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.

Monday, November 12, 2018

HUNG(A)RY FOR CULTURE

József Balog (photo by Attila Nagy)

Tatiana Melnik and Gergely LeBlanc
(photo by Attila Nagy)
It has been several years since we visited Budapest and now Budapest has visited us--in the person of the Hungarian State Opera and the Hungarian National Ballet! We would have liked to conduct an exit poll of the audience members leaving the New York State Theater.  How many were Hungarian expats?  How many came, like we did, to once again experience the outstanding contributions to the arts made by this European nation? And how many have never been to Hungary but are now tempted to visit?

The artistic programs we saw and heard were of the highest caliber. For culture vultures who love all the arts, perhaps the best experience would have been the Gala Concert which gave us a taste of everything. The evening was directed by András Almási-Tóth with conductors Gergely Kesselyák and Balázs Kocsár leading the world-class Hungarian State Opera Orchestra and Gábor Csiki as chorus director.  The program opened with "Himnusz", the national anthem of Hungary, Ferenc Erkel's setting of Ferenc Kölcsey's text, in the form of a prayer.

Erkel can be considered a national treasure and Hungary's greatest opera composer, especially famous for his patriotic operas of the nationalist movement of the 19th c.,  excerpts of which were performed along with excerpts of Bánk Bán which was seen in its entirety earlier in the week.

The lively drinking song was performed by Zoltán Kelemen and Bánk's tribute to his homeland was sung by Boldizsár László. We never imagined that such a difficult language with so many consonants would sound so beautiful! Erkel ensured that the vocal line and text were very much in sync.

We enjoyed Hans Van Manen's "Trois Gnossiennes", set to music by Erik Satie, with the exception of the flexed foot, so common in modern ballet.  For us, it ruins the gorgeous line of the long leg! András Lukács used some Philip Glass music for his  energetic "Whirling" and indeed the dances whirled around the stage with very high energy. This was an audience favorite.

Adolphe Adam's music dictates a much different kind of dancing and we loved the pas de trois from Le Corsaire depicted above, which was choreographed by Anna-Marie Holmes after Petipas. The part of the slave Ali is a stylish and bravura one and was excellently danced.

We wanted to make sure to include a photograph of the scene stealing space age piano played by József Balog. Mr. Balog is a brilliant pianist and played Franz Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy with brilliance. We have seen this piano before but never knew it was designed by a Hungarian.

Whilst he played what seemed to be a piano arrangement of Liszt's Petrarch Sonnets, there was an "acrobat" performing on silken ropes; we would prefer to call her a dancer/aerialist because of her unusual grace. She wrapped and unwrapped her limbs; she wound and unwound her body; she came crashing down toward the floor in moves that made the audience gasp.

The remainder of this generous program included charming selections from folk operas by Zoltán Kodaly and we were particularly delighted to hear more from mezzo-soprano Erika Gal who made such a captivating Queen of Sheba in Karl Goldmark's opera Die Königin von Saba two nights earlier.

The opera was sung in German and had the familiar plot of a man torn between a good girl and a bad girl. Think Don Jose caught between Micaëla and Carmen!  Think Tannhaüser caught between Elisabeth and Venus! Of course, the "bad girl" gets the best music and things always end tragically.

We liked Csaba Káel's direction and Éva Szendrényi's sets, particularly the starry background during the overture, which opened with a lovely erotic ballet. Tenor Boldizsár László handled the part of the mesmerized Assad with lovely tenor tone and soprano Eszter Sümegi made a good case for the abandoned bride Sulamith.

Bass Zoltán Kelemen sang the role of King Solomon with depth of tone and authority. But it was Ms. Gál whose performance impressed us the most both dramatically and vocally.  We do so love bad girls!

What we did not like were the costumes. They were downright ugly and the women of the chorus were dressed in a manner that suggested no particular period, definitely not the biblical look called for by the setting of the story set in King Solomon's temple. And what was meant by those huge clunky shoes? Poor Ms. Gál was given a Las Vegas look! EWWW!!!

Another quibble we had was with the choreography. We couldn't believe that the same choreographer (Marianna Venekei) who created the lovely opening duet could have choreographed the tasteless and meaningless ballet in the second act in which the dancers wore pastel dresses with identical short blond wigs and the male dancer was costumed like a dragonfly or something of that nature.

We were not going to let the costumes and dancing spoil such an otherwise wonderful opportunity to hear this rarely performed opera.

There were no such quibbles with the performance of Erkel's Bánk Bán which was superlative in every way. Directed by Attila Vidnyánszky, this story of the 13th c. is dear to the hearts of Hungarians. The conflicted nationalist hero was movingly sung by baritone Levente Molnár.

Before we run out of space we want to report on the excellence of the Hungarian National Ballet whose full length production of Don Quixote we saw last night. The choreography had originally been that of Petipa but, like many operas, has been successively modified by a string of choreographers. Until last night we had only seen the iteration by Baryshnikov for American Ballet Theater.  This version was finalized by Michael Messerer based upon the Bolshoi version.

Ludwig Minkus' music was somewhat rearranged, as were some of the set pieces. It worked well dramatically and there was no shortage of virtuoso dancing, leading the audience to erupt often in spontaneous applause. 

We were very impressed with the Kitri of Tatiana Melnik, especially charming in the castanet solo. In spite of all the dazzling virtuosity, there was a moment when she took a particularly slow developée and we held our breath. 

All the dancers had impressively grand extensions and that admirable Russian épaulement. As the barber Basil, Igor Tsvirko courted Kitri with huge leaps, admirable athleticism, and enviable musicality. Iurii Kekalo made an elegant Espada and Sofia Ivanova-Skoblikova charmed the audience with her style.

For comic relief we had Attila Szakács as Don Quixote who rode in on a horse, and Maksym Kovtun as his sidekick Sancho Panza who rode in on a donkey. We loved the scene in which Panza gets tossed around on a blanket by the villagers and Don Quixote has to rescue him.

