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

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