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.

Saturday, July 20, 2024

THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT

 

Emma Ritto, RJ Flud, Noelle Carlson, Maestro Keith Chambers, Director Sarah Beckham Turner, Morena Galan, Jessica DeGennaro, Brooklynn King, and Elizabeth Barsalou

People go to the opera for all kinds of reasons: some consider it an elegant social event, some go to hear famous stars, some go because they love the music.  Having come to opera from the world of theater, we find ourselves happiest when we see a good story amplified by music and brought to life by skilled artists. We love melody and feel alienated by prosy dialogue and non-melodic music. We find ourself favoring operas from the baroque period through the period of realismo with a special affection for bel canto.

Last night, thanks to Manhattan Opera Studio, we got to enjoy one of our favorite operas, Hänsel und Gretel composed by Engelbert Humperdinck and premiered in 1893, conducted by none other than Richard Strauss. Aside from a student production at Manhattan School of Music (with piano accompaniment) which we enjoyed and an overblown production at the Metropolitan Opera which we did not enjoy, Manhattan Opera Studio has been the major presenter of this charming and ultimately satisfying opera.

This is their third mounting of the opera and, in our opinion, the most successful.  For once, all the roles were well cast and the astute direction by Sarah Beckham Turner confirmed our opinion that opera singers make the best directors.. As usual, the conducting of the chamber orchestra by Maestro Keith Chambers was right on point and (perhaps because of the necessarily odd arrangement of the orchestra on the side of this long narrow hall at the National Opera Center) seemed to favor the winds.  We have no complaints on that situation. As a matter of fact, our only complaint of the evening was the projection of titles in an awkward rhyming translation that added nothing, since the story is well known and the singers' German was universally quite good.

We admit that our two prior reviews (available by entering Manhattan Opera Studio in the search bar of this website) were rather detailed on the story of this opera's composition and quite eloquent on the subject of fairytales and Bruno Bettelheim's psychological analysis thereof. We eschew self-plagiarizing and hope, Dear Reader, that you will take advantage of the search bar!

Let us instead focus on the very special performances of the young artists, all of whom we heard in recital recently. It was particularly revealing to see how well they handled their characterizations, abetted by costuming, cosmetics, and fine direction. Performing in a theatrical piece draws on many more talents than singing arias and duets in concert.

The lead roles were taken by mezzo-soprano Morena Galan as Hänsel and soprano Jessica DeGennaro as Gretel. Their voices harmonized beautifully and their interaction reflected an abiding affection as well as sibling rivalry and endearing gender based differences. Not every mezzo soprano is as convincing in a pants role as Ms. Galan and we found ourself touched by the brother-sister interaction.

Brooklynn King was equally convincing as their mother Getrud, portrayed as a basically decent person who was so concerned about the lack of food that she took it out on the children as anger at their laziness. Who hasn't seen a mother punishing her children for her own failures and guilt!

RJ Flud's Father Peter did an excellent job portraying a man drunk with success selling brooms-- and also by a  celebratory stop at the local tavern. Gertrud's hostility melts when she realizes that he has fulfilled his role as provider.

The Gingerbread Witch was brought to vividly wicked life by Noelle Carlson whose facial expressions and body movements went almost over the top. Riding a broom (one perhaps made by Peter?) brought to mind the origins of the myth of the broom-riding witches used to burn witches in the darker ages of Europe.

As the Sandman we saw Elizabeth Barsalou disguised beyond recognition with shaggy white beard and hair.  Emma Ritto made a fine Dew Fairy and injected some sly humor as she tried and tried to wake the sleeping children from their forest slumber. 

The chorus of angels dressed in white did double duty as the children who had been baked into gingerbread cookies by the witch. They comprised Abigail Hite, Tang Li, Lauren D'Ottavio, Andrea Sandor, Erin Hinds, and Abbey Engelmann. In a fine directorial touch, their blank stares melted when they received the human touch of Hänsel and Gretel.

Maestro Chamber's conducting elicited every melodic theme of the score and never neglected the Wagnerian harmonic touches.

In place of sets, there were a few storybook projections above the stage that helped to orient the setting without interfering with the action or storytelling.

Bettelheim's thesis in his book The Uses of Enchantment, posited that fairytales help children to work through their psychological struggles and fears.  Here we have a happy ending to the fear of parental abandonment. Perhaps our adult satisfaction with the opera suggests that adults may still be working through the same fear!

© meche kroop


Monday, July 1, 2024

DESTINY AND FATE


 Cast of Lighthouse Opera's production of Bizet's Carmen

The last time we saw Bizet's popular 1875 masterpiece, we were sorely disappointed in the director's betrayal of the intent of the composer and his librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy.  Although they did not adhere strictly to the 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, the opera, as written, is a powerful character study of an independent woman who is governed by her will (a Sigma woman, in contemporary parlance) facing off against a weak man who is governed by his feelings.

The third "character" of the story, the only character to which Carmen will submit, is that of Fate. Within the construct of Romany culture, all is destined. If one listen carefully to the music and the dialogue, Carmen knows even before she reads her cards that she will die. Don Jose, the hapless soldier who falls for her, is also a victim of superstition; he believes that Gypsies can cast spells and that the rose that Carmen throws at him has put him under a spell he is unable to resist.

Set in modern times, one would be tempted to assign psychiatric diagnoses to these characters, all the more reason to avoid such folderol.

