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, July 29, 2019


Wil Kellerman, Elisabeth Shoup, and William Reed in Manhattan Opera Studio's production of Die Walküre

We will never forget the first time we saw Richard Wagner's Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera; the Otto Schenk production emphasized the mythological character of the story. We were privileged to see this version a few times before it was retired in favor of the present post-modern variation (not a favor, thank you very much) which alienated us completely. We would prefer to see it without any production values whatsoever and that is exactly what we got last night from Manhattan Opera Studio.

A number of years ago we discussed with our dear friend soprano Olivia Stapp the possibility of producing The Ring Cycle in a small accessible theater with a reduced orchestra. And THAT is exactly what we got last night.

Everything in life is a trade-off. At times we missed the sheer overwhelming sound of the Wagnerian orchestration that envelops one in emotion. On the other hand, Maestro Benoit Renard created a viable soundscape with less than a dozen instrumentalists, offering an opportunity to isolate the strands that were woven into a tapestry of sound; one could clearly hear each leitmotif

This gave an opportunity to young voices to explore the roles, voices that may not be ready for the cavernous Metropolitan Opera. The only time that we truly missed the full orchestra was in the famous "Ride of the Valkyries".

All the singers wore black with no attempt at costuming. There was no set. The action took place in front of the upstage orchestra giving the singers an experience of better aural contact with the instrumentalists, or so we were told.

The opera is actually a domestic drama. There are a series of confrontations, each one involving moral ambiguity. A sad browbeaten wife is rescued from her brutal husband by a sad unfortunate stranger. A jealous wife confronts her philandering husband and demands his defense of marriage. A controlling father confronts his rebellious daughter and exacts severe retribution.

The Wotan of this second part of The Ring Cycle is not the powerful god of Das Rheingold. Christiaan Snyman portrays him as a broken man, diminished by the unforeseen consequences of the bad decisions he made out of greed. Like any man losing his power, he exerts what little power he has left on someone he can intimidate, his favorite child. Mr. Snyman not only sang this demanding role to fine effect but conveyed a lot about the character that we had not heretofore appreciated.

As his rebellious daughter Brünnhilde, Lauren Hunt turned in a fine performance, singing with luster and power; she created a relatable character who does her best to fulfill the inner desires of her father-- with disastrous consequences. Through Ms. Hunt, we witness an impetuous young woman who uses the same manipulative devices that she has observed in her father, in order to save her skin. As she matures, she accepts her fate and wins a concession from Wotan. 

Both of them now know that the child in Sieglinde's womb is the only chance to save the world. Everything is set up for the next installment of the cycle--Siegfried. Although Ms. Hunt does not look like a warrior woman she scored points for her singing and for limning a relatable character.

We have long wanted to hear Elisabeth Shoup singing Wagner and we got our wish. The texture of her voice was just right for Sieglinde and she too showed maturation in the character she portrays. The "marriage" she has with Hunding is not the kind of marriage we would recognize today outside of India and the Middle East. In the Dark Ages, women were bought and sold or conquered as the spoils of battle. We are firmly in tribal territory here!

We admired the change in vocal color as she emerged from her terrified shell and allowed herself to flower in the warmth of love. Additional vocal colors emerged as she and Siegmund fled from the pursuing Hunding. Still more coloration illustrated her self-castigation and guilt. And then there was the grief stricken widow, uncaring whether she lived or died. A shred of hope crept into her voice when Brünnhilde tells her she is carrying her twin brother's child.

In the role of the hapless Siegmund we heard William Reed whose short pudgy frame did nothing to match Ms. Shoup's tall slender body. Fortunately, his finely nuanced singing and acting compensated for the physical mismatch. Helped along by Wagner's music we mentally cheered him on as he drew Nothung from the (invisible) ash tree. Of course we know that Wotan will shatter the sword and he will die, but still we wanted him to win the battle --because Mr. Reed's performance made us care about him.

The scene in which Brünnhilde announces his death is our third favorite scene in the opera. His eloquence, his love for his sister/bride, his refusal to submit to his destiny--all brought tears to our eyes.

In the role of Fricka, we had the powerful Lorraine Helvick who brought all her jealousy of Wotan's other women to bear upon her wish to destroy Siegmund. She must defend the rites of marriage, even though her definition of marriage is not consonant with our own. The scene between Wotan and Fricka is a compelling one and she can be just as manipulative as he is. He knuckles under and we are angry with him for his weakness. Her believability in the role matched her vocal gifts.

