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.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

DON da DON DON

Melanie Spector, Gabe Reitemeier, Yeseul Choi, Laura Alley, Maestro Steven Crawford,  Joshua DeVane, YoungKwan Yoo, Nam Won Huh, and Matthew Greenberg

Seeing and hearing young artists onstage and forgetting that they are "young artists" is a special treat we experience when attending one of Prelude to Performance's productions. Given a professional production and the right coaching the young artists who have completed this program are uniformly excellent in both musical and dramatic values. Happily, the productions are generally traditional, just the way we like them.

In the case of Donizetti's Don Pasquale, director Laura Alley created a comic drama with a successful overall arc; each individual scene was as coherent as a well written phrase of music. There was undeniable rhythm to the performance, and loads of laughs. Replete with duets and a stunning quartet, the score invites such effective direction.

We noticed a theme to this season's productions.  Both of the eponymous heroes are older men who lust after younger women. Both stories involve their humiliation and reformation. Both stories make them likeable by the time the curtain falls. This isn't just in the libretto but in the music and the dramatic skills of the singer portraying them. In the Falstaff we just reviewed, José Maldonado made the Fat Knight seem loveable at the end, and last night, Joshua DeVane's remarkable performance made us care about poor Don Pasquale.

This theme dates back to commedia dell'arte in which the foolish old man was a stock character. We can't help thinking that we never lose our desire for love and "dirty old men" need love too.

Another stock character is the wily doctor and YoungKwan Yoo was a fine choice for the role of Dr. Malatesta as he plans some trickery to get Don Pasquale to give up on wanting a wife and to let Ernesto marry his beloved Norina.

Of course, the audience is rooting for the success of the young lovers and ready to forgive the three conspirators for their misdeeds. Yeseul Choi made a splendid Norina. We loved the scene in which Dr. Malatesta coaches her on how to act modest and shy like the cloistered sister whom he is passing her off as.  

Another favorite moment is the one in which Norina slaps Pasquale and realizes she has gone too far. One could readily read the shame on Ms. Choi's face and understand so much of her character. Sometimes we do shameful things in pursuit of our goals-- so we get it.

Ms. Choi's musicality was in evidence throughout but really dazzled us in the final scene in which Donizetti provided the soprano with plenty of vocal fireworks, all excellently sung.

NamWon Huh made a very convincing Ernesto, basically a good fellow and loyal to his beloved, but rather entitled. He created a believable character and sang well in the lower and middle register, evincing a lovely messa di voce. To bring his performance up to a "10", he will have to learn to float his top notes. Nothing mars an otherwise fine performance than a tenor who thinks he must push out the top notes at top volume.  Float 'em baby, float 'em!

Gabe Reitemeier created a very funny bit as the notary. Pasquale's servants were performed by Melanie Spector and Matthew Greenberg.

Maestro Steven Crawford led a spirited reading of the tuneful score. From the melodic cello solo in the overture, we knew we were in good hands. There was a brief moment in the prelude to Act II when the strings had some intonation problems but we are sure it had to do with the heat and humidity since we ourselves felt a bit unstrung. 

As usual, Charles R. Caine's costumes were perfect, especially the red velvet gown worn by Ms. Choi as she was leaving for the theater. Steven Horak's excellent wig and costume design allowed us to see the handsome young Mr. DeVane transformed into an elderly man,. Of course, Mr. DeVane's acting sealed the deal. It was very humorous to watch him trying to pick up a barbell with arthritic knees and spine, but to witness how he perked up when Dr. Malatesta told him a wife had been found.

We ourself perked up from our heat-driven lethargy and found ourself dancing and humming on the way home.

(c) meche kroop







Saturday, July 14, 2018

FALSTAFF--BEST EVER

Molly Burke, Emily Skilling, Gerardo de la Torre, Nina Mutalifu, Maestro Richard Cordova, José Luis Maldonado, Maria Brea, Te Yu Huang, and John Kim

"It is with no small degree of embarrassment that we confess to not appreciating the charms of Verdi's final opera--not until tonight, that is.  Under the stewardship of Artistic Director Martina Arroyo, the program Prelude to Performance once again provided a matchless evening of entertainment, fun, and artistic merit to a delighted audience as well as performance opportunities to young singers at the cusp of major careers.  Now how does she do all this????

