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