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.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

THE DEBUTANTE

The cast of Victor Herbert's The Debutante


Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live! began their 6th season at Christ and St. Stephen's Church, having presented 15 glorious operas since their inception. Artistic Director Alyce Mott has found a winning way of presenting the legendary operettas of Victor Herbert; without altering a note of the music or a word of the lyrics, Ms. Mott manages to create a new libretto that tells each story in a cohesive and entertaining fashion, even when the original book failed or has become less than compelling with the passage of time.

Last night we attended the closing night of Herbert's 1914 The Debutante, a work just as wacky and wonderful as the others we've seen. The silly but entertaining plot is very much of its time with deception, jealousy, romantic rivalry and mistaken identity all playing their part.

The company is consistently wonderful. Not all 35 members appear in every performance but, as a regular attendee, we love seeing the same faces and hearing the same voices in one production after another. And what voices! Herbert's music is eminently singable with melodies pouring out treble over bass, ready to be sung and played to the delight of the audience.

As the headstrong and clever heroine Elaine, we heard the lovely songbird Claire Leyden--not just a splendid soprano but a marvel of convincing acting. Elaine has been promised at birth to Philip (the tenoriffic Drew Bolander) who was her childhood sweetheart; sadly he is no longer interested in marrying her, having become infatuated with the opera singer Irma, performed by the larger than life Alexa Devlin.

Philip is the son of the widowed American industrialist Godfrey Frazer (the excellent John Nelson) who has also adopted the young Elaine. He too is infatuated with Irma who lives in Paris. 

Trying every ruse known to operetta fans, Ezra Bunker tries to escape his bossy suffragette wife Zenobia to get to the same salon in Paris to premiere his "music of the future". He is portrayed by the reliably funny David Seatter, with the equally hilarious Vira Slywotzky as his wife. In a satiric moment, his "new music" sounds like some of the music being composed today, the kind we deplore. This marks Herbert as some kind of prescient visionary!

Also contending for Elaine's affection is the malaprop-spouting Marquis de Frontenac (played with high comedy by baritone Nathan Hull) who helps Elaine with her plot, and the handsome British Navy Lieutenant Larry Sheridan, soulfully sung and played by Christopher Robin Sapp.

The chorus comprised four naval officers, played by Jonathan Hare, Anthony Maida, Keith Broughton, and Shane Brown. On the female side we had Hannah Holmes, Stephanie Bacastow, Charlotte Detrick, and JoAnna Geffert. 

The action begins in Plymouth, England and ends in Paris at an artistic salon in which Scott Ballantyne portrays the famous cellist Testlavitz--and actually plays the cello quite beautifully.

Music Director Michael Thomas conducted effectively and William Hicks did his usual fine job playing a piano reduction of Herbert's score. And what a score it is! If we tried to tell you about all of the songs, we might be going on for several more pages but it is extremely difficult to select the best.

Mr. Sapp led the ensemble in "Love Is a Battle" in which we could truly appreciate Robert B. Smith's clever lyrics. He was also wonderful in "Peggy's a Creature of Moods" in which he gives an accurate description of a cyclothymic personality.

 "Married Life" gave Ms. Slywotzky and Mr. Seatter a chance to express very different views of their marriage. Ms. Leyden and Mr. Bolander had a charming duet in "The Golden Age", describing their happy childhood together.

Ms. Devlin played her role as a diva to the hilt in "When I Played Carmen". Ms Slywotzky got a side-splitting dancing lesson from Mr. Nelson who was disguised as a Spanish dancer.

What a sextet we heard in "The Face Behind the Mask"! The very operatic "Fate", sung by Ms. Leyden, Mr. Bolander, and Mr. Sapp led to a reprise of the same.

There were some unforgettable lines, especially when Mr. Seatter did a send up of opera, insisting upon scent as well as color in the vocal lines. And Irma, pursued by both father and son, uttered the following--"What am I, a family heirloom?" Priceless!

Emily Cornelius worked her customary magic as Choreographer. No one was credited as Costume Designer but there was no need. Women wore long gowns and the men wore naval uniforms or dinner jackets. Only Mr. Nelson was wildly dressed as some version of Escamillo.

Unfortunately, by the time you read this, it will be too late to see it. We have tried to give you as complete a description as possible. However, let us give you fair warning about the upcoming Madeleine which will be presented on March 3rd and 4th. We urge you to mark it on your calendar now, and to secure tickets as early as possible. As VHRPL! gains traction, tickets are getting ever harder to come by. This run was a sellout. Don't be among the disappointed!

© meche kroop

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

20th CENTURY POLITICAL OPERA

Michael Barrett, Steven Blier, Rebecca Jo Loeb, Sari Gruber, Alex Mansoori, and John Brancy

Last night at Merkin Hall, Steven Blier's New York Festival of Song scored another hit with songs excerpted from two political operas of the early 20th c.; the songs were joined together by narration from Mr. Blier and his co-collaborative pianist Michael Barrett. We are not sure whether we would have wanted to see either opera in full production but we valued the opportunity to have an exposure to two rarities that we may never hear of again.

Of the two works, we preferred the 1933 singspiel Der Silbersee, the run of which was truncated by the rising forces of Nazism, causing the composer Kurt Weill to flee Germany. Of course we can see parallels with our own situation here in 21st c. USA; nonetheless, this odd work seemed strangely dated.

The translation of Georg Kaiser's pungent lyrics was performed by Jonathan Eaton who did a fine job of creating punchy lines that scanned well and rhymed; still, we think it would have come across with greater power in the original German. The story is an odd one in which a starving man steals a pineapple and gets shot by a policeman who then feels guilty. With money won by lottery, the policeman buys a castle in which he cares for the thief. When the thief learns who his caretaker is he must lock himself in the basement lest he take revenge for his wounding.

Meanwhile, the policeman hides away in the tower out of fear for his life. It is only when they get thrown out of the castle by the devious "rich bitch" Frau Luben that they achieve forgiveness and reconciliation. With the company of Frau Luben's poor relation Fennimore, the pair make their way back to Silbersee where they experience hope and salvation. This story wended its way from realismo to some version of German magic realism.

In spite of the peculiar nature of the story, we heard some performances that knocked our hosen off. Tenor Alex Mansoori and baritone John Brancy (both well known to us for some time and worthy of our consistent admiration) delivered "Gravediggers' Duet" in close harmony with an abrasive edge.

