MISSION

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

Monday, March 25, 2019

VOTING WITH OUR APPLAUSE

Warren Jones, Amy Owens, and Anthony Dean Griffey at George London Foundation Recital


We first heard the adorable coloratura soprano Amy Owens five years ago when she was an Apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera. She sang Zerbinetta's aria from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos and dazzled us with her high flying voice and presentation. Since then we have heard her at the George London Competition, with Steve Blier's New York Festival of Song, with New Amsteram Opera, and with On Site Opera. She excels at everything she does but we were particularly delighted to hear her reprise the role of Zerbinetta yesterday onstage at the Morgan Library. She absolutely owns that role! We wanted to hear it again right on the spot. 

Audiences let the artists know what they like best with their applause and we must say that the rest of the audience was as impressed as we were with her stage presence, acting, phrasing, and artistic use of her natural gift--a bright and clear instrument that is as flexible as it is sonorous.

The applause was not nearly as generous for Donald Waxman's Lovesongs for Soprano, Violin, and Piano. Ms. Owens used the detestable music stand, although she barely glanced at it. Perhaps the lack of musicality in the vocal line made it too difficult to commit to memory.

As is the case with post-Strauss art song, we found ourself listening more to Warren Jones' customary excellence at the piano and Cindy Wu's violin weaving through the piano part. We heard Ms. Owens' voice as just another instrument, a very pleasing instrument that was especially ethereal at the upper end of the register. Perhaps that is what Mr. Waxman intended but we prefer the human voice singing a melody.

The high tessitura of Darius Milhaud's Chansons de Ronsard presented no challenge to her. We enjoyed the sound of the French language and the way she used gesture to convey the various moods. 

Although Ms. Owens enjoys a wide variety of material, we feel singers do well to select works that highlight their special gifts. If we consider audience applause as votes, the Strauss won the day.

We had similar feelings for the performance of tenor Anthony Dean Griffey. We did not have the same opportunity to watch him "grow up". He was already famous when we heard him and we always associate him with the lead role in Britten's opera Peter Grimes.

Yesterday we enjoyed him best in a group of folk songs because of their melodic vocal lines. It was the first time we heard the strophic song "The Roving Gambler" and quickly decided that was our favorite. The situation of a man winning a woman away from her family of birth is one that is not tied to any epoch or ethnic group; it is something we can all relate to, one that evokes memories or anticipations. 

What struck us about Mr. Griffey's performance is how deeply he feels whatever he sings. One gets so caught up in the mood or the story he is telling that one almost forgets to notice the exquisite nature of his instrument. No matter how much labor went into polishing a performance it always feels spontaneous. That is no small gift!

We were less enchanted by Three Songs for Tenor, Cello, and Piano by Frank Bridge. We have on occasion enjoyed Bridge's songs but there was something about the poetry that dictated a vocal line of less than customary interest. We found ourselves listening more to the melodic line of David Heiss' cello as it wove through Mr. Warren's piano tapestry. 

That being said, Mr. Griffey's terrific timbre and expressive delivery made the most of what amounted to a monotonous vocal line. 

Mr. Griffey seemed to be personally invested in "Mitch's Aria" from André Previn's opera A Streetcar Named Desire, a Tennessee Williams play which never asked for music and never needed it. He also performed "Sam's Aria" from Carlisle Floyd's Susannah with great intensity.

Aside from the thrilling Strauss, our second favorite piece on the program was "The Song That Goes Like This" from Eric Idle's Spamalot. This clever duet is a meta-observation about songwriting and singing. The phrases are short and punchy; and they rhyme. Ms. Owens and Mr. Griffey gave it their all and the audience responded in kind.

The program ended with "You are Love" from Jerome Kern's Showboat. As far as music from the 20th c., we vote for American Musical Theater over pretentious "art song".

(c) meche kroop                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Sunday, March 24, 2019

MUSIC 10 STORY 2

The Cast of Meyerbeer's Dinorah onstage at The Riverside Theater


Amore Opera's tenth anniversary season has been a raging success with a super delightful Così fan tutte-- and now the sold out production of Meyerbeer's pastoral opéra comique--Dinorah. Artistic and Stage Director Nathan Hull has fleshed out this silly story with talent so outstanding that we readily forgot the trivial story. Happily, it was treated respectfully, as it deserves. No irony here!

How trivial is this story you might ask? The individuals in a small community in Brittany seem happy with their shepherding and goatherding although they are held in bondage by their occult superstitions vying for attention with their religious superstitions. It is the one year anniversary of poor Dinorah's abandonment at the altar by her lover Hoël. She has gone mad.

Mr. Hull wisely presented the backstory in mime during the Overture.  Hoël had been seized by the evil spirit Tonyk, a character impressively danced by Nina Deacon in a wild costume befitting a sorceress. Hoël has been absent the  entire year whilst Dinorah has been wandering around in a daze searching for her pet goat Bella.

The slim storyline concerns Hoël's search for a treasure that he cannot touch. The first person to touch it must die and so the manipulative fellow tries to get the innocent timid bagpiper Corentin to accompany him and touch the treasure first.

Whilst they are approaching the treasure, Dinorah falls into the ravine and must be rescued. Hoël realizes that she herself is the treasure he wants, convinces her that her madness was just a dream, and weds her with full blessing of the community on their annual pilgrimage.

Meyerbeer initially intended a one-act opera and chose as his librettists the well-known Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. It was decided to expand the opera to three acts and he wrote the text himself. For this production, Mr. Hull wrote the dialogue in English, most of which was rather clearly spoken by the cast.

The opera premiered in 1859 and was a raging success until about a century ago when it disappeared from the repertory. Perhaps Richard Wagner's disparagement and anti-Semitism played their parts; perhaps opera goers lost interest in pastoral themed entertainment. In today's anxious and hi-tech environment, a pastoral comedy seemed just about perfect, witness the wide smiles on audience members exiting the theater.

Meyerbeer, largely responsible for creating French Grand Opera, must have enjoyed composing this playful work and lavished upon it endless melodic invention and unusual orchestral effects. One which particularly dazzled us was the music occurring around the dream revelation. Hannah Murphy's harp joined the string section for a tapestry of ethereal sound that would have been right at home in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.

Standing out by virtue of her onstage charm and stratospherical extension was coloratura soprano Holly Flack. One could not have cast a better Dinorah than Ms. Flack whose instrument is gorgeous and judiciously employed to serve the character. Her performance of "Ombre légère", known as "The Shadow Song", took our breath away with such vocal fireworks that she made to appear easy.

