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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

VIRA AND FRIENDS

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

PURE UTOPIAN SORCERY

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

THE FINEST PEARL

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. Those twenty fingers, belonging to Sungah 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

Friday, February 15, 2019

OPERA, FUN, AND FASHION

Liana Guberman, Eric Lindsey, and Kirsten Scott

We were there at Bare Opera Company's birth and get a special thrill from watching them flourish. Their interest in immersive opera has taken them to some very interesting venues and has led to some productive partnerships with artists from other disciplines.

Last night, in celebration of Valentine's Day, they joined forces with Lyric Chamber Music Society of New York for the third time at the Kosciuszko Foundation. It was a very special evening. Costumes were devised by designer Taylor Mills, whose company Taylor Catarina has launched a line of clothing suitable for singers and dedicated to comfort and flexibility. So we got a fashion show along with our recital of opera standards.

The arias and ensembles were almost all chosen from among the more well-known and accessible operas, which was just fine with us and very suitable to an audience that may not be as familiar with opera as are regular opera goers. In place of titles, the program included brief synopses of each piece. 

The opening was a real stunner. Although British Airways has done everything to make a cliché of  the "Flower Duet" from Léo Delibes' Lakmé , it's melodic and harmonic beauty refuse to be trivialized. With Kaleigh Rae Gamaché's crystalline soprano paired with Kirsten Scott's creamy rich mezzo-soprano, we felt as if we were discovering it for the first time.

This may be a good time to point out that Bare Opera was co-founded by Ms. Scott and Maître de Chant Laetitia Ruccolo, whose artistry at the piano ensured that we never missed the orchestra. What colors this beautiful young woman can produce on those 88 keys!

All of the young artists are prize-winners and have sung in several opera companies around the country, as well as taking assignments abroad.

Baritone Suchan Kim, a Bare Opera regular, is the possessor of a very fine instrument that he employs with superb technique.  Moreover, his extensive repertoire allows him to slip into a very wide selection of roles with every gesture and facial expression intact--but always appearing spontaneous. That's a wonderful skill! We loved his interpretation of Doctor Malatesta describing the potential wife he has found for Don Pasquale in the Donizetti opera of the same name. "Bella siccome un angelo" is an old favorite for the baritone fach but we seemed to be hearing it anew.

Later in the program, he performed a duet from the same opera with the superb soprano Liana Guberman. In "Pronto io son", Malatesta is coaching Norina in how to fool Don Pasquale into thinking she is a shy convent girl. Ms. Guberman was unfailingly funny as well as musical.

She was contrastingly serious in "Dis moi que je suis belle" from Massenet's Thaïs, the one aria on the program that was of the less familiar category. It was delivered dramatically and poignantly, leading us to wonder why it isn't performed more regularly.

Bass-baritone Eric Lindsey is another singer we have come to admire in a great variety of roles. He made a dashing Don Giovanni in duet with Ms. Gamaché as the peasant girl Zerlina, all too willing to be seduced in "La ci darem la mano". From the same opera, he gave a different spin to the role of Leporello in the famous "Catalogue Aria". We have seen and relished Mr. Lindsey's performance of the role of the Don in a Dell'Arte production, and if we were casting the Mozart opera we wouldn't hesitate to put him in either role!

We also enjoyed two selections from Bizet's Carmen.  In the "Habanera", Ms. Scott captured all of Carmen's fickleness with her expressive dusky mezzo. Tenor Victor Starsky, in a later scene, tries to appease Carmen's anger with "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée".

Ms. Gamaché wowed the audience with the challenging aria "Glitter and Be Gay" from Bernstein's Candide. As if we were not already dazzled, she threw in a high F, taking the audience to the heights, as it were.

Puccini's La Bohême also made an appearance on the program with the aria from Act I ("O soave fanculla") in which Mimi (Ms. Guberman) and Rodolfo (Mr. Starsky) fall in love and decide to spend Xmas Eve together. Later, in a scene which opens the last act, Rodolfo (Mr. Starsky) and Marcello (Mr. Kim) torment each other with reports of having seen their estranged lovers. The two men are unable to concentrate on their writing and painting but the two singers were able to deliver artistically.

