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, May 20, 2019

MORE FRENCH

Martin Néron, Jean-Bernard Cerin, Christopher Reames, and Laure-Catherine Beyers

Last night at the National Opera Center we attended the Gérard Souzay Award Showcase presented by Dalton Baldwin in collaboration with Joy in Singing and The Art Song Preservation Society of New York.

Coming on the heels of the afternoon recital by Stéphane Sénéchal and Mark Markham, perhaps the recital did not get the attention it deserved. Perhaps we just overdosed on French mélodies. We found our attention wandering to the pianist Martin Néron to whom we paid insufficient attention on the two prior occasions on which we heard him. He is an absolutely marvelous collaborative pianist and we admired his delicate touch and the sensitivity with which he related to the singers.

During the recital, a certain valuable memory rose to consciousness. It was the advice a prominent conductor/coach gave to a young singer at a master class. "Sing what you love", he said. When baritone Jean-Bernard Cerin (winner of the first Gérard Souzay Prize for Best Performance of a French Mélodie at the 2018 Joy in Singing Song Competition in NYC) performed Maurice Ravel's Histoires naturelles we could tell that he loved those songs.

Earlier in the program we found his involvement a bit wanting; we found his facial expressions excessive to the point of mugging and his gestures underdone. But in the Ravel he blossomed! He was particularly excellent in his portrayal of the courting peacock in "Le Paon" and the embattled guinea hen in "La Pintade".

There are those who like their singers of art song to stand still and use only the voice to tell the story. But as we learned at the Sénéchal recital early in the day (review just below), we like acting. We like gesture. We like storytelling. It's a matter of taste.

Similarly, when mezzo-soprano Laure-Catherine Beyers performed Henri Dutilleux's "Féerie au clair de lune" with generous use of color and gesturewe were captivated as we were not in her earlier performance of Reynaldo Hahn's "L'heure exquise", in spite of the fact that it is one of our favorites. She closed the program with a highly dramatic performance of the tango inflected "Youkali" from Kurt Weill's Marie Galante, convincing us of how cabaret style music can exist comfortably alongside opera.

We have heard and enjoyed tenor Christopher Reames on a couple prior occasions and enjoyed his performances more than we did last night. Curiously, on both occasions it was Debussy's settings of Paul Verlaine's text in Fêtes galantes I; we don't exactly know what was missing. His voice is sweet with a fine vibrato but perhaps we were looking for more "acting". Mr. Cerin had just performed Fauré's setting of "En sourdine" which also left us cold. 

We might have enjoyed hearing the two versions of "En sourdine" back to back, so to speak. We would also have enjoyed the libretto in French, instead of just English, and enough illumination to follow along.

(c) meche kroop



L'ART DU CHANT FRANÇAIS

Mark Markham and Stéphane Sénéchal

Presented by the Art Song Preservation Society (founded and directed by Blair Boone-Migura), was a brilliant recital by French tenor Stéphane Sénéchal and collaborative pianist Mark Markham. The recital was part of a 10-day festival
of master classes and recitals held at the Manhattan School of Music, an annual event.

This was a very special recital and one marked by the revelation of true French technique passed down from father Michel (the legendary late character tenor who knew Francis Poulenc) to son. What an experience to hear French music sung by a tenor of great artistry--to hear it as it is meant to be sung. One could consider the recital to be a lesson in the art of singing French mélodies.

The composers represented on the program comprised many of the greats of the 19th and early 20th c.--Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Duparc, Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, Gabriel Fauré, Charles Gounod, and even Jacques Offenbach who contributed the encore piece.

Instead of performing a set by each composer, Mr. Sénéchal mixed them up and seemed to stick with one theme for each set. For example the first set comprised songs dealing with love and romance. Who can do that better than the French! We confess to being hypnotized.

Reynaldo Hahn's "À Chloris" is very familiar to us but we have never heard it sung with such intense feeling, achieved with delicacy and refinement. A lovely pianissimo cresendoed to a passionate fortissimo. This tenor makes his dynamic changes count by using them sparingly.

In Henri Duparc's "Extase" his coloration reflected the underlying Wagnerian harmonic shifts, something that we've heard about but never actually heard. Claude Debussy's "Zéphyr" was downright erotic; Gabriel Fauré's "Après un rêve" offered an opportunity for melismatic singing that reinforced the coloration of the word at the end of a phrase--"mirage", "lumière", "mensonges" and "mystérieuse".

A second set of mélodies seemed to focus on loss. Most of Fauré's works are little gems but "La Chanson du pêcheur" took its time to develop the theme of loss of the beloved by means of death. In Théophile Gautier's poem, the fisherman ends each verse of lament with the intention of going to sea. We wondered if "going to sea" was a metaphor. Mr. Markham's piano was particularly effective in adding to the despair.

There were even more treasures in the second half of the program; we particularly enjoyed Fauré's "Ici-bas" which filled us with sorrow as the artists concluded with an affecting decrescendo, tapering off to a fine filament of sound hanging in the air. In Duparc's "Lamento" the chords in the piano underscored the mournful sentiment.

There were also several songs by Poulenc on the program. The texts he chose seem obscure to us and less direct. Although he is not our favorite French composer, we will say that we enjoyed his pieces more yesterday than we ever have.  It's just that irony is not our favorite; we prefer music that evokes emotions, not ideas. We don't listen to music in order to think, to puzzle out the intent. We listen to feel.

Fortunately, the final work on the program relieved all that sorrow and left us feeling cheerful. It was Charles Gounod's "Viens! Les gazons sont verts!" in which a youth wants his beloved to wake up and enjoy la belle nature with him. As if that were not enough, there was an encore from Jacques Offenbach's operetta La Périchole in which Piquillo complains about his wife's behavior.