Wil Kellerman made a fine Hunding, twisting his handsome features into snarls of suspicion, domination and resentment. According to unwritten laws of the time, he must offer hospitality to the stranger Siegmund--but will try to kill him in the morning. Mr. Kellerman has a fine instrument with great resonance in the lower register and seems born to play the "heavy".

We mentioned our third favorite scene but there are two scenes vying for first and second place. "Du bist der Lenz" is the one joyful scene in the opera and we hear two lost souls finding each other, love, and meaning.

The other masterpiece is "The Ride of the Valkyries". Anyone who sees our Facebook page "Voce di Meche" has noticed the photo at the top, taken a few years ago at Santa Fe Opera. All of the Valkyries were in the Apprentice Program; we wonder where they are now. We have no intention of changing the photo!

Last night we heard Grace Kim, Julie Van de Grift, Belem Abraham, Melinda Harper, Amanda Kendrick, Brittany Walker, Isabella Stollenmaier, and Marja Kari. We loved the way they stood together in fellowship, narrating the offstage foibles of each other and their respective horses.

Much credit for the success of this production goes to Stage Director Lisa Nava whose direction emphasized the interaction of the singers. Often she had them circling each other, a device repeated from scene to scene. The suspicious Hunding circles the exhausted stranger Siegmund. Wotan circles Fricka in their battle of words. Wotan circles Brünnhilde as he makes her take responsibility for her disobedience. And finally, a ring of fire must circle the sleeping warrior maiden.

The fire of course was in our imagination and the sets of Günther Schneider-Siemssen appeared in our mind's eye, along with the costumes of Rolf Langenfass. Better to have a bare production filled in with memories and imagination than some meretricious "regietheater" abomination.

We consider the evening a total success. The five hours seem to fly by. We are eager to see what Manhattan Opera Studio comes up with next!

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, July 28, 2019


Maestro Francisco Miranda and Anna Viemeister in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas
Vocal Productions NYC

Henry Purcell wrote this operatic masterpiece in the 1680's for a girl's school, utilizing a concise libretto by Nahum Tate. We have lost track of how many times we have heard it, enjoyed it, and written about it. Yesterday we sat in the beautifully landscaped gardens of St. John's in the Village and enjoyed it to the maximum, just as up close and personal as we would wish.

In the space of just one hour, Tate's libretto gets right to the point without any padding and Purcell's music delights the ear with memorable melodies. It is believed that the story of Queen Dido of Carthage abandoned by the Trojan hero Aeneas is a metaphor for the British people being abandoned by James II, under the spell of the Catholic church, represented in the opera by a sorcerer. But no one can say for sure so let's focus on the music making.

Anna Viemeister inhabited the role as if she were born to play it. Over the past few years we have reviewed her performances many times and have admired her delivery of arias by Verdi and Wagner. We have never quite decided whether to think of her as a dramatic soprano or a mezzo with great high notes. But we never thought of her as a Baroque singer. What a revelation!

She could charm the birds from the trees and actually did so as they joined in from time to time. Outdoor performances do have their special delights. 

We always love a believable performance and this one was so special that we could feel every emotion along with her. How sweet are the delights of succumbing to Cupid's dart and how painful is the loss of love. And we understood how a woman could let her pride prevent her from forgiving a man who dares to even think of leaving her, even if he subsequently changes his mind.

As Aeneas we heard tenor John Ramseyer whom we heard in the role a few years ago when we thought he sang well but needed more dramatic investment. We are happy to report that he has grown in the role and made it his own. He evinced the character's ambivalence about leaving and sang with a gentle pianissimo. We have heard him sing a variety of roles and notice that he always vanishes right after curtain, depriving us of the opportunity to congratulate him in person!

New to New York is countertenor Rodolfo Girón who delivered a marvelous performance of the Sorcerer. We love that fach and see a great deal of promise by way of fine phrasing and an interesting instrument. His two accomplices were well played by Justyna Giermola and Anna Marie Wood who harmonized beautifully and made great use of malevolent facial expressions.

Countertenor Jonathan Goldsmith portrayed the faux Mercury (without any accoutrements) and also the sailor who sings a funny ditty.

Dido's two handmaidens were portrayed by Juliet Morris and Meghan Wilmott whose piping voice sounded just like that of a boy soprano. Her portrayal of the role of Belinda requires more clarity of diction and greater dramatic investment than just imitating the gestures of comforting .

Aside from that, diction was clear and perhaps this was the first time we got almost every word, the better to appreciate the story.

Maestro Francisco Miranda conducted from the piano and had a firm command of the strings--all six of them. The chorus contributed their comments on the action in fine harmony.