The smashing soprano Sari Gruber (well remembered from long ago Marilyn Horne recitals) and adorable mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb (whom we last heard singing in Czech in a rarely heard Martinu opera) performed the cute "Shopgirls' Duet". We recognized strains that came right from Brahms' Liebeslieder Walzer and could barely believe our ears.

In tango rhythm, Mr. Masoori delivered the ironic "Lottery Agent's Song" which was the most typically Weill-like number in the work, along with "Caesar's Death", sung by Ms. Loeb--a number that surely riled the Brown Shirts.

"You Take the Highway", sung by Ms. Loeb and Mr. Mansoori, had a haunting melody, ending with some hurdy-gurdy music in the dual pianos. 

Ms. Gruber's acting as the unpleasant Frau Luber was sensational, giving us a few good laughs as she and Baron Laur exemplified greed in "A Rich Man's Land", contrasting with the poverty of the other characters.

Mr. Blitzstein's 1941 No For an Answer seemed particularly dated and the need for a librettist seemed acute. The composer did seem to try to write short punchy phrases but reading them on the page seemed to add to the impression that a good librettist could have done a better job.

But no singers could have done a better job than the foursome and much of Blitzstein's music is appealing. Our hands down favorite was John Brancy's delivery of "Purest Kind of Guy", a tribute to a character who was gunned down; this is a great stand alone piece and one we hope Mr. Brancy will add to his repertoire.

The very funny Mr. Mansoori was hilarious with "Penny Candy", a song in which the character describes how he works on a wealthy woman's sympathy to extract some charity and then humiliates her by revealing his ruse. This was performed with a heavy accent which added to the fun.

Mr. Brancy had a beautiful love duet with Ms. Loeb entitled "Francie" in which Ms. Loeb prattles on and Mr. Brancy, portraying her husband Joe, recently released from prison, sings nothing but her name Francie over and over again.

It was an altogether interesting evening, although we would not be in a rush to hear either work in toto. But we will always be eager to hear more of those four splendid singers. Mr. Brancy has a real gift for sincerity and getting to the heart of a song whilst the other three have extraordinary comedic gifts. And today, we need all the humor we can get!

© meche kroop

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

LOVE/DEATH: RICHARD WAGNER’S TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, ACT 2

Maestro Gianandrea Noseda, National Symphony Orchestra, and cast of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
(photo © Kevin Yatarola, courtesy of Lincoln Center)

Guest review by Ellen Godfrey:

On Sunday afternoon, at David Geffen Hall, the White Light Festival, now in its 10th year, presented a concert performance of the complete second act of Wolfgang Wagner’s great music drama Tristan und Isolde. English subtitles were supplied. The theatre was totally sold out for this very special occasion. The title roles were sung by the dramatic Wagnerian soprano Christine Goerke and the Wagnerian tenor Stephen Gould.

Earlier in the afternoon, before the opera began, a very engaging lecture was given by Cori Ellison, a well-known opera lecturer and dramaturg involved in many opera projects.  She gave a wonderful in-depth lecture about Richard Wagner and his opera Tristan und Isolde.

Richard Wagner is one of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived.  He revolutionized opera and brought it into the 20th century.  After working on his epic Ring Cycle for four.years  (the first ever “Mini-series”), he took a break after completing the second act of Siegfried, the third opera of the cycle. He wanted  to move away from the romantic period of opera to try some new ideas. As usual, he was short of money. Otto Wesendonck, a silk merchant and patron offered Wagner and his wife a small house to live in on his property.  

During his long break, Wagner began studying the 13th century German legend, Tristan, and became very excited about using it for his next opera. In 1856, he began by first writing the music for the opera and then later the libretto, which he wrote, as he did for all his operas. During this period, Wagner set five poems written by Otto’s wife Mathilde to music.  

He used two of them as sketches for the opera Tristan: "Im Treibhaus" (in the greenhouse) appears in the beginning of the third act and "Traüme" (dreams),is heard during the second act love duet.  The five songs became known as the Wesendonck Lieder and are still sung in concerts today.  Wagner and Mathilde were infatuated with each other, but it was never confirmed whether or not they were lovers.

Wagner was very interested in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. The philosopher was very pessimistic about the human condition.  He felt that Death is a liberator.

In the first act of the opera, Tristan is on a ship to Cornwall bringing Isolde to marry King Marke. Isolde has cured Tristan from his wounds from a fight and Isolde secretly has fallen in love with him. She is furious that he is bringing her to Cornwall to marry another man, King Marke. She summons him to come to her and asks Brangane, her companion, to prepare a death potion for them. Brangane  realizes that they are both in love and prepares a love potion instead.  They both fall instantly in love as the ship reaches shore.

The second act of the opera begins with the famous “Tristan chord” and we are suddenly in a whole new world….a world of dissonance and unease.   Maestro Gianandrea Noseda conducted this chord and the subsequent music with great beauty of sound.  Each of the solo instruments and the off-stage French horns stood out for their clarity.  Maestro was able to bring out all the drama of the music when needed and easily toned down the orchestra for the more intimate moments. There were times when he took a more Italianate approach to the music but he excelled in the Wagnerian style as well. 

Christine Goerke has recently added the role of Isolde to her repertoire after having performed several Ring Cycles.  She conveyed the excitement and expectation of waiting for Tristan.  She has a wonderful lower register which was perfect for this scene.  She started off a little carefully but quickly warmed up to her big beautiful Wagnerian voice.  

The mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, as Brangane, tries to warn Isolde that Melot (Neil Cooper), Tristan’s supposed friend, has been double dealing, but Isolde is too much in love to heed the warning. Ms. Gubanova has a big exciting dark voice.  In this scene she has to sing out many long beautiful lines and she handled them very well.  Her singing showed great empathy for Isolde.  When she went to the top of her register, her voice had perhaps an excess of vibrato but otherwise she was very comfortable in the role.

The Wagnerian tenor Stephen Gould is the leading Wagnerian tenor of today.  He has a big resonant voice that easily soars over the orchestra.  He sings the role of Tristan with great passion and has a big heldentenor sound.  When he sees Isolde, his singing becomes very passionate and they are both nearly breathless with the excitement of seeing each other.

