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.

Friday, July 19, 2019

STEALING MY HEART

Alisa Jordheim and Erik van Heyningen in Rossini's La Gazza Ladra

All it took to convert a cranky critic (thanks to insufferable heat and the MTA) into a smiling audience member was the overture to Rossini's opera semiseria La Gazza Ladra, so charmingly played by the conductorless Teatro Nuovo Orchestra. Beginning with an astonishing roll of the drums, the sparkling melodies tumbled out helter-skelter in an amazing variety of rhythms, time signatures, and tempi. The march let us know that someone was coming home from the army. The profusion of melody that followed made us wish that some of them could be lent to today's composers who seem unable to produce a single one of their own!

We were tickled to meet the titular character played by one Christopher Hochstuhl--a handsome bird indeed, dressed in a black cape with feathered collar, representing the thieving magpie himself. We have noticed this bird on various ski trips due to its vivid black and white markings but we never knew that it is known for its intelligence and is the only non-mammal that can recognize itself in the mirror.  But we digress.

We begin in the home of the Vingradito family. Pippo is organizing a welcome party for young Giannetto who is returning from military service. Especially excited is the servant Ninetta who is in love with him. His father Fabrizio is perfectly happy with the match but his mother Lucia is not.

In the pants role of Pippo, a family friend, we heard mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig who impressed us with the rich texture of her voice and her lively warm stage presence, not only in the opening scene but throughout the opera when she provides loving support for Ninetta.

Soprano Alisa Jordheim, who delighted us in the role of Serpetta in On Site Opera's production of Mozart's La Finta Gardiniera, impressed us again last night with her brilliant focused instrument, equally well deployed in the lyrical cavatina and in the coloratura passages of the cabaletta. She has a winning stage presence that makes you want to see her happy.

Baritone Rob McGinness sang well and was convincing as Fabrizio. His wife Lucia was brilliantly portrayed by mezzo-soprano Allison Gish, whom we have often reviewed in her work with New Camerata Opera, Cantanti Project, Dell'Arte Opera, and ARE Opera (now City Lyric Opera). We are not surprised that this excellent young singer is cast a lot; her voice is richly textured and her acting thoroughly convincing. We loved the change in vocal color at the end when she begins to care for her future daughter-in-law.

Tenor Oliver Sewell had the part of Giannetto, singing and acting with conviction. Each time we have reviewed him we have had the same thought. How much better he would sound if he stopped trying so hard. Even when the orchestra was silent he seemed to push for unnecessary volume, depriving his upper register of the spin and ping we'd like to hear. The promise is there but the work needs to be done to kick his performance up to a "10".

The plot is set into motion by the arrival of Ninetta's father Fernando, superbly sung by bass-baritone Erik van Heyningen. Mr. Heyningen has been on our radar since his apprenticeship at Santa Fe Opera. We think he has a great deal to offer! Fernando has deserted the army after an unfortunate incident with a superior officer.  He needs money with which to flee his fate and asks his daughter to sell some silver and leave the proceeds for him in a secret place. His initials on the silver are the same as those of Ninetta's boss and when Lucia notices some missing silver she accuses Ninetta of theft.

Ninetta has sold her father's silver to the peddler Isacco, well portrayed by tenor Spencer Viator, whose performance as Count Belfiore (in the same production in which we heard Ms. Jordheim) was recently reviewed. Isacco cannot come to Ninetta's defense because he has already sold the silver. Ninetta cannot defend herself without implicating her father; she remains silent.

There is an evil Podestà who has been trying for some time to win Ninetta's affection; his importuning has only alienated her. At this point he decides to press his advantage and get her to submit.  Another #metoo moment! The role was well portrayed by bass Hans Tashjian whom we have also reviewed a number of times. We seem to like him more and more with each performance. Of course, he always plays "the heavy" but such is the fate of basses.

Fernando risks his own life to come and support his daughter and things look pretty bad for both of them. Ninetta is convicted of theft and led to the gallows, accompanied by a funeral march that surely inspired Chopin, who was a big fan of Rossini (as are we).

