|Neil Beckmann, Amber Evans, and Francesca Ferrara|
Most vocal recitals we've reviewed include works of the 19th c.--our favorite. Last night we attended a very special recital that jumped from the Baroque period to what we would call Post-Modern, skipping over the 19th c. What made the recital special was not only the unique aspect of the choices but the excellence and commitment of the performers. These were works that the artists enjoyed performing; one could tell by their enthusiasm.
Soprano Amber Evans has an engaging stage presence and an impressive instrument, the texture of which worked extremely well with the acoustics of the beautiful sanctuary of St. John's in the Village, the Rector of which, Graeme Napier, is a real music lover. One would be hard-pressed to find a night there without a recital!
Ms. Evans' musical partner was Neil Beckmann who seemed as comfortable with the exotic theorbo as he was with guitars (both acoustic and electric), and the lute. The pair was joined by flutist Francesca Ferrara for the final selection on the program which we will get to later.
Of the Baroque portion of the program, we were captivated by Barbara Strozzi's "L'Eraclito Amorosa", a rather typical lament of someone with an unfaithful lover. It was expressed in Strozzi's unique and heart-rending style which was well matched by Ms. Evans' passionate delivery in the manner favored by singer/scholar Jessica Gould of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts. The Italian was perfumed with garlic, as it should be. We loved the melodic line which was enhanced by dynamic variety. The extended melismatic passages served as a vocalise, showcasing Ms. Evans' gifts. Mr. Beckmann's theorbo provided worthy accompaniment.
Also from the 17th c. was Michel Lambert's "Vos Méspris" which delighted our ears. The text is another cri de coeur from a scorned lover. Apparently that was a favorite topic in that epoch, one which inspired so much gorgeous music. Again we loved the way the theorbo sounded with the voice.
From the 16th c. we heard several songs by John Dowland, our favorite of which was "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" because of the way Dowland married music to the text. The texture of Ms. Evans' voice and Mr. Beckmann's lute produced overtones which bounced around the room, creating an arresting effect.
From an even earlier period (15th c.) was Guillaume Dufay's "Mon chier amy". On the page, the consoling words are spelled differently from the more familiar spelling of the 17th c. French but we had no trouble understanding Ms. Evans' excellent diction, which impressed our native born Francophone friend.
We confess we have struggled with words to describe the Post-Modern works on the program. We always feel a bit lost when there is no melody but we can't say we were bored or alienated. Let's just say we found them curious and interesting. There was a haunting flavor to Marcos Balter's "Pos que nada que dure ou que durando". The Portuguese offered no challenge to our linguistically gifted soprano, nor did the scoring for cowbells and triangle. There were keening sounds and a very delicate decrescendo at the end. Mr. Beckmann accompanied with acoustic guitar and whistles (!). Yes, whistles.
Madeleine Isaksson's "Därimellian" requires the singer to make up syllables. The two artists created some unique overtones as Mr. Beckmann did some strange moves on an electric guitar--portamenti and vibrato (to use vocal terms with which we are familiar). There was nothing to hold onto except for a 3-note motif.
Anna Korsun's "Tollers Zelle" showed off Ms. Evans' facility with some strange bird cries and with the spoken German text at the end of the piece. Mr. Beckmann played electric guitar with more strange techniques and both took turns with what appeared to be a child's toy, a kind of music box played with a rotating handle. We certainly didn't know what to make of it or how it related to the text.
Kaija Saariaho's "Adjö" was visually interesting with some vigorous beating of chimes and tambourine. Flutist Francesca Ferrara produced some strange overtones juxtaposed with acoustic guitar. The vocal line was nothing if not spiky. The text was Swedish.
On more familiar territory we heard Benjamin Britten's Six Folk Songs for Soprano and Guitar. We particularly enjoyed "I Will Give My Love an Apple" and "Sailor Boy". Folk songs endure because they have melody!
As encore we heard an old German Christmas carol "Maria durch ein Dornwald ging" which dates arguably from the 16th c. and is undeniably lovely even in the modern arrangement we heard on the theorbo.
We thought long and hard about the music we heard last night. The oldest endured for six centuries. How long will the music composed in the 21st c. endure? Just sayin'!
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|The String Orchestra of Brooklyn with Maestro Eli Spindel|
Whoever thought of presenting a concert in a cemetery? Andrew Ousley (Mister "Death of Classical") himself, that's who! And if the thunderous applause at the end of the performance by The String Orchestra of Brooklyn didn't wake the dead, nothing would. Mr. Ousley has set out to disprove the death of classical music by ironically presenting compelling concerts in crypts and catacombs--concerts that invariably sell out. Last night's event was held in the lovely Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. It was the opening event of the second season of The Angel's Share.
This stellar event was graced by good weather, although a tad chilly. Guests chowed down on burgers by Harlem Public and madcap cafe, two providers competing for the Golden Spatula Award. Just as we do not list the winners of vocal competitions, we will not say who won. We will just say that we have never eaten a burger with bacon and peanut butter and enjoyed it enormously. We do not drink bourbon but plenty was provided, along with beer for paisani like me. One never felt so alive as when picnicking among the dead!
We were so busy eating and socializing that we never found the solo cello nor The Three B's String Trio but we enjoyed the jazz stylings of The Wayfairs who entertained during the dinner hour at the entrance to the cemetery.
The capstone (not tombstone) of the evening was the stirring performance by The String Orchestra of Brooklyn with Maestro Eli Spindel who gave a tight performance with precise hand movements sans baton.