Our favorite trio is from Mozart's Cosi van tutte. In "Soave sia il vento", Fiordiligi (Ms. Guberman), Dorabella (Ms. Scott), and Don Alfonso (Mr. Lindsey) are watching Ferrando and Guglielmo sail away. The women are bereft but Don Alfonso is laughing up his sleeve. The harmonies are gorgeous and the singing just perfect. Ms. Ruccolo's piano created the sea for our eager ears.

The evening ended with the Finale of Act I from Rossini's La Cenerentola in which all six cast members participated. Rossini's froth is the perfect way to end a satisfying program of opera.

Bare Opera's next venture will be Astor Piazzola's tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires.  Stay tuned for details.

(c) meche kroop


Thursday, February 14, 2019

MULTI-LINGUAL ARTISTRY

Allen Perriello and Joélle Harvey

At a time when vocal recitals are becoming increasingly scarce, we lovers of classical voice can count on Carnegie Hall, which presents vocal recitals in all three halls--Stern, Zankel, and Weill.  We are particularly fond of the series at the intimate Weill Recital Hall which facilitates the intimate connection so necessary for the appreciation of art songs.

Last night's recital was satisfying on many levels, introducing us to a soprano of distinction whom we had never heard before, although she is well known as a recitalist and in symphonic works with vocal movements.  Joélle Harvey is particularly recognized for her Mahler and we wish there had been some Mahler on last night's program.

What struck as about Ms. Harvey was her bright tone, the clarity of her diction, and her facility with languages. Indeed, we heard her in English, German, French, Italian, and what we took to be Norwegian. Actually, we are not familiar with the Scandinavian languages but since Edvard Grieg was Norwegian, it's a good guess. The program spanned the Baroque period right through to the contemporary one for which we lack a title.  Perhaps "Post Modern" will suffice.

The program opened with a set of songs by Henry Purcell, England's most famous composer for the voice. We don't believe anyone has matched his ability to choose good text in English (can't go wrong with Shakespeare!) and to amplify the text with singable melodies and pleasing harmonies.

However, our favorite of this set was "Sweeter than roses", the text of which is declared to be "anonymous". The text gave Ms. Harvey the opportunity for maximum variety of tempi, dynamics and word coloration. We loved the passion and the ardent melismatic passage.

A set by Mozart reminded us that Mozart could bring out the beauty of texts from any language. "Ridente la calma" is always a pleasure and Ms. Harvey brought out the beauty of the Italian vowels. "Oiseux, si tous les ans" was charmant and sung in fine French. The long legato lines persisted through the German lied "Die Zufriedenheit" which bears a lovely message of contentment. "Die kleine Spinnerin" was new to us and we would have enjoyed it more if Ms. Harvey had differentiated between the voice of the spinning girl and that of the young fellow importuning her.

The singer's German was even crisper in four songs by Clara Schumann which were our favorite part of the recital. We are always overjoyed to hear her songs in recital and particularly "Liebst du um Schönheit" which is refreshingly different from the Mahler setting, perhaps more tender and less exuberant. "Die stille Lotosblume" had some lovely dynamic variety and a wrenching change to the minor mode.

A set by Edvard Grieg focused largely on nature and Spring. Although we liked the sound of Norwegian our favorite song was "Osterlied" sung in German. "En fugelevise" limned a strange and beautiful scene between two lovers who would never see each other again for unexplained reasons. With a text by Ibsen, one could just imagine!

The song cycle Vanitas by contemporary composer Michael Ippolito did not enchant us vocally for the usual reasons. None of the poetry seemed to want to be set.  "Quivered out of decimals", "degreeless noon", and "decades of arrogance" are just three examples of phrases that seemed unmusical to us. The one song that seemed interesting was "A Feather" with Gertrude Stein's nonsensical text leading to some clever vocal effects.