Alekszandr Komarov made a funny foppish Gamache and Kitri's two friends were well danced by Lili Felméry and Rita Hangya. There was no credit in the program for the adorable petite dancer who had the part of Cupid in Don Quixote's dream.

We hope that this artistically successful visit will be repeated next year. We will welcome the Hungarians and their artistry with open arms, especially if they program Swan Lake which we sadly missed due to scheduling changes.

(c) meche kroop



LEAH CROCETTO CARNEGIE HALL DEBUT

Leah Crocetto



FROM CLASSICAL TO JAZZ...guest review by Ellen Godfrey

On Thursday, lyric spinto soprano Leah Crocetto made her Carnegie Hall Debut with a carefully chosen selection of classical art songs and cross-over jazz and blues songs.  She performed in the intimate Weill Concert Hall, a perfect setting for her prodigious voice and her innate ability to communicate each song personally. It was obvious that all of this music is very close to her heart. Her pianist for this concert is one of today’s finest accompanists and soloists, Mark Markham.  He is at home with classical music as well as jazz and other popular music. 

Ms. Crocetto is fast becoming one of the great singers of her generation. She has a big beautiful voice supported by a great technique. She never pushes her voice and is capable of scaling it down when intimacy is required. Her diction in all four languages (French, Italian, Russian, and English), is very clear. In addition to concerts, she has already made her mark performing operas in opera houses around the world.

Ms. Crocetto walked on stage in a beautiful long green dress, and immediately engaged with the audience.  The concert began with four songs composed by the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. (1883-1945).  When she started to sing, her powerful voice soon filled the hall, washing over the audience with her glorious sound.  She is very much at home singing in Italian. "Nebbie" is one of Respighi’s most popular songs, and she sang it with great intensity. The most interesting song was "Mattinata". Pianist Mark Markham quietly introduced it on the piano with the sound of tolling church bells, setting the mood for the whole song.  As Ms. Crocetto sang quietly, along with the bells, her singing became more joyous as she praised the Virgin Mary.

The second group of four songs was composed by 20th century composer Francis Poulenc. Poulenc engaged Louise de Vilmorin, to write the words for the song called “Violin.” She was familiar with Hungarian nightclubs and Ms. Crocetto ,along with Mr. Markham, performed the song in cabaret style to go with the words. "Les chemins de L’amour" is a waltz that  evokes the long gone happiness of love. Ms. Crocetto sang the waltz tune with good phrasing and a soft gentle French style. 

The third group of songs were by the Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who lived around the same time as Respighi. Most of his songs were in the Russian romantic style.“How fair this spot” is a song about peace and tranquility sung in a quiet, dreamy way by Ms. Crocetto, ending in a gorgeous high note. “What happiness” is a fast paced song full of high notes stunningly sung by Ms. Crocetto, conveying the happy state of love.

Following these songs, there was a world premiere of a piece composed by the counter-tenor and composer Gregory Peebles. The title of the work, “Eternal Recurrence,” comes from a  philosophical theory that the universe and all existence and energy has been recurring and will continue to recur an infinite number of times across infinite time or space. The piece is in 10 sections.  The music is very melodic and starts with a piano introduction expressing the first musical theme. There are also some sung recitatives. Mr. Peebles states that travel is at the heart of “Eternal Recurrence.” Ms. Crocetto used her powerful voice and dramatic instincts to introduce this unusual and interesting piece to the audience.

The concert closed with selections from the Great American Songbook with songs composed for musical theatre by the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, and  Sammy Fain.  Ms. Crocetto put her own personal stamp on the songs and it was a revelation for those of us who never heard her in this repertoire. She was spellbinding, singing these songs with a softer, less operatic voice, conveying the sentiments in a very personal way. She really loves these songs and gives you the feeling that she is singing directly to you. Her voice carried throughout the theatre even though she had softened it. She also has the freedom of a jazz singer…taking some liberties with the timing of the music and singing them in her own way.

She sang “The Man I love” in a very dreamy way; “I’ll be seeing you” was very quiet, going from a low register to a high one, singing with a lot of feeling, and “The Man who got away” was very moving.

At the end of the program the whole audience stood up and gave Ms. Crocetto and Mark Markham standing ovations. There were two wonderful encores: Jerome Kern’s “Cant Help Lovin Dat Man of Mine” and Jimmy McHugh’s “I’m in the mood for love” and then more loud applause.

She has certainly now established herself as a wonderful concert singer of both classical opera and crossover jazz and the blues. We can all look forward to hearing her in her next concert, which I hope will be soon.

(c) meche kroop


Sunday, November 11, 2018

AMIGOS DE LA ZARZUELA

Maxim Anikushin, Conchi Moyano, Anna Tonna, Alejandro Olmedo, and Ricardo Rosa

Everything we know about the art form known as zarzuela we learned from Maestro Jorge Parodi. Today we learned some more interesting facts, none of which were necessary to appreciate the gorgeous melodies. The word comes from the word "zarza" which means "blackberry bush". 

It was during the reign of King Felipe IV who ascended the Spanish throne in 1621 and was known as a patron of the arts, not to be confused with the miserable Felipe II of the Verdi opera Don Carlo. The King and his court frequented the Real Sitio del Pardo in Madrid which was surrounded by blackberry bushes. There they enjoyed musical and comedic entertainment.  Now you know!

As Spain is somewhat geographically removed from Europe, zarzuela evolved as Spain's very own musical entertainment. By the 18th c. Italian and French opera became all the rage and supplanted zarzuela, but there was a renaissance in the 19th c. when several excellent Spanish composers revived the artform. Indeed, zarzuela was carried to the New World where it flourished into the middle of the 20th c. It remains popular in Puerto Rico and we understand that Placido Domingo has done much to introduce zarzuela to our nation's capitol.

