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.

Saturday, February 29, 2020


Daniel Espinal and Sophia Santiago in La Traviata at Manhattan School of Music
(photo by Anna Yatskevich)

A TRAVIATA TO REMEMBER--Guest review by Ellen Godfrey

Those of us assembled in the Gordon K. and Harriet Greenfield Hall at the Manhattan School of Music Sunday afternoon, were treated to a remarkable semi-staged production of Verdi’s immortal opera La Traviata. In my many decades of attending operas and seeing multiple performances of this beloved masterpiece, I must say that this was one of the best performances I’ve  ever seen. By the end of the opera, there was barely a dry eye in the auditorium.

The young talented group of singers were led by Conductor, Collaborative Pianist and Music Director Thomas Muraco, who has accompanied great singers and instrumentalists in the United States and around the world. Since coming to the Manhattan School of Music 25 years ago, he has trained pianists in the art of accompanying and coaching, and trained young singers at the MSM Opera Repertoire Ensemble in numerous staged opera productions. He conducts the singers with firm but gentle hands; he does not use a baton. Instead, his expressive hands work with the singers to encourage them to get as much from their characters and the music as they can.  This results in a truly professional performance from not only the singers, but the two pianists as well.

Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave were looking for an opera for Carnival time in Venice. They decided on a play by Alexandre Dumas fils, who, when he was 23 years old, had fallen in love with a country girl, Marie Duplessis. She had become a successful and well-known courtesan in Paris and  enjoyed many parties.  Sadly, she died of TB in 1847.  A year later, Dumas published a novel about her entitled  La Dame aux Camellias, (The woman of the camellias). A play followed four years later. Verdi and Piave had read the novel and play and decided it would be their next opera. The opera La Traviata has become one of the most beloved and most performed operas throughout the world.

The Opera Repertoire Ensemble production was semi-staged; a chair, a sofa, a quilt, and a long table with chairs were the only props needed to convey the story.  Director A. Scott Parry did a wonderful job of directing the singers around this small stage.  His direction was keen. He moved the singers on the stage very well and even had space for them to dance. He did a brilliant job, especially considering how many young singers were on the stage.

In place of an orchestra, two grand pianos were at the rear of the stage, head to head. The two wonderful pianists were Sungah Baek and Anneliesa Trethewey. They did a fantastic job for almost three hours of taxing music replacing a full orchestra. Their playing was sympathetic, dramatic, and also joyful in the party scenes.  Along with Maestro Muraco, they kept the opera moving forward. Clarinetist Alexander Parlee and violinists Jennifer Awn and Christine Wu were fine instrumentalists who also played with great feeling.

The opera opens with a brooding prelude that returns later in the opera. The two pianists played delicately and lovingly, thoroughly embracing the music. Coloratura soprano Sophia Santiago is seen in bed reading, aided by her maid Annina, mezzo-soprano  Hyunji Kim who has a rich mezzo sound. 

Suddenly the tempo changes as the party guests enter to a typical Verdi "um pah pah" beat. The MSM chorus of 24 men and women came on stage singing and greeting their friends. The chorus was wonderful, perfectly trained big voices. The women were dressed in party clothes and the men in suits and they were all having a good time.

Among Violetta's friends at the party were Gastone de Letoriers sung by charming tenor Travis Benoit; the pure toned baritone Gavon Mitchell in the role of  one of Violetta’s lovers, the Baron Douphol; the Marchese d’Obigny was sung by the big voiced bass Michael Leyte-Vidal. Violetta’s friend Flora was the dark voiced mezzo-soprano Gabriella Chea, who returns in the third act. She has a beautiful mezzo quality and a good presence on stage. All of these singers acted very well.

The taxing role Violetta has Ms. Santiago onstage most of the time and her emotions go from happy to sad to grieving throughout the opera. She entered in a stunning red dress and greeted her guests. She has a lovely voice which blooms as she ascends to the upper register; her high notes are right on pitch. In the first act, she joined tenor Daniel Espinal, as Alfredo, in a rousing drinking song. He is secretly in love with Violetta.. After the guests leave to go to another room. Alfredo, in a luxuriously sung aria, tells Violetta that he has been in love with her for a year.  I was very impressed with Daniel’s big warm tenor sound.  He can sing quietly and also make the voice bigger when needed. He sings easily with a lot of tenderness and is a good actor as well.

Violetta is left alone to contemplate this new lover, wondering if he is the man for her.  Ms. Santiago fearlessly tosses off the difficult and long aria and cabaletta (fast moving end of an aria). It is a big challenge for any Violetta, requiring a singing actress, which indeed Ms. Santiago is.  
In the second act, Alfredo and Violetta are living in a house outside of Paris.  Violetta has gone out and Alfredo sings the great tenor aria “De miei bollenti spiriti". He joyously sings of his happiness with Violetta.