Our two favorite vocal numbers were the duet for Dido and Aeneas in which he offers to violate the supposed order of the gods and to stay with Dido whilst she, on her high horse, rejects the offer. Our heart was breaking along with hers. And of course the concluding "When I Am Laid to Rest" -- the one aria everyone would think of if one mentions this opera.

We do not know who staged and directed the piece but it worked well, utilizing whatever existed in the garden of the church-- a garden for all since the 1980's.

The costuming was of the shoestring variety and perhaps was left up to each artist. Mr. Girón's black garments were enhanced by a spectacular feathered mask and showed evidence of a fashion/design background. Ms. Viemeister accessorized her black dress with jewelry indicative of ancient times. We wanted the faux Mercury to have wings on his shoes or a helmet but he did not.

All told, we were completely drawn into the production and recommend it highly. To accommodate the many who were turned away, there will be an additional performance at 3:00 on Sunday August 4th.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, July 27, 2019


Ausrine Stundyte and Daniel Brenna in Erich Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane
(Photo by Stephanie Berger)

It seems to be a miracle when an opera lays dormant for nearly a century and finally makes it to the stage. For such miracles we count on Maestro Leon Botstein who has made it his mission to bring works out of the dark and into the light for his summer adventure Bard Summerscape. We make it our business to make the lengthy bus trip up to Annandale-on-the-Hudson at least once each year. Sometimes we are thrilled; sometimes we are not.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a child prodigy in his native Germany and achieved success as a teenager. Die tote Stadt is oft performed and remains famous for two arias--"Marietta's Lied" and "Pierrots Tanzlied". His Das Wunder der Heliane premiered in 1927 and met with critical disdain although several members of the opera community heaped high praise on the work.

Due to Nazi suppression, the work fell into obscurity until recently and last night was its American premiere which we did not want to miss. The work is famous primarily for the aria "Ich ging zu ihm" which one can hear on YouTube sung by Renée Fleming and by Lotte Lehmann. Take your pick. Listen to both.

The story is a strange one with the libretto written by Hans Müller-Einigen. A totalitarian ruler is bitter over his unconsummated marriage with Heliane. He is  also disturbed by a messianic stranger who has brought joy to the repressed populace. He wants the stranger dead.

Heliane goes to comfort him on his last night on earth and becomes captivated by him. She grants him the favors he requests--to show her hair, her bare feet, and her body. She refuses him lovemaking.

The ruler is infuriated and wants them both dead. There is a trial in which Heliane can prove her chastity by raising the stranger from death. She does but there is a lot of stabbing and shifting responses by the populace. It was difficult to determine what exactly happened at the end but perhaps the couple found love on another plane.

The music has been described as lush and romantic; we found it muscular and dissonant. There is no denying that the music is "interesting" and Maestro Botstein succeeded in bringing out the details of the colorful orchestration. We heard lots of Straussian influence. There were pockets of lyricism which we did enjoy, especially when the harp added its voice. Perhaps it takes several hearings of the score to get "friendly" with this type of music. It is not instantly relatable.

In the titular role, soprano Ausrine Stundyte looked as fine as she sounded and was as convincingly innocent as one could hope for. As The Ruler, bass-baritone Alfred Walker gave his customarily fine performance, singing with rich resonant tone and creating a brutal tyrant.  Heldentenor Daniel Brenna pushed his voice in the upper register and failed to create a compelling figure onstage, i.e. someone who could beguile a populace. As in Siegfried, the role would seem to beg for a sweet-voice lyric tenor who could never be heard over the densely textured orchestration!  A real Catch-22.

We have always liked mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein who created a very nasty and vengeful Messenger.  Tenor David Cangelosi was excellent as The Blind Judge who turns out to be Heliane's father. Bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee made a fine impression as The Porter.

The other judges at the trial, rather peculiarly costumed, comprised Nathan Berg, Scott Conner, Michael J. Hawk, Derek Taylor, Kevin Thompson, and Richard Troxell.

Stage Director Christian Räth had his work cut out for him, making sense of this odd story. Esther Bialas, whose costume design we so admired in the Mostly Mozart Magic Flute, dressed the judges in strange red garments with large ruffs around their necks. Heliane looked as innocent as she was meant to look; The Ruler looked as totalitarian as he was meant to look; The Stranger needed something more ethereal or spiritual. Functionaries resembled futuristic airline stewardesses.

Sets were all grey and totalitarian looking with movable towers backed by staircases. Thomas C. Hase's lighting was effective with menacing shadows cast on the rear wall. Under James Bagwell's direction, the chorus sounded fine with beautiful solos from Aine Hakamatsuka and Caroline Miller as Celestial Voices.