Although Mr. Ippolito is a long-term friend of Ms. Harvey's, we did not find his vocal line interesting or even kind to her voice.  As usual our attention wandered to the piano and we realized that Mr. Ippolito writes very well for the instrument. Collaborative pianist Allen Perriello, so accurate, straightforward, and supportive during the entire recital, was given a chance to play Mr. Ippolito's highly original composition with style.

We were glad that the encore was tuneful. It was "Remember Me" by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez from the Disney film Coco. Apparently, popular song writers known how to craft a tune! Ms. Harvey sang it with personal involvement.  It was lovely!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, February 9, 2019

A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

Meghan Kasanders and Maestro Barbara Hannigan onstage at Alice Tully Hall

Yesterday we enjoyed three musical events, back to back, at Juilliard, having decided that music feeds the soul even more than food feeds the body. It was a truly glorious day and indicated the depth and breadth of talent at Juilliard.

We began with a recital by bass William Guanbo Su who, in addition to finalizing his Master of Music degree from Juilliard, just advanced in the Metropolitan Opera National Council competition and has been sharing his artistry all over the map. We have followed Mr. Su since his undergraduate days at Manhattan School of Music and will never forget his performances as the Badger and the Parson in Janacek's Vixen Sharp-Ears.

We noted his facility with languages in his graduation recital, as well as the unique qualities of his instrument. We have been there for numerous galas in which his artistry was recognized and honored with prizes. This is an artist destined for major success.

In yesterday's recital, we saw another side of his artistry which confirmed our belief that American musical theater, when sung by operatically trained voices without amplification, is the direct descendant of European opera. In the second half of the recital, Mr. Su sang "Stars" from Claude-Michel Schönberg's Les Miserables and two selections from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. The performance was direct and communicative. We loved it!  We also enjoyed Eric Coates' "Bird Song at Eventide" from the early 20th c. Mr. Coates chose some lovely poetry which rhymed and scanned, thus being inspired to create a melodic vocal line. Richard Fu Yu's piano provided the birdsong.

Mr. Su has perfect English diction and made every word count. He also delighted the audience with his encore, sitting at the piano and accompanying himself as he sang a Mongolian folk song. We didn't know about his secret talent.

The communicative aspect that so delighted us in the second half of the program was impaired in the first half by the use of the detested music stand. No matter how hard a singer tries to communicate, the spell is broken when he glances down at the music. We are sure that Mr. Su's recent occupation with performing and competing was the cause but we couldn't help but feeling cheated out of our full enjoyment of our favorite two Bellini songs.

Truth to tell, we have never enjoyed Brahm's Vier ernste gesänge due to their unrelieved grimness but feel they were chosen to highlight Mr. Su's superb lower register. As far as Poulenc's cycle La Bestiare, he successfully met the challenge of the higher register but needed more variety. We found our attention wandering to the piano, as it does when the singer doesn't connect. We heard the variety we wanted in Mr. Yu's piano.

Because of the success of the second half of the recital, which was performed off the book, we left satisfied and ready for more music. It was my great good fortune to attend a vocal arts showcase directed by Jenny Lord. It is your misfortune that reviews are not permitted. Suffice it to say that the students involved introduced the several opera scenes and we were gloriously entertained. If you, dear reader, only knew how difficult it is not to review!

Coasting along on our musical high, we were treated to a marvelous concert by the Juilliard Orchestra, which responded brilliantly to the exciting double threat/double treat young conductor/soprano Barbara Hannigan. The concert grabbed our attention from the start and kept up momentum until the final note.

Richard Strauss' "Salome's Dance" from his opera Salome gets off to a frenzied start, well suited to Mo. Hannigan's energetic and poetic conducting style. The sensual Middle-Eastern melodies accompanying the dance were given to the flute and the percussion section provided the bombast. Although Mo. Hannigan did not shed any of her graceful chiffon attire, one could see that she was living through the dance. And the orchestra followed her lead.

Strauss' massive orchestra was reduced for Haydn's Symphony No. 96 in D Major, which stands as a lesson in the writing of a Classical symphony. The opening movement in Sonata-Allegro form introduced two contrasting themes, followed by an intricate development section in which one could still recognize the themes, prior to the recapitulation. A lilting Andante was followed by a charming Menuet in 6/8 time. The final sprightly movement--Vivace--was a perfect example of perpetuum mobile. When a long sweeping phrase occurred, Mo. Hannigan swept her arm in a long graceful arc.