On a huge stage with elaborate sets and costumes, it is easy for the listener him/herself to be seduced by the seductive rhythms and memorable melodies of Georges Bizet. Hearing the opera in concert  version, as produced last night in a special Manhattan performance at the National Opera Center by Lighthouse Opera (native to The Bronx), we were undistracted by spectacle and able to hear the piano reduction anew (sensitively played by Jason Wirth) and to relate to the aforementioned characterological issues.

The female characters stole the show. As the eponymous Gypsy, mezzo-soprano Victoria Thomasch remained in character for the entire three hours that she was onstage and held our attention throughout. Equally compelling in the "Habanera" and the "Seguidilla", she played against her Nordic appearance and convinced us totally of her self-determination, utilizing the darkish color of her impressive instrument.

No less compelling was the touching performance of soprano Lena Yasmin whose expressive instrument brought Micaëla's character into fine focus. The false bravado came across effectively, especially in her "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante". It made us wonder what would happen to her after this tragedy, a thought that we had never had before.

Tenor Chad Kranak portrayed the tormented Don Jose whose loyalty to his mother and his intended were destroyed by a Gypsy spell, his belief in such magic, or maybe just plain lust. We enjoyed his vocalism the most in the pianissimo passages. 

Baritone Chris Fistonich made a confident self-assured Escamillo without the hackneyed arrogance. The sweetest male voice we heard all evening belonged to baritone Sung Shin who eschewed the customary comic relief in the role of the smuggler Dancaïro. Mr. Shin has not been heard as often recently as we have wished and it was a genuine pleasure to hear him once more, as it was to hear tenor Julio Mascaro in the role of Remendado, although Mr. Mascaro has had a frequent stage presence recently. The two of them had a fine duet in Act II.

The remainder of the group of smugglers comprised soprano Olanna Goudeau as Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Tomoko Nago as Mercédes. One of our favorite scenes was the fortune-telling scene when the three female smugglers fantasized their futures in charming harmony, Carmen's dark prediction contrasting with the wish fulfillment of the other two.

The role of Zuniga was taken by Vladimir Avetisian and that of Moralès, by Yun-Jui Hsieh. Special accolades to the chorus who added color to the proceedings.

The entire evening was well-shaped by Maestro Brian Holman who kept things moving at a brisk tempo with energetic rhythmic propulsion. We particularly enjoyed the accelerating pace of the afore-mentioned trio in the card-reading scene of Act III. Other highlights were the duet between Don Jose and Micaela in Act I, the duet between Dancaïre and Remendado in Act II, and Carmen's dance "Je vais danser en votre honneur ... La la la".

It was a most compelling evening and we enjoyed appreciating the story, the score, and the characters in a new light.

© meche kroop


Saturday, June 29, 2024

PAPER DAUGHTER

        Whitney George conducting Bea Goodwin's "Paper Daughter"

There are very few people who can persuade us to depart from our customary reviewing goal--that of fostering the careers of young opera singers and encouraging the success of small opera companies. Tops on our list of such people are composer/conductor Whitney George and writer/director Bea Goodwin. We can count on this team to create works of originality and high emotional impact. Although we only had space in our schedule to see two of the six works that they presented at The Cell, we continue to hold their artistry in high regard.

Maestro George composed music for The Curiosity Cabinet Ensemble, comprising pianist Kristin Barone-Samadi, percussionist Tamika Gorski, flutist Alice Jones, and cellist Thea Mesirow.  Ms. Goodwin's "Paper Daughter" told the story of an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in San Francisco's Chinatown at the turn of the 20th c. and its effect on one family. Grandfather (Angky Budiardjono) is telling his grandson (Chu Sam) about the plague death of his mother ( Cynthia Yiru Hu) who had been adopted in an apparent scheme designed to bring Chinese children to the USA). Rob Chen played a number of parts, including a USA Immigration Officer.

Some stories are best told by essay and commentary (like some irrelevant and boring contemporary "operas") and others by original theater.  This story of anti-Chinese bias (dramaturgy by Yutong Yang) was theatrical and powerfully told; it filled us with sympathy and sadness. We were reminded of one of our earliest theatrical experiences in New York City, created (if memory serves us correctly) by solo artist Winston Tong, on the subject of foot binding--a work so powerful that we remember it decades later and can still feel the pain.

The work was part of a double feature festival entitled In the Throes of Death, produced as a tribute to the Golden Age of Radio, including "On Air" and "Applause" signs with live "incidental" music and authentic foley sounds (Patrick Litterst). We wondered whether anyone remembers the days before television when families gathered around the radio and used their imagination to visualize the dramas presented. We wondered what it might have been like to have experienced this work in a dark theater. 

We, as the "studio audience", had a different perspective, that of witnessing the actors in the drama standing in front of microphones. (Truth to tell, we found the sound design wanting and wished that the microphones had been only props. Regular readers will recall how deeply we detest amplification). The titles  (Miriam Rochford) were projected onto Chinese fans mounted on the rear wall. (Scenographer was Luther Frank with Lighting Design by Sasha Finley and 
Projection Design by Sierra Shreves).

The second half of the evening was the dramatization of "The Strange Library", a novella by Haruki Murakami.  What impressed us the most was how different Mo. George's music was from the Asian inflected melodies of "Paper Daughter". Apropos of the chilling plot of  "The Strange Library", her music served to intensify the spooky feelings of the story. There was nothing "incidental" about Mo. George's music, which was effectively realized by The Curiosity Cabinet Ensemble and sensitively conducted as only the composer can.

Unfortunately, the festival has ended but watch out for future productions by this superb partnership.