Since we started writing about opera we rarely have had time for symphonic music and that's a shame because we first starting loving classical music by listening to the two symphonies we heard last night. Schubert's 8th Symphony in B minor (the "Unfinished") comprises only two movements and seems to have been abandoned in 1822 when the young Schubert became ill.
It's a case of a glass half full. We could mourn the fact that the listener is left hanging, so to speak; or we could revel in the glorious melodies that this composer of over 600 songs (!) lavished on his final orchestral work. It's a challenge not to hum along and, indeed, several audience members sitting behind me saw fit to do so. Isn't that what music is all about? Contemporary composers take note! We want melodies!
The Schubert was followed by Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in C minor, finished in 1808 when the master was already deaf. We believe that if you polled music lovers about their favorite symphony, this one would come up at the top of the list. Not only is it concise but it is well knit. The rhythmic motif we all recognize appears throughout in various guises and melodic themes reappear as well.
The symphony is written in classical form with the first movement involving two very different themes expressed alternatively--the rhythmically strong theme and the gentle lyrical one. The development section reminds one of a dialogue or even an argument between a man and a woman. The restatement of the themes involves the secondary theme changing keys. So, does the "man" win the argument? Just sayin'!
It was clear to us that Beethoven had a powerful influence on Schubert and we sort of wished that the order had been reversed. Still, it was interesting to go back to Schubert's roots. We liked Maestro Spindel's control over the orchestra and the way he elicited the themes as well as the inner voices. The percussion section was particularly notable as well as the brass (added for the occasion) in spite of a recalcitrant horn. We have nothing but admiration for a musician who chooses such a difficult instrument just because it sounds so haunting.
No one was haunted at the party and everyone left happy. We have a sense that many guests were rather new to classical music because they applauded after every movement. Rather than feeling annoyed at the interruption, we felt pleased that the event brought in some "noobies". We have no doubt that they will pursue their interest and this is all to the good. Death of Classical? No way!
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|Jessica Gould, Elena Biscuolo, Paula Chateauneuf, and Catherine Liddell at|
The Church of St. Francis Xavier
Guest review by Danielle Baty:
Sacred Passions from a Woman Ahead of Her Time
Barbara Stozzi, I Sacri Musicali Affetti
Friday, May 10 2019
The Church of St. Francis Xavier, New York City
Jessica Gould, soprano & Elena Biscuola, mezzo-soprano
Paula Chateauneuf and Catherine Liddell, theorbo
Christa Patton, baroque harp
Katie Rietman, baroque cello
Caitlyn Koester, chamber organ
Presented by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts in collaboration with NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò.
Four hundred years after the birth in Venice of Barbara Strozzi, a virtuoso singer and composer – she was one of a handful of women to publish her own musical works – an all-female ensemble gathered at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Greenwich Village to perform selection’s from Strozzi’s only known volume of sacred repertoire. The “Sacri Musicali Affeti,” published in 1655 and dedicated to the pious Anna de Medici, archduchess of Innsbruck, stands apart from Strozzi’s other compositions, which are concerned with more earthly passions.
It is possible that at this stage in her life, Strozzi, who would have been in her mid-thirties and later gave her two daughters to the Church (a son also became a monk), was becoming more devout. Because she never married and therefore always needed to be mindful of finding financial support, despite the aristocratic origins of her Florentine ancestors, she may also have wanted to draw the attention of potential patrons to her newfound religious devotion.
But as different as this work is from her other compositions in its subject, in other ways it is perfectly aligned with Strozzi’s secular works: the sacred motets showcase her characteristic fire and virtuosity, summoning feelings of ancient, earthly origin that then ascend to magnificent heights. And in addition to Strozzi’s compositional inventiveness we are treated to a particular Venetian quirkiness and exoticism that incorporates the local byzantine elements characteristic of La Serenissima into settings of traditional Catholic texts.
Soprano Jessica Gould and mezzo-soprano Elena Biscuola filled the echoing, cavernous church of St. Francis Xavier with ease. Gould relayed Strozzi’s soaring passions with luminous elegance, and handled the many virtuosic passages and ornamental lines with an agility and clarity one could imagine Strozzi herself might have displayed. Her transcendent instrument was complemented by the sumptuous dark velvet tone of mezzo-soprano Elena Biscuola, who managed her own numerous virtuosic moments with aplomb and whose performance conveyed the profundity and gravitas of Strozzi’s choice of texts.
The two singers were ably accompanied by an ensemble of early music specialists who played with sensitivity and nuance: Paula Chateauneuf and Catherine Liddell on theorbo, Christa Patton on baroque harp, Katie Rietman on baroque cello and Caitlyn Koester on chamber organ.
Visually, the group, with the female performers elevated just slightly above the audience, and Koester raised a little higher in the back and playing standing up, like a priestess come to lead her small flock, created the appearance of calm and strength in the vast sanctuary of St. Francis Xavier. The powerful music of a single mother, composed so long ago, gave a palpable contemporary resonance to a set of obscure religious texts, as Ms. Gould and Ms. Biscuola and the ensemble performed her hauntingly beautiful music so affectingly.
This concert was the tenth season finale of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, an intrepid early music series helmed by Gould herself. Kudos to this organization for its vision in bringing this lesser known repertoire to modern audiences, and hats off to their partners at NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò for broadening awareness of the great Barbara Strozzi, a female composer whose genius dwarfed so many of her male contemporaries, and whose life was so much more than the “courtesan” label with which she has been stamped by male historians.
