We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Thursday, February 28, 2019


Matthew Wages, Alexa Devlin, Jovani Demetrie, Claire Leyden, Andrew Klima, Sarah Caldwell Smith, David Seatter, and Joanie Brittingham

The world needs people with obsessions, people who care deeply about something and want to share it with others. Alyce Mott is just such a person. As Founder and Artistic Director of Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live! , she is making sure that Victor Herbert's substantial legacy will not be forgotten. His music is timeless and melodic, having provided inspiration for composers such as Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. If only contemporary composers would listen and be inspired!

Last night's program was a compilation of his love songs; the air in Christ and St. Stephen's sanctuary was filled with romance. The superb performer and baritone David Seatter served as narrator, wittily introducing the various sections about longing for love, missing love, awakening love, and curiosity about love. What other composer wrote enough love songs to fill an entire evening!

Music Director Michael Thomas provided the excellent accompaniment for the evening and the singers included the dapper David Seatter himself as well as sopranos Sarah Caldwell Smith, Joanie Brittingham, and Claire Leyden; mezzo-soprano Alexa Devlin; tenor Andrew Klima (new to VHRPL); baritone Jovani Demetrie; and bass Matthew Wages. They sang in various combinations and maintained a true ensemble feeling throughout.

Every song was a gem and no doubt every member of the packed house had his/her own favorites. We will mention a few of ours.

Mr. Klima was at his best in "Mary Came Over to Me" and we found our heart touched by the story of a young man from Ireland who was finally able to bring his sweetheart over to join him. There must have been many stories like that one and probably other songs but this was one that stayed with us.

The last time we heard Ms. Smith and Ms. Leyden sing "For Better or for Worse" in a performance of Princess Pat, we thought the harmonies rivaled those of Délibes in "Dôme épais", a real treat. We were thrilled to revisit it.

Ms. Leyden gave a beautiful performance of "The Angelus" from Sweethearts which will be presented April 30 and May 1, with orchestra. We can scarcely wait for it! She was joined by Mr. Demetrie and the entire company, giving us a great taste of what we can look forward to.

We didn't know that Herbert wrote a show about Cyrano de Bergerac with lyrics by Harry B. Smith, but the excerpt we heard "Let the Sun of Thine Eyes" was filled with humor as Mr. Wages as Cyrano sang a line beautifully  and Mr. Klima as Christian repeated it as unartistically as possible, trying to impress Ms. Leyden. 

Ms. Smith had a lovely solo in "Where the Fairest Flow'rs are Blooming" from Babette, which allowed her to show off her gorgeous coloratura in a prolonged vocalise. From the same show Ms. Devlin and Mr. Wages had a clever duet in which he was arrogant and she was resistant.

From The Debutante, Ms. Leyden and Mr. Demetrie had a cute duet "Never Mention Love When We're Alone", enhanced by some of Susanna Organek's graceful choreography.

From The Wizard of the Nile, Harry B. Smith's clever lyrics for "What is Love?" were given a sprightly melody by Mr. Herbert; Ms. Leyden portrayed the innocent girl questioning the wise senior of Mr. Seatter.

The four men created a delightful ensemble for "My Fair Unknown" from Miss Dolly Dollars. Again we found Mr. Smith's lyrics clever and charming.

Ms. Brittingham had several lovely solos which showed off her bright resonant sound but we favored "When Love Awakes" from Eileen.

Ms. Devlin's superb solo involved some reading of the cards in " 'Neath the Southern Moon" from Naughty Marietta.

The program closed with "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life" with the entire company filling the sanctuary with joyous sound.

With our focus so heavily on opera, we might never have discovered this treasure trove of tunes from the turn of the 20th c. and for this we are extremely grateful to Ms. Mott. Long live Victor Herbert!

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Director Justin Griffith Brown coaching the role of Frasquita (photo by Kathleen Spencer for City Lyric Opera)

WorkshOpera? A very clever neologism to describe one of the initiatives of City Lyric Opera. We will first quote from their website and then we will describe our personal experience of the event.

"Too often in professional companies, artists are rushed through musical and physical role preparation. Often companies are on a tight rehearsal schedule and performers aren't allowed the time to explore their characters and the music together as a collaborative group. Here at City Lyric Opera, we believe that so much knowledge can be gained from taking the time to work together as a group to put a piece of music on its feet in a safe environment. WorkshOpera is process-based, not performance based so it is not open to the public and does not culminate in a performance. All artists are encouraged to play, experiment, and to make mistakes in order to better inform their own sense of artistry and musicianship. In the 4-hour workshop, singers will work directly with a conductor and stage director to explore their characters and musical style in the context of an operatic scene. Singers are expected to coach the repertoire ahead of time with our rehearsal pianist and arrive to the workshop memorized and ready to work."

We arrived ready to be a "fly on the wall", to learn how this process worked. We audience members go to a performance, sit in our seats and either we feel entertained and enlightened, or we don't. Most of us have no idea what goes on leading up to this performance. To know is to appreciate!

If you have been fortunate enough to have studied voice, you know the countless hours of study the participants in the WorkshOpera had put in beforehand. They probably read their part aloud, sang their part on a neutral vowel, then learned to sing the words on the melody. They likely put in a lot of time and effort just learning French.

So now, all five participants, chosen early in the season by audition, were ready to delve into the Act II quintet from Bizet's Carmen "Nous avons en tête une affaire". The four hour WorkshOpera comprised two sessions with Director Justin Griffith Brown (well remembered from his innovative direction of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte for Bare Opera) and two sessions with Maestro Thomas Muraco (whose Opera Repertoire Ensemble at Manhattan School of Music has delighted us for years).