Catherine Galasso's choreography was also on the odd side. A "ballet" of the functionaries was just plain ugly with awkward lifts. But Act III opened with a graceful dance for a clutch of women dressed like Heliane who imitated her movements or manipulated her body. We haven't a clue what this was meant to represent but at least it was graceful.

We took a look online at a production from Berlin which was done in contemporary street clothes, making this production look much better.

If 20th c. opera is your thing, there will be four additional performances.

© meche kroop

Tuesday, July 23, 2019


Titania embracing Bottom

Last night we braved a torrential midsummer downpour to attend Little Flame Theatre's production of Shakespeare's comedy Midsummer Night's Dream. We forgot all about the torrential downpour as we were showered by laughter and provocative insights. We rarely review theater because we are so busy with opera but we loved theater long before we loved opera and it was a real pleasure to see it done so well. We are happy to tell you, dear reader, that this iteration of MND far surpasses the dozen or so we have seen before.

In place of costly woodland sets and elaborate costumes, we had a bare stage, thrift shop costuming, and some sensational acting and directing. The director, Drew Bolander, is known to us as a versatile performer in Alyce Mott's Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live! We have reviewed his fine singing and acting in at least eight operettas, remarking upon his versatility in assuming many different roles. We never knew of his directing skills.

Aside from the fine performances we were impressed by how Mr. Bolander made psychological sense of the characters' interactions. We have always been bored by the scenes with the "rustics" but last night, each was given a different personality. Stealing the show was Vira Slywotsky, known to us for her fine work with the aforementioned VHRPL and also for her excellence as an interpreter of lieder for Five Boroughs Music Festival, Mirror Visions Ensemble, and more recently in Vira and Friends. Last night her over-the-top performance gave us a Bottom that stood for all of the self important members of amateur theatrical groups everywhere. Her mobile face and expansive bodily gestures created a memorable and hilarious character.

Let us also single out, for the moment, Jadé Davis who opened the show as Hippolyta, facing off with Theseus, the Duke of Athens--and in an interesting role switch, became a very masculine Oberon. Theseus was portrayed by Eamon Murphy who then assumed the role of Titania, complete with bushy beard and moustache. This gender reversal was funny as all getout as he camped up the feminine role.

Casting the role of Aegeus with the very matronly appearing Zoey Rutherford as the self-righteous mother of Hermia (a highly winning Naziah Black), toting a big fat book of law to plead her case with Theseus, was just about perfect. She also appeared as Peter Quince, working hard to contain Bottom's ambition. 

We were not quite as enthusiastic with casting the role of Helena with a very campy Michael Witkes. We were asked to believe that "he" (and yes, that was the pronoun that was used) was in love with and rejected by Demetrius (the handsome Ben Ubiñas) and won out in the end by the administration of the magic flower. This made us uncomfortable since it implied that Demetrius, set to marry Helena, could so easily change his gender of choice. We live at a time when "conversion therapy" has been discredited although some fundamentalist religions are clinging to the concept. Perhaps we are taking the entire issue too seriously but we did feel uncomfortable.

Not only was Naziah Black adorable, headstrong, and expressive but her beloved Lysander (Ashton Garcia) won our affection as well. The scene in which she insists that he make his bed "a little farther off" was extremely well played.

The mischievous Puck was well played by Meaghan J. Johnson and the three fairies attending upon Titania were played by RG, Lindsay Hope Simon, and Bear Spiegal. The three were given some excellent choreography by Kelsey Hercs who also designed their clever costumes and makeup.

This production is part of the Frigid New York Festival of Summer Nights in which the Bard's masterpiece is being given five different interpretations. We do not have time to review them all but we urge you to catch the production we just saw which will be repeated on July 25th and 30th, as well as August 1st and 3rd at the Kraine Theater in the East Village. We also invite you to look at our Facebook page (Voce di Meche) to see photos from the production.

(c) meche kroop 

Sunday, July 21, 2019


Aaron Blake, Ashley Milanese, Karolina Gumos, Ezgi Kutlu, and Evan Hughes
(photo by Stephanie Berger for Lincoln Center)

We avoid reading reviews, talking to other people, and perusing the program notes before a performance so that we can experience each opera with fresh eyes and ears, uninfluenced by the opinions of others. Last night, thanks to the Mostly Mozart Festival, we were thoroughly enchanted by a revolutionary approach to Mozart's 1797 singspiel Die Zauberflöte. We do not use the word "enchanted" lightly. We were transported to a new world, an amalgam of silent film tropes, cartoons, scientific illustrations, live action, animation, and projections.