As her off-again-on-again suitor, baritone Suchan Kim sang with full round tone and flowing French line; his remorse in "Ah! Mon remords te venge" was convincing and we were able to forgive his character for his prior distasteful behavior.

Tenor Juan Hernández provided comic relief as the bagpiper Corentin. He has a sweet sound and portrayed his character's timidity with success.

We enjoyed the scene in Act III in which we got to meet some of the countryfolk. Bass Kofi Hayford made a fine Hunter; tenor Daniel Foltz-Morrison sharpened and wielded his scythe in a manner that convinced us that he knew how to harvest. Sopranos Christa Dalmazio and Alyson Spina made a lovely pair of shepherdesses. 

Maestro Richard Cordova worked hard to bring together the occasionally ragged orchestra and succeeded rather well, especially when illuminating some of Meyerbeer's special moments. Although a quarter century had transpired since Donizetti wrote Lucia's mad scene with glass harmonica, Meyerbeer made such duets sound fresh and original. 

Corentin's bagpipe was imitated by clarinet in duet with Ms. Flack's vocal line. Mr. Kim's duet took place with trombone. The "Shadow Song" paired Ms. Flack's line with the flute. There was also a sensational duet between the two men in which syllables were bounced back and forth between the two of them. We don't think we have ever heard the like! We also enjoyed the brass chorale at the opening of Act III.

Thanks to French language coach Danielle Feaster, the French sounded just fine and easily understandable. Props to Susan Morton who provided a marvelous chorus. We never take that for granted!

Richard Cerullo's sets were simple and two-dimensional, suiting the storybook character of the plot. We wished that Duane Pagano's lighting had been up to its usual high standards. The lightning in the storm scene could have been better coordinated with the thunder in the pit! When characters mention how dark it is, we'd like the lighting to dim preceding the observation. Just one of our tiny quibbles!

The bottom line is that we had a marvelous time. We feel grateful to Amore Opera for their choice of this musical masterpiece. It's a great idea to switch between beloved favorites and neglected works that deserve a hearing. This earns Amore Opera a very special place in our heart and a special place on Planet Opera.

Coming up is Un Ballo in Maschera, opening May 24th. We don't often get to hear Verdi outside of The Metropolitan Opera. New York must be filled with young singers in the process of developing a larger instrument who can fill out the cast and get the roles under their belts.  Can't wait!

(c) meche kroop




Saturday, March 23, 2019

MARTINU ON DREAMING

Sara Jakubiak, Maestro Leon Botstein, Aaron Blake, David Cangelosi, Alfred Walker, Kevin Burdette, Rebecca Jo Loeb, Philip Cokorinos, Tichina Vaughn, and Raehann Bryce-Davis


Diehard opera lovers, fans of the rare, and a sprinkling of Czech nationals gathered in force last night at Carnegie Hall for a concert production of Bohuslav Martinu's Julietta, a 1937 opera based on a French play Juliette, ou La clé des songes by Georges Neveux. There must have been something very appealing about the theme for the composer to get it translated into Czech by Alex Zucker.
We speculated about the historical forces extant in Europe at that time--the insecurity of living on the same continent as a megalomaniac madman (What's old is new again!) making a dream world more appealing than reality. We thought at length about the surreal aspects of the story which gave the composer free rein to utilize massive orchestral forces in strange and colorful ways, developing new and wonderful colors with surprising rhythmic twists. 

We loved these orchestral colors, the French Horn fanfares, the use of the English Horn and the Bass Clarinet. Liberal use was also made of an accordion and there were sounds we could not identify.

The odd story concerns a Parisian bookseller (performed by terrific tenor Aaron Blake) who revisits a small coastal town where three years earlier he had become enchanted by a woman singing a love song, heard through an open window. There are some pretty strange things going on in this town; the citizens have no memories and live in the present. The railway station disappears. Michel gets elected to high office because he has memories--of a rubber duckie from childhood. 

The chief of police (astutely enacted by David Cangelosi) later becomes a postman and denies his earlier occupation. Everything is off-kilter, the way it is in dreams. So, we realize that Michel is dreaming. But was his earlier visit also a dream? One can only speculate; but credence is lent this theory by our own experience of returning occasionally to a certain place in our dream life that doesn't really exist.

Dreams are utilized in the theater quite often.  Think of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Pedro Calderón de la Barca's La Vida es Sueño. Although Eastern religions claim that what we call reality is really maya or illusion. Nonetheless, we are Westerners and see things differently.

In this libretto, an innkeeper tells stories to an elderly couple, which makes them happy. Is that not true today when many rely on film and other media to make life more interesting?

Act I sets the stage for the action which follows; Act II is surely more compelling as Julietta appears and seems to know and remember Michel. The music given to Julietta, so beautifully sung by soprano Sara Jakubiak, is the most lyrical of the evening. After a romantic reunion there is a spat and the frustrated Michel fires his pistol at the fleeing Julietta. But no one else hears the shot and there is no body. Visiting her home yields no further information. The resident denies her existence. Does this absurdity not resemble dreams of anxiety and frustration you may have had?

Act III brings things together. Michel is in the Central Office of Dreams and there are episodes of humor--a bellhop who wants to dream about the Wild West, a convict who wants dreams of a huge cell, a beggar who wants a dream seaside holiday. At the end Michel refuses to leave and becomes one of the "people in grey", madmen all, deniers of reality. How suitable for Hitlerian Europe!

The singers did yeoman's work in learning this extremely difficult language and managed to capture the rhythmic thrust of the sound as matched to the music. The vocal lines were not at all melodic, as is common in opera of the mid 20th c. The lines were often parlando and there were some lines spoken in English. Although there were no titles, libretti were distributed with the programs and house lights were left on. Most members of the audience elected to read along with the performance.

Aside from the outstanding performances of Ms. Jakubiak, Mr. Blake, and Mr. Cangelosi, we particularly enjoyed mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb whose versatility animated a number of roles; equivalent versatility can be claimed by bass Kevin Burdette and bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos. The resonant bass-baritone Alfred Walker also fulfilled a number of roles to perfection.

Two mezzo-sopranos added significantly to the performance--Tichina Vaughn and Raehann Bryce-Davis who each assumed a number of different roles. The Bard Festival Chorale, directed by James Bagwell made significant contributions as well.

