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, May 19, 2022

MUSE OR MONSTER


 Rebecca Ringle Kamarei and Bryan Wagorn

The fascinating evening presented last night at the Italian Academy by Aspect Chamber Music examined the life and art song output of Alma Mahler, wife of composer and conductor Gustav Mahler. The worthwhile approach of Aspect Chamber Music is to include not only performance but also  information and imagery, making the evening stimulating as well as interesting.

We were not unaware of the "scandalous" exploits of this captivating woman but brief illustrated talks by musicologist Nicholas Chong contributed a great deal to our understanding and appreciation. We are familiar with sapiosexuality but we don't know the term for someone attracted to artistic gifts. Alma had a constant stream of lovers and husbands, all of whom were famous in their fields and considerably older than she. Both she and Gustav had acquaintance with Sigmund Freud who no doubt pointed out that the early loss of her gifted father just might have been responsible.

The saddest part of her story is that Gustav insisted she abandon her musical gifts and so we were left with just a small output, all of which deserves a wider hearing. How fortunate we are that we got to hear four of the five songs from her Fünf Lieder. Her settings of texts by Richard Dehmel, Otto Julius Bierbaum,  and Heinrich Heine were filled with invention and eroticism. Raised on rhyme and scan, we related best to the Heine text "Ich wandle unter Blumen".

The songs were brought to life by the elegant mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle Kamarei whose precision with German was that of un eingeboren. Consonants were crisp and every word was given meaning.  Add to that her rich timbre, meaningful phrasing, and elegant stature. It was not lost on us that her hairstyle and gown suggested the turn of the 20th century.

Her fine performance was accompanied by pianist Bryan Wagorn who was an equal partner throughout. We were impressed by Alma's writing of the piano part which shuttled between commenting on the text and contrasting with it. Mr. Wagorn's sensitivity mirrored Ms. Kamarei's.  These songs definitely merit further hearing.

We cannot recall whether we liked Gustav's songs as much upon first hearing as we do now.  Perhaps they seemed strange at first but the familiarity we acquired makes us respond more instantly than we did to Alma's songs.  We never tire of his settings of folk songs with their likable melodies and danceable rhythms.  "Rheinlegendchen" is just plain fun whereas "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft" makes the most of Rückert's sensual text. Both artists gave a nuanced performance.

The evening was rounded out by other interesting works.  There was a surprise introduction when pianist Adam Golka captivated our ear with a deeply felt performance of Chopin's familiar "Nocturne in E-flat Major". This had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the program but Chopin is always welcome and Mr. Golka's sensitive touch and depth of feeling set him apart and  elevated this familiar work to a higher status.  We loved the expressive rubato, the dynamic variety, and the clearly articulated runs.

Three Pieces for cello and piano by Alexander Zemlinsky (who taught Alma when she was a young woman) were delightful in their variety and contrast. Mr. Golka was joined by cellist Brook Speltz and the two bounced melodies off one another.  The first piece was lyrical and melodic but incorporated a fiery section. The second piece was tender and melancholic and at times suggested gypsy music.  The third piece was a spirited tarantella during which it was difficult to sit still.

We were not nearly as enchanted by the final work on the program, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Piano Trio, Op.1 in which Mr. Golka and Mr. Speltz were joined by violinist Adam Barnett-Hart. It is indeed astonishing that this child prodigy, so admired by all the musical figures of that period, could produce such an accomplished work, but it was not to our taste. It was filled with 20th c. angst and scarcely seems to have come from the pen of a 13-year-old. The motifs were fragmented and angular and we were unable to find a structure to latch onto.

We find the opera he wrote when he was 20 years old,  Die tote Stadt, more accessible and the film scores he wrote in Hollywood after fleeing the Nazis even more so.

In sum it was a fine evening and we left feeling entertained and enlightened, having been transported to the early 20th c. world of music.

