewel Song" in Gounod's Faust. Another highlight of the evening was her duet with Patricia Racette-- "We Are Women", a number we had not heard before.

It was difficult to imagine Patricia Racette in the role of The Old Woman because she is far too young and attractive. Nonetheless, she employed a "high Middle Polish" accent and appropriate gestures that made her performance convincing. Her version of "I Am Easily Assimilated" always tickles us.

Making a brief appearance in a wheelchair was legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne in a speaking role as the Queen of Eldorado. We loved her line--"We have no lawyers or courts here; no one is angry."

In a bit of luxury casting we heard William Burden's fine tenor as the lustful Governor of Buenos Aires. Glenn Seven Allen, Kyle Pfortmiller, and Ross Benoliel made a fine trio in "Auto-da-fe".

Other roles were assumed by Broadway stars. John Lithgow made a convincing Dr. Pangloss and also narrated as Voltaire himself. His singing is about as good as Rex Harrison's was in My Fair Lady. Ryan Silverman portrayed Cunegonde's vain brother Maximilian and appeared later as the Grand Inquisitor and a Jesuit.

Paquette was performed by Bryonha Marie Parham who sang in several ensembles. Her character did not have the same stage time as in the Hal Prince version.  The Baron and Baroness were also cut, as were the singing sheep in the Eldorado scene.

If we were to name all the numbers that delighted us we would surely run out of space but we absolutely must mention the delightful "What's the Use" which takes place in the casino in Venice. We can't stop humming it!

Although it was a concert version, taking place on a shallow area in front of the orchestra, there was enough action to hold our attention.  Director Gary Griffin did a fine job on this account.  Costumes by Tracy Christensen were quite wonderful. 

In place of sets we had projections designed by Wendall K. Harrington and they were superb. All of the locales in the show were represented above the heads of the choristers and some of them had moving figures. For example, when the characters were at sea, we saw maps of the Atlantic Ocean with images of a several-masted schooner tacking back and forth! Each scene was suitably accompanied by these visuals and the audience loved them.

If there were one flaw in the evening, and of course there would have to be "in this best of all possible worlds", it would be the sound design. The lyrics to the songs are so clever that it was a shame to miss so much of them. Of all the singers, Mr. Appleby's words came across the best. We are not sure what kind of amplification was used but it was far from satisfactory. Since there were several songs that were new to us, we will have to look for the lyrics online.

(c) meche kroop







Wednesday, April 18, 2018

DEUS EX MACHINA AT JUILLIARD

Natalia Kutateladze and cast of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie (photo by Richard Termine)


Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1733 opera Hippolyte et Aricie was presented last night at The Juilliard School in an impressive collaboration among the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, Juilliard415 (the renowned historical performance group), and Juilliard Dance. We cannot imagine any other cultural institution that could have pulled this off so effectively and with such high artistic and entertainment value.  What a coup!

Employing a libretto by Simon-Joseph Pellegrin (based on Racine's tragedy  Phèdre) , Rameau broke new musical and dramatic ground in this work; based upon myth, it carries substantial psychological weight. Like life, it is not quite comedy (in the sense of a happy ending) and not quite tragedy.

For the lovers Hippolyte and Aricie, a mostly happy future awaits. Having moved beyond the stance of denial of love in her long-standing feud with Cupid, the goddess Diana appoints Hippolyte as the new leader of her order.  At Hippolyte's side will be the lovely Aricie, probably named for the town of Aricia, a place near Rome in which shrines to Diana have been erected.

For Thésée, the war hero (a demigod sired by Neptune), the future is not so rosy.  He has been rescued from the Underworld by Mercure bearing a message from Neptune. Upon his release he discovers his wife Phèdre in a suspicious confrontation with his son Hippolyte. Phèdre has been lusting after Hippolyte secretly and, urged by her nurse Oenone, has revealed her secret passion and has offered him the throne.  He loves Aricie and does not want the throne either.  Swords are drawn.

Oenone casts blame on Hippolyte and Thésée banishes his own son. At the end of the opera he is a broken man, having lost everything. The remorseful Phèdre dies by her own hand. This is just the bare bones of the plot, told just so readers will know that a lot happens!

