Saturday, February 22, 2020
Thursday, February 20, 2020
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Saturday, February 15, 2020
Friday, February 14, 2020
Tuesday, February 11, 2020
Saturday, February 8, 2020
|Joel Harder, Dominic Armstrong, Kate Maroney, Lucy Fitz Gibbon, Caitlin Mead, |
and Allison Gish
The very idea of basing an operatic work on a newspaper series! Those of us who love Leoš Janáček's Vixen Sharp-Ears (also known as The Cunning Little Vixen) do not find that strange at all. How many of us knew, before last night, that the composer set another newspaper series--this one of a diary in the form of poems?
Had we not ventured to The Brooklyn Historical Society last night for another one of Brooklyn Art Song Society's adventuresome program, we might have spent the rest of our life thinking that "The Diary of One Who Disappeared" had something to do with evil politics.
But no! It's a highly romantic and bittersweet tale of a young farmer who is lured into a sexual relationship with a seductive Gypsy woman named Zeffka. At first he feels guilty and expects the worst from her family, about whom he has absorbed the prejudicial feelings of his community. He worries about his parents as well but her allure overcomes his guilt and prejudice. When she becomes pregnant he bids farewell to his home, his family, and his former life. Who knows what will happen to them?
The musical form chosen by the composer was that of a song cycle, but it is one that borders on a one act opera since a few lines are given to Zeffka, a role realized as a mezzo-soprano, with the role of the nameless youth being sung by a tenor.
We were so glad that Artistic Director and Founder of B.A.S.S. Michael Brofman treated us with this novel work and cast it so well. We have never heard Dominic Armstrong sing with such passionate involvement; furthermore, the tessitura of the piece fit his voice like a glove to a hand. He created a great deal of dramatic interest by employing dynamic variety. Singing Zeffka's lines was mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney whose acting and voice were also superb. Although the text does not give much opportunity for staging, the two performers made the most of what was there. Duets were especially lovely.
Adding a fresh dimension was a trio of female voices comprising sopranos Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Caitlin Mead and mezzo-soprano Allison Gish. They sang from the rear of the theater in heavenly harmony and we could only regret that the composer did not give them more to sing.
Collaborative pianist Joel Harder was consistently supportive of the vocal line, never overwhelming the singers. He was particularly effective creating the twittering of the swallows and the delight experienced by the youth in watching his pregnant beloved. There was an exceptional piano solo in which the piano evoked images of the couple making love--or so we imagined!
Just as we were impressed by Mr. Armstrong learning the lengthy cycle in Czech, a notoriously difficult language, so were we impressed by soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon performing Dorfszenen Sz. 78 in Slovak. It was written by Béla Bartók, a major figure of the early 20th c., arriving on the musical scene a generation or two after Janáček.
We cannot say that we actually heard the folk melodies so assiduously collected by Bartók and his colleague and contemporary Zoltán Kodály but Ms. Fitz Gibbon's performance allowed us to see images of peasant life. The pictures we saw in our mind's eye were that of lives that were tough, even when the music was exuberant. We particularly liked the wedding song, catching a glimpse of a woman who would prefer to stay single!
Along with an attractive bright soprano, Ms. Fitz Gibbon used her entire body in a captivating sincerity of expression that succeeded in bringing each song to vivid life.
From the singer we learned that the cycle has been performed in German and English but rarely in Slovak, a language that appears to be as difficult as Czech. Learning these five songs and giving them such a dramatic performance was a true labor of love, one which we appreciated doubly, inasmuch as the Kodály songs were sung "on the book" by Ms. Maroney.
As regular readers know, your reviewer loses connection when a singer keeps glancing at the score and this becomes the perfect time to pay attention to the piano. Mr. Brofman, who played for Ms. Fitz Gibbon and Ms. Maroney, is a pianist worth paying attention to. This early 20th c. music is difficult for us to wrap our ears around with its rhythmic complexity and dissonance. Our music education apparently ended before we learned about bitonal and modal harmonies!
We can say however that Mr. Brofman himself understands it well and made sense out of it such that we appreciated the emotional tone of the pieces whether they were sprightly, tender, or ironic.
This season's theme continues on March 6th with songs by Sibelius and Grieg.
© meche kroop
Wednesday, February 5, 2020
|Sally Matthews and Simon Lepper|
Nothing pleases us more than discovering a singer we haven't heard before and we approached last night's recital at Weill Recital Hall with high anticipation, especially because the program of Sibelius, Grieg, Strauss, and Wagner comprised songs we know and love. Sadly, the evening left us feeling empty and disappointed, reluctant to sit down at the computer to write about it.
