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, February 20, 2020

VOCE DI MECHE GOES UNDERGROUND

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

BATTLE OF THE SEXES, BATTLE OF THE FAITHS

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

HEAVENLY SOUND

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

HÄNDEL'S ABANDONED WOMEN

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

LOVE: RUSSIAN STYLE

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

ETHNOMUSICOLOGY

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

PIANO 10 VOICE 2

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

50 SHADES OF GRIEF

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

TRANSITIONS

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

Thursday, January 30, 2020

RUSSKI-TEUTONIC RECITAL AT JUILLIARD

Grace Francis, Megan Moore, Xu Cheng, Aleea Powell, Marina Iwao, Junseok Hwang,
Francesco Barfoed and Lila Dufy

We heard a finely curated program of lieder and Russian art song at last night's Liederabend at Juilliard. Over the past several years we have gained an appreciation of Russian opera and song which, at first, seemed inaccessible. As the sound became more familiar to our ear we noticed just how expressive the language is and how well the Russian masters set the text, both in rhythm and pitch. Fortunately coach and curator Natalia Katyukova chose the program well. Likely, she was also responsible for the young singers taking the stage with presence, introducing themselves, and telling a bit about the songs they would sing.

In the final set, mezzo-soprano Megan Moore and collaborative pianist Grace Francis made a fine team and performed selections from Tchaikovsky's Seven Romances, Op. 47. "If only I'd known" is a strophic song based on a folk tune with text by Tolstoy. Ms. Moore sang it with escalating urgency and dynamic variety. We enjoyed the melismatic passages.

What affected us the most was "Was I not a blade of grass in the field", another strophic song with some stunning melismatic passages and a powerful climax. We have heard Ms. Moore in recital and competitions-- singing an appealing Cenerentola and a resolute Dorabella as well as the Komponist--always admiring her lyricism and dramatic skills. But last night she made us weep in her deeply committed rendering of a young woman's hopeless situation.

Fortunately, the set and the concert ended on a more cheerful note with "Whether day dawns" in which Ms. Francis let loose with a passionate postlude. We always love it when a pianist who has been delicately supporting the singer is able to tear up the keyboard like that and show a different side of her artistry.

The other three singer/collaborative pianist pairs were also fine. Soprano Lila Dufy has a pleasing tone and lovely resonance in the upper range. Francesco Barfoed accompanied with soft hands lending sensitive support. The generous use of gesture seen in the two selections from Strauss' Mädchenblumen would have made the Rachmaninoff songs even better. Perhaps the fact that she translated the Strauss herself had given her more ease in the interpretation. The evocative text by Pushkin in "Muza" could definitely profit by some storytelling.

Soprano Aleea Powell deserves recognition for taking the stage in spite of a recent tragedy that she shared with the audience. She has a gracious stage presence and sang four songs by Richard Strauss accompanied by the piano precision of Xu Cheng who made some lovely rippling sounds in "Ständchen". We would very much like to see (or rather to hear) Ms. Powell achieve some consistency in her final "ch"s. Like so many American singers, she softens them so much that they go missing on us. We want to hear this lovely young woman again.

We tend to be rather nit-picky with German but not all with Russian, which we do not speak! To our ears, everyone's Russian sounded just fine.

Baritone Junseok Hwang clearly loves to sing and is unafraid to show his enthusiasm. Pianist Marina Iwao consistently matched his emphases. In Schubert's "An Silvia", with text taken from Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona, he assumed the expansive tone of a bedazzled suitor. 

In "An den Mond", Ms. Iwao produced such ripples on the piano that suggested nothing less than Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata which had been composed 14 years earlier. We have no evidence that Schubert heard Beethoven's famous sonata, but it is likely that he was influenced by the master. We loved the change of dynamics and the urgency of the central part. The third verse in a minor key was rendered with contrasting pathos.

We rarely hear songs by Mihail Glinka and were delighted that Mr. Hwang performed two of them. "To Molly" has an interesting rhythm and a challenging ascending passage at the end which echoes the text "rising to the heavens".

That phrase just about describes our spirits as we left this satisfying recital. It's always exciting for us to monitor students' progress as they move through the excellent Juilliard Vocal Arts program.

© meche kroop

Monday, January 27, 2020

YEE-HAW

Justine Aronson as Gutrune in On Site Opera's Das Barbecü (photo by B A von Sise)

We have seen more than our fair share of Ring Cycles and we have spent quite a bit of time in The Lone Star State; both of these experiences contributed to our enjoyment of On Site Opera's current expression of their mission to present opera in venues relevant to the material.  Only this time it wasn't an opera but a wildly inventive musical called Das Barbecü, starring trained opera singers.