© meche kroop

Friday, June 14, 2024

FLEUR DU MAL

Sadie Spivey
(Photo by Brian Long)

What an exceptionally interesting idea to present a program of Charles Baudelaire's poetry as set by a variety of musicians of the 19th and early 20th c.! Of course, when one reads the program of an art song recital, the writer of the text is credited, but we had never realized the extent of Baudelaire's influence on so many composers--and not just the famous ones like Fauré, Duparc, Debussy, and Chausson! 

Last evening's entertainment, conceived and directed by Judith Barnes, was far more than a recital of mélodie. It was a peek into the mind of a literary artist whose life was a catastrophe but whose literary output was grand and influential. Ms. Barnes' program notes told us many things about Baudelaire's life; her thoughts were illustrated during the performance as the artists onstage read (in English) from his letters and journals telling us about his dissolute life as a wastrel. He burned through the family fortune in a brief period of time, necessitating what amounted to a guardianship. He died in miserable poverty, never knowing what work of art would result when French musical geniuses found the beauty in his verses, so maligned in his lifetime.

Although the readings were in English, the mélodies were performed in French by the following singers; Jason Adamo, Valerie Filloux, Sadie Spivey, Jeremy Sivitz, Olivia Ericsson, Alexandra Cirile, Helen Haas, and the final number "L'invitation au voyage" by Henri Duparc sung by Perri Sussman, perhaps the one most often performed in recital--but here, given new meaning.

The viewer was given the opportunity to connect with a strange and disturbing world, a louche world of dissipation and desire. Onstage elements, designed by Maestro Fecteau included a recamier, some chairs, a table with a decanter of vin rouge, un escritoire. Singers were costumed (by Angela Huff) in varied states of déshabillage, partly unlaced corsets, culottes, loosened coiffures, white stockings or pieds nus. Singers lounged about indifferently. Once two women rose and danced together. The chansons were interspersed with readings from Baudelaire's letters to his mother or from his journals. Ms. Barnes' direction was absolutely stellar.

Similarly, the musical accompaniment was perfection. The piano parts were performed by a tag team of Lara Saldanha and Maestro Chris Fecteau himself. There was a highly original opening to the evening when Mo. Fecteau played a captivating melody ( by Pierre de Breville. First movement of the Prélude, méditation et prière for organ without pedals (1912) on an antique harmonium. We were so enchanted that after the performance ended we insisted that he give us a demonstration of this instrument. (Dear Reader, we had made the same request of a glass harmonica player and a theorboist. We suffer from unbridled curiosity.)

The evening ended with the aforementioned Ms. Sussman singing the final Duparc chanson from a corner of the room, at the top of the raked staging, dressed in a long white garment, similar to the ones worn by Ms. Saldana and Mo. Fecteau. It was an eerie coup de theâtre which set the three of them apart from the others, leaving one free to speculate on the significance.

There will be one more performance of this unusual entertainment on Saturday evening and more information on the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble season can be found on their website...dellarteopera.org. If you have not yet caught any of the season, you are hereby urged to do so.

Since we cannot close without something nitpicky, the projected titles were blurry and nearly impossible to read. For our part, however, we preferred to listen to the music and mentally participate in the drama.

© meche kroop







 

Sunday, June 9, 2024

GUILTY PLEASURES


 Curtain Call for Guilty Pleasures

Friday night, Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble gave us two one-act pieces that made us think. Last night, they gave us an evening of pure entertainment. Is pure entertainment a guilty pleasure? LOL! We refuse to feel guilty about pleasure. We had a wonderful time, as did our companion. 

We think it's a great idea for opera singers to try their hand at cabaret; the need for gesture and facial expression should serve them well on the opera and concert stage. And from the audience standpoint, it was a real treat to hear the natural voice singing  the kind of music we usually avoid due to an intolerance of amplification.

Every artist was excellent and appreciated by a most enthusiastic audience. Some made a greater impact than others and only one interfered with audience engagement by the use of the loathed music stand. Let us mention a few of our favorite performances.

Mezzo-soprano Allison Deady, so effective as Annie in the previous night' production of Tickets, Please! showed a real flair for Offenbach in "Last night" from Christopher Columbus, an operetta with which we are not familiar and was equally impressive ending the show with the rousing "One Touch of Venus" from the eponymous Kurt Weill show.

From the same show, mezzo-soprano Rachelle Pike performed a sexy rendition of "Speak Low". Earlier in the evening, she delighted us with "Toothbrush Time" by William Bolcom, sharing an interesting anecdote with the audience.

Also from that show, Olivia Ericsson gave an expressive reading of "I'm a Stranger Here Myself", needing only to move around the stage more to take her performance to the next level.

Kaitlyn Tierney scored points for "Good 'n' Evil" from Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde. Helen Haas did a great job using gestures and voice to build up to a climax in some French songs that were completely new to us. 

Elizaveta Kozlova, so effective as Anna I  in the prior night's performance of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, showed a completely different side of her artistry, having fun with "Whatever Lola Wants" from Adler and Ross' Damn Yankees. Valerie Filloux's charming performance of a pair of Schoenberg songs from his Brettl-Lieder reminded us that the composer wasn't always atonal. The songs were most accessible.

We enjoyed Thomas Walter's rendition of the "Alabama Song" from Kurt Weill's Mahagonny because he made every verse different. And Maestro Chris Fecteau tossed off an impressively novel arrangement of "Mack the Knife", making the old trite song fresh to our ears.

It was a fun evening and the audience left smiling. What more could one ask for on a Saturday night!