As daylight disappears and night takes over, the music becomes quietly rapturous as Christine Goerke and Stephen Gould begin singing the love duet.  Their voices blended wonderfully for this long and difficult duet, effortlessly sung.  Their singing is interrupted by Brangane, who warns them of danger, but they are too much in love to care. They welcome the dark of night which banishes everyday reality from day; night is also the realm of death.

Tristan’s companion Kurwenal runs in warning that King Marke is arriving from the hunt. The King is angry and feels betrayed  and dishonored by Tristan who was suppose to be bringing Isolde to him to be his bride. King Marke was sung by Gunther Groissbock who has a velvety smooth dark bass-baritone voice.  His sadness at losing Isolde was well portrayed.  Kerwenal, sung by another bass-baritone Hunter Enoch, also had a compelling voice.

For me, the most beautiful scene in the opera, which is a turning point for the lovers, occurs at the end of the act, when Tristan asks Isolde gently if she will follow him to a land where the sun never shines.  The music for this scene is so simple and moving.  Isolde responds directly that she will follow him to his land.  Both Stephen Gould and Christine Goerke sang this scene calmly with great beauty, as the music called for.  The act ends with a fight between Melot and Tristan. Tristan is seriously wounded.

At the end of this 80 minute act, the whole audience rose to their feet to cheer the wonderful singers, conductor, and orchestra members.  The performers were called back three times for more applause. We were all grateful for this wondrous performance. It made us all long to hear the entire opera in the near future.

© meche kroop







  

Saturday, November 16, 2019

COSI FAN JUILLIARD

William Socolof, James Ley, Kathleen O’Mara, Mer Wohlgemuth, Megan Moore, and Erik van Heyningen (photo by Richard Termine)
One cannot find better voices than one finds at Juilliard Vocal Arts. It was a revelation to hear six healthy young voices interpreting the characters of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte just as they should be. In the incredibly challenging role of Fiordiligi, soprano Kathleen O'Mara fearlessly tackled the high lying tessitura and broad upward jumps of "Come scoglio" and "Per pietà" maintaining clarity of tone in two very different emotional states.

As the somewhat more mutable Dorabella, mezzo-soprano Megan Moore dazzled us with her histrionic outpouring in "Smanie implacabili" and later, as her resolve weakens, with "É amore un ladroncello". We particularly appreciated the varying colors as her intention changed.

The role of Despina was splendidly realized by soprano Mer Wohlgemuth whose acting was completely persuasive and whose singing never showed a hint of "technique" but rather seemed completely natural. Her dramatic intention did not vary but she had an opportunity to show off her style in "Una donna a quindici anni".

The men were similarly outstanding. James Ley made a fine Ferrando and did complete justice to the marvelously tender and melodic "Un aura amorosa", then varied his coloration effectively for the bitter "Tradito, schernito".

As his friend Guglielmo, baritone Erik van Heyningen lived up to his full potential, managing to convey both the triumph in seducing his friend's fiancée as well as disappointment in "Donne mie, le fate a tanti".

We were more than usually impressed with the performance of bass-baritone William Socolof who performed the role of Don Alfonso, lightening his substantial voice sufficiently to perform the most exquisitely precise turns in the vocal line. We love to hear voices that possess both size and flexibility.

Duets and ensembles were effectively rendered with perfect balance among the voices, giving Mozart the attention to detail that his interweaving lines demand.

In the pit we had the superb Juilliard Orchestra responding just as one would expect to the astute conducting of Nimrod David Pfeffer. When we could tear our eyes away from the stage we enjoyed watching his expressive hand working in tandem with his precise baton. It was a performance filled with lyricism and subtlety. Nathaniel LaNasa played the harpsichord continuo.

And what about the production? Da Ponte's story was pulled up by the roots and transplanted to contemporary America. The story is set in a high school in a town called West Naples which could have been anywhere but by name alone, suggested the West coast of Florida. During the overture, the four young people have just graduated. They are therefore meant to be about 18 years old and therefore vulnerable to the machinations of the older Don Alfonso, who seemed to be an athletic coach.

Despina was transformed into a teacher and, in an original dramatic subtext, appeared to have had a one time problematic relationship with the aforementioned coach. Instead of a servant offering the girls their morning chocolate, she delivered academic papers.

Kristen Robinson's sets fell in line with this take on the story. Act I takes place in what appears to be a dormitory bathroom, complete with stalls with open doors. The "poison" taken by the "Albanians" is swigged from jugs of bleach drawn from what must be a janitorial closet.

Other scenes take place behind the bleachers of an athletic field where the two girls seem to hang out on beach chairs surrounded by detritus, including a puzzling broken bottom half of a torso--the kind used as window dressing. Or so we thought.

For the final act, the bleachers were turned around and the characters scampered up and down with some risk of stumbles. At the top was a booth to which repaired the newly formed couples for some canoodling, followed by "walks of shame".

Sara Jean Tosetti's costumes also fell in line with the story. Most effective was Despina's reserved suit with sensible shoes. The four young graduates wore motley costumes with doofy hats and, in a clever and original twist, the men did not fool their sweethearts by dressing in exotic costumes. Rather, they wore preppie clothes and neatly trimmed hair. Guess they could have fooled their sweethearts!

In one puzzling scene, Dorabella, newly mated with Guglielmo, pulls off his wig. We expected this to indicate that she recognized the ruse but the remainder of the scene did not fulfill our expectations.

When the phony rescue of the two "Albanians" takes place, Despina appears in a ridiculous and not convincing costume and when the fake marriage takes place, she appears in a white and gold jumpsuit suggesting Elvis Presley as the marriage officiant.

The audience loved all these sight gags and laughed every time the girls took selfies of themselves or used their cell phones. Did we love it?  No, we did not. We felt that the story was shoehorned into a "concept" which worked only partially. We read the notes of Director David Paul when we got home (as we usually do, to avoid coloring our perception of any work of art). His words made a case for the temporal and geographical transposition in terms of contemporary resonance.

However, regular readers will recall that we like to do the work ourself, instead of being spoon fed. We remember with overwhelming pleasure the production from seven years ago, directed by Stephen Wadsworth. It was true to time and place and told Da Ponte's story well, although darkly, with lots of anger and confusion. We spent quite a bit of time thinking about how consistent human feeling is from the 19th c. to the 21st and also about what is different.