Thinking about the recital and why it was so exceptional, our conclusion is that Mr. Sénéchal doesn't "perform". Instead, it seems as if he is improvising. We suppose that every facial expression and gesture has been considered but it doesn't appear that way. There is a spontaneity that feels as if he is inhabiting the world of the song and sharing it with his audience, drawing us into a world.  He is a consummate storyteller. Mr. Markham was with him every step of the way. It was a landmark recital.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, May 18, 2019

MURASAKI'S MOON

John Noh, Kristen Choi, and Martin Bakari


At a time when opera companies are struggling to survive, it is thrilling to watch On Site Opera thrive. In spite of high ticket prices, their productions are always sold out. It would appear that the originality of their concept and the deftness of their execution would account for their success. Snagging a ticket almost guarantees a rare and unusual experience.

In collaboration with MetLiveArts and American Lyric Theater, their latest production, Murasaki's Moon, served to heighten the interest of theater goers in the adjacent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an exhibit which the performance brought to vivid life in the hands of Artistic Director Eric Einhorn. 

The work is based upon The Tale of Genji, an 11th c. epic novel written by the noblewoman Lady Murasaki, perhaps the world's first novel. It is filled with characters beyond counting and illustrated lifestyles and customs of the Heian court. It was written by a woman for women in an archaic language used by women, a phonetic language. It was only in the 20th c. that the work was translated into modern Japanese.

English translations followed and the work has had a major effect on all of the arts of Japan, from 12 c. scrolls and screens to contemporary manga series and TV dramas. There was an opera written in 2000 but we were unable to learn anything about it.

The subject of the novel was Genji, the emperor's son whose mother was a lowly born, but favored, concubine. He led a wild romantic life, filled with illicit liaisons and several marriages. The production we saw, with libretto by Deborah Brevoort, did not attempt to tell any episodes from the story, but rather to focus on Lady Murasaki's relationship with her creation Genji, who served as muse.

So many contemporary issues were touched upon that there was no question of relevance. Take for example the issue of the loneliness of the writer. (Just ask us!) Lady Murasaki has a modest position at court, illustrated by her almost colorless three-layer kimono. She desperately wants a friend, but she is different from the other women at court and is the object of envy and rejection. She writes and Genji keeps her company. Many writers of fiction will tell you that they create characters and the characters write the story!

Although we have come a long way here in NYC, there are plenty of places around the USA where creative women are looked at with unkind eyes because they don't follow the wife/motherhood program. We could certainly identify with Lady Murasaki, the "misfit".

In the story we watched, she is angry at Genji for his philandering. He is untrue to her and disappears for periods of time, perhaps representing periods in which writers cannot summon their muse and go silent. On the other hand, putting on our psychological hat, it would seem that Genji is Lady Murasaki's animus, what Carl Jung called the inner representation of a woman's male characteristics. (And yes, men are purported to have an anima, representing their female qualities).

Murasaki makes several pointed observations about women gazing at their images in the mirror and making efforts to be more beautiful. Could anything be more relevant? In any case, we cannot stop thinking about the many layers of the story. 

The music added greatly to the story. Composer Michi Wiancko composed some beautiful instrumental music that combined Japanese instruments (Taiko drums and shakuhashi played by Kaoru Watanabe, percussion played by Satoshi Takeishi, and koto played by Yoko Reikano Kimura) with Western music performed by the Aizuri String Quartet. All was conducted by Geoffrey McDonald who integrated the two seamlessly.

The vocal line was another story altogether. Like so much contemporary music, the vocal line was jagged and not at all melodic. Combined with a libretto that often rhymed but did not scan at all, we found little to enjoy, in spite of admirably convincing performances by Kristen Choi as Lady Murasaki, Martin Bakari as the ultimately repentant Genji, and John Noh as a Buddhist priest who himself became interested in Murasaki's writing, a scene we particularly enjoyed. There was one magical musical moment--a duet with gorgeous harmonies that told us that Ms. Wiancko could do better. We would have loved to hear more Japanese-inflected vocal lines. We would have loved to have heard it in Japanese!

Effective costuming was provided by Beth Goldenberg. Genji's bright blue costume and the Buddhist Priest's yellow robes were in high contrast with Murasaki's pale costume. The work was performed in the Astor Court of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was staged in a long narrow playing area with audience members seated along each side. 

We would like to add a few words about the titles. The three singers had such excellent diction that titles were unnecessary but we were interested in the technology that was used. Audience members were able to download the On Site Opera app on their phones where titles were available and perfectly matched to the singing. This appears to be the way of the future. We tried it to see if it was distracting and it was not.

The dramatic performances aroused our curiosity and we spent some time in the nearby exhibit, particularly enchanted by the court games that were played, utilizing scenes from the novel. Scenes from the novel also decorated so many artifacts. It was obvious how influential this novel was on a millenia of Japanese culture.

We were too lost in thought to consider any way of getting home other than walking through the park, accompanied by a full moon! We thought of it as Lady Murasaki's moon and felt a strong connection. Isn't that what art is all about?

(c) meche kroop

Friday, May 17, 2019

HUMMing ALONG

Benedicte Jourdois and Äneas Humm

It was a little over three years ago that we first heard the then-20-year-old Swiss baritone Äneas Humm. He was already famous in Europe and was invited here by the German Forum who presented him in recital. We were astonished to hear someone so young and so gifted.

Yesterday Mr. Humm completed three years of study with Edith Wiens at Juilliard, earning his Master of Music degree. He arrived as a finely cut gem and Juilliard provided the polish. His voice has expanded in the lower register and rounded out in the midrange.

Most Swiss are adept with several languages and Mr. Humm is no exception. Although German is the one spoken in his hometown Zürich, he sounds terrific in French as well. But he also sang in Hungarian!

Our initial hearing of Mr. Humm involved some Grieg and introduced us to the songs of the prolific  early 20th c. composer Othmar Schoeck who happily avoided atonality and wrote some lovely songs. Both would appear on yesterday's program.