We have never seen a complete zarzuela but aim to do something about that! Every time we hear an aria or duet extracted from a zarzuela we long to see it in toto. The plots remind us of telenovelas and the melodies are memorable.

Yesterday Amigos de la Zarzuela presented one of their enjoyable afternoon concerts at Weill Recital Hall. It is satisfying to know that there is a sizable and enthusiastic audience for this analogue to German singspiel, French opéra comique, and Italian opera buffa.

The program was generous and included four experienced performers, one for each fach--soprano Conchi Moyano, mezzo-soprano Anna Tonna, tenor Alejandro Olmedo, and baritone Ricardo Rosa.

It would be difficult to single out any one number because they were all charming in their own way.  But since we love duets, let us note our admiration for "Porque de mis ojos los tuyos retiras" from Ruperto Chapi's La Revoltosa. It seemed to be an enactment of a lovers spat and reconciliation, performed by Ms. Tonna and Mr. Rosa. The singing was incomparable and the acting so effective that even a person ignorant of the Spanish language would have understood.

Ms. Tonna's instrument has a pleasing texture and plenty of strength in her lower register. We loved her melismatic singing in her solo "Loa al fandanguillo" by Romero.

Mr. Rosa's full throated baritone was just right for "Oh licor que das la vida" from Soutullo y Vert's La Leyenda del Beso.

"Caballero del alto plumero" is a marvelously flirtatious duet from Torroba's Luisa Fernanda, here given a marvelous performance by Ms. Moyano and Mr. Olmedo.

Ms. Moyano has an instrument of great power with an expansive top. She performed "La Petenera" from Torroba's La Marchenera with warm expansive tone and lovely phrasing.

Mr. Olmedo's best turn was in the romantic ballad "Flor roja" from Guerrero's Los Gavilanes in which he floated the high note with exceptional delicacy.

The pianist for the evening, Maxim Anikushin, certainly accompanied with sazon!  However, he also performed some solo works showing his pianistic skills without distraction. Our favorite without a doubt was the brief introspective "Intermezzo" by Manuel Ponce. We always prefer such pieces to the virtuoso ones but that is just our taste.

A special feature of the program was the dancing of Elizabeth Torras.
One rarely witnesses such versatility but we enjoyed Ms. Torras' dancing in three different styles. Dressed in flowing white and accompanying herself with castanets, she performed the graceful "La Boda de Luis Alonso" by Gimenez with all the grace of classical dance.

Dressed in masculine attire, she performed "Farruca del molinero" from Manuel de Falla's El Sombrero de Tres Picos (known on English programs as The Three-Cornered Hat. The simplicity of the piano rhythm gave her an opportunity to embellish the 4/4 rhythm with rapid and forceful Flamenco-inflected footwork.

In her final selection, she danced in a traditional Flamenco gown with a long train that she kicked around artistically and held up over her head at one point. Isaac Albeniz' Asturias was rhythmically and powerfully performed by both Ms. Torras and Mr. Anikushin. Her graceful arms suggested the arm movements of Indian dance which surely influenced Flamenco.

It certainly was a fine afternoon of music and dance, one we enjoyed immensely.

(c) meche kroop

THE STORY OF HARRIET TUBMAN

Lindell Carter, MaKayla McDonald, William Remmers, Markel Reed, Karmesha Peake, and Virdell Williams in Thea Musgrave's "The Story of Harriet Tubman"

The story must be told and who better to stage it than William Remmers' Utopia Opera!  Maestro Remmers has never shrunk from a challenge and audience members who voted for this work never shrink from providing him with these challenges. So this, his eighth season, began with a chamber reduction of Ms. Musgraves grand opera Harriet, the Woman Called Moses, which premiered at Virginia Opera in 1985.

With ongoing assistance from the composer, Julian Grant accomplished the orchestration for three strings, three winds, percussion and keyboard, conducted by Maestro Remmers. Direction by Viktoria I.V. King was effective in telling the story, which left us inspired and moved.

Harriet Tubman was a slave who escaped from slavery and sacrificed her personal happiness and safety to return to the south 18 times to rescue over 300 slaves over the Underground Railroad, aided by the Quaker abolitionist Mr. Garrett, here portrayed by Andrew Dwan.

The work opened strongly with Harriet's father Ben (portrayed magnificently by the deep voiced Virdell Williams) singing the heartfelt spiritual "Go Down Moses". Prose narration was offered by Harriet's brother Benjie (portrayed well by tenor Lindell Carter) and was augmented throughout the work by various other cast members.

The eponymous Harriet was given a superlative interpretation by MaKayla McDonald who elicited both admiration and sympathy by her fine portrayal. As her beloved Josiah, Markel Reed was appealing and completely believable. Mama Rit was performed by Karmesha Peake who held the stage with her excellent presence and fine singing.

The story is told fairly and Caucasians are presented as both bad guys and good guys. The Master, sympathetically portrayed by Tadeusz von Moltke, cares for his slaves as part of the family and does not want to sell them to other masters who might mistreat them.  But his son Preston (nastily portrayed by Luke Jackson) is a wastrel and wants his father to sell off some slaves to pay his gambling debts. We don't want to reveal how this plays out because we want you to see the show! The other bad dude is the Overseer, convincingly acted by Kristoffer Infante who comes across as one scary dude.

The ensemble had voices as strong as the principals. Costumes by Eric Lamp and Angel Betancourt were simple but effective.

Every culture has its myths (i.e. American Thanksgiving) and every country has its shame (i.e. Germany's Holocaust). How one deals with these is relevant beyond words. Our nation is now dealing with the myth espoused by our own Statue of Liberty versus the reality and shame of the way POTUS is dealing with Latin American refugees. Slavery is part of our past and can never be denied.