Mr. Paul's view wound up similarly dark with no marriage at the end and no pairing off. We will say that we enjoyed the way he directed his cast and, within the framework he chose, the acting was valid and meaningful. We just didn't care for fitting the story into his Procrustean bed.  We guess it's a question of taste. We don't mind updating if such updating tells us something new but this production did not. 

© meche kroop




Thursday, November 14, 2019

OPERA INDEX RECITAL

Lindsey Reynolds, Ashley Marie Robillard, Alec Carlson, Jane Shaulis, Ariana Wehr, Gloria Kim, and Jianan Huang

Last night was the night.  It was THE night. It was the night when the membership of Opera Index gathers for an annual celebration involving food and wine, fellowship and music. The food was provided by the members (many of whom are excellent cooks) and the entertainment was provided by five of the winners of Opera Index's 2019 Vocal Competition.

Like most competitions there is a lot of winnowing to be done, starting with a huge group of applicants. There are generous prizes to be awarded and a lot of satisfaction following the careers of the award winners as their stars ascend. The list of past winners looks like a "Who's Who" of the opera world.

President Jane Shaulis gave a warm welcome and introduced five of the winners, pictured above with the excellent accompanist Gloria Kim. We particularly enjoyed the plan of the recital in which each singer performed an aria and then all five returned to sing something lighter.

We heard five splendid singers but only one that we've been following for a long time. Tenor Alec Carlson first came to our attention about five years ago as one of the singers chosen by Steven Blier for one of his New York Festival of Song evenings. We gained a better appreciation of his artistic gifts last summer at the Santa Fe Opera. We reviewed his performances at recitals presented by the Gerda Lissner Foundation and Career Bridges, both of which granted him awards. David and Barbara Bender of Career Bridges were in attendance to cheer him on.

Last night he brought the arrogant Duke to life. Verdi gave this reprehensible character in his Rigoletto the most gorgeous aria. Every tenor would love to sing "Questa o quella" and Mr. Carlson filled it out with his generous sound and the requisite arrogant attitude. The Italianate phrasing left nothing to be desired.

Later, he performed "Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert!" from Franz Lehar's light opera Giuditta. His German was excellent and the delivery completely stageworthy. It made us want to see the opera. The only aria with which we are familiar from the work is the famous "Meine Lippen sie kussen so heiss".

We enjoyed three special sopranos, each one special in a different way. Lindsey Reynolds performed "Je suis encore tout étourdie" from Massenet's Manon in a manner that was totally convincing. We just love performances that bring a character to life and her Manon was a sweet and innocent girl who bubbled over with excitement over her first trip. The only hint she gave of her doomed future was her naiveté. Ms. Reynolds' lovely voice was put into the service of the character. And her French was just fine.

Later, she sang "Love is where you find it" from the 1947 musical film The Kissing Bandit. (Nacio Herb Brown wrote the music and Earl K Brent wrote the lyrics.) Ms. Reynolds' voice expands magnificently in the upper register and we were waiting for some crystal to break!

Ariana Wehr gave a lovely performance of Micaëla's aria "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante" from Bizet's Carmen. What made it so special was that she captured the complexity of the character--faith mixed with resolve but tinged by the very fear that the lyrics denied. French diction and phrasing were both admirable. We liked the fine vibrato and the intense central section.

In the second part, she gave a spirited performance of "I Could Have Danced All Night" from Lerner and Loew's My Fair Lady, demonstrating her flexibility as an artist.

Ashley Marie Robillard captured the character of Susana from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro in her Act IV aria "Deh vieni, non tardar". Starting from the recitativo, we could see and hear that she was teasing her Figaro; she didn't need to paint it in broad strokes and we appreciated the subtlety. We were dazzled by the embellishments to the line, most of which were new to us; the arching phrase at the end was the cherry on top.

Later she sang Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" with heartfelt sentiment, reaffirming our belief in the value of hearing American theater and cabaret music unamplified.

Baritone Jianan Huang sang Don Giovanni's tender serenade from Mozart's eponymous opera--"Deh vieni alla finestra". Verdi was not the only composer to put sweet music into the mouth of a reprehensible character! And Mr. Huang sang it sweetly indeed with lovely phrasing and fine Italian. 

However, it was his second entry that really enchanted us. Readers know how much we love folk music and Mr. Huang sang the most exquisite Chinese folk song, the translation of which was "Father Prairie, Mother River". There was a fine delicacy to it and a deeply felt sentiment that really got to us.

Just in case you didn't read our prior reviews of Opera Index, let us encourage you to join this fine organization which exists to support young singers and to provide an opportunity for opera lovers to get together. We were pleased to see some new faces in the audience and we'd like to see yours. The cost of membership is modest and the benefits are great.

© meche kroop

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

IN THE BEGINNING

Kevin Nathaniel, Yacouba Sissoko, Dawn Padmore, Ayansola Adedeji, and Olusegun Ajayi

We know Jessica Gould as a singer, an expert in Pre-Romantic Music, and as the Founder and Artistic Director of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts. Her original programming and exemplary scholarship in support of these programs have instilled within us a willingness to follow her wherever she takes us. Last night at the Bernie Wohl Center, she joined with Afro Roots Tuesdays to take us to Western Africa with Ensemble Longbor Mor.

This ensemble comprises the engaging songbird Dawn Padmore, kora player Yacouba Sissoko, percussionist Olusegun Ajayi, mbira player Kevin Nathaniel Hylton, and Adedeji Ayansola who can make his drum talk. That's not a misprint!

The music we heard has been passed down for centuries among the various peoples of West Africa and showcases both their diversity and unity. The name Ensemble Longbor Mor takes its name from the Vai language which is spoken in Liberia and translates as "people singing". Ms. Padmore's maternal grandmother has Vai roots.

The evening felt more like a celebration than a concert, although we would be happy to sit still and listen to Ms. Padmore's gorgeous voice for several hours in a formal recital hall.  This astonishing artist comes across as gloriously spontaneous, both in her description of each song and in her vocalism.

There was no awareness of technique, although her voice teacher Ira Siff (present in the audience) is of great renown. Similarly, her vocal coach Brian Holman (also present) must have contributed a great deal. 