© meche kroop

THE WAGES OF SIN


 Tickets, Please!
(Photo by Brian Long)

Dear Reader!  We are halfway through Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's exciting Spring season and having a fine time. We would, however, want you to have an even better time than we did, so we urge you to prepare yourself before the upcoming double bill of  Tickets, Please and The Seven Deadly Sins. We make it a point to avoid reading about productions before attending, hoping that the works will speak for themselves. In this case, some preparation would have been helpful.

What we enjoyed at the double bill was some excellent singing and acting and some highly astute direction by Jessica Harika. Maestro David Štech conducted and Maestro Chris Fecteau provided keyboard accompaniment. What was missing was a program with a synopsis. There were no projected titles and one's ability to understand rested heavily on the clarity of each singer's enunciation. The setup was a stage with areas of seats facing each other, somewhat reminiscent of "theater in the round" in which actors are often facing away from you and not clearly audible.

The best preparation for Tickets, Please would be reading the short story with the same title which was contained within D.H. Lawrence's compilation England My England which was published in 1922. Lawrence had plenty to say about the effects of The Great War on British society, particularly about the absence of men on the home front and the masculinization (liberation) of women who were allowed (needed) to take on "man's work". Part III of the story was adapted by Sidney L. Berger and set to some agreeable music by Robert Nelson.

The work is accessible and can be experienced as social commentary with amusing moments and rueful ones. In the past century, the battle for gender dominance has not been won, making the work relevant. A group of women employed as transit workers gang up on their supervisor who has been careless with the affections of Annie (the excellent Allison Deady). The boss John Turner (effectively portrayed by Dicky Dutton is beaten and humiliated by his crew, comprising Rachelle Pike, Sadie Spivey, Helen Sanchez, Kaitlyn Tierney, and Carlyle Quinn. You will have to see for yourself (and we do recommend it) to learn whether Annie gets vindication, or...........

Sunday, June 2, 2024

THE PEOPLE'S OPERA IN BRYANT PARK

 


Ashley Galvani Bell, Victor Starsky, Tatev Baroyan, Maestro Joseph Rescigno, Irina Rindzuner, Todd Thomas, and Woo Young Yoon

What a grand night for singing! Last night was the centenary of the death of Giacomo Puccini. What a grand way to celebrate his life and his 42 year career of composing some of the world's best loved operas! The crowd filled Bryant Park from end to end and side to side. We would be surprised if anyone noticed that we were sitting in a canyon of skyscrapers. We would be delighted to learn that some members of the audience were new to opera and became converts. 

If they did, perhaps they were enchanted by Puccini's melodic vocal lines or perhaps it was the quality of the singing (although difficult for our ears to appreciate due to electronic amplification, necessary because of the venue). What we mostly appreciated was the fact that there were representative arias (or duets, or ensembles) from every single opera the master ever wrote--performed in chronological order so that one might appreciate his evolution over a period of four decades. It was an interesting novelty for which we thank the venerable New York City Opera .

The program began with an ensemble from Puccini's 1884 Le Villi, which we had never heard. Similarly, an aria from Edgar, performed by stellar soprano 
Ashley Galvani Bell, was new to our ears. One definitely got a sense of a major compositional artist in the making and Puccini needed only a fine librettist to make a major impact.

We very much appreciated being introduced to two singers we had not heard before. Dramatic soprano Irina Rindzuner  made a fine Manon and a powerful Tosca. Even better was her Minnie in the tension driven card game scene from La fanciulla del West. Her Jack Rance was played by baritone Todd Thomas who was as chilling as he was singing Scarpia in the Tosca.

What we appreciated even more was reconnecting with artists whose earliest years were noted and admired by us. For example, the sweet lyric tenor of Woo Young Yoon first impressed us nine years ago when he was a student at Manhattan School of Music. We noted his artistry not too long thereafter in a master class with Prelude to Performance when he dazzled us with his Rodolfo.  How fitting that he sang the first act duet from La Bohême with Ms. Bell, whom we will get to shortly. That is truly his signature role, leading to an award from Opera Index. We also heard his award winning performance of some Mozart and Donizetti at a Marcella Sembrich competition. What a great pleasure to witness his artistic development!

We have similar feelings for Ms. Bell. We became acquainted with her artistry through a number of productions by Divaria Productions, every one of which was unique and elicited different aspects of her artistry. Her performance of "Un bel di" last night recalled her performance of Cio-Cio San with New York Opera Collaborative in which she appeared in full Japanese dress. Her involvement in the role has only gotten deeper.

Similarly, we have witnessed Victor Starsky's artistic development since 2015 when he sang Don Jose with New York Opera Exchange and later when he sang Rodolfo with Bare Opera, a role he revisited recently at a gala. Last night he let out all the stops in "Nessun dorma" from Turandot. These moments are precious to us. Future engagement will be even more so!

Soprano Tatev Baroyan has been on our radar for a short period of time. Just a month ago at the Gerda Lissner Award Recital, we noted her fine performance of Liu's aria from Turandot, the same aria she performed last night. It was quite affecting and we hope to hear it again soon (unamplified). 

It was a most successful evening and we are already looking forward to NYCO's production of a fully staged Tosca in Bryant Park on August 23rd and 24th. 

© meche kroop








Friday, May 31, 2024

RARE DOUBLE FEATURE

Maestro David Hayes and Counter-tenor ChuanYuan Liu

We do not usually review choral events but getting a chance to hear two "new" (new to us) works was tempting; sealing the deal was the opportunity to hear our favorite countertenor Chuan Yuan Liu as soloist at last night's performance by The New York Choral Society at The Skirball Center of New York University. The evening made a fine impression, combining excellent artistic values with compelling entertainment.

