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.

Sunday, April 30, 2023


 Vulpine Nuptials at Manhattan School of Music
(photo by Brian Hatton)

We wish to heap accolades upon Manhattan School of Music Graduate Opera Theater's production of Leos Janaček's fairytale opera The Cunning Little Vixen, also known as Vixen Sharp-Ears. It is a perfect example of team effort, involving the participation of Maestro Kirk Severtson who used the fine resources of the MSM Orchestra to illuminate Janaček's painterly score; of Director Dennis Whitehead Darling who told the story in the most engaging fashion; of the large cast of singers who filled our ears with the most thrilling sounds and, under the tutelage of Diction Coach Kathryn LaBouff, obviated the need for subtitles; of Costume Designer Jen Gillette and Wig, Hair, and Makeup Designer Loryn Pretorius who helped all the singers to embody their given characters; and of Scenic Designer Brian Ruggaber who provided the setting for this gem of a production.

We have yet to mention the dancing. Woodland scenes were populated by swarms of beautiful butterflies recruited from the ranks of the Music Theater Department. Choreography by Felicity Stiverson was just about perfect.

It is almost 10 years to the day that we were introduced to this work by Juilliard Opera and it was performed in street clothes and used a non-woodland set with a good translation by Yveta Synek Graff and Robert T. Jones. We were to see it several more times within a couple years, once at MSM Summer Voice Festival in a deficient translation that fought with the music, and once by Dell'Arte Opera in an imaginative production, sung in Czech, which we found most effective in following the accents of the music.

And oh, what music it is! Although it was written a quarter of the way into the 20th century, the utilization of Moravian folk tunes overrode any instances of atonalism. Showing evidence of the excellent teaching by James Morris, Yeong Taek Yang employed his superlative vocalism and convincing acting to create the character of The Forester as an Everyman, longing for the romance he missed when he married, and now perhaps more in love with his dog Lapák (the excellent Alexandra Lovisa Olsson Andersen) and just maybe the fox kit he captures and brings home as a pet.

And this brings us to the completely winning performance of Joo Yeon Kim as Sharp-Ears. She managed to convey a blend of animal instinct and human foibles. She is a proto-feminist, urging the hens to rebel against their pimp (sorry, the rooster) but then reverts to animal instinct by killing the hens. Like a human woman, she flirts with a possible mate--Gold Stripe (finely performed by Seolbin Oh) who wins her by bringing fresh meat.  (Think wooing with a steak dinner in contemporary times!) The pair move into a home seized from  the grumpy Badger in a swipe at capitalism since the Badger ( effectively portrayed by Benjamin R. Sokol) keeps the den all for himself and does not share. Woodland gossip about their cohabitation leads to a shotgun marriage.

There is a great deal of mime which, along with the evocative music, serves to tell the story. The Forester's wife (Zhe Nancy Xiong) scolds her husband for bringing home the fox cub but he persuades her to relent. Who cannot relate to the familial conflict? Their two bratty boys Pepik and Frantik (Madison Marie Fitzpatrick and Grace Verbic) beat and taunt the kit until she lashes out and Mama must console her crybaby son. We can sense The Forester's despair at losing the battle and losing the kit that maybe he has fallen in love with. Who has not grieved when a parent or spouse has made them give up a beloved pet?

When Vixen and Sharp-Ears meet we are no less moved than we are by the meeting of Mimi and Rodolfo in Act I of Puccini's La Bohême. When The Forester sits at the tavern with his two drinking buddies, their conversation could take place today. The sad sack Schoolmaster (Woo Jin Dong) mourns the unavailability of the gypsy girl who prefers another.  Life has passed him by. The pedantic Parson (Mr. Sokol again) will find employment in another town. The men stagger home inebriated (falling down drunk). The tavernkeeper and his wife (William Velasco and Julia Johnstone) seem like any couple running a business together and dealing with rowdy customers who don't like to pay up.

The joyful wedded bliss of Fox and Vixen is ended by the poacher Harašta (Nan Wang) who wants a fox pelt for Terynka, his bride to be. He doesn't consider all the kits in the litter left without maternal care. Our world today has daily reminders of people who kill for spoils or for fun. Is the human world crueler than the animal world?