– Danielle Baty
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|Martin Néron, Jean-Bernard Cerin, Christopher Reames, and Laure-Catherine Beyers|
Last night at the National Opera Center we attended the Gérard Souzay Award Showcase presented by Dalton Baldwin in collaboration with Joy in Singing and The Art Song Preservation Society of New York.
Coming on the heels of the afternoon recital by Stéphane Sénéchal and Mark Markham, perhaps the recital did not get the attention it deserved. Perhaps we just overdosed on French mélodies. We found our attention wandering to the pianist Martin Néron to whom we paid insufficient attention on the two prior occasions on which we heard him. He is an absolutely marvelous collaborative pianist and we admired his delicate touch and the sensitivity with which he related to the singers.
During the recital, a certain valuable memory rose to consciousness. It was the advice a prominent conductor/coach gave to a young singer at a master class. "Sing what you love", he said. When baritone Jean-Bernard Cerin (winner of the first Gérard Souzay Prize for Best Performance of a French Mélodie at the 2018 Joy in Singing Song Competition in NYC) performed Maurice Ravel's Histoires naturelles we could tell that he loved those songs.
Earlier in the program we found his involvement a bit wanting; we found his facial expressions excessive to the point of mugging and his gestures underdone. But in the Ravel he blossomed! He was particularly excellent in his portrayal of the courting peacock in "Le Paon" and the embattled guinea hen in "La Pintade".
There are those who like their singers of art song to stand still and use only the voice to tell the story. But as we learned at the Sénéchal recital early in the day (review just below), we like acting. We like gesture. We like storytelling. It's a matter of taste.
Similarly, when mezzo-soprano Laure-Catherine Beyers performed Henri Dutilleux's "Féerie au clair de lune" with generous use of color and gesture, we were captivated as we were not in her earlier performance of Reynaldo Hahn's "L'heure exquise", in spite of the fact that it is one of our favorites. She closed the program with a highly dramatic performance of the tango inflected "Youkali" from Kurt Weill's Marie Galante, convincing us of how cabaret style music can exist comfortably alongside opera.
We have heard and enjoyed tenor Christopher Reames on a couple prior occasions and enjoyed his performances more than we did last night. Curiously, on both occasions it was Debussy's settings of Paul Verlaine's text in Fêtes galantes I; we don't exactly know what was missing. His voice is sweet with a fine vibrato but perhaps we were looking for more "acting". Mr. Cerin had just performed Fauré's setting of "En sourdine" which also left us cold.
We might have enjoyed hearing the two versions of "En sourdine" back to back, so to speak. We would also have enjoyed the libretto in French, instead of just English, and enough illumination to follow along.
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|Mark Markham and Stéphane Sénéchal|
Presented by the Art Song Preservation Society (founded and directed by Blair Boone-Migura), was a brilliant recital by French tenor Stéphane Sénéchal and collaborative pianist Mark Markham. The recital was part of a 10-day festival
of master classes and recitals held at the Manhattan School of Music, an annual event.
This was a very special recital and one marked by the revelation of true French technique passed down from father Michel (the legendary late character tenor who knew Francis Poulenc) to son. What an experience to hear French music sung by a tenor of great artistry--to hear it as it is meant to be sung. One could consider the recital to be a lesson in the art of singing French mélodies.
The composers represented on the program comprised many of the greats of the 19th and early 20th c.--Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Duparc, Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, Gabriel Fauré, Charles Gounod, and even Jacques Offenbach who contributed the encore piece.
Instead of performing a set by each composer, Mr. Sénéchal mixed them up and seemed to stick with one theme for each set. For example the first set comprised songs dealing with love and romance. Who can do that better than the French! We confess to being hypnotized.
Reynaldo Hahn's "À Chloris" is very familiar to us but we have never heard it sung with such intense feeling, achieved with delicacy and refinement. A lovely pianissimo cresendoed to a passionate fortissimo. This tenor makes his dynamic changes count by using them sparingly.
In Henri Duparc's "Extase" his coloration reflected the underlying Wagnerian harmonic shifts, something that we've heard about but never actually heard. Claude Debussy's "Zéphyr" was downright erotic; Gabriel Fauré's "Après un rêve" offered an opportunity for melismatic singing that reinforced the coloration of the word at the end of a phrase--"mirage", "lumière", "mensonges" and "mystérieuse".
A second set of mélodies seemed to focus on loss. Most of Fauré's works are little gems but "La Chanson du pêcheur" took its time to develop the theme of loss of the beloved by means of death. In Théophile Gautier's poem, the fisherman ends each verse of lament with the intention of going to sea. We wondered if "going to sea" was a metaphor. Mr. Markham's piano was particularly effective in adding to the despair.
There were even more treasures in the second half of the program; we particularly enjoyed Fauré's "Ici-bas" which filled us with sorrow as the artists concluded with an affecting decrescendo, tapering off to a fine filament of sound hanging in the air. In Duparc's "Lamento" the chords in the piano underscored the mournful sentiment.
There were also several songs by Poulenc on the program. The texts he chose seem obscure to us and less direct. Although he is not our favorite French composer, we will say that we enjoyed his pieces more yesterday than we ever have. It's just that irony is not our favorite; we prefer music that evokes emotions, not ideas. We don't listen to music in order to think, to puzzle out the intent. We listen to feel.
Fortunately, the final work on the program relieved all that sorrow and left us feeling cheerful. It was Charles Gounod's "Viens! Les gazons sont verts!" in which a youth wants his beloved to wake up and enjoy la belle nature with him. As if that were not enough, there was an encore from Jacques Offenbach's operetta La Périchole in which Piquillo complains about his wife's behavior.