Alfredo’s father, sung by the rich sounding baritone, Geraldo de la Torre, arrives to tell Violetta that she must stop seeing his son, as her behavior would make it impossible for his sister to find a man to marry.  Mr. de la Torre is an impressive big voiced baritone with good high notes as well as a well colored middle and low voice.  He uses his voice well. Like all of the singers in this performance, he has very good diction. He is totally believable as the father, although he is a much younger man. 

Violetta and Germont sing a great duet as Violetta struggles to come  to terms with losing Alfredo.  She finally agrees to leave him in a quiet aria of resignation. She says they will never see each other again and tells him to let Alfredo know about her sacrifice. Germont leaves and she writes a letter of farewell to Alfredo. When Alfredo returns, Violetta is no longer in the house. Germont returns and in a famous aria "Di Provenza il mar, il suol" tells his son that he will no longer see Violetta. Mr. De la Torre sings it with great empathy and love for his son. Alfredo runs off to Paris,

Act III opens with another rousing party. Violetta comes in and is comforted by Flora. Violetta regrets coming to the party. The wonderful chorus sings with great gusto and joy.  When all of the guests go into another room. Alfredo re-enters followed by the crowd of party goers and lets out his anger on Violetta for leaving him. This is very dramatic singing and Mr. Espinal handles it well. Germont enters and berates his son for being so cruel to Violetta. At the end of the scene, Alfredo regrets his outburst.

The final act starts with the quiet somber prelude again played with great feeling by the two pianists. Violetta is dying and Dr. Grenvil, sung by the dark voiced bass Fernando Watts, tells Annina that Violetta does not have much time left.  Violetta is alone and re-reads a letter from Germont telling her that he has told Alfredo of her sacrifice and he is on his way to see her. Ms. Santiago sang the great aria “Addio del passato" (farewell to my past) at first quietly, singing a sad farewell to life. 

When Alfredo comes running in both he and Violetta express their happiness. There is a lot of excitement in the music and both singers blend well together. Violetta’s mood changes as she knows she is about to die. She is determined not to die so young. Germont arrives begging forgiveness.  Suddenly she feels stronger and gets up and suddenly with a cry falls down and dies.

When the opera ended there were great cheers from the audience who appreciated this performance. Congratulations to all of the artists for their wonderful performances.

© meche kroop

Tuesday, February 25, 2020


Iván Fischer, Gerhild Romberger, and the Budapest Festival Orchestra as part of Lincoln Center's "Great Performers" Series

Ordinarily we are of the opinion that a work of art should speak for itself and not require long-winded explanations of its origin or meaning. That being said, we found Christopher H. Gibbs' pre-concert lecture on Mahler to be illuminating. We love learning in all its forms and especially when it corrects our misapprehensions.

We knew Mahler married Alma Schindler and later lost a daughter; we mistakenly believed such loss to be the source of his Kindertotenlieder. However, as we learned from Professor Gibbs, it was the poet Rückert who lost a couple children in 1860 and then wrote the heartbreaking poetry which Gustav Mahler set to music at the beginning of the 20th c. Mahler used his recollection of losses of his siblings when he was a child to access the emotions that infuse the music. A century ago, before vaccinations, childhood death was tragically common.  Take that, antivaxxers!

Another thing we learned was that Mahler's obsession with the anthology of folk poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn was replaced by a similar obsession with the poetry of Rückert; the cheerful first four symphonies were succeeded by the weightier Fifth Symphony which we heard last night performed by the estimable and relatively new Budapest Festival Orchestra. Maestro Iván Fischer has been its Music Director and Conductor since its founding in 1983.

The cause of this mid-life change was Mahler's confrontation by his own mortality following a medical crisis. The charming melodies of his early songs, which were interpolated into his early symphonies, are all but gone and his later works are filled with anguish.

German singer Gerhild Romberger, able to sing both mezzo and contralto parts, impressed us with her impassioned delivery of the five songs of Kindertotenlieder. As we learned from Professor Gibbs, Mahler made it clear that he was influenced by Beethoven, Wagner, and his friend Richard Strauss by programming his works alongside those that inspired him. Listening carefully, we noticed that the cycle began with Beethoven's "fate theme"--duh duh duh DAH.

The orchestral writing is raucous and discordant but we enjoyed solos by the oboe, flute, and bassoon, as well as passages with plucked double basses. Ms. Romberger's dark voice was well suited to the melancholy of the text and she handled the upward leaps smoothly. Mahler's orchestration created quite a storm in the final song in which the poet expresses some guilt for letting his children go out in bad weather.

The Fifth Symphony involves a pair of movements followed by a Scherzo and another pair of movements. It opens with a funeral march far more agitated than those with which we are familiar. Mahler, for us, is unique in his ability to astonish us with strange effects. Trumpets, cymbals, and kettle drums contribute to the tumultuous cortège. The only "pretty" sound we heard came from the cello solo.

The Scherzo had some wonderful horn calls and its 3/4 time signature somehow had us thinking about Strauss' comic opera Der Rosenkavalier,  particularly scenes with Baron Ochs! Plucked violins suggested a kind of danse macabre.