But the main event was the orchestra which played magnificently under the baton of Leon Botstein, who loves discovering neglected works. Julietta has not been heard in the United States before. Martinu was a prolific composer who left Czechoslovakia in 1923 for France where his music certainly acquired a degree of Gallic influence. This work premiered in Prague in 1938 but was also translated into French. Shortly afterward Martinu came to the United States, bringing the score with him. Strange that it had to wait nearly 80 years to be brought to the stage of Carnegie Hall. Thank you Maestro Botstein!

(c) meche kroop


Friday, March 22, 2019

JUILLIARD VOCAL HONORS RECITAL

Richard Fu, Bronwyn Schuman, Shakèd Bar, and Dominik Belavy


For those readers who have not read our prior descriptions of the Juilliard Vocal Arts Honors Recitals, here's the short version. Voice teachers at Juilliard nominate students of uncommon promise who then go through a rigorous audition process in which a distinguished panel of judges make their selection. The chosen recitalists work with their respective collaborative pianists to design a program for a recital at Alice Tully Hall. This is a win-win situation in which the artists get to perform for the general public and the public gets to join the Juilliard family as recipients of a generally thrilling evening of vocal entertainment.

Last night at Alice Tully Hall we enjoyed what amounted to two recitals for the price of one. Wisely, the artists did not alternate. We had a full hour of Schubert performed by baritone Dominik Belavy accompanied by collaborative pianist Richard Fu, and a very different recital of Israeli songs performed by mezzo-soprano Shakèd Bar with Bronwyn Schuman as pianist.

Although we loved Schubert's lieder long before, it was Lachlan Glen's year-long perusal of over 600 Schubert songs that revealed the wide scope and variety of his prolific output. Not every song he wrote is of equal quality but it is strange that most recitalists turn to the same handful of lieder for their programs. Not Mr. Belavy! He selected several of Schubert's less frequently performed songs and we found them to be of great value.

We cannot claim to have never heard them owing to Mr. Glen's ambitious venture about seven years ago; but we can claim to have perhaps forgotten them and to have enjoyed them afresh last night. The remarkable aspects of Schubert's compositions are a singable vocal line and a piano part that reveals the poet's subtext. He always finds the bittersweet element--the other side of the emotional coin, so to speak. He was also astute in his choice of text so that his music might enhance the intent of the poet. If only contemporary composers could do the same, we might be more open to contemporary art song.

We have been writing about Mr. Belavy for over four years and we are thrilled to witness his achieving the promise we then noted. His comforting baritone is warm and round. What struck us was his quiet command of the stage. He is not given to grand theatrical gestures but seems to get inside the song and to draw the audience in by means of phrasing and judicious changes in dynamics. 

We are so glad that he chose Schubert for his recital since we have already heard him sing in opera and also in art songs by other composers. We would like to add that not only did we find his German diction perfekt, but it passed muster with our German born companion. If there were one quality we wish to hear more of it would be variety of coloration.

Schubert set Goethe's "An den Mond" twice and we wish we had heard the two iterations consecutively to gain a better appreciation of Schubert's compositional evolution. They are both characterized by Schubert's bittersweet approach to mood, mode, and harmony.

Our favorite lieder however related to the water. In "Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren"  (text by Mayrhofer) the lied is introduced by some rumbling in the piano, so effectively played by Mr. Fu. Both singer and pianist became forceful when addressing the confidence of a man facing a storm. 

"Des Fischers Liebesglück" (text by von Leitner) tells a charming story in which the fisherman's sweetheart joins him for a rapturous sail on the lake. So why is it written in a minor key? We don't know but the mood is sweet and gentle and the strophic verses lulled us into a blissful state. Mr. Belavy smoothly negotiated the repeated upward skips and Mr. Fu was particularly expressive.

The lively charm of courtship was revealed in "An die Laute" (text by Rochlitz), a simple folklike song which was followed by the anxiety ridden "Alinde" in which a man queries a succession of people passing by whether they have seen his sweetheart, who seems to be long delayed. We were happy to have not known the song because our anxiety built with each person too busy to help the poet look; consequently, we enjoyed the relief when the sweetheart finally appears at the end!

"Nachtstück" is a lied more familiar to us; it is a song about death but a peaceful welcomed death--given a peaceful performance by the two artists. "Der Winterabend" was also peaceful but there was a marked swelling of intensity before the final verse in which the poet waxes nostalgic over a lost love in his past.

Mr. Belavy and Mr. Fu ended their program with Schubert's final song, the familiar "Die Taubenpost" (text by Seidl) from Shwanengesang. This was performed by Mr. Belavy with plenty of personality which set us up for the final change of mood; the poet's faithful companion is longing. Schubert was no stranger to mixed feelings!

Before moving on to Ms. Bar's adventuresome programming, let us mention that Mr. Belavy is having his Master's of Music recital on April 4th at 4:00 and will be performing these Schubert songs again. We will not miss this and neither should you!

Ms. Bar honored her Israeli homeland by performing a program of songs in her native tongue and we confess to being amazed by how beautiful the language sounded in song. We have heard Hebrew spoken and could never have predicted that this harsh language could be so lyrical. Israeli song has a brief history, barely more than a century. 

The young composer Noa Haran was given a commission by Juilliard and was present in the audience for the world premiere of her work Be'ad Ha'eshnav, translated as Through the Lattice. The text by Hadas Gilad seemed to be fantasies based upon passages in the bible. "Edat Re'iya" seemed to be a story about Potiphar's wife seducing or being seduced by Joseph. "Yevava" seemed to be the lament of a mother when her son fails to return from battle.

Ms. Bar is a compelling performer, as is her collaborative pianist Bronwyn Schuman. The audience could not hold their applause and erupted with enthusiasm after every single number. In contrast to our long standing appreciation of Mr. Belavy's artistry, Ms. Bar has only recently appeared on our radar screen as a compelling interpreter of the role of Dido in a recent highly original production of Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas at Juilliard (review archived). Now that we have seen another side of her artistry we are further impressed.

We loved her opening song "Khalamti et Shirat Hazamir" by Moshe Rapaport. If we never learn another word in Hebrew besides shalom, we will never forget that shirat hazamir means "nightingale's song". Not only did Ms. Schuman's piano create the song of the nightingale but Ms. Bar let loose with a volley of coloratura fireworks in the melismatic passages that exceeded that of any avian species! We do love sensual music!

A very different image was evoked in "Orkha bamidbar" as a caravan of camels wended their way through the desert. Ms. Schuman's piano clearly limned the oriental mode of the melody as well as the plodding of the camels. Later, her piano brought out the lyrical theme in "Shai" by Levi Sha'ar and was forceful in "Echezu Lanu Shualim" by Tzvi Avni.