The program opened with Cantata#4 De Profundis by the 17th c. composer Nicolaus Bruhns, composed and sung in Latin. He was accompanied by Caitlyn Koester's harpsichord, violinists Chiara Stauffer and Naomi Dumas, and cellist Madleine Renée Bouïssou. The lowlying tessitura seemed not to daunt Mr. Humm, nor did the alternation of legato and staccato. We particularly enjoyed the melismatic singing which took on the character of a vocalise.

Mr. Humm's attention to dynamics and appropriate gesture marked the entire program. There was a set of three songs by Edvard Grieg from Op. 48, our favorite of which was the familiar and charming "Lauf der Welt" which was perfectly suited to Mr. Humm's personality. Otherwise we heard a finely rendered crescendo .

The Schoeck songs were deeply felt and beautifully played by collaborative pianist Benedicte Jourdois, whose playing has always given us great pleasure. She seems to breathe with the singer, providing a perfect partnership. In the Fauré songs which followed, Mr. Humm was nominally "on the book" which seemed unnecessary to us since he knew the material. This generally leads us to focus more on the piano and we were rewarded with some gorgeous arpeggi in "En Sourdine".

Four short folksongs by Bartok would have been enjoyed more had their been translations.

The recital closed with Schubert songs, at which Mr. Humm excels. We loved Ms. Jourdois' rhythmic accompaniment in "Der Wanderer an den Mond" and the rocking accompaniment to "Der Jüngling an der Quelle". "Im Abendrot" came across as a devotional prayer and we simply swooned. Ms. Jourdois' slow chords enhanced the exquisite effect of Mr. Humm's tender pianissimo singing.

There was an encore, to our delight--Schubert's "Wanderers Nachtlied". Since travel is in Mr. Humm's immediate future, we can understand his choices! He is heading for the Weimar Opernhaus where he will perform a variety of roles. The one we would most like to see is his Papageno which will give plenty of leeway for him to express his engaging personality as well as his fine voice.

We hope he will return before too long!

(c) meche kroop



Wednesday, May 15, 2019

CAREER BRIDGES GALA

Career Bridges Winners


The designation "gala" is used rather loosely these days but the dazzling evening we experienced last night at The Metropolitan Club was gala in every sense of the word. Luminaries of Planet Opera gathered in force to celebrate the next generation of opera stars, recipients of awards from The Schuyler Foundation for Career Bridges.

The Foundation has been performing a vital service for 17 years now. Founded by David Schuyler Bender and Barbara Meister Bender with the mission of providing vital assistance to young opera singers as they transition from training to stardom. Awardees receive three years of mentoring, financial support, and performance opportunities. A combination of wise selection and this assistance has had a phenomenal rate of success.

What is more, for three years they have provided outreach to youngsters in their Kids Love Opera program, reaching 7000 primary school students at an age that almost guarantees a life-long interest in opera. These kids will grow up and provide the next generation of opera goers. Hooray for the Foundation!

The Benders are one of those beautiful couples--beautiful inside as well as outside. Their welcoming remarks got the evening off to a wonderful start. Guests forgot the damp and dreary weather and basked in the delightful entertainment, which was dispersed between the courses of dinner. Most of the singers were this year's winners except for Teresa Castillo (2017) and Jorell Williams, a winner from 2008, who showed us what happens to the artists when they complete the program.

Ms. Castillo opened the program with a Händel aria that showed off her flexible coloratura in harmony with the trumpet of David Glukh. Mary Beth Nelson performed our favorite Rossini aria--"Una voce poco fa"--demonstrating a personality as pleasing as her voice. Similarly, our favorite Donizetti aria--"Una furtiva lagrima"-- was performed by Tianchi Zhang, with fine dynamic shading. 

From Linda di Chamounix, an opera we know little of, Erika Baikoff sang the familiar "O luce di quest' anima", with fine fioritura. Mr. Williams and guest Ganson Salmon had excellent interpersonal chemistry as Marcello and Rodolfo in "O Mimi tu più non torni".

Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award was centenarian Anton Coppola who looks fit and hearty. Apparently, keeping active is a means of staying youthful. We most recently heard Maestro Coppola conduct a master class for Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance program. His teaching was astute and perfectly personalized.

After the break for Maestro Coppola's award, Ms. Castillo and Mr. Williams gave us the delightful "Papagena, Papageno" duet, an audience favorite. We loved the conclusion in which Mr. Williams carried Ms. Castillo off in his arms. John Noh captivated us with his "Kuda, kuda", giving it a psychologically sensitive performance, enhanced by an affecting decrescendo.

Hannah Friesen's sweet sound was perfect for "Sul fil d'un soffrio etesio" from Verdi's Falstaff. Jongwon Han's secure baritone was perfect for the "Catalogue Aria" from Mozart's Don Giovani which he enhanced with appropriate expression and gesture. The difficult quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto was made to sound easy by Ms. Castillo, Ms. Nelson, Mr. Salmon, and Mr. Williams.


Superstar soprano Lauren Flanagan sadly did not sing but spoke eloquently, introducing the recipient of the Distinguished Achievement Award--superstar Isabel Leonard about whom we have written since we began writing. She is as beautiful as her voice and incredibly gracious.

We were happy to hear more of Rigoletto when Alec Carlson took on the role of the licentious Duke in the famous "Questa o quella". Anne Montgomery performed Lehar's "Liebe du Himmel auf Erden". Gabriel Hernandez gave us "Here I Stand" from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The aptly named Kelly Singer gave a deliciously dramatic performance of "Non, monsieur mon mari" from Poulenc's comic opera Les Mamelles de Tirésius.

The tireless Ted Taylor as Music Director did a bang up job accompanying all of these gifted young singers in such a great variety of material.

The entire group joined Mr. Williams for the highly appropriate "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha. The reason we thought it appropriate is that becoming an opera singer seems like an impossible dream but people like The Benders are making it possible!

(c) meche kroop

Monday, May 13, 2019

SORCERESS! DRAGONS!