© meche kroop


Sunday, May 15, 2022

GOODNESS TRIUMPHS


 William Hicks, Chelsea Bonagura, Frank Mathis, Mary Beth Nelson, and Kofi Hayford


The title of Friday night's concert at the National Arts Club could be taken several ways--the goodness of the arts? the goodness of the artists?  In any case, a stylish and sizable crowd was ecstatic at the return of live vocal artistry provided in this case by Salon58. Unfortunately Loro Aroyo fell victim to Covid and was unable to attend in person but she was definitely there in spirit.

We got to hear lots of our favorite songs and arias and some of our favorite singers. Let us do the familiar SATB format!  But before beginning we need to get on our soapbox once again to urge singers to commit their songs to memory. The dreaded music stand made its appearance rather frequently and had the effect of hampering our connection with the singers. 

Attempts were made to "act" but the precious connection was broken every time the singer glanced at the score, however briefly. We have been compelled to overlook this lapse on the occasion of a singer being a last minute substitution but there was no excuse Friday night. When there is a duet and one singer has made the effort and the other is "on the book", they cannot even connect successfully with one another. We will give our attention primarily to those selections that were best performed. Enough said!

Soprano Chelsea Bonagura had an enormous impact in her creation of the character of Lucia in the Donizetti tragedy Lucia de Lammermoor. It is important in the Act I aria "Regnava nel silenzio"  that the singer foreshadow Lucia's breakdown by being quite clear about the fragility of her sense of reality. Ms. Bonagura's bright clear voice and facility with fioritura were matched by her acting. We actually could see through her eyes the terrifying hallucinations. There were some delicately spun out notes that had us holding our breath and a killer trill.

We also admire Ms. Bonagura's superb diction in her performance of two songs in English. Every word was clearly enunciated and that is a rare thing.

Mezzo-soprano Mary Beth Nelson won our heart in her performance of "Non piu mesta" from Rossini's Cenerentola. She totally captured the graciousness of the character and utilized a perfect amount of vibrato in her clean fioritura and upward skips in the vocal line. Readers may have gathered that we love a good trill and we got more than one.

In the duet with Frank Mathis--"Only make believe" from Rogers and Hammerstein's Showboat, we admired her strength in the middle and lower register which were appealing in their resonance.

The aforementioned Mr. Mathis was listed as a tenor but we enjoyed the baritonal resonance in the lower range of his voice. He gave a most ironic and chilling laugh in "Vesti la giubba"  from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci  that seemed to foreshadow Canio's capability for the violence that would follow.

However, two of his songs (two of our favorites) suffered from some pushing for the high notes. I wish male singers of whatever fach would learn that "high" doesn't mean "loud". Pushing is distinctly unpleasant to the ear. We do hope that Mr. Mathis learns to float his high notes and that we get to hear Rachmaninov's "Spring Waters" and Strauss' "Cäcilie" again with more delicacy.

Bass Kofi Hayford demonstrated some fine French in his performance of "Vous qui faites l'endormir"  from Gounod's Faust. We enjoyed the sense of menace he projected as well as his full tone and the manner in which he alternated between a lovely legato and a pungent staccato.

Along with that fine showing of deviltry, he used a different color for Ibert's "Chanson à Dulcinée"  which we don't get to hear as often as the Ravel cycle.  

There was some good ensemble work as well. Ms. Bonagura and Ms. Nelson made some beautiful vocal harmonies in "Dome epais" from Delibes' Lakmé.  But the delicious dynamic between the two characters was destroyed by the presence of the music stand.

We always love the first act trio from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte --"Soave sia el vento" --and was glad to see it on the program.

Piano wizard William Hicks always manages to give each singer the necessary support and we were glad to hear him again after the long lull in live performance.

We were still wondering about "Goodness Triumphs" when the program ended but never did figure it out unless it was referring to Cenerentola.

© meche kroop 


Wednesday, May 11, 2022

CAREER BRIDGES GALA


 Career Bridges Grant Winners of 2022

The most gala of all galas was held last night at the Metropolitan Club to celebrate The Career Bridges Grant winners. It was particularly gala since it was the first "gathering of the tribe" since the onset of the Covid epidemic. What a grand pleasure it was to see all the luminaries of the opera world there to celebrate a new generation of young opera singers.