The lengthy "Vidui" by Alexander Argov evoked feelings of anguish. Although we didn't always grasp the text, the feeling in the music came across. We appreciate the mashup of popular song, folk song, and art song; perhaps we may consider them one and the same. A good song is a good song, no matter its genre.

There were settings of texts from the Old Testament as well. Ms. Bar offered a lovely a capella start to Nira Chen's "Dodi Li" and the piano churned through Paul Ben-Haim's "Gan Na'ul". Aharon Harlap set Psalm 112 and 98. It was a thorough introduction to Israeli music.

(c) meche kroop



Thursday, March 21, 2019

A NOVEL TAKE ON SCHUBERT'S WINTERREISE

Lech Napierała and Tomasz Konieczny at the Kosciuszko Foundation

Guest Review by Cullen Gandy.

Cullen Gandy is a former opera singer, based out of New York City, who writes about issues relating to the performing arts in America. You can see more at his blog www.arsravingmad.com which we recommend highly.


The building that houses the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York City, now 101 years old, was the beautiful stage for an interesting new adaptation of Schubert’s famous Winterreise (Winter’s Journey). Music for the evening was provided by two considerable talents, in bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny and pianist Lech Napierała.

This recital featured an interesting twist on an established classical favorite; melding the haunting Schubertian harmony and melody of the inimitable song cycle, with the poetry of Polish writer Stanislaw Baranczak. A Harvard lecturer, and esteemed translator of many great works of fiction from English into Polish, Baranczak became enamored with Winterreise, and he determined to emboss it with poems that represent his own artistic experiences/ideas. This wasn’t simply some half-hearted attempt to jigsaw someone’s favorite poems into music they thought was appropriate. It was a deliberate endeavor, by a motivated artist, to imbue new meaning into the great works of the past. More of a posthumous collaboration than a ‘remix’.

But did it work?

As a preface, I should say that I spent a great deal of my graduate and post-graduate studies writing on, and singing, Winterreise (specifically the musical idioms Schubert used to represent text). It merits pointing out that Müller, the original lyric poet who wrote the text for Winterreise, published his work in 1822 and 1824, and Schubert set that text to music three years later. This is important to remember, because it means that the music was created with the words in mind, and not the other way around. The text initially informed the music, and, for the original iteration of the song cycle, they told a story in parallel.


In the original Winterreise, there are certain musical idioms that harken back and allude to ideas, words, emotions, and events that the wanderer has throughout the work. Though the songs, in a sense, can be seen as events or snapshots of the journeyman’s fateful voyage, they are thematically connected. The traveller walks, he leaves a note on the gate, he sees the wind playing with the weathervane, he sees a tree under which he used to sit, he sees a crow flying along with him, etc. All of these things are happening to him in real-time. As a result, no part of the textual story is exempted from Schubert’s influence. Rhythm, harmony, melody, silence, tempo, and macro-harmonic structure are all anchored to the wanderer’s experience of the journey. They transfigure the text, and serve as the setting of the story.

Though Baranczak’s poetry is often quite thoughtful and artful, his poems are disparate from the musical scheme over which they have been laid. As a result, the songs become more like individual vignettes, or one-off thoughts that occur to the poet as he is going through life. A journey of a certain sort, to be sure, but not one as coherent as that of the physical and emotional experience of Müller’s wanderer.

Müller was no Goethe or Rilke, and his poetic strengths lay with the ease of his meter and imagery. Though Baranczak mirrors much of Müller’s formal constraints, along with a certain German gloom, his poetry is often high-minded and political at times. There’s something avant-garde about it; treatises about the worse nature of humanity dialing in to hear about catastrophes, alongside the sports and weather news. It’s not the same kind of lyric poetry, and, to be fair, I don’t think it was supposed to be. But there was more than a little bit of cognitive dissonance on my part; hearing a continuous story in the music, and seeing an array of smaller stories in the room.

But it’s not important to talk about what this work is supposed to be, let’s simply take it for what it is.

This work is a fine artistic effort to breathe new life into a cherished medium. Polish is a lovely language in which to have this music set, and it shares much of the depth of character that German affords sung poetry. Baranczak’s poems, while not uniformly well-woven into the vocal line, were generally unobtrusive, and often quite complimentary. That just means the right kind of vowels went where they were supposed to go. I was prepared to be skeptical, or bored, but was quite entertained. There were deviations, too, in tempo and musical interpretation; many that enlivened the senses, and a few that didn’t hit the right mark for me.

The evening’s vocal offering by Mr. Konieczny (who can currently be heard at a number of productions at the Met) was as ambitious and thoughtful as the piece itself. His is a noble tone; befitting of his usual Wagnerian repertoire. The singing was vivid and full of color, only occasionally veering off of the breath in one or two of the higher, softer passages. The majority of the cycle was marked by his pleasing and even singing, even down through the very lowest notes. He sang over a stand of music, but was only lightly tethered to it, and he afforded a rich, interpretive, sometimes declamatory understanding of the text; in every phrase and line. He acted the words so effectively, that I came out of the room thinking that I understood Polish. Alas, I do not.

Mr. Napierała played the music exquisitely. Each touch felt as though it was choreographed instead of it being played. His interpretation had an extemporaneous feel to it; as though it were something totally new.

Together, the two of them seemed almost telepathically connected. Each song was marked by crisp rests, dynamic changes, fluctuations and continuities in tempo; catching the audience off guard again and again. Between them, there was a laser precision to each musical consideration in each song. It was really exciting to hear.

From an artistic perspective, this setting is worthy for the examination of more audiences to come.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

LOVE, LOVE, AND NOTHING BUT...

Gina Perregrino, Devony Smith, Erik Van Heyningen, Danny Zelibor, and Philippe L"Espérance
surrounding Steven Blier at the piano


Is there anything to say about love that has not yet been said?  Is there anything to sing about love that has not yet been sung?  If there were, Steven Blier would have uncovered it and included it in his fulfilling program last night at Merkin Hall for New York Festival of Song. "Love at the Crossroads" was the title of the program which was organized into four parts to reflect the many stages of love. Mr. Blier related that his inspiration for the program was Mozart's opera Così fan tutte which we just reviewed three days ago.

The first "movement" of this Symphony of Love illuminated the early stages of what psychologists call "limerance". Infatuation is a state most people long for when they don't have it, suffer beautifully from when they achieve it, and get depressed over when they lose it or it transmogrifies into another state, as it must.

