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.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

ADULTING in the 19th century

Gabriella Reyes
(Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)
Vanessa Vasquez, Mario Chang, Will Liverman, Zachary Nelson, and Solomon Howard
(photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)



In today's musical universe, it is rather common for contemporary operas to be praised by critics (not by us, to be sure) but abhorred by the opera going public. How interesting it is to us that Puccini's masterpiece La Bohême was adored by the public right from its premiere in Turin in 1896, yet strangely attacked by critics.

Today, we cannot imagine anyone finding fault with Puccini's melodies as they twine themselves around our hearts; nor do we find the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa to be shocking or revolutionary. As a New Yorker, all it takes is a walk on the Lower East Side to see counterparts to the six young folk of the opera. Residing several to a room, scrounging meals, working day jobs to support themselves whilst they create art--all are features in common with the six young folk in the opera. Even Musetta has a counterpart among the young women who seek "arrangements".

The librettists wrote a somewhat romanticized version of the Bohemian lifestyle which the stories of Henri Murger presented in a more realistic fashion. This is a good thing because the carefree Mimi that Murger wrote about --who died alone in a hospital --might never have aroused our care and sympathy. As we  pointed out in our recent reviews, we need to connect with the lead characters and to see ourselves in them; we need to care what happens to them. The story is instrumental but it's the music inspired by the story that gives us the true operatic experience.

We have been looking forward for months to the production at Santa Fe Opera directed by one of our favorite directors--Mary Birnbaum. The cast is filled with familiar names --singers we have known and loved.

Take, for example, the radiant soprano Vanessa Vasquez who has won prizes at countless competitions singing Puccini; we have written many times about her glorious soprano and her convincing acting. Last night she gave the audience a memorable Mimi, perhaps a bit closer to Murger's Mimi than we usually see; she gave the impression of having had her eye on Rodolfo and was just waiting for an opportunity to connect with him.

As Rodolfo we heard the excellent tenor Mario Chang whose sweet vocal colors were just right for the role, although a bit on the soft side. We particularly loved the Act III duet "Senza rancor" in which the lovers go through several emotions, reminiscing about their lives together. We confess to being relieved when they decided to spend the rest of the winter together, even though we know the rest of the story more than well enough. We have been writing about Mr. Chang for years and still recall some noteworthy performances in the Lindemann Program of the Metropolitan Opera.

As Musetta, we heard Gabriella Reyes, another superb soprano who shared the stage with Ms. Vaquez at the Met National Council Finals. We recall her lovely "Il est doux, il est bon" from Massenet's Hérodiade, and an aria from Daniel Catan's Florencia en el Amazona. We had the pleasure of reviewing her excellent performances as a singer with the Lindemann Program, the most memorable of which, for us, was her singing in Spanish-- above all in zarzuela. Last night she showed her versatility, singing and acting up a storm; she showed very different vocal colors in her showpiece aria "Quando m'en vo" in Act II, and a far more tender side in Act IV.

Brilliant baritone Zachary Nelson admirably fulfilled the role of the painter Marcello, besotted with the mercurial Musetta. We particularly enjoyed his interaction with Mimi in Act III. Mr. Nelson has a long-standing relationship with the Santa Fe Opera and was first heard as an Apprentice a number of years ago. It delights us that his artistry was noted and developed.

Baritone Will Liverman made a fine Schaunard. We loved the part in Act I when he tells the captivating story of the poisoned parrot, and his three friends, distracted by the food and wine he has brought, pay absolutely no attention. Since hearing Mr. Liverman as an award winner with Opera Index, we have followed his promising career with interest. There have been awards and recitals aplenty but what we recall best is that he introduced us to two operas we'd never heard--Albert Lortzing's 1842 comic opera Der Wildschütz, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride.

This is only the third time we have heard the booming bass of Soloman Howard; once was as the Bonze in Puccini's Madama Butterfly and the other was as the Commendatore in Mozart's Don Giovanni; both performances at the Santa Fe Opera. We were quite impressed with the depth of his sound and by his compelling stage presence. Our favorable impression was ratified by his performance as Colline. His "Vecchia zimarra" was beautifully rendered; it is a real heartbreaker as we in the audience realize that the coat he is parting with is symbolic of the carefree days of youth.

Veteran bass-baritone Dale Travis could not have been better as the landlord Benoit, getting tipsy with his delinquent bohemian tenants, and as the much put upon Alcindoro, Musetta's latest "patron".

Santa Fe Apprentices filled the stage in Act II and three of them filled small roles--Elliott Paige as the toy-seller Parpignol, Jarrett Logan Porter and Seungyun Kim as Customs Officers.

Maestro Jader Bignamini led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra through their Puccini paces and brought out every theme as it recurred in different guises. He brought a lively tempo to the horseplay in Act I and a slow heartbreaking tempo to Act IV. 

Director Mary Birnbaum wisely did not alter the time or place of the opera and gave us a fairly traditional production with a few novel flourishes. We were surprised in Act I when Mimi made the move on Rodolfo. Our only moment of disbelief was when Mimi asks Rodolfo to stop something when he wasn't doing anything!

It was a novel idea to have the Parisian folk ice-skating (actually on roller blades which looked like ice skates) and it's a wonder that Ms. Reyes did a creditable job.

It was also a novel idea to have Musetta very very pregnant in Act IV. We don't think it added to the story.