This wonderful story of love, death, and rebirth was adapted by Janáček from a story which originated as a serial comic strip. He wrote the libretto himself. The work was "reduced" by Jonathan Dove but there was no mention of the translator in our program. Fortunately there were no "Director's Notes" to tell us what to see and feel. The work speaks for itself and allows us to appreciate many issues on our own--the cycle of life, the rituals of courtship, the selfishness of human beings, disappointments, loss, social injustice, the treatment of women, the treatment of animals.  Every moment since the curtain has brought a new insight. As we were writing we just thought that foxes are know for their cunning. Who was more devious, Sharp-Ears or Harašta who puts on an innocent air whilst poaching animals?

In spite of all the sadness and loss, this work is never maudlin; it is a clear-eyed view of reality and also allows us moments of lighthearted humor, as when the Mosquito (Mr. Dong again) uses a hypodermic to draw blood from a human and then squirts it into his mouth. It is to the credit of Mr. Darling that we enjoyed many similar moments of directorial invention. Every character had a personality and every singer did a fine job of acting.

Our mind is filled with images and thoughts about life that can only come from great theater and only when the direction gives us leave to draw connections on our own. This can be thought of as the best operatic experience we have enjoyed.  OR, we wish to call it the best THEATRICAL experience. It has been said that art holds up a mirror to our society and shows us who we are. This production succeeded equally as entertainment and illumination.

© meche kroop

Wednesday, April 26, 2023


 Curtain call for Cyrano de Bergerac

We take the label "fan" to have derived from the word "fanatic". We have further observed that the happiest most productive people are those who immerse themselves in their passions. Alyce Mott, Founder and Artistic Directof of VHRPL!  must be one of the happiest people in New York. She has devoted most of her professional life to championing the works of Victor Herbert, the late 19th c. composer--so well known in his day and becoming more and more renowned since Ms. Mott established the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!

This is their 10th Anniversary Season and we have watched the audience grow from a small group of devotees at the sanctuary of a small church on the Upper 
West Side to a packed house in the far more commodious Theater at St. Jean's on the Upper East Side. The new home has a real proscenium stage and orchestra pit and gives these works the setting they deserve.

Last night we saw a work that, like most great works, produces both laughter and tears. It is difficult to imagine that the score to Herbert's Cyrano de Bergerac lay dormant for a century until Dino Anagnost of the Little Orchestra Society of New York joined forces with Ms. Mott for a rebirth of this neglected work. The most fascinating part of the story is that there was no libretto; but our intrepid Ms. Mott rose to the occasion and created one!  And that is what we saw and heard last night. This is only the second time the work has been performed.

Mr. Herbert's music is always delightful to the ear, but in this case he outdid himself and one sensed from the overture, replete with waltzes and marches, that we were in the hands of a musical genius. What we didn't expect was the felicitous marriage of music and lyrics--lyrics that rival those of W.S.Gilbert--but American in style. This delightful music was performed by a chamber group of musicians comprising the piano of William Hicks, augmented by violin, cello, string bass, flute, clarinet, and percussion--all brought together by Maestro Michael Thomas.

The work was effectively cast with singers who could act; they succeeded at drawing out the pathos of the story, leaving us with abundant thoughts about not being fooled by the surface of people but rather being open to perceiving their inner beauty.

As the swashbuckling arrogant Cyrano we heard VHRPL! LIVE regular Matthew Wages whose deeply resonant baritone and body language allowed us to see the sensitive insecure soul underneath. He carefully allowed us to see how he lived vicariously through the handsome Christian. There was no need for a fake nose! As his beloved cousin and childhood chum Roxane, we heard the lovely soprano Hannah Holmes who allows herself to be deceived by appearances until the final moment when we weep for her because it is too late and Cyrano is dying.

The role of narrator Comte de Guiche, a "frenemy" and rival to Cyrano we heard Jack Cotterell who inhabited the role with Gallic pomposity. As Roxane's beloved Baron Christian de Nuevillette we heard lyric tenor Ai Ra who created a character of meager verbal skills who can only win Roxanne with the soulful words of the poet Cyrano.

It is always a joy to see the veteran David Seatter as a baker and as the monk who is tricked into marrying Roxanne to Christian instead of to Comte de Guiche. New to the company and most welcome was Jesse Pimpinella as Montfleury. The chorus of cadets was excellent as were the ladies, although the women's chorus did not enunciate as clearly.  Of course we acknowledge that lyrics are more difficult to understand in the upper register.

Christine Hall's choreography was terrific, especially for the Musketeers. No one was credited for costuming which was minimal but not missed. The headgear, a few ruffles around the neck, some boots, and some swords were sufficient.