Thinking about the recital and why it was so exceptional, our conclusion is that Mr. Sénéchal doesn't "perform". Instead, it seems as if he is improvising. We suppose that every facial expression and gesture has been considered but it doesn't appear that way. There is a spontaneity that feels as if he is inhabiting the world of the song and sharing it with his audience, drawing us into a world. He is a consummate storyteller. Mr. Markham was with him every step of the way. It was a landmark recital.
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|John Noh, Kristen Choi, and Martin Bakari|
At a time when opera companies are struggling to survive, it is thrilling to watch On Site Opera thrive. In spite of high ticket prices, their productions are always sold out. It would appear that the originality of their concept and the deftness of their execution would account for their success. Snagging a ticket almost guarantees a rare and unusual experience.
In collaboration with MetLiveArts and American Lyric Theater, their latest production, Murasaki's Moon, served to heighten the interest of theater goers in the adjacent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an exhibit which the performance brought to vivid life in the hands of Artistic Director Eric Einhorn.
The work is based upon The Tale of Genji, an 11th c. epic novel written by the noblewoman Lady Murasaki, perhaps the world's first novel. It is filled with characters beyond counting and illustrated lifestyles and customs of the Heian court. It was written by a woman for women in an archaic language used by women, a phonetic language. It was only in the 20th c. that the work was translated into modern Japanese.
English translations followed and the work has had a major effect on all of the arts of Japan, from 12 c. scrolls and screens to contemporary manga series and TV dramas. There was an opera written in 2000 but we were unable to learn anything about it.
The subject of the novel was Genji, the emperor's son whose mother was a lowly born, but favored, concubine. He led a wild romantic life, filled with illicit liaisons and several marriages. The production we saw, with libretto by Deborah Brevoort, did not attempt to tell any episodes from the story, but rather to focus on Lady Murasaki's relationship with her creation Genji, who served as muse.
So many contemporary issues were touched upon that there was no question of relevance. Take for example the issue of the loneliness of the writer. (Just ask us!) Lady Murasaki has a modest position at court, illustrated by her almost colorless three-layer kimono. She desperately wants a friend, but she is different from the other women at court and is the object of envy and rejection. She writes and Genji keeps her company. Many writers of fiction will tell you that they create characters and the characters write the story!
Although we have come a long way here in NYC, there are plenty of places around the USA where creative women are looked at with unkind eyes because they don't follow the wife/motherhood program. We could certainly identify with Lady Murasaki, the "misfit".
In the story we watched, she is angry at Genji for his philandering. He is untrue to her and disappears for periods of time, perhaps representing periods in which writers cannot summon their muse and go silent. On the other hand, putting on our psychological hat, it would seem that Genji is Lady Murasaki's animus, what Carl Jung called the inner representation of a woman's male characteristics. (And yes, men are purported to have an anima, representing their female qualities).
Murasaki makes several pointed observations about women gazing at their images in the mirror and making efforts to be more beautiful. Could anything be more relevant? In any case, we cannot stop thinking about the many layers of the story.
The music added greatly to the story. Composer Michi Wiancko composed some beautiful instrumental music that combined Japanese instruments (Taiko drums and shakuhashi played by Kaoru Watanabe, percussion played by Satoshi Takeishi, and koto played by Yoko Reikano Kimura) with Western music performed by the Aizuri String Quartet. All was conducted by Geoffrey McDonald who integrated the two seamlessly.
The vocal line was another story altogether. Like so much contemporary music, the vocal line was jagged and not at all melodic. Combined with a libretto that often rhymed but did not scan at all, we found little to enjoy, in spite of admirably convincing performances by Kristen Choi as Lady Murasaki, Martin Bakari as the ultimately repentant Genji, and John Noh as a Buddhist priest who himself became interested in Murasaki's writing, a scene we particularly enjoyed. There was one magical musical moment--a duet with gorgeous harmonies that told us that Ms. Wiancko could do better. We would have loved to hear more Japanese-inflected vocal lines. We would have loved to have heard it in Japanese!
Effective costuming was provided by Beth Goldenberg. Genji's bright blue costume and the Buddhist Priest's yellow robes were in high contrast with Murasaki's pale costume. The work was performed in the Astor Court of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was staged in a long narrow playing area with audience members seated along each side.
We would like to add a few words about the titles. The three singers had such excellent diction that titles were unnecessary but we were interested in the technology that was used. Audience members were able to download the On Site Opera app on their phones where titles were available and perfectly matched to the singing. This appears to be the way of the future. We tried it to see if it was distracting and it was not.
The dramatic performances aroused our curiosity and we spent some time in the nearby exhibit, particularly enchanted by the court games that were played, utilizing scenes from the novel. Scenes from the novel also decorated so many artifacts. It was obvious how influential this novel was on a millenia of Japanese culture.
We were too lost in thought to consider any way of getting home other than walking through the park, accompanied by a full moon! We thought of it as Lady Murasaki's moon and felt a strong connection. Isn't that what art is all about?
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|Benedicte Jourdois and Äneas Humm|
It was a little over three years ago that we first heard the then-20-year-old Swiss baritone Äneas Humm. He was already famous in Europe and was invited here by the German Forum who presented him in recital. We were astonished to hear someone so young and so gifted.
Yesterday Mr. Humm completed three years of study with Edith Wiens at Juilliard, earning his Master of Music degree. He arrived as a finely cut gem and Juilliard provided the polish. His voice has expanded in the lower register and rounded out in the midrange.