Grace Laubacher's set was effective. The garret had a sloping roof made of leaded glass and was set in front of a backdrop of typical French buildings off in the distance. The tavern in Act III (humorously called "La Mer Rouge"--recalling the panting Marcello was working on) was realistic; in the transition to Act IV, it was turned inside out to become the aforementioned garret.

Camellia Koo's costumes worked well. The bourgeois citizens of Paris were dressed in colorful typical early 19th c. costumes. The "bohemians" were notably dressed differently. In Act II, Musetta appears in a shocking pink jumpsuit and in Act III, she is wearing a man's suit. But isn't that what young artistic folk do in every generation?

This is a story of "adulting"; the lives of the surviving characters will be forever changed. It is a mark of a production's success when we care!

(c) meche kroop







Friday, August 16, 2019

BLEAK HOUSE

Laura Wilde (Jenůfa), Gina Perregrino (Herdswoman), Katherine Beck (Karolka), Kathleen Reveille (Mayor’s Wife), and Richard Trey Smagur (Števa Buryja) (Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)


Contemporaneous with Puccini, Leoš Janáček wrote a very sad opera about sin and redemption in a small Moravian village; Jenüfa premiered in1904 after six years of compositional labor; it would not be heard in the composer's original version for seventy years. This is one of the first "prose" operas.

The grim story deals with issues of unrequited love, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, fraternal envy, violence, and infanticide. The eponymous heroine (soprano Laura Wilde) is in love with the fickle Števa (tenor Richard Trey Smagur) and is carrying his child. His half-brother Laca (tenor Alexander Lewis) is envious of Števa's favored position in the family and is jealous of Števa's relatioship with Jenufa. How this all works out is a gripping story.

Two elements pleased us even before attending the performance. Firstly, the opera is sung in Czech; this is a difficult language but every time we hear it sung we are impressed by how wedded are word and vocal line. Janácek wrote the libretto himself so this element is particularly important.

Secondly, the opera has been cast with singers we know and love, some of whom we heard last year as Santa Fe Apprentices, others we know from conservatories in New York or from competitions.

One of the hallmarks of a great production is that one can identify with the characters and care about them. The fact that the piece was updated to the mid-20th c. did not detract from its impact. This story might even take place today in a small town gripped by religious fundamentalism.

The eponymous Jenufa has been captivated by a man of poor character who seduces her and abandons her when her face has been disfigured. Who could not identify with an innocent young woman who falls for a narcissistic man! Soprano Laura Wilde (once an 
apprentice at Santa Fe Opera) used her generous instrument and agile body to create a Jenufa we could really care about. The dénouement of the drama finds her accepting her fate and possibly finding happiness with Laca. All of the emotions she experienced were revealed through vocal coloration and body language---anticipation, joy, anxiety, despair, grief, forgiveness, and reconciliation. What a stunning performance!

As Kostelnička, soprano Patricia Racette turned in a highly memorable performance. The intensity of her vocal expression and the measured use of vibrato made her a sympathetic monster. Under the stress of living in a religious community as the widow of the church warden, her experience of shame over her step-daughter's pregnancy and her efforts to find the best for Jenufa clashed with her religious beliefs; her desperate act left her feeling sick and guilty. Ms. Racette made her climactic realization --how she loved herself more than others -- convincing evidence of her emotional growth.

As the rascal Števa, tenor Richard Trey Smagur (well remembered from his Apprentice performances) created a character imbued with childish narcissism, caring only for his own desires--drinking and philandering. Whilst Jenufa was grieving he was busy courting the daughter of the Mayor. Mr. Smagur created a thoroughly detestable character but sang so well we were ready to forgive him anything. Additionally, he has a compelling stage presence that dominated the stage.

Tenor Alexander Lewis, whom we haven't heard in a few years, sounded terrific as Laca. Sulking around the stage as a grievance collector when the opera opens, he explodes with anger and slashes Jenufa's face. By the end of the opera he has matured emotionally; forgiven by Jenufa, he seems prepared to make a good husband for her. All of these emotions were made clear by Mr. Lewis, both in his vocal coloration and in his posture.

We enjoyed the performance of baritone Will Liverman, also a former Apprentice at Santa Fe Opera. His character was the foreman of the mill which Števa inherited and had the task of announcing the fact that Števa had not been drafted. His voice always lends a sense of import.

Renowned mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, a Santa Fe resident, created the role of Grandmother Buryjovka, mother-in-law of Kostelnička, and a seemingly kind woman who can also swat her wayward grandson with her purse. She became increasingly frail during the three seasons in which the opera takes place

Several apprentices graced the stage with their presence in smaller roles. Alan Higgs gave a fine interpretation of the self-satisfied mayor with Kathleen Reveille creating the character of his wife---critical and all too ready to humiliate Jenufa. Their daughter Karolka was portrayed by Katherine Beck as the superficial flighty beauty that Števa was going to marry. The three of them just made sense as a family.

Making brief appearances but sounding great were Gina Perregrino, Sylvia D'Eramo, Jana McIntyre, Kaitlyn McMonigle, Danielle Beckvermit, and Benjamin Taylor.

The chorus of Apprentices appeared as townfolk and sounded sensational, as usual. We loved the folk dances choreographed by Maxine Braham.

Maestro Johannes Debus honored Janáček by revealing all the colors of his palette. Our esteem for this composer grows every time we hear his compositions. His writing underscores the action at every turn. We loved the duet between mother and step-daughter which seemed more tuneful than the writing for solo voice. When Kostelnička sends Jenufa to bed, the orchestral writing has the quality of a lullaby. Our favorite passages are almost always the most lyrical ones but last night we found much to love in the forceful and dramatic ones.