Art is a wonderful way to confront people with issues in a way far better than hectoring and writing an opera is a fine way to show us our shameful history. We just wish we liked the music and libretto better. The instrumental music is more "interesting" than beautiful and there were no appealing vocal lines except for the aforementioned "Go Down Moses" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot", beautifully sung by Ms. McDonald. Mr. Reed sang "Lonesome Road" in a tender touching fashion.

Ms. McDonald was given a tuneless aria "Can't Live Without Ben" and we couldn't help thinking of "My Man's Gone Now" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. There's a reason that Gershwin's opera stays in the repertoire.  There's a reason that singers use the arias as audition pieces and in recital.  That reason is that there is melody. When will contemporary composers realize that melody is memorable!

Although the "book" is excellent, the libretto is less so. Dialect was mixed with what we would call contemporary educated speech and the sentences were too long. We think it would have worked better with short conversational phrases spoken completely in dialect. We were grateful for the surtitles accompanying the singing and would have enjoyed them for the dialogue as well.

In spite of these minor disappointments, we recommend this work highly for its dramatic impact and convincing performances. We would welcome the opportunity to hear any of the singers again; we honor the idea of dramatizing the struggle of Afro-Americans and the reality of giving so many worthy singers an opportunity to perform.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, November 9, 2018

CLASSIC LYRIC ARTS GALA-2018 EDITION

Classic Lyric Arts students in recital at the Kosciuszko Foundation

We have often written about the contributions made by Classic Lyric Arts to the field of opera. With summer programs in both Italy and in France, CLA offers total immersion programs for emerging artists--young singers who will eventually fill the stages of opera houses around the world. Vocal repertoire is taught through the prism of language, history, and culture--including food! We often recognize former students onstage around town; their linguistic and diction skills are always impressive.

Last night was CLA's 10th gala, heavily attended by supporters who enjoyed a lavish cocktail hour, followed by a thrilling recital, and ending with a dessert buffet at which an abbondanza of macarons were almost inhaled. It was notable that the glamorous servers were the young artists themselves!

President and Artistic Director Glenn Morton welcomed the crowd to the stunning upstairs salon of the Kosciuszko Foundation, speaking to us of the special impact of the human voice and describing the value of taking young singers to the source of the music they will sing, providing a means to become part of the culture and its history for a period of several weeks.

Two alumni of the program in Italy shared their experiences with CLA and how it has affected their lives and professional development. The work at CLA is very intimate and students often maintain relationships with their coaches after the program ends. Tenor Ganson Salmon attended the program in 2017 and baritone Xiaomeng Zhang (who sang so beautifully the prior night as an Opera Index winner) attended in 2014.  Being a fan of both these young artists, we can attest to the benefits they derived from their time in Italy. 

Of course, dear reader, you want to know about the singers and the program last night. The main point we'd like to make is how well every singer utilized the text in their delivery. Everyone sounded natural and authentic. There was no linguistic clumsiness to distract from the music making. It was evident from the several ensemble works on the program how well the singers were able to connect with one another.

The program began with the "Gloria tutti" scene which closes Mozart's delightful Nozze di Figaro and ended with the closing scene "Make our garden grow" from Bernstein's Candide. It seemed to us that the hard work in foreign languages had benefited the students in their English diction as well, since we understood every word. That is not to be taken for granted! Jonathan Heaney conducted the Bernstein from the piano.

A couple performances stood out for us and merit our focus. Baritone Fernando Cisneros, already quite well known on the international opera stage, made the most frightening Baron Scarpia we have ever heard. He created a character that was coming from a position of power more than lust. His vocal colors were chilling and his face actually snarled!  All this occurred in perfect Italian with a long legato line and no loss of vocal tone. Puccini would have loved it.

We might add that his interpretation of Count Almaviva down on his knees in apology to the Countess was humble and sincere with appropriate vocal coloration.  He is indeed versatile!

Mr. Zhang revealed his bel canto artistry as Belcore in "Venti scudi" a scene from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore in which he manipulates the gullible and desperate Nemorino (the aforementioned Mr. Ganson) into signing up for the army. The two men worked well in bringing the scene to life. We think of this role as Mr. Zhang's "signature role" since we've seen him perform the entire opera with ARE Opera (now called City Lyric Opera) and recall thinking he was the best Belcore we'd ever heard.

We heard some very fine singing from tenor Zachary Goldman and baritone Sunyeop Hwang in everyone's favorite French duet for two men--"Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles. The Gallic phrasing and pronunciation were just right and the harmonies delightful.

Another delight was the duet from Mascagni's L'amico Fritz in which Fritz first meets Suzel. Stephanie Guasch's soprano soared and Taicheng Li's tender tenor matched well with her both vocally and dramatically.

We also enjoyed "Soave sia il vento" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in which the two sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella (Sarah Bacani and Rosario Hernandez) watch their lovers sail away, joined by Don Alfonso (Ari Bell). Mozart's lovely line was filled out with equally lovely harmonies.

Also on the program were two ensembles. One was the septet from the Giulietta act of Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffman. The other was the "Gran pezzo concertato" from Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims, conducted by Lochlan Brown who is also responsible for CLA's new website--www.classiclyricarts.org.  We urge you to take a look and see how you too can become part of the CLA family.

Pianists for the evening were all excellent--Mina Kim, Lochlan Brown, Marianna Vartikyan, Jonathan Heaney, and Cherie Roe.

Other singers and members of the chorus included Chantal Brundage, Aleea Powell, Melanie Dubil, Leah Israel, Travis Benoit, Yongjae Lee, Blair Cagney, Daniela Magura, Rachel Querreveld, Victoria Policht, Emily Hanseul Park, Shan Hai, Yue Huang, Bela Albett, and Nathan Seldin.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, November 8, 2018

OPERA INDEX RECITAL

Michael Fennelly, Hubert Zapiór, Xiaomeng Zhang, Jane Shaulis, William Guanbo Su, Felicia Moore, and Helena Brown

In any given year there is a "crop" of promising young singers who seem to garner awards from all of the award giving foundations. They are generally emerging artists that we have been writing about for a year or several years. They are surely going on to bigger and better things in their lives but seem to be at the peak of their enthusiasm and skills, needing only the polish one acquires by being out in the world, away from the sheltering environment of the conservatory and young artist programs. Most of them have a lot of performing experience already.