Any singer could learn a thing or two from her warm and welcoming stage presence. She made the audience feel like a collection of friends and family at a social gathering. At one point, to emphasize the spirit of the evening, she enlisted an audience member to dance with her. 

Her voice is luxurious in tone and able to negotiate whatever she asks of it, making it all look effortless. Spirited gestures accompanied the singing as she used her entire body. Her generosity of spirit illuminated every story she told, and indeed, most of the songs told stories--stories of birth, death, pregnancy, illness, gossip, and family issues.

We especially enjoyed the a capella singing in the first of six Yoruba Folk Songs and the high lying tessitura of the first of four Igbo Songs.

Ensemble Longbor Mor amazed us with their virtuosic playing. We were reminded in some ways of a jazz group improvising; the spirit of joy in making music was contagious. The rhythms were complex in nature and just as difficult to wrap one's ears around as the rhythms of flamenco music.

The Kora is the most famous of Africa's stringed instruments. It has no frets and no bow. Rather it is played by the simultaneous plucking of 21 strings by both hands. The strings, each of a different pitch, are affixed to a large calabash cut in half and covered with goatskin stretched and fixed with leather laces. There is a long wooden neck made of hardwood. Mr. Sissoko's virtuosity was impressive, revealing several interwoven melodies. The sound was, to our ears, something between that of a harp and that of a celeste.

The other instrument that grabbed our attention was the talking drum. We couldn't figure out how Mr. Ayansola could make the drum talk but we read the program later and learned its secrets. The pitch is regulated by the player squeezing the drum between his arm and his ribcage which moves the leather tension cords connecting the two heads of this hourglass shaped instrument. It is struck with a wooden stick that has a crook on the end. We refer you, dear reader, to the carousel of photos on our Facebook page--Voce di Meche.

Completing the ensemble is a pair of drums which look like what we call Congo Drums, some shaken gourds (likely ancestors to some present day percussion instruments) and the unique Mbira or thumb piano. This instrument was not so strange to us since we had one of our own some years ago. What was different about Mr. Hylton's Mbira was that it was set in a calabash which enhanced the sound.

Although this was just a taste of what West African music has to offer, our appetite was whetted. Next month's concert by Salon/Sanctuary will also be unusual; Carthage Conquer'd; Dreams of Tunis in the Baroque Imagination will pit a Baroque ensemble and a North African ensemble improvising in the Taksim manner.  Think Queen Dido!

© meche kroop

Monday, November 11, 2019

DINA PRUZHANSKY

Claire Kuttler, Edward Pleasant, Inbar Goldmann, and Pavel Suliandziga

Just as there is an abundance of vocal talent in New York City--talent that merits our attention--there are also compositional talents lurking among the faculty of our conservatories--talents deserving more recognition than they receive. A case in point is Dina Pruzhansky, a gifted and versatile young composer whose name may not yet be on everyone's lips--but one who has achieved recognition from her peers and multiple awards. This situation is about to change when her Suite for Piano, Strings, and Percussion will premiere at Carnegie Hall next March 3rd. We expect that will bring her to the attention of the music loving public.

Yesterday we had an opportunity to witness her versatility. We heard quite a variety of music, from music theater to opera, at the 92nd St. Y.  Bringing her works to life were soprano Claire Kuttler, mezzo-soprano Inbar Goldmann, tenor Pavel Suliandziga, baritone Edward Pleasant, and cellist Tyler James.

The "lightest" selections were from Central Park: The Musical and we particularly enjoyed "Observation", a jazzy setting of a pithy verse by Dorothy Parker that surprised us, in light of the fact that it was written for children!

The most "academic" work was On Love and Land, the texts of which comprised letters written over several decades by a woman to her husband. Although we liked the instrumental writing and Ms. Kuttler's dramatic presentation, we find settings of prose to be rather tedious and unmelodic, with the exception of the final song "When Orange Blossoms are in Bloom". There was a nice interplay between piano and cello.

Not to worry, dear reader, because there was plenty of material that we enjoyed a great deal. A worthy librettist was found in Ethan Kanfer for a musical called The Promotion, based on the 1977 film Office Romance. The lyrics were clever and fit the music hand in glove. Mr. Pleasant brought out the rhythm of the words and music in "Get Yourself a Slice". Even better was "Don't Say a Word" in which the ensemble played a musical version of the telephone game, passing along gossip about a letter that was meant to be private. We were glad it was shared!

Ms. Pruzhansky was born in Russia and still retains a feel for Russian artistry. We loved her Four Vocal Miniatures (after the poetry of Aleksandr Blok) which rhymed and scanned, bringing forth lovely melodies in the mode that is so typically Russian. Ms. Kuttler delivered the first miniature "Her Songs" which was seductive. Mr. Suliandziga (who could enthrall us by singing an IRS document) sang the next three. "The Red Moon at the White Night" had a haunting melody and some lovely rippling piano figures.

With Ms. Pruzhansky's successful 2014 opera Shulamit, she paid hommage to her Israeli upbringing. Ms. Goldmann (whom we have heard before singing in Hebrew) was lovely in the heroine's lament when she is chosen for King Solomon's harem; we heard some affecting melismatic singing. Our favorite was the wedding song for Shulamit and the shepherd she loved "Ma Yau Dodaych"', beautifully sung by Ms. Goldmann in duet with Mr. Suliandziga.

Mr. Suliandiziga delighted us with "You are Youthful Like Never Before", the setting of a text by Peretz Markish which was translated from Yiddish into Russian by Anna Akhmatova. There was ample variety in the dynamics.

Hearing such a variety of styles in one all-too-brief concert served to illuminate Ms. Pruzhansky's versatility and also to reaffirm our opinion that prose does not stimulate vocal melody. We are looking forward to hearing more of this composer's music and feel quite sure that her name will soon be on everyone's lips.

We would like to mention that she is not solely a composer but an educator and superb collaborative pianist; it was a treat to hear her play her own music. 

© meche kroop

Saturday, November 9, 2019

CLASSIC LYRIC ARTS FALL GALA

Glenn Morton and participants in Classic Lyric Arts summer programs


The Classic Lyric Arts Fall Benefit Gala is a highly anticipated annual event; it is a golden opportunity to be introduced to participants in CLA's immersive summer programs in France and Italy. These stars of tomorrow have spent some very intensive time in the country of their choice--studying, coaching, learning the subtleties of the language, the culture, the food, and the music.