Claude Debussy's "Syrinx" gave flutist Emma Resmini a chance to shine with pure tonal quality and lovely phrasing, not so different from the artistry of the singer.  In our mind's eye we visualized a mythical world of cavorting nymphs and satyrs. Without a break the Debussy led into what was, for us, the highlight of the evening.  Insert fanfare!

Soprano Meghan Kasanders sang in Finnish "Luonnotar", the opening verses of Jean Sibelius' tone poem based upon the Kalevala, a creation myth peculiar to that culture. As Ms. Kasanders neared the end, where the cracked shell of the seabird became the vault of heaven, her voice soared magnificently. Ms. Kasanders has always impressed us with the size of her voice and the manner in which she uses it.  What a treat that was! We were inspired to attend the upcoming Kulervo, performed by the Oratorio Society, wanting more of this glorious music.

We would have been content to have ended it at that glorious moment but there was one more piece on the program, Béla Bartok's Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. This is a raucous and dissonant piece of music with a few graceful passages interspersed which were steeped in Oriental eroticism. Guess which parts we favored!

And so our long day and evening came to a glorious end with a renewed appreciation for Juilliard's glories.

(c) meche kroop









Friday, February 8, 2019

A NEW CABARET AT MSM

The cast of Cabaret at Manhattan School of Music

Last night's production of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret at Manhattan School of Music was a revelation to us. First of all, the performances were beyond wonderful; secondly, since we are not particularly fans of Broadway or American musical theater, we arrived totally ignorant of this highly relevant show which resonates heavily with our current social and political climate, employing entertainment to makes us think.

A German friend of ours has pointed out that Trump's demagoguery and power grabbing, by attempting to declare a "national emergency", reflects the rise of Hitler in Germany. His attempt to get Americans to fear Latin American immigrants reflects Hitler's success in demonizing Jews as being responsible for Germany's problems in the 1930's.  "Be very scared", she warned.

The licentiousness portrayed in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Klub reflects the very conditions that has aroused the reprisals of the "religious Right". The stunning "Telephone Song", using Ron Field's original choreography, so well performed by the Company, reminded us of the superficial connections dictated today by online dating.

The basis for this stunning piece of theater lay with Christopher Isherwood's stories about 1930's Berlin which were then adapted into a 1951 play by John Van Druten entitled I am a Camera. Producer Harold Prince assembled a talented team of bookwriter Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander, and lyricist Fred Ebb. The 1966 show they wrote has been through a number of iterations, just like Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Through a stroke of good fortune, Mr. Kander is not only alive and well but also ready, willing, and able to put together a performing version for MSM which borrowed from the original, the filmed version, and more recent revivals.

What astonished us about the performances is that all the performers are sophomores and juniors in the MSM Musical Theater Program! How could such youngsters be so convincing in portraying complex and often much older characters!!! We assume it must be a combination of inborn talent, much hard work, excellent training, and the fine direction of Don Stephenson.

Completely heartbreaking was the late-life romance between Fraülein Schneider (Laura Zimmer) and her fruit-merchant beau Herr Schultz (Xander Pietenpol). Their posture and gestures were those of the elderly, almost but not quite beaten down by life. We were sitting far away so cannot say whether they looked elderly from down front, but they sure convinced us! Their Act I duets "It Couldn't Please Me More" and "Married" were heartwarming; Ms. Zimmer's solo in Act II ("What Would You Do") broke our heart. We reflected back on her life-accepting solo at the beginning ("So What") and knew that she would survive this loss of late life happiness.

In the lead, Jasmine Rogers made an energetic Sally Bowles, limning her character's hysteria right until the final rendition of "Cabaret" in which she virtually decompensates.  As her innocent American bisexual beau Clifford Bradshaw, Chandler Sinks was equally convincing. We believed that his character could never write the Berlin stories with the frenetic Sally as a distraction, but that once home in the USA he would be able to focus and make good literary use of his experiences.

