Thursday, May 25, 2023
SINGING BEATS VIEW
Sunday, May 21, 2023
BORGIA NON BORING
(at left) Toni Marie Palmertree
(Photo by meche kroop)
(at right) Eric Botto and Madison Marie McIntosh
(photo by meche kroop)
Gaetano Donizetti's 1833 opera Lucrezia Borgia was given an impressive concert performance last night at The Center at West Park. With musical values this strong, it should have been staged at The Metropolitan Opera. Why is this bel canto masterpiece so rarely staged? Was Victor Hugo's play (on which Felice Romani based his libretto) too shocking by its incestuous hints? Are the lead roles too difficult to cast?
We do believe we saw it at Caramoor about 10 years ago with Angela Meade in the challenging title role. We don't recall sets so perhaps it was also in concert version. The opera has everything one would wish for in a bel canto opera--a melodramatic plot (very loosely based on history), engaging melodic aspects, interesting orchestration, and opportunities for superstar singers. Last night's performance met all those requirements from the opening percussive rumbles and horn declarations to the final tragic finale.
Maestro Keith Chambers elicited a superlative performance from his orchestra and the roles were sung as grandly as one would wish for. As the titular anti-heroine, Toni Marie Palmertree dazzled with fioritura fireworks and sensitively colored her voice to suit the various circumstances--from tenderness toward her son to firmness toward her husband. The vocal lines flowed like warm honey. The vibrato filled the sanctuary with overtones.One could not have wished for a better performance in this treacherous role.
As Gennaro, her illegitimate son who had been raised apart from his ill-reputed mother, we heard tenor Eric Botto who filled out his role nicely. Unaware of Lucrezia's identity and having been warned of her dangerous nature, his approach to her was wary. But when singing with his friend Maffio Orsini. his voice wa colored with warmth. When there are no sets and costumes to help the story along, and when audience members do not wish to distract themselves from the singing to look at titles on their cell phones, these vocal colorations assume an outsize importance. We particularly enjoyed his duets with Orsini.
Which brings us to the remarkable performance of mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh as Maffio Orsini. She excelled at creating a character, an important character by virtue of his closeness to Gennaro. The vocal colors that we so appreciated were augmented by meaningful facial expressions and gestures that defied the limiting aspects of the concert style production and the presence of the music stand. We couldn't help wanting to know more about Orsini's friendship with Gennaro. But that could be another opera! This artist has an enormous range and can dazzle with her upper extension and then wow us with husky low notes. We loved the accuracy of the embellishments and skips.
As the jealous husband, Don Alfonso, Duca di Ferrara, bass Eric Lindsey made a fine showing with growling low notes and an effective pianissimo As his confidant Rustighella, tenor James Danner made the most of a small but vital role.
The group of hotheaded young nobles who set the story in motion (by deleting the letter "B" in the Borgia family crest) was played by four fine singers who held their own individually as well as in the ensembles. Tenors Scott Rubén La Marca and Pedro Barrera took the roles of Jeppo Liverotto and Oloferno Vitellozzo, respectively. Baritone Wilbert Kellerman sang the role of Ascanio Petrucci and bass-baritone Nate Mattingly took the role of Don Apostolo Gazella. Although it may not have been appropriate in this concert version, we longed for some differentiation of character. Nonetheless, the harmonies were deftly handled.
We enjoyed the lively chorus as well as they contributed to the musical texture. The score and orchestral parts were supplied by Maestro Eve Queler who must have conducted the work with her Opera Orchestra of New York at Carnegie Hall but that was probably before our time. It is indeed a pity that this opera has been so overlooked. The music is melodic and memorable. And yet, the only piece that we heard before was the Brindisi "Il segreto per esser felice" and it is this piece that is running through our head!
© meche kroop
Tuesday, May 16, 2023
REALISMO ON THE DOCKS
EDUCATION, ENLIGHTENMENT, AND ENTERTAINMENT
Monday, May 15, 2023
Malena Galán (photo by meche kroop)
Graduation recitals are usually pretty exciting, especially if you have watched the graduating singer develop over a period of time. The singer develops the program and gets the stage with whomever she chooses to share with. It is an opportunity to show off what one has learned over the past four years and to exhibit as much variety as one chooses.