Mr. Brown began by asking the five singers to introduce themselves. We always thought directors worked by telling the singers what he wanted them to do but this was an entirely different experience. He listened to each one tell how he/she felt about their character and asked interesting questions. Which one was older? How did they know each other? What was motivating them?

He said a bit about what was going on in Seville during that period and told about the racial tension existing between the gypsies and the Spaniards. This would surely color the performances.

There were physical exercises designed to promote group cohesion and focus. The singers walked around in a circle, maintaining equal distances. At a certain point, one person would change direction causing the others to follow suit.

Another exercise seemed designed to keep the conversational scene alive. It involved tossing an imaginary ball toward another member in the circle who would then toss it to someone else. The words used to toss were "Zip, Zap, and Zop". The exercise was then complicated by performing the same action while moving in a circle. Then the exercise was performed with singers mingling around the room without boundaries. 

We observed the singers meeting the challenge of focusing on the physical representation of a conversation whilst being in different positions vis-a-vis one another.

In this tag team type of situation, it was now Maestro Muraco's turn to impart his vocal coaching. The participants sat facing him and were instructed to run through the text of the scene, reading their lines slowly. This gave him an opportunity to evaluate their French and where they put the stresses. He made sure that they carried each phrase through to the end.

Pronunciation was given a fine tuning, especially regarding the "schwa".  In a fast paced scene like this, consonants must be incisively articulated and rhythms must be accurate. All this must be accomplished while maintaining a legato line. Singers, as they move around the stage, must keep the conductor within their peripheral vision and be on top of the beat.

After reciting the lines, the scene was sung through with piano accompaniment and further corrections given.

If the singer knows the music well then the staging would not throw them off.

And staging was just what Mr. Brown did during his second session with the participants. Tables and chairs were set up to create Lillas Pastia's tavern. Every line that was sung created its own movement. It did indeed seem a safe space for the singers to experiment. 

It made perfect sense for Carmen to get up and move away from the others as she declines to join their latest "affaire". Similarly, it made sense for Dancairo and El Remendado to enlist the help of Frasquita and Mercedes in persuading Carmen to join them. The flirtatious aspect between the characters was explored as well as the manipulation of the women by the two men. It seemed very organic to us, as if the singers were creating the scene spontaneously.

We learned that changes in the music's tonality or rhythm can inspire a character to move. We observed the five singers coming together as a unit and we doubt that we can ever watch this scene again without being cognizant of these shifts and motivations!

Mr. Muraco took over once again for a run through with the participants, now at a more advanced level. Before adjourning, we were treated to a staged "performance" of the scene. We found it engaging and involving, even more than actual performances with sets and costumes. Voices took on new colors as the characters had become more developed.

We might repeat that this was not a rehearsal for a performance. The five singers will leave with enhanced security in their characterization and singing. One might say they have the role "under their belt". We would like to further point out that City Lyric Opera does not charge singers anything for this priceless experience. It is funded by donations from opera lovers who support the art form. In our opinion, it is a very worthy investment.

A big loud "BRAVO" for City Lyric Opera and their singer-centric approach. Singers themselves, Co-Founders and Co-Artistic Directors Kathleen Spencer and Megan Gillis have created something remarkable in three years.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, February 26, 2019


Johanna Rusanen, Maestro Kent Tritle, and Takaoki Onishi

What a well-balanced program we heard last night at Carnegie Hall! The first half was delicate, ethereal and feminine. The second half was powerful, riveting and masculine. The Oratorio Society of New York, with Maestro Kent Tritle at the helm, surely earned the standing ovation and any forthcoming accolades.

The first piece on the program was Part II of Hector Berlioz' Tristia, Op. 18 entitled "La mort d'Ophelie", which was sensitively conducted by Maestro David Rosenmeyer. Berlioz fell in love with the English actress who played Ophelia in Paris in 1827; she became his muse and initiated his life long love of Shakespeare. 

Who cares that they married and split up when we music lovers have reaped the benefits --Roméo et Juliette, Béatrice et Bénédict, and the lovely piece we enjoyed last night. 

Gertrude's lines from Act IV of Hamlet were adapted by Ernest Legouvé and Berlioz set the text as a solo song in 1842; it was arranged for a soprano/alto chorus in 1849. Last night, the female members of the Chorus and the Orchestra of the Oratorio Society of New York distinguished themselves with the clarity and delicacy of their performance. It was ethereal.

Maestro Tritle took over the podium to conduct Part III of Claude Debussy's Nocturnes, entitled "Sirènes". If we didn't know that the word means "mermaid" in English, we would have thought it meant "serene". This piece has nothing to do with an angry sea causing storms and shipwrecking sailors. This is a calm sea, as introduced by some lovely arpeggi on the harp.

In this piece, the all female chorus delivers a filmy tapestry of sound inspiring feelings of peace and calm. There were no words, just a blended vocalise of gorgeous harmonies. This was just what one needed to hear after a stressful day!

The second half of the program was quite different; we would call it exciting and demanding of both the singers and the audience. The sound of the Finnish language is strange to the ear and the text has a music of its own which Jean Sibelius matched and emphasized in his inimitable musical language.

Sibelius grew up in a country that had been ruled by Sweden since the Middle Ages and by Russia from 1809 onward. The time had come for Finland to fight for its independence and for the use of its own (very difficult) language, which is not related to the Scandinavian languages but somewhat related to Estonian.

