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.

Thursday, June 7, 2018


Samantha Hankey (photo by Matthew Placek)
Kyle Bielfield, Alisa Jordheim, and Andrew Bogard (photo by Matthew Placek)

When Andrew Ousley of Unison Media informed us that he was producing a series at Greenwood Cemetery, we opined that it would be a hard sell.  Mr. Ousley laughed and said the run was already sold out. Our curiosity was aroused. Was it the excellent cast of singers? Was it the highly unusual subject for an opera (an almost unknown Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale)? Was it the composer David Hertzberg? Was it the director R.B. Schlather who made quite a name for himself directing Händel operas? Was it the exotic site? Was it the preceding whisky tasting? 

We have come to trust Mr. Ousley's taste in entertainment after some rather stunning evenings spent in The Crypt of the Church of the Intercession.  On that basis we decided to make the long trip to Brooklyn.  It was an enchanting evening on the whole.

A vigorous uphill climb led to a verdant spot overlooking the city where excited members of the audience were treated to a whiskey tasting complemented by snacks. Just as our taste in music is somewhat limited, so is our taste in beverages and we were happy that beer was available.  And just as other folks might love music that leaves us cold, so do other folks enjoy the taste of bourbon, scotch, or rye.

The pleasures of the view and the socializing lasted an hour after which we climbed even farther uphill to the catacombs, built in the 1850's and usually closed to the public. We entered a space at least 50 yards long but only 10 feet wide, with seats in a single row along each side, placing the artists either right in your face or else very far away.

And what artists they are! Called upon to do far more than sing, we recalled how much training in movement that three of the four had received at Juilliard.  Mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey, tenor Kyle Bielfield, and bass-baritone Andrew Bogard are well known to us as former Juilliard students (and Mr. Bogard from his stint with the Santa Fe Opera), and coloratura soprano Alisa Jordheim is well remembered as Serpetta in Mozart's La finta gardiniera, produced by On Site Opera.

The good news is that the barrel ceiling of the catacombs ensured impressive resonance to these gorgeous prize-winning voices. The bad news is that the sight-lines were poor. And R.B. Schlather's direction provided much to look at. But audience members all leaned forward in their seats trying to see what was happening on either end, making vision even more difficult in this very long and very narrow playing space.

This was a very physical production with poor Ms. Jordheim being dragged the entire length of the concrete floor on her back! Nonetheless, the singers have every reason to be proud of their excellent performances.

The chamber opera was The Rose Elf, adapted from a barely known fairy tale, and developed within the Opera Philadelphia Composer-in-Residence Program by David Hertzberg.  It is part of the third annual New York Opera Fest.

We were glad to have read the story in advance because it was difficult to understand without foreknowledge. An elf who lives cozily within a rose gets shut out of his home by an early closure. Searching for lodging for the night, he witnesses a foul deed by an evil man (Mr. Bogard) who sends his sister's beloved (Mr. Bielfield) away on a trip but then murders him most foully. In the fairytale, the sympathetic elf (Ms. Hankey) comforts the young woman (Miss Jordheim) and achieves revenge on the brother with the help of some bees.

Not everything came across as well as one would have wished but an interesting interpretation was that the brother, judging by body movement, was motivated by lust for his sister. 

We were not as moved by the libretto as we were by reading the fairy tale and the vocal lines were not melodic. Both the music and the libretto were written by prize-winning composer David Hertzberg who composed some lovely instrumental music for the chamber orchestra, which was placed at the far end of the "tunnel".  Maestro Teddy Poll effectively conducted the group which comprised a string quartet, augmented by a bass, a piano, a clarinet, a horn, and percussion. They made some gorgeous sound!

It is so often the case these days that we hear contemporary music that is interesting but lacking in a melodic line for the voice. We believe what is needed is music written by singers!

All of the singers enunciated English with clarity but the words failed to capture the magic of the story. Supertitles by Steven Jude Tietjen and Katie Lipow were projected for part of the performance but were not visible unless one were sitting directly across from them.

Costumes of flowery prints were worn by the two lovers and Ms. Hankey's elf wore a silver dress and boots.  Hairstyles and makeup did not impress us. JAX Messenger provided the lighting design for this eerie space.

The opera--a world premiere--was the initial offering in Mr. Ousley's new series called The Angel's Share. For those who are not whiskey drinkers, let us enlighten you. The Angel's Share is the distiller's term for the whiskey that evaporates during the distilling process--hence the whiskey tasting before the performances.

Other performances in this clement weather series will include some radical chamber music, which may be more to our taste. It is always interesting for us to see new works, even if we are not totally thrilled by them. It was a most arresting evening and we loved hearing such special singers, all four of whom threw themselves into the performance.

We are a fast walker and had the opportunity to pass by several groups of people descending the hill after the performance. We eavesdropped. Most of the comments were positive, praising the originality of the experience. Some were unhappy with the music or the sightlines.  But everyone loved the voices!

We saw several people trying to get last minute tickets at the gate but there were none available.  There will be two more performances on 6/8 and 6/10 but snagging tickets will be unlikely. We refer you to Unison's website for information on the remainder of the series. deathofclassical.com! Indeed!

(c) meche kroop

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