At this concert given by mezzo-soprano Malena Galán, graduating from Manne School of Music, we heard accompaniment on the piano by Youngmo Na and Aleksandar Hadžieski, Helen Wyrick on the guitar, Elias Ludlam on flute, Carlos Pino on string bass, as well as by a string quartet comprising Salome Lamidze, Zoe Lo, Sofia Machuca, and Beatriz Sardón Martin,
The recital was a most audience-pleasing survey of her multiple areas of artistry, covering not only art songs in English, German, French, Spanish, and what we think was Ladino-- but also some musical theater and tango. All were enjoyable.
There is one thing that differentiates Ms. Galán's stage presentation and that is a complete comfort with the audience, manifested by a welcoming and engaging manner. We felt as if she were a guest in our home introducing each song.
English may not be our favorite language for singing but Purcell's "Music for a While" was a great opener, showing an artist who isn't afraid of emoting. As a matter of fact, that quality was present in every selection, making each song into a mini-aria. That is the gift of "story-telling". The imagery comes alive in a most engaging fashion.
In the German section, "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht" from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, we felt like a child listening to a folk tale. In contrast, Schubert's "Ständchen" was filled with ardent mature longing.
In the French section we particularly enjoyed a most convincing "Maman, dîtes-moi" a cute ditty about a girl experiencing the pangs of first love.
Ou favorite in the Italian section was the familiar "Voi che sapete", sung by the very hormonal Cherubino to the Countess in Mozart' Nozze di Figaro. We could just see the youth with all his diffident gestures and bravado.
The hit of the musical theater section was Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are", thankfully sung with simplicity and sincerity. (We never cared for the jazzed up version). We liked the sad song of a disappointed lover from Manuel Valls' Canciones Sefarditas.
Unfortunately, we had to leave before the concluding songs from Argentina, Ms. Galán's homeland. It was not such a great loss because we have a persistent memory of our introduction to the artist at a concert at the Argentinian Consulate organized by fellow Argentinian Maestro Jorge Parodi in which we acquired a great appreciation for those songs.
Between then and last night we had the pleasure of seeing this young artist in a Mannes production of Cavalli's La Calisto. It will be interesting to see where she goes next. A mezzo-soprano with a smoky lower register and firmly supported tone could occupy the world of opera, cabaret, or musical theater. We eagerly await further developments.
We can never end a review without a quibble and here it comes. The German needs work. Like so many American singers, there is so much fear of mispronouncing the final consonants that they get left off to the point where the word makes no sense. Let's get friendly, singers, with "ich" and "ig" and other endings!
© meche kroop
Thursday, May 11, 2023
NINETEEN YEARS OF CAREER BRIDGES
Sunday, May 7, 2023
Friday, May 5, 2023
LOVE CONQUERS ALL
Annija Dziesma Teteris, Eva Rae Martinez, Elizabeth Pope, and Angelina Yi
(Photo by Rezi Aliaj)
Henry Griffin and Feihong Yu
(photo by meche kroop)
David Freides and William Wake Foster
(photo by meche kroop)
If you wanted to introduce someone to opera, you could not have done better than to take them to see and hear a completely captivating production of Monteverdi's masterpiece L'incoronazione di Poppea, a work created for mid-17th c. Venice during Carnevale. We could go on for pages about scholarly disputes but we prefer to discuss our rapturous joy at the entertainment value and our astonishment by the astounding talents of the cast, drawn from Manhattan School of Music's Undergraduate Opera Theater. Yes, you read that right!
Musical values were first-rate on all accounts with Maestro Jackson McKinnon leading his chamber orchestra, half-hidden behind the simple set (designed by James Rotondo). Judicious cuts were made but there was no loss of continuity. The vocalism left nothing to be desired and the fact that these undergraduates handled the challenges of baroque singing with such aplomb is a source of astonishment.
Librettist Giovanni Busenello created characters from Roman history and bent their characteristics and fates to his own devices, telling a story of the triumph of love in the person of Cupid winningly portrayed by Angelina Yi; she interrupts a competitive quarrel between Virtue (Sara Nichole Stevens) and Fortune (Sophia Strang) and recounts the story proving that Love supersedes everything else.
Drusilla (winsomely portrayed by Feihong Yu) is enamored of Ottone (the dramatically hilarious Henry Griffin); he is crazy about the beautiful Poppea (portrayed by the beautiful Eva Rae Martinez) who is passionately in love with the Emperor Nerone (Elizabeth Pope) who returns her lust to the detriment of his rejected wife Ottavia (performed in drag by David Freides to the great amusement of the audience).