As far as the gorgeous musical numbers, we mostly enjoyed those with harmonizing voices--"Let the Sun of Thine Eyes" for Cyrano, Christian, and Roxanne; "Since I Am Not For Thee" for the same voices with considerable overlapping; and "The Call to Arms" for the entire company, at the end of which we heard the effective lower register of Mr. Wages' voice.

The final number "Those Were the Good Old Times" for Cyrano and Roxane was quite moving with the orchestra syncopated like a faltering heart. Music Director Michael Thomas did his customary excellent job conducting.

We admit that we enjoyed the work more than Alfano's opera, also written based on the same play by Rostand!

© meche kroop

Monday, April 24, 2023


César Delgado and Laura Soto-Bayomi

Kelly Guerra and Marcelo Guzzo

Things have a way of coming full circle.  It was Maestro Jorge Parodi who taught us everything we know about the art of zarzuela and launched our deep interest in this art form. And now several years have elapsed and it is Mo. Parodi who, having taken over the reins of Opera Hispanica as General and Artistic Director, brought one of our favorite zarzuelas to the stage!  He has done so in an accessible fashion, emphasizing the gorgeous melodies of Federico Moreno Torroba's 1932 masterpiece Luisa Fernanda and omitting the confusing Republican versus Royalist politics of 1868 during the reign of Isabel II.

Although some day we would love to see the work produced in toto, for the time being we were more than satisfied to hear the memorable melodies sung by an excellent Panamerican cast, accompanied by Mo. Parodi himself at the piano, joined by violinist Mia Nardi-Huffman. We were delighted but not at all surprised that Mo. Parodi accomplished the excellent reduction of the lavish orchestral score.

Like many zarzuelas, the story of Luisa Fernanda is a combination of romantic issues and political ones. Poor Luisa, sensitively sung by Peruvian mezzo-soprano Kelly Guerra, is enamored of the dashing military man Javier, (dashingly performed by tenorific Mexican  César Delgado) who happens to be a "player". He surprises everyone by falling for the Duchess Carolina (seductively sung by Puerto Rican soprano Laura Soto-Bayomi) and switching political affiliations. Meanwhile Luisa is being courted by the wealthy landowner Vidal (authoritatively performed by Uruguayan baritone Marcelo Guzzo) who switches his political affiliations to win Luisa's affection. What political turmoil there was in 1862 Spain, matched only by the characters' romantic turmoil! We are not going to tell you the romantic outcome.

By eliminating the dialogue and extraneous characters, Mo. Parodi allowed the audience at the Instituto Cervantes (a most appreciative audience, we might add) to focus on each character's emotional shifts, which are so well delineated by Torroba's music. No doubt, the melodies may sound as familiar to your ears as they did to ours and, be warned, may lead to an infestation of "ear worms". We have been humming the themes all day!

The work was performed with minimal set but authentic period costumes by Eric Lamp, lending an air of verisimilitude.

Mo. Parodi, himself an Argentinian, succeeded on so many levels, from adapting the score to finding an attractive quartet of gifted singers who had the right style and the acting chops to make us care about the characters.

Fortunately, the opera world has not seen the end of this gem, since it will be performed at Opera in Williamsburg on May 13th. We left with our appetite appeased but somehow a hunger for more. Let us hope that this project will be developed further.

© meche kroop

Friday, April 21, 2023


 Erik Bagger, Eva Parr, Jaclyn Randazzo, Barbara Porto, Kristin Renée Young, Victor Khodadad, Stan Lacy, and Scott Lindroth

We first encountered New Camerata Opera at its inception in 2016 and have never been disappointed in their work. That's quite a claim! We have followed small companies with their ups and downs and have also watched some that have ignited and then died out due to poor management and/or poor artistic decisions.  But NCO seems to do everything right and always leaves us with a smile on our face.

Last night we attended their annual gala at a sky high tower in mid-Manhattan. Even that glorious view did not distract us from the excellent entertainment, nor did the bountiful food and drinks and stylish enthusiastic crowd. After a warm welcome and the introduction of the engaging Phillip Bettencourt, the new Board Chairman, we were treated to a generous program of our favorites from the opera canon, sung by long-standing company members, soprano Barbara Porto, mezzo-soprano Eva Parr, tenors Erik Bagger and Victor Khodadad, baritones Stan Lacy and Scott Lindroth, as well as two most welcome newcomers-- sopranos Jaclyn Randazzo and Kristin Renée Young. 

