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.

Sunday, March 17, 2019


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

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