After a decade, the program is well established; young artists of promise are able to attend even if they cannot afford the tuition because, this year alone, 18 grants were made to help them along. Next year's goal is 28 grants and lovers of this very special art form could find no better means to make a valuable contribution.

The teachers and coaches have been selected for their dedication and desire to pass along their knowledge and expertise. Artistic Director Glenn Morton gave a wonderfully welcoming address to the select audience, pointing out that not every participant will achieve a major opera career; some will wind up in different capacities within the field and others will choose a different profession. But it seems that each and every participant soaked up what was offered to him/her and was greatly enriched.

Before and after the performance, we enjoyed a generous spread of goodies and an opportunity to mingle with the artists and to learn about their education and career goals, and also to hear them extol the benefits of their summer study. 

Alumna Caroline Lopez Moreno possesses a glorious soprano instrument that she uses well and which has captivated us on prior occasions. She has presence to spare as well, and spoke eloquently of her experience with CLA and her respect for Mr. Morton's astute and encouraging coaching.

She performed a divine duet with mezzo-soprano Sarah Fleiss, who is new to us. Rossini's Tancredi offers opportunities to show off and these two young women ran with it, giving an arresting account of this fraught scene in Act II. Rossini gave these conflicting lovers the most harmonious music; Ms. Moreno made a marvelous Amenaide and Ms. Fleiss sounded just grand as Tancredi. The overtones of each voice bounced off the overtones of the other. The fireworks in the cabaletta were dazzling.

We love listening to mezzo-sopranos who have a true mezzo texture to their voices and Ms. Fleiss surely does have the right sound. She was not the only one. Swedish mezzo Loella Grahn gave a winning performance as Rosina in the "note scene" ("Dunque io son") from Rossini's comic masterpiece Il barbiere di Siviglia. Ms. Grahn had all the right qualities--charm, presence, musicality, and good chemistry with her Figaro, wonderfully acted and sung by baritone Carlos Arcos.

Rossini's music is very kind to coloratura sopranos but Puccini demands a more substantial voice and we heard that in Johanna Will; she has a voice with plenty of substance that can effortlessly soar into the upper register. We greatly enjoyed her Cio-Cio San, singing in the Act I love duet from Madama Butterfly "Vogliatemi bene". Tenor Alexei Kuznietsov, whom we have written about several times, did an admirable job as Pinkerton. He just keeps getting better and better, a trajectory we love to witness in a young singer.

His versatility as an artist showed in the lighthearted "C'est l'amour" from Ganne's comic opera Les Saltimbanques, singing with Rachel Liss. We were excited to be introduced to a work and a composer that were new to us.

Similarly we got a kick out of  "Non, non jamais les hommes" from the Yvains operetta Ta bouche--another work and another composer new to us. The delightful Shannon Delijani was joined by Hannah Klein in this very cute number about how men can't understand women. In another number from this operetta, we heard Ms. Klein sing a duet with Wesley Diener entitled "Ta bouche a des baisers".

Soprano Lena Goldstein had a winning presence as Susanna in the scene from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro in which Susanna misunderstands the marital intentions of Figaro, here performed by Mr. Arcos who had to take a slap to the face which was quite convincing.

Marcellina was sung by mezzo Nanako Kato who also made a fine Isabella  in a scene from Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri with Chang Liu singing the rejected wife of Mustafa (Mr. Arcos). 

There was a charming fluffy trio from Berlioz' Béatrice et Bénédicte with the voices of Temple Hammen, Bela Albett, and Melanie Dubil achieving perfect harmony.

We also enjoyed a sweet duet from Puccini's La Rondine--"Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso"-- with Ms. Lopez Moreno's Magda partnered by tenor Travis Benoit as Ruggero and a rousing "I Could Have Danced All Night" from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady with Courtney Sanders singing Eliza Doolittle, joined by the chorus.

There seemed to be varying levels of experience in the singing. Some were "performance ready" and other showed promise. But all exhibited the kind of enthusiasm that warms our heart. And everyone sang with Italianate or Gallic style as the piece demanded. All had excellent diction which speaks well for their training with CLA.

Let us not forget the artistry of the collaborative pianists: Jake Landau, Migeun Chung, Vladimir Soloviev, Xu Cheng, and Ariela Bohrod. They too seem to have picked up a lot of French and Italian style during their residency abroad.

© meche kroop




Wednesday, November 6, 2019

LA SERVA PADRONA

Fabrizio Doria, Pamela Jones, and Daniel Klein (photo by meche kroop)

Guest Review by Ellen Godfrey:

The audience at the National Opera Center, on Sunday afternoon, was treated to a delightful performance of the 18th century comic opera La Serva Padrona, presented by the Lighthouse Opera Company. The founder and director of the company, which was started two years ago, is Dr. John Banks, a classical musician and a high school music teacher. The company’s mission is to help shine a light on classically trained singers of all backgrounds by performing operas in their original language, for new and diverse audiences in the Bronx, New York City, and beyond. The company also brings new and emerging opera talent to the public’s attention with live opera performances.

La Serva Padrona, (The Servant Turned Mistress), was composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710 -1736), based on a play by Jacopo Angello Nelli. This opera buffa, (comic opera), was originally performed as an intermezzo (intermission) for an opera seria  (serious opera) called Il Prigionier Superbo, (the Proud Prisoner).  The opera had its premiere in 1733 in Naples, and enjoyed great popularity throughout Europe for many years. Eventually, the two intermezzi were separated from the serious opera to become a 45 minute opera. It quickly grew very popular throughout European and is still being performed today.
In 1752, Pergolesi’s opera buffa sparked a great argument in France. It was called the querelle des bouffons (the war of the comic actors) and argued about  the merits of reverent French and irreverent Italian music theatre. These discussions further led to reforms by the composer Christopher Willibald Gluck, (1714-1787), who grew tired of the overly ornate operas of the Baroque period. He moved to the simplicity of the Classical style. Gluck’s reforms influenced the great Mozart, who composed operas in the same style.