The casting was astute and the singers never flagged in this lengthy and difficult score. Several performances stood out for their psychological insightfulness. It is always special when a singer portrays a hateful character but inspires your sympathies. Mezzo-soprano Natalia Kutateladze is just such an artist. The librettist gives us no clue about her backstory but Ms. Kutateladze's Phèdre seems a victim of forces beyond her control with which she has done battle.  Of course, in this genre it is always the fault of the gods. There is a lot of fire available in her instrument and also the ability to express pain and remorse, both in her arias and in the recitativi.

As Thésée, bass Alex Rosen opened the opera with a show of arrogance, that of a conqueror.  In this spoken prelude (we have no evidence but believe its contemporaneous bent suggests it has been written recently), he is countered by the words of Diana who has no use for male stupidity. In the Underworld, we see him tortured by the Furies (more about them anon) and begging for mercy. Then we find him in a rage over a perceived betrayal by his son, and finally as a shadow of his formal self, stumbling across the stage. Mr. Rosen captured all this in his voice and gesture.

The Diana of mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano was similarly effective as she went through a softening of attitude toward love, inspired by the devotion of her two followers Aricie and Hippolyte. Just another magnificent performance from this gifted artist!

As Aricie, soprano Onadek Winan, as lithe of body as she is of voice, conveyed all the innocence of the ingenue role. She is not called upon for much emotional upheaval but rather to use her pure sweet instrument to make us love her and want her to be happy.  She succeeded.

As Hippolyte, tenor Kyle Stegall sang his beautiful phrases with  ardency and fine phrasing. He disappears for awhile fighting a sea monster (offstage) and we were very happy that he was restored by Diana, both to make the dear Aricie happy but also so we could hear him sing some more!

Star baritone Hubert Zapiór, previously hidden in the chorus, made an appearance at the end of the opera with godlike bearing, to refuse Thésée's wish for death. He neatly sums up the moral of the tale--"Leave to the gods what the gods alone can do".

Act II takes place in the Underworld and is staged to evoke maximum horror. Tenor Joshua Blue's portrayal of the Fury Tisiphone produced chills that were only exceeded by the Pluton of bass William Guanbo Su who has the vocal heft and imposing bearing to carry off the role. In a bit of luxury casting, the roles of the three Fates went to tenor Charles Sy, baritone Xiaomeng Zhang (singing baritenor, and singing it just fine) and bass Andrew Munn. Their trio was a highlight of the evening.

The role of Oenone was performed by soprano Meghan Kasanders; the role of La Grande Prétresse was sung by soprano Shaked Bar; tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole created the character of Mercure with just a few phrases and a special color to his voice.

We were admiring one of the petite dancers and later figured out she was one of the singers who happens to be a fine dancer!  It was soprano Jessica Niles as Une Matelote. It seemed to us that the singers at Juilliard are so well trained in movement that it was difficult to discern and we can be forgiven for the error. As a matter of fact, everything that happened onstage was as seamless as the music. With Stephen Wadsworth as Director we are not surprised. Zack Winokur's choreography reminded us of Mark Morris' oeuvre and was simple enough that the singers blended right in with the dancers.

Stephen Stubbs conducted the splendid Juilliard 415, playing on period instruments that lent a soft sound to Rameau's music. Considered revolutionary in its day, Rameau broke ground both harmonically and in the organization of the parts. There were some exquisite duets for the couple in love and Ms. Winan and Mr. Stegall made the most of them. Rameau created several memorable ensemble pieces as well as a few choruses. The integration of arias, ensembles, choruses, dances, and instrumental interludes was superb.

We understand that there were parts that the singers of the period could not handle and they had to be excised. Here, they were restored. Juilliard knows no challenge it cannot meet!

The effective sets by Charlie Corcoran involved trompe l'oeil Greek temples and a woodland with seashore, as well as the menacing Underworld. David Lander's lighting emphasized the sunshine of a new day at the conclusion of the opera.

Costumes by Sarah Cubbage were outstanding with as much influence of the 18th c. as of the days of mythology as we imagine them. Aricie wore a simple white shift to emphasize her purity whereas Phèdre wore an impressive red gown with billowing skirt. The gods wore long brocade coats, all of them looking as regal as could be. Diana and her followers looked exactly the way one might imagine them, and carried bows and arrows in a quiver.

Seems like all the artists at Juilliard have lots of arrows in their quivers!

(c) meche kroop