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.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

MUSIC 10 --LOOKS 2




 Isabel Leonard and Michael Fabiano (photo by Curtis Brown for Santa Fe Opera)


Where are we? We are sitting in the Santa Fe Opera's lovely theater, wishing we were being transported to Seville in the 19th c., the world created by Georges Bizet and librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (originally created by novelist Prosper Mérimée)--a world of gypsies, smugglers, and bull fights. But no, that is not going to happen. We can't tell where we are from a confusing set and ugly costumes. We are in the world of a misguided director who wants to tell a different story.  Of our beloved Carmen, only the "romantic" obsession remains and the good girl/bad girl dichotomy.

We were inspired to do a search of our reviews of every Carmen we have ever written about.  And there are dozens. Significantly, the last Carmen done by Santa Fe Opera was similarly egregious. The most affecting one we ever saw was performed by a small (now defunct) company in New York City. The most original one was presented by a psychoanalytic colleague whose concept it was to be interviewing Don Jose in prison, after the stabbing. His character was explored by means of flashbacks to various scenes of the opera.  It was original and illuminating. If you are going to have a concept, it better be cohesive and show us something new about the characters. This production was about as interesting and as believable as Lucia in overalls in the rustbelt of the United States, as presented by the Metropolitan Opera.

If one closed ones eyes, which we frequently needed to do, one was treated to some superb singing and a glorious reading of the score by Maestro Harry Bicket. The music moved right along with big dramatic orchestrations, as in the overture, alternating with gentle pianissimo lyricism, as in the introduction to Act III.

Poor mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, drably dressed in jeans and dun colored top gave her all to make sense of the character. She possesses a magnificent instrument which she uses skillfully throughout the entire range. She clearly worked hard to fulfill the director's requirements and to tell us something new about the eponymous heroine. In the 19th c. there was something shocking and fascinating about a woman who marched to her own tune. Set in contemporary times, it's just old hat.

Tenor Michael Fabiano sounded just fine as Don Jose but was perhaps directed to be particularly awkward with his body movements, leading us to speculate that Don Jose had some rare ailment that contributed to his unbalanced mental state.  His violence did not evolve gradually but was present right from his ungracious shoving of Micaëla as she tried to give him a kiss from his mother. 

Soprano Sylvia D'Eramo scored vocally with her Act III aria. Dressed in overalls, backpack, and Keds, she looked nothing like an innocent country girl although she did her best to act the part, contrasting with Ms. Leonard's worldly wise mien.

Four apprentices delighted us with their performances, seemingly removed from the intensity of the main story. Soprano Magdalena Kużma's Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty's Mercédès made a fine pair and we enjoyed their card reading duet. Tenor Anthony Léon's Remendado  and baritone Luke Sutliff's Dancaire brought Act II to vivid life. The quintet with Ms. Leonard resisting their blandishments was one of the vocal highlights of the evening.

Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel was put in the ambiguous position of portraying Escamillo as a bullfighter in authentic dress, and also some kind of entertainer in a saloon pretending to be a bullfighter. Nonetheless, we enjoyed his singing of the Toreador Song.

Bass-baritone David Crawford was effective as Zuniga; Apprentice David Lekeith Drone sang the role of Morales; Omen Thomas Sade took the non-singing role of the famed Lilias Pastia.

A terpsichoreally challenged female child was onstage so much, for no apparent reason, that we were not surprised at the muttering of the woman sitting next to me, muttering we choose not to repeat. These constant appearances were most resented when they occurred during the big arias. How unforgivably distracting! Perhaps she is the offspring of a big donor. Why was she holding her ears during the overture? Why was she prancing around stage making odd faux flamenco moves with her arms and swishing her skirt? Whatever the director had in mind was lost on every audience member we spoke with or overheard in the ladies room during intermission.