Fortunately, the missing silver is discovered in the magpie's nest and Fernando has been pardoned by the King. Lucia now accepts her daughter-in-law to be, everyone is happy except for the Podestà, left to stew in his own remorse.

Aside from gorgeous arias (Ninetta and Giannetto each have a sweet cavatina) there are a number of stunning duets, not only between the lovers but between father and daughter. There was a trio in Act I involving Ninetta, Fernando, and Il Podestà in which the harmonies were so exquisite we got a bit teary-eyed. Father would risk his own life to save his daughter's honor!

Ninetta's prayer in Act II was another highlight, as was the septet at the end of Act I in which everyone is confused, just like in Rossini's comedies. It is no secret that Rossini stole from himself and all through the opera one can hear melodies from his other operas. Do we mind this? Absolutely not.

The only thing we minded, come to think of it, was the overly long scene in Act II which was so repetitive that we would have cut it by half at least. And one other cavil which also troubled us the previous night. The font of the surtitles made the words more difficult to read than they needed to be.

We sat on the other side of the theater than we had the prior night and got a better look at the arrangement of the orchestra, how they related to one another, and how maestro al cembalo Rachelle Jonck conducted. There was an exquisite solo on the baroque flute with some competition from the baroque oboe, both wooden and soft in tone.

Teatro Nuovo's second year has exceeded our expectations and we support Will Crutchfield's effort to restore bel canto opera to its original form. Count us fans!

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, July 18, 2019

BELLO BELLINI

Steven LaBrie and Christine Lyons in Bellini's La Straniera
(photo by Steven Pisano)



Last night at Rose Hall we enjoyed a rare performance of an early Bellini opera presented by Will Crutchfield's Bel Canto ensemble Teatro Nuovo; contrary to its nomenclature, the ensemble aims to bring back the performance style of the early 19th c.  This involves the use of period instruments, improvisatory vocalism, and the shifting of responsibility from a conductor to singers and musicians. We were not the only member of the audience to find this approach novel and thrilling; the applause at the end was thunderous and well deserved.

The opera premiered at La Scala in 1829; Bellini lavished this work with endless melodic invention--not the tunes of Rossini tumbling out one on top of the other, but long lyric lines that stretched and reached, rising and falling, replete with scale passages rather than vocal acrobatics.

Librettist Felice Romani based his libretto on an historical novel L'Étrangère written in 1825 by Charles-Victor Prévost d'Arlincourt which was also dramatized into a play, contributing somewhat to the libretto. The story is based on 12th c. history involving King Philip II of France whose first marriage was annulled and then later reinstated, both events by means of some papal finagling.

A cursory knowledge of this history went a long way toward making sense of the odd plot which we will try to summarize briefly. A woman has been hidden away somewhere with her brother to watch over her. (She is actually the discarded second wife of King Philip who has been obliged to return to wife number one.) She is veiled and mysterious; the locals consider her to be a witch.

Meanwhile, Count Arturo, about to be married to Isoletta, daughter of the Count of Montolino, is obsessively in love with her, although this sad and lonely Alaide (formerly Queen Agnes) rejects him and feels as if her life is accursed. Ultimately Isoletta realizes that Arturo will never love her, and in a move worthy of a 21st c. woman, rejects him at the altar.

Before the end, there is a duel, a suspected murder, a trial, and accusations of betrayal, all tropes of Romantic literature. 19th c. audiences lapped up this stuff but last night we heard quite a few titters in the audience at some of the twists and turns of the improbable plot.

We ourself did not laugh. We are accustomed to silly plots and can enjoy the music for its merit. At the harpsichord (here called the cembalo) was Mr. Crutchfield himself, focusing on the singers; Associate Artistic Director and Concertmaster Jakob Lehmann focused on the musicians. It was astonishing to observe the absence of a conductor with a baton on a podium !