As is our wont, we will ignore any intended concept in favor of sharing with you, Dear Reader, our own impressions. The first half of the double bill was a fine performance of Leonard Bernstein's  incidental music for a Lillian Hellman play- The Lark. There was nothing "incidental" about this work which combined some gorgeous singing of what we believe to be a mass in Latin with a dramatic reading by Sam Turlington who, "incidentally" self identifies as non-binary. 

Personally we don't care what Turlington identifies as because this artist is dramatically exceptional. The exceptionalism was exemplified by the costume which appeared to be white on one side and black on the other, with trousers on one side and skirt on the other. Visually interesting perhaps but incidental to the impact of the affecting reading of the words of Joan of Arc, the anniversary of whose death took place (incidentally)  on this very date in 1431. Such a performance was Broadway worthy, with all the youthful passion and innocence well delineated.

The Latin choruses sung by the massive force of The New York Choral Society, under the direction of Maestro David Hayes, were marked not only by consummate musicality but also by the crispest diction we have ever heard from a chorus, every word coming through clearly.

The solo part, customarily sung by a soprano, so we hear, was performed by the afore mentioned Mr. Liu (who has not requested a gender neutral designation). He has the most angelic voice that fulfilled the role in a spiritual work just as successfully as he did the secular but fantastical role of Oberon in Britten's opera A Midsummer Night' Dream.

The second half of the evening was an equally rare experience. Gian Carlo Menotti's The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore seemed, to our ears, far friendlier than most 20th c. music. The libretto seemed to be a fable which, like most fables, makes an allegorical point. What we took away from this is the foolishness of following trends, a point with which we strongly agree, having despaired over the influencers on social media with their throngs of followers. 

In this fable, a spoiled Countess makes demands on her poor husband for rare creatures which she tires of and slaughters, always wanting a new one. The townspeople follow her taste blindly and, of course, that's when she must rid herself of the prior longed for creature and manipulate her poor husband into meeting her demands for a new one.

For this work, the chorus was augmented by some woodwinds and lower strings (the very fine Experiential Orchestra), whereas the Bernstein work involved only a bit of percussion and some clapping. As if the work were insufficiently entertaining, a troupe of a dozen dancers (Emerge 125) performed some dancing in which the costumes were more interesting than the choreography. They comprised floaty sheer white garments overlaying gilded tops. The heads of the dancers were covered with gold woven helmets reminding us of fencer's masks but completely obscuring the face and hair. Perhaps others in the audience had a greater appreciation for "modern dance" than we do; we were reminded of some strenuous classes at the local health club. Far from adding to the work, it was distracting.

Nonetheless it was a most worthwhile and satisfying evening!

© meche kroop
 

Sunday, May 19, 2024

AN AUTHENTIC LUCIA AT REGINA OPERA


Curtain Call at Regina Opera for Lucia di Lammermoor

It is quite a trek from Manhattan to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn but last night's performance of Donizetti's gothic tragedy Lucia di Lammermoor made the trip worthwhile, since this is one of our favorite operas. The latest iteration at The Metropolitan Opera left us with a bad taste in our mouth, staging the opera ridiculously in the Rust Belt of the USA in contemporary times. Although the singing was stellar we sat in anger wondering why the poor girl did not just get a bus ticket and leave her controlling brother! Fortunately, Stage Director Sabrina Palladino honored the libretto by sticking to Scotland in the late 17th c., a time of political turmoil and clan rivalry. 

Salvatore Cammarano's libretto, based somewhat on a Sir Walter Scott novel,  resonates with us today since it shows the enormous personal cost of tribal rivalry and the subjugation of women. Poor Lucia (the stunning coloratura soprano Makila Kirchner) is robbed of the love of her life, Sir Edgardo of Ravenswood (tenor José Heredia), by her selfish manipulative brother Enrico (Jonathan R. Green), who forces her to marry Lord Arturo Bucklaw (Josh Avant) to save himself from political ruin. This cannot end well and of course it doesn't. Lucia goes mad, stabs Arturo, hallucinates, and dies. Edgardo stabs himself when he learns of her death. Enrico is filled with remorse and shame.

This opera, an exemplar of the Bel Canto period, has traditionally been a vehicle for a star soprano, without which the work would fall flat. Ms. Kirchner did not disappoint, building her character from her first scene with her companion Alisa (mezzo-soprano Manya Gaver). In this scene, the soprano must foreshadow her psychotic break with reality by evincing an unstable psychological nature as she hallucinates the ghost of a murdered woman appearing at the fountain. At this, Ms. Kirchner got us about three quarters of the way there.

However, in the final act, her mad scene was totally convincing and Donizetti's decoration of the vocal line was used in the service of the character's madness. Trills, descending scale passages, the duet with the flute (sorry folks, no glass harmonica), cadenzas, and the ascent into the vocal stratosphere were all dazzling. Her acting was as on point as her fioritura. We cannot wait to hear more from this promising young artist.

Mr. Heredia gave a creditable performance as her unfortunate lover Edgardo. We have heard him a number of times in the past and are impressed by the consistency and reliability of his performance. He has a sizable instrument and uses it well.