Director David Alden similarly honored the work. His direction put a lot of space between the characters which emphasized their loneliness and isolation. There wasn't much love in this family! Fortunately, there wasn't even a whiff of directorial arrogance. Alden wisely allowed the tale to speak for itself.

Charles Edwards' minimalist set design neither added nor detracted but it was stunningly lit by Duane Schuler, who created chiaroscuro effects with dramatic shadows on the walls. We liked the way the boarded up windows exploded when the boards were removed and a storm occurred, lending verisimilitude to the storm within the family.

Jon Morrell's costumes were a propos to a small European village in the mid-20th c.. The folk dancers were colorful and the family drab. The mayor's wife and daughter were more lavishly costumed as befit their lofty position in the local society.

Unfortunately, this was the last performance of the season so unless you have already attended you are out of luck. But there is plenty more artistry to look forward to. We are looking forward to tomorrow's La Bohême and the Sunday Apprentice recital.


(c) meche kroop



Wednesday, August 14, 2019

INFIDELITY AND BETRAYAL

Amanda Majeski, Jarrett Ott, Rod Gilfry, Ben Bliss, and Emily D'Angelo
(Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)

It was at the tail end of the Enlightenment when Mozart and Da Ponte created their puzzling masterpiece Cosi fan tutte, puzzling because it has one foot in comedy and the other in tragedy. It must have scandalized the opera-going public at that time. As late as the 20th c. audiences might have understood the shame experienced by cheating fiancées; but 21st century morality has changed and partner swapping no longer shocks or shames.

Given Mozart's marvelous music and an attractive young cast, we expected a captivating telling of the tale, especially since we have previously enjoyed the fresh takes on Händel's operas provided by Stage Director R.B. Schlather. To say we were disappointed would be a gross understatement; in fact we were appalled by this meretricious production.

We frequently closed our eyes during the "important" arias so we could focus on the glorious voices. It was indeed a casting coup to have engaged these artists who were excellent vocally and who worked well as an ensemble, apparently doing their best to give Mr. Schlather what he wanted.

Tenor Ben Bliss, possessor of a gorgeous instrument, could have melted anyone's heart with his "Un'aura amorosa". His voice has expanded in the past couple of years without losing any of its tonal luster. It was amazing that Fiordiligi could hold out for so long!

Baritone Jarrett Ott has a compelling stage presence and sings with baritonal beauty that was never lost in this low lying tessitura. Mozart did not give him a memorable aria but "Non siate ritrosi" was given a fine delivery. He was memorable in his seduction of Dorabella.

The role of Dorabella was performed by the excellent young mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo who possesses an instrument of distinctive texture. We particularly enjoyed her performance of "Smanie implacabili" for its gorgeous vocalism and over-the-top dramatics.

The soprano role of Fiordiligi was performed by Amanda Majeski who readily conquered the wide skips of the showpiece aria "Come scoglio".  However we were distressed by a hard edge in her voice that sounded shrill. In duets and ensembles this feature created an unpleasant imbalance in the harmonies. Also, her ornamentation could have been crisper in its articulation.

Baritone Rod Gilfry is always a welcome presence, even when he portrays un unlikeable character like Don Alfonso. How can one like an older man who treats his young friends as puppets to play with!  We call him guilty of entrapment.

Soprano Tracy Dahl got a lot of laughs as Despina and we loved the particular timbre of her high soprano. It was particularly funny that her height brought her barely to the shoulders of the other artists. "Una donna a quindici anni" was given plenty of sass.

We always enjoy Mozart's duets and ensembles, especially "Soave sia il vento". The esteemed conductor Maestro Harry Bicket led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in a lively reading of the score, also giving the lyrical moments plenty of space.

We also noticed that moments of comedy were enhanced by leaving an extra beat of silence right before a humorous line. We don't know whether Mo. Bicket or Mr. Shlather was responsible for this but it worked well.

Now, about the production--we found it illogical, incomprehensible, and just plain ugly. It would take forever to relate every single instance of directorial waywardness but let us name a few. In Act I, all four of the young lovers were directed to move jerkily around the stage, roll on the floor, fight, and bounce off the walls. 

Despina has a magic wand to "heal" the poisoned "Albanians" (who in this case were silver-clad cowboys) and appears to use it to advance Don Alfonso's machinations. If "magic" is involved, it undercuts the theme of human foibles and succumbing to the pull of romantic variety. In this production the women can't really take responsibility for their lapses although they do feel shame.

The final scene was particularly confusing. Don Alfonso makes all four young lovers kneel as if preparing for an ISIS beheading; then he pours water or some other liquid on their heads. 

Characters were often onstage when they were not supposed to be. Don Alfonso had no justification for announcing the return of the fiancés just when everyone was partially deshabillé.

Terese Waddens' costume design furthered the confusion. The young men first appear in what seems to be tennis whites, as do the young women. The men then appear dressed as cowboys, so that when they next appear as the "Albanians" the only apparent difference is that their moustaches are gone. This makes it even more preposterous that the ladies don't recognize their fiancés.

Despina is costumed in an unflattering housedress and later in a spangled evening gown that harmonizes with those of her employers robbing her of her special role in the plot. No attempt was made to convince anyone that she was a notary or a doctor.