Personally we experience a kind of bittersweet feeling, knowing that they will probably leave New York and, when they return they will be onstage at The Metropolitan Opera and we may never be up close and personal again.

But last night we were very up close and personal with five young singers whom we absolutely adore. They were all award winners of the Opera Index 2018 Vocal Competition who were kind enough to entertain at the annual membership party, in spite of the fact that they were auditioning the following morning for the Met National Council.

Sixteen singers were chosen from a field of 270 applicants and $55,000. was awarded. President Jane Shaulis gave a warm welcome to the gathering of the tribe, comprising luminaries in the field and aficionados of opera. The well known and excellent pianist Michael Fennelly was the accompanist.

Soprano Helena Brown, whom we reviewed often over the past five years has made a successful transition from mezzo-soprano to soprano, retaining the rich mezzo texture whilst expanding the upper register to a glorious and powerful sound. She performed "Dich, teure halle" from Richard Wagner's Tannhaüser with a huge sound, glorious vibrato, and fine pacing. The overtones bounced around the room and filled our ears.

We felt so fortunate to get another opportunity to hear baritone Xiaomeng Zhang sing in Russian, after his excellent performance at a Juilliard liederabend last month. We have been writing about Mr. Zhang for several years, since his days at Manhattan School of Music; his progress has been a real treat for us to witness.  Last night he performed "Vy mne pisali" from Act I of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin in which the eponymous hero must give Tatyana his "sermon" or "Dutch uncle talk".

Mr. Zhang sounds wonderful in Russian, although our initial admiration for his artistry centered around his facility in bel canto. But Mr. Zhang is marvelously versatile in his talent and we admired the texture of his tone, his phrasing and the most gorgeously floated final note.

Bass William Guanbo Su is another artist we have been writing about and enjoying in a variety of roles. He made a marvelous impression as Mefistofele in Gounod's Faust; we think he enjoyed himself performing as much as we enjoyed listening. The devilish laughter he produced in "Vous qui faites l'endormie" impressed us as much as the rich depth of his tone and his captivating stage presence.

Soprano Felicia Moore portrayed Ariadne in exactly the way we think Richard Strauss wanted her portrayed in "Es gibt ein Reich" from his Ariadne auf Naxos; the character is a diva who takes herself seriously.  Ms. Moore has a large soaring top yet never fails in the lower register. She sang with brilliant tone and sufficient grandeur. There are a lot of repeated notes in this aria and she managed to subtly alter the color from one to the next. We have heard her sing so many different roles and always admire her versatility.

Baritone Hubert Zapiór repeated the "Largo al Factotum" which he just performed in his prize winning performance at the Marcella Sembrich competition. Were we bored? Definitely not! The way Rossini wrote this aria from Il barbiere di Siviglia, there is ample room for subtle variations and Mr. Zapiór's performance last night was subtly different from that of three days earlier.  It seemed very much "of the moment" and delighted us immensely. His Figaro is a man we'd enjoy knowing.

We were completely satisfied by the program but our lily got gilded and our cake got iced. Mr. Zhang returned with an encore, a song in Mandarin which was, on the surface, about the Yangtze River; symbolically it was about the passage of time and the passage of our lives--very pensive and finely sung.

Ms. Brown also provided an encore, a riveting performance of "My Man's Gone Now" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Her tone and words--every one of which was crystal clear in spite of the high tessitura--went right to the gut and left us a bit shaken.  Good art can do that!

Just to ensure the recital ended on a happier note, Mr. Su performed a terrifically romantic Broadway song from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific--"Some Enchanted Evening", leaving us totally enchanted.

It was a stellar evening and left us glowing. Right now our thoughts are with these young artists and their auditions. In our opinion, they are all winners.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

CANTAMOS!

Cantanti Project at United Palace of Cultural Arts

One would think that a rainy Monday evening would be a good time to stay home with a good book or "Netflix and chill". Not in our book!  It was the perfect time to spend a couple hours with Cantanti Project, a group we always enjoy. Last night's recital was just about the best evening this wonderful group of artists has scheduled and a real highlight of the season, one we wouldn't have missed for the world.

The program was entirely in Spanish, a language we love for its singability, which rivals that of Italian, and its emphasis on love in all its varied manifestations. The works we heard--some familiar and some new to us--spanned several centuries (from the 17th c. Baroque to the present time) and several genres (opera, art song, zarzuela, folk songs, popular songs). We agree with Steven Blier of New York Festival of Song that no one genre surpasses another. Good songs stand on equal footing no matter what genre they belong to. The songs on last night's program originated in Spain and in the Nuevo Mundo.

The program was like a string of pearls or precious gems; we will not have time or space to cover them all so, dear reader, allow us to focus on the few that made the most intense impression.

Soprano Maria Brea performed "Me llaman la primarosa" from the zarzuela El barbero de Sevilla, a "meta" work about a company producing the Rossini opera. Her lively personality filled out the song and her bright and sizable instrument soared to the upper reaches of the lavish lobby of the United Palace of Cultural Arts, filling the space with overtones. Her flirtatious character shares some qualities with Musetta but is less arrogant. There were vocal fireworks aplenty with trills, swooping scales and prolonged vocalises. We loved the part in which the piano of Principal Music Advisor William Lewis echoed the motif of the vocal part.

