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, September 30, 2019


Maestro Israel Gursky and cast of Verismo Trilogy presented by Teatro Grattacielo

If you wanted a glitzy Saturday night, you were probably enjoying Verdi's Macbeth at The Metropolitan Opera; but if you are a hard core opera fanatic you were celebrating Teatro Grattacielo's 25th Anniversary Concert at The Gerald Lynch Theater. Indeed most of the luminaries of Planet Opera were in attendance. Lucky us! We were treated to some rarely heard masterpieces and some stellar singing that left us walking on air all the way home.

We are well aware of several operas that "came in second", replaced by other operas that superseded them in the operatic canon. We are always grateful to companies like On Site Opera, Dell'Arte Opera, and Juilliard Opera for bringing them to our attention. Sometimes it is difficult to figure out why we can't have two Barber's, two Marriage of Figaro's, two Falstaff's.

Last night we heard Act I of Ruggiero Leoncavallo's La Bohême which premiered in 1897 at La Fenice. Puccini's opera, with libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, had premiered in Turin in 1896. Shortly thereafter, Leoncavallo tried his pen, utilizing the same source material by Henri Murger, and writing his own libretto.  And therein lies the failure, in our opinion.

Not having read Murger's episodic stories, we cannot say which version hews more closely to the source material but Leoncavallo's libretto is not very interesting. Perhaps it was an effort to emphasize the difference with Puccini's iteration, but Leoncavallo assigned the tenor role to Marcello and the baritone role to Rodolfo.

However, we found the music to be worthwhile, offering memorable arias for all the principals. Soprano Susanne Burgess played Mimi who, in this case, is not the central character and is already romantically involved with Rodolfo, here portrayed by the excellent baritone Suchan Kim, in his customary fine voice. Nonetheless, she is given an applause-worthy aria that suited her generous soprano perfectly. This was not one of Puccini's shy "piccole donne"

Mezzo-soprano Emily Hughes had the role of Musette who, in this version, is not the bold extravagant character created in Puccini's version; she came across as shyly flirtatious when she meets Marcello, sung by tenoriffic Alessio Borraggine who sang his gorgeous aria with ease and substance. 

The rest of the "Bohemians" comprised bass-baritone Stefanos Koroneos (also Artistic Administrator and Manager of Teatro Grattacielo) in the expanded role of Shaunard and baritone Robert Balonek (about whom more later) as Colline.. A role not present in the Puccini version is that of Schaunard's girlfriend Eufemia, finely sung by mezzo-soprano Anna Tonna.

Character tenor Ronald Naldi brought the role of landlord Gaudenzio to vivid life and tenor Jordan Weatherstone Pitts impressed us with the sweetest sound of the evening which belonged strangely to a character known as Un Becero, which translates as "a boorish or uncouth person". Now why that role would 
be given to such a silky voice we know not!

Bass Stefano de Peppo appeared in the small role of Barbemuche. Maestro Gursky conducted the outstanding orchestra with panache. We mostly remark upon the wind sections but in the Leoncavallo we were most impressed by the string sections, especially the contributions of the harp.
The second part of the evening was devoted to arias from the 1890 opera Loreley by Alfredo Catalani, who is better known for his opera La Wally. We have heard so many songs about the Lorelei who lures sailors to their death, but we didn't know the origin of the myth until the intensely dramatic music moved us to read about it.

Walter is betrothed to Anna, the daughter of the Landgrave, but falls for Loreley, whom he seduces and abandons. Loreley gets her revenge with the help of supernatural characters. She must pledge to love Alberich (!), Lord of the Rhine and throw herself into the river, but gains the power to seduce men. Anna dies at the wedding and Walter dies pursuing Loreley.

The arias we heard were so arresting that we wanted to see the entire opera. It could be staged in a manner similar to Rusalka, with which it has some similarities. Walter's Act III aria (a kind of mad scene) was given a powerful reading by tenor Jeremy Brauner whose intensity was riveting. Soprano Ashley Bell sang Anna's aria of disappointment, making us feel sorry for the abandoned bride.

Soprano Kirsten Chambers lent her sizable instrument to the highly dramatic aria before Loreley achieve her transformation by throwing herself into the Rhine. Not only were we mesmerized by her performance but noted the major contribution of the chorus of spirits--comprising Teatro Grattacielo's Young Artists, directed by Jason Tramm--accompanied by that gorgeous harp.

The third part of the evening presented Ottorino Respighi's 1921 opera La Bella Dormente del Bosco, which you will recognize as the fairytale ballet Sleeping Beauty. This work, the libretto of which was written by Gian Bistolfi, started life as a piece written for marionettes, with operatic voices behind the scenes. It was revised in 1934 as an opera. What struck us was the orchestral colors elicited by Maestro Gursky; Respighi painted pictures of a dark forest and bird songs, as well as a triumphant brass awakening and restoration.

Several other things grabbed our attention: Ms. Tonna's insouciant Duchess swanning offstage in a fit of jealousy, Thomas Massey's affecting princely tenor, Ms. Burgess' awakening Princess, and above all Joanna Mongiardo's fabulous coloratura fireworks as the Blue Fairy. The love duet between Ms. Burgess and Mr. Massey was sensational and worthy of future hearings.

Since there were no titles, Il Boscaiuolo (the Woodcutter) had the job of making the action clear. Mr. Balonek took the role and served as narrator, telling us the story in perfectly clear Italian. Good diction adds so much to a singer's assets; he also has a splendid instrument along with all the other assets but it was the fine Italian that impressed us the most.

Queen and King were portrayed by soprano Sarah Johnson and Mr. Kim. Mr. Koroneos had the role of Mr. Dollar, whose function we didn't quite grasp. The tale works so beautifully as a ballet and we could definitely see it done by the Salzburg Marionettes with real voices instead of the recorded music that they generally employ.

There was a moving tribute to Ms. Duane Printz who has given us 25 years of Verismo Opera. We hope there will be 25 more! Bringing neglected works to the forefront is such a worthwhile mission, as is bringing emerging talent to the eyes and ears of the operatic community.

© meche kroop

; here she is rather flirtatious

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