Holding it all together as The Emcee was Daniel Lawrence who can dance up a storm and create a memorable character as well.  "Willkommen" and "Money" were brilliant in Act I. We found his Act II number "If You Could See Her" shocking. He dances with a person in a gorilla costume looking as if he were mocking Afro-Americans but it turned out he was mocking Jews. We do not object.  This is a dramatic portrayal of what was going on in Berlin at that time. We don't believe in sanitizing history.

Indeed Joseph Zook had the thankless role of Ernst Ludwig, the jovial German who befriends the innocent hero and involves him in carrying papers back and forth to Paris.  What the details were, we cannot say because the spoken dialogue was not as successfully delivered as the lyrics of the songs, of which every word was clear. But when he appeared with a swastika armband, we knew along with the hero that he was up to no good.

Notable was the performance of Talitha McDougall Jones who portrayed the "lady of the evening" Fraülein Kost who has stage presence to spare and did a fine job in the reprise of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". We enjoyed her confrontations with her landlady who objected to the string of sailors coming and going.

The excellence of the singing was matched by the playing of the fine orchestra. David Loud was Music Director. Scott Davis' Set Design was simple in its elements (a staircase, some tables and chairs, some doors, and a skylight) but appeared just right-- proving that sometimes "less is more". Much atmosphere and mood was contributed by Shawn Kaufman's evocative Lighting Design. Liza Gennaro's choreography was lively and suited the talents of the students. Sue Makkoo's Costume Design was a propos and attractive.

The sell-out crowd shared our enthusiasm with standing ovations. Although the ending was sad and also scary, departing crowds seemed delighted by the performance, as did we. Remarkable! We wouldn't have enjoyed it any more on Broadway.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

TAG TEAM SCHUBERTIADE

Äneas Humm, Brian Zeger, James Ley, Erik van Heyningen, and William Socolof


Last night at Alice Tully Hall, The Juilliard School Vocal Arts Department delighted us with an evening of Schubert. As far as we are concerned, no composer has equalled Schubert's output of songs; the master, in his sadly truncated life, produced over 600 songs (all of which were presented a few years ago, over the course of a year, by pianist Lachlan Glen).

When we ask what made Schubert great, it was not only his preternatural compositional skills, but his wise choice of text. The German language has a special rhythm and cadence to it and Schubert's poets created works that rhymed and scanned. This text inspired memorable melodies; indeed we have yet to walk out of a lieder recital without humming one of Schubert's terrific tunes. This is what makes music "popular" and the reason why most contemporary vocal compositions, relying as they do on lengthy abstruse prose, is so consistently forgettable.

In a talk Saturday night at the Brooklyn Public Library, Michael Brofman, Artistic Director and Founder of the Brooklyn Art Song Society, chose Schubert's "Im Frühling" as one of his two favorite songs and played a couple verses for the gathered masses. Heads bobbed and bodies swayed; one didn't even have to understand the language to get "the feels". It was this very song that opened last night's Juilliard Songfest. 

Äneas Humm is a young singer who has impressed us since his American debut with the German Forum a few years ago. He identifies as a baritone but we and our operatic companion agree that his sound has a tenorial quality--light, lyrical, and sweet. Of Swiss background, his German is naturally flawless and his delivery is filled with dramatic import. He wears each song like a fine bespoke suit. We loved the graceful crescendo on the word "hell" and the prolonged "ihr". The change to minor mode was heartbreaking.

The text of the four songs which prefaced the main event of the evening were all written by Ernst Schulze, a contemporary of Schubert; he grew up motherless and fell in love with a young woman who died of tuberculosis, an illness which claimed his own life shortly thereafter. His texts are melancholy and seem focused on loss of love, just as does Wilhelm Müller's text for Winterreise. The programming seemed appropriate since the concert was dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased and deeply mourned Sanford Sylvan. It was a fitting tribute.