Most Swiss are adept with several languages and Mr. Humm is no exception. Although German is the one spoken in his hometown Zürich, he sounds terrific in French as well. But he also sang in Hungarian!
Our initial hearing of Mr. Humm involved some Grieg and introduced us to the songs of the prolific early 20th c. composer Othmar Schoeck who happily avoided atonality and wrote some lovely songs. Both would appear on yesterday's program.
The program opened with Cantata#4 De Profundis by the 17th c. composer Nicolaus Bruhns, composed and sung in Latin. He was accompanied by Caitlyn Koester's harpsichord, violinists Chiara Stauffer and Naomi Dumas, and cellist Madleine Renée Bouïssou. The lowlying tessitura seemed not to daunt Mr. Humm, nor did the alternation of legato and staccato. We particularly enjoyed the melismatic singing which took on the character of a vocalise.
Mr. Humm's attention to dynamics and appropriate gesture marked the entire program. There was a set of three songs by Edvard Grieg from Op. 48, our favorite of which was the familiar and charming "Lauf der Welt" which was perfectly suited to Mr. Humm's personality. Otherwise we heard a finely rendered crescendo .
The Schoeck songs were deeply felt and beautifully played by collaborative pianist Benedicte Jourdois, whose playing has always given us great pleasure. She seems to breathe with the singer, providing a perfect partnership. In the Fauré songs which followed, Mr. Humm was nominally "on the book" which seemed unnecessary to us since he knew the material. This generally leads us to focus more on the piano and we were rewarded with some gorgeous arpeggi in "En Sourdine".
Four short folksongs by Bartok would have been enjoyed more had their been translations.
The recital closed with Schubert songs, at which Mr. Humm excels. We loved Ms. Jourdois' rhythmic accompaniment in "Der Wanderer an den Mond" and the rocking accompaniment to "Der Jüngling an der Quelle". "Im Abendrot" came across as a devotional prayer and we simply swooned. Ms. Jourdois' slow chords enhanced the exquisite effect of Mr. Humm's tender pianissimo singing.
There was an encore, to our delight--Schubert's "Wanderers Nachtlied". Since travel is in Mr. Humm's immediate future, we can understand his choices! He is heading for the Weimar Opernhaus where he will perform a variety of roles. The one we would most like to see is his Papageno which will give plenty of leeway for him to express his engaging personality as well as his fine voice.
We hope he will return before too long!
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|Career Bridges Winners|
The designation "gala" is used rather loosely these days but the dazzling evening we experienced last night at The Metropolitan Club was gala in every sense of the word. Luminaries of Planet Opera gathered in force to celebrate the next generation of opera stars, recipients of awards from The Schuyler Foundation for Career Bridges.
The Foundation has been performing a vital service for 17 years now. Founded by David Schuyler Bender and Barbara Meister Bender with the mission of providing vital assistance to young opera singers as they transition from training to stardom. Awardees receive three years of mentoring, financial support, and performance opportunities. A combination of wise selection and this assistance has had a phenomenal rate of success.
What is more, for three years they have provided outreach to youngsters in their Kids Love Opera program, reaching 7000 primary school students at an age that almost guarantees a life-long interest in opera. These kids will grow up and provide the next generation of opera goers. Hooray for the Foundation!
The Benders are one of those beautiful couples--beautiful inside as well as outside. Their welcoming remarks got the evening off to a wonderful start. Guests forgot the damp and dreary weather and basked in the delightful entertainment, which was dispersed between the courses of dinner. Most of the singers were this year's winners except for Teresa Castillo (2017) and Jorell Williams, a winner from 2008, who showed us what happens to the artists when they complete the program.
Ms. Castillo opened the program with a Händel aria that showed off her flexible coloratura in harmony with the trumpet of David Glukh. Mary Beth Nelson performed our favorite Rossini aria--"Una voce poco fa"--demonstrating a personality as pleasing as her voice. Similarly, our favorite Donizetti aria--"Una furtiva lagrima"-- was performed by Tianchi Zhang, with fine dynamic shading.
From Linda di Chamounix, an opera we know little of, Erika Baikoff sang the familiar "O luce di quest' anima", with fine fioritura. Mr. Williams and guest Ganson Salmon had excellent interpersonal chemistry as Marcello and Rodolfo in "O Mimi tu più non torni".
Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award was centenarian Anton Coppola who looks fit and hearty. Apparently, keeping active is a means of staying youthful. We most recently heard Maestro Coppola conduct a master class for Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance program. His teaching was astute and perfectly personalized.
After the break for Maestro Coppola's award, Ms. Castillo and Mr. Williams gave us the delightful "Papagena, Papageno" duet, an audience favorite. We loved the conclusion in which Mr. Williams carried Ms. Castillo off in his arms. John Noh captivated us with his "Kuda, kuda", giving it a psychologically sensitive performance, enhanced by an affecting decrescendo.
Hannah Friesen's sweet sound was perfect for "Sul fil d'un soffrio etesio" from Verdi's Falstaff. Jongwon Han's secure baritone was perfect for the "Catalogue Aria" from Mozart's Don Giovani which he enhanced with appropriate expression and gesture. The difficult quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto was made to sound easy by Ms. Castillo, Ms. Nelson, Mr. Salmon, and Mr. Williams.
Superstar soprano Lauren Flanagan sadly did not sing but spoke eloquently, introducing the recipient of the Distinguished Achievement Award--superstar Isabel Leonard about whom we have written since we began writing. She is as beautiful as her voice and incredibly gracious.