Appreciation of the human voice is a very individual thing and what sounds pleasing to one pair of ears may be unpleasant to another. Although the customary standing ovation with hoots and hollers at the conclusion was absent, there was generous applause and our post-recital chat with friends and colleagues revealed a modest degree of appreciation of certain aspects of the recital, but no one seemed thrilled.
We will get to the voice anon but let us start by saying that a seasoned performer who presents an entire recital buried in the score is cheating the audience of the intimate experience for which one attends a lieder recital in a small house. Dear Reader, bear in mind that soprano Sally Matthews has apparently presented the very same program at Wigmore Hall in London! This was not a recital of new music with weird entrances and strange sounds. No, it was a recital of standard repertory that had been performed before.
Nor did the loathed music stand get set aside for the two encores. If we have one positive thing to say about the singer, it is that the lower tessitura of Britten's "The Salley Gardens" was more agreeable than the hard edges displayed during the rest of the program, an unpleasant sound that was at its worst at the top of the vocal register and was made even worse when the volume was increased.
Admittedly, our friend in the balcony found it not as painful to the ear drums as we did, as did the friend who sat next to us. The lower tessitura of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder was kinder to the ear. Pianissimo passages were less painful.
We have nothing to say about Ms. Matthews' Swedish. Her German was adequate and there were no omissions of the final "ch"; however at times, entire syllables were glossed over and we missed the crispness heard from German singers. Upward leaps in Wagner's "Schmerzen" were dynamically abrupt.
There was a sameness to the sound of every single song which added to the tedium. We don't believe that the singer lacked in connection to the material but she did lack in connection with the audience. She was either looking at the score or at some nonexistent family circle but never at the audience. We did not feel drawn into her world or the world of the song.
The best singing of the night came from the piano of Simon Lepper. When we feel alienated from a singer, we generally use the situation as an opportunity to focus on the piano and Mr. Lepper did not disappoint. The variety we missed in the voice was amply revealed in the piano.
Fortunately, there were three instrumental selections from Edvard Grieg's Lyric Pieces: "Melodie" from Op.38, No.3, "Melancholie" from Op.48, No.4, and "Arietta" from Op.12, No.1. All were lovely and evocative of different moods. We liked his soft hands as they caressed the keys.
We enjoyed the jaunty accompaniment to Grieg's "Lauf der Welt" which told the tale far better than the singer did. In Strauss' Drei Lieder der Ophelia, Op.67, he captured the madness. Actually, the singer also captured the madness but was uncomfortably shrill.
Mr. Lepper's performance of Strauss' "Morgen!" was exquisite and we found ourselves wishing that he could continue without the voice. Similarly, for Wagner's "Im Treibhaus".
As impressed as we were with Mr. Lepper's piano, we wondered whether, in his role of coach, he had ever suggested to Ms. Matthews that she learn her program sufficiently to share it with the audience. It seems somewhat self-absorbed when a singer appears to be singing for herself and excludes the audience!
© meche kroop
Saturday, February 1, 2020
|Manami Mizumoto, Chloe Kim, Jacob Dassa, Edward Li, Samuel Siegel, Jessica Niles, and Joshua Stauffer|
We recall the first time we heard a countertenor. It was at Manhattan School of Music and the singer was Anthony Ross Costanzo, who has gone on to fame and fortune. More recently we have been dazzled by Jakob Jozef Orlinski and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen. The fach is not to everyone's taste but it is very pleasing to our ear.
Last night at Juilliard we heard Samuel Siegel in recital and the first thing we noticed about his splendid technique is that there was an evenness throughout the range, evidence of a stable core and good breath control. Last week we reviewed a well-known countertenor who sounded like two different singers at either end of the vocal register. That was not pleasing.
Although sacred music is not nearly as interesting to us as secular music, we thought Mr. Siegel brought beautiful tone and phrasing to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's 18th c. Stabat Mater. Mr. Siegel wisely chose some excellent artists to accompany him on his journey into Maria's sorrow.
Soprano Jessica Niles matched his artistry all the way and during their duets we were fascinated by the play of harmonics every time the voices essayed a discordant minor second.
Members of Juilliard 415 contributed the accompaniment with Jacob Dassa playing the beautiful harpsichord and Joshua Stauffer plucking the strings of that most impressive instrument, the theorbo. Violins were bowed by Chloe Kim and Manami Mizumoto, the viola by Edward Li, and the cello by Cullen O'Neil. John Stajduhar manned the Double Bass.