Dorabella at first looks very feminine with long hair. Toward the end she appears wearing a man's suit and very short hair. Why?

Paul Tate De Poo III's minimalistic set design was similarly ill advised. Flat architectural elements had square spaces cut out of them through which characters emerged in somersaults or fell through. The floor had a similar square hole through which characters emerged or descended. None of these movements served the plot. There were no props except for Despina's magic wand.

Perhaps Mr. De Poo and Ms. Wadden were just giving Mr. Schlather what he wanted, just like the singers. But the overall effect added nothing to our understanding of the characters. We speculate that Mr. Schlather wanted his audience to focus on the psychology of the characters and the emotional effects of their interaction. This is not the way to do it!

When we see a production that honors the intent of the librettist and composer and is given a specific context of time and place, we in the audience do the work of finding parallels with our own time and place, as well as differences. It gives us a feeling of participation and a sense of understanding of our place in history.

On the other hand, a barren production like this one was devoid of context. Such abstraction leaves us feeling alienated and disconnected, when we should be identifying with the characters and caring about their destinies.

So...Mozart 10: Schlather 2!  It was the production which was guilty of infidelity and the audience which was betrayed!

(c) meche kroop


 


Monday, August 12, 2019

THE STARS AT NIGHT ARE BIG AND BRIGHT

Sylvia d'Eramo, Cory McGee, Gina Perregrino, Alec Carlson, Elizabeth Sarian, and Santa Fe Apprentices

The stars this night were big and bright and dazzling, and we are not even in Texas! We are at the Santa Fe Opera and it is the night we have been waiting for, the night when the Santa Fe Apprentices get to take starring roles in eight scenes. Usually the eight scenes comprise seven winners and one dud, the dud  being related to a poor choice of scene. 

Last night there was no disappointment. Each scene was well cast and well directed and our fussy ears were gratified by some exemplary singing, some by singers we have reviewed and enjoyed before, and some by singers new to us whom we look forward to hearing in the future.

As far as the direction, we noticed that one of our favorite directors, Mary Birnbaum, is now directing a cast of singers we know and love in La Bohême, an event we are looking forward to and will be reviewing this week. We were happy to witness the directing artistry of David Paul (new to Santa Fe, we believe), Katherine M. Carter who is new to us, Paul Curran, and Kathleen Clawson, whose directing skills have always impressed us.

The scenes were well chosen to highlight the available talent as well as to delight the audience who, we are inclined to believe, love melody as much as we do. Certain operas thrill us no matter how many times we have seen them. Their melodies wind themselves around our brain in loving embrace.

Take, for example, the opening scene of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. Mr. Paul filled this prenuptial scene with warmth and joy, showing us a couple who can tease and bicker harmlessly as a prelude to a satisfying life together. We were reminded of the newly wed couple we saw in the Plaza yesterday and how touching is the promise of new beginnings. Bass Brent Michael Smith has the role of Figaro down pat and his Susanna, portrayed by soprano Cheyanne Coss, made a worthy counterpart, both vocally and dramatically. Their onstage chemistry was a delight to behold. 

Antonin Dvorák's Rusalka is best known for the title character's "Song to the Moon", a difficult aria which soprano Regina Ceragioli sang expressively. The Ježibaba of mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar was outstanding and we foresee a great future for her, given her textured instrument and stage presence. Significantly adding to the scene were Will Elphingstone's watery lighting and Hannah Schatzle's gorgeous costumes: a blue-green gown with a train trailing the width of the stage, used by Ms. Carter's direction to indicate the water from which this water nymph must free herself; and Ježibaba's costume with a huge cape which Ms. Farrar swirled around with malicious glee.

Everyone loves Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia and the Act II quintet is so brilliantly written that we never tire of hearing it. Along with Ms. Carter's astute direction, we had some excellent costuming by Maria Laura Sandoval and Harley Haberman's gorgeous wig for mezzo-soprano Katherine Beck who made a fine Rosina. Bass-baritone Alan Higgs, costumed in an elegant red robe, nearly stole the scene with some impressive acting and singing as Dr. Bartolo.
Baritone Jarrett Logan Porter made a splendid Figaro with tenor Angel Romero as the determined Almaviva and bass-baritone Seungyun Kim as the silly Don Basilio whom the others cannot seem to get rid of. "Buona sera mio signore" has been dancing around our brain all night!

In the Act I duet from Donizetti's La favorita, we were wowed by the vocal gifts of mezzo-soprano Katherine De Young in the title role and of tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro as her Fernando who, like Don Basilio just will not leave. Both artists impressed us with the size and color of their instruments and the artistry with which they employed them. Mr. Ciaramitaro sang with the most perfect Italian and we understood every single word. 

We confess to being dismayed by the huge disparity in their heights, making their embrace an awkward affair. But that is a minor quibble. The maid Inès had but few lines but we want to hear more of mezzo-soprano Ruby Dibble who sounded excellent. Naomi Beetlestone Detre's costumes were appropriate to the early 19th c.

On a simple set of boxes of graduated heights, mezzo-soprano Leia Lensing's Orfeo tried to lead a reluctant Euridice out of the underworld in Gluck's most famous opera. Who doesn't love "Che faro senza Euridice", known to every beginning vocal student! How wonderful to hear it sung by the excellent Ms. Lensing who gave each return of the verse a different set of ornamentation. It was all very tasteful in true Classical style, doing away with some of the excesses of the Baroque Era. Grace Kahl was convincing as the newly deceased Euridice who does not want to leave the peace of the Underworld. Becca Updyke's costumes were simple and right on the mark.