Mr. Green's burly baritone suited the role of Lucia's controlling brother. We would have liked to have seen more variety of coloration in his voice and more specificity in his gestures. As it was, we found his interpretation to be unidimensional. The libretto makes it plain that he is a desperate man and his future can only be assured by Lucia's marriage to Bucklaw. Still, a little less violence and a little more pleading would have taken his performance to another level.

Jongwon Choi's performance as the family minister Raimondo was similarly lacking in dramatic intent. Like Mr. Green, his gestures were of the stock variety and failed to convince us that he was torn in his loyalties. At times, the low tessitura seemed to challenge him. We have seen him perform better.

The small role of Arturo does not give the tenor much to do and Mr. Avant did not do much to create a character. On the other hand Normanno, Captain of the Guard, has an important role inasmuch as he sets the tragedy in motion by spying on Lucia and reporting to her brother. The role needed a more forceful interpretation than that provided by tenor Lindell Carter. We have seen Mr. Carter a number of times and have found him fine sometimes and at other times we have been distracted by his tendency to mug and to make gestures inappropriate to the character.

Maestro Scott Jackson Wiley brought a nice shape to the performance and we heard some lovely sounds coming from the small wind section. The arpeggi  from the harp in Act I were enchanting. The orchestra was seated at ground level with the stage elevated. Although Ms. Kirchner's voice cut right through the sound, not every singer was so successful. We do not think this was a conducting flaw but rather that some of the singers did not project well.

We have always thought that singers make the best directors and were not surprised to learn that Ms. Palladino is indeed a singer. (She did similarly fine authentic work for Amore Opera's La Bohême.) The placement of the singers always made dramatic sense and no singer was asked to sing in a ridiculous position, something we have noticed happening at The Metropolitan Opera which seems to have become enchanted with directors who know nothing about opera.  

Similarly, costuming was completely appropriate, and flattering to the singers. The set was simple but effective, with small changes taking us from the castle to the garden to the Ravenswood tomb. The chorus sang well and added to the success of the production.

We greatly appreciate Regina Opera for giving us traditional opera, and so did the most enthusiastic audience. We learned that this company has survived for over half a century and, unfortunately, has no wish to perform in Manhattan.  More's the pity! 

© meche kroop



Saturday, May 18, 2024

AN AMERICAN SODIER--AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY


 Nina Yoshida Nelson and Brian Vu
(Photo by Marc J. Franklin)

It was the first time we ventured anywhere near the former site of the World Trade Center. It was our first time visiting the Perelman Performing Art Center. We were glad for the occasion to replace our sad memories with a satisfying experience. The neighborhood has been transformed by new energy, new residents, and new businesses-- the result of a daring conception and successful execution of a plan to revitalize the area.

The first thing we noticed at PAC NY was that the gorgeous new theater was completely packed. How impressive it was to see such a turnout for a contemporary opera! The standing ovation at the conclusion testifies to the success of the project.

What a brilliant choice it was to present An American Soldier, the true story of Private Daniel Chen, whose suicide whilst serving the country he so believed in left an ugly stain on the U.S. Military. The fact that the Sergeant who bullied him so relentlessly was virtually exonerated provokes fury; Danny's tragic death provokes deep sorrow.

The superb direction of Chay Yew told the tale effectively with scenes taking place with Danny's "ghost" witnessing. The acting of the principals (tenor Brian Vu as Danny Chen, mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Mother Chen, soprano Hannah Cho as Danny's girlfriend Josephine Young, and baritone Alex DeSocio as Sgt. Aaron Marcum) was so intense that it confirmed our impression that this was a play with music, as much as an opera; we will have more to say about that later.

We have followed Mr. Vu's artistic ascent for at least ten years since he was a baritone. We heard him as he won many competitions, singing Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Rossini, Sondheim, Mozart, and Rossini with equal artistry. It brought us joy to witness the fulfillment of his early promise in a performance that touched us deeply. He was totally believable as a second generation Chinese-American who defied the wishes of his mother by enlisting in the US Army, as so many innocent young men are wont to do, without considering the consequences. That he wanted to prove himself as a real American just added to the tragedy.

Ms. Nelsen was similarly affecting as his mother, attempting to deal with her sorrow by seeking justice, which ended up being unattainable. Ms. Cho, well remembered from her appearances with Classic Lyric Arts and as the eponymous bird in On Site Opera's Sound of the Nightingale, was persuasive as Danny's girlfriend and injected a note of humor as she delicately and tactfully translated Danny's letters to his mother who did not read English. Unfortunately, the audience did not get to hear her astonishing coloratura.

But, oh, the villain of the piece! Mr. DeSocio was so convincing as the bigoted, hateful, brutal Sgt. Marcum that we almost forgot that we were in a theater. 
Several other fine young artists portrayed various roles, among them the stunning soprano Shelén Hughes, mezzo-soprano Cierra Byrd, Ben Brady, Joshua Sanders, Christian Simmons, and James C. Harris--all of whom we have heard in the past few years around NYC and at Santa Fe Opera. It was indeed a well-chosen cast.

That the vocal lines did not offer an opportunity to hear the remarkable vocal gifts of these young artists is our very own particular disappointment, as it was of the tenor who accompanied us. We know that esteemed composer Huang Ruo can write for the voice as we recall from his Paradise Interrupted from 2016. That he can write interesting music for the orchestra we also recall from the 2014 Santa Fe Opera production of Doctor Sun Yat Sen.