Between the 16th and 18th century, Italian strolling players, known as La Commedia Dell’arte, performed throughout Europe and had a great influence on drama and music. The troupes used improvisation, stock characters, and a few standard scenarios to tell the funny stories. In La Serva Padrona the female stock character is Serpina, a bossy woman; Uberto is the grouchy older man, and Vespone, a mute servant.  The joke in the opera is a domestic argument which involves a reversal of roles; the servant is the mistress of the home while the older man is under her strict command.  He can’t decide if he wants to marry her or not. Serpina makes sure that he will marry her by pretending to marry a soldier (who is a mute servant in disguise).  In the end their roles reverse and they have a joyous marriage celebration.

There is a feminist side to this opera and other themes including ambition, equality of men and women, and recognition of respect for each other.  The wonderful director for this performance, John Tedeschi, has a real feel for comedy and he kept the action alive and funny. He changed the original location of the opera to the Civil War period. He was inspired by some similarities to a 19th century woman, Lydia Hamilton Smith, a servant and also mistress of her house. During the Civil War, both she and her husband, Thaddeus Stevens, were active in the underground railroad and helped shelter southern slaves to escape to the north. 

Daniel Klein and Pamela Jones made good sparring partners in this delightful comedy.  Bass-baritone Daniel Klein was a wonderful Uberto.  He is tall and has a big gorgeous bass-baritone voice with lots of resonance.  His frustration with his bossy maid, Serpina, was strong and humorous. He is an excellent comedian; he fidgeted, he twirled his mustache upwards, got angry, and contorted his face, especially by bulging his eyes. 

Coloratura soprano Pamela Jones has a beautiful clear big voice which she uses very well.  She never pushes the voice so it carries very beautifully.  She also has excellent diction. Having performed in opera, musicals, and straight plays, she is very much at home on the comic stage. Her Serpina was a strong character who knew just what she wanted and how to boss Uberto around.  As good as the acting of the performers was, it would have been even better if they did not have to look at the score.

Fabrizio Doria played the mute role of Vespone perfectly with lots of comic touches.

For this production, Maggie Ronck created costumes for the three principals that were appropriate to the period.  Uberto was costumed in a stunning suit with a long coat and tie and a big hat.  Serpina’s mid-19th century costume was a beautiful long checkered dress.  Later in the opera,when Serpina and Umberto were finally  ready to marry, they had broad hats of the period.  Pamela’s hat was adorned with flowers.  Ms .Ronck’s costumes for Vespone, the mute, were also designed well.

The music for this opera is absolutely delightful. The Sepia Baroque Ensemble was elegantly conducted by Maestro Stephen Francis Vasta. The ensemble of 5 string instruments (2 violins, a viola, cello, and bass were accompanied by the harpsichord. This small ensemble was very vibrant and supported the singers very well.

Everyone in the theatre enjoyed seeing this 18th century masterpiece.

© meche kroop
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Sunday, November 3, 2019

GERDA LISSNER WINNERS CONCERT

Collaborative Pianist Arlene Shrut and winners of the Gerda Lissner Foundation Lieder/Song Competition

Young singers need all the help they can get in building their careers and the Gerda Lissner Foundation is unmatched in this role. There are yearly competitions for both opera and for song, with generous awards for the winners. Being present to hear these young artists in concert after the competitions is a special treat. It's an even tastier treat to witness their development as they achieve the fame they deserve. When we have time to read bios of successful singers we cannot fail to notice how many of them have begun their success by winning these competitions.

Friday's recital of 2019 winners presented ten young singers of great promise, all accompanied by the legendary collaborative pianist Arlene Shrut who matches her accompaniment to the special skills of each young artist and also takes into account the great variety of material they choose to present. Every singer was superb, each in a different way.

Tenor Eric Finbarr Carey had us trembling in our seat with a searing performance of Schubert's "Der Erlkönig". Goethe's text is tragic and dramatic; in contrast with so much contemporary poetry, it does beg to be set to music. What we look for in an effective performance is good storytelling. This means that the singer must play the part of the narrator with neutral coloring. When the story quotes the father, he must darken and age the coloration; when he quotes the child, he must lighten and whiten the color; and when he voices the titular Erlkönig he must begin seductively and end horrifically. Mr. Carey held us spellbound, sustaining the tension throughout a pause before the final grim "tod"!

Baritone Jonathan McCullough struck us as a complete artist with a mature round sound that conveyed everything one could possibly say about a man watching his beloved marry someone else. Mahler based this song (the first lied of his cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) on Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of folk poetry. Beginning in the mournful key of D-minor, it makes a brief excursion into a verse in the major mode as the poet witnesses the joys of nature. Then it sinks back into minor, since his grief blocks his appreciation of these joys. Mr. McCullough illuminated every nuance.

Soprano Monica Dewey injected Rachmaninoff's "Noch'yu v sadu u menya" with an anguished coloration that was deeply affecting. With brilliant tone she sang of a weeping willow and a sad girl. It was the last song Rachmaninoff wrote before leaving Russia and perhaps that it why he chose that sad story.

Coloratura soprano Alexia Mate selected a French song that was well chosen to show off her bright tone, her lovely French, and her flexibility. Dell'Acqua's "Villanelle" offers a lovely legato passage and some challenging staccato passages with trills and arpeggi, all successfully negotiated. There were also some melismatic passages. Mentally, we cast Ms. Mate as Queen of the Night! Sometimes,we just cannot keep from extrapolating from a sole performance to a singer's future.

With the kind of German diction one only hears from a native born German singer, Dennis Chmelensky gave a perfect performance of Schubert's "Willkommen und Abschied", the setting of a text by Goethe. Schubert's music and Mr. Chmelensky's singing gave us all the anticipation and fulfillment and also the pain of parting. He made good use of variation of tempo and dynamics to tell the tale. We sincerely believe that any singer who wants to sing lieder should master a few of Schubert's prodigious output of over 600 songs.

Tenor Alec Carlson has a sizable voice with the right weight and intensity to convey the despair of "Der Atlas", one of Schubert's more morose songs. This one is a setting of a text by Heinrich Heine and, although it is not among our favorite Schubert songs, Mr. Carlson's dramatic delivery put us right in the middle of Atlas' burdensome task.