Of Wagner's entire Ring Cycle, our very favorite scene is the opening one of Die Walküre in which the woeful and weary warrior takes refuge in a hut in which he discovers a loveless woman who just so happens to be his beloved and long lost sister. Listening to Wagner's glorious music and poetic description of the discovery of a soulmate is unequalled in our book. 

As Sieglinde we were thrilled to hear the splendid soprano Mary-Hollis Hundley who seemed to have been made to sing Wagner. At this stage in her development, this is the perfect role for her; with her sizable instrument, we predict lots of heavier Wagnerian roles in her future. As her hapless brother/lover we were impressed by tenor Robert Stanley who not only sang with power and sensitivity but grew in stature and color as he discovered his identity. The sword Nothung was buried in an onstage tree, a sword which could only be extracted by himself. He blossomed as Sieglinde gave him the name of Siegmund. We felt a blossoming in our very own heart!

The final two scenes were exquisitely directed by Mr. Curran. Our only tiny quibble of the evening was that we wished the hilarious scene from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi had ended the evening so that the audience might have left in a great mood. The direction of this scene was so astute as to highlight Rinuccio's aria about the glories of Firenze; in this role we thrilled to the voice and stage presence of the very young tenor Joseph Tancredi about whom we have often written when he was an undergraduate at Manhattan School of Music. 

Mr. Curran had choreographed the unappealing members of the squabbling Busoni family to move in unison, all disparaging Rinuccio's attempt to bring his sweetheart's father Gianni Schicchi onboard to solve the inheritance dilemma. The more they unanimously scorned him and the unaristocratic Schicchi family, the more he stood out and we heard more in that aria than ever before.

As his sweetheart Lauretta, the versatile Ms. Coss gave a sweet rendition of "O mio babbino caro" with a marvelous messa di voce. In a clever directorial twist, she was complicit with the plot. Baritone Will Hughes was excellent in the title role, completely convincing as the wily manipulator. Ms. Lensing made a nicely nasty Zia; bass William Meinert made a very funny Dr. Spinelloccio, another character who just won't leave. There was a very funny bit with a bedpan. The remainder of the family comprised Elliot Paige, Andrew Moore, Ian Burns, Ms. Dibble, and Grace Kahl.

The evening ended with the final scene from Bizet's Carmen in which mezzo-soprano Gina Perregrino filled out the role as successfully as she filled out the shocking pink ruffled flamenco gown with which she was costumed by John Polles. Mr. Curran's direction emphasized the violence of the relationship which was almost too convincing. Ms. Perregrino's superb singing was matched by excellent stage presence and chemistry with her discarded and vengeful lover Don Jose, performed with notable artistry by tenor Alec Carlson. Both of them sang with fine French diction.

For some reason, the action of the characters did not always match up with the dialogue. When Carmen most forcefully demands to be let go, she should be blocked or restrained by Don Jose.

Baritone Cory McGee portrayed Escamillo; soprano Sylvia D'Eramo sang the role of Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Sarian joined in as Mercedes. Strangely, they were costumed as mid-20th c. sorority girls and Carmen's gown was open in the front revealing what looked like a black leotard. Only Escamillo seemed appropriately costumed.

It was an evening that could not be duplicated for sheer entertainment value. Those new to opera were offered the most tempting delicacies to tease their palate whereas experienced opera goers were given fresh looks at old standards and the opportunity to hear the stars of tomorrow.

There will be a new and different set of scenes next Sunday and if you are anywhere near Santa Fe we urge you to come on by, although we admit that this was a tough act to follow!

(c) meche kroop





Sunday, August 11, 2019

FOR THE BIRDS

Jessica E. Jones and Tamara Mumford in The Thirteenth Child
(photo by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera)


In terms of audience appreciation, Mother Nature won out over the opera onstage last night at the Santa Fe Opera. Cannon rounds of thunder and jagged bolts of lightning garnered audience applause and cheers that outstripped what we thought was an overly generous show of applause at the end of the world premiere of The Thirteenth Child. Indeed the opera had to be suspended for some time until the show of sound and light abated.

Everything we loved about the prior night’s production (see review below) was missing from this disappointing evening. In fact we enjoyed reading Cori Ellison’s essay in the program book more than the opera itself.  The creators of the opera are highly esteemed but failed, in our opinion, to provide an evening of coherent entertainment. 

Librettists Becky and David Starobin created an interpretation of a Brothers Grimm fairytale that did more telling than showing. Important scenes were omitted with the intervening action described later by one or another of the characters. The dialogue was awkward and unpoetic, giving the lie to the claims made in the program book. Characters were not fully developed nor did they inspire identification. It was difficult to care about the outcome.

Poul Ruders' music was occasionally interesting in its orchestration but the vocal lines were unmelodic. Real operas have melody even in the recitativi. Here we had dialogue that wasn't even as melodic as sprechstimme.

The opera The Thirteenth Child is an adaptation of a genre of fairytales dealing with personal sacrifice in order to preserve the family. In his book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim posits that fairy tales help children solve existential problems such as oedipal conflict, sibling rivalry, and separation anxiety.  Ms. Ellison’s essay described several volumes that categorize fairy tale themes that are universal, having iterations in many different cultures worldwide.