Without any prompting from the director we had our own associations to a certain political figure who also might have said "I care nothing for the senate and the people". Given the freedom to let our thoughts wonder we couldn't help thinking of the lamenting Countess in Mozart's Nozze di Figaro. Unlike the Countess, Ottavia is vengeful and blackmails Ottone into killing her rival Poppea,for whom he has the hots. Poor Drusilla is dragged into the plot and the cross-dressing that ensues is cause for more amusement.
We have no idea how the audience of the time took this work but perhaps, with knowledge of the unhappy ends suffered by all the characters, they saw the work as ironic. Although the ending is relatively happy, with Poppea being crowned Empress and Ottavia, Drusilla, and Ottone being exiled, it lacks historical verisimilitude, but reaffirms the triumph of love.
Now, looking at how a 21st c. audience sees the work, that is in the hands of the director; in this case we have the imaginative Chloe Treat, whose last name describes our reception of the production. Although we have protested vociferously against trashing the classics of the canon by means of "concept", we have no such compunction about long forgotten works that have no prior emotional investment for us. Indeed, we have enjoyed a number of productions of this opera in the past ten years (available by entering the name of the opera in the search bar) and this one is the most original.
Lacking a television, we did not realize the style was meant to be that of reality television, a fact we only learned after the opera by reading the program notes. Lacking that knowledge did not impair our appreciation of the humor in any way and we look forward to seeing more of Ms. Treat.
The contributions of Costume Designer Fan Zhang added greatly to the style of the show. Poppea lounged around in Schiaparelli pink fuzzy slippers and skimpy shift. For the coronation she rocked a slinky red gown. Drusilla and Ottone wore the same Little Bo-Peep dress in their plot to kill Poppea. The philosopher Seneca (sung in wonderful bass tones by William Wake Foster) sported a sequined jacket with little red hearts which was appropriated by Cupid. Other characters wore black tee shirts and trousers which set off the more colorful costumes.
Among them were two "cosmeticians" serving Poppea and Ottavia--Arnalta (Caspian Noble Fernholz) and Damigella (Angelina Bush). Mercury (Brian Kim) came to announce Seneca's death in a suit and tie- reminiscent of the "Todesverkündigung" in Wagner's Die Walküre. Charlotte Jakobs and Isaac Hall added even more merriment as fumbling security guards.
There was a lot of risqué humor but nothing the kiddies haven't seen on TV. There was an abundance of glorious melody, culminating in the final duet between Poppea and Nero-"Pur ti miro, pur ti godo". Where else have we had this much fun at the opera?
© meche kroop
Thursday, May 4, 2023
Opening nights at the opera are usually exciting and last night's opening of Verdi's tragedy La Traviata was particularly so for several reasons. An important one for us is that we have watched City Lyric Opera grow from its inception, back when it was called A.R.E. Opera. We love the idea that it is gynocentric, giving opportunities to female conductors and directors. What is important for the company is that they have outgrown church basements and black box theaters, presently performing in the charming theater at The Sheen Center which has a real proscenium arch with curtains, comfortable raked seating, a reception area, and room for a chamber orchestra.
This chamber orchestra, led by rising star Maestro Michelle Rofrano (no relation to the young Count Rofrano in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier), comprised a dozen strings, augmented by flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, and timpani. They responded with agility to Mo. Rofrano's expressive hands in which no baton was needed.
Verdi's highly evocative music was given a fine reading with no radical departures but with subtle shadings and excellent balance. The dynamics were successful with the volume kept down during the arias but heightened for emotional moments. It is easy to see why Mo. Rofrano's star is on the ascendance.
We can say the same thing about the singers. How satisfying it felt for us to see and hear singers known to us from varied other performances with other companies--all together on the same stage, creating an effective ensemble feel. We credit Director R. Lee Kratzer for eliciting dramatically meaningful performances from the singers.
As the conflicted tragic heroine, we heard soprano Laura Soto-Bayomi who ably demonstrated Violetta's emotional growth from party girl to a woman in love and finally to a woman facing her death with fortitude. Her instrument is a powerful one with a brilliant upper register, as we noted recently when she performed in the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda for Opera Hispanica. It's a pleasure to witness a major talent with the versatility to perform such divergent roles.