A friendship with two brothers active in the Finnish nationalist movement, not to mention his romance with their sister, drew him into the movement. Finnish folklorist Elias Lönnrot had published a collection of folk stories in 1835 entitled Kalevala. In 1891, Sibelius returned from musical studies in Berlin and Vienna, determined to compose this five-movement symphonic and choral poem. It would be the first major composition in Finnish.

The Kalevala comprises 50 songs and the part which Sibelius set is called Kullervo Op. 7,  and begins at number 30. (We heard the first song sung by Meghan Kasanders at Alice Tully Hall and loved it.) It tells the story of a most unfortunate young man who endured a tragic childhood and wound up seducing a woman who turned out to be his long lost sister. He comes to a sad end, impaling himself on his own sword.

The role of Kullervo was sung by the brilliant baritone Takaoki Onishi who has made quite a name for himself since his days at Juilliard when we first started praising his thrilling instrument and the artistry with which he employs it. In this case, we can forgive the singer for his use of the music stand. Trying to read the language is sufficient challenge, but singing it???? In spite of the challenge Mr. Onishi sounded wonderful with his expansive round tones filling Carnegie Hall with overtones.

We will heap the same praise on soprano Johanna Rusanen who had the advantages of being a Finnish national and of having performed the work before. She has a sizable instrument that has an exciting ring to it and she sang the parts of the three resistant women Kullervo tries to seduce. As number three, she succumbs to his show of wealth.

The heavy lifting was done by the men of the Oratorio Society, augmented by a male contingent from the Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus who blended in seamlessly. It falls to the chorus to tell the story. The text makes use of repetition reminding us that these stories were told and told again.

The introduction was symphonic, as was the event of the consummation of Kullervo's lust, and also the music for the battle. The music was varied but thematically connected, giving the work a feeling of unity. Sibelius' orchestration was inordinately colorful. Thrumming strings underscored the scene in which Kullervo and his sister tell of their origins and timpani revealed the portent of his discovery and his shame.

We wouldn't hesitate to hear more works like this. We cannot stop thinking about all the folk stories involving unrecognized family members. The Greeks had their Oedipus and the Norse had their Wälsung twins. 

We would also like to hear the other parts of the Berlioz and the Debussy. Perhaps the Oratorio Society of New York, now in their 146th year (!) could be persuaded to give us the "full Monty" next year!

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, February 24, 2019


Kathleen O'Mara, Marie Engle, Megan Esther Grey, Jennifer Johnson Cano, and Matthew Polenzani
Julius Drake and Matthew Polenzani
Matthew Polenzani is a beloved tenor, well known to those who frequent The Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps there is no tenor in his generation who can fill the Metropolitan Opera with so much beautiful sound. But do all of our readers know what a superb recitalist he is?

It is a special thrill to experience his artistry in a smaller house.  It has been four years since we heard his recital at Alice Tully Hall and six years since his recital at the Morgan Library as part of the George London Foundation recital series--a return which celebrated his 1998 award.

Yesterday's recital at Zankel Hall was even more intimate and we appreciated 
Mr. Polenzani's generous Italianate tone in both German and Czech; it is replete with resonance and his diction, thankfully, makes every word count. Still, the house lights were kept at a level that permitted those who do not understand foreign languages to read the translations.

The sound is huge and operatic when passionate intensity is called for-- but our preference was for the tender passages in which he mined great depth of feeling at even the most pianissimo level of dynamics.

Accompanied by the fine pianist Julius Drake, he opened his program with a half dozen Schubert lieder. He and Mr. Drake make a fine partnership since Mr. Drake's sensitive playing is never short of supportive. In the slow and melancholy "Nachtstück", the old man's harp was recreated by Mr. Drake's delicate arpeggi; Mr. Polenzani colored every word for maximum meaning.

In "Im Frühling", our personal favorite, the singer waxes nostalgic for happier days and Mr. Polenzani trailed off in a delicate decrescendo at the end. Schubert's brief interpolation of the minor key was well negotiated for maximum emotional effect. "Der Einsame" is a song of contentment and we have always called it "the cricket song" since the pianist gets to simulate their sound.

We haven't heard "Ständchen" so tenderly performed since we heard Paul Appleby sing it in Santa Fe. What an affecting performance with the tenderness yielding to passionate intensity!

Beethoven's song cycle An die ferne Geliebte is marked by a smooth segué between songs, creating a sustained mood. Alois Jeitteles' text uses imagery taken from the natural world to express longing for the beloved. Our favorite part is in "Wo die Berge so blau" when the piano echoes the unforgettable downward scale passage "Schauen herein" as it does in the subsequent "Möchte ich sein" and "Innere Pein" (now in a minor key) and "Ewiglich sein". That motif pulls on the heart as only Beethoven's can do.

The bittersweet "Es kehret der Maien" opens with a lilting piano that shows us an aural picture of birds and babbling brooks. The cheerful mood dissipates in the last two verses but acceptance is achieved in the final song "Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder". That sounds like a good life lesson; when you can't fulfill your longings, accept it gracefully.

Of Brahms' Zigeunerlieder, beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, our favorite was "Brauner Bursche fürht zum Tanze" with its spirited rhythm. This took Ms. Johnson Cano into some lower register territory which she negotiated without strain. Her performances always delight us.

The second half of the program was devoted to Leoś Janáček's song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared. There is an interesting story about the text by Josef Kalda; in an elaborate hoax, which will resonate to those of our generation, the work was presented in 1916 in a Brno newspapers as "From the Pen of a Self-Taught Peasant", claimed to have been written by a farmboy who had mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a story of having been seduced by a gypsy girl who bore his child, and then running off with her and her gypsy family.