The famous Adagietto gives the winds a break since it is scored for strings only, including the harp. Professor Gibbs was kind enough to give his audience copies of page 1 of the score notated by Mahler's friend and conductor Willem Mengelberg; these notes indicate that this movement was meant to be a love letter to Alma, and was in fact taken that way by her. Yes, dear reader, we did follow along with the score in hand, but it was only one page and a new experience for us.

So much for the movement's association with Death by means of its co-opting for ballet and for the film Death in Venice. However, Mahler had consulted with Sigmund Freud who theorized about the connection between Eros and Thanatos, and long before that Richard Wagner had composed his "Liebestod" in Tristan und Isolde. So perhaps it is both. Surely whether it is played in 7 minutes or 14 minutes would be a determining factor in how it would be perceived.

Last night's Adagietto was played in 11 minutes (yes, our curiosity led us to time it) and to us it felt more romantic than morbid. Perhaps one's perception depends upon one's mood. In any case, the Rondo which ends the piece is in a major key and seemed sunny. It had Maestro Fischer literally dancing on the podium. He struck us as a conductor who will do anything to get what he wants from his orchestra, much like a parent who will go through all kinds of contortions to get a child to eat!

If we were impressed by the warm welcome given to the Budapest Festival Orchestra, it was nothing compared to the lengthy standing ovation at the conclusion. It was surely a fine evening of music.

© meche kroop

Sunday, February 23, 2020


Natasha Novitskaia, Joanna Parisi, Maria Brea, Maestro Jason Tramm, Alla Perchikova,
Dongwon Shin, and Kevin Short

Unless you are a regular subscriber at The Metropolitan Opera, opportunities to hear large voices are rare. Since we generally focus on reviewing young artists, we are accustomed to hearing recitals of arias from the Bel Canto period which require light flexible voices. Voices of weight are not unknown to us but are surely not our daily bread and butter.

Last night at Merkin Concert Hall we heard some large voices that cut right through the full sound of The MidAtlantic Philharmonic Orchestra, led with panache by Maestro Jason Tramm. The concert was a joint production of Grandi Voci Concerts, Mathew Laifer Artists Management and MidAtlantic Artistic Productions.

The cast of seasoned performers was joined by Maria Brea, a young soprano whose star is on the rise, one we have been reviewing for the past few years. Regular readers will recall the satisfaction we achieve from witnessing the progress of young artists. 

Not all rising stars make it but Ms. Brea is appearing just about everywhere this year and dazzling us with her poise, enchanting sound, and versatility. We have enjoyed her in opera and in zarzuela (recently with New Camerata Opera); she will appear this Friday with Around the World in Song, singing songs from her native Venezuela.

Last night she performed the melodic and memorable "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's Louise, sung in fine French. We felt as if we were taken on a romantic journey through this well modulated performance. The resonance was highly pleasing to the ear and was accompanied by some fine playing by the harpist.

The other singers on the program are already well established and treated us to some worthwhile performances which were interspersed with instrumental selections which we will describe later.

Concert performances of operatic arias deprive the singers of costuming, sets, and supporting chorus members. It is entirely on the shoulders of the singer to take us someplace. This is easier for the audience if they are familiar with the aria and its place in the opera.

For us this was easiest when bass Kevin Short sang "Ella giammai m'amo" from Verdi's Don Carlo. We are very familiar with the aria and always marvel at the way Verdi was able to evoke sympathy for a horrible character who steals his son's fiancée and then plots to have him killed!

The solo cello begins the sympathy-evoking process and the orchestra picks up on it. The plaintive violins portray the suffering of a man who never foresaw the unintended consequences of his behavior. Mr. Short's covered sound indicated King Philip's morose reflections in Italianate fashion. There was a fine decrescendo of despair at the end.

In an entirely different mood his reflective vocal coloration was exchanged for an expansive and powerful one in "Le veau d'or" from Gounod's Faust. There was no "sympathy for the devil"!

Soprano Alla Perchikova began "Vieni! t'afretta" from Verdi's Macbeth with some dramatic speaking, leading into an impassioned recitativo. Her urgency was reflected in the orchestra as she uses all her resources to lead her husband down a dangerous path.

Following the gorgeous "Intermezzo Sinfonico" from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (Oh, that harp again!) we had mezzo-soprano Natasha Novitskaia taking on the soprano role of Santuzza in "Voi lo sapete" in which Santuzza explains her predicament to her lover's mother. Her upper register handled the tessitura just fine but there was an occasional problem with intonation.

Tenor Dongwon Shin created a portrait of a bitter miserable clown singing about how he hides his pain behind costume and makeup. Of course we are speaking of "Vesti la Giubba" from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci.

He too had an opportunity to show his versatility in "Di quella pira" from Verdi's Il Trovatore which requires varied dynamics and coloration. The audience loved it although we found the voice a bit pushed as the orchestra grew louder.

As a lead-in to the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen, we had the highly accomplished young violinist Hyojin Kim performing Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra. We thought of the violin as playing a highly embellished vocal line and relished the glissandi and what singers call fioritura. The scene from Lilas Pastia's tavern was spirited, even frenzied and we saw it vividly created in our mind's eye. The seductiveness of the "Habanera" was well realized.