This was the 18th such celebration brought to us by that most glamorous and warmly welcoming couple--David Schuyler Bender and Barbara Meister Bender who co-founded the Schuyler Foundation for Career Bridges. For anyone who doesn't know about this worthy foundation, their mission is to help young singers to launch their careers, a mission dear to our heart. They accomplish this goal over a period of three years during which these talented young singers are provided with grants, expert mentoring, training, and performance opportunities. So far, there have been 160 grant winners and over half of them can be considered "launched" whilst 20 are having major careers.  Pretty good results, wouldn't you agree?

Part of the evening comprised awards given to notable luminaries of Planet Opera. The Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Maestro Eve Queler whose enviable conducting of the Opera Orchestra of New York at Carnegie Hall introduced us to many young opera singers who went on to major careers and also to rarely performed operas.  We recall climbing endlessly to reach the top balcony of Carnegie Hall, binoculars in hand, to participate in these highly anticipated events.

The Distinguished Achievement Award was given to Jane Shaulis who had a long distinguished career as a character mezzo and whom we know mainly from Opera Index, another group of opera lovers who support young singers with generous cash awards. Under her stewardship, generations of young opera singers have been brought to our notice. We were delighted by her sense of humor which brought wide and knowing smiles to those who understand the roles played by mezzo-sopranos. We do believe there is a rather funny song that describes that and if any of our dear readers can tell us the composer and title we will be forever grateful.

The entertainment part of the evening came as "courses" along with the food (dinner must be served) and we hope to hear each and every one of the award recipients in an environment where we might focus more intently on their artistry. Musical Direction and piano accompaniment was provided by Ted Taylor with impressive versatility--from Baroque  to Broadway. As a matter of fact, the evening began with Handel and ended with Broadway.

Accompanied by the sonorous trumpeting of David Glukh, mezzo-soprano Joanne Evans gave a fine account of "Or la tromba" from Handel's Rinaldo. We noticed and enjoyed the clarity of her fioritura.

Bass Matthew Soibelman delivered "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte with consummate authority and depth of resonance at the bottom of his register.

From Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, soprano Kayleigh Riess  performed the Presentation of the Rose with the requisite air of innocence. She floated the high notes in a manner that any tenor would do well to emulate.

Tenor Thomas Cilluffo colored his fine tenor in the gentlest fashion for Duparc's delicate melodie "Phydilé" in magnificent contrast with his later performance of Mime's aria "Zwangvolle Plage" from Wagner's Siegfried. Accompanying himself with clanging sticks to emulate the sound of the forge, he imbued his character with bitterness and frustration.  What a pleasure to witness such versatility!

Baritone Samson McCrady gave an expansive performance of Figaro's aria from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia. We enjoyed his facility with the rapid patter and his leaps into falsetto for humorous effect. Later we would hear him close the program with "The Impossible Dream" from Leigh's Man of La Mancha, joined by the rest of the singers as chorus.

Countertenor Key'mon Murrah utilized a finely wrought vibrato in his performance of "Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento" from Rossini's Semiramide.  Not everyone loves this fach but we surely do!

Mezzo-soprano Lisa Rogali has a true mezzo sound that was just right for Rosina's aria "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia. We heard some more than usually interesting embellishments of the vocal line,  all successfully negotiated.

Mezzo Mary Beth Nelson gave a heartfelt performance of "Sein wir wieder gut!" from Strauss' Ariadne auk Naxos, reminding us that opera is a "heilige Kunst".  We enjoyed the expansiveness at the top of her register.

Mezzo Mala Weissberg gave a lighthearted reading of "Nobles seigneurs, salut!" from Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. Her fine French was particularly lyrical.

From Bellini's I Puritani soprano Kungeun Lee  performed "Qui la voce sua soave...vien diletto". We enjoyed the long phrases, the skips, and a well executed portamento.