This is not so different from "Songs of Bilitis" which were given a false origin as well.  And what about films that are purported to be "found footage"? Today we are accustomed to such pranks but we wonder if people of a century ago would have been enraged over the deception. Fortunately, they never found out because the hoax went unrevealed until 1998!

In any case, the work is an interesting one and Janáček's passionate outpouring of music expressed his unfulfilled longing for a much younger married woman. Czech is such a difficult language and it is impressive how well the composer matches its rhythms in his music. We notice that the lines of text are short. 

The story is an appealing one and filled with detail of farm life, such as fashioning a new shaft for a broken plow. There are also plenty of details about the seductive gypsy girl with her black hair and white breasts. The poor farm boy is driven mad with desire and post-coital regret, with the sexual congress depicted in a piano solo. This allowed Mr. Drake to let out all the stops!

Music stands were used and, in this case, we can understand and tolerate their presence; but we must say that the part we enjoyed the best was when Ms. Johnson Cano walked onstage to sing the part of the gypsy Zefka--off the book! And she sang the hell out of it!

Contributing to the texture of the music was a chorus of three women who sang from the balcony--soprano Kathleen O'Mara and mezzo-sopranos Marie Engle and Megan Esther Grey. They sounded like a choir of angels!

This was interesting music, filled with pungent harmonies and wild rhythms. We don't know if we will ever get to hear it again but are very glad to have experienced it once.

As usual, the audience rose to its collective feet and showered the artists with accolades. Mr. Polenzani pointed out that the final work was a "tough act to follow" but he nonetheless rewarded his fans with a heartfelt delivery of "Danny Boy".

(c) meche kroop


Sungah Baek, Emma Lavandier, Scott Mooney, Katrin Bulke, and Arthur Lai

St. John's in the Village was filled to overflowing last night and there seemed to be a frantic search for bridge chairs to accommodate the large crowd that came to hear "A Winter Concert". Fans of soprano Katrin Bulke came from California and New Hampshire. It was quite an event! Since the arrival of Reverend Graeme Napier, the church's sanctuary has been home to some outstanding musical events.

We have been hearing quite a bit of Ms. Bulke lately and have enjoyed every minute of it. She has an engaging stage presence and a versatile instrument that is dazzling in its coloratura but substantial enough for some of the heavier repertory. We might have called last night's concert "Katrin Bulke and Friends".

She was joined by the fine mezzo-soprano Emma Lavandier, tenor Arthur Lai who stepped in for the ailing Darrell Lauer, and baritone Scott Mooney. Both male singers were new to us. Getting a group together which comprises those four fachs presented unlimited opportunity for gorgeous duets and ensembles.

The evening felt like a party. It opened with a champagne toast ("Libiamo" from Verdi's La Traviata), and closed with another champagne toast (the final glorious scene from Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus).

Ms. Bulke made a splendid Violetta, leaving no doubt about the character's ambivalence. In "È strano...Sempre libera", she frets over accepting Alfredo's offer of love and wonders whether she should reject it and continue her exhausting life of parties and excess. We all know what she chose and how it worked out. The interesting part for us and the reason she is our favorite operatic character is that she grows in maturity.

In Act II, Violetta faces a different decision, introduced by Mr. Mooney. Shall she thumb her nose at Germont père's request for her sacrifizio, or shall she do the altruistic thing and release Alfredo to spare his family the ostracism brought on by a scandal. Miraculously, Ms. Bulke was able to limn this characterological growth through vocal coloration as well as by acting. 

She performed another duty to which we would like to call attention. She explained the circumstances of the pieces so that anyone in the audience who was unfamiliar with the aria would be able to grasp the context. She performed this task without written notes but with spontaneous charm.

The other singers did the same, making it a perfect event with which to introduce a newbie to opera. None of the selections were obscure and one could just relax and enjoy hearing one's favorites.

In "Viens Malika...Dôme épais" (from Leo Delibes' Lakmé) Ms. Bulke and Ms. Lavandier harmonized perfectly and towards the end, wandered to the back of the sanctuary with both voices floating upward and filling the room with gorgeous overtones.

The same pair gave voice to the duet "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour" from Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman with Ms. Bulke singing the role of the courtesan Giulietta and Ms. Lavandier singing the role of Nicklausse. We want to hear them do this "off book".

There were other enjoyable duets on the program; Ms. Lavandier took the role of Zerlina and ran with it as Mr. Mooney succeeded in seducing her in "La ci darem la mano" from Mozart's Don Giovanni. Unfortunately, because of the last minute cast change, it was necessary for the singers to be "on the book" and we hope we get to hear them in the future without the music stand interfering with the connection.

The same pair gave us a fine "Dunque io son" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia with Rosina catching Figaro unawares by being all prepared with a note for "Lindoro". This was after Ms. Lavandier's captivating performance of "Una voce poco fa" from the same opera; she was particularly fine in the fioritura and demonstrated an impressive upper extension.

Mr. Mooney had his solo in the ironic "Bella siccome un angelo" from Donizetti's Don Pasquale and Mr. Lai had his solo in "Che gelida manina" from Puccini's La Bohême, expressing the emotions more vocally than dramatically.

We particularly enjoyed the final quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto, a quartet we hear several times a month and of which we never tire. Verdi's genius lay in giving each character a different vocal line and different emotions that somehow comes together in a gorgeous tapestry of sound.