We were puzzled when the aria was performed right afterward by soprano Joanna Parisi and we did not feel the same seductiveness. Our view of her was blocked, which may have been partly responsible, but we think the seductiveness should have come through better in the vocal coloration.

Similarly, Ms. Novitskaia's "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila did not offer as much seductiveness as we have heard before. But we did love the harp accompaniment. Oh that harp again! Unfortunately, the musicians were not credited in the program.

We enjoyed the duet from Verdi's Aida in which Amneris tricks Aida into revealing her feelings for Radames--"Fu la sorte dell'armi". Cat and mouse; mezzo and soprano! 

What we most appreciated about Ms. Perchikova is what amounted to a lesson in legato singing. There was a long line of vowels with consonants seemingly dropped in. It was a masterpiece of Italianate singing. It seemed as if she were caressing each word inside her mouth.

Another feature we noted in her singing was a successful handling of the low tessitura in "Suicidio!" from Ponchielli's La Gioconda.

The entire cast performed the "Libiamo" scene from Verdi's La Traviata as an encore, sending the audience out in a joyful mood.

© meche kroop

Saturday, February 22, 2020


Terrence Chin-Loy, Cheyanne Coss, Teresa Castillo, Nicole Brooks, Tesia Kwarteng,
Ryan Johnson, Nora London, Monica Dewey, Alisa Jordheim, Danielle Beckvermit,
Justin Austin, Jana McIntyre, Anne Maguire, Jessica Faselt, Lindsay Kate Brown, and Katherine Beck

It's the competition we look forward to all year and it's been around longer than we have. Entering their fiftieth year of giving awards to promising young singers, the George London Foundation has earned our respect and admiration for a number of reasons: applicants and competitors pay no fee, pianists are provided (last night it was the absolutely first rate Lydia Brown), prizes are awarded immediately, and all finalists receive awards. No one is left standing on stage without appropriate recognition. We love that!

Planet Opera is a small world and we were tickled to learn that with only a couple exceptions, we were connected in some fashion with all the finalists. Some had received Encouragement Awards from The London Foundation in years gone by; some we knew through The Metropolitan Opera National Council Competitions, some from Opera Index Competitions, some from The Gerda Lissner Foundation Competitions, some from The Richard Tucker Foundation Competition, and some from the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program.

Let us begin with the women, in no particular order. Soprano Jessica Faselt made a large statement with Donna Anna's "Or sai chi l'honore", tackling the unrelenting tessitura and wrestling it to the ground without breaking a sweat. Nor were the subtleties lost in this riveting performance.

Soprano Jana McIntyre created a charming Amina, the now wide-awake somnambulist, exulting in Bellini's long phrases in a highly polished performance. There were some beautiful bel canto effects including a liquid trill at the top of the register.

Anne Maguire's chocolate-toned mezzo was just perfect for Fricka's passionate argument with Wotan from Wagner's Die Walküre--"Wo in Bergen du dich birgst". She was completely convincing and employed fine German. We wondered what was going through the mind of our favorite Wotan James Morris who was in the audience!

Another mezzo-soprano Lindsay Kate Brown had such strength in the lower register that we sniffed out a contralto in the making. In fine French, she did justice to the role of the unfortunate Léonor singing "O mon Fernand" from Donizetti's La Favorite. The lovely legato lines were beautifully realized.

Our third mezzo-soprano was Katherine Beck who filled out "Non piu mesta" from Rossini's La Cenerentola with joy and personality. Her bel canto technique was flawless and there was an evenness from the top of the register to the bottom. There is a terrific texture to her instrument that made the performance a singular one.

We loved the bell-like sound of soprano Teresa Castillo as she sang the "Bell Song" from Delibes' Lakmé. She used the entire stage and was generous with her gestures. The precision of the staccato passages was augmented by a gorgeous trill and a floated top note that we'd like to use as an example for some tenors we've heard!

Soprano Monica Dewey performed similar magic with "Caro nome" from Verdi's Rigoletto--precise staccato passages and facility with the fioritura. Her fine vibrato was particularly appealing.

Soprano Danielle Beckvermit has a pretty voice, just right for "Ain't it a Pretty Night" from Floyd's Susannah. Along with fine head resonance and clarity of English diction, we appreciated her acting. We could see the stars in the sky through her eyes.

Soprano Alisa Jordheim gave a fiery delivery of "Air du feu" from Ravel's L'enfant et les sortiléges. The florid vocal lines were wondrously negotiated. Our only complaint is that it is such a short aria and we wanted to hear more of her.

Soprano Nicole Brooks gave a splendid account of Frau Fluth's aria "Nun eilt herbei" from Nicolai's Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor. She used her bright instrument and generous gesture to create a believable Alice Ford. We admired her German and her use of embellishments in tune with the text.