Katherine Doe, Mithuna Sivaraman, Alaina Logee, Mary Kathryn Monday, Rachel Duval, and Joyce Yin




Cantanti Project is one of our favorite boutique opera companies. They just presented Händel's 1713 opera seria Teseo (renamed Teseo:Medea), replete with sorceress, flying dragons, apparitions, potions, spells, and a deus ex machina in the person of Minerva. Nicola Haym's libretto was based on a Lully opera of 1674 which was, in turn, based on a story in Ovid's Metamorphosis. Händel surely had his finger on the pulse of his London audience which thronged to see his earlier Rinaldo (another opera involving sorcery) but gave short shrift to his pastoral opera Il pastor fido. Teseo had a decent run, marred only by technical difficulties, but the opera was forgotten and lay dormant until 1947. We are glad it was resurrected.

As in so many operas of the period, the story is complicated. King Egeo (Mary Kathryn Monday) has been successful at battle and decides that his betrothal to Medea should be replaced by marriage with Agilea (Joyce Yin), his ward. She is in love with Egeo's military commander Teseo (Rachel Duval). Agilea's companion Clizia (Mithuna Sivaraman) is in love with Arcane (Katherine Doe).

The sorceress Medea (Alaina Logee), incensed at being rejected, does her best to spoil everyone's happiness and create mistrust and dissension. It takes the intervention of Minerva to set things right. A poisoning of Teseo by Egeo is thwarted when the King recognizes the warrior as his long-lost son! His sword was the give-away!

Although Händel's instrumental music doesn't light our fire, his operas set us ablaze. Contemporary composers should study a page from his book. He really knew how to write for the voice with the vocal line emphasizing the words, more so in his Italian operas than in his English ones, of course. His arias, as I recall, are fun to sing! There is ample fioritura with almost ostentatious ornamentation which never detracts from his illumination of the character.

Our favorite scene was in Act IV when Medea blackmails the sweet and lovely Agilea to give up Teseo, whom Medea also wants. With tearful aspect Agilea renounces him to save his life. Her singing would melt an iceberg and it melted Medea's rage--but only temporarily. There was still one more act to fill in this unique five act opera--still more reverses and complications!


Musical Director Dylan Sauerwald led the Dorian Baroque Orchestra from the harpsichord. We particularly enjoyed the sound of the baroque oboe; the mournful sound often echoes the vocal line and sometimes "sings" in harmony with it. We sat there for three hours entranced by the glorious singing and playing. Not only are the arias magnificent but the duets thrill the ear.

What did not entrance us was trying to figure out who was whom and what they were singing about. Had we not read a summary beforehand we would have been completely lost. There was no program and no synopsis. There were titles projected off to the side but they could not be read with the stagelights on.

There was no set to speak of and costumes (Alexandria Hoffman) were as basic as one would expect with a minimal budget. We would far prefer the money be spent on musical values! And that we got in spades.  Wonderful singing, wonderful music!

We realize that the female-centric Cantanti Project had an axe to grind about female power; much was written on their website and Facebook page about gender. That is all well and good; we are glad that castration of male singers ended long ago and are happy to see women fulfill the roles. But for our purposes, it is the music making that counts.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, May 12, 2019

BRITTEN'S GHOST STORY?

Scene from Little Opera Theater of New York's production of Britten's Owen Wingrave

Encouraged by three recent positive experiences of Benjamin Britten (two productions of Albert Herring and Xeni Tziouvaras' performance of his Charm of Lullabies, we approached a performance of his Owen Wingrave with enthusiasm. We left with disappointment verging on despair. 

Written for television in 1970, Myfanwy's Piper's libretto is an etiolated adaptation of Henry James' eerie ghost story, here made into an anti-war screed masquerading as a family drama. The horror is as absent as the vowels in Ms. Piper's given name. (Even the homosexual hints have been removed, although that did not create a problem in terms of focusing on the hero's determination to resist the military.)

The absence of titles and the unclear diction of many members of the cast obviated a clear understanding of the finer points of the story although the superior acting abilities of the cast got the major points across. 

We have come to think of operas written after the middle of the 20th c. as "plays with music". In this case, the "play" was insufficiently dramatic and the lines were often like lectures, not like dialogue.

The music was unmusical. We didn't expect any gorgeous melodic arias but we were dismayed by the dialogues and especially the monologues which could have told us something about the character "singing" it. (By contrast, the arias heard last night in Massenet's Hérodiade each told us something about the character and his/her situation.)

Maestro Richard Cordova probably enjoyed conducting this challenging score but it was difficult to listen to. No doubt the musicians in the chamber orchestra (orchestration was by David Matthews) played well but we got no pleasure from listening.

The spare set by Josh Smith comprised tables, chairs, and a bed. Nothing more was needed. His lighting design went a long way toward creating an eerie mood that James' story called for.

Lara de Bruijn's costumes were drab and perfectly appropriate to the late 19th c.

Philip Shneidman's direction seemed as static as the story. People stood around or sat. Seeing someone climb a flight of stairs seemed compelling by comparison.

Alex Basco Koch's projections were perhaps the most interesting element of the production, helping to repurpose the simple set from one scene to another. The grand outward appearance of the Paramore ancestral manse was projected above the set and the interior was decorated by projections of portraits revealing the family's military heritage.

Coming from a military family, the hero's refusal to complete his martial education arouses the disgust of his family, his girlfriend, and his ancestral manor. They vilify hime and drive him to his death, which should have been more "ghostly" but wasn't. He is accused of lacking courage and his "intended" insists he demonstrate his courage by sleeping in a room in which a father and son had previously died.

The theme of the tormenting and rejection of the outsider is a theme dear to Britten's heart and baritone Robert Balonek did a fine job of portraying this self-determined young man who refuses to follow the life plan for which he was intended. His diction was clear and, for the most part, understandable.