Before the finale, we heard the romantic "Lippen Schweigen" from Franz Lehár's Die lustige Witwe performed by Ms. Bulke as Hanna Glawari and Mr. Mooney as Count Danilo--completely charming.

The program closed with the finale from Die Fledermaus with Ms. Lavandier kicking up her dramatic heels as the bored Prince Orlovsky. This brought the evening to a joyful close. It was just how we wanted to spend our Saturday night, in the company of our favorite operatic characters brought to life by some very persuasive performances.

Accompanist for the evening was collaborative pianist Sungah Baek, who sounded particularly fine in the Delibes.

Please note that Ms. Bulke and Ms. Lavandier will have a Gallic/Germanic recital at St. John's on April 11th.

(c) meche kroop


Saturday, February 23, 2019


George London Foundation Awards Competition Finals

Yesterday the George London Foundation Awards Competition Finals were held at the Morgan Library. What we like best about this competition is that the members of the audience get to mingle with the finalists whilst the judges are conferring; we get to share their excitement and to find out what is happening in their burgeoning careers. We also love the idea that every one of the finalists gets recognition and a cash award. These young artists are all winners! We are glad not to be one of the judges; we could never pick some over the others.

If you, dear reader, must know who got the big money, we refer you to the Foundation website. As is our wont, we would like to share our experience of this exciting event without dwelling upon who got the major money. The fact is that every one of the sixteen finalists impressed us with an outstanding performance.

One aspect delighted us no end--the profusion of tenors--all of them different from one another and all superb. Beginning with the "lightest" of the voices, we loved Matthew Swenson's sweet serenade "Ecco ridente in cielo" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. He was ardent and had all the flexibility we would wish for in the fioritura.

Charles Sy gave a dramatically valid interpretation of "Ich baue ganz", Belmonte's third act aria from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which we rarely get to hear outside of an operatic performance. He spun out his tone like a fine silk thread and was outstanding in the embellishments.

L'Africaine, Meyerbeer's grand opera of 1865--his last--is unknown to us; after hearing Matthew White's persuasive performance of Vasco da Gama's aria "O paradis", we decided we would love to see/hear this opera in toto. Mr. White used his entire body to convey the wonders of the island. His pleasing tone was marked by a soaring upper register and his French was quite lovely.

Totally different was Joseph Tancredi's warm sound in German. "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Franz Lehár's Das Land des Lächelns which he performed with great depth of feeling and no strain whatsoever. We admired his superb German diction.

The last tenor we heard was Kyle van Schoonhoven whom we have heard many times; we remember him best for his performance of Peter Grimes' mad scene. We were happy to hear him flex his Wagnerian muscles in "Mein lieber Schwan" from Lohengrin. His powerful instrument is that of a heldentenor and we could understand every word of his German. A fine performance it was!

Speaking of Wagner, it is time to heap accolades on the sopranos. Rebecca Pedersen bowled us over with her "Dich teure Halle" from Tannhäuser. Her large and generous sound accommodated all the vowels with crisp consonants making every word clear.

Sarah Joyce Cooper used her coloratura effectively to limn Violetta's crisis of ambivalence in "E strano...Sempre libera" from Verdi's La Traviata, perhaps our very favorite opera.

Shannon Jennings revealed a facility for verismo in "Stridono Lassù" from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Elizabeth Reiter's satisfactory performance of "No word from Tom", from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, would have been improved by crisper English diction and some better piano accompaniment.

Olivia Smith's performance of "Deh vieni non tardar" from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro showed a lot of promise and maturity beyond her tender years. At 18, she was the youngest competitor. We'd love to see her develop this aria in the direction of teasing the eavesdropping Figaro with a bit of exaggeration.

Moving on to those marvelous mezzos, Samantha Gossard's rich sound was just right for "Connais-tu le pays" from Jules Massenet's rarely heard opera Mignon. We are familiar with the Goethe bildungsroman and with the many settings of the Mignon songs but would still love to hear the entire opera. Ms. Gossard's French was lovely and she exhibited plenty of punch in the lower register.

Amanda Lynn Bottoms' instrument is marked by an appealing vibrato and she uses this instrument with artistry, particularly with regard to dynamic variety. Her acting was likewise impressive in the heartbreaking "Charlotte's Letter Scene" from Massenet's Werther. Ms. Bottoms is no slouch when it comes to acting! It was a most convincing performance.

Polixeni Tsiouvaras gave a lovely performance of "Se Romeo t'uccise un figlio" from Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, another opera which is rarely performed, the plot of which is quite a departure from that of Shakespeare's play. In this aria Romeo offers himself to the Capulets as a substitute son for the one he killed! Ms. Tsiouvaras has a true mezzo texture and has her instrument under perfect control.

Carolyn Sproule also evinced a unique sound and sang Bellini's "Deh! Proteggimi o Dio", Adalgisa's Act I prayer; she sang it with fine technique and great depth of feeling.

Strangely, there were no baritones this year but we heard two low male voices. Bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian, whom we best remember as Sparafucile at Santa Fe Opera, showed new expansion in his lower register in another aria unknown to us. 

The best part of hearing an aria for the first time is anticipating the pleasure you might find in the entire opera; in this case, having read the libretto, we are not so sure! Perhaps it has been shelved for good reason. In any event,  Mr. Gabrielian gave a measured but forceful performance of the intense "Quand la flamme de l'amour" from Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth.

Finally, we heard Mefistofele's "Vous qui faites l'endormie", known as the "laughing song" from Charles Gounod's Faust, sung by bass Ron Dukes who has a dark covered sound and needs a bit more Gallic line.