Personally, we love fairy tale operas. We have had no problem caring for Cinderella and identifying with her sibling rivalry;  the melodies of Massenet and Rossini just amplify the pleasure. Similarly, we care easily for the siblings of Hansel and Gretel as they deal with parental neglect.;  Humperdinck’s music serves to augment and legitimize our caring.

This fairytale, given better treatment, might have affected us in the same way. The story concerns a King (David Leigh) who is turned against his twelve sons by Drokan (Bradley Garvin) , the evil Regent of a neighboring kingdom who lusts after the King’s wife (Tamara Mumford) and crown. Fortunately his pregnant wife delivers a female child named Lyra (Jessica E. Jones). The boys have been banished but, in this opera, we don’t find out until 18 years have passed.

On the mother’s deathbed she tells Lyra about her twelve older brothers and Lyra goes off to find them. They are living in a forest and surviving by hunting.  The family reunion is a joyous one until Lyra innocently cuts the red lilies that represent their souls and the young men are transformed into ravens.  The dead Queen reappears and tells Lyra that only 7 years of silence will restore her brothers.

Prince Frederic of the neighboring kingdom, of which the evil Drokan is Regent, loves the mute Princess and plans to marry her. Drokan plots to destroy them and seize the crown. The 12 ravens rescue Lyra and the spell is broken.  All are returned to human form but the youngest brother Benjamin (Bille Bruley) has been fatally injured in the battle. He has sacrificed his life to restore the family. With all those unfamiliar Medieval names, we wondered about the name “Benjamin”.  Like much else, it just didn’t fit.

The dramatic performances were barely adequate, except for the winning portrayal of the youngest brother by Bille Bruley. We cannot comment on the singing due to the awkward libretto and unmusical vocal lines. The chorus of Santa Fe Apprentices sounded fine, as we have come to expect, under Susanne Sheston’s able direction.

Maestro Paul Daniel elicited fine playing from the orchestra and we heard some interesting sounds coming from the percussion section. Was that a celeste we heard?

The set design by Alexander Dodge comprised a post-modern assemblage of geometric forms with staircases leading nowhere. Strangely, there was a Thonet bentwood chair as the sole piece of furniture. Aaron Rhyne’s projections of flying birds brought the Hitchcock film to mind. Projections of greenery onto the set did not a forest make. York Kennedy’s lighting had to compete with Mother Nature’s. Rita Ryack’s costume design was apt, with the royalty dressed, well, royally, and the brothers dressed in garb suitable for woodland hunting. The chorus in the last act were costumed as if in Dialogue of the Carmelites.

The one entertaining moment of the evening occurred when the brothers arrived back to their (invisible) hut demanding types of meat, many of which would be known only to 21st century gourmets.

We don’t know what to say about Darko Tresnjak’s direction, given the libretto. We suppose he did his best to make the story clear. Still, we would have wanted to see more chemistry between the characters. 

We believe an opportunity was lost to provide some fairytale magic. The production seemed inert and we were often bored. The tender scene between mother and daughter begged for a lyrical duet. There was none. Must we abandon all hope for 21st c. opera? We keep ourself hoping based upon the incredible success of last year’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs right here at Santa Fe Opera.

© meche kroop

t

THE PEARL IN THE OYSTER

Corinne Winters  and Ilker Arcayürek in Les Pêcheurs de Perles
(photo by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera)