Do you need to have seen Wagner's Ring Cycle to appreciate this original production?  Not really, although a basic familiarity with the story might add to your enjoyment of the parody.  Do you need to have been to Texas to appreciate the Texas tropes? Not really, since you have probably been exposed to Texas stereotypes by film or television. Who wouldn't appreciate the emphasis on barbecue and guacamole, our favorite song being "Makin' Guacamole". And of course, there was a chart in front of the musicians to explain the plot for you.

What we are trying to say is "Go see it!". Your intrepid reviewer was there for opening night and urges you to get tickets to one of the several remaining performances, if there are indeed any left. You will have a swell time and you will enjoy a fine family-style dinner of Texas brisket, barbecued chicken, mashed sweet potatoes, and mac 'n cheese (which Texans consider a vegetable)--all included in the ticket price.

It would be unfair to say that the show condensed 15 hours of Wagner's epic into 2 plus hours; the emphasis is mainly on Götterdammerung and much of the plot from the preceding three operas is revealed in flashbacks. Of course, that is also a feature of Wagner's epic narrative with characters often bringing other characters up to date on what had previously happened.

The show was commissioned in 1991 by General Director of the Seattle Opera Speight Jenkins who offered it as a light-hearted accompaniment to the Seattle Ring Cycle for subscribers to enjoy. The book and lyrics by Jim Luigs are clever and the music by Scott Warrender offers a variety of music from faux Country Western to sincere ballads--all of it tuneful.

We are reluctant to give away too much of the plot or any of the hilarious one-liners. Let us just say that Valhalla is now a ranch with Fricka (Zuri Washington) keeping house and resenting the philandering of her husband Wotan (Robert Wesley Mason). Alberich (David Hughey) is still vying with Wotan for the "Ring of Gold" and the pair reach a surprise reconciliation. Siegfried (also Mr. Hughey) is an earnest but not-too-smart cowpoke who is given a spiked drink at a honky-tonk bar, causing him to forget his bride Brünnhilde (a spunky Jessica Fishenfeld) who gets carried off by the not-too-smart Gunther (Mr. Mason) who arranges for Siegfried to wed his sister Gutrune (Justine Aronson).

One of the best numbers in the score has the two abandoned brides devouring the wedding dinner all by themselves and making friends in the process. 

If all this sounds confusing, rest assured that rapid costume changes and acting skill serve to identify each character. Seeing a cast of five accomplish all this complex storytelling is impressive in and of itself. We haven't even mentioned the hilarious scene with the three Norns and the even funnier scene in which the adorable Ms. Aronson in the role of Freia gets taken by the two giant carpenters and... oh, we will stop here. You will want to see that for yourself!

Direction by Eric Einhorn and Katherine M. Carter kept up a frenetic pace. Whitney Locher's costumes were just right with Brünnhilde's wedding dress taking the cake and evoking one of the bitchiest one-liners in the show.  No, we will not divulge it here!

Music Director Emily Senturia played keyboard with a second keyboard played by Riko Higuma. Liz Faure was swell on guitar and Victoria Paterson fiddled away in true Country and Western style. Clara Warnaar was in charge of the drums. We particularly enjoyed the Texas two-step which they really do dance in Texas!

Looking around at the audience, we have never seen so many grinning faces. We could not tell whether they were simply enjoying the show or were also enjoying witnessing Wagner's complex plot being transmogrified and parodied.

If we were to find one fault with this entertaining evening, it would have to do with the staging and sound. Although it was kind of fun to have the cast moving around the room and between the long picnic tables, it also required quite a bit of rubber-necking. 

Complicating this was the amplification. Fortunately, it was certainly not ear-splitting but it was impossible to tell where the voices were coming from, making the rubbernecking even worse.

We know nothing about sound design so we are unable to say how that problem could be surmounted. Nonetheless, we had a great time and left happy.  And so will you!

© meche kroop


Sunday, January 26, 2020

TRIUMPHANT LOVE

Anna Smigelskaya and Carolina López Moreno

Two remarkable artists performed a recital of art songs, the likes of which we have not heard in a long while. Could a graduation recital at Manhattan School of Music surpass so many given at Carnegie Hall by famous singers? Yes, it could and it did!

Although some credit for the magnitude of our pleasure could be given to the astute choice of material, we have a sense that these two lovely ladies working together in sublime harmony could have pleased us with any program they chose.