The one disappointment of the afternoon was the piano accompaniment. We decline to name the guilty party but his playing was ham-handed and often threatened to drown out the singers. There seemed to be a lack of sensitivity to the score and, worse, a lack of sensitivity to the singers who deserved better.

Fortunately, that did not spoil the pleasure of hearing 16 fine young artists.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, February 21, 2019


Front Row: Mer Wohlgemuth, Kady Evanyshyn, Chance Jonas-O'Toole
Second Row: Shakèd Bar, Dominik Belavy
Third Row: Myka Murphy

Art is like pornography; we cannot describe it for you but we know when we see it! Last night at Juilliard we experienced ART without a whiff of the "artsy-fartsy". Real art. Or should we say real arts. The art of composition by Henry Purcell, the art of poetry by Nahum Tate, the art of conceptualization, realization, and direction by Mary Birnbaum, the art of singing by the students of Juilliard Vocal Arts, the art of Early Music by Juilliard415, the art of scenic design by Grace Laubacher, the art of lighting by Anshuman Bhatia, the art of costuming by Oana Botez, and the art of choreography by Claudia Schreier. WOW!  That was a lot of artistry onstage.

In 2016 we saw three or four iterations of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas--one with Broadway stars, and a couple by small companies. We mostly enjoyed them but can barely remember them. Last night's production stood out for so many reason that we are unlikely to forget it.

It is unlikely that you, dear reader, will be able to score a ticket so we feel compelled to be more than usually descriptive of our experience. Since this is, first of all, an opera, let us begin by praising the young singers. Certain qualities stood out in every single one--consummate skill in the melodic vocal lines accompanied by clear English diction and convincing dramatic performance. The English was sung with such excellent legato that it may as well have been Italian. Projected titles seemed redundant.

In Nahum Tate's libretto, which does not completely follow the story as told in Virgil's Aeneid, poor Trojan Aeneas is tricked into abandoning Dido, Princess of Carthage, in order to found Rome. Or so he is told by the false Mercury, enlisted by the Sorceress. No reason is given for the Sorceress to have such enmity toward Dido although the costuming lets us believe that the Sorceress and her witches come from the serving class.

As Dido, mezzo-soprano Shakèd Bar gave a riveting performance as a far stronger Carthaginian Queen than we have heretofore imagined or seen. Every note and gesture and facial expression supported her interpretation. She seemed born to sing the Baroque repertory. 

As Aeneas, her somewhat weaker romantic interest, baritone Dominik Belavy turned in a fine performance. He is obliged to be a bit "wishy-washy", agreeing to the false Mercury's demands and then changing his mind. His flowered brocaded suit was in strong contrast with Ms. Bar's "Wonderwoman" costume with thigh high boots.

As Dido's two handmaidens, we enjoyed soprano Mer Wohlgemuth as Belinda, and mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn as Anna.  Anna enjoys a charming flirtation with the First Sailor who was here presented as Aeneas' companion and sung by tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole who has a most captivating vibrato. We love the part where Anna leaves a flower for him as she exits the playing area.

Who else could have portrayed the Sorceress but mezzo-soprano Myka Murphy, who erupted with malevolent glee coloring her impressively rich voice. Her accompanying witches were soprano Shereen Pimentel, mezzo-soprano Olivia Cosio, and soprano Britt Hewitt who had the task of deceiving poor Aeneas.

And now, let us set the stage for you. The playing area was surrounded on three sides by the audience and dominated by an enormous faux stone table with seating for guests on faux stone boulders. Places were set and pompously correct servants dressed in glittery black brought the food. Guests wearing wild costumes and even wilder wigs and headgear devoured food with their hands or ate in slow motion. 

What a strange court this is! What a disorienting effect! We seemed to be in another world completely, as if on a planet invented by a science fiction cartoonist. Shall we call it Baroque Sci-Fi? In any case it was a world that could conceivably contain sorcerers and witches and evil powers.

All these courtiers were played by the superb chorus which comprised, in addition to any principals who were not featured in any given scene,  Joan Hofmeyr, Richard Pittsinger, Santiago Pizarro, Carlyle Quinn, William Socolof, Luke Sutliff, and Maggie Renée Valdman. Chorus Master David Moody made sure that their singing was impeccable, as was their diction.

We surmise that the singers had extensive dance training since they executed the choreography with style and grace.

Maestro Avi Stein conducted members of Juilliard415 from the harpsichord. Joshua Stauffer was a standout on the theorbo and we could not imagine this work better played. We were very comfortable with the interpolation of extraneous music by Purcell; these additions filled out the characters' interaction and provided enough substance to make the work sufficient for the evening, instead of using it as a curtain raiser for another one act opera.

We are always happy to have our prejudices overcome and to enjoy a work in English. Aside from Arthur Sullivan, we can think of no other English composer who so effectively matched the rhythm of the English language.

Another prejudice against "reinterpretation" was overcome, thanks to Ms. Birnbaum's astute and timely choice to bring out the power of the two women-- Dido and the Sorceress. This Dido is no victim! There was a jaw-dropping ending in which she emerges from the fiery pit and stalks offstage. There was no violation of the spirit of the work and for this we are grateful.

This outstanding production will be going on tour to England and France; we are thrilled that the company is getting such recognition and that more people will get to enjoy it.