Bass-baritone William Socolof employed his deeply resonant bass-baritone for "Der liebliche Stern" in which the poet sees his lost love as a star in the sky which he cannot reach; but perhaps the reflection in the water below can be reached by drowning himself; at least that is how we interpret the text. Mr. Socolof has a most interesting texture at the bottom of his register and took us straight to the depths.

Bass-baritone Erik van Heyningen has a different tonal quality that was well-suited to "An mein Herz" in which the poet recommends brave endurance in the face of grief and an indifferent universe. The beating of the heart was clearly conveyed by collaborative pianist Brian Zeger, whose incomparable artistry at accompaniment was well deserved by the four singers.

Mr. Zeger's piano was especially fine conveying all the images of nature in "Im Walde", performed by tenor James Ley who succeeded in connecting with the audience whilst holding the score, no mean feat. Mr. Ley's tenor manages to be both sweet and powerful at the same time; the restlessness of the text and the music let us know that this wanderer will never find rest.

The major part of the program was Winterreise, one of our favorite song cycles. It too is relentless in its melancholy but the grief is punctuated by anger, bitterness, sarcasm, and occasional false hope. Although the poet is not explicit about the backstory, it seems obvious that the poet found love with a young woman and intended marriage. For unknown reasons, the plan failed to come to fruition and the once-friendly town now appears as rejecting as his former sweetheart. He goes on a journey through a cold and forbidding landscape, yearning for a bed in the cemetery. Every natural element reinforces his depression and symbolizes an element in his psychology. Scholars cannot agree on whether the "leiermann" playing his hurdy-gurdy at the end of the cycle symbolizes Death. 

Some critics find the cycle rather over-cooked and histrionic. We see it as an exemplar of German Romanticism. Is it relevant today?  Just ask a young person how he feels after a romantic rejection. Some will say "whatever" and move on.  Others of a more sensitive nature may slip into depression and contemplate suicide. The lucky ones will receive psychopharmacological relief but others will succeed in self destruction.

We long ago lost count of how many times we have thrilled to this cycle. There have been only two failures, in our eyes and ears. One performance employed a modern dance company which distracted from the singing; another was presented by a scholar of sub-minimum vocal gifts who wanted to rearrange the songs to suit Müller's original ordering.

So, although we are less than enthusiastic about tinkering with this masterpiece, last night's tinkering was interesting and not offensive.  Parcelling out the two dozen songs among the four young artists was an original idea and served to emphasize the "Everyman" aspect of the story. John Giampietro's dramatic consultation was probably responsible for the staging, with each of the four artists sitting on his own piano bench; each seemed lonely, depressed, and isolated, lost in his own misery. Eye contact was avoided.

Some songs were shared by two singers and the final "Der Leiermann" involved all four in a quartet of despair. Keys were changed to accommodate each singer's fach. Holding it all together was Mr. Zeger's piano, unfailingly supportive of each singer. We loved the rippling figures in "Erstarrung",so beautifully sung by Mr. Ley who created a lovely messa di voce in "Die Krähe".

Mr. van Heyningen excelled in "Der Wegweiser" which has many relentlessly repeated notes which he made interesting by maintaining a long uninterrupted line. He was powerful and fierce in "Mut". In "Wasserflut" he seemed to bend the notes to suit the text.

Mr. Humm, who excels at the upper end of his register, successfully negotiated the low tessitura of "Der Lindenbaum", our favorite song of the cycle. Our second favorite song is "Frühlingstraum" in which his dramatic gifts permitted a shift from the false hope of the dreamer to the disillusionment of wakefulness.

The rhythmic "Die Post" was shared by Mr. van Heyningen and Mr. Socolof and the two different bass-baritones played well off one another whilst Mr. Zeger's piano introduced the horses hooves and the poet's pounding heart. Mr. Socolof also made much of the short clipped phrases of "Der stürmische Morgen" and the varied dynamics of the opening "Gute Nacht".

German diction was exemplary all around and for this we credit Marianne Barrett who coached. Start to finish it was a revelation. We may never hear Winterreise sung like this again and feel grateful for the experience.

Bravi tutti!