Tenor Mario Arévalo possesses a praiseworthy sound, augmented by fine technique and a warm presence that invites you into his sound-world. Although we enjoyed the forceful popular song from his homeland El Salvador, we were most impressed by his romantic delivery of the art song "A ti" composed by Colombian Jaime León. Although it is a product of the 20th c. there is no shortage of melodic movement and Mr. Arévalo invested it with lots of romantic warmth, fullness of tone, dynamic variety, and depth of feeling.

Mezzo-soprano Linda Collazo showed off her strength in the lower register in "La borrachita de amor" a Baroque song by Spaniard Sebastián Durón and her story-telling skills in the tender Ecuadorian folk song "Yaravi", to which she gave a poignant ending.

Yet another Andean folk song, "Triste", arranged by Argentinean Alberto Ginastera, was beautifully interpreted by soprano Marisa Karchin. This is a lament that begins and ends with a vocalise and Ms. Karchin sang it with a lovely vibrato and spun out the ending to a wispy pianissimo.  Magical!

Lyric coloratura soprano Joyce Yin, Artistic Director of Cantanti Project, used her artistry to interpret "El Viaje Definitivo", a meditation on death by 20th c. Puerto Rican composer Ernesto Cordero. She gave a stunning a cappella introduction and finale, accompanied by guitarist George Benton England.

For a taste of humor we enjoyed mezzo-soprano Heather Jones' lively performance of Joaquin Rodrigo's "En Jerez de la Frontera", the tale of a faithful wife who rejects the advances of an importuning suitor. We never knew that the composer of so many beloved works for symphony and guitar also wrote art songs!

We thought we knew all about Pablo Sorozábal's zarzuela La taberna del puerto but we didn't know the song "Despierta Negro", a warning to the black man to watch out for the white man who would enslave him. Bass-baritone Jonathan Z. Harris sang it with clear intent and round deep tone.

There were some stunning duets, of which our favorite was "Niñas que a vender flores" from Francisco Asenjo Barbieri's zarzuela Los diamantes de la corona. Accompanied by Mr. Lewis, the voices of Ms. Karchin and Ms. Collazo blended in perfect harmony.

There were several baroque selections on the program which were accompanied by Dorian Baroque, comprising a pair of violins, harpsichord, cello, and the always impressive theorbo. Maestro Dylan Sauerwald conducted from the harpsichord.

We could go on and on about the other selections but we hope, dear reader, that we have given you a little taste of everything on this lavish musical buffet which had something for everyone's taste.  We hope we have tempted you to join Cantanti Project for some of their future events. We ourself are looking forward to Händel's Teseo coming up in the Spring.

(c) meche kroop






Monday, November 5, 2018

MARCELLA SEMBRICH INTERNATIONAL VOICE COMPETITION

WooYoung Yoon, Hubert Zapiór, and Alexandra Nowakowski


What better way to honor the legendary soprano Marcella Sembrich than by nurturing the next generation of singers and inspiring their careers! Under the artistic direction of another wonderful singer Edyta Kulczak (review of her recital can be found through the search function on this blog), this year's competition, sponsored by the Kosciuszko Foundation, drew entries from all over the world. We were fortunate to attend the finals yesterday and were impressed by the quality of the final round singers. If only there were more days in the week we would have happily attended the semi-finals.

Top three prizes were awarded to soprano Alexandra Nowakowski, baritone Hubert Zapiór, and tenor Woo Young Yoon. Each contestant sang two songs; this is a very good idea because versatility is important and there is rarely a single song or aria that can show off the artistry and strengths of any individual artist.

Ms. Nowakowski, heard and admired last year at the Gerda Lissner award recital, has a pleasing vibrato that lent special impact to a song by Paderewski entitled "Gdy ostatnia roza zwiedla". We don't often get to hear Polish songs and enjoyed the way in which the melody followed the sound of the text. Yet, it was the subsequent aria "O luce di quest' anima" from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix that got us to sit up and take notice. We were impressed by her bright coloratura sound and the accuracy of her fioritura, not to mention her charming stage presence. She received all the applause deserved by her excellent performance.

Mr. Zapiór has captured our attention all year and we have not missed a single opportunity to review his performances. He has made quite a splash in New York City and has been garnering awards left and right. Accompanied by Katelan Trân Terrell, one of our favorite collaborative pianists, he gave an unforgettable performance of Figaro's aria from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

This aria offers the baritone an opportunity to create a memorable character, one who is a man of many parts, as they say, and just a touch full of himself. No two baritones sing it exactly the same way; we loved the way Mr. Zapiór colored his voice differentially when he spoke of the ladies and when he spoke of his gentlemen clients. His eyes sparkled and his gestures were generous. We wanted to become his client that very minute! To add to the interest, the patter part was perfectly realized--rapidly but with no loss of clarity.

Bel Canto is Mr. Zapiór's strong suit and we loved the way he sang "Ah!, per sempre...Bel sogno beato", Riccardo's aria from Bellini's I Puritani. There was legato to spare, some gorgeous melismatic measures, and warmth of tone.

Mr. Yoon dazzled the audience with "O Wie Angstlich", Belmonte's aria from Mozart's singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail. We noticed that this artist sets up each aria well. It is clear that he knows what his character is about and what the text has to say. He imbued the aria with plenty of dynamic variety and kept it interesting.

His second selection was "Ah mes amis" from Donizetti's comic charmer Fille du Regiment. He had all the right gestures and readily established the lovability of his character whilst hitting all the high C's. To put a "plus" on this "A" performance, we would like to see him ease up on those high C's and trust them more. And one other little thing--although his French was quite good for the most part, a little tweaking of the pronunciation of the word "main" would be helpful, since the word occurs several times.

The other three singers were superb and we would have hated being in the position of those esteemed judges. Particularly admirable was soprano Hayan Kim whose poignant "Piangeró la sorte mia" from Händel's Giulio Cesare was a real heartbreaker. Her bright expressive instrument was stunning in its legato; in the cabaletta there was astonishing fire. She is a master at using dynamic variation and we loved the embellishments in the return of the slow section.