We would like to share the news that Ms. Birnbaum will be directing La Bohême at Santa Fe Opera this summer and we will be there to see what sort of originality she can bring to that warhorse. You, dear reader, will be the first to know.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, February 19, 2019


David Sytkowski, Kirsten Chambers, Vira Slywotzky, and Bray Wilkins at National Opera Center

No one would deny the value of friends; so what do you do when your friends are all artists?  You put on a show!  That's what you do; you put on a show. The theme of Vira Slywotsky's show on Sunday was "Songs by Women Composers". We were all set for Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler but that wasn't on the menu.

The program was varied, touching many points along the musical spectrum. The opening duet by Barbara Strozzi was introduced by the two sopranos; Ms. Slywotzky and Kirsten Chambers gave an engaging dramatic reading of a translation of the words in English before singing in Italian. The work was the preface to the Baroque opera Mercè di vol. 

The two sopranos harmonized with lovely subtlety, Ms. Chambers' brighter voice taking the upper line and Ms. Slywotsky's darker instrument taking the lower line. There was nothing subtle, however about the highly expressive interpretation, leaving us only one thing to complain about--the music stand. We will not go into details about our objection, having done so many times in the past.

Tenor Bray Wilkins is best known to us for his work in operetta, especially with Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live. But we have also heard his "Kuda, kuda" and even attended his memorable coaching of it with Jane Marsh.  Sunday we got to hear him in more contemporary works. 

Pleasing us greatly was his performance as a super-picky fellow in "The Bachelor Song" from Adventures in Love, composed by Zina Goldrich with lyrics by Marcy Heisler. These two women make quite a team with music and text joining hand-in-hand--something we almost take for granted in 19th c. song and in American Musical Theater. Mr. Wilkins' delivery did not miss a trick in pulling laughter from the packed house. 

The quality of his instrument was best appreciated in the romantic ballad "Taking flight" from Allison Under the Stars. It is such a romantic and sad story that we had to fight back tears. Mr. Wilkins was also princely in "Right before my eyes" from Ever After.

His Shrek was given a thick Scottish brogue and a wonderful personality in "When words fail" from the Disney film Shrek. Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire also made a fine writing team.

We are grateful to Vira and Friends for introducing us to the songs of Poldowski, a Belgian-born British composer and pianist born Régine Wieniawski, daughter of the Polish violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski. She set poetry by Paul Verlaine in the early years of the 20th c. 

Should we compare her settings of Verlaine poetry to those of Fauré? We decline and can only say that we enjoyed hearing something new to us and that Ms. Slywotsky, best known to us from Mirror Visions Ensemble and Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live, demonstrated her facility with a long and even French line. In "Dansons la gigue" she let out all the dramatic stops and had us giggling again. We particularly enjoyed the piano writing in "Mandoline" which was perfectly rendered by collaborative pianist David Sytkowski.

It is always a problem for us when a singer we like choses material that speaks to them but not to us. We don't know quite what to say, other than crediting them with a good performance. But we cannot pretend to be thrilled when we are not.

Ms. Slywotzky put her all into Three Browning Songs set by Amy Beach, a turn-of-the-19th c. composer whom we have enjoyed. We just had the feeling that Robert Browning's text did not need to be set.

The same could be said for Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose sonnets were set by Sheila Silver. Ms. Chambers gave an intense and dramatic performance but we could not wrap our ears around those songs.  Similarly, she was having a great time with Love in the Early Morning: Two Songs About Making Love to the Milkman. We found Joelle Wallach's music to be strange and the text to be uninteresting. Still, the audience seemed to enjoy the performance and Ms. Wallach, who was in attendance, seemed thrilled. Ms. Scott and Ms. Wallach seem to have a close personal connection and the latter's music has inspired Ms. Scott, which is all to the good. We just wanted to recuse ourself.

Of course we are in support of female composers but we think we would prefer to find them in musical theater these days. Marsha Norman's soul-searching "A bit of earth" from The Secret Garden did touch us and Mr. Wilkin's fine diction made every word count.

There will be more Vira & Friends performances so let's keep an open mind.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, February 17, 2019


Allyson Herman Kurian, Chelsea Rodriguez, Luke van Meveren, and Brian J. Alvarado in Utopia Opera's production of The Sorcerer by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan

We can think of no finer revenge on the Blind Archer than to have his work undone by a magic elixir. The Sorcerer was William S. Gilbert's and Arthur Sullivan's third creation and their first two-act operetta; it was quite a success in its day but is not as frequently performed as Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, and H.M.S. Pinafore. It endears itself to us by poking fun at class consciousness and by sending up so many operatic tropes.

Naturally our thoughts wandered to L'Elisir d'amore, Tristan und Isolde, and even, at the conclusion, to Don Giovanni. When, how, and with whom people fall in love is a topic of endless fascination.

In this story the well-meaning aristocratic Alexis (performed by the charming Luke van Meveren) wants everyone to enjoy the wedded bliss he is expecting with the similarly aristocratic and beautiful Aline (sung by the beautiful and golden-voiced Allyson Herman Kurian). He is a true progressive, wanting to see people joined without regard to social class.

Consequently, he employs the services of a sorcerer named John Wellington Wells (performed by the funny Brian J. Alvarado) and his apprentice Hercules (Chelsea Rodriguez). The love potion is served up to the Villagers (the superb Utopia Opera chorus) in their tea--with disastrous results.

Alexis' dignified father Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre (Jack Anderson White) has been in love with Aline's mother Lady Annabella Sangazure (Julia Snowden) for years and if you think they are going to get matched you are in for a big surprise.