(c) meche kroop



















Monday, February 4, 2019

MEET MR. LIZ

Mr. Liz Bouk

We saw a remarkable show last night at The Tank, one which we urge you to see next Sunday night at 7:00. You will be not only entertained but enlightened. You may even find profound resonance with your own issues around fulfilling your true nature. Who among us has not struggled with becoming our true self in the face of societal restrictions!

Living in an oh-so-liberal New York City gives us the illusion that the world has changed dramatically, offering women the opportunity to abandon traditional roles and to rise in the world of commerce, to achieve motherhood without the so-called benefit of marriage, or to do both. This is not the case in the rest of the country.

But changes in gender identity are afoot everywhere and must be examined as a separate issue from that of homosexuality and cross-dressing.  There exists alongside one's gender of sexual preference the issue of one's outward presentation to the world and also one's inner gender identity. Our vocabularies have expanded to include not just homosexuality and transvestitism, but the transgender state.  LGBTQIA has arrived but don't be surprised if more letters are added to the chain.

Mr. Liz is a special and unique individual. We know him for at least five years as a gifted mezzo-soprano, always impressing us with the strength of his characterizations (from Lucretia to Fosca, from the Komponist to Augusta Tabor) and the superiority of his vocalism. Last night, in a highly personalized performance co-written with Director Brittany Goodwin, Mr. Liz revealed his inner man.

We got no impression that he wants to transform his body at the moment, but rather is coming to terms with an inner identity that has led to spiritual expansion and life satisfaction. His journey has been supported by his loving husband Dan and adorable son William who both appeared in the show.  What a success to have kept the family together, a marvelous tribute to all concerned.

Enough sociology! Let us move on to the entertainment! The show opened with Mr. Liz talking about his Grandma Bill, and letting us know that he grew up in a conservative Christian family where hymns were sung. He was a tomboy and could have cared less for dolls. One of our favorite songs on the program was William Bolcom's "Lime Jello Surprise" which sent up the home-maker image to which girls were subjected. We might add that Mr. Liz and Ms. Goodwin did a swell job of curating the songs to tell his story--from the world of opera, musical theater, and cabaret.

Entering Mr. Liz's  life as a physics tutor was the fine young man Dan with whom Mr. Liz fell in love and married. Pregnancy soon followed which changed his life. Motherhood felt alien. (Clearly loving was not alien, as evidenced by the affection observed between Mr. Liz and his son William.)

One reaction to this unwelcome role was to assume the role of temptress. Witnessing Mr. Liz's stellar delivery of the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen was a treat for the audience but it wasn't what Mr. Liz felt on the inside. Assuming various operatic roles certainly does allow the singer to experiment with various roles.

In the next scene, Mr. Liz removes the sexy makeup, pulls his long blonde hair back into a pony tail and dons a man's suit and shoes. Our second favorite song of the evening was the soliloquy "My Boy Bill" from Rodger' and Hammerstein's 1945 Carousel. We have never heard it performed better. It put the capstone on the theme from the beginning of the show--the expectations put on girls. Boys do exciting things with their fathers and are expected to achieve. Little girls are expected to be cute and play with dolls.

Of course, this is changing today with gender neutral clothing and toys. Will gender ever be eradicated? Of course not! There will always be men and women who enjoy traditional roles. The point is that modern society is becoming more flexible and less binary. 

Mr. Liz was inspired by the image of walking on the seashore in full contact with both the sand and the sea. The title of the show was "living in the in-between". We hope we haven't revealed too much about the show. We really want you, dear reader, to experience it for yourself. It will surely arouse thoughts, feelings, and memories for you, as it did for us.

Kathryn Olander was the effective collaborative pianist. The evocative set design was achieved by Maria Torffield with lighting design by Luther Frank.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, February 1, 2019

COUNTERTENOR JAKUB JÓZEF ORLIŃSKY- IL MIO DILETTO

Aisslinn Nosky, Alexander Woods, Jakub Józef Orliński, Kyle Miller, Avi Stein, Ezra Seltzer, and Wen Yang

The thrill for us last night at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall lay not so much with the material but rather with the performance. Jakub Józef Orliński is one of those rare singers who could entrance us by singing the phonebook. We still recall his brilliant performance as the lead in Jonathan Dove's Flight which resulted in our opening up to contemporary opera.

