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, April 30, 2018


Lucia di Lammermoor with Michael Fabiano and Pretty Yende (photo Jonathan Tichler/Met Opera)

Dear Readers, allow me to introduce guest reviewer Chris Grimm who has some interesting things to say about the Metropolitan Opera's production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Mr. Grimm is  a former publishing executive who now manages a restaurant in Connecticut. A former contributing editor to the James Beard Award-winning Oregon Wine Report, Chris attends opera in New York and throughout the northeast.  He also follows electronic dance music. He is a regular Met-goer which we are not, and will be able to cover that "beat" for us.

Wednesday night’s performance was the first for the final cast of the Met’s revival of Lucia di Lammermoor, featuring Pretty Yende in the title role and Michael Fabiano as Edgardo. While compare-and-contrast reviews aren’t ideal, Mary Zimmerman’s 2007 production is a known quantity - traditional, set in 18th Century Scotland, with a Met-audience-friendly (if overly dark-hued) feel, so the performances are the more obvious subjects for scrutiny. With a similarly prominent first cast (featuring Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti and Vittorio Grigolo), they do beg to be compared.

Pretty Yende, who surely can have the word “rising” removed from any description of her as a rising star, has a wonderful instrument.  Her Elvira, last season, substituting for Diana Damrau in one performance of I Puritani, was the definition of a star-making performance. She continues to shine as a coloratura specialist, hitting high notes with remarkable agility. If there was the slightest downside to her performance, it was in occasional (if minor) difficulties projecting over the Met orchestra – but given the spotlight (obviously, the mad scene) she thrilled the audience. While I had not found Peretyatko-Mariotti’s performance to be as bad as some of her critics said, I do think, by comparison, it was pedestrian.

Michael Fabiano was a stellar Edgardo – and one that especially begged for comparison with Grigolo’s, earlier in the season. Vittorio Grigolo is certainly an audience favorite at the Met – he’s charismatic, can fill the house with sound, and brings irrepressible energy to every performance. 

Unfortunately, during the April 5 performance that I attended, when the action became most frenetic, his singing would lose it’s focus on notes, becoming something more like excited shouting. Grigolo is undoubtedly a great talent – but sometimes his performances are great despite his singing, rather than because of it.  

On the other hand, Fabiano’s voice was absolutely glorious – he never lost focus, his notes were beautiful. What surprised me Wednesday night was the realization, for the first time, as to how big Fabiano could make his voice – seeming more heroic than lyric, without sounding forced. His acting is not quite as good as Grigolo’s – his default emotion seems to be anguish – but taken as a whole, this was superb work.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, April 29, 2018


Katelan Terrell, Michal Biel, Marie Engle and Äneas Humm in Songs from the Cellar

Before we tell you about one of the best art song recitals we have ever seen, we have some exciting news about the venue, shared by Alessandro Pittorino, Executive Director of Arts at Blessed Sacrament Church. 

The church has acquired a magnificent Steinway piano in the sanctuary so that recitals can be held there instead of in the cozy cellar. We had no beefs about the cellar but the acoustics in the sanctuary are undeniably better. And the piano has a particularly fine sound, especially as played by our two collaborative pianists Katelan Terrell and Michal Biel.

We have heard Robert Schumann's song cycles more times than we can count but we cannot recall hearing them performed better. The program began with mezzo-soprano Marie Engle, who sounds like eine engel, performing Frauenliebe und -Leben in partnership with Ms. Terrell. Perhaps it is our imagination, but having two women performing the cycle added a new dimension and kinda sorta made up for the fact that the text, written in 1830 by Adelbert von Chamisso and then set within the decade by Robert Schumann, involved men!

We do not know whether this was the poet's interpretation of a woman's life and loves or whether this was culturally accurate but the content would have us believe that a woman's life begins when she meets her future husband and ends when he dies! Nothing happens in between childbirth and widowhood!