Similarly, as his military instructor Spencer Coyle, bass Matthew Curran cut a fine figure and made the words clear. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast were only occasionally comprehensible, which may be due partly to the fact that the vocal line was not designed to be understood and the lengthy phrases did not resemble spoken or sung speech. Instead they came across as written text.

We have no criticism of any of the voices. Indeed it is impossible to appreciate a singer's technique with material like this. Fortunately, we have heard and enjoyed their voices under more felicitous circumstances.

What we can say is that the acting was persuasive with soprano Emily Pulley portraying a very rejecting maiden aunt. Presumably, Mrs. Julian is a family hanger-on and soprano Mary Ann Stewart was as fine in the role as mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht was as her daughter Kate, the one who eggs on Mr. Wingrave to his death. Tenor Bernard Holcomb portrayed Owen Wingate's friend Lechmere.

As the grandfather General Sir Philip Wingrave, tenor Rufus Müller was appropriately nasty, disinheriting his grandson. The only kindly character was Coyle's wife, nicely portrayed by soprano Janice Hall.

Nothing pains us more than seeing a waste of talent, time, and resources. With so many undiscovered gems out there, it's a pity to see this happen.

(c) meche kroop

Coming from a military family, his refusal to complete his martial education arouses the disgust of his family, his girlfriend, and his ancestral manor.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

HÉROdiade!

Maestro Keith Chambers and Cast of Massenet's Hérodiade

The title of this review is not a typing error. We see Maestro Keith Chambers as a HERO on Planet Opera for introducing us to works that are insufficiently performed and for finding the perfect cast to fill the roles. 

We might also mention that Maestro Eve Queler is similarly a HEROine for providing New Amsterdam Opera with the score. She last presented Massenet's Hérodiade in 1995 with a young Renée Fleming as Salome. It seems to us that Maestro Chambers is similarly gifted in choosing singers destined for major success.

We pondered why this opera is so rarely produced and this led to the following speculation. A very worthy opera can readily be eclipsed when another composer tackles the same material in a way that pleases the public more. For example, Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia stole the thunder from the Paisiello iteration, one we enjoyed immensely when produced by On Site Opera. Similarly, Otto Nicolai's Die lustigen weiber von Windsor, recently presented by Juilliard Opera, and Salieri's Falstaff, recently produced by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, were both overshadowed by Verdi's Falstaff.

No doubt, Richard Strauss' 1905 Salome, adapted from an 1891 Oscar Wilde play, drew attention away from Jules Massenet's 1881 Hérodiade by means of its lurid story and modern music. This is a shame because Paul Milliet and Henri Grémont's libretto tells the tale from a different point of view (based on an 1877 novella by Gustave Flaubert) and Massenet's music is compelling although refined; the melodic nature of the arias causes them to be sung in recitals and competitions.

Strangely, neither composer nor librettists were mentioned in the program! However, the synopsis was quite complete and a minimal knowledge of French allowed the members of the audience to follow along quite well, assisted by some superlative diction by the singers. Titles might have been helpful but were not absolutely necessary.

Maestro Chambers led the New Amsterdam Opera Orchestra with Stephan Fillare as a most effective concertmaster. The orchestra occupied the entire stage with the fine chorus elevated behind the orchestra. The singers stood in front of the orchestra and we couldn't figure out how they were able to follow the conducting so well but they did. We have nothing but good things to say about the pacing and the balance. We were happy not to have to watch the ballets that are so much a part of French opera but are rarely well done.

The singers were superb across the board and everyone's French was clear. The title role was performed by mezzo-soprano Janara Kellerman whose tone is plush and dusky. Her character has (backstory here) abandoned her daughter to wed King Herod and is consumed with jealousy by his interest in Salomé even before she acknowledges her as the abandoned daughter. We all know about denial, don't we? She is also vengeful and wants Jean (John the Baptist) dead because he insulted her. Her "Ne me refuse pas" was delivered with intense passion, a touch of manipulation and an affecting pianissimo.

Soprano Mary Stonikas was similarly superb in the role of Salomé, a very different character than the one in the Strauss opera. This young woman is victim, not predator. Her only consolation in her abandoned state has been Jean for whom she has developed a deep devotion and a pure love. Her character gets the first major aria of the opera "Il est doux, il est bon"; the way Ms. Stonikas colored her voice along with a fine vibrato revealed her sweetness. She has a lovely "ping" in the upper register.

The character of Hérode was magnificently realized by baritone Jason Duika. His character had more dimension than the others as he struggled with his lust and political issues. He seemed to care for his wife but was obsessed with Salomé. His virile instrument is of fine and full tone and his delivery of "Vision fugitive" was impassioned and moving. When he approaches Salomé he repeats her name countless times and always with a different color!

Like any ruler, he has his hands full trying to deal with Roman occupation and a people who seem to want freedom from Roman rule but are easily "bought" by promises from Vitellius, the Roman consul--a role excellently sung by young baritone Charles Eaton. Hérode's position is complicated by the presence of Jean who also has a following. He would like to enlist Jean's help but his wife wants the prophet dead. In this admirable performance, Mr. Duika was able to convey all kinds of emotions vocally since singing behind a music stand prevents the gestures and movements that tell us so much about a character.

As Jean, we heard tenor Errin Duane Brooks who delivers the final memorable aria "Adieu donc, vains objets qui nous charment sur terre" with ringing tone.

The role of Phanuel was sung by the rich-voiced bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala and the very pretty young soprano Brooklyn Snow sang the role of a Babylonian woman who provides an hallucinatory potion for Hérode. She has a well-focused instrument with pleasing colors that should take her far.

We particularly enjoyed the blending of voices in the quartet which ends Act II--Hérode, Hérodiade, Phanuel, and Vitellius--and the sextet which ends Act III. Orchestral playing was remarkable throughout with Maestro Chambers showing a keen ear for Massenet's lovely music. We enjoyed the heraldic moments given to the brass which told us when we were in the palace-- as effectively as any scenery might have. And the hints of exoticism in the score were not neglected.