By doing what the Metropolitan Opera, with all its vast resources, cannot.  She hires the best talent in the business to coach and direct the young performers in a concentrated program; the ensemble feeling is evident from one moment to the next. "

The above is a quote from our review of Prelude to Performance's Falstaff ... from 2012, when we had just begun Voce di Meche.  Our opinion of last night's performance is no less enthusiastic. As a matter of fact, one aspect was even better! In the intervening six years we have come to appreciate the opera more and more, having enjoyed productions at Juilliard and at Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble. 

What distinguished last night's performance was the conducting of Maestro Richard Cordova. We were so impressed by his insightful and detailed reading of the score that we went backstage to speak with him. We learned that he studied the score long ago with Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini and it has remained one of his favorite scores. We heard features of the orchestration that we had never heard before, for example, the way the sound of the oboe and the English horn (Slava Znatchenii) knitted and purled around the quartet of female voices in the "laughing" ensemble. Verdi's late life masterpiece revealed similar features in generous measure from one moment to the next.

We have heard moments in Puccini's operas in which the orchestration imitated or underscored the onstage action, but this is the first time we heard it in Falstaff.  Our ears were opened to new insights! The superb musicians were provided by orchestra contractor Marc Szammer.

We began by mentioning our own learning experience but do not mean to shortchange the singers who were uniformly excellent. Falstaff can't work without a larger-than-life artist to portray the titular character and José Luis Maldonado more than filled the bill (and the costume). We think the last time we reviewed him we called him a beast onstage. Great artists need more than a great voice; they need a stage presence that pulls the audience right in and this he did. He was, in turn, arrogant, deceitful, pompous, entrapped, humiliated, and abashed.

The four women who plotted his humiliation were each superb, but together they were outstanding. Nina Mutalifu's Alice Ford was well paired with Molly Burke's Meg Page. As Mistress Quickly, Emily Skilling got to perform one of our favorite scenes, approaching the Fat Knight with ersatz politesse-- "Reverenza!"  This has been running through our head all night long.

In the role of Nanetta, Maria Brea made a fine showing. Her Fenton, Te Yu Huang, stepped into the role at the last minute and truly rose to the occasion.  If it were difficult for Ms. Brea to accommodate to a new Fenton, she did not show it. The pair provided "romantic relief".

And for comic relief we had John Kim as Bardolfo and Christopher Nazarian as Pistola, who created wonderfully funny characters without sacrificing fine singing.

Gerardo de la Torre made a fine Ford and delivered his aria with fine voice and style, earning a big hand. Kyuyoung Lee created a different kind of character, the ridiculous figure of Dr. Caius to whom Ford plans to marry off his daughter.

Ian Campbell's direction was first rate and happily kept the action in the time period and place in which it belongs. We really liked the way he handled the final scene in a somewhat understated manner; it is usually overdone. 

Charles R. Caine designed the opulent and period accurate costumes which we believe we remember from the production of 2012. Steven Horak's wigs and makeup were well suited to the cast.

Sets were simple and augmented by projections on the rear wall, for which no one was credited in the program, but Dante Olivia Smith's lighting worked well.

The excellent chorus was conducted by Assistant Conductor Noby Ishida.

In sum, we can't remember having a better time at this opera than we did last night. We don't need "concept". All we need is a coherent production with great voices and orchestral clarity. We left Kaye Playhouse sort of dancing down 68th St.

(c) meche kroop









Saturday, July 7, 2018

KINETIC FRENETIC

Leonard Bernstein's Peter Pan at Bard College Summerscape


We have been traveling up to Bard College every summer to enjoy their Summerscape offerings, generally comprising forgotten or neglected works.  Bernstein's Peter Pan certainly falls into that category since we had never heard of it. 

We adore Candide and never tire of it; we consider it to be on the operatic end of the musical spectrum. We also adore West Side Story which leans more toward the Broadway Musical side of the spectrum, although we have heard unamplified operatic voices singing thrilling versions of arias and duets extracted from the work.

We have no knowledge of A Quiet Place and only a single exposure to a number from Trouble in Tahiti which didn't thrill us.  But we never knew that Bernstein wrote a musical based upon the 1904 Barrie play Peter Pan, which ran for over 300 performances in 1950, a couple of years before the Disney film and the Broadway show, neither of which we are familiar with.