May we coin a term here?  "Imaginuity" might serve. This remarkable production was conceived by the entity 1927  from which Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky Co-Directed, with animation designed by Paul Barritt. Esther Bialas was responsible for Stage and Costume Design and Diego Leetz designed the lighting. It was our first time witnessing live artists interacting with surreal projections. Welcome to the future!

Since opera is all about music, let us begin with that aspect. Maestro Louis Langrée conducted the superb Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra with suitable panache. If there were folks in the audience who had never been exposed to Mozart's music, as unlikely as that is, they were surely won over.

The singing was topnotch all around, although there were moments when we thought the voices were lightly amplified. We first heard bass-baritone Evan Hughes at Juilliard Opera in 2012 as Don Alfonso in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte; we wrote about him often over the next couple years, remarking on his mobile face and flair for comedy. 

Since then, he has made quite a name for himself abroad so it was particularly exciting for us to see and hear him once more after this lengthy interval. One couldn't ask for a better performance. With costuming and body movement reminiscent of Buster Keaton, he cut quite a figure. His sonorous voice has only gotten deeper and broader. He remains an astonishing performer.

Tenor Aaron Blake has been on our radar for about six years since winning an award with the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation. The performances that most stick in our mind are his singing Schubert's "Erlkönig" with impressive coloring of the various voices and his performance of the lead role in Gregory Spears' Fellow Traveler.

Last night he made a winning Tamino, singing earnestly and sweetly. We might add that we would never have recognized either of these two highly admired gentlemen behind all that makeup!

His Pamina was performed by the adorable soprano Vera-Lotte Böckert who was costumed to appear very much like Louise Brooks in a black bob and a black dress with large white collar, white stockings, and black Mary Jane shoes. She invested the role with fine singing and acting, a worthy counterpart to her Prince Tamino.

What shall we say about the Queen of the Night? She was portrayed as a spider catching the unwary in her web and stabbing at them with her 8 spindly legs. It wasn't until the curtain call that we were able to see her face and body. It was hard to believe that all that exciting sound came out of the tiny person of coloratura soprano Aleksandra Olczyk; she has a thrilling sound and very accurate fioritura.

We have never cared for the role of the pompous Sarastro but last night we very much enjoyed him, as portrayed by Wenwei Zhang whose voice descends into the very bottom of the register without any loss of volume or color.

We adored the the Three Ladies, as performed by Ashley Milanese, Karolina Gumos, and Ezgi Kutlu--dressed in 1930's finery. We always love the scene in which they fight over Prince Tamino; last night they were accompanied by animated hearts; long cigarette holders were used to puncture and deflate the hearts of the other two.

Papagena was played by Talya Lieberman who didn't have much to do but was depicted as filling an animated house with dozens of animated "Papageni". She never appeared as an old crone to fool Papageno. We don't know why that scene was cut.

Costumed and made up like Nosferatu, Johannes Dunz made a creepy Monostatos. We noted that the same audience that tittered over Mozart's sexism had no reaction to his racism!

Although their names are not credited in the program, the Three Boys, members of the Tölzer Boys Choir, were adorable and harmonized beautifully.

In many of the scenes, faces were visible through holes and bodies were created in some kind of projected animation. We have no idea how this was accomplished and didn't even try to figure it out. It was more fun to just accept this aesthetic as a fantasy world in which pink elephants lounged in martini glasses, elevators descended through the circles of hell in the Trial by Fire, and chubby little bathing beauties represented Papageno's magic bells.

We could go on and on describing the many sight gags but let us share just a few more. Tamino gets swallowed by the dragon and is depicted in the belly of the beast surrounded by lots of bones; the Queen of the Night hurls red daggers at Pamina when she wants her to kill Sarastro; when Papagena counts to three before committing suicide, the animation plays a game of "hangman" with each number accompanied by additional strokes.

Dialogue was mostly replaced by silent movie titles. Music was interpolated from other works by Mozart, although at one point we heard music that didn't sound like Mozart at all. All of these alterations served the telling of the tale and we'd like to think that Wolfgang Amadeus would have loved it.

It is difficult to describe something so visually fluid but we consider it a ground-breaking work in the same way as Disney's Fantasia was in the last century. We will happily attend any future performances by 1927. Our sole disappointment  was that there were hardly any children in the audience! If any production could initiate youngsters into the world of opera, it would be this one.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, July 19, 2019


Alisa Jordheim and Erik van Heyningen in Rossini's La Gazza Ladra
(Photo by Steven Pisano)

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


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


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


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 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