We have enjoyed the dramas of David Henry Huang going back for years to his play The Dance and the Railroad. The libretto he wrote for An American Soldier was fine and terse, avoiding the pitfalls of prosy libretti. So how come we have not enjoyed his partnership with Mr. Ruo? This, we cannot figure out. (We also found fault with their partnership for the 2022 production of M. Butterfly at Santa Fe Opera.) We stayed on after the performance to hear a panel discussion in which Mr. Ruo and Mr. Huang seemed highly satisfied with their partnership; we listened carefully to their descriptions of their work together; we still left without a clue.

Of course, a story like this one could be seen to demand a great deal of orchestral dissonance; but Verdi and Puccini told tragic and angry stories with passionate music whereas Mr. Ruo's music struck us as closer to a film score, inasmuch as it may have served to unconsciously heighten the emotions. There were two opportunities for a musically kinder or more tender touch. One was the love duet between Danny and Josephine, and the other between Danny's "ghost" and his mother at the conclusion of the opera.

We have more to say about the music. Perhaps the PAC NYC theater has no orchestra pit because the musicians were behind the scrim which served as a screen for some excellent projections designed by Nicholas Hussong. David Bullard's sound design left much to be desired. The American Composers Orchestra, conducted by Carolyn Kuan sounded like recorded music. If others in the audience found fault with the amplification we do not know.

Daniel Ostling's suitable set design was bare with an occasional table and chairs or a short metal stepladder to suggest a room or a rooftop. The aforementioned projections were excellent and showed the New York skyline and the mountain range of Afghanistan. Linda Cho's costumes were apropos.

The bottom line was that we enjoyed the storytelling and the performances but continue to be disappointed with contemporary opera which seems to ignore the fact that opera is a singer's medium. 

© meche kroop

Saturday, May 11, 2024

TWO ESTHERS


 Curtain Call at Opera Lafayette's Presentation
"From Saint-Cyr to Cannons: Moreau and Handel's Esther"

In two days we have gone from comedy to oratorio and changed location from El Museo del Barrio to the modern sanctuary of St. Peter's Church (in Manhattan, not Rome). With their customary scholarship, Opera Lafayette presented two versions of the biblical Story of Esther. This heathen reviewer was obliged to read about it, to understand the text of the two oratorios which were presented on the same program. If you do not know the story, we will share it with you, directly from Wikipedia.

"Esther,[a] originally Hadassah, is the eponymous heroine of the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible. According to the biblical narrative, which is set in the Achaemenid Empire, the Persian king Ahasuerus falls in love with Esther and marries her.[1] His grand vizier Haman is offended by Esther's cousin and guardian Mordecai because of his refusal to bow before him; bowing in front of another person was a prominent gesture of respect in Persian society, but deemed unacceptable by Mordecai, who believes that a Jew should only express submissiveness to God. Consequently, Haman plots to have all of Persia's Jews killed, and eventually convinces Ahasuerus to permit him to do so. However, Esther foils the plan by revealing and decrying Haman's plans to Ahasuerus, who then has Haman executed and grants permission to the Jews to take up arms against their enemies;[2] Esther is hailed for her courage and for working to save the Jewish nation from eradication."

How appropriate we find this story, whether fact or, more likely, fiction--a story of a woman who overcomes her fear and acts with courage and fortitude, risking her life to save her people. The Story of Esther has inspired many beautiful paintings and some mighty fine music; Opera Lafayette brought us two exemplars. The 1689 work by Jean-Baptiste Moreau (libretto by the famous French playwright Jean Racine) was presented by Madame de Maintenon, second wife of Louis XIV, at her chateau/spiritual retreat at St. Cyr where she instituted a school for young women of the lesser nobility; they received moral instruction as well as theatrical.

Extracts of the works were conducted from the harpsichord by Justin Taylor with contributions toward the musical direction by singer Jonathan Woody who gave a dramatically scary performance as the evil Haman, one of the world's earliest would-be racial cleansers. The Persian King Ahasuerus was portrayed by Jesse Darden. The female roles were taken by soprano Paulina Francisco (reviewed earlier this week in the comic work La Fête de Thalie), soprano Elisse Albian, and alto Kristen Dubenion-Smith. Jacob Perry sang the tenor parts. 

It was barely two decades later that Handel created his own setting of the story to text by Samuel Humphreys, which was sung in English. Let credit be given to the singers for clarity of diction as well as uniformly beautiful vocalism and musicianship. It was interesting to witness how compositional style evolved within that brief period.

The Moreau work, sung in fine French, had many interesting moments. With "O mortelles alarmes!" we appreciated the melding of two voices and in the second iteration of that phrase, a moving cello solo by Serafin Smigelskiy, who also carried the stirring "Entracte". Later in "Que le peuple est heureux", we loved the expressive vocal trio. The nature of that particular section seemed written to glorify King Louis in subtle allegorical fashion. Ms. Dubenion-Smith lent her fine mezzo instrument to some authoritative declamation that filled the sanctuary. 

There was a lively and rousing "Marche" followed by another vocal trio and the sopranos took turns in praising God. But the best part was the cheerful "Que son nom soit béni" which was delivered with overlapping voices, bringing this half of the evening to a stunning conclusion.

After a brief pause, we entered a more sophisticated world in which Händel made generous use of the decoration of the vocal line which we so admire in his operas. We also noted the addition of instruments providing a more textured sound. Mr. Woody made a detestable Haman, just as called for. (Love the voice, hate the rôle!) In "Praise the Lord with cheerful noise" there were some bravura flourishes from Mr. Taylor's harpsichord, and some fine coloratura singing from Ms.Francisco.