Moving from the 17th c. to the 20th c. she performed Sophie's aria "Ich bin ever liebden" from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. She just melted our heart with Sophie's adorable sweetness! We thought it the perfect role for her.

Megan Moore, new to us, sang a melodic Polish song by Moniuszko-- "Powiedzcie mi", making us wish we understood the language or had a translation. She followed this with "This Journey" from Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking in which the nun asks her god for guidance. Her diction was impeccable and we understood every word. Perhaps, however, singing in English is not the best way to show off a singer's gifts.  

Daniel Miroslaw, heard and enjoyed many times at Juilliard, performed a fine Tchaikovsky song "Blagoslovlyayu vas, lesa" (I bless you forest!) with a deep resonance and interesting texture.  In "La calunnia" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, he created a very pompous Basilio for us, employing comedic skills with the excellent pianist Brent Funderburk echoing the humor in the piano.

Not only do the winners receive generous cash prizes but they also are given recitals in Poland. The audiences in Poland are in for a treat!

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, November 4, 2018

NEW AMSTERDAM OPERA'S FALL FLING

Pianist Mark Cogley, John Viscardi, Holly Flack, Ta'u Pupu'a, and Kirsten Chambers


Beginning their third season, New Amsterdam Opera has exciting plans for the year and began with a festive salon in the home of a generous supporter.  This young company, helmed by Maestro Keith Chambers, deserves the support of the opera community.  We are speaking to you, dear reader! If you love opera and want the art form to survive, you will have to step up to the plate. Many of our most gifted young singers take off for Europe where opera gets a lot of support.  Let's keep them here by supporting the small companies that give them roles and stage experience!

That being said, we love NAO for supporting young singers and casting them alongside more experienced singers; we love them for bringing to the public underperformed works by the great composers; we love them for making opera accessible to underserved populations.

Last night's salon was a rare opportunity to hear some of today's finest artists up close and personal in a relaxed and comfortable environment.  The four artists performed three sets of three selections each. In between sets there were food and drinks and socializing. What more could one ask for!

We heard the oft reviewed soprano Kirsten Chambers sing in Italian for the first time and loved the sound. We heard soprano Holly Flack for the first time. We enjoyed being blown away by tenor Ta'u Pupu'a's huge sound. We witnessed the completion of John Viscardi's transition from terrific tenor to mellow baritone.  All were excellent.

The two gentlemen opened the program with the final act duet from Puccini's La Bohème--"O Mimi, tu più non torni" in which Rodolfo and Marcello sing of their lost loves. Mr. Viscardi was highly persuasive as Silvio imploring Nedda to run away with him in a scene from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci; Ms. Chambers found a great fit for her voice here and we loved their performance, imbued with passion and chemistry.

Mr. Viscardi got another opportunity to be persuasive as Don Giovanni trying to seduce Zerlina, winningly portrayed by Ms. Flack.  They also enacted the Papageno-Papagena Duet from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, which we would have preferred in German.

Ms. Flack had two exceptional solos--in "Glitter and Be Gay" from Bernstein's Candide, we loved her use of vibrato and the accuracy of her coloratura.  In Ophélie's Mad Scene from Thomas' Hamlet she did justice to the many moods by means of vocal coloration. There were some gorgeous vocalises and smoothly rendered portamenti. The high B at the end might have shattered some crystal!

Puccini's Turandot requires some large voices and Ms. Chambers and Mr. Pupu'a filled the bill in the tension laden riddle scene with pianist Mark Cogley filling in for the crowd of peasants. Mr. Pupu'a makes a splendid Calaf, stageworthy with "Nessun Dorma".

Mr. Viscardi's solo was Danilo's Aria from Franz Lehár's Die Lustige Witwe in which he describes his flirtations with the famous Lolo, Doudou,and JouJou. Yes, he can do rakish; we'd like to hear it in German!

Ms. Chambers' solo was "Zweite Brautnacht" from Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helena, in which Helen celebrates her reunion with Menelaus. This work was made famous by Leontyne Price and we were happy to hear Ms. Chambers filling her shoes. 

We left fully satisfied by the artistry, the warm fellowship of the NAO's supporters, and the generous buffet.

Consult New Amsterdam Opera's website for more information. But here's a wee hint--if you ever wanted to see Massenet's Herodiade, save May 10th!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, November 2, 2018

HYESANG SANG

Brian Zeger and Hyesang Park

Hyesang sang and oh how she sang! Up and coming soprano Hyesang Park gave a transporting recital last night at Alice Tully Hall.  This was the 21st Alice Tully Vocal Arts Recital, established originally with a gift from the Alice Tully Foundation to promote exceptionally talented Juilliard singers on the threshold of a professional career.  This recital had been postponed due to illness and, in the intervening period, this incredibly talented artist has crossed the threshold with engagements all over Europe.  It was a recital well worth the wait.

Ms. Park illuminates everything she sings with her crystalline instrument and her engaging stage presence. There are a couple of interesting qualities which set her apart. One is the self-effacing manner in which she invites the audience into the songworld. The other is the way she sets up the song with an intense but brief period of introspection. You can almost feel the emotional wheels turning.

There is another aspect worth mentioning. Ms. Park's taste in fashion is as keen as her taste in programming. No fashion show could have dazzled the eye more successfully. In the first half of the program this beautiful young lady wore a dress of midnight blue with tiny scintillating "stars"; we called it "celestial". After the intermission she appeared in a gown that recalled a blooming flower.  We know that it's the voice that counts but it doesn't hurt to delight the eye at the same time!

And now, as to the music!  It was a totally satisfying recital with piano collaboration provided by the estimable Brian Zeger who doesn't need our encomia. His playing is always supportive and there is no whiff of "showmanship". He certainly knows how to avail himself of the acoustics of Alice Tully Hall and ended many songs in a trailed off decrescendo that left the final note hanging in the air whilst we held our breath.