In order to enjoy the many pleasures of the cycle, one has to set aside our contemporary view of female equality and self-fulfillment. The middle of the 20th c. seems just as remote as the 19th c.  Just ask your mothers and grandmothers!

The pleasures of the cycle are the perfect union of text and music and the marriage of vocal line to piano accompaniment. Last night, the extra pleasure was experiencing the many moods of the subject which our performing artists conveyed with consummate communicative skill.

"Seit ich ihn gesehen" is filled with wonder, bordering on awe. "Er, der Herrlichste von allen" is replete with excitement as the girl idealizes her beloved. In "Ich kann's nicht fassen, nicht glauben", she is overwhelmed by being the chosen one. In "Du Ring an meinem Finger" she expresses her exalted intent (like Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier) to devote herself fully to her husband; the ring symbolizes the husband-to-be. 

In "Helft mir, ihr Schwestern", the piano provides a wedding march for the girl's special day. In "Süßer Freund" she becomes more solemn as she hints to her husband that she is pregnant. We were enjoying Ms. Engle's word coloring all along but there was something special she did with "lust". The tempo increased as did the woman's heartbeat.  Yes, she has gone from girl to woman.

Her excitement over nursing her infant in "An meinem Herzen" seemed ecstatic--almost delirious.  And then....hubby dies. The terrible chord in the piano announces the shock and the woman experiences that frightening mixture of grief and anger that is so common in loss. Ms. Engle's coloring of the word "leer" (empty) gave us cold chills with its subtle alteration of vibrato. The piano postlude recalls the first time the woman laid eyes upon the man. 

We were left shaken, no longer scoffing at the archaic nature of the text. This was completely due to the intense involvement of Ms. Engle and Ms. Terrell. We might add that Ms. Engle's German was perfect and so clearly enunciated that we didn't miss a word. Titles were superfluous.

The second half of the program comprised a performance of Schumann's Dichterliebe, the likes of which we have never heard. Swiss baritone Äneas Humm came to our attention through the German Forum when he was but 20 years old and already famous in Europe. We loved his voice and communicative skills 3 years ago but we have noted an impressive development in the texture of his voice after just one year at Juilliard, where he studies with Edith Wien. His voice filled the sanctuary with overtones.

We have reviewed Dichterliebe half a dozen times within the year and three times within the past month!  We have not tired of it because each singer has offered a different interpretation. This is one of the distinguishing features of a great work of art. Mr. Humm's very personal interpretation was fully in the present. This was not a reflective summation of a love affair gone wrong. Mr. Humm seemed to be experiencing the events in the moment. Mr. Biel's piano supported that interpretation.

In "Im wonderschönen Monat Mai", the poet suffers from limerence but Michal Biel's piano hinted at a less sanguine reality. The vocal line trailed off unresolved and we began to hear some anxiety in "Aus meinen Tränen sprießen". The subject idealizes his beloved with intense excitement in "Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne".

We loved the change of color with which Mr. Humm invested the voice of the beloved as she professes her love in the phrase "Ich liebe dich".  This is how the subject wants to hear it!

Things got dark in "Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome" when the subject became serious, spooked out by seeing the beloved's face in an inappropriate place (a portrait of the Virgin in the cathedral). The dark colors of Mr. Humm's lower register struck deep.

"Ich grolle nicht" is the song of the cycle in which we have heard the most variety. The subject seems to be keeping a stiff upper lip but the piano lets us hear the depth of his suffering. Mr. Humm artistically portrayed the melange of anger, bitterness, and pain.

"Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen" involved unadulterated bitterness with Mr. Biel's piano adding much emotional tone. His piano gave us brief respite in the gentle "Hör ich das Liedchen klingen" before the renewed bitterness and irony of "Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen" which was introduced by a jaunty piano tune.

Another highlight of the cycle was "Ich hab' im Traum geweinet" which began with a capella voice and was then punctuated by portentous chords. We also loved the twist at the end of "Allnächtlich im Traume".