We first were exposed to the gifts of soprano Carolina López Moreno in 2018 in a Talents of the World competition when we enjoyed her Juliette and her Violetta--two very different heroines, both successfully realized. Her Manhattan School of Music performance as the lead in Nino Rota's rarely heard one-act opera I Due Timidi was another feather in her artistic cap. In 2019 we had yet another chance to enjoy her artistry at a Classic Lyric Arts salon at which she performed Leïla in a duet.

However, art song is completely different from opera and it's a rare artist who can do justice to both forms of vocal artistry. Both Ms. Moreno and her collaborative pianist Anna Smigelskaya have plenty of stage presence and the audience was engaged from the beginning.

The program opened with three charming songs from Rossini's Soirées musicales. In the first song "La promessa" we could immediately identify a lovely legato that persevered throughout the smooth upward leaps, some graceful portamenti, a variety of dynamics, some clear staccato passages, and a sincerity of emotion. Ms. Smigelskaya underscored the vocal line with some lilting arpeggi.

"L'invito" manifested a seductive invitation with some well-executed turns, all laid over a gorgeous carpet of sound in the piano. In "Pastorella delle alpi", the singer created a welcoming character, reveling in some melismatic arpeggi. We enjoyed the brief shift to a minor key. To say we were enchanted would be an understatement.

We would have been content to enjoy more of the same for the remainder of the evening but it was time to move on to some lieder from Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch, somewhat in keeping with the first set if not linguistically at least culturally. We are delighted to report that Ms. Moreno's German is perfect, but one would expect that since she grew up in Germany.

The flirtatious "Du denkst mit einem Fädchen mich zu fangen" has a cute twist at the end as the woman turns the tables on a man. Not all of von Heyse's poetry portrays an elusive woman. The singer in "O wär dein Haus durchsichtig" is completely devoted to her beloved. The poor girl in "Mein Liebster singt am Haus im Mondenscheine" is being serenaded by her sweetheart but cannot respond because of a watchful mother. Like any histrionic teenager she is "crying tears of blood"! Ms. Smigelskaya's piano was filled with longing in a minor key.

Three songs in English followed and we were astonished by the perfect enunciation that made every word clear, even at the upper end of the register. Samuel Barber's setting of James Agee's "Sure on this shining night" was followed by Charles T. Griffes' setting of Sydney Lanier's "Evening Song", filled with exaltation. Our favorite of this set was Frank Bridge's "Love went a-riding", a setting of Mary Elisabeth Coleridge's charming text, filled with wonder.

Debussy's setting of Paul Bourget's Two Romances evinced long lyrical lines in the Gallic tradition of mélodie; the singing was delicate in "L'âme évaporée" and "Les cloches", as was Ms. Smigelskaya's delicate accompaniment.

Spanish was next on the program, to our delight. Who could not succumb to the eroticism of "Del cabello mas sutil" from Fernando Obradors' Canciones clásicas españolas! In the central section, Ms. Moreno began humming and opened up her voice to a captivating vocalise, whilst Ms. Smigelskaya produced ripples of arpeggi in the piano.

Following the serious passion of that song was the charmingly silly folk song "Chiquitita la novia" which opened and closed with a flamenco inflected vocalise. There was a powerful high note to bring the song to an end.

The "dessert" of this tasty meal was in Russian and we heard three of our favorite songs by Rachmaninoff from his Twelve Romances. "Zdes' khorosho" or "How fair this spot" transported us to a special place and was marked by expressive dynamics. "Jeshchjo v poljakh belejet sneg" or "Spring Waters" is filled with the ecstacy of the arrival of Spring after a long winter.

Still, our favorite was and always will be the melancholic "Ne poy, krasavica" or "Do not sing to me" which speaks of longing for what is gone and never fails to touch our heart. All of these emotions were limned by our two artists in tandem.

The audience demanded an encore and we got the impression that none was prepared because the duo performed a welcome repeat of "Love went a-riding".

We are noted for being nit-picky but this was one recital of which we would not have changed a single note. From technique to story-telling, everything achieve a rare perfection. We hope that the two artists will stay together because their rapport was matchless. We foresee a great future for them.

We are not alone in our admiration. There have been countless awards, scholarships, and much recognition as well as plenty of engagements. What excites us most in her future is a debut as Violetta. If anyone can portray the three phases of our favorite heroine it is she. It is said that Violetta requires three different singers but one versatile soprano like Ms. Moreno will likely fulfill all the requirements.

© meche kroop