French director Mariame Clément obviously comes from the European régie theatre school.  Silly us to think that opera is about singing that enhances logical story telling! Whatever happened to authenticity and honoring the intentions of the composer and librettist? We would beg directors to stop trashing the classics. Modern touches added to comedies are just misdemeanors but to ruin a tragedy is a felony.

Julia Hansen's set and costumes for Act I were not awful.  Just a bunch of soldiers on one side and a fenced in area on the other side, enclosing a yard for the cigarette factory workers to take their breaks. But things got progressively worse.  In Act II, there was something like a nightclub with what appeared to be a drag show onstage; but then appeared to be Frasquita and Mercedes in hideous garish costumes. And another smaller stage was wheeled on with Escamillo in full toreador costume singing his big aria.

Act IV was completely incomprehensible.  At first, the chorus of onlookers were waving flags behind a wooden barrier. So, it's a bullfight and we had no problem using our imagination to recreate the parade of chulos, picadors, and toreros that were being sung about.  But then the set became a garish amusement park with a ticket office with a sign reading "CAJA"--Spanish for cashier or box office--and the only sign that the action is supposed to be taking place in Spain. A lone merry-go-round horse witnessed the violence perpetrated by Don Jose on the complacent but defiant Carmen.

Not only were the characterizations impossible to fathom but the stage business frequently belied the text. Please don't sing about a rope and then produce handcuffs to restrain Carmen.

We could go on and on about the directorial  misjudgment but we would prefer to use the space to once again applaud the excellent chorus of apprentices, directed by Susanne Sheston.  The chorus has been a winning element throughout the season.

© meche kroop

Friday, August 26, 2022

A STAR IS BORN







 
Quinn Kelsey as Falstaff  (photo by Curtis Brown for Santa Fe Opera)


 
We planned on writing about baritone Quinn Kelsey and his lusty and self-deluding Falstaff.  However, we were so taken with Teresa Perrotta's performance in the role of Alice Ford that we can think of nothing else. Stepping out of her apprentice position and into this role (substituting for Alexandra LoBianco) was a fabulous opportunity and one she seized with a stunning role interpretation and consummate vocalism that garnered deafening applause at the conclusion of the opera.

Of course, the entire cast was cause for celebration, as was the astute conducting of Maestro Robert Tweten, but to see a newcomer shine like that is revelatory. This young soprano has a major voice and was undaunted by Verdi's writing. She possesses a superb instrument, as we noted when writing about the  apprentice scenes. Having been mightily impressed by her Violetta in a scene from La Traviata, we cannot claim to be completely astonished; however, assuming a major role like this one with so much stage time is an entirely different story.

Her Alice Ford was substantial and real, good natured but a bit mischievous. Ms. Perrotta is probably very close in age to the adorable soprano Elena Villalón who portrayed her daughter Nanetta; however, her bearing and the weight of her voice succeeded in creating a convincing mother/daughter relationship. We foresee a brilliant future for Ms. Perrotta and nothing could make us happier.

Similarly, Ms. Villalón was completely believable as Nanetta, a young girl in love. The high tessitura of Verdi's writing seemed to offer no challenge to her focused soprano and her acting was everything it should be. She charmed us with her Act III aria  "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio". Lyric tenor Eric Ferring as Fenton made an ardent lover as they teased one another and flew into each other's arms. Although the opera lacks large Verdian arias, Fenton gets a lovely brief one in "Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola" which served to highlight Mr. Ferring's  pleasing timbre and phrasing; we admired a graceful diminuendo and the easeful approach to high notes. When the two young voices joined for "Labbra di foco", we were smiling from ear to ear.

If one were looking for major arias in this opera one might be disappointed; however baritone Roland Wood made the most of his jealousy aria "È sogno o realtà?"  His character is difficult to like, not only because of his unwarranted jealousy but also because he would sacrifice his daughter to provide a wife for his elderly friend Dr. Caius (tenor Brian Frutiger). We liked him better by the conclusion of the opera when he graciously accepted the new son-in-law whom he had unwittingly blessed .