Mr. Biel's descending arpeggi in "Die alten, bösen Lieder" served to highlight the subject's attempt to find closure by sinking a coffin filled with his old love songs into the waters of the Rhein. Was this just adolescent hyperbole?

We have read that the poet Heinrich Heine was satirizing Romanticism but we are not sure. That is what is so special about Schumann's setting and the singer's interpretive skills. That is the reason why we can hear this cycle several times in a month and not get bored!

Mr. Humm and Mr. Biel took us on an exhaustive emotional journey through joy and excitement to anger, bitterness, and despair, with a final acceptance. Fortunately we were not to be left in gloom.  Oh, no. There was a perfectly upbeat duet in which Schumann set a charming folksong "Wenn ich ein vöglein wär" performed by the two singers and piano four-hands. Somehow we were reminded of Brahms, which is always a good association.

"Songs from the Cellar" has gotten off to an impressive start, with all the artists coming from Juilliard. Ms. Terrell and Mr. Biel are the Co-coordinators of this art song series. The two have come a long way in one short season by providing top quality entertainment and artistry for the Upper West Side Community. We have watched with great pleasure the growth of the audience. We don't know yet whether they will change the name of the series to "Songs from the Sanctuary". It doesn't matter what they call it; it is worth your while.

We can barely wait for the Autumn season and promise to keep you informed.

(c) meche kroop


Friday, April 27, 2018


Countertenor John Holiday

This will be the fifth time we reviewed countertenor John Holiday and his artistry just keeps on growing. The very first time we heard him was over five years ago at Lachlan Glen's year-long survey of Franz Schubert's 600+ songs. We noted the sweetness of his voice. Later that year we had a lot more to say about his performance in the title role of Handel's Radamisto, noting his artistry in the legato lines and his fireworks in the fioritura.

In 2015 we swooned over his rather good natured Cesare in Vivaldi's Catone in Utica, presented by Opera Lafayette. And in 2016, we loved his performance in Huang Ro's Paradise Interrupted, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

Last night we heard new aspects of his artistry in an all-too-short (but nonetheless satisfying) recital in the Crypt of the Church of the Intercession, a bit spooky in atmosphere but with incredible acoustics. The recital was part of the sold-out Unison Media series, curated by Andrew Ousley who has managed to come up with several unusual recitals.  Keep reading, dear reader, and we will tell you what he has up his musical sleeve for the summer and fall.

But first look at what Mr. Holiday had up his sleeve! He baited his hook with some delicious Italian and French favorites so that by the time he got to music that was somewhat outside our sphere of devotion, we were hooked and it was too late to protest that it wasn't "our kind of music".  Obviously, everything Mr. Holiday performed was dear to his heart; the communication from his heart to those of the audience members was so effective that people spontaneously burst into applause after every single song.

He began with "Frondi tenere e belle...Ombra mai fu" from Handel's Serse. We've heard so many singers try to do justice to this gorgeous paean to nature but Mr. Holiday simply nailed it.  His high pitched instrument is never effete but full and rich. We speculate that the famous castrati back in the day were so widely praised because they sounded like this. Thankfully, Mr. Holiday's sacrifices for his art did not extend that far!

There followed a series of songs in French, from the wistful "Romance" of Claude Debussy, to the ennui of Poulenc's "Hôtel", and three familiar songs of Reynaldo Hahn--"Si mes vers avaient des ailes", "Offrande", and "À Chloris". We loved the way Mr. Holiday can spin out a pianissimo like a silken thread, even at the top of his register. The overtones bounced around the room like pingpong balls.

When an artist is this good we are willing to follow him anywhere and we were surprised at how much we enjoyed Margaret Bonds' mid 20th c. setting of Langston Hughes' text. The phrases are short and the composer matched melody to text better than any other composer we have heard who set Hughes' text. "Minstrel Man", "Dream Variations", and the forceful "I, too am American" affected us deeply.