What joy to see the company growing and taking on ambitious new projects. Guests received advance notice of a production for next autumn of Puccini's Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi. How ironic that we just reviewed Juilliard Opera's production of two parts of the same trilogy.

With our preference for opera of the 18th and 19th c. we were delighted to enjoy a program comprised most of our favorites from Mozart to Mascagni. It is difficult to choose our favorites; we went from one high to another. 

Let us begin with what impressed us about the newcomers. Ms. Randazzo made an impressive Fiordiligi, tackling "Come scoglio" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte (and winning the game) with brilliant high notes and the well executed leaps for which the aria is notorious. Ms. Young gave Norina's "Quel guardo, il cavaliere" from Donizetti's Don Pasquale an exemplary interpretation, filled with fine fioritura. The runs were cleanly delivered and the trills were thrilling.

The final tragic duet from Bizet's Carmen was performed in the middle of the scattered audience making everyone feel like attendees at the bullfight shuddering at the spectacle of a woman being done in just like the bull. Ms. Parr and Mr. Bagger left us shaken, in contrast with the production we saw last August in Santa Fe that left us shrugging with indifference. The curious part is that we didn't have a couple hours to build up feelings for the characters. Now how amazing is that!

We haven't seen much of Korngold's Die tote Stadt but we have heard "Pierrot's Tanzlied" many times in concert and we have never enjoyed it as much as we did last night, as performed by Mr. Lacy with persuasive intensity and appropriate gesture, not to mention excellent German diction.

Ms. Porto performed "Oh mio babbino caro" with such involvement and lovely fine vibrato that it was as if heard for the first time, although we just reviewed Puccini's Gianni Schicchi two nights earlier.

Mr. Khodadad and Mr. Lindroth succeeded in limning the characters of Rodolfo and Marcello as they struggle with their ambivalence toward their respective lovers in Puccini's La Bohême. And they did so in perfect harmony.

There was much more to enjoy and we particularly enjoyed the closing. number in which the entire ensemble joined for "Make Our Garden Grow" from Bernstein's Candide. Accompanist for the evening was the excellent Paiwen Chen.

What a rewarding evening! We cannot wait to see what the company does in the fall, especially after hearing how well suited to Puccini they are.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, April 20, 2023


 Deborah Love and Natalie Lewis (photo by Maria Baranova)

We did not feel at all cheated experiencing two of the three operas conceived by Puccini as a trilogy. There was enough aural beauty that we left the Peter Jay Sharp theater on opening night feeling totally satisfied by a tight production of the tragic Suor Angelica and a rollicking production of the comedy Gianni Schicchi. Fortunately, we eschewed reading the program until after the production, allowing it to speak for itself. Having read  John Giampietro's Director's Note, we think it valid to position both works as pleas for forgiveness and the achievement of moral redemption--valid, but rather a stretch and definitely unnecessary.

The gloomy grey setting used for both operas seemed more like a prison than a convent.  The "Synopsis" tells us that this is a contemporary "community of holy women" but we know, dear reader, that this is a convent and it is not contemporary. Not having read the notes in advance, we just thought of it as a convent since the dialogue makes it perfectly clear with references to the Virgin Mary and penitence and obedience. Whatever those blue scarves the women were fooling with, they were easy to ignore in favor of focusing on the musical values. Bringing set elements up onstage by removing tiles in the floor was just plain silly.

But oh, those musical values! Maestro Daniela Candillari made the most of the resources at hand--the completely magnificent Juilliard Orchestra which we would prefer to listen to than to the NYPhilharmonic. Mo. Candillari brought out more layers in the score than we had heard heretofore and achieved perfect balance to the orchestral sections.

The singing was fine with the heavy lifting done by Deborah Love as Sister Angelica, delivering a moving "Senza Mamma" with passionate intensity. There was quite a contrast with the Zia Principessa of brilliant mezzo-soprano Natalie Lewis (whose arrival in a gilded coach was translated as "vehicle" to fool us into thinking of this as happening in the 21st century).

Only in fundamentalist Muslim cultures are women so badly punished for an out-of-wedlock child; if some daring opera company decides to pick up that ball and run with it, we will probably beg off!

Ms. Lewis' rich lower register and austere body language were most persuasive and the tense scene between punitive aunt and wayward niece was most affecting. We believe it is a far better decision to keep this story in its own time and place--one in which a prominent aristocratic family would have suffered great shame by an out-of-wedlock birth. The marriageability of Angelica's sister would have been a major concern in the late 17th c. and jeopardized by scandal.