Tesia Kwarteng is an impressive mezzo-soprano who was completely new to us. She used an entire palette of colors to limn the character of the distraught Charlotte in the "Letter Scene" from Massenet's Werther. We enjoyed the dynamics and phrasing that she employed to show the character's deep feeling.

Soprano Cheyanne Coss performed "Comme autrefois" from Bizet's Les Pêcheurs des Perles in lovely French, exhibiting a wonderful top to her instrument.

There were only three men on the program  and we were happy to get another opportunity to hear baritone Justin Austin. "Bella siccome un angelo" was a wise choice since Mr. Austin has just the right dramatic skills to create the character of Dr. Malatesta from Donizetti's Don Pasquale. His beautiful tone and lovely legato made him a standout and every gesture and facial expression served the characterization.

Tenor Terrence Chin-Loy won our heart with a heartfelt "Che gelida manina" from Puccini's La Bohème. He has a warm quality to his tone and seemed to caress each word that he sang. He shaped his phrases well and came across as an ardent youth "selling himself" to a new love object with a newly found bravado.

Tenor Ryan Johnson, also new to us, began Lensky's aria from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin in a rather stoic pose. He built from that position to a profound emotional impact as he revealed a range of emotions, recalling the events of the prior evening and his love for Olga.

We are happy not to have been one of the judges because we never could have narrowed down this field of stars in the making. All of them are delighting audiences around the country but we got to hear them all in one place on one glorious program. We felt so fortunate! We have added several new voices to our "Singers to Watch" list.

© meche kroop

Thursday, February 20, 2020


Catherine Swindle, Elizaveta Kozlova, Alexandra Lang, Angela Candela,
Jason Wirth, Manami Aoki, and Jose Luis Maldonado

Once upon a time, we wrote about underground restaurants and got chubby; writing about underground singers makes us happy. For these delightful showcases at Scorca Hall in the National Opera Center, we have soprano Angela Candela to thank. Long on our radar screen as a singular soprano with divine dramatic instincts, Ms. Candela has proven to be an inventive impresario.

Her Underground Salons provide a supportive environment for rising stars to try out new material in front of an accepting audience. The singers may want to use this material for upcoming auditions so they value the experience of running their selections past a live audience.

From our point of view, it is a golden opportunity to hear singers we love trying out new roles and also to get acquainted with new singers. Let us begin with Ms. Candela herself whom we have always appreciated for bringing a character to vivid life.

Under workshop circumstances, we tend to be more forgiving of the presence of a music stand, especially when the language involved is Czech. Dvorak's "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka presents vocal challenges and linguistic ones as well, both of which Ms. Candela met easily. But it was the dramatic aspect that captivated us.

We always feel super involved when the singer allows us to see the scene through his/her eyes and this is a skill at which Ms. Candela excels. We couldn't take our eyes off her face as she watched the virtual moon disappear behind virtual clouds and then reappear. It was all reflected in her face and we were transported. Soon, the occasional glances at the score will be unnecessary and there will be a stunning audition piece in her portfolio.

Baritone José Luis Maldonado is another singer who has been on our radar screen for some time. Again, it is not just his powerful instrument or refined technique that draw us in, it is his ability to create a living breathing and believable character.

Last night he gave us a livid Falstaff, berating Pistola and Bardolfo for defending their "honor" when he requested their services in delivering identical letters to Meg Page and Ann Ford. His Falstaff is larger than life, just as he should be. Every gesture, every facial expression, every variation of dynamics seemed spontaneously motivated by the text. Probably it takes a lot of work to seem so spontaneous!

He also performed Figaro's aria with uncanny ability to go from the lowest end of the register to a mincing falsetto top. He was perfectly flexible in Rossini's rapid patter section and we held our breath as he extended his held notes, evincing superlative breath control.

Elizaveta Kozlova, also well known to us from Mannes and IVAI, performed Pamina's Act II aria from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte--"Ach, ich fuhl's". She appropriately darkened her bright soprano instrument to reflect Pamina's despair and painted a sympathetic portrait of a woman who feels she has lost her lover. We noted a pleasing vibrato and some well negotiated descending scale passages.

We were happy to hear her second selection from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden. Of course Ms. Kozlova is totally comfortable in Russian which added to our pleasure. We enjoyed the opportunity to get reacquainted with this gem of a Russian fairytale which we so greatly enjoyed at Manhattan School of Music last year. There were some lovely melismatic passages to delight the ear.

Alexandra Lang is another singer we have been watching for a few years. Possessor of a generous dramatic soprano instrument and passionate acting skills, we have been unable/unwilling to pigeonhole her talent. Last night she performed Hélène's Act V aria from Verdi's Les vêpres siciliennes. There were some impressive vocal effects including a lovely liquid trill and a stunning climax.

New to us was soprano Manami Aoki who wanted to try out her French.  Alfred Bachelet's sensuous "Chère nuit" offered her an opportunity for a well modulated performance demonstrating warmth of tone and lovely phrasing. She also sang Micaëla's aria "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvant" which suited her voice and stature perfectly. The vibrato in her upper register was a joy to hear. The sound was Gallic and the small imperfections in the language can be readily improved.

