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.

Friday, April 5, 2024



Sara Zerilli, Charlotte Jakobs, Chun-Wei Kang, Ariana Troxell-Layton, Jennifer Robinson, A. Scott Parry, Vincenzo Fiorito, Brandon Pencheff-Martin, and Jacob Soulliere

We have long thought that the best opera composers would be former-singers. With their knowledge of the voice and how it is best utilized, they would know how to highlight the singers' gifts and how not to write music that is awkward and difficult to sing.

Proof of the proverbial pudding could be found at last night's production by Manhattan School of Music Undergraduate Opera Theatre, a performance of Pauline Viardot's one-hour take on the familiar fairy tale, a pure Gallic bonbon, written to be performed in her home by her very own students. For once, the Director's Notes taught us something, instead of the usual justifications for the director's distortion of the given work. 

This one hour opera was written in the mid 1860's  and performed in the early 20th c.  by Viardot's  students when she was rather advanced in years, having retired from the stage. None of the sadistic parts of the Perrault fairytale were in evidence, nor any of the Disneyfied padding. This was a simple story of a neglected young woman whose good heart wins the affection of a prince, even though she doesn't know his identity. And it's also the story of a grasping family that has scapegoated her. Her kindness wins out in the end.

We had the thought that Ms. Viardot wished to exemplify the values of the French Revolution (Liberté, égalité, fraternité) as well as the Christian values of charity and humility.  Only Marie (splendidly sung by Ariana Troxell-Layton who colored her fine soprano instrument  with sweetness) has compassion for the beggar who comes to the door. He is, of course, the Prince in disguise; the role was well acted and admirably sung by Vincenzo Fiorito.

In contrast, the two step-sisters were portrayed as entitled "Karens", not particularly evil, just self-centered and grasping. Soprano Charlotte Jakobs as Maguelonne and mezzo-soprano Sara Zerilli as Armelinde made the most of their roles, employing facial expression and body movement to tell us everything we needed to know about their characters. 

Soprano Jennifer Robinson was everything one could hope for in the role of Marie's Fairy Godmother, demonstrating a stratospheric coloratura instrument of crystalline purity which she colored with benevolence. The scene between Marie and La Fée delighted us; hearing two such fine sopranos gave us hope for the future of opera.

Similarly, the tender duet when Marie and Le Prince fall in love was melodic and emotionally touching.

Marie's stepfather was portrayed as a former dishonest merchant who has risen in status to that of Baron Pictordu. We did not quite catch how that was accomplished but there was a reference in the libretto that must have been a secret joke in Ms. Viardot's circle. His part was well performed by baritone Jacob Soulliere and the role of the Royal Chamberlain, who gets to be Prince for a Day, was performed by tenor Brandon Pencheff-Martin.

We were delighted, not only by the fine youthful voices, but also by the staging. Director A. Scott Parry had the audience laughing when Marie, instructed by La Fée to produce a pumpkin, struggled to carry it; it was thrown out the window and its conversion into a coach was suggested by sound effects, allowing the audience to use their imagination. When instructed to produce some mice, Marie distastefully produces a couple mouse traps with the requisite presumably dead mice (more laughter) which were also thrown out of the window to become horses. Isn't imagination wonderful!

The set was minimalistic as were the costumes. Everyone wore black  with some simple accessorizing like The Baron's bathrobe and La Fée's scarf given to Marie to magically create a gown.

Four years ago we attended this precious jewel of an opera presented by City Lyric Opera with a chamber orchestra. We remember loving the instrumentation but did not miss it last night due to the fine pianism of Music Director Chun-Wei Kang. We would also like to throw a bouquet to Elsa Quéron who coached the French diction. It is remarkable that we understood the language even at the highest register!  Now that's something unusual! Still, projected titles were on hand for those who do not speak French.

In sum it was so fine that we would happily see it again tonight but last night was the last performance.  We cannot believe that these were undergraduates!

© meche kroop

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