What a special evening! We would love to see a full production with the same cast, unconstrained by music stands and able to move around the stage. Won't someone build a mid-size theater with an orchestra pit?

(c) meche kroop

Friday, May 10, 2019

GOING FOR THE GREEK

Jinhee Park and Polixeni Tziouvaras


We have written about the lovely and versatile mezzo-soprano Polixeni Tziouvaras quite a number of times in her past few years at Manhattan School of Music. But last week, when she sang in Around the World in Song, we were not wearing our "critic" hat; we just sat there and enjoyed her performance of Ravel's Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques. Last night, at Ms. Tziouvaras' Master of Music recital, we listened with a critical ear, intent upon figuring out what was so gloriously entertaining.

There were a number of features that made it special for us. We have heard this cycle of five songs many times in French which is our second language. In that situation, we focused primarily on the meaning of the words. Hearing it in Greek, a language in which we only know basic greetings and menu talk, we focused on the marriage between the sounds and rhythm of the language and the rise and fall of the melody. The translator, Michel Dimitri Calvacoressi, did a magnificent job. My guess is that he is fluent in both languages.

The second feature has more to do with Ms. Tziouvaras' delivery. Our preference is always for an expressive singer who augments vocal coloration with gesture and facial expression. To us, the goal of the singer of art songs seems to be bringing the listener into the world of the composer and poet. This young artist has the voice of an opera singer and the expressiveness of a cabaret singer.

In this case, we pictured a little village, perhaps on one of the smaller islands less touched by the modern world. We experienced the thrill of a proposal of marriage in "Chanson de la Mariée", the BDE of the Greek man in "Quel Galant m'est Comparable", and the joy of the festival in "Tout gai!" We felt the romantic longing in "Chanson des Cueilleuses de Lentisques" and the simple spirituality of "Là-bas, vers l'église". It was a magnificent visit to another time and place. We felt transported.

The rest of the well curated program provided additional fulfillment and served to show the versatility of the singer. We generally associate Francis Poulenc with songs ironic or surreal. We had never heard his cycle Poèmes de Ronsard and were delighted to have made their acquaintance. Ms. Tziouvaras used her dynamic personality to bring each poem to life, evincing all the various colors of "Attributs", each belonging to a different goddess. We particularly enjoyed the bibulous "À son page". Singers and actors love to portray intoxication! We were happy with the singer's French diction.

Britten's A Charm of Lullabies similarly offers opportunities for a variety of emotions. Britten must have spent a lot of time searching for a wide spectrum of lullabies to set. William Blake's "A Cradle Song" rhymes and scans but we didn't think Britten made the most of the vocal line. We preferred Robert Burns' "A Highland Balou" for which the singer adopted a wee Scottish accent and filled the song with parental pride. Robert Greene's "Sephestia's Lullaby" was just plain sorrowful. Thomas Randolph's "A Charm" was filled with parental irritation over a child who won't sleep; it was filled with angry threats! John Philip's "The Nurse's Song" had an a cappella introduction and conclusion. The harmonies in the piano seemed unsettled and uneasy. English diction was clear, which is not always the case.

It is much easier to focus on the quality of a singer's instrument and the technique of her/his singing when Italian is performed. Here we heard Mozart's concert aria "Ch'io me Scordi di te" and we were able to appreciate the singer's Italianate vowels and legato delivery, as well as the evenness throughout the register. The first verse is like a recitativo with spare accompaniment, made interesting by variations in tempo and dynamics. The sections that followed seemed like an aria and cabaletta. It would fit into any opera of the early 19th c.

The final work on the program was slightly less interesting. Brahms' Zigeunerlieder lack the Romany flavor of the Dvorak cycle. The music has a slight flavor but the text is rather generic poetry about love. Even in the most marvelous recitals, we find something to pick on and here it is. Like so many American singers, Ms. Tziouvaras is inconsistent with the final "ich" and "ig". In one line they would sound perfect and in the next they might be avoided altogether. This would be easy to remedy. A non speaker of German would never have noticed but we did.

We are a non speaker of Russian and therefore have no criticism of a gorgeous rendering of the seasonal "Spring Waters" by Rachmaninoff. It was sung with passion and filled us with longing for warmer weather.

This superlative recital was coached and accompanied by the excellent David Mayfield with Jinhee Park collaborating for the Poulenc and the Rachmaninoff. One couldn't ask for better support!

(c) meche kroop


Wednesday, May 8, 2019

CARMEN GETS WET

Theodore Sarge, Young-Kwang Yoo, Lara Secord-Haid, Matthew Pearce, Tahanee Aluwihare, Quentin Bruno,
and Geddy Warner

If you love revolution in opera, read no further.  Just try to snag a ticket to City Lyric Opera's current production of La Tragédie de Carmen at the West End Theater (at The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew) before word-of-mouth books up the remaining performances. We promise you an entertaining evening. Our attention was captured for an hour and a half and we left filled with conflicting thoughts and feelings.

This production has one foot in Bizet's 1875 masterpiece and the other in Part III of Prosper Mérimée's novella (which masqueraded as a non-fiction travelogue). But it has both feet in the water upon which we will shortly elaborate. And it is up to its neck in directorial narcissism.

It is our opinion that a work of art should stand on its own merit and should not require exegesis. Imagine explaining the Mona Lisa! For that reason we do not read the program until after an opera ends. We prefer to allow it to affect us. Or not.

The 1981 work La Tragédie de Carmen is an adaptation of Bizet's masterpiece; and it is not a masterpiece. It is a condensed, telescoped version, preserving our favorite arias, but ditching the chorus, the local color, and many of the characters and scenes that tell the story. The emphasis is shifted to the four main characters and their intense interaction. 