Also new to us was soprano Catherine Swindle who sang "I am not my own" from Mark Adamo's Lysistrata. We always have a hard time overcoming our dislike for contemporary American opera and this is not the one to win us over. As Ms. Swindle explained to the audience, it is about a woman who refuses to abandon her anti-war stance. It is difficult to appreciate a voice singing in English and we wish Ms Swindle had chosen a different selection. We did not understand a lot of the words which so often happens with English. About all we could say is that we enjoyed her middle register. We would like to hear her again singing something in Italian!

Jason Wirth was the worthy accompanist for the evening and excelled at everything he undertook. We particularly enjoyed his spirited playing in the Verdi.

This is a finely designed showcase and we appreciated how each singer introduced her/himself and described the background of each aria.

© meche kroop

Tuesday, February 18, 2020


Song Hee Lee, Eric van Heyningen, Jessica Niles, Karin Osbeck, Hyoyoung Kim, and Maggie Renée Valdman

By a strange coincidence, just four days ago, we reviewed a presentation of Händel's earliest experiments in writing for the voice. How rapidly he honed his skills! No sooner had the tuneful overture to Rinaldo ended last night at Alice Tully Hall, than we became aware of how psychologically astute was his writing for the voice!

By the time he was in his mid-twenties, Händel was much in demand for the London stage and gave them Rinaldo, the first Italian opera created for that city. The reception was warm, just as the reception was last night when post-graduate students at Juilliard performed it alongside Juilliard 415.

Let it be said right away that the minimally staged production was magnificently sung and acted and that Juilliard's period instrument ensemble responded in a lively fashion to Maestro Nicholas McGegan's enthusiastic conducting--all hands, no baton--from the harpsichord.

There was a second harpsichord, played in dazzling fashion by Jacob Dassa. His extended solo absolutely changed our mind about the harpsichord, an instrument that we generally ignore but will no longer. It was one of the high points of the evening, occurring during Armida's Act II vengeance aria and, as cleverly directed by Ophelie Wolf, had the evil sorceress (singular soprano Jessica Niles) bursting with impatience as Mr. Dassa piled cadenza upon cadenza. She even lit up a cigarette (mock) which she shared with the musicians of Juilliard 415 in an hilarious show of boredom.

Special notice must be given to the three musicians playing recorder and oboe--Kelsey Burnham, Matthew Hudgens and Emily Ostrom. The soprano recorder reproduced bird calls to accompany Almirena as she languished in the sorceress' garden lamenting her lost love in "Lascia ch'io pianga", so effectively rendered by soprano Hyoyoung Kim with a purity of tone which soared up into the highest register.

Based upon Torquato Tasso's epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata (as so many operas were) Giacomo Rossi's libretto gave us a fictional account of the First Crusade, an event to which is attributed much contemporary Muslim hostility toward Christianity. Christian knight Rinaldo loves Almirena, daughter of his general Goffredo and will be permitted to wed her once the Saracens have been conquered.

Argante, leader of the Saracens, needs help from his lover, the sorceress Armida. She captures Almirena and spirits her away. Then she lures Rinaldo to her lair, using Almirena as bait. She disguises herself as Almirena and fools Rinaldo briefly. But Argante also falls in love with Almirena who just wants her freedom.

It takes a lot of magical intervention to straighten things out and we can only imagine what kind of stagecraft was devised for the London production. As we understand, staging was quite inventive in early 18th c. London!

Each and every role was sung in fine Baroque style and was accompanied by effective acting. All the world loves a bad girl and Miss Niles' Armida was the baddest of the bad, using every fiber of her being to illustrate what Händel's music is telling us. We have reviewed Ms. Niles on a number of prior occasions but this character unleashed something highly exciting to which the audience responded with volleys of applause. The illusion of sorcery was magnified by her costume and makeup.

Exactly the opposite in appearance and demeanor was the innocent Almirena portrayed by the superb soprano Hyoyoung Kim who was new to us. Dressed in a sweet white dress, she was the image of innocence but used her soprano strength to rebuff the importuning of Argante. In her featured aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" her trills matched the warbling birds given voice by the recorder. The violins wept along with her.

The role of Argante, usually given to a bass, was portrayed effectively by baritone Erik van Heyningen who negotiated well the lower end of the register and was successful at lightening his voice for the romantic scenes whilst letting loose with more powerful vocalism when he was in warrior mode.

Mezzo-soprano Maggie Renée Valdman made a strong Goffredo, evincing a richly textured sound and masculine posture. Phrasing and breath control, as well as dynamics, made for a fine performance.

Mezzo-soprano Karin Osbeck invested the role of Rinaldo with sympathy and performed a lovely duet with Almirena as well as the mournful aria "Cara sposa" when she is spirited away.

We were delighted to see undergraduate Song Hee Lee in a small role as the woman who lures Rinaldo away. We noticed her talent a year ago in a freshman recital and noted her crystalline soprano which was put to good use last night. She created a seductive character that the audience enjoyed.