We were happy to hear more of Rigoletto when Alec Carlson took on the role of the licentious Duke in the famous "Questa o quella". Anne Montgomery performed Lehar's "Liebe du Himmel auf Erden". Gabriel Hernandez gave us "Here I Stand" from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The aptly named Kelly Singer gave a deliciously dramatic performance of "Non, monsieur mon mari" from Poulenc's comic opera Les Mamelles de Tirésius.
The tireless Ted Taylor as Music Director did a bang up job accompanying all of these gifted young singers in such a great variety of material.
The entire group joined Mr. Williams for the highly appropriate "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha. The reason we thought it appropriate is that becoming an opera singer seems like an impossible dream but people like The Benders are making it possible!
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|Katherine Doe, Mithuna Sivaraman, Alaina Logee, Mary Kathryn Monday, Rachel Duval, and Joyce Yin|
Cantanti Project is one of our favorite boutique opera companies. They just presented Händel's 1713 opera seria Teseo (renamed Teseo:Medea), replete with sorceress, flying dragons, apparitions, potions, spells, and a deus ex machina in the person of Minerva. Nicola Haym's libretto was based on a Lully opera of 1674 which was, in turn, based on a story in Ovid's Metamorphosis. Händel surely had his finger on the pulse of his London audience which thronged to see his earlier Rinaldo (another opera involving sorcery) but gave short shrift to his pastoral opera Il pastor fido. Teseo had a decent run, marred only by technical difficulties, but the opera was forgotten and lay dormant until 1947. We are glad it was resurrected.
As in so many operas of the period, the story is complicated. King Egeo (Mary Kathryn Monday) has been successful at battle and decides that his betrothal to Medea should be replaced by marriage with Agilea (Joyce Yin), his ward. She is in love with Egeo's military commander Teseo (Rachel Duval). Agilea's companion Clizia (Mithuna Sivaraman) is in love with Arcane (Katherine Doe).
The sorceress Medea (Alaina Logee), incensed at being rejected, does her best to spoil everyone's happiness and create mistrust and dissension. It takes the intervention of Minerva to set things right. A poisoning of Teseo by Egeo is thwarted when the King recognizes the warrior as his long-lost son! His sword was the give-away!
Although Händel's instrumental music doesn't light our fire, his operas set us ablaze. Contemporary composers should study a page from his book. He really knew how to write for the voice with the vocal line emphasizing the words, more so in his Italian operas than in his English ones, of course. His arias, as I recall, are fun to sing! There is ample fioritura with almost ostentatious ornamentation which never detracts from his illumination of the character.
Our favorite scene was in Act IV when Medea blackmails the sweet and lovely Agilea to give up Teseo, whom Medea also wants. With tearful aspect Agilea renounces him to save his life. Her singing would melt an iceberg and it melted Medea's rage--but only temporarily. There was still one more act to fill in this unique five act opera--still more reverses and complications!
Musical Director Dylan Sauerwald led the Dorian Baroque Orchestra from the harpsichord. We particularly enjoyed the sound of the baroque oboe; the mournful sound often echoes the vocal line and sometimes "sings" in harmony with it. We sat there for three hours entranced by the glorious singing and playing. Not only are the arias magnificent but the duets thrill the ear.
What did not entrance us was trying to figure out who was whom and what they were singing about. Had we not read a summary beforehand we would have been completely lost. There was no program and no synopsis. There were titles projected off to the side but they could not be read with the stagelights on.
There was no set to speak of and costumes (Alexandria Hoffman) were as basic as one would expect with a minimal budget. We would far prefer the money be spent on musical values! And that we got in spades. Wonderful singing, wonderful music!
We realize that the female-centric Cantanti Project had an axe to grind about female power; much was written on their website and Facebook page about gender. That is all well and good; we are glad that castration of male singers ended long ago and are happy to see women fulfill the roles. But for our purposes, it is the music making that counts.
(c) meche kroop
|Scene from Little Opera Theater of New York's production of Britten's Owen Wingrave|
Encouraged by three recent positive experiences of Benjamin Britten (two productions of Albert Herring and Xeni Tziouvaras' performance of his Charm of Lullabies, we approached a performance of his Owen Wingrave with enthusiasm. We left with disappointment verging on despair.
Written for television in 1970, Myfanwy's Piper's libretto is an etiolated adaptation of Henry James' eerie ghost story, here made into an anti-war screed masquerading as a family drama. The horror is as absent as the vowels in Ms. Piper's given name. (Even the homosexual hints have been removed, although that did not create a problem in terms of focusing on the hero's determination to resist the military.)
The absence of titles and the unclear diction of many members of the cast obviated a clear understanding of the finer points of the story although the superior acting abilities of the cast got the major points across.
We have come to think of operas written after the middle of the 20th c. as "plays with music". In this case, the "play" was insufficiently dramatic and the lines were often like lectures, not like dialogue.
The music was unmusical. We didn't expect any gorgeous melodic arias but we were dismayed by the dialogues and especially the monologues which could have told us something about the character "singing" it. (By contrast, the arias heard last night in Massenet's Hérodiade each told us something about the character and his/her situation.)
Maestro Richard Cordova probably enjoyed conducting this challenging score but it was difficult to listen to. No doubt the musicians in the chamber orchestra (orchestration was by David Matthews) played well but we got no pleasure from listening.
The spare set by Josh Smith comprised tables, chairs, and a bed. Nothing more was needed. His lighting design went a long way toward creating an eerie mood that James' story called for.
Lara de Bruijn's costumes were drab and perfectly appropriate to the late 19th c.
Philip Shneidman's direction seemed as static as the story. People stood around or sat. Seeing someone climb a flight of stairs seemed compelling by comparison.