A somber sextet in "Tears assist me" was marked by a prominent descending motif. When Ahashuerus is awakened by the courageous Esther, Mr. Darden allowed the king a moment of anger that softens when he recognizes his beloved wife. It was a powerful moment. The dialogue between the two singers that follows was lovely and moving.  Mr. Woody had a fine moment as Haman pleads for his life and mourns his fallen state.

The final number "The Lord our enemy has slain" is an exultant canon for the six voices and Händel's command of the musical language is impressive, ending the work on a high note, so to speak.

It was a worthwhile evening, even for a heathen. "Si, non e vero e ben trovato"! How stimulating it was to hear the two works together. As is everything done by Opera Lafayette, it was original in creation and flawless in execution. Mr. Taylor is a true artist at the harpsichord, the singers were superb, and the orchestra magnificent. A special shout out to Concertmaster Jacob Ashworth for his artistry on the violin.

As is our custom, we invited someone unfamiliar with the world of classical voice. He enjoyed the performance without any prior knowledge, thus proving our belief that opera and classical singing can be appreciated on its own merits. The unamplified human voice goes straight to the heart.

© meche kroop

Thursday, May 9, 2024

CLASSICAL, LYRICAL, AND ARTISTIC


 Luc Cheng, Glenn Morton, Young Kwang Yoo, Kevin Jasaitis, Sofia Gotch,  Sofia Durante, Sara Stevens, John Viscardi, Eliza Masewicz, Maia Sumanaweera and Samuel Ng

Regular readers recall my enthusiasm for Classical Lyric Arts, a highly esteemed immersive summer training program for young singers  held in France, Italy, and the Berkshires. Here is some great news, Dear Reader! CLA has expanded into an all year program helping recent conservatory graduates to navigate the difficult period of launching a professional career. Assistance is given in many areas including (but not limited to)  navigating auditions and competitions,  choosing repertory wisely, choosing management, and of course the finer points of singing. We think of it as polishing the gems.

Last night a private recital was held to celebrate this launch and the fortunate members of the audience had an opportunity to hear a program of Italian love songs, arias, and duets. What better language than Italian to sing of love! Even speaking Italian sounds like a love song! Our host, Glenn Morton (Artistic Director of CLA), accompanied some of the singers and the talented Luc Cheng accompanied other singers , including Executive Director John Viscardi (a graduate of CLA) about whom more later.

If we have heard a better recital, we cannot recall. The CLA singers demonstrated fine technique in which we can find no flaws. Their Italian was universally perfect, evidence of the fine immersive training they received in Italy. What most astonished us however, was how each singer showed something we call stage worthiness. They not only understood the text and the emotions which generated it, but they managed to employ the dramatic skills learned from faculty member Daniel Isengart, using facial expression, gesture, and the physical space that was available to create believable dramatic situations.

There were about 15 pieces performed and we will attempt to describe a few to illustrate this. In Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia , Rosina persuades Figaro to get a note to the Count. Mezzo-soprano Sofia Durante created the character of the spunky young woman who is going to get her way whilst baritone Kevin Jasaitis was absolutely taken aback by her anticipation of his plot. They were so effective that one could imagine everything that led up to that moment and everything that would follow.

Ms. Durante also showed her aptitude for breeches roles in two scenes. From Bellini's I Capuletti e I Montecchi, we heard "Ah, crudel d'onor ragioni" in which Romeo and his Giulietta (soprano Sofia Gotch) sing a duet of conflict and anxiety. She also made a fine Nerone in duet with Poppea (soprano Maia Sumanaweera) from Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea. We heard this duet recently in which the singers "sexed it up" which removed the chemistry we felt from this performance as the singers slowly approached each other, heightening the anticipation.  Yes, we all know that Nero and Poppea were terrible people but in this opera you have to want them to triumph and so they did.

In a scene from Mozart's Don Giovanni, Mr. Jasaitis--now suave and perfectly self-assured--seduced a flirtatious Zerlina, adorably performed by soprano Eliza Masewicz. Each showed impressive comprehension of the character at that particular point in the opera.  In a different scene the seductive Don (Mr. Jasaitis who seems to own the role) performed the serenade "Deh vieni alla finestra" gazing upward at an actual window with the unknown woman actually there, lending verisimilitude to the performance.

The Cherry Duet from Mascagni's L'amico Fritz was performed by  Ms. Sumanaweera and tenor Samuel Ng with such intense chemistry that no one could have missed foretelling the romantic ending to the opera.

There were two entries from Puccini's tragic love story La Bohême. The Mimi of Act I was performed in a touching fashion by Sara Stevens, possessor of a huge and gorgeous soprano, who gave her all to "Mi chiamano Mimi". This was followed by "O soave fanciulla" with  Mr. Viscardi as the ardent Rodolfo (a role he just performed in Colorado, a role that fits him like a custom tailored suit).

There were also several more arias and songs to tickle our ears. We love Tosti's songs and Mr. Ng's impassioned delivery of "Ideale" perfectly captured the Italianate style, as did Mr. Viscardi's performance of "Sola tu manchi".

Ms. Gotch created a memorable Gilda from Verdi's Rigoletto, adorning the vocal line with precisely rendered coloratura flourishes. Similar technical precision was evinced by Ms. Masewicz performing "Qui la voce sua soave" from Bellini's I Puritani. We don't want to end without mentioning a funny moment. We were surprised when the photographer (whose photos are guaranteed to be better than ours) was called upon to sing. It turned out that Young Kwang Yoo had been pressed into service as photographer for the event and is actually an opera singer of terrific talent.

© meche kroop