We loved the sound of the early instruments, particularly that of the wooden flute. This is the sound we would love to hear in duet with Lucia in her mad scene, if a glass harmonica were not available. We noticed a very different layout of the orchestra with musicians facing one another, presumably for collaborative advantage. The brass instruments were valveless. The harp was briefly onstage and thrilled us with celestial arpeggi.

The Teatro Nuovo chorus was superb and opened the work with a gentle rocking barcarolle, a setting of some perfectly poetic text. Soon we would meet the anxious bride Isoletta, sung by soprano Alina Tamborini whose promotion from Apprentice Artist was well deserved. She has a beautiful presence onstage and a voice to match, with a lovely resonance and beautiful Bellini phrasing. Sadly, we wouldn't hear much more of her until the end of the opera.

In the starring role we had a Teatro Nuovo regular--soprano Christine Lyons whose passion brought Alaide to life. Her innate musicality brought out the beauty of Bellini's vocal lines in the lyrical passages. The vocal range called for was quite wide but Ms. Lyons was undaunted. There was the requisite brilliance in the upper register and substantial power at the bottom.

In the role of the tortured Arturo we had the sweet voiced tenor Derrek Stark--another Teatro Nuovo regular. He sang the challenging role with open throat and convincing passion. We remember Mr. Stark from his two years as an Apprentice Artist at Santa Fe Opera and more recently as a young artist with Palm Beach Opera. It is exciting to witness his growth as an artist.

As Alaide's brother Valdeburgo, baritone Steven LaBrie gave one of his superbly intense performances. His instrument is muscular yet flexible and his acting flawless. He is one of those artists whom we recognized as a rising star upon first hearing. Maestro Eve Queler brought Mr. LaBrie to our attention 7 years ago at a recital in which he sang Silvio's duet from Pagliacci, Figaro's "Largo al Factotum", "Ya vas lyublyu" from Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, and "Vision fugitive" from Massenet's Herodiade. Hearing a baritone singing in bel canto and realismo styles, and in Italian, French, and Russian, convinced us he was on the path to stardom.

Now here's the coincidence. As rarely performed as this opera is, it was Maestro Queler who brought it to New York in 1993. Mr. LaBrie probably hadn't even started to sing then.

Tenor Isaac Fishman did well as the dissembling Osburgo and bass Vincent Grana lent authority to the role of Il Priore, who judged Alaide and recognized her as the French queen. Bass-baritone Dorian McCall had the role of Isoletta's father. All three men also sang in the excellent chorus.

The production was semi-staged. Fortunately everyone knew their roles and there were no music stands onstage. Singers were free to act; there were no sets or costumes; it was all about the music.

We left satisfied on every level and are looking forward to tonight's opera--Rossini's comedy La Gazza Ladra.

(c) meche kroop





Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A DIFFERENT "MOSTLY MOZART"

Charles Gray, Jennifer Zamorano, Allegra Durante, Hannah Madeleine Goodman, and David Serero

Opera fanatics might have gotten their knickers in a twist at last night's production of Mozart's Nozze di Figaro but everyone else, ourself included, had a grand time. Gone were the lengthy intermissions, missing were a few characters, and lengthy recitativi were replaced by English dialogue that advanced the action. We are happy to report that most of the major arias were retained, giving us the opportunity to appreciate some fine singing.

This adaptation was written and directed by baritone David Serero, a larger-than-life character with a larger-than-life personality. Mr. Serero himself took on the part of Figaro and played to the (nonexistent) balcony. If we had been at the Met, his voice would have reached the Family Circle and his acting would have successfully limned his character to the audience thereof.

Mr. Serero likes to put his own spin on things and the dialogue he wrote was peppered with Yiddish expressions. A mysterious figure appeared from the wings at one point, accompanied by a theme from the film The Godfather. This presence represented the sneaky Don Basilio; a photo of this character (actually Mr. Serero with a mobster accent and mafioso costume) can be seen in the carousel of photos on our Facebook page (called Voce di Meche). At another point, Charles Gray's Count Almaviva appeared dressed as Darth Vader, accompanied by appropriate music. That's one way to threaten a wife!