No evening is complete without the "Flower Duet" from Delibes' Lakme. Ms. Reiss and Ms. Weissberg performed it in perfect hermony, to our delight.

We don't often hear Wagner in recitals like this so it was a special treat to have 2005 Winner John Dominick III perform Wotan's aria from Das Reingold.  "Abendlich" would have us believe that things would go well for the gods, LOL.  We take it, judging by Mr. Dominick's performance that things are going well for him!

It was a completely satisfying evening and we look forward to the success of this year's award winners

© meche kroop

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS


Ahmed Alom Vega and Rosario Armas

There are pleasant recitals, there are excellent recitals, and there are recitals that one will never forget.  Mezzo-soprano Rosario Armas, just completing her Master of Music degree at Manhattan School of Music, gave a recital in collaboration with her new husband Ahmed Alom Vega that has us groping for superlatives.
 
Before describing the program let us begin by trying to analyze what made this recital so outstanding.  There are a lot of great voices out there; many programs are designed to show off the singer in many languages and styles; but rare is a recital in which the singer's artistry is such that he or she melts into the character.

We were not at all surprised that Ms. Armas perfectly inhabited the character of Cherubino in the recent production of Mozart's Nozze di Figaro at Manhattan School of Music. However, doing the same thing in an art song is far more challenging.

For example, how many times we have enjoyed hearing a baritone singing Mahler's emotionally shattering cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; on a rare occasion we have heard a female singer make an attempt, leaving us with a kind of negative opinion of singers tackling works meant for the other gender. Last night was completely different! It was the essence of the text that came across as Ms. Armas completely disappeared. (If a baritone ever does the same with Schumann's Frauenlieben und Leben we may very well fall off our chair.)

Serving the music and the text to this degree requires the abandonment of self indulgence. The narrator in this cycle is suffering from the loss of his beloved and in spite of the beauties of nature he sinks into despair.  Eventually his agony yields to a calm acceptance.  Ms. Armas limned each and every emotion; even if the listener did not understand the German (which our singer enunciated with Teutonic perfection) one could not fail to understand.

The narrator of Henri Duparc's "Au pays où se fait la guerre" is in a different type of despair. She is pining for a lover who has gone off to war. The text was performed in an even Gallic style but was no less affecting.  We couldn't help but thinking that the world hasn't changed much.  Men still go off to fight foolish wars and women are left to pine. Here, Ms. Armas' phrasing was accompanied by a very affecting vibrato.  Variety from one verse to the next was achieved by astute variations in dynamics and tempi.

Three Italian songs from three different periods permitted the appreciation of those lovely Italian vowels.  From the late Baroque period we heard "Sposa son disprezzata" from Vivaldi's Bajazet.  A lovely pianissimo aria was followed by a fierce cabaletta marked by clarity in the fioritura; the ritornello was given a different color.

"Non t'accostare all'urna" from Verdi's Sette Romanze is one of our favorite songs and as Ms. Armas performed it we felt as if we knew the woman who was singing the words and we knew her as if she were a character in an unknown opera. We wondered whether Verdi had intended it that way.

The more modern "Nebbie" is a real mood piece and we found it chilling in its intensity, achieved by both singer and pianist.

Two selections from Kurt Weill's Trois chansons reminded us that there is truly no difference between a cabaret song and an art song. If the singer has a great voice and sings unamplified, even a Broadway song can stand next to an aria.  There is an operatic depth of feeling in "Je ne t'aime pas" and plenty of irony and denial, all made clear by our marvelous mezzo by means of word coloration. "Youkali" came as somewhat of a relief from all that pain.

More pain was experienced in two selections from Manuel de Falla's Siete canciones populares with guitar accompaniment by Eduardo Gutterres.  The pain of "Asturianas" is a gentle sorrow but the pain of "Polo" is an angry pain--all made clear by Ms. Armas' Iberian intensity.  If we are not mistaken, we were first introduced to the artist when she performed the cycle some years ago!