Ms. Park knows how to work her prodigious skills such that they become art. Every song was given her full involvement. Phrasing always honored the intent of poet and composer. Exquisite control of dynamics lent variety and she used every color on her vocal palette.

The program opened with five songs by Clara Schumann whose modest oeuvre we wish would appear on more programs. We particularly enjoyed hearing how originally she set the familiar "Liebst du um Schönheit", the Rückert text which was later set so differently by Gustav Mahler. We have heard it before but as it grows in familiarity, we increasingly appreciate Schumann's peaceful version. 

Not so peaceful was Rückert's "Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen" in which both artists created a storm of passion. Yet, our favorite was "Die stille Lotosblume" (text by Emanuel Geibel) with its meditation on mortality, symbolized by the singing swan.

A set of four songs by Gabriel Fauré brought yet further delights. We loved the Gallic sweetness of "Nell" (text by Leconte de Lisle) and the meditative quality of "Au bord de l'eau" (text by Sully Prudhomme). These songs were new to us but the two with text by Paul Verlaine are well known--"Mandoline" and "Clair de lune".  With a great artist like Ms. Park, an aural portrait is painted, one that reminds us of paintings by Fragonard.

Reynaldo Hahn composed around the turn of the 20th c. but his compositional style often looks backward, as in our favorite "À Chloris" with its baroque turns. We found Ms. Parks' French to be quite lovely.

After intermission we were gifted with three Korean songs. We never realized how "singable" this language is. We generally love folk songs for their simplicity and melodiousness. Our favorite of this group was the first --"Milyang Arirang" and Ms. Park gave it some passionate cries and highly expressive gestures. "Bird Song" was highly rhythmic and "Song of Loom" was interesting for the rippling figures in the right hand of the piano, with the left hand crossing over. It certainly suggested weaving to us.

There were also many songs about mothers by varied composers. How pleased we were to hear Ms. Park sing in Spanish! It seems to us that Spanish composers of the 20th c. remained free of many of the 20th c. "advances" that we deplore. We particularly enjoyed Obradors' "Con amores, la mi madre" and Montsalvatge's "Canción de cuna para dormir" which is particularly evocative of time (1940's)and place (Cuba). 

Turina's Poema en forma de canciones gave Mr. Zeger an opportunity to shine solo in the extended opening "Dedicatoria", after which Ms. Park delighted us with three ironic songs "Nunca olvida", "Cantares" which began and ended with a stunning vocalise, "Los dos miedos", and "Las locas por amor". Her acting really put the songs across!

We don't want to leave out Claude Debussy's evocative "Nuit d'étoiles" in which Mr. Zeger's piano created the twinkling of the stars. The text by Théodore de Banville was presented in Rondo fashion with the artists shedding new light on the "refrain" each time it recurred.

After such a generous program, we weren't expecting an encore but we got not one but two. The first was in Korean and the second was "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's comic opera Gianni Schicchi. No one could have refused Lauretta's imploring!

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, November 1, 2018

THE LOVES OF A POET

Nathaniel  LaNasa and Xiaoming Tian at Elabash Recital Hall

What does it take to hold an audience spellbound for a half hour?  You could easily answer that question if you attended the recital yesterday of baritone Xiaoming Tian working in harmonious collaboration with pianist Nathaniel LaNasa.  Not only were we held spellbound but we scarcely breathed. Mr. Tian, presently finishing up his Ph.D. and Doctorate of Music at The Graduate Center of City University of New York, took us on a journey involving the present moment colored by memories of lost love.  There was a lot of catharsis going on!

It is important for a recitalist to choose good material, songs that he can inhabit or wear (like the stylish suit he chose). Perhaps it was just great acting, but it seemed as if Mr. Tian was living through the panoply of emotions contained in Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe, Op. 48. Composed in 1840, the cycle comprises a selection of text from Heinrich Heine's 1823 Lyrisches Intermezzo, reordered to suit the composer's vision.

So, the raw materials are all there, with Schumann's memorably melodic vocal lines, his intuitive connection with the text, and Heine's remarkable poetry. (If only we had such poetry today to inspire contemporary composers!) The piano writing expands upon the mood of the text, comments upon it, and occasionally expresses what the poet cannot say in words.

Given these ingredients, it takes a consummate artist to let the text and music speak/sing for themselves. Mr. Tian is such an artist. He is free of excess and does not bombard the audience with special effects.  Rather, he creates a mood that draws the audience in.

We are never able to select our favorite song from among the sixteen but there is one that we always pay attention to because the singer can perform it any number of ways.  That song is "Ich grolle nicht" in which the poet begins by denying his anger at the woman who abandoned him.  By the end of the song his fury emerges. Many singers begin with irony but Mr. Tian began quietly and let the rage build up to a terrifying explosion. We were enthralled.

The slow tempo of "Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen" provided expansive room for an emotional introspection.  Mr. LaNasa made sure we could hear the murmuring of the consoling flowers.

"Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen" was notable for Mr. Tian's storytelling gifts. In this case, he was more generous with his gestures to illustrate the confusing nature of the text.

Leaving aside Mr. Tian's interpretive gifts, we cannot end without commenting on the velvety tone of his instrument, the richness of the timbre, the musicality of his phrasing, and the accuracy of his German. Diphthongs were perfect and consonants were crisp.

We first heard this fine artist in 2014 at a Classic Lyric Arts Gala and have heard his magnificent Masters of Music recital at Manhattan School of Music, and another recital at The Graduate Center of City University of New York. He has never disappointed us.  He is a young artist to watch!

We hope the artists will forgive us for departing after the Schumann.  We were rather emotional and wanted to preserve the melancholy mood and to process our memories.  That's just how powerful the experience was!

(c) meche kroop