That being said, the opinions of our several companions, who were familiar with the film and the show, matched our own; we experienced a lack of involvement in the production which did however receive a large ovation. It was neither opera nor Broadway show. It was a "post-modern entertainment" which left us puzzled and disappointed. We hold the director Christopher Alden responsible. It seemed, like so many contemporary productions, to be an attempt to dazzle the audience with effects and to garner attention for Alden's reputation rather than an attempt to tell a story.

Nonetheless, Bernstein's music was delightful, played by a chamber group of six musicians whose outsized talent left us feeling no loss for the reduced orchestration, credited to Garth Edwin Sunderland. Music Director Michael A. Ferrara played the piano and led the combination of Flute (Ryu Cipris),  Cello (Melody Giron), Percussion (Charles Kiger), Clarinet (Patrick Sikes) and Violin (Una Tone). The music could not have been better, and what would one expect with a "melody" and a "tone" on board!

We liked the acting of Peter Smith as Peter Pan, who did not get a song to sing.  We don't give a rat's whisker whether a performer is LGBT or Q as long as they can sing or act; we don't know why the program mentioned that "they" (preferred pronoun) are "non-binary".  They is (are) an appealing performer who engaged us as a character, in a way that Erin Markey as Wendy, also identified as "non-binary" did not.

We liked the songs but did not care for the way they were sung. "They" lacked the youthful innocence needed for the part and belted out "their" songs standing in front of a microphone (!) in a way that lacked integration with the story and taxed the limitations of "their" upper register. (Could someone please suggest a new pronoun to avoid this clumsy circumlocution?)

In the double role of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, William Michals sang robustly and convincingly. The director managed the conversion of roles by having Nana the dog bite his hand off, leaving just a hook.  That was just plain sick-making.

The petite Rona Figueroa played the roles of Mrs. Darling, Tiger Lily, and the Crocodile, walking around with a huge clock that appeared borrowed from the Met's current iteration of La Traviata, another embarrassing attempt by a director to steal the show.

The role of Tinker Bell was portrayed by Jack Ferver, whose tiny stature and silver jumpsuit did nothing to convince us that he was a fairy. He created a character that was nothing more than a possessive jealous bitch who crawled all over Peter Pan and did what he could to destroy Wendy.

What a concept! The proposed playfulness of this iteration was melded with conscious or unconscious darkness. Was Wendy's father so awful that he had to be seen as a murderous pirate? Was Mrs. Darling so awful that she had to become a crocodile (with some truly awkward costume changes onstage). Was Wendy meant to be a very forward sexpot trying to get sex out of the asexual Peter Pan? How very post-modern!  How very incomprehensible!

The set design by Marsha Ginsberg was peculiar.  Everything onstage was bright yellow. Half the stage was consumed by a real carnival ride with cars painted like mid-20th c. imaginings of spaceships for Peter and the Lost Boys to fly in. JAX Messenger's lighting was effective.

Costumer Terese Wadden dressed the ensemble in yellow jumpsuits. The five young performers (Catherine Bloom, Milo Cramer, Jewel Evans, Alec Glass, and Charles Mai) were excellent but were sometimes made to speak with voices strangely altered electronically. Sporting balaclavas, they doubled as pirates, looking very much like terrorists.

When the production opened all five were racing frantically around the stage, incomprehensibly lining up potatoes on the apron of the stage. Later, as pirates, they speared the potatoes and roasted them over a fire in a strange scene in which they jumped through a trapdoor in the floor. There was talk of walking the plank but no plank appeared.

The bottom line is that this was a chance to hear Bernstein's lovely and accessible music, well-played and badly sung. It distorted the Barrie story rather than adding a new dimension. If mindless entertainment with lots of eye candy is your brew, go and enjoy. Most of the audience last night did.

(c) meche kroop



Tuesday, July 3, 2018

100% and 100 degrees

David Pershall, Maestro Alvise M. Casellati, Larisa Martinez, and Cody Austin


We will have much to say about last night's Opera Italiana in Central Park but let us begin by lauding the singers who performed with 100% commitment in sweltering 100 degree weather. No one less compelling than soprano Larisa Martinez could have pulled us out of our air-conditioned home; her prodigious talent was matched by that of tenor Cody Austin and baritone David Pershall, whose award-winning performances (Giulio Gari and George London) we wrote about in 2016. Last night he made a fine Figaro in the "Largo al Factotum".