Baritone Dongwei Shen made a daring choice of singing a Chinese song by Zaiyi Lu called "Overlooking my Homeland". Most Americans lack a frame of reference for an appreciation of this eminently singable language and the Chinese penchant for the retention of melody. No 12-tone serialism for them, thank goodness! The song offered opportunities for emotional connection which Mr. Chen conveyed successfully by means of vocal color, gesture, and dynamics. 

There was no translation but as we listened we felt pain and longing in our heart for something we were about to lose. After the concert, we asked Mr. Shen about the meaning of the song and it is about life passing by us. What a mark of success for a singer to convey such meaning in another language. Incidentally, we had a similar experience once in Bhutan of knowing what a song was about. Oh, the miracle of music!

Another baritone, Sung Shin, chose to sing Tosti's "L'ultima canzone", another song about a man losing his sweetheart. It's our favorite Tosti song because we love the alternation of moods and melodies in the verses; this feature gave Mr. Shin an opportunity to show off his impressive artistry. His instrument has an appealing tweedy texture and his Italianate vowels were scented with garlic. He shaped his phrases with great artistry, making use of occasional rubato. There was also some nice melismatic singing on "ah". We loved it!

Mezzo-soprano Erin Wagner's selection was the final one of Barber's Hermit Songs--"The Desire for Hermitage". The cycle is a setting of songs from Irish monasteries written down between the 8th and 13th c. We confess that these are not our favorite songs, although we do like the tranquil "The Monk and His Cat", the slightly irreverent "The Heavenly Banquet", and the short but bawdy "Promiscuity". But Ms. Wagner's choice was of a more ascetic bent, although we picked up a subtext of spiritual fervor. She sang it well and had a beautiful ringing top. Still, we would like to hear her sing in a different language.

Mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova, whom we just heard at a concert of winners of the Premiere Opera Foundation Competition, sang a beautiful song by Rimsky-Korsakov called "The Clouds Begin to Scatter", the setting of text by Pushkin. Ms. Sidorova, as we noted in our review a couple days ago, has a lovely instrument that she knows how to use. If only she could loosen up and use her body! We hoped that singing in her own language would work to her advantage but were a bit disappointed. We wanted more connection with the audience as well as more connection with the song. We hope that someone at her conservatory will work with her on this; it's like a pot on the stove with all good ingredients that just needs some heat to release the aromas and flavors! Tap into your Russian passion Anastasiia! Go for it!

Host for the evening was the engaging Midge Woolsey who introduced each singer and told us the theme of the song after it was sung. We would have preferred the description before it was sung.

The concert was produced in association with the Liederkranz Foundation.

© meche kroop













Saturday, November 2, 2019

(RED) HOT MAMA

Curtain Call for Heartbeat Opera's Halloween Extravaganza at Roulette


We have been a fan of Heartbeat Opera since they first started producing opera. We were immediately bowled over by their Daphnis et Chloé, taking Offenbach's silly but bawdy story and telling it in the most creative way. Casting it with fine young voices and creating costuming and sets with far more imagination than expenditure, the work was an immediate hit and won our heart.

Since then, we have watched Heartbeat grow to become a full-fledged opera company producing one hit after another--most often presenting operas with an original take that sometimes thrilled us and sometimes upset us--but always left us feeling involved. Their productions have always been radical, original, and adventuresome; their audience is mainly young. We decided that there must have been something special in the water at Yale School of Drama, where Co-Artistic Directors Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard got their training.

Since we loved theater long before we got interested in opera, we always look at opera productions with an eye for dramatic validity and also for entertainment value. For us, it doesn't matter how famous the stars, how gorgeous the voices, or how well conducted the orchestra is; if the show doesn't work dramatically it doesn't hold our interest.

We are filled with anticipation for their December production of Weber's Der Freischutz, but until then we had our yen for Heartbeat-style entertainment well satisfied by their stunning Halloween show at The Roulette. Using the vital and worthwhile theme of Saving Mother Earth, there was plenty of eye and ear candy to make the bitter pill easier to swallow.

The "plot" followed the line of facing the peril to our planet and reforming ourselves. The theme involved trees ("Ombra mai fu" from Händel's Serse), flowers (the "Flower Duet" from Delibes' Lakme), melting icebergs ("Gelida in ogni vena" from Vivaldi's Farnace), birds ("The Lark Ascending" by Vaughan Williams), global warming ("Too Darn Hot" from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate), nuclear peril (John Adams' Dr. Atomic), and so on, right up to the finale of "Make Our Garden Grow" from Bernstein's Candide. Even Stravinsky, Mozart, and Wagner were on board. The cleverness with which the music was pressed into the service of the theme of the show was outstanding.

All the voices were admirable but we were particularly taken with the coloratura of Ariana Wehr who was dressed as a polar bear but still managed to take Vivaldi's vocal lines seriously with admirable ease of fioritura. The always effective John Taylor Ward did double duty as a plant and as the Monster of Climate Collapse.

Patrick Kilbride was covered with flowers and Dustin Ceithamer appeared as Mother Earth.  There was quite a face-off between "her" and the Monster. Clinton Edward and Brendan Henderson danced their way through their roles as birds, choreographed by Eamon Foley.

Words fail us in describing Miodrag Guberinic's elaborate and inventive costumes; we suggest that you see the photos we have posted to our FB page--Voce di Meche where you can also see Maiko Ando's fabulous makeup.

Even the musicians wore wigs and makeup. Musical Direction was by Jacob Ashworth (violin) and Daniel Schlosberg (piano and harpsichord) joined by violist Hannah Levinson and cellist Madeline Fayette. Onstage for the jazzy numbers was saxophonist Michaël Attias.

Props, like the suspended globe, were designed by Corinne Gologursky and Nicholas Hussong provided the projections, mainly quotes from famous people with serious messages consistent with the theme.

Also consistent with the theme was the provision of metal straws with the drinks for guests to take home. We have been using ours!

Significantly, a portion of the ticket proceeds went toward supporting Earthjustice. Heartbeat Opera is known for their socially oriented productions, such as their work with the incarcerated for their production of Beethoven's Fidelio.

This is the kind of work we would be happy to see again; however, like last year's Halloween show, part of the value comes from the knowledge that it is transitory in nature--very much ""of the moment"-- and can be cherished the way one cherishes a flower. The plant which produced the flower, however, is a perennial!

© meche kroop