Act III relied heavily on the music since much of the staged action had to be eliminated. But we certainly did enjoy the reconciliation duet between Armida and Argante. The ending of the opera must have been gratifying for 18th c. audiences because Jerusalem gets "liberated" and the Saracens give up their evil ways and convert to Christianity. Wouldn't it be grand if the contemporary problems in Jerusalem could be so easily resolved!

© meche kroop

Saturday, February 15, 2020


Avi Avital and Bridget Kibbey in The Crypt

We imagine that the Crypt of the Church of the Intercession is still resounding with the heavenly music provided last night by harpist Bridget Kibbey and mandolinist Avi Avital. We are always captivated by novelty and the combination of harp and mandolin opened aural doors for us. The stone arches and vaults of The Crypt amplified the overtones of the two stringed instruments in such a fashion that we were transported to new places.

Andrew Ousley's Death of Classical is famous for providing unique entertainments in unique venues and The Crypt is just such a venue. His presentations are of an exclusive nature with room for about sixty music lovers; we are always thrilled to be a part of this group, even when they applaud in the middle of a work. We wonder whether they are ignorant of the work itself or ignorant of concert etiquette but wish they could be instructed not to interrupt the flow.

The two main pieces on the program were song cycles by two 20th c. Spanish composers. Manuel de Falla composed Siete Canciones Populares Españolas for Soprano and Piano in 1914, settings of folk songs from different parts of Spain. We have lost track of the number of times we have heard it in recital. It has been transcribed for guitar but hearing it performed by this novel pairing of instruments was a completely new experience.

We cannot deny that we heard the words in our mind's ear, especially sung by Isabel Leonard, but the emotional connection was somewhat altered. Most remarkable for us was the devastation we felt during "Asturiana". An individual approaches a pine tree for consolation and the tree wept along with him. A simple idea but so heartbreaking!

Joaquin Rodrigo, another compositional titan from Spain, composed Cuatro Madrigales Amatorios in 1948. They cover a variety of amatory situations from the grief of an unmarried woman to the excitement of a young man infatuated with a woman with loose hair. Nor in this case were we able to ignore the words which we know so well from vocal recitals. Perhaps this even heightened our appreciation.

The program also included Marc Lavry's 1945 Three Jewish Dances which carried no vocal baggage. We simply enjoyed the three wedding dances, the first of Ashkenazic and klezmer derivation, the second of Yemenite origin, and the final Israeli entry of Hava Nagilah, the dance known as the Hora.

Mr. Lavry composed the dances for piano and there were originally more than three. Later he orchestrated them for violin and piano, and then for violin and orchestra. We listened to a few of these versions online and we must say that we preferred what we heard last night.

We have always loved the harp and have a memory of hearing legendary harpist Nicanor Zabaleta playing a solo recital at the 92nd St. Y, which convinced us to make our life in NYC! Since then, we have only heard the harp as part of the orchestra but always love the sound. What a treat to hear it once more up close and personal.

We know next to nothing about the mandolin but found it to be highly expressive and given over to interesting techniques like the tremolo. It isn't every day that we get to hear such unique textures as the two instruments created together.

An encore of Brazilian jazz had us suppressing a samba in our seat!

© meche kroop

Friday, February 14, 2020


Kelli Butler and Dorian Bandy

We love learning new things about opera and last night's presentation at Casa Italiana was as informative as it was entertaining. Musical Director and baroque violinist par excellence Dorian Bandy provided both instruction and musical entertainment whilst soprano Kelli Butler provided eye candy as well as some gorgeous singing.

According to Mr. Bandy, the young Händel, barely out of his teens, arrived in Rome to collaborate with Arcangelo Corelli. At the time, the church opposed the new art form of opera and the ever practical Händel turned to writing what was acceptable--oratorios. 

He honed his craft by writing psychologically astute and musically satisfying numbers, a skill which he would put to good use when he moved to Venice. Many of his operatic arias are recycled from these oratorios. Truth to tell, although we loved the arias we heard last night we were unable to recognize them as parts of any future Händel operas.

Nonetheless it was a satisfying but brief evening comprising two short works in which Ms. Butler commanded the stage portraying two unfortunate women. These arias would surely come in handy later since opera is replete with abandoned, scorned, and rejected women.

The first piece was Armida abbandonata in which the heroine sits on a rock by the side of the sea, lamenting her lost love. Händel's music gives the soprano an opportunity to cycle through all the possible emotions with his music showing great psychological insight. Poor Armida is melancholy and angry in turn. She hates her lover but wants him back. She summons monsters from the sea to torment him

The second piece, Agrippina condotta a morire, involves the mother of the cruel Nero who has sent her off to die. She is in a rage and feeling, of course, the "sharpness of a serpent's tooth" as she contemplates her ungrateful son. She call on Jove to punish him, questions how she could dare to destroy her own son, but later turns her anger against herself. She will martyr herself and torment him from the grave.