Last night's program of sacred music would never have been our choice.  And yet.  And yet we found ourselves in rapt attention for two hours, our attention never wandering from the glorious sound of the countertenor's instrument, a sound we will focus on trying to describe for those of you who were not fortunate enough to secure a ticket for the oversold concert.

The tone is crystal clear and even throughout the register without any disconcerting breaks. It is brilliant and focused at the top, opening like a flower. At the lower register, it is substantial and more resonant than one would expect of this fach.

His technique is flawless. We paid quite a bit of attention to his embouchure which resulted in what amounted to a lesson. The capacious opening for the "ah" sound,  the pursing of the lips for the "oo" sound, the compactness for producing the "ee" sound without spreading, everything was perfect.

The breath control for producing the extravagant embellishments of the vocal line led to a marked precision in the volley of notes--something like a string of matched pearls.

The variety of colors produced a kind of chiaroscuro word painting that, combined with exquisite dynamic variation avoided the kind of tedium that we've often experienced with this type of music. Each work became a mini-drama, each one focused on a different aspect of the crucifixion of Jesus.

All the works on the program were composed around the turn of the 18th c. and the first half of it and suggested the high degree of innovation occurring in the Baroque period.

The opening piece was Antonio Vivaldi's Stabat Mater in F Minor. sung of course in Latin. Latin seems to have the same gorgeous vowels as Italian, the taste of which Mr. Orliński seemed to relish. What was different were a few endings "am","em", "et", "is",  and "um". Not a consonant was cheated. The legato produced a stream of sound that seemed to flow without end. The melismatic passages seemed to take flight. The dark tone of the work yielded to an exuberant "Amen" at the end

Nicola Fago's "Tam non splendet" was a more cheerful piece with lavish coloratura, especially in the ritornello. The third section was filled with tenderness with an exuberant "Alleluja" at the conclusion. The singer's vocal fireworks were echoed by the first violin.

The entire program, except for one short piece which was given its world premiere--(Gaetano Maria Shiassi's "A che si serbano" from Maria Vergine al Calvario) can be heard on Mr. Orliński's newly released CD Anima Sacra, comprising rediscovered 18th c. sacred arias and recorded with the Baroque ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro. 

In Schiassi's "L'agnelletta timidetta" from the same work, Mr. Stein accompanied on the organ. Both of Schiassi's pieces were sung in Italian.

Last night's program was accompanied by members of New York Baroque Incorporated-- violinists Aisslinn Nosky and Aleander Woods, violist Kyle Miller, cellist Ezra Seltzer, violonist Wen Yang, and harpsichordist Avi Stein who also played the organ. One could not have asked for a better setting for this jewel of a singer. There were times when Ms. Nosky's line followed the singer's or wove in and out--times of unutterable beauty.

There were three instrumental interludes; the first was the Trio Sonata in D Major by Arcangelo Corelli performed by the two violins, the cello, and the harpsichord. The second and third were portions of Franceso Durante's Concerto for Strings in G Minor. We have no idea why the work was broken up in such fashion and would have preferred to have heard it intact.

Mr. Orliński's artistry is equalled by his charming stage presence. He is at that stage in his professional career in which his overwhelming success on the world's stages has not yet been taken for granted. His enthusiasm for his music is absolutely contagious and we felt the audience take him into their collective heart. The standing ovation was well deserved.

The capstone for this glorious evening was his second encore--"Vedro con mio diletto" from Vivaldi's Il Giustino. We have lost count of the number of times we have listened to his performance online; to hear him perform it in person was astonishing. There is a simplicity and a virility that made it more enjoyable than that of Philippe Jaroussky which we like also but which struck us as a bit excessive in its ornamentation of the ritornello and also lacking in the warmth given to it by Mr. Orliński. It is interesting that the video we saw of Mr. Jaroussky was made about 10 years ago, just when Mr. Orliński began his vocal studies!

Dear reader, please listen to both videos on You Tube and let us know what you think!

(c) meche kroop