Arias have been reshuffled like the cards that the titular Carmen uses to foretell her future. Jean-Claude Carrière wrote dialogue to knit the vignettes together and Marius Constant composed music to weave the arias together. Peter Brook directed it, reminding us how we wish the era of regietheater would end. Opera began as a composer's medium and put the singer center stage. In our opinion this is how it should be. Directors should stick to film!

That being said, it was a canny choice for the relatively young and daring City Lyric Opera. Their mission is to provide one-of-a-kind opera going experiences without expectation or financial burden. This they have achieved. They have managed to keep us well entertained and to find excellent singers to feature in their productions.

For example, we had the marvelous mezzo-soprano Tahanee Aluwihare whose dusky instrument and seductive presentation gave us a believable free-spirited Carmen. As Micaëla, soprano Lara Secord-Haid sang beautifully but had the unenviable task of making the shy but brave character into a nasty jealous shrew who attacks Carmen.

Our Don Jose was superbly portrayed by tenor Matthew Pearce who was strangely "promoted" to the rank of General, which made his subjection to the will of Zuniga (Geddy Warner) rather peculiar. Men of lesser rank cannot demote a General! Forgetting all that, he sang with beautiful tone and lovely phrasing--and no down-time to rest his voice.

As Escamillo, Young-Kwang Yoo used his fine baritone to advantage without any costume choices to aid in his characterization.

Considering musical values aside from voices, Maestro Rebecca Tong led a chamber orchestra of 15, emphasizing the suitability of this production for a boutique opera company. We cannot claim to be completely satisfied with the balance; the piano sounded particularly odd when contrasting the cheerful theme of the bullfight with the tragic theme of Carmen's death. A recording by a full orchestra was used for the bullring music and this was poorly integrated with the live music.

Addressing the production values, some ideas were valid and some struck us as bizarre. The program notes would have the audience believe that the reflections on the water are meant to make us reflect upon our emotional gaps and how we fill them. Not for one moment during the show nor afterward has this entered our introspective mind. We cannot say that mirrors would have served better but we can say that making singers perform in several inches of water seems a form of artist abuse.

When Don Jose and Escamillo fight with water pistols (we kid you not) the audience laughed out loud, as they did at other points in the performance. We are not saying that comic moments don't belong in a tragedy; the Bard himself had humorous scenes in his tragedies. But this was just weird.

It also seemed inapposite for Micaëla and Carmen to have a cuddle session toward the end. There was not a shred of evidence to motivate that scene. As a matter of fact the condensation of the plot did not provide much motivation for a lot of the action. The wedding scene came at a point when Carmen was through with Don Jose and we thought it was a fantasy of his.

In the Mérimée novella, Micaëla does not even exist-- but Garcia, Carmen's husband (Quentin Bruno) does. His presence in this version seemed to serve to illustrate Don Jose's violent nature.

The rape/death scene seemed particularly badly directed since Carmen just lay down in the water as if she wanted to be raped. If this was supposed to make some kind of psychological point, it didn't float.

The production team comprised Victoria Collado as Director, Anna Driftmier as Scenographer/Costume Designer, and Charlotte McPhearson as Lighting Designer. We are not sure but surmise that directorial decisions were made jointly. 

In any case, Ms. McPhearson's lighting was suitably dramatic. An ensemble of three men wore headbands with bright lights which added to the eerie quality. They were Theodore Sarge (who had a brief moment as Lillas Pastia making a speech), Quentin Bruno (who had his brief moment as Garcia), and Geddy Warner (who had his brief moment as Zuniga).
We were wondering whether opera newbies would be the right audience for this piece. It is short. It is dramatic. It has sex and violence. We tried to approach it with the openness of a newbie and still found fault. What about diehard opera fans? We think they would find it a travesty with all that cut-and-paste of the music. Of course, it could be fun to identify where in the Bizet the music was taken from. "Oh wait!  Isn't that the music from where Micaëla is looking for Don Jose in the mountains?"

Perhaps if someone want to retell the Carmen story, he/she might consider writing their own music!

Photos from the production can be seen on our Facebook page--Voce di Meche.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, May 6, 2019

ALANNA FRAIZE PROFESSIONAL STUDIES RECITAL

Alanna Fraize

We are gluttons for vocal music! We were feeling totally satisfied by a superb George London Foundation concert at The Morgan Library and yet...and yet we could not pass up the opportunity to hear the lovely mezzo-soprano Alanna Fraize for what could be the last time for a couple years. Students we love at the local conservatories graduate and enter young artist programs around the country and around the world. We lose sight of them for awhile and have only our memories to hold onto until they return. And by then they are usually famous!

We have followed Ms. Fraize for a few years, both at Manhattan School of Music and in her performances with A.R.E. Opera (now City Lyric Opera). We have reviewed her Mozart, Rossini, Delibes, and Puccini. How could we not witness her final recital at MSM!

With that in mind we rushed up to Manhattan School of Music, rain-soaked and wind-blown. We were rewarded with some outstanding performances, our favorite of which was Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Although usually sung by a baritone, it is not unheard of for a woman to perform it. Indeed, Ms. Fraize has as deep a feeling for Mahler as a performer as we have as a listener.

The poet witnesses the marriage of the beloved to someone else. He (the actual translation of "Geselle" is "journeyman"--a step above an apprentice) endures the grief of loss, the consolation of nature (at first rejected but ultimately accepted) and finally comes to some kind of peace with himself. This offers the performer all kinds of opportunities to express grief, despair, suffering, and resolution. Whether Mahler first wrote it for voice and piano or voice and orchestra is debatable but there is no doubt that the evocative melodies appear in his symphonies.

Hearing Ms. Fraize's dramatic interpretation with all manner of vocal coloration justified our mad dash uptown. But that wasn't the only gem on the program. As much as we love Verdi's operas, we are enchanted by his songs. The fine vibrato Ms. Fraize employed suited the songs very well. We love the indifference of the singer in "Stornello" in contrast with the deprecating attitude toward the neglectful lover in "Non t'accostare all'urna".  "Keep your damn flowers", she says. "Where were you when I needed you".  ("You tell him sister", we were thinking.)