The vocal writing in both pieces is beautifully florid with notable melismatic passages. The lovely Ms. Butler handled both roles with nobility and fine vocalism. The support from the baroque musicians was equally fine. Mr. Bandy was joined by Marika Holmqvist playing baroque violins and Cora Swenson Lee playing baroque cello with Dylan Sauerwald at the harpsichord.

Gina Crusco staged the scenes effectively with minimal resources--a rock, some blue fabric representing the sea, and projected images of monsters. Julian Sachs' lighting offered flashes of lightning and changes of color to reflect the moods.

There were also some instrumental selections to fill out the evening--the NY premiere of an overture and a sonata, neither of which had as much interest for us as the operatic selections.

© meche kroop

Tuesday, February 11, 2020


Dina Pruzhansky, Briana Hunter, Meryl Dominguez, Sungwook Kim, and Paul An

In its annual coproduction with the Lyric Chamber Music Society, Bare Opera presented a delightful evening of Russian song and arias. The cast could not have been better chosen, nor could the material have been better curated. Composer/pianist Dina Pruzhansky contributed to the pleasure in several ways--first by narrating and introducing the selections, encouraging the singers to give their take on the material--but, more significantly by her stunning pianism.

Regular readers will recall our distaste for contemporary compositions but the pen of Ms. Pruzhansky plays a different tune, paying tribute to the composers of the 19th c. whom we so greatly admire. We do love melody and her songs have no lack of melodic invention. We noticed most of all how well the melodies reflected the sound of the Russian language. One advantage of hearing songs in a language one doesn't speak is that one can hear the abstract connection between the language of the poet and the rise and fall of the vocal line.

The poet in question was Alexander Blok, a symbolist poet whose words were probably not completely comprehensible in Russian and rather untranslatable into English. In this case, tant mieux! Meryl Dominguez, a singer we remember well from Santa Fe Opera, gave the four miniatures an excellent performance with great attention paid to the sound of the words. Each song had a different mood and the final one was filled with anxiety. We are really looking forward to hearing more of Ms. Pruzhansky's music at Carnegie Hall on March 3rd.

Ms. Dominguez' soprano is a generous one and her performance of Shemakha's "Hymn to the Sun" from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel was glorious in its melismatic seduction, all done in an Eastern mode. Her voice opened like a parasol at the top of the register. We loved that opera in Santa Fe when Ms. Dominguez was in the chorus. We would love even more to hear her sing the role of Shemakha! We shall put that on our wish list.

Mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter, always astonishing in her ability to enter a role and give it all she's got, gave an outstanding performance of Olga's arioso "Ah, Tanya, Tanya" from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. She explained to the audience how unusual it was to assign the role of a light hearted girl to the mezzo fach; yet when she sang it the feeling was perfectly natural and it was easy to visualize the reserved Tanya sitting in a chair nearby, mildly accepting the loving teasing from her extroverted sister.

The sister, we know, is no saint and somewhat lacking in judgment, having also teased her devoted Lensky by flirting outrageously with Onegin, thus provoking a duel--which takes us to the next selection on the program. Tenor Sungwook Kim was so convincing in Lensky's aria "Kuda, kuda" that our emotions got drawn in. We had to stifle the urge to rush up and stop the duel! And Mr. Kim accomplished all this with pure vowels and crisp consonants. He paced himself well and built to a searing climax.

Bass Paul An shone in Aleko's cavatina "The entire Gypsy camp is asleep" from Rachmaninoff's first opera Aleko, adapted from Pushkin's poetry, as was Eugene Onegin, and so many other works on the program. The piano prelude was particularly portentous. Mr. An impressed us with a pianissimo note, floated at the upper end of the register; this is exactly what we like to hear from tenors and hearing it from a bass just blew us away.

Strangely enough, three days ago we reviewed a song cycle by Janáček about a young peasant who runs off with a gypsy woman. Aleko begins where that cycle ends!

Three songs by Rachmaninoff were finely handled as well. Ms. Dominguez exhibited her fine vibrato in the upper register in "Sleep" whilst Ms. Pruzhansky's piano created a dreamlike state with some gorgeous arpeggi.

Mr. Kim performed "Dream" in lovely fashion; he surely knows how to swell a note in careful crescendo and how to hold a note with sustained energy--all evidence of superlative breath control. He generated lots of excitement in an expansive delivery of "Spring Waters", amplified by parallel excitement in the piano.

Ms. Pruzhansky delighted us with a solo--Tchaikovsky's Nocturne in C# minor, begun at a leisurely tempo but moving on to a livelier theme and ending with what in vocal performance would be called embellishment of the line. We hope pianists will forgive our lame description but we are unaccustomed to writing about piano music.

The conclusion of the program was a quartet by Alexandre Dubuque, a 19th c. composer of French origin who was raised in Russia. The song "Don't Be Cunning" involved men making advances and women rejecting them. The gimmick of the performance, which took it right into the 21st century, was that the men kept trying to take selfies with the women. It was all in good fun and made the perfect end for a perfect concert.

© meche kroop

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