The work itself comprises a succession of verses about Mary, mother of Jesus, grieving at the cross. The poet wants to share her grief. There is not much variety in the sentiment and it is impressive how the young Pergolesi managed to inject a great deal of variety into the music. Surprisingly, a couple of the verses were written in a major key, providing some relief from the misery and suffering.
There is less decoration in the vocal line than in music of the Baroque but we did admire the execution of the few turns we heard, and the occasional florid vocal line in the melismatic passages of "Fac, ut ardeat cor meum".
There was a fair amount of excitement in the scale passages of "Inflammatus et accensus", but for the most part the mood was one of devotion and both singers invested the performance with a deeply felt but subdued sincerity.
We wondered what the adventuresome Pergolesi might have achieved had he not perished from tuberculosis at the young age of 26. His work looks forward to the Classicism of the future.
© meche kroop
|Blythely Oratonio (alias Stephanie Blythe)|
photo by Steven Pisano-courtesy of Opera Philadelphia
We will never forget the first time we heard Stephanie Blythe. It was at the Santa Fe Opera in 2002 when she sang Isabella in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri and the audience went wild when, in a miracle of stagecraft, she appeared to arrive in a turn-of-the-20th c. Wright Flyer. We were hooked by her larger than life stage presence and her magnificent instrument.
Thursday the indomitable Ms. Blythe appeared in different guise but still wowing us with her presence and her pipes, although this time the pipes were miked. As part of the American Songbook Series of Lincoln Center, Ms. Blythe appeared as her alter ego--Blythely Oratonio whose costume beggars description but can be appreciated in the photo above. Mr. Oratonio sipped a drink from a quart-sized martini glass and mopped his brow with a large white handkerchief. He gently poked fun of opera to the delight of the audience.
As one might expect, of the various genres of music being offered, we responded most enthusiastically to his "Nessun dorma" and "Tu sei Pagliaccio", not to mention "Recondita l'harmonia". Arias were interspersed with popular music, music with which we confess to being unfamiliar but which certainly struck a chord with the audience, to coin a phrase. Music Director Drew Wutke managed to mingle Verdi, Puccini, and Queen! He also did a knockout version of Chopin's Prelude in E minor, Op.28 No.4, the death-like imagery of which perfectly suited the message at the end of the program.
On our way to the performance, a friend asked us why Ms. Blythe would want to appear in beard and moustache, singing tenor songs. My answer was based on the secret pleasure we have had singing tenor arias in the shower. Show me a mezzo-- a fach well known for playing second fiddle to the soprano so to speak--who hasn't wanted to sing a starring role, be it soprano or tenor!
But as the evening went by and we listened to the clever script of Co-Writer and Director John Jarboe, we realized that Ms. Blythe had more important fish to fry. The theme for this compelling program was that of transitioning. That word is being heard more and more these days as increasing numbers of individuals are choosing to live as a different gender than that with which they were born, or refusing being put into any gender category. People are freely insisting on being called by their gender of preference or using "they, them, and theirs".
But there are even more transitions of which we need to be made aware. As we go through life we age. We can no longer do the same things we did before. This is particularly true in ballet and opera, but it is also true for civilians. Sometimes we have to accept the death of what was (and that's where the Chopin Prelude came in) and welcome what is.
Early in the program, Ms. Blythe sang Queen's "I Want to Break Free" and indeed she did. Later she sang Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns", adding a bit of pathos. We don't know what percentage of the audience comprised her opera fans and what percentage were subscribers to American Songbook. But everyone had a splendid time and left smiling. We, on the other hand, left thoughtful. We know all about changing and moving on from a personal perspective but this was the first time we became aware of it from an artist's perspective and felt grateful for the insight. It's true that a little bit of humor makes the medicine go down!
Additional credit must be given to Daniel Kazemi for his fine arrangements and the band, which comprised Mr. Wutke with Jimmy Coleman providing the percussion, Mike Ian on guitar and Andrew Nelson on bass.
The extravagant costumes were designed by Machine Dazzle with Rebecca Kanach.
Other performers were called "Birdies"--Messapotamia Lefae and Sav Souza. Yet others were called "Flowers"--Hailey McAvoy and Margaret Tigue who sang "Döme épais" from Leo Délibes' Lakme and "Belle nuit" from Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffman.
We love the idea of breaking boundaries! The show took "breeches roles" into a new dimension.
© meche kroop