There was a set of songs by composers who wrote for film in the mid 20th c. Our favorite in this group was Nino Rota's "Come stai? Hai dormito?" from I due timidi which we enjoyed so much last winter at MSM.

The program closed with Jake Heggie's cycle Paper Wings, which was commissioned by Frederica von Stade who composed the lyrics. The work premiered in 1997.  We enjoyed Ms. Fraize's storytelling and personality in "Paper Wings". We also liked the bluesy "A Route to the Sky" in which we heard strains of Beethoven's "Für Elise" in the piano of Ms. Fraize's excellent coach/accompanist Nobuko Amemiya.

It was a lovely recital and there was a very special encore in which the singer's mother accompanied her singing "Song for Newfoundland" by Wayne Chaulk. Imagine all these years, all those reviews, and we never knew that Ms. Fraize comes from Newfoundland!  Let's have a big round of applause for Newfies!

(c) meche kroop

LONDON'S LOVELY LADIES

Ken Noda, Julie Adams, and Emily D'Angelo

After two weeks of operas about women being suppressed and abused it came as quite a relief to enjoy a George London Foundation recital in which two women made a strong showing of artistry and presence. Soprano Julie Adams and mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo have no qualms about showing both beauty and strength. We couldn't have imagined a better recital, well worth the soaking we got from yet another rainy day.

The big surprise was how Ms. D'Angelo's artistry surpassed our inherent dislike of American 20th c. songs. We have suffered through Copland's settings of Emily Dickinson's poetry on a few occasions and we were not expecting to be so drawn in. But, there it is! True artistry can bring out hidden qualities in anything. (We are thinking of how Moroccan Cauliflower Soup changed our mind about that previously detested vegetable.)

We felt as if this gifted young singer were composing the poetry as she sang it but actually, she was "merely" channeling Ms. Dickinson. Words on a page became experienced reality. "Heart we will forget him" was particularly affecting. She is a true story-teller!

She performed two works about eerie myths in a single set. In "The Seal Man" by 20th c. composer Rebecca Clarke, she related the story of a woman so madly in love that she follows her beloved into the sea and drowns-- quite a metaphor! We preferred Clara Schumann's telling of the tale of "Die Lorelie", probably because we prefer German lieder of the 19th c. better than 20th c. songs in English. The former rhymes and scans; the latter is prosy.

Ms. D'Angelo's instrument has a wonderful texture and her artistry has earned awards and recognition including a 2018 George London award. All the ingredients for success are there; it is gratifying to read about the many roles for which she has been chosen.

It take courage to include Schoenberg and Berg on a recital program. The vocal lines are strange to the ear and the text even stranger. And yet she made sense of them with her precise German and apt phrasing.

Nonetheless, our favorite among Ms. D'Angelo's selections was "Sein wir wieder gut" from Strauss' comedy Ariadne auf Naxos. She captured all the enthusiasm of a young composer who recognizes the reconciliation required of this most sacred art.

Ms. Adams is likewise the recipient of many awards including a 2015 George London award; she too has earned recognition for her powerful dramatic soprano which lent itself so well to "Elsa's Dream" from Wagner's Lohengrin. She sang with ardent passion and ringing tone, bringing out the yearning in Elsa's character. We loved it!

Lovers of Strauss (and we count ourself in that group) could not help but thrill to her performance of two songs--"Morgen" and "Beim Schlafengehen". Both songs are of a peaceful nature, the first one a shared peacefulness, and the second one a solitary peace. In "Morgen" we realized we were holding our breath! At the word "stumm", her coloration and diction took us into a new place. The violin accompaniment by David Chan echoed the vocal line to great effect.

And look how she interpreted a pair of songs by Rachmaninoff! We generally expect "Ne poy, Krasavitsa" to be sung by a man so it was an interesting choice. It is so filled with Russian soul that we could feel the pain in our heart. We love the way the piano echoes the Oriental mode of the vocal line and vice versa. In "Son" we enjoyed the dreamlike rippling in the piano. This seems like a good place to tell how much we appreciate Ken Noda's playing, about which we will have more to say further along.

Grieg too wrote about a dream. In "Ein Traum" the dreamer's dream becomes reality and what passion we heard in Ms. Adams' coloration! This set of songs included some low lying passages but this did not daunt our singer, not even in the regret filled "Zur Rosenzeit".

We were thinking how perfect the recital would have been had there been a duet. Lo and behold, these two lovely ladies provided an encore that was the perfect cherry on the sundae--"Belle nuit" from Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffman. We had just heard it Friday night but would be happy to hear it again tomorrow. The harmony of the two contrasting voices was delicious and it didn't hurt that these two ladies looked the parts they played. There was shapely Ms. Adams with flowing blond locks, very believable as an enchanting courtesan; and next to her the stately Ms. D'Angelo with her short hair and androgynous attire, looking like a young student.

We could end here on a high note, so to speak, but we would be remiss not to say more about the superb violinist Mr. Chan who opened the program playing the "Allegro vivo" from Debussy's Sonata in G minor. We know very little about violin technique but we know artistry when we hear it and noticed how similar the violin is to the human voice in terms of dynamics and phrasing. Both Mr. Chan and Mr. Noda began with a delicate touch that quickly swelled into passion. Mr. Noda's piano produced purling figures to accompany and support the wordless voice of the violin.

The two instrumentalists were even more impressive in the "Méditation" from Massenet's Thaïs in which the violin sang its secrets supported by some gorgeous arpeggi in the piano. We love the way tenderness gave way to passion.

What an exceptional concert! We love the fact that the George London Foundation supports these young singers at the early stage of their careers and then invites them back a few years later so we can assess their growth. We love witnessing promise becoming perfection!

(c) meche kroop