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, September 16, 2018


Vira Slywotzky, Melanie Dubil, Joshua Sanders, David Sytkowski

Yesterday we got a new look at a familiar singer--something we always enjoy. We have heard soprano Vira Slywotzky many times with Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live! and with Mirror Visions Ensemble, always admiring her rich voice and lively dramatic presence. Hearing her singing Ukrainian songs at the National Opera Center added an entirely new dimension, one which we particularly cherished.

We had never realized how beautiful this language is and never knew how many Ukrainian composers produced such splendid songs in our favorite period, the 19th c. and on into the early 20th c. Ms. Slywotzky curated and organized the recital in excellent fashion, graciously sharing the stage with mezzo-soprano Melanie Dubil and tenor Joshua Sanders who had us believing that he was fluent in Ukrainian, which he is not. Collaborative pianist David Sytkowski matched the variety of moods present in the songs and contributed a cycle he composed to text by Frank O'Hara, songs written for Mr. Sanders' graduation recital.

Ms. Slywotzky knows how to engage an audience from the very first moment she steps onstage. There were no titles but each singer wrote a summary for the program so the audience was not left in the dark as to the meaning of each song. Her presentation is definitely informed by her work on the operetta stage, lending dramatic import to every song, pulling us into the story. In her hands every song becomes a tale. We thought of how a song on the page is like a dress on a hanger. Well, this artist fills out the song as beautifully as she filled out the gown she wore!

Mykola Lysenko's "Boat" used a storm at sea as a metaphor for love. The boat is reduced to splinters but the sailor survives.  Oh yes! This was sung with beautifully supported tone and enough expression and gesture to convince us that we could now understand Ukrainian.

Britten's setting of the folk song "O Waly, Waly" was given an unusual treatment with mezzo-soprano Melanie Dubil and tenor Joshua Sanders singing alternate verses with Ms. Slywotzky.

The two songs by Copland, settings of text by Emily Dickinson, were of less vocal interest but might have been more effective if Ms. Dubil had invested them with more variety of coloration. We did love the birdsong heard in Mr. Sytkowski's piano.

Four songs by Kyrylo Stetsenko made a fine impression. Ms. Slywotzky did justice to the fanciful nature of "Morgana", the story of a love affair between an elf and a fairy princess. Every nuance was captured! "Don't Ask if I Love You" was as passionate as any Italian drama queen could be, with a woman telling her lover that she would throw herself into the grave if he left.

Ms. Dubil created a lovely decrescendo in "I Gaze at the Bright Stars", and Ms. Slywotzky returned for "The Skies Embraced the Seas", a song about romantic longing for a disengaged partner.

The songs by Yakiv Stepovyi were similarly lovely. Ms. Slywotzky filled "Scatter in the Wind" with mournful regret. The romantic "Serenade" was imbued with a barcarolle rhythm.  We loved the way the two women's voices harmonized in "Chamomile Blooms on the Hill". 

Mr. Sanders has an easy tenor sound with a very pleasing vibrato. Significantly, he never pushes the sound and gave himself totally to the extended song of grief "Moon, Prince" by Vasyl Barvinsky, and was unfazed by the somewhat lower tessitura. Mr, Sytkowski's piano added to the mournful mood and the two joined together for a passionate climax.

Three tangos followed, our favorite of which was Bohdan Vedolovsky's song of homesickness "Fly, Melancholy Song".

As far as Mr. Sytkowski's compositions, the excellence of his piano writing took our attention away from the singing. Regular readers will recall that we blame 20th c. poetry for our lack of interest in contemporary song writing. Mr. O'Hara's poetry may work on the page but it's mundane nature does not inspire a compelling vocal line. The cycle was written for Mr. Sanders and we found no fault with his performance but we far prefer texts with more passion such as those of the poets who inspired the Ukrainian songs on the program, namely Yevhen Hrebinka, Mykola Voronyi, Oleksander Oles, Lesia Ukrainka, Ivan Franko, Stefan Krzywoszewski, and Taras Shevchenko. 

© meche kroop

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