At another point Mr. Serero interpolated the "Figaro Aria" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Forget the "fourth wall". Mr. Serero does everything he can to engage the audience and they all adore him; they even sang along at his bidding. A Tom and Jerry cartoon of this aria was projected and reminded us of our very earliest exposure to opera.

If this sounds like your cup of borscht, we urge you to go and have a good time. Make sure you bring an opera "noobie". The one we invited had a swell time.  Not only will you have a great time but you will hear some fine voices.

As the sprightly Susanna, we heard Hannah Madeleine Goodman who was completely convincing as the practical problem-solver, a fine match for her Figaro. She deftly illustrated quite different responses to her beloved fiancé and toward the importuning Count. In what would have been Act IV, her "Deh vieni, non tardar" was beautifully rendered and quite moving, by virtue of some exquisite dynamics.

As the neglected Countess Almaviva, Jennifer Zamorano made her entrance in sunglasses and shopping bags. It was easy to accept her as a woman of dignity, reduced to seeking help from her servant Susanna.  She shone in both arias--"Porgi amor" and "Dove sono", eliciting compassion in the midst of all that hilarity. Her instrument has a lovely vibrato and opens up beautifully in the upper register.

Equally convincing was the Cherubino of Allegra Durante who did justice to both of her arias "Non so piu" and "Voi che sapete". The scene in which the Countess and Susanna dress Cherubino up as a girl wound up on the cutting room floor, along with Marcellina, Dr. Bartolo, and Barbarina. It seems to us to be quite a challenge to retain the thread of the story whilst eliminating all the subplots--but it worked just fine.

As Almaviva, Charles Gray also evinced a different relationship with Susanna and with his wife. He sported a cockeyed white perriwig and satin coat. It was interesting that the male characters were in period dress whilst the female characters were in contemporary attire. Notes to the Count were handled by text with appropriate sound effects, bringing this costume drama right into the 21st c. and adding to the general merriment.

There was no set to speak of but projections sufficed to establish the setting.

The piano score was well played by composer Felix Jarrar who switched readily from Mozart to cinematic score.

Once more, Mr. Serero has done his part in bringing opera to new audiences with his creative slant. This production was held in the comfortable theater of the Center for Jewish History and was presented by The American Sephardi Federation which generously supports these works. He shared with the audience information about Lorenzo Da Ponte, who was Jewish. He related how Da Ponte brought opera to New York City--a tale which was well told by Divaria Productions which we reviewed in May of 2018; it can be read at this link if you are interested. http://www.vocedimeche.reviews/2018/05/don-giovanni-in-new-york.html

There will be a couple additional performances and we hope you will take advantage of the opportunity for some hearty laughter.

We are looking forward to the production of Anne, a musical about Anne Frank which will take place in September.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, July 14, 2019

BUBBLY CHAMPAGNE!

Elisabeth Harris as Prince Orlofsky and Chorus in Act II of Die Fledermaus

We never tire of Johann Strauss II's comic operetta Die Fledermaus. The witty libretto by Karl Haffner and Richarde Genée pokes a finger in the eye of late 19th c. Vienna with all its hypocrisy, class consciousness, and upper-class frivolity. The composer's music is equally witty and the score is well knit from overture to finale with glorious melodies tumbling out one after another--danceable waltzes and duple meter ones as well. Conductor Valéry Ryvkin and his excellent orchestra didn't miss a beat or a bubble in this champagne score.

Last night's production by Prelude to Performance was somewhat simplified as compared with the lavish one of 2016 with evening dress substituted for period costumes and projections standing in for elaborate sets. Nonetheless, the evening glittered by virtue of some outstanding performances.

If you don't know the story, dear reader, please enter Die Fledermaus in the search bar; we have told the story too many times to repeat it--once for Prelude to Performance and once for Amore Opera (both outstanding iterations.)

We have written every summer about Prelude to Performance which is celebrating 15 years of training young artists in many areas of performance, most notably that of character interpretation. We have never seen/heard anyone in one of their performances that failed to fully inhabit their character and bring it to vivid life. That is thanks to input from Artistic Director Martina Arroyo, the legendary soprano who has devoted her post-performance years to developing the talents of the up and coming young singers in her program.