To express the glories of falling in love, Mr. Blier chose five songs in French by Camille Saint-Saëns, Ernest Chausson, Gabriel Fauré, and Édouard Lalo. The lovely lyrical lines could not have been given better voice than they were by soprano Devony Smith (well remembered from a Utopia Opera production of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia), mezzo-soprano Gina Perregrino whom we followed from Manhattan School of Music to Santa Fe Opera, tenor Philippe L'Espérance (our favorite Prince Charming), and bass-baritone Erik van Heyningen whom we have enjoyed countless times at Juilliard and with Mise-en-Scène Opera. We always enjoy concerts more when we know the artists.

Collaborative Pianist Danny Zelibor is new to us but we loved the way he supported the line of each singer and shared pianistic duties with Mr. Blier.

Getting back to the program, the entire set in French was filled with joy and wonder but our very favorite was Fauré's "Madrigal" performed by the ensemble. The wise and knowing text by Armand Silvestre dealt with one of the "puzzlements" of love--why we pursue those who shun us and shun those who love us.

The second "movement" comprised songs in English from Broadway shows. Mr. Blier's title was The Honeymoon's Over and the songs dealt with the reality of two people with different priorities and values coming to terms with disappointed expectations. 

Stephen Sondheim is a master of setting short punchy phrases to memorable tunes. Mr. Blier's witty description was "spitting Sondheim acid". We particularly enjoyed "Country House" from his Follies; it was both funny and painful to listen to a couple who are just not getting what they want from each other. It was like being a fly on the wall of a therapist's office. Ms. Smith and Mr. L'Espérance captured all the thwarted attempts to connect and did so musically and dramatically. This splendid song never made it to Broadway.

The third "movement" (a Scherzo) covered the subject of philandering--sowing wild oats, as it were. Ms. Smith and Ms. Perregrino were hilarious in "Modest Maid" singing about archery, bitchery, witchery, butchery, and lechery. Who knew that Marc Blitzstein had such a sense of humor!

Similarly, Mr. L'Espérance and Mr. van Heyningen put a gay spin on "The Tennis Song" from Cy Coleman's City of Angels. There were at least a dozen double entendre moments that tickled our funny bone and the two men mined every giggle they could from the risqué material.

Additionally, Mr. Van Heyningen led the ensemble in Ed Kleban's "Do It Yourself", another naughty but very clever ditty. All of these songs were new to us and throughly delightful. English lends itself so well to comedy.

There was an instrumental interlude by Brahms--his Waltz in G#minor played on two pianos by four hands. This is another piece we had never heard before and we could not imagine it in four better hands than those of Mr. Blier and Mr. Zelibor. How interesting it was to hear a smooth segué into Richard Strauß' song "Freundliche Vision" so warmly performed by Mr. L'Espérance with his beautiful tone.

The finale of this Symphony of Love was one of reconciliation. Readers will recall how much we love German lieder and we heard Schubert's "Licht und Liebe, Nachtgesang" sung by Ms. Smith and Mr. L'Espérance; Brahms' "Es rauschet das Wasser" from Vier Duette with Goethe's gorgeous text begging to be read aloud and set to music (so gorgeously sung by Ms. Perregrino and Mr. L'Espérance); and Schubert's "Die Geselligkeit" in which the ensemble of four voices rose in concert to extol the pleasures of companionship.

Nothing more was needed than to close the program with Manuel Oltra's setting of Federico Garcia Lorca's "Eco". Although we always enjoy the manner in which Mr. Blier's curates songs for New York Festival of Song, we enjoyed this program more than any other. When the last note of "Eco" died down, we wanted to hear the entire program again from the top!

(c) meche kroop




Sunday, March 17, 2019

A PERSIAN COURT ON GRAMERCY PARK

Stradella's "Ester Liberatrice del Popolo Ebreo" --Salon/Sanctuary Concerts (photo by Stephen de las Heras)

Guest review by Chris Petit:

Alessandro Stradella, a Caravaggio-esque figure and notorious bad boy who died young-ish at the hands of a romantic rival, knew a thing or two about how to set a text and wake up an audience to the dramatic potential in many a sacred story. He thrived in the 17th-century and is now enjoying somewhat of a Renaissance, with New York performances by Opera Lafayette, the Academy of Sacred Drama, and Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, the Americans joining a veritable Stradella-mania among a panoply of Italian baroque groups.

 Lucky for us that we can now hear so much of his wonderful music, oratorios dramatizing bible stories and lives of other sacred characters, in which the challenges for the performer include virtuoso singing, nuanced acting, and musical chops which enable one to traverse compositional adventures that at times appear to defy logic.

On Wednesday, Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, an intrepid organization never wont to shy away from either an ambitious or adventurous program, offered up the 1673 work Ester Liberatrice del Popolo Ebreo, a setting of the story of the Jewish holiday Purim, in which Queen Ester of the Persian Empire uses intelligence, persuasion and reason to head off the genocidal plot of Hamman (Aman in the Italian version) to eradicate the Jewish people. The mid-19th-century Brotherhood Synagogue provided an ideal setting, its central bima creating a ready made stage set for the drama.

 The choice of this work is timely, and not just because are we headed into the Purim holiday which celebrates Ester’s victory. A story about a clever woman who outsmarts an oppressive bully whose overcompensation issues result in the suffering of a whole ethnic group resonates all too keenly with most Americans today. But before we make any glib Nancy Pelosi/Donald Trump references, let us remember that Ester was a heroine because, unlike bold modern women today, she was constrained to function within the narrow confines of what was a woman’s place, in both the original story’s setting of the Persian empire and the Counter-Reformation Rome of the libretto.

Far from demanding her people’s emancipation, she has to skirt the issue, finding ways to impress her point upon her husband the King without winding up like her predecessor Vashti, imprisoned in a harem for refusing to obey his command (which involved appearing naked at a banquet, but I digress).

This limited space of action creates a compelling character, to say nothing of the music, and soprano Jessica Gould, who is also the Artistic Director of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts and the engine behind this fine organization’s compelling programming, navigated the role skillfully. Showing a clear transition from Ester’s anxiety to certitude under the nudging of her cousin Mardocheo, sung with beautiful, unaffected tone and clear intention by countertenor José Lemos, Gould’s powerful voice embraces both coloratura filigree and weighty lyrical passages with ease, while a dramatic fire, fine Italian diction, and command of the text makes this role her own.