After all that pain it was surely time for some exuberance and fun.  From Obradors' Canciones clasicas españolas, "El Vito" was given a raucous reading my Ms. Armas, Mr. Gutterres, and Mr. Vega providing rhythmic accompaniment on the cajon. This may be a good time to mention how outstanding we found his pianistic collaboration throughout the entire concert. We particularly noted it during a set of Burleigh songs when he gave the most delicate introduction to "Among the Fuchsias" and some lovely arpeggi in "Till I Wake". There were some impressive trills in the bass register in Mahler's "Die zwei blauen augen".  There were also some sharp attacks in the Mahler that emphasized the pain.

There were more delights to come in a spirited performance of "Yo soy Maria" from Piazzolla's tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires. Rodolfo Zanetti was featured on bandoneon and Nicholas Danielson on violin with both providing interesting solos. Pedro Giraudo played string bass and Mr. Vega, the piano.

An encore was enthusiastically demanded and Agustin Lara's "Granada" was the perfect ending to a perfect concert, sending everyone out smiling.

We have said little about Ms. Armas' vocal assets. There is absolutely nothing to criticize, not a single quibble. It is a rich sizable instrument with a lovely quality. There is ample resonance in the lower register and a bright expansive top. It is seamless in its transitions. Languages are perfect. Phrasing is always elegant. All of this "technique" disappears into the performance; Its perfection is what allows the listener to focus on the music.

We have the greatest confidence in Ms. Armas' future, both on the opera stage and as a recitalist. All doors should open for such an artist.

© meche kroop


Friday, May 6, 2022

GETTIN' RELIGION


 Lachlan Glen and Michelle Bradley

We give very little thought to religion other than an idle curiosity about what other people derive from it.  But last night concert gave us a glimpse of how deeply held beliefs can affect an artist's performance, suffusing it with intensity, passion, and light.  It was the encore of Michelle Bradley's divine performance when she sang "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands".  Words fail us and that's rather unusual.  Let's just say we "got the feels".

The entire hourlong concert was way too short.  Ms. Bradley, a bright light on the world's opera stages, possesses a rich dramatic soprano of consummate flexibility and phrasing that likely took countless hours of practice to achieve such perfection--but seemed as natural as speaking. Not only is she a gifted artist but a charming raconteur, sharing intimate thoughts about her selections.

We continue to grow in our appreciation of Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs. One can perform them or one can reveal them. The range of moods of the monk-poets encompasses the deepest spirituality and also some naughtiness.  Our favorite is always "Scholar and Cat" with its lighthearted good humor and sensitivity to the poet's relationship with and respect for his cat Pangur. We only wish that Ms. Bradley had included the naughty one!

In terms of a challenge for a large voice, there is nothing like Richard Strauss' Vier Letzte Lieder. The texts are filled with references to the natural world and the mood is elegiac. We know well the collaborative piano artistry of Lachlan Glen but we had never heard him recite poetry before. He read a translation of each song with expressivity and fine rhythm.  He also alerted the audience to listen for the birdsong which was cleverly produced by an unseen flutist. A delicate violin accompanied for a brief period.

The final piece on the program was "Vissi d'arte" from Puccini's Tosca. Before last night, we thought of this aria as a showpiece, the highlight of the opera, the moment we are all waiting for with bated breath. The manner in which Ms. Bradley performed it, we realized how deeply religious Tosca is.  The aria is in many ways a prayer.  

In describing her deeply religious feeling and beneficent behavior Tosca cannot believe that her god would abandon her. She is begging for help. What we are left to imagine is how she then reconciles her beliefs with her murder of the evil Scarpia. It is more evidence of Ms. Bradley's artistry that we learned more about the character and experienced her in a new light.

Mr. Glen has a true knack for bringing new people into the fold of classical voice. He chooses only the finest artists to perform, keeps the program brief enough so that newbies could not possibly get bored, and includes socializing with wine and food.  Acquaintances are greeted and friendships initiated. After such a long Covid-fueled hiatus, it was a special treat to get together once more with opera lovers.

© meche kroop