Alex Basco Koch's projections were perhaps the most interesting element of the production, helping to repurpose the simple set from one scene to another. The grand outward appearance of the Paramore ancestral manse was projected above the set and the interior was decorated by projections of portraits revealing the family's military heritage.
Coming from a military family, the hero's refusal to complete his martial education arouses the disgust of his family, his girlfriend, and his ancestral manor. They vilify hime and drive him to his death, which should have been more "ghostly" but wasn't. He is accused of lacking courage and his "intended" insists he demonstrate his courage by sleeping in a room in which a father and son had previously died.
The theme of the tormenting and rejection of the outsider is a theme dear to Britten's heart and baritone Robert Balonek did a fine job of portraying this self-determined young man who refuses to follow the life plan for which he was intended. His diction was clear and, for the most part, understandable.
Similarly, as his military instructor Spencer Coyle, bass Matthew Curran cut a fine figure and made the words clear. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast were only occasionally comprehensible, which may be due partly to the fact that the vocal line was not designed to be understood and the lengthy phrases did not resemble spoken or sung speech. Instead they came across as written text.
We have no criticism of any of the voices. Indeed it is impossible to appreciate a singer's technique with material like this. Fortunately, we have heard and enjoyed their voices under more felicitous circumstances.
What we can say is that the acting was persuasive with soprano Emily Pulley portraying a very rejecting maiden aunt. Presumably, Mrs. Julian is a family hanger-on and soprano Mary Ann Stewart was as fine in the role as mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht was as her daughter Kate, the one who eggs on Mr. Wingrave to his death. Tenor Bernard Holcomb portrayed Owen Wingate's friend Lechmere.
As the grandfather General Sir Philip Wingrave, tenor Rufus Müller was appropriately nasty, disinheriting his grandson. The only kindly character was Coyle's wife, nicely portrayed by soprano Janice Hall.
Nothing pains us more than seeing a waste of talent, time, and resources. With so many undiscovered gems out there, it's a pity to see this happen.
(c) meche kroop
|Maestro Keith Chambers and Cast of Massenet's Hérodiade|
The title of this review is not a typing error. We see Maestro Keith Chambers as a HERO on Planet Opera for introducing us to works that are insufficiently performed and for finding the perfect cast to fill the roles.
We might also mention that Maestro Eve Queler is similarly a HEROine for providing New Amsterdam Opera with the score. She last presented Massenet's Hérodiade in 1995 with a young Renée Fleming as Salome. It seems to us that Maestro Chambers is similarly gifted in choosing singers destined for major success.
We pondered why this opera is so rarely produced and this led to the following speculation. A very worthy opera can readily be eclipsed when another composer tackles the same material in a way that pleases the public more. For example, Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia stole the thunder from the Paisiello iteration, one we enjoyed immensely when produced by On Site Opera. Similarly, Otto Nicolai's Die lustigen weiber von Windsor, recently presented by Juilliard Opera, and Salieri's Falstaff, recently produced by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, were both overshadowed by Verdi's Falstaff.
No doubt, Richard Strauss' 1905 Salome, adapted from an 1891 Oscar Wilde play, drew attention away from Jules Massenet's 1881 Hérodiade by means of its lurid story and modern music. This is a shame because Paul Milliet and Henri Grémont's libretto tells the tale from a different point of view (based on an 1877 novella by Gustave Flaubert) and Massenet's music is compelling although refined; the melodic nature of the arias causes them to be sung in recitals and competitions.
Strangely, neither composer nor librettists were mentioned in the program! However, the synopsis was quite complete and a minimal knowledge of French allowed the members of the audience to follow along quite well, assisted by some superlative diction by the singers. Titles might have been helpful but were not absolutely necessary.
Maestro Chambers led the New Amsterdam Opera Orchestra with Stephan Fillare as a most effective concertmaster. The orchestra occupied the entire stage with the fine chorus elevated behind the orchestra. The singers stood in front of the orchestra and we couldn't figure out how they were able to follow the conducting so well but they did. We have nothing but good things to say about the pacing and the balance. We were happy not to have to watch the ballets that are so much a part of French opera but are rarely well done.
The singers were superb across the board and everyone's French was clear. The title role was performed by mezzo-soprano Janara Kellerman whose tone is plush and dusky. Her character has (backstory here) abandoned her daughter to wed King Herod and is consumed with jealousy by his interest in Salomé even before she acknowledges her as the abandoned daughter. We all know about denial, don't we? She is also vengeful and wants Jean (John the Baptist) dead because he insulted her. Her "Ne me refuse pas" was delivered with intense passion, a touch of manipulation and an affecting pianissimo.
Soprano Mary Stonikas was similarly superb in the role of Salomé, a very different character than the one in the Strauss opera. This young woman is victim, not predator. Her only consolation in her abandoned state has been Jean for whom she has developed a deep devotion and a pure love. Her character gets the first major aria of the opera "Il est doux, il est bon"; the way Ms. Stonikas colored her voice along with a fine vibrato revealed her sweetness. She has a lovely "ping" in the upper register.
The character of Hérode was magnificently realized by baritone Jason Duika. His character had more dimension than the others as he struggled with his lust and political issues. He seemed to care for his wife but was obsessed with Salomé. His virile instrument is of fine and full tone and his delivery of "Vision fugitive" was impassioned and moving. When he approaches Salomé he repeats her name countless times and always with a different color!