Last night was our first night at the Santa Fe Opera and we have nothing but wonderful things to say about their production of Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles. Is this the same production we saw seven years ago? We recall enjoying it but last night's iteration brought the work into sharper focus, both dramatically and musically. This is an opera that is not frequently heard but almost every opera lover is familiar with the famous Nadir-Zurga duet "Oui, c'est elle, c'est la déesse" in which both men make vows going against the nature of love. Almost every competition and recital in New York has this duet on the program.
But hearing the entire opera is a special treat and offers several more arias and duets that merit ones attention. If you, dear reader, have never listened to the opera in toto, we recommend it highly. Even better, come to Santa Fe for one of the two final performances on 8/16 and 8/23.
Much of the credit for this success can be attributed to the excellent casting. In the role of the Brahmin Priestess Leíla, we heard one of our favorite sopranos enjoyed so often at New York Festival of Song--Corinne Winters. Opera, lieder, and cabaret are three very different categories and it is astonishing to hear someone gifted in all three. This petite young woman has a voice that is anything but petite--the timbre and resonance are appealing and the vocal colors with which she imbued the various scenes showed the measure of her artistry. Nor could one fault her superb acting.
As the Hunter Nadir who simply cannot forget her, we heard tenor Ilker Arcayürek, previously unknown to us, but making a fine impression with his pleasing instrument, fine phrasing, and convincing acting.
Equally impressive in the role of Head Honcho Zurga we heard baritone Anthony Clark Evans who sang with beautiful phrasing and heartfelt emotion. He too was successful at coloring his voice in ways that enhanced our understanding of his emotional journey. 
As happy as we were that Leíla and Nadir escaped their death sentence and went off to live happily ever after, we were equally sad for Zurga who overcame his rage at Leíla for preferring Nadir and his pain and anger at Nadir's betrayal. His vengeful anger, his forgiveness, the nobility he expressed in self-sacrifice--all were perfectly portrayed.
Bass Robert Pomakov was scarily convincing as the High Priest Nourabad. His rumbling bass and aggressive postures were chilling.
The chorus of Santa Fe Apprentice Singers performed brilliantly as usual and for this we acknowledge Susanne Sheston, whose fine work has impressed us from one year to the next
Director Shawna Lucey showed us aspects of the story that we had previously overlooked. Although the love triangle and the issues of revenge and forgiveness are universal. Ms. Lucey went a long way toward giving us the  specific context within which the story develops. The trend of setting libretti in exotic locales was common in the 19th c.--a trend that we love--and librettists Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré selected the island formerly known as Ceylon with the action taking place in a community of pearl divers.
The risk of this occupation was made clear with drowned bodies being washed ashore; the devotion in the ensuing funereal Hindu ritual was also made clear. And so we have a greater understanding of the vital role of the visiting priestess Leíla and the importance the community placed on her chastity whilst she sang and prayed all night for their safety.
The issues of love versus duty, betrayal and revenge, all can be generalized from the specific; similarly the domination of a vengeful leader whipping his followers into a frenzy of murderous rage can also be generalized and seems particularly relevant to our time. It is this work the listener performs in finding analogies with the present that we find so woefully missing in "updated" productions.
On the podium we had Maestro Timothy Myers who elicited some fine playing from the orchestra. Bizet's music is inventive of melody, lush of harmony, and colorful of orchestration. Mo. Myers brought out every recurrence of every theme. We heard an outstanding oboe solo and a beautiful chorale of muted brass. We also enjoyed the contributions of the harp. We heard what sounded like a Venetian barcarolle that certainly evoked the seaside nature of the locale.
Jean-Marc Puissant's set was serviceable but not remarkable. The action was surrounded by a gilded frame, reminding us that this is an escapist fantasy. But why did some action take place in front of the frame? And what was meant by the presence of a very European desk and chair that seemed to serve no purpose. In the final act, the gilt frame was askew and the stage was filled with broken furniture and a huge plaster sculpture that we finally figured out was the hand of a Buddha statue. Perhaps all this was meant to suggest the destruction wrought by angry gods over Leíla's betrayal of her vow of chastity.
Lighting by Rick Fisher was augmented by Mother Nature who seemed to provide flashes of lightning at all the right times, as is so often the case at Santa Fe Opera. (We recall a terrific storm one night in the final act of Rigoletto which outdid Verdi's orchestral storm.)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes for the chorus and principals were apt but Leíla's second costume was breathtaking. She looked like a mermaid sitting on a rock, or perhaps like the Lorelei luring men to their destruction.  Who could resist?
The opera premiered in 1863 at the Théâtre-Lyrique de Paris. Neither comic nor tragic, it was considered insufficiently grand for the Opéra but too serious for the Opéra-Comique. It languished until the mid 20th c. and we are glad that it has entered the repertoire.
Do see it!
(c) meche kroop



Tuesday, August 6, 2019

OPERA WITH A TWIST

Soprano Amanda Zory onstage at National Opera Center

Accustomed as we are to reviewing emerging talent, we spend a lot of time enjoying bel canto and the lighter repertory to which the flexibility of young voices lends itself so well. We rarely get to hear large voices so it is a special treat for us to hear Verdi and Verismo opera arias and duets.

Thanks to Opera With a Twist we had a satisfying exposure to some works that we love. The "twist" was a surprise--some outstanding unamplified singing of cabaret and jazz which we will get to later.

There were several highlights to the operatic portion of the evening. The Executive Producer of Opera With a Twist is Amanda Zory, one of those big beautiful girls with big beautiful voices. As much as we love duets, we would have preferred to have heard her solo, since we didn't find her male stage partners to be as interesting. 

What we liked about Ms. Zory, other than her richly textured instrument, was her total commitment to whatever role she sang. As the seduced and abandoned Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, she was totally convincing in her revenge seeking aria ("O Signore vi mando"), exposing Lola's transgressions to Lola's husband Alfio, a moment which sets the tragedy in motion. 

As Alfio, we heard promising baritone Joseph Gansert who sang with power and fullness of tone. To take his performance to the next level, he would do well to take some acting lessons. He needs to learn how to react to what his scene partner is revealing. 

He would also do well to learn to color his words to suit the material. This was particularly clear in "Eri Tu" from Un Ballo in Maschera, an aria in which Renato must express a wide palette of emotions toward the wife he suspects of infidelity. He sounded far more believable singing Alfio's joyous aria "Il Cavallo Scalpita" from Cavalleria Rusticana, an aria not requiring as much variety.

Ms. Zory's other scene partner, seasoned tenor Salvatore Motisi, certainly knows how to act and sang with a lot of "garlic", but with such volume that one could smell the garlic all the way to Seventh Avenue. We don't know why an experienced singer did not know how to scale his voice to the size of the hall. There was a deafening level of shouting. This was unfortunate because Ms. Zory's acting and singing were impressive in her aria of confrontation with Turridu "Ah lo vedi"

Another performance we enjoyed in the operatic part of the evening was that of mezzo-soprano Vivien Shotwell whose choice of "O Don Fatale" from Verdi's Don Carlo was a good one, exploiting the rich texture of her voice.

The aforementioned cabaret/jazz performance highlighted the gifts of vocalist Leah Reis-Dennis. Our favorite of the set was "Bewitched" by Rodgers and Hart. To hear it performed without affectation and just enough gesture delighted us. There are probably lots of songs we would enjoy outside the realm of opera if we could hear this lovely lady sing them. She also performed Wardell Gray's "Twisted" and Duke Ellington's "Hit Me with a Hot Note". Christopher Wilson, the excellent Music Director/Pianist easily made the transition from op to pop and gave her the instrumental support that was required. 