Take, for example, soprano Lisa Faieta who gave us a complex and believable Rosalinde. Whether fighting off the attentions of Alfred (the aptly named Congju Song whose prodigious talent is new to us), soothing her about-to-be-jailed husband, rejecting the pleas of her maid Adele, or affecting the identity of an Hungarian Countess. As a matter of fact, it is in the latter guise that we were best able to appreciate her skills. Voice and gesture joined in this convincing portrayal and we were dazzled by a stunning messa di voce in "Klänge der Heimat". Two years have passed since we heard Ms. Faieta  with IVAI; her voice has developed wondrously.

Soprano Yejin Lee took the role of Adele and impressed us with her sprightly portrayal and dazzling coloratura. We had only seen her briefly before as one of the nymphs (Echo, we believe) in Ariadne auf Naxos; it was great to see more of her. As Rosalinde's maid she went over the top in her wheedling efforts to get the night off. In Act II, wearing Rosalinde's gown, she pretended to be the actress "Olga" and audaciously confronted Eisenstein when he recognized her. She absolutely scored in her "Adele's laughing aria". In Act III as she tried to convince Frank of her acting potential, we thought she could have been more convincing. That's the right place for some over-acting.

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Harris made an excellent Prince Orlofsky, emphasizing his bizarre personality and his ennui. Her arias were marvelously delivered. We always love "Chac'un a son goût" and the "Champagne song" in which the excellent chorus joins in. We could scarcely believe Ms. Harris' versatility, having reviewed her in several roles at Manhattan School of Music. What a contrast between Orlofsky and the cold-hearted Aunt Hannah in Tobias Picker's Emmeline!

As Eisenstein, baritone Jimin Park was lovable even when cheating on his wife (or so he thought). On his way to a brief jail sentence, he was lured to attend Prince Orlofsky's party. His dissembling with his wife Rosalinde and again at the party where he pretended to be Marquis Renard, established his character. His embarrassment when he sees Adele there was hilarious, as was his pidgin French with Frank the jailor who was posing as Chevalier Chagrin (neither man knew a word of French beyond "merci"), not to mention his flirtation with his own wife. All this comedy was accompanied by some fine singing that exhibited a tenorial quality in the upper register. We want to hear more of this young artist.

In the role of the jailer Frank, we heard baritone Yichen Xue, whom we heard two years ago singing "Scintille diamant" at Manhattan School of Music. We noted his excellent performance then and were glad to hear how his instrument has expanded. The scene in Act I in which he arrives to take Eisenstein to jail and finds Albert instead was a very funny one, as Rosalinde must pretend that Albert is her husband to preserve her reputation. He was quite funny again in Act II, pretending to be French.

The mastermind of this elaborate plot is Falke, so well sung by baritone Michael Parham, possessor of a fine instrument and elegant stage bearing--so elegant that we can just imagine the humiliation Falke must have experienced from Eisenstein's prior prank (the backstory) and his delight in the revenge.

Tenor Esteban Jose Zuniga, had a fine time and a funny one in the role of Dr. Blind, confirming everyone's worst expectations of the legal profession. 

Stage Director Alan Fischer did a fine job of keeping the action moving along at a galloping clip. We could not find credit for the direction of the chorus but they were excellent. Vera Junkers as language coach made sure that everyone's German was crisp and clear.

One measure of the success of this production is that the opera "newbie" we brought had a fine time. Wasn't this operetta the perfect introduction?

We should also mention that during Act II, the action was suspended for performances by some famous singers who appeared as guests introduced by WQXR's Robert Sherman. We particularly enjoyed the performance of soprano Nicole Haslett in Nanetta's aria, a role she performed with Prelude to Performance in 2012 and reprised last night! She got our attention then and we reviewed her 4 years ago as a George London competition winner. But what really stood out for us was her performance as Chloe in Offenbach's Daphnis and Chloe. 