Meanwhile, the lovely but "low-born" Constance (charmingly portrayed by Hannah Madeleine Goodman), daughter of Mrs. Zorah Partlet (Sarah Marvel Bleasdale) is pining for the pompous Vicar Dr. Daly (Ben Cohen) who thinks he is too old for love.  And if you think they will match, get ready for another surprise.

Mismatched lovers are always good for a giggle and Gilbert and Sullivan made sure we got our share of giggles with Sullivan's frothy melodies and Gilbert's witty words.  We wonder if there will ever again be a partnership that adept at setting the English language!

Polymath William Remmers not only directed and entertained the audience before the show by performing and explaining (!) a card trick, but also conducted the chamber orchestra of seventeen who filled Sullivan's melodies with sparkle.

The mid 20th c. costuming was well devised by Eric Lamp and Angel Betancourt.  There was an original scene involving a supernatural incantation which Sullivan had never set. Just listen to how Maestro Remmers solved that problem!

If we have a small quibble (and don't we always!) it would be with the inconsistency of the accents. For some reason, Mrs. Partlet and Constance employed an odd accent that was not quite French and not quite German. The words of the working folk of the village were given surtitles utilizing a cockney accent which was not uniformly adopted in the singing. Mr. Alvarado, who was quite adept in the patter songs, failed to achieve anything resembling a British accent. However, the aristocratic folk did rather better with a plummy accent which no one could have failed to identify.

Quibble aside, it was a marvelously entertaining piece of theater and we hope you read this in time to get tickets for the Sunday matinée which closes the run at Hunter College in the Lang Recital Hall.

If not, you must see what this spunky company will do with Britten's Albert Herring in April.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, February 16, 2019


Evan Lazdowski, Shantal Martin, Juan Lázaro, Thomas Muraco, Sungah Baek, Laureano Quant, and Esteban Zuniga .   

Conductor/collaborative pianist/coach/educator Thomas Muraco has been on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music for a quarter of a century and we have lost count of how many operas he has conducted for the MSM Opera Repertoire Ensemble; but we haven't forgotten how much we have enjoyed them. His attention to musical detail is highly impressive and his hands are highly expressive.  No baton needed!

Last night he conducted Bizet's 1863 opera Les Pêcheurs de Perles (composed when Bizet was but 25 years old) in a reduction of the score for two pianos, four hands devised by Sungah Baek. Those twenty fingers, belonging to Ms. Baek and Juan José Lázaro, simply flew over the keys and brought out voices we had totally overlooked in orchestral performances. Sitting "up close and personal", certain aspects of the superficially silly libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré began to make psychological sense, thanks to some astute direction by A. Scott Parry.

The absence of sets and costumes (save for Léïla's white dress and exotic veiled headpiece) allowed us to focus on the music. Anyone who has attended voice competitions would be familiar with "Au fond du temple saint", the deliciously harmonic duet sung by the tenor and the baritone early in Act I. The tenor's soliloquy "Je crois entendre encore" is often heard as well.

However, the score offers several more treats worthy of audition or competition pieces, highlighting the singer's expressiveness. We were highly impressed with the authoritative performance of baritone Laureano Quant who created the character of a tragic hero undone by jealousy but redeemed through generosity. At the conclusion of the opera, Zuniga sacrifices his own life to allow his old friend Nadir to escape the funeral pyre, along with the temple priestess whom they both love.

Mr. Quant's rich round tone filled out his song of remorse "L'orage est calmé" which paralleled the subsiding of the storm endured by the villagers-- who believe that the betrayal of Léïla is responsible. He refuses Léïla's request for mercy in "Je suis jaloux" but changes his mind when he sees the deus ex machina necklace that he had bestowed upon her years earlier when she saved his life. All these changes of emotion were reflected in Mr. Quant's phrasing and coloration. It was a masterful and memorable performance.

As Léïla, soprano Shantal Martin was convincing in her acting and excellent in her command of the vocal line. Her conflict was between spiritual duties that she had promised to execute faithfully and her lust/love rekindled by Nadir from a prior period in their lives. Ms. Martin conveyed Léïla's weakness of character without sacrificing vocal strength. She was particularly fine in the melismatic passages that amounted to a gorgeous vocalise. Her voice soared in the upper register making us almost forget that she's a "bad girl".

Nadir is a "bad boy" as well. He has betrayed his friend Zurga in an earlier period, after the two of them had promised to preserve their friendship by giving up their love for the tempting Léïla. As portrayed by tenor Esteban Zuniga, he appears sly, shifty, sneaky, and aware of his guilt. As a matter of fact (or opinion) we thought Mr. Zuniga overacted a bit with an excess of mugging. Sometimes less is more! Mr. Zuniga's light tenor seemed suitable for bel canto opera. He harmonized beautifully with Ms. Martin in their Act II duet, and also in Act III as they faced death.

Evan Lazdowski used his fine bass instrument successfully in the role of the High Priest Nourabad. His character is dour, suspicious, stern and forbidding as one might expect. The unfamiliar ending (from an 1886 revival) has him stabbing Zurga to death. Mr. Quant succeeded in making Zurga a sympathetic character but he did set fire to his village so we guess he deserved his fate.

Particularly noteworthy was the excellent French diction, coached by Elsa Quéron. We did not even need the titles; every word was clear.

Also noteworthy was the performance of the chorus. They sang well and added the necessary backdrop for the drama.

There is a matinée performance at 2:30 on Sunday and we urge you to attend. Although the cast will be different, the music will be the same. We found a great deal of aural enchantment in the repetitive Oriental motifs.

(c) meche kroop