Should we consider Sondheim's Follies an opera? Don't mind if we do! "Too Many Mornings" was given a nice performance by Ms. Zory and baritone Brian Michael Henry. We don't know this show but felt tempted by this duet to explore further.

Soprano Heather Petruzelli and tenor Byron Singleton performed a not terribly convincing "Ah, soave fanculla" from Puccini's La Bohême. Once again, the tenor shouted. We longed for a floated high note! Soprano Karen Luna did not capture our ear with a lackluster performance of "Se come voi piccina" from Puccini's Le Villi, an opera/ballet which we have never seen.

Perhaps the low point of the evening was the trashing of the "Flower Duet" from Leo Delibes' Lakme, a work which we usually find transporting. Ms. Luna and Ms. Petruzelli were upstaged by a distracting "modern dancer" named Kristen Mangione who reminded us of the satirical cartoons of dancers by Jules Feiffer in the late lamented Village Voice. The duet is about beauty of nature and flowers so why the harsh angular movements and pained facial expression? Why the hideous costume in two shades of maroon with bra straps showing? It was so appalling that we did not photograph it. Just in case you don't remember Jules Feiffer you can see these cartoons by googling "Jules Feiffer dancers'.

As per our custom, photographs of the other artists can be seen on our Facebook page Voce di Meche. 

If you are a fan of large voices you will want to attend a subsequent performance on Friday August 9th at 7:00 PM at the National Opera Center. Even when your picky reviewer was disappointed, the rest of the audience seemed to be having a wonderful time.

(c) meche kroop


Monday, August 5, 2019

AH, YOUTH!

Isabel Leonard, Maestro Sir Antonio Pappano, and the National Youth Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
(photo by Chris Lee for Carnegie Hall)

Were it not for our long term admiration for mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, we might never have gotten acquainted with the National Youth Orchestra, an astonishing collection of musical prodigies. We rarely have time to review orchestral music but when we saw that Ms. Leonard was performing Hector Berlioz' song cycle Les nuits d'été, we knew right away that we could not miss it.

As far as song cycles go, it is one of the first to be presented with orchestra, although Berlioz first scored it for voice and piano in 1841. By 1856 he had completed the orchestration of all six songs and went on record as having preferred the orchestral version. Indeed he brought his considerable skills as an orchestrator to bear upon this cycle which manages to nevertheless sound delicate.

His work seems to have inspired other composers (Mahler and Strauss to name a couple) to tackle the instrumental song cycle. His texts were chosen from the works of Théophile Gautier and revolve around the theme of love lost and love found. Of course!  Both composer and poet were French! They do not tell a sequential story and thus the cycle distinguishes itself from those cycles by Schubert for voice and piano

If other artists could have done more justice to this work than Ms. Leonard, we cannot think of them. Her voice soared to the upper reaches of Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium, especially at the passionate moments at the end of each verse of "Le spectre de la rose", a work we know primarily through the ballet. Even more important than the quality of Ms. Leonard's instrument, we value the expressiveness that drew us into the emotional content of the work.

"Villanelle" is a lively expression of young love and the appreciation of nature. "Le spectre de la rose" was given a leisurely sensual performance, enhanced by the string section and a yearning melody in the flute. "Sur les lagunes" is a mournful dirge, the heartbreak of which was evinced by Ms. Leonard's vocal coloration, picked up by the muted brass. The longing of "Absence" was brought to musical life by Ms. Leonard's tonal quality producing overtones that seemed to hang in the air. The grieving "Au cimitière" was followed by the sunny "L'île inconnue" that was almost ecstatic and brought the cycle to a sanguine close. It was quite the performance!

We were so involved with Ms. Leonard's interpretation that we paid scant attention to the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, so skillfully conducted by Maestro Sir Antonio Pappano. Fortunately the second half of the program put them in the spotlight with a stirring performance of Richard Strauss' 1915 Eine Alpensinfonie, op.64. This masterwork falls into the category of a symphonic tone poem, a programmatic work which Strauss wrote to give a musical voice to his very own youthful mountain climbing experience.


We have never hiked in the Alps but we have skied through meadows and wound up on the wrong side of the mountain in some farmer's pasture; and so we were challenged to visualize through Strauss' colorful writing what the Alps might be like in the Spring. 

The work begins with a peaceful but spooky description of night with all its mysteries, awe, and murkiness. Sunrise happens with a clash of symbols. Let it be noted that the stage was filled with what appeared to be over a hundred young musicians uniformly clad in black tops and red pants, making quite a visual impression that was matched by their stunning performance. There were no less than five musicians in the percussion section. There was what seemed to be a wind machine and a thunder device that created a storm surpassing even that in Verdi's Otello and the one in his Rigoletto!

But that storm was preceded by depictions of all kinds of events and landscapes--forest, waterfall, meadow, thicket,and glacier, all leading to the climax of achieving the summit. Strauss needed a humongous orchestra to tell this story the way he wanted it told. That may be why we have waited so long to hear the work performed live.
The work ended as night approached and we enjoyed the piping of the piccolo followed by a slow decrescendo to match the climbers slow descent to the bottom.

All we can say about the superb National Youth Orchestra is that we forgot they were youngsters; they can be held to the same high standards as any orchestra-- but perhaps they play with more zest. We always stay up Friday night to hear the 6AM broadcast of From the Top; we have concluded that musical talent knows no age!

(c) meche kroop