We consider ourself to be rather good at predicting future stardom and Ms. Martinez' gifts impressed us from the first time we heard her five years ago, when we found her Barbarina overwhelmingly "winsome". A superb Musetta followed and we have been a great fan ever since. She has fame written all over her and witnessing her rising star has been a privilege.

Although we loved re-hearing Musetta's waltz last night what impressed us the most was her investment in the role of Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata. This role makes incredible demands on the soprano, not just vocally but dramatically. What makes her one of our very favorite female characters is her emotional growth.

In her duet with an appropriately lovestruck Mr. Austin ("Un di, felice") Ms. Martinez successfully portrayed the outwardly indifferent woman who secretly wants true love in her life.  In her confrontation with Germont père (Mr. Pershall), "Pure siccome un angelo", she colored her voice with dignity and restraint with flashes of anger and terror peeking through. Reunited with Alfredo at the end of the opera, (the duet "Parigi, o cara") she colored her voice with a very touching vulnerability and hopefulness.

The duets Ms. Martinez performed from Puccini's Madama Butterfly were excellent as well but were all from the romantic part of the opera and we were left wondering how she might have shown the emotional growth of Cio-Cio San. Mr. Austin's warm tenor made him the perfect romantic partner. We heard just about the entire end of Act I!  This was preceded by a duet between the upstanding consul Sharpless (Mr. Pershall) and the callow Lt. Pinkerton (Mr. Austin) who shows the audience his true colors.

There were other delights on the program. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan was joined by "vocalist" Helga Davis for an arrangement of Paola Prestini's Oceanic Verses. The shimmering texture of Ms. Prestini's orchestral writing were balm to the ear but we couldn't understand a word of Ms. Zetlan's Italian. Although the tonal quality of her voice was superb, we couldn't even tell it was Italian until we looked at the libretto. We cannot fault the sound design (uncredited) because the other singers were perfectly clear. We wonder whether the tessitura remained too long in the upper register. By contrast, Ms. Davis' smoky low tones were kind to the text, even though it was in English.

There were orchestral treasures to delight us as well. Maestro Alvise M. Casellati conducted a spirited reading of a couple of Rossini overtures that reminded us of the composer's gift for both memorable melody and rhythmic thrust. The overture from La Gazza Ladra came early in the program and had us tapping our toes.  The overture from William Tell was performed in its entirety with a profusion of themes that could only be described as "l'abbondanza". There was happily no haste to get to "The Lone Ranger" theme and we enjoyed the slower lyrical section equally, if not more.

It must be noted that the orchestra comprised seasoned players from The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as well as gifted young musicians from our three local conservatories. From this diverse group, Maestro Casellati melded a fine unit.

The evening was produced and hosted by Dani Bedoni, sporting bejewelled butterfly sunglasses.  Her warmth and enthusiasm exceeded her familiarity with the Italian language and opera. She graciously brought to the stage Ms. Prestini and the teenaged Pauline Castro, a member of the New York Philharmonic young composers program, whose symphonic work opened the program.

The event was listed as a free event at the Naumberg Bandshell in Central Park; like so many other cultural events in the city, the benefits were heavily weighted towards the well-to-do. Only supporters got to sit in the chairs set up behind velvet ropes; we were rather impressed by their Italian style. Everyone looked as if they had just come from the salon or the spa. Men wore suits and ties. Women were groomed to a fare-thee-well. Meanwhile the paesani of NYC sat on the cement off to the side or on chairs they lugged from home. It may have been a smart move to watch the livestream from home!

The singers sang in the bandshell with the orchestra situated in front at audience level. Maestro Casellati occupied a large platform and we wished the singers had also been on the platform. If you have seen the fuzzy photos on our FB page (Voce di Meche) you will realize how far the audience was from the bandshell. Actually we were on the second row. For the finale "Libiamo", the singers moved toward us, making for a better experience. We were invited to sing along but no one did.

We just remembered that we were among those who vigorously protested the tearing down of the Naumberg Bandshell some years ago. We are so glad our efforts succeeded. What a great use it was put to last night!

(c) meche kroop