Gould’s is a dramatic instrument with an impressive facility and distinctive color, dark and rich in the depths and brilliant above. She may not match a certain “Early Music” sound that many have in their heads, but it is a voice you remember, reminding us that the depth of passion inherent in these texts must not fall victim to the fussy preoccupations with “authenticity” that doom many a period performance to forgettable homogeneity.

 I am delighted to report that full-blooded vocalism and judicious dramatic choices animated the other principal characters as well, imbuing this age-old story with the kind of life a modern audience needs to keep these works alive.

In the role of Speranza Celeste, an added-on metaphorical figure absent from the original bible story, soprano Sarah Pillow was an ideal foil to Gould, offering a silvery crystalline timbre to the other soprano’s darker palette, the two illustrating a sonic divide between earth and heaven. Wafting through her scenes with the conviction of the righteous, she managed to be convincing rather than supercilious, her delicate phrasing and translucent color a cool and welcome breeze. In the Act I finale duet with Aman (Haman) her diaphanous sound balanced the swaggering bass-baritone of Ian Pomerantz.

Pomerantz clearly relished the outrageous evilness of his character, lurking and mugging through his role with great enthusiasm. A large instrument with a lot of potential, his burly approach resulted at times in less than clean runs and what seemed like some indecision about ornamentation (I recall being surprised by cadential trill of distinctly French provenance at one point). Judging from the audience reaction around me, his performance was a crowd pleaser, and even if his instrument spilled over the edge of stylistic precision for much of the evening, (and the evening does belong to Aman with his miles of arias), it fit the arrogance of this bullying character, one of the Old Testament’s biggest bad guys.

Like the finely crafted performance of José Lemos in regrettably too small a role, the magnificent Jonathan Woody in the role of Assuero the King doesn’t make an appearance until the second act. But what an appearance it is. With a minimum of fuss this gifted young bass-baritone spins out a warm and glorious velvety sound anchored by steel in its lowest range. His economy of action created a nobility of both character and timbre that contrasted Aman’s bluster. It is a sound that speaks of both technique and wisdom beyond this young singer’s years, and which provided a moral anchor as all is set right by a wise king who accepts counsel from others.

In the smaller roles Dominic Inferrera was poised and appealing as Testo (the narrator). Amanda Sidebottom and Martha Sullivan as two Hebrew women sang a lovely duet occasionally marred by intonation lapses. This carried over into the choruses that the two sopranos helmed. The alto Wendy Gilles, and lutenist Grant Herreid, doing double duty on the tenor line, joined bass-baritone Inferrera as the strong links in the vocal ensemble. Herreid played a stylish lute continuo, joining veteran theorbist Daniel Swenberg, gambist Loren Ludwig and harpsichordist Elliot Figg in the tight and responsive continuo group.

 I looked in vain for a stage director credit and found none, so it seems that the decision to move about the stage, or bima, as the case is here, was that of the singers, who presumably directed themselves. Books in hand, they created some very effective visuals that belied what must have been a brief rehearsal process. There was an unaffected freshness to the ease with which they moved, welcome in the face of so many “concept” productions, suffocated by overzealous directors with lots to do but nothing to say (my readers know this is a pet peeve of mine). Standard concert wear did the job of indicating character as well, with Queen Ester in a royal purple gown, Speranza Celeste in a dress of luminous and heavenly blue velvet, and the gentlemen in a color scheme of ties to indicate court (magenta), monarch (gold), or bad guy (silver).

(c) meche kroop




COSÌ COSÌ

Nathan Hull, Deborah Surdi, Conrad Bullitt, Iris Karlin, Maestro José Alejandro Guzmán, Perri Sussman, and Drew Watson


We have long asserted that singers make good directors; we have always admired Nathan Hull's direction at Amore Opera but we have yearned to hear his resonant baritone and last night we did--in the role of Don Alfonso in Mozart's Così fan tutte. His performance as the cynical and experienced older friend of Fernando and Guglielmo was spot on--effective without overplaying or grandstanding. He knows how to create a believable character and his diction was crisp. Every word was clear.

Another notable feature of this performance was the vastly improved performance of the orchestra under the baton of Maestro José Alejandro Guzmán. We have grumbled in the past about out-of-tune strings but last night the orchestra was in tune and together. The overture fairly sparkled! Of course, there were some recalcitrant French horns but that's par for the course. The program notes did not identify the player of the (electronic) harpsichord continuo.

The stage direction by Mr. Hull was unobtrusive and served to highlight the singers, rather than calling attention to some irrelevant "concept". There were, as usual, some very clever touches.  For example, when Despina, dressed as a quack doctor, pulls out a giant magnet, she points it at the potted plants which are made to shake and quiver, just like Ferrando and Guglielmo portraying the rejected Albanian suitors who have just taken "poison".

The sets are probably inherited from Amato Opera and were effectively lit by Duane Pagano. Costumes were designed by superb soprano Iris Karlin who created a strong-willed Fiordiligi. In harmony with her was marvelous mezzo Perri Sussman who was equally believable as Dorabella. Every scene between these two lovely ladies resonated with truth. They were supportive and competitive in turn, just like real sisters.

As their suitors, baritone Conrad Bullitt sang with fine tone and we enjoyed his smug glee when he succeeded in winning the all-too-willing Dorabella, his friend's fiancée. The role of Ferrando was sung by tenor Drew Watson who evinced a fine decrescendo. The role of Despina was sung by Deborah Surdi who was not always audible.

The packed house was unusually appreciative of all the humorous touches, most of them intentional, but a few which weren't. There were false mustaches coming loose and wigs worn on top of other wigs and hats falling off. It was all in good fun and just what we want in a comedy.

What we don't want in a comedy (or in a tragedy either for that matter) is an English translation! There was absolutely no justification for presenting this 1790 Italian language treasure in English. Mozart and da Ponte carefully married the vocal phrases to the text and it seemed criminal to come between them the way Don Alfonso broke up his friends' relationships.  

The uncredited translation might have been clever had we been able to understand the words! But Mr. Hull was the only one onstage who was consistently understandable and there were no titles. Fortunately, we know the story very well and there was a clear synopsis in the program for those who did not. Still, it is frustrating to try to understand what singers are singing when you can only catch a word or a phrase here and there. It might as well have been sung in Czech! After awhile we gave up trying and focused on the sound of the voice and the orchestra.

This led to the observation that English may be the worst language in which to evaluate the quality of a singer's voice. Just say aloud "Un aura amorosa" and feel how it rolls off the tongue. Now try "My love is like a flower" and you will see what we mean. Every gorgeous aria Mozart wrote seemed diminished.