Like any ruler, he has his hands full trying to deal with Roman occupation and a people who seem to want freedom from Roman rule but are easily "bought" by promises from Vitellius, the Roman consul--a role excellently sung by young baritone Charles Eaton. Hérode's position is complicated by the presence of Jean who also has a following. He would like to enlist Jean's help but his wife wants the prophet dead. In this admirable performance, Mr. Duika was able to convey all kinds of emotions vocally since singing behind a music stand prevents the gestures and movements that tell us so much about a character.
As Jean, we heard tenor Errin Duane Brooks who delivers the final memorable aria "Adieu donc, vains objets qui nous charment sur terre" with ringing tone.
The role of Phanuel was sung by the rich-voiced bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala and the very pretty young soprano Brooklyn Snow sang the role of a Babylonian woman who provides an hallucinatory potion for Hérode. She has a well-focused instrument with pleasing colors that should take her far.
We particularly enjoyed the blending of voices in the quartet which ends Act II--Hérode, Hérodiade, Phanuel, and Vitellius--and the sextet which ends Act III. Orchestral playing was remarkable throughout with Maestro Chambers showing a keen ear for Massenet's lovely music. We enjoyed the heraldic moments given to the brass which told us when we were in the palace-- as effectively as any scenery might have. And the hints of exoticism in the score were not neglected.
What a special evening! We would love to see a full production with the same cast, unconstrained by music stands and able to move around the stage. Won't someone build a mid-size theater with an orchestra pit?
(c) meche kroop
|Jinhee Park and Polixeni Tziouvaras|
We have written about the lovely and versatile mezzo-soprano Polixeni Tziouvaras quite a number of times in her past few years at Manhattan School of Music. But last week, when she sang in Around the World in Song, we were not wearing our "critic" hat; we just sat there and enjoyed her performance of Ravel's Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques. Last night, at Ms. Tziouvaras' Master of Music recital, we listened with a critical ear, intent upon figuring out what was so gloriously entertaining.
There were a number of features that made it special for us. We have heard this cycle of five songs many times in French which is our second language. In that situation, we focused primarily on the meaning of the words. Hearing it in Greek, a language in which we only know basic greetings and menu talk, we focused on the marriage between the sounds and rhythm of the language and the rise and fall of the melody. The translator, Michel Dimitri Calvacoressi, did a magnificent job. My guess is that he is fluent in both languages.
The second feature has more to do with Ms. Tziouvaras' delivery. Our preference is always for an expressive singer who augments vocal coloration with gesture and facial expression. To us, the goal of the singer of art songs seems to be bringing the listener into the world of the composer and poet. This young artist has the voice of an opera singer and the expressiveness of a cabaret singer.
In this case, we pictured a little village, perhaps on one of the smaller islands less touched by the modern world. We experienced the thrill of a proposal of marriage in "Chanson de la Mariée", the BDE of the Greek man in "Quel Galant m'est Comparable", and the joy of the festival in "Tout gai!" We felt the romantic longing in "Chanson des Cueilleuses de Lentisques" and the simple spirituality of "Là-bas, vers l'église". It was a magnificent visit to another time and place. We felt transported.
The rest of the well curated program provided additional fulfillment and served to show the versatility of the singer. We generally associate Francis Poulenc with songs ironic or surreal. We had never heard his cycle Poèmes de Ronsard and were delighted to have made their acquaintance. Ms. Tziouvaras used her dynamic personality to bring each poem to life, evincing all the various colors of "Attributs", each belonging to a different goddess. We particularly enjoyed the bibulous "À son page". Singers and actors love to portray intoxication! We were happy with the singer's French diction.
Britten's A Charm of Lullabies similarly offers opportunities for a variety of emotions. Britten must have spent a lot of time searching for a wide spectrum of lullabies to set. William Blake's "A Cradle Song" rhymes and scans but we didn't think Britten made the most of the vocal line. We preferred Robert Burns' "A Highland Balou" for which the singer adopted a wee Scottish accent and filled the song with parental pride. Robert Greene's "Sephestia's Lullaby" was just plain sorrowful. Thomas Randolph's "A Charm" was filled with parental irritation over a child who won't sleep; it was filled with angry threats! John Philip's "The Nurse's Song" had an a cappella introduction and conclusion. The harmonies in the piano seemed unsettled and uneasy. English diction was clear, which is not always the case.
It is much easier to focus on the quality of a singer's instrument and the technique of her/his singing when Italian is performed. Here we heard Mozart's concert aria "Ch'io me Scordi di te" and we were able to appreciate the singer's Italianate vowels and legato delivery, as well as the evenness throughout the register. The first verse is like a recitativo with spare accompaniment, made interesting by variations in tempo and dynamics. The sections that followed seemed like an aria and cabaletta. It would fit into any opera of the early 19th c.
The final work on the program was slightly less interesting. Brahms' Zigeunerlieder lack the Romany flavor of the Dvorak cycle. The music has a slight flavor but the text is rather generic poetry about love. Even in the most marvelous recitals, we find something to pick on and here it is. Like so many American singers, Ms. Tziouvaras is inconsistent with the final "ich" and "ig". In one line they would sound perfect and in the next they might be avoided altogether. This would be easy to remedy. A non speaker of German would never have noticed but we did.
We are a non speaker of Russian and therefore have no criticism of a gorgeous rendering of the seasonal "Spring Waters" by Rachmaninoff. It was sung with passion and filled us with longing for warmer weather.
This superlative recital was coached and accompanied by the excellent David Mayfield with Jinhee Park collaborating for the Poulenc and the Rachmaninoff. One couldn't ask for better support!
(c) meche kroop