Theodore Morrison was commissioned by countertenor David Daniels to write a song cycle and we felt privileged to hear his setting of text by James Joyce. The music was blissfully accessible without a whiff of "the academy" to make our eyes roll. Our favorite was the final song "I hear an army charging upon the land" in which Mr. Holiday gave us some very powerful singing and some delicious melismatic singing. We believe that this is the same Theodore Morrison who composed the opera Oscar which we heard in Santa Fe a few years ago.

We also heard Hall Johnson's arrangement of the spiritual "I'm Gonter Tell God All O' My Troubles" in which Mr. Holiday bent the tone as if it were putty in his hands.

Pianist Kevin J. Miller did a fine job as Mr. Holiday's partner for the aforementioned  part of the program; for the remaining part, Mr. Neeki Bey took over and seemed to be an expert at jazz improvisation.

At this point, the piano scores disappeared from the piano and a snazzy fedora appeared on Mr. Holiday's head. Although jazz is not our thing, we found much to enjoy except for the first piece--a jazz arrangement of "Summertime" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. That opera is sacred to us and we didn't want it messed with!

The following standards were all enjoyable with the bluesy "Round Midnight" being our hands down favorite. There was a time when we did like jazz, before we fell in love with opera, and we are quite sure that we listened to recordings of this song by Sarah Vaughn and perhaps also by Ella Fitzgerald. What a surprise to learn that Thelonious Monk wrote it when he was 18.

We admired Mr. Holiday's word painting in Karl Suessdorf's "Moonlight in Vermont" and tapped our toe to Fats Waller's jaunty "Ain't Misbehavin". Mr. Bey had a piano solo in this and in the following lively Nat King Cole song "Straighten Up and Fly Right" which way played in a medley with "My Funny Valentine", sung at a slow tempo with a swoop up to the highest register.

There was more to come by way of encores. Mr. Bey abdicated the piano and Mr. Holiday sat down and let loose with "Amazing Grace" and "This Little Light of Mine". We are sure everyone in the audience left feeling lighter than when they arrived. Standing ovations do give us that impression!

We promised to tell you what Mr. Ousley and Unison Media have in store. Perhaps motivated by the success of The Crypt Sessions, they are planning a series in the catacombs of Greenwood Cemetery! The first entry will be in June and the series is already half sold out! So be a chooser, not a loser and stake your claim now.  See www.deathofclassical.com (really!) for details.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, April 26, 2018


The cast of Victor Herbert's The Enchantress

Our enthusiasm for the oeuvre of Victor Herbert is exceeded only by that of Alyce Mott-- Founder, Stage Director, and Librettist of the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live! Ms. Mott has devoted her life to this composer, and the last four years to producing a dozen musicals written by this prolific composer who delighted early 20th c. audiences with his Broadway shows. He could be considered the Rossini of his time and place.

The fact that he can delight 21st c. audiences with his music is testament to his compositional joie de vivre. It is true that Ms. Mott has written new libretti for the operettas she has produced, but the songs are the real McCoy.

The plots are quite silly by contemporary standards but that only contributes to our delight. The roles are always well cast and sung, the choreography delightful, the direction right on point. And now the performances are even better, due to the presence of a "salon orchestra"--what today would be called a chamber orchestra--conducted by Michael Thomas.

The plot that so enchanted us last night involved an impossible romance between the Prince of Zergovia and the beautiful Vivien, made possible by a plot device equivalent to a "hail Mary pass" on the football field.

Prince Ivan, performed by terrific tenor Tom Carle, risks the survival of his nation by his womanizing. The sinister Regent, Prince Miloch (Brian Kilday) would like to take over, with the assistance of the slimy Minister of War Ozir (Drew Bolander). Their plotting against him is continually hilarious.

Trying to protect the Prince are his tutor Poff (the always enjoyable David Seatter) and Troute, the head of the Secret Service (Jovani Demetrie).

Five princesses are vying for the Prince's attention. Pardon our rambling association but we thought we had wandered into Act II of Swan Lake! And then "Odette" appears in the person of the beautiful and sought-after Vivien, sung by the beautiful and sought-after Claire Leyden, who has a magnetic stage presence and a crystalline soprano with an appealing vibrato. She captures the heart of the fickle prince. And the hearts of the audience as well.