Now Arthur Sullivan's music was made to suit the English language and we recall last December when Mr. Hull's libretto for Scrooge (review archived) danced into our ears. This did not happen last night.

We have reviewed Ms. Karlin and Ms. Sussman on many prior occasions and enjoyed their voices; but what if this had been their first time? We would have little idea of their artistry.

If the goal of presenting an opera in translation is to further our understanding, then each singer must have exemplary diction. Strangely, it is mainly foreign born singers who enunciate clearly.

Opera lovers in St. Louis have no choice. The Opera Theater of St. Louis only presents operas in English translation. But here in New York City, we have a choice and we choose opera in its original language.

Amore Opera presents forgotten masterpieces as well as old favorites and we are excited about hearing Meyerbeer's Dinorah next week, sung in its original French (YAY!). This unfairly forgotten masterpiece has not been heard in the USA in a century. Do get tickets before they sell out!

(c) meche kroop


Friday, March 15, 2019

BABETTE SAVES THE DAY

German Forum President Barbara K. Heming, Toby Newman, Marco Amherd,  Babette Hierholzer

Last night's concert program was unusual for the German Forum and so was the venue. We met in the gorgeous and spacious sanctuary of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament which houses an impressive organ (the better to accommodate the gifts of organist Marco Amherd) and an equally impressive piano, so beautifully played by Artistic Director Babette Hierholzer. 

Our favorite part of the program was Mr. Amherd's stirring performance of Zsigimond Szathmáry's arrangement of Modest Mussorksky's Night on Bald Mountain, originally composed for orchestra. Mr. Amherd's brilliant performance demonstrated the vast range of colors in the organ. The music is spooky and terrifying but ends on a peaceful "note" after some lovely liquid ascending arpeggi. If you have never seen the Disney film Fantasia, we are providing a link to see just how horrifying are the images evoked by this music.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLCuL-K39eQ 

An eleventh hour realization of a tuning discrepancy between this organ and piano led to the cancellation of one of the pieces on the program but Ms. Hierholzer saved the day by joining Mr. Amherd at the organ for a four-handed rendition of selections from Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. The result was both sonorous and colorful. What a surprise to learn that Ms. Hierholzer was making her debut on the organ! She played it like an "old hand", although perhaps that phrase is not very flattering!

We were somewhat less enchanted by the vocal part of the evening. We were very much looking forward to another hearing of Robert Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben, one of our favorite song cycles. By an interesting coincidence, we last heard this piece performed by Marie Engle in the basement space of this very same church, almost one year ago; we were left shaken and tearful, as we usually are. Last night we were left unmoved.

Although mezzo-soprano Toby Newman has a pleasing tone, she sang without much variety of coloration and very little involvement with the text until the songs about pregnancy and motherhood. Perhaps her own recent achievement of that status helped things along; still, the excitement of courtship and wedding preparation were not conveyed in the first five songs.

There was another serious problem and that was with Ms. Newman's German. When a singer has problems with words ending in "ich", it torments our ears and distracts us from reacting to the text. American singers often omit the sound entirely or, as in Ms. Newman's case, pronounce it as "ick". This is just "icky"! Since many members of the German Forum are German speakers, we object to assigning such an important work to an American singer.

In Franz Schubert's passionate love song "Sei mir gegrüßt", the situation was even worse. Ms. Newman was "on the book" and sang it flatly. We hate giving a singer a poor review but we believe that singers should care enough about connecting with the audience to learn what is on their program.

We were left bored by the singing so we do what we usually do in such cases--we focused on the instrumental playing which was, in this case, Ms. Hierholzer's refined pianism. She has a real feel for 19th c. lieder which is our favorite thing to hear in recital.

The program also included Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major and "Oh Rest in the Lord" from Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah.

The German Forum has a lighthearted cabaret evening coming up on May 9th which sounds promising.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

PHILHARMONIA BAROQUE ORCHESTRA at ALICE TULLY HALL

Anthony Ross Costanzo and Anne Sofie von Otter onstage at Alice Tully Hall


The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra presented an unusual program last night that offered delights, both expected and unexpected. Let us begin with the expected delights. Hearing countertenor Anthony Ross Costanzo singing Händel was the main reason we decided to review this evening and he did not disappoint.

Mr. Costanzo's selections served to show off the many special qualities of his instrument and the artistry with which he employs it. In "Inumano fratel ... Stille amare" from Händel's Tolomeo, he began as a victim complaining about how he has suffered at the hands of Fate. When he sang of his beloved, his color warmed and softened, and toward the end, as the poison (actually just a sleeping potion) took effect one could hear the grief and acceptance creep into his voice, accompanied by sobbing strings. We were also impressed by his strength at the lower end of the register.

For vocal fireworks we had to wait for "Vivi tiranno!" from Rodelinda, in which the wild flights of melismatic singing were employed to express Bertando's passion. (Apparently, the aria had the desired effect on Grimoaldo who relents and restores Bertando to the throne.) It was a landmark performance, doing credit to this artist whom we have thrilled to since his student days.

Mezzo-Soprano Anne Sofie von Otter is known to us mainly in her role as Octavian in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, one of our favorite operas. We were very much looking forward to hearing her last night and for the most part we enjoyed her performance but we were disappointed in her use of the loathed music stand. We can understand its use in modern works and in ensemble singing but not for the Händel arias.

We admit that her dramatic skills almost overcame the handicap but it did interfere with her connection with the audience, giving us the chance to focus on the superb oboe solo of Marc Schachman in "Will the sun forget to streak" from Handel's Solomon. (If Handel decided to use an English libretto, we can decide to omit the diacritical marks, LOL.)

We enjoyed "Iris, hence away"--Juno's aria of revenge upon the unfortunate title character of Semele. Ms. von Otter invested the performance with plenty of drama in the florid melismatic passages and brought the aria to a powerful ending. 

The two singers sang a charming love duet from Solomon, one with intertwining vocal lines and a playful aspect. Speaking of playful, there was a lagniappe not on the program which both tickled us and also made us a bit uncomfortable.  Let us explain. Ms. von Otter is a head taller than the diminutive Mr. Costanzo. In the duet "My dearest, my fairest" from Purcell's . Pausanias, the pair played it for laughs in a way that might have diminished Mr. Costanzo were he not so secure. It just reminded us of how awkward we have felt on dates with men who were "vertically challenged", as they say.