The other nuns don't get much chance to sing and it is challenging to tell one from another but we found the sincerity of Song Hee Lee as the guileless Suor Genovieffe to be touching as she confessed to still having desires to pet a lamb as she did in her former life as a shepherdess. There was something very alive and believable about her performance.

The costumes surely resembled nun's habits although they were lilac in color. A jagged golden crack in the wall was meant to suggest a fountain that glimmered from the sun only 3 days of the year. It was not convincing.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023



Rafael Aguirre and Fatma Said

A welcome departure from the typical voice/piano recital of German/French art songs brought a sell-out crowd to Weill Recital Hall last night. What could better suit a scintillating soprano in partnership with a master of the guitar than a program of songs originating in Spain-- with a sprinkling of Arabic and Sephardic songs to celebrate the mosaic nature of Spanish history.

Just as one could not visit Granada without appreciating the wonders of The Alhambra, one cannot listen to Spanish music without hearing the strains of Romani, Sephardic, and Arabic melodies and rhythms. A post-concert reading of Harry Haskells's scholarly program notes was most enlightening, tying together Spanish history and culture as they affected Spanish music.

But let us focus on what our ears told us! Celebrated and much recorded Egyptian soprano Fatma Said was the perfect choice for this music and her warm inviting manner drew us into her world. The instrument is crystalline and pure of tone and more than usually expressive. If there were one minor failing we noticed that the beginnings of some songs were a bit low in volume but by the second phrase had achieved suitable dynamics. 

There were times when we wished for more specificity in the generous gestures which lost impact due to a lack of variety. For unknown reasons, Ms. Said kept her head tilted toward her wonderful guitar partner and frequently tilted her body in his direction. We felt like we had a critical parent voice in our head saying "Stand up straight!". This was a minor distraction and did not spoil the impact of her affection for the material and her generosity in sharing it.

The initial set was the one most familiar to us--Manuel de Falla's Siete canciones populares españolas, a cycle which we have mainly heard with piano accompaniment. Hearing it with guitar was a refreshing novelty. The varying moods came across well, although we missed the irony we like to hear in "El paño moruna" and "Seguidilla murciana", both of which are symbolic references to women of low morality. However "Asturiana" captured quiet sorrow in four brief lines. We enjoyed the earnest feelings of "Jota" and the rage of "Polo". The guitar introduction to "Nana", performed by Rafael Aguirre, set the stage for this moving lullaby.

We know the music of Joaquin Rodrigo primarily through his orchestral works-- Concierto de Aranjuez and Fantasia para un gentilhombre. This was our first exposure to one of his songs "Adela" from Tres canciones españolas which was marked by simplicity and opened with some lovely arpeggi in the guitar.

The most modern sounding set on the program was composed by Lorenzo Palomo and comprised a "Madrigal and Five Sephardic Songs" which bore the influence of the pre-expulsion Jewish presence in Spain. As we have noted before, Spanish composers, even those that studied in Europe, never succumbed to the anti-melodic influence of the 20th c. that so destroyed the art song tradition.

We enjoyed José Serrano's jaunty "La canción del olvido: Marinela" and Federico Garcia Lorca's similarly jaunty "Los cuatro muleros". In complete contrast was the emphatic "Sevillanas del siglo XVIII".

Perhaps our favorite canción was the romantic "Del cabello mas sutil" from Fernando Obradors' Canciones clasicas españolas. The song is short and sweet and we wished the composer had written another verse or two!

The Egyptian songs on the program represented the Arabic contribution to the Iberian musical landscape. We didn't find the harsh Arabic language to be any more singable than we find English to be; however, the warmth and sincerity endowed by Ms. Said made them compelling. Najib Hankash's "Give me a flute and sing" offered the opportunity to appreciate the artist's fine fioritura. Sherif Mohie El Din's "Will the River Flow Forever" was marked by a lovely spinning out of sound that seemed to last forever.

Mr. Aguirre had a chance to shine in his solo Gran Jota by Francisco Tárrega. This is a most virtuosic work, filled with pyrotechnics--dazzling finger work and astonishing percussive effects. We wished we had been sitting closer since we were trying to figure out how he managed to play melody, harmony, and percussion all at once.

We enjoyed the evening a great deal and we left wanting to hear Mr. Aguirre perform in Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez someday. In the same fashion, we would love to experience Ms. Said on the opera stage. Her credits are mainly in the area of art song but we had some mental fun casting her in a number of operas featuring charming coquettish heroines! 

© meche kroop