She is a commoner and the Prince cannot marry her. Will he abdicate? We speculated that the original librettists (Fred De Gresac and Harry B. Smith) might have been inspired by the love-fueled abdication of King Edward VIII of England but this could not be so. Wallace Simpson was only a teenager when the operetta premiered in 1911.

Complicating the plot is the arrival of a wealthy American woman named Marian who wants to use the money of her lard king father to buy herself a title. Soprano Joanie Brittingham did a great job creating this character, complete with a broad Midwestern accent and exaggerated American mannerisms.

More comedy was provided by Vivien's aunt Mamoute, played by soprano Vira Slywotzky with impressive comic chops. Apparently aunt and niece are one step away from poverty and the plan is for Vivien to snag a wealthy husband.

As usual in these productions, the chorus adds much to the proceedings. The female chorus comprised the five hopeful princesses--Haley Vick, Jane Hoffman, Sonora Dolce, JoAnna Geffert, and Susan Case.

The male chorus comprised Colm Fitzmaurice, Andrew Troup, and Jonathan Fox Powers.

We particularly enjoyed the love duet "Rose, Lucky Rose", Prince Ivan's aria "The Best Little Girl Is You", and Vivien's aria "To the Land of My Own Romance". Jane Hoffman performed a song entitled "Art is Calling for Me" which we recognized as the oft heard "encore song"--"I Want to Be a Prima Donna".  Just to think that we never knew where it came from!!  Indeed!  Now we know.

If we continue telling all the numbers we enjoyed, we will have named them all! But let's just mention one more which brought down the house--"Come to Sunny Spain", sung by Mr. Demetrie (disguised as a Spanish nobleman) and Ms. Slyvotzky who was so tragically ready to be seduced. Susan Organek choreographed their flamenco inflected dance, as well as the many captivating waltzes.

Over the past four years we have observed the growth of the audience and the evolution of a repertory company. Mr. Seatter and Ms. Slywotzky are founding members and several other artists joined the company over the past three years. 

Others made their debuts this year. Ms. Leyden brought charm and freshness, as well as a stunning voice, to the production. Many of the artists are known to us from other companies. It is always fun to see what artistry singers bring to different roles.

Next year will be VHRPLive!'s fifth season and the theme is Season of Love. We will be looking forward to Orange Blossoms, Love Songs, and Sweethearts.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, April 25, 2018


Jack Gulielmetti, Steven Blier, Julia Bullock, Paul Appleby, Antonina Chehovska, Theo Hoffman, Lauren Worsham, Mary Testa, John Brancy, and Michael Barrett

Last night, New York Festival of Song celebrated their 30th Anniversary at Merkin Concert Hall. The well-curated songs were culled from several themed programs in NYFOS' history. Mr. Blier's customary witticisms peppered the notes in the printed program, relating for those who did not know how NYFOS got started-- in the small auditorium of the Greenwich House Music School, with room for only a hundred people.

We count ourself among the devoted followers. We don't even bother to find out what the theme of the evening is or who is singing because every program is sufficiently diverse to contain a few songs we will love and because the singers chosen to sing them are among our favorites. 

Last night's program comprised a collection of songs taken from earlier programs which were sung by a group of artists that we adore, mostly known to us from Juilliard--artists we started writing about when we first started writing. Seven years later, these young singers are singing all over the world and garnering awards by the score.

Not every song rang our bell or touched our heart in the same manner but they all expanded our awareness of what that particular singer can do.  And we are all about expanding awareness.

Take, for example, the very serious baritone John Brancy--an artist of great honesty and integrity. What a pleasure to hear him sing songs of romantic intentions and frivolous ones too! Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Spring Waters" showed Mr. Brancy's passionate side and his substantial baritone stood up well to Michael Barrett's equally passionate piano. The two together created a thrilling climax.