Readers will be happy to know that we kept an open mind to the contemporary music on the program and were rewarded by aural pleasures.  Arvo Pärt's Summa was composed in 1977 and revised in 1991 for this combination of voices and string orchestra. Thankfully, it was tonal and not terribly challenging. There was a repetitive motif running through the short work. 

Our two vocal artists were well matched by a solo violin and viola in Pärt's  1984 "Es sang vor langen Jahren", which opened with a lovely string tremolo. The text was by Romantic poet Clemens Brentano.

We also liked two related pieces by Caroline Shaw which confirmed our opinion that singers excel in writing for the voice. We heard the world premiere of "And So" which was related to a work from three years ago called "Red, Red Rose" with a text by Robert Burns--a text which scanned and rhymed--two qualities which we feel tend to inspire melodic music. 

Ms. von Otter limned the pretty little turns in the vocal line and floated some exquisite high notes. The Burns work had the quality of a folk song with repeated verses.

We have yet to mention the instrumental pieces on the program, which opened with the Overture to Partenope by Händel. Maestro Nicolas McGegan has a modest appearance on the podium, without theatrics, but pulled together a consistently excellent performance from his mostly string orchestra which also includes a pair of Baroque oboes, a bassoon, a theorbo, and a harpsichord. During the Shaw we were sure we heard a celeste but could not see one!

The major instrumental work on the program was Händel's Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, of which we preferred the graceful Minuet and the spirited Gavotte.

The program closed with a Suite from Purcell's The Fairy Queen in which the theorbist occasionally swapped his theorbo for a Baroque guitar.

What an interesting concept it was to combine Baroque music and Modern music on the same program--all played by a Baroque ensemble!

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, March 10, 2019

VIVA VERDI

Mikhail Svetlov, Alla Perchikova, Zoya Gramagin, Jacqueline Quirk, Francisco Casanova, Kristian Benedikt, Natasha Novitskaia, and Gustavo Ahualli


Writing as we do about young artists, most of the voices we hear are light lyric ones. Last night we had the opportunity to hear some seasoned voices of larger dimensions singing the hell out of Verdi. The arias and duets we heard were those from operas that one must hear at the Metropolitan Opera. What was interesting about the performances we heard last night at the National Opera Center was how successfully the artists were able to summon up the entire opera in a single aria or duet.  It was like feeling the ocean in a single wave.

There was something else all of the singers had in common--a very Italianate embouchure--something every voice teacher tries to get her students to emulate. We are not sure how many of these singers studied in Russia but we'd guess at least half. There must be some wonderful training there or else it's genetics!

The arias we heard came from some of Verdi's best operas--Aida, Forza del Destino, Otello, Un Ballo in Maschera, Macbeth, Il Trovatore, and Don Carlos. The "Recordare" from his Requiem reminded us how Verdi can make religious music sound so very secular--very operatic indeed, as sung by sopranos Zoya Gramagin and mezzo-soprano Natasha Novitskaia.

Ms. Novitskaia lent her powerful voice to the creation of the character of Ulrica in "Re dell'abisso, affrettati" from Ballo in Maschera. The way she used the texture of her mezzo instrument created an aura of suspense. We loved the final "Silencio!". In the lower register she has a contralto quality.

She "plays well with others" as we saw in the numerous duets. She was a very commanding and devious Amneris in the duet "Fu la sorte dell'armi a' tuoi funesta" from Aida, tricking her rival Aida. The Ethiopian princess was well portrayed by dramatic soprano Alla Perchikova who showed her character's panic and ended the duet with a delicate pianissimo.

We heard more from Ms. Perchikova's Aida in "Qui Radamès verra...O patria mia". The phrase "mai piu" occurs at least a dozen times and she managed to make each iteration different. She also excelled in "Vieni t'affretta" from Macbeth in which she limned Lady Macbeth's resolute character by judicious use of her fioritura. The last time we enjoyed that aria as much was when we heard Lauren Flanigan sing it.

Our favorite Verdi opera, one seldom heard, is Forza del Destino--mainly for the insistent recurring theme that weaves in and out. Soprano Zoya Gramagin sang "Pace, pace mio Dio!" convincingly with gorgeous tone. There was plenty of strength at the bottom of the register and we enjoyed the fortissimo climax. Craig Ketter, Music director and accompanist for the evening, did a superlative job all evening long but was particularly remarkable in this aria, bringing out the theme that we love so dearly.

With all due respect to the attention paid to women this month, we must move on to the male singers of which there were four celebrated exemplars. Tenor Francisco Casanova is famed for his Verdi heroes. As the remorseful Otello who has killed his dear wife Desdemona in a fit of irrational jealousy, he mined every ounce of torment and remorse in "Niun me tema". As any actor does, he made the most of his death scene. What a performance!

We also enjoyed his resolute Radames in the duet "L'aborrita rivale a me sfuggia" with Ms. Novitskaia as his Amneris.

Another tenor, Kristian Benedikt, used his fine instrument with gravitas as he interpreted "La vita è inferno...O tu che in seno agli angeli" from La Forza del Destino.

Verdi did indeed enjoy writing for the baritone fach and Gustavo Ahualli used his dark instrument in a measured and deeply felt performance of "Eri tu che macchiavi quell'anima" from Un Ballo in Maschera in which Renato expresses his anger and sorrow. Mr. Ahualli achieved characterological complexity by means of dynamic variation.

He was totally different as the Conte di Luna in "Mira, d'acerbe lagrime" a duet from Il Trovatore with Ms. Gramagin as the disdainful Leonora; Ms. Gramagin handled both the low register and the fioritura with grace.

We needed a bass voice to round out the evening and one couldn't have asked for anyone better than Mikhail Svetlov who managed to create "sympathy for the devil", with some help from Verdi of course. King Phillip has stolen his son's intended bride and then feels sorry for himself that she never loved him! How can one feel sympathy for this evil man who will order his son killed!!! We don't know; all we know is that Mr. Svetlov's impassioned but introspective delivery left us feeling pity for a man facing the consequences of a bad decision.

We heard very little of soprano Jacqueline Quirk but would like to hear more. She appeared in the Act IV Finale of Il Trovatore which closed the program, alongside Ms. Novitskaia, Mr. Casanova, and Mr. Ahualli.

Of course we had an encore and nothing beats "Libiamo" from La Traviata which put us in a perfect mood for the champagne reception.

It was a splendid evening and left us feeling grateful for the opportunity to hear such voices up close and personal. Dramatic voices mature rather late and we doubt whether we will hear them in our tours through the local music conservatories.

(c) meche kroop