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.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019


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

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