Another expansion was perceived during Gabriel Fauré's gorgeous and tender "En sourdine", sung in fine French with long Gallic lines. We heard an exquisite pianissimo and we decided that our favorite word in French is "rossignol".

Still another side to Mr. Brancy's artistry was heard in his colorful duet with tenor Paul Appleby--Ernesto Lecuona's "Como el arrullo de palmas". The harmonies were mellow and it sounded like a second cousin of Mariachi music.

We just reviewed Mr. Appleby's stellar performance in the title role of Candide at Carnegie Hall. Last night he impressed us with his performance of Jorge Ackermann's "Flor de Yumuri" accompanied not only by piano but by the guitar of Jack Gulielmetti and the percussion of Eric Borghi, which added so much to the Latin flavor.

We also enjoyed his "Tu vois le feu du soir", Francis Poulenc's setting of a text by Paul Eluard which was somewhat less surreal than others we have heard. Mr. Appleby never pushes his voice and we loved the apparent ease with which he spun out the final note.

We always feel most at home with Schubert and Mr. Appleby did complete justice to the jaunty "Taubenpost", a setting of text by Gabriel Seidl.

Baritone Theo Hoffman flew in from LA Opera's Young Artist Program to open the show with Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Orpheus With His Lute". Shakespeare's text may just as well have been speaking of Mr. Hoffman--"In sweet music is such art; Killing care and grief of heart".

That being said, we enjoyed him even more in the witty words and tuneful music of Stephen Sondheim who wrote "Talent" for a musical called Road Show that never made it. A distinguishing feature of Mr. Hoffman's performance is his English diction, which is so clear that not a word was missed. We wish that quality was not as rare as it is!

He also closed the program with the incredibly moving duet by John Lennon and Paul McCartney "In My Life", performed with the sensational soprano Julia Bullock, whose Carnegie Hall recital we just reviewed.

Ms. Bullock could grab our ear if she sang the proverbial phonebook but give her good material and she grabs our heart. Our classical taste was best satisfied by her heartfelt performance of Edvard Grieg's "En svane" but she also gave a toe-tapping performance of Fats Waller's early song "Ain't-Cha Glad".

Soprano Antonina Chehovska has been largely responsible for our evolving interest in Russian and Ukrainian music. One of the highlights of the evening was her performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff's seasonally appropriate "Spring Waters" which we have been hearing a lot lately.  "To her" was new to us and its melancholy nature touched our heart.

Russian was not the only language we heard from Ms. Chehovska. Dvorák's gorgeous song "Mé sredce často v bolesti" was sung in Czech and the title translates as "My heart often ponders in sorrow" but we have included the Czech to demonstrate the difficulty of this language, a challenge well met by Ms. Chehovska. The melody drew us in and we recognized a motif the composer used in Russalka. We also heard a Wagnerian flavor in the harmony.

After the difficult Czech, the Spanish of Enrique Granados in "El mirar de la maja" must have seemed easy but the effect was just as lovely.

Adorable soprano Lauren Worsham seems equally at ease with opera and cabaret. She took a very strange unpublished song by the late Jonathan Larson entitled "Hosing the Furniture" and made sense out of what appears to be the "diary of a mad housewife" who lives in a house made of vinyl. 

Her comedic skills were put to even better use in the 18th c. cabaret song "El dulce de América" which involved a lot of physical gestures to get the point across.  This gal is funny!

Another Broadway star was on board for the evening--the legendary mezzo-soprano Mary Testa who performed Michael John LaChiusa's "Heaven" with a lot of bending of the tone. In Hoagy Carmichael's "Old Buttermilk Sky", she was joined by Mr. Gulielmetti playing the banjo and David Ostwald playing the tuba. We always enjoy an original arrangement!

There were more songs but we only have space to hit the highlights. But let's not omit the encore--the Beatles song "Obla-di obla-da", a wonderfully upbeat way to end the celebration, with everyone taking part!

We wish NYFOS another 30 years of song!

(c) meche kroop

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


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


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 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!


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