As her ardent and impetuous young lover, we heard tenor Colin Aikins who was convincing in his portrayal. In Act I, he was shy and awkward, finally, with a big push from his copain Gastone, getting to meet the woman he has worshipped from afar for an entire year. In Act II, having gotten Violetta out of Paris and into the countryside, he has gained a measure of self confidence, delivering "Dei miei bollenti spiriti" with panache. Watching his spirits collapse when he reads Violetta's "dear John" letter was heartbreaking. The peak of his performance came in Act III when his anger exploded and his voice expanded to fit the emotion. Casting a young man in this role made the entire situation far more believable. We heard Mr. Aikins recently portraying a father in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi at Juilliard where he is a master's degree student.
As Père Germont, we heard baritone Sejin Park who impressed us with his portrayal of a bourgeois paterfamilias, anxious to protect the good name of his family. He entered sternly but softened as he realized that his son's mistress was honorable and dignified. His rich round baritone was employed with admirable phrasing and dynamics. It was a memorable performance. We first heard Mr. Park at Santa Fe Opera where he portrayed the desperate Enrico in Donizetti's Lucia de Lammermoor. Again, we were impressed by the artist's versatility.
A character that usually fades into the background is Flora, Violetta' friend and party-giver. Not this time! Mezzo-soprano Rosario Armas has a huge instrument that, along with some clever stage business and eye-catching costuming, filled the theater whilst tickling the ear. We loved the part in Act III in which she attacks her lover for his philandering. We have heard Ms. Armas more times than we can count and she has always given 110%.
Another artist we have heard before is baritone Lucas Bouk who made a grand entrance in Act III as Baron Douphol, Violetta's wealthy "protector", striding in with an air of possessiveness and a massive fur coat.
Tenor Morgan Mastrangelo gave a fine portrayal of Gastone who sets the plot in motion by bringing his friend Alfredo to the party and literally pushing him toward Violetta, then spying on the two of them-- stage business that set him apart from the crowd of partygoers.
The role of the modest Annina was performed by soprano Alexandra Martinez-Turano who was not given any stage business to make her stand out, which was appropriate to the role.
Flora's unfaithful "protector" , the Marchese was played by bass-baritone Jonathan Harris whose reaction to Flora's accusation injected a note of humor. The chorus did a fine job in Act III singing the matador song and the staging was well done.
There were many other imaginative touches like the bird sounds heard before Act II and the howling wind before Act IV. However, we found other directorial decisions less than enchanting. We attended with two friends and none of us could understand the "concept". We once saw a film version starring Teresa Stratas in which the overture was accompanied by a scene of the dying Violetta witnessing "removal men" carting off her belongings with the opera itself performed as flashbacks. It was cinematic and it worked.
In Ms. Kratzer's version, there appeared to be a coffin covered with camellias, in a room filled with people. Was this meant to be a funeral? Violetta rises from what might be a bier and it seems as if her spirit reminisces about her life. In the final scene, which was awkwardly staged with Violetta getting in and out of bed several times, her "spirit" rises up and walks offstage. It just didn't work for us and interfered with the tragic ending.
In Act II, the silvery ribbons which were so effective in Act I fought with the countryside setting which was weakly established by a few green carpets on the ground, looking like putting greens, and a line of laundry which Alfredo proceeded to dump into a basket. There is something in the libretto about "washing away the shame" and we wondered whether this was meant to be symbolic. There were puffy white things scattered constantly in almost every scene; were they meant to be camellias or bloody tissues? Or both? And the valise filled with the white things? None of this worked.
We don't mind if a director has something new to say about a masterpiece but all this nonsense struck us as attempts to call attention to the director's "originality". It certainly didn't serve to make the work any more relevant. There was no sense of time or place. Colorful costumes (by Camilla Dely) suggested modernity but we all know that the story is very much of the past. We no longer have "courtesans" and a young woman's marriage would not be affected by her brother having an affair. The woman would have been invited to her sister-in-law's wedding! And when the libretto speaks of Violetta leaving in a coach, we think horses.
Ms. Kratzer is certainly not alone in falling victim to this Eurotrash sensibility. The Metropolitan Opera has set a very poor example. Their La Traviata with the huge clock and Dr. Death was even worse. We feel very strongly that opera does NOT NEED TO BE MADE RELEVANT. It only has to be made musical and beautiful. We in the audience should feel free to draw analogies on our own and to appreciate differences in contemporary mores. We don't see anyone running around the Metropolitan Museum of Art, painting over the Rembrandts trying to make them relevant.
We shall now step off our soapbox and praise City Lyric Opera for their fine casting and to congratulate them on their new home. We invite your comments below, especially if you disagree.
© meche kroop