That was the night we fell in love with Heartbeat Opera. Both Ms. Haslett and Heartbeat Opera are thriving, and to bring things full circle, she will be performing with them again next season in Der Freischutz. Nothing could keep us away!

Also on hand were soprano Mariana Zvetkova who sang "Io son l'umile ancella" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, soprano Harolyn Blackwell who sang "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, and tenor Noah Stewart who performed "Donna non vidi mai" from Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

We could not imagine a more entertaining evening!

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

THE GOLDEN AGE

The Cast of "The Golden Age"

Under the loving leadership of Artistic Director Judith Fredricks, the delightful singers of Opera New York have taken opera out of the concert hall and into the places where people eat and drink. One might think this would be noisy or distracting but that is not the case. People became very quiet until each number ended and then they burst into enthusiastic applause.

The pleasant and welcoming venue was Mont Blanc 54, a Swiss restaurant on West 54th St. We indulge in fondue only during the winter but the room was filled with people dipping bread into cauldrons of bubbling cheese or enjoying Veal Zurichoise. We can however attest to the quality of the french fries, of which we ate way to many!

Last night, the cast abandoned the world of opera for that delightful hybrid of opera and Broadway musical theater--operetta. Ms. Fredricks herself narrated the evening with interesting tidbits about the composers and the singers who popularized their work. The way it seems to us is that operetta began in Europe as light entertainment and was brought to the USA by composers who left their homeland for the New World and brought their music with them. This would seem to have evolved into "The Golden Age" of Broadway. 

We are ardent fans of The Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live! which presents several Victor Herbert operas each year, so his music is familiar to us. Soprano Elena Heimur, a regular cast member of Opera New York, had a wonderful time singing the "Italian Street Song" with a lot of "zing-zing". This song was the hit tune of Herbert's 1910 Naughty Marietta. Ms. Heimur was joined by the male ensemble, comprising Walter Hartman, Scott O'Brien, Carlos Correa, and Robert Montgomery.

Heartthrob baritone Roberto Borgatti, another regular, had the audience members swooning with Sigmund Romberg's "One Alone" from the hokey operetta The Desert Song. Today we find these stories silly but a century ago they provided an escape from the upheavals of The Great War.

Herbert's Student Prince was given a lot of stage time, enough to grasp the familiar plot of an aristocrat courting a commoner. Soprano Tate Chu was lively as the barmaid serving steins of beer to the Ensemble and lovely as the love object of tenorrific Edgar Jaramillo (another regular) who leaned into the romance with gusto and open-throated singing.

The clever lyrics of "Every Day is Ladies' Day with Me" from Herbert's The Red Mill was performed by veteran bass Walter Hartman. We have seen the entire operetta, thanks to VHRPL! and cherished the opportunity to once again giggle along with the funny rhymes.

Who doesn't love The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar! The title role was sung by Ms. Heimur and we were dumbstruck at one point in "Vilja" when she leapt to a delicately floated high note and launched into a magnificent crescendo. She was accompanied by the ensemble. Her lover Danilo was persuasively performed by Mr. Borgatti who created a dapper "creature of the night" in the winning song "Maxime's", in which he tells of the many ladies of the nightclub --Frou Frou, and LuLu, or something like that.

But the number we all wait for is "The Merry Widow Waltz", which Mr. Borgatti sang in German and Ms. Heimur in English. Frankly, we prefer the German. The pair got to show off their ballroom skills in a charming waltz.

Rudolf Friml's Rose-marie is so silly that one couldn't play "Indian Love Call" straight and so Ms. Heimur and Mr. Jaramillo camped it up and the audience loved it.

There was also a surprise! As a teaser for the upcoming concert of Disney songs, soprano Zoë Lowenbein sang a song from The Little Mermaid. Although we prefer Dvorak's Russalka, we were quite happy to hear the charming Ms. Lowenbein's winning performance.

Accompaniment was provided by Michael Pilafian, another Opera New York regular. It seemed as if the artists enjoyed themselves as much as the audience!


(c) meche kroop