Trickery would seem to be the theme of the story. Falstaff would like to trick two women to get their money to pay for his lavish self-indulgence. Bardolfo and Pistola trick Falstaff into taking them back into service by pretending to be repentant. Mistress Quickly tricks Falstaff into believing that Alice appreciates his interest. Alice Ford tricks her husband into marrying their daughter to Fenton. The biggest tricks of all are played on Falstaff. Don't we all love to see people get the comeuppance they deserve? We think of this as "The Revenge of the Merry Wives".

And Falstaff certainly deserves comeuppance for his treatment of women and for his narcissistic self-delusion. So how does a shameless fraud like Falstaff achieve the sympathy of the operatic audience? The secret lies in the light hearted music created by Verdi, which tells us not to take him seriously, and in the artistry of the singer portraying him. For this we have Mr. Kelsey to thank for his resonant baritone and his total immersion in the role. We felt sorry for him when the townspeople beat him up in Act III. He affects repentance for his bad behavior but we know he is not "cured". Although he has seen his own folly, he readily points out the folly of others.  Verdi's brilliantly written fugue ends the opera with "Tutto nel mondo è burla".

The factors that made Sir David McVicar's production so successful comprise the splendid ensemble feel of the work, and Robert Tweten's conducting, which brought out every comic element of Verdi's score. We have tried for years to grasp what makes music funny and invite our dear readers to comment below. At one point we heard the orchestra laughing! Was it the unexpected rhythmic shifts that created the humor?

As far as the ensemble work, the contributions of bass Scott Conner as Pistola and tenor Thomas Cilluffo (one of the apprentices) as Bardolfo doubled the comic impact of the work. Each had a unique personality and style of movement. Consider yourself fortunate if you were close enough to see their facial expressions as well as their antics. The audience loved it when Bardolfo, disguised as Nanetta, got married to Dr. Caius. Oh how he pranced!  Oh how we laughed.

Mezzo-soprano Megan Marino made a funny Meg Page in a very funny hat and mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero delighted with her exaggerated "Reverenza". It seemed that the enjoyment of the audience reflected the joy of the cast. They seemed to be having a great time onstage.

As you probably already know, Arrigo Boito's libretto was adapted from Shakespeare's play Merry Wives of Windsor, with some additions to Falstaff's character from Henry IV, parts I and II. Boito's close working relationship with Verdi shows in the successful marriage of word and music.

Thankfully, the costumes were of the period (Shakespeare's) and the unit set was effective, comprising a playing area flanked by sets of stairs leading up to a gallery, allowing characters to spy on one another and permitting several activities to occur simultaneously. And this leads us to our sole quibble about the production. At times there was so much going on that it distracted from the singing. We have noticed this recently in a number of productions, along with unnecessary choreography with characters lined up, performing inappropriate dance moves.

In the opening scene, Falstaff is in bed with a male child and a somewhat older female in a nightdress. At the end of the scene it appears that Falstaff and she are in copulatory position. In other scenes, the young woman is seen twirling around the stage.  None of this was necessary, nor did it add to the storytelling or character development.

In other scenes, servants are chasing each other up and down the stairs, or raking leaves, or hanging up the wash. When done between acts, it added to the verisimilitude but when singers were singing it was just distracting.

In sum, it was a delightful evening, marked by superb ensemble work and a glorious rendering of Verdi's music by singers and conductor alike. That we witnessed the birth of a star soprano was icing on the cake.


© meche kroop

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Wednesday, August 24, 2022

LOVE AND DEATH



 Tamara Wilson and Simon O'Neill (photo by Curtis Brown for Santa Fe Opera)


We felt quite a bit of envy last night at the Santa Fe Opera's production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde; we were envious of the bulk of the audience who seemed enthralled and greeted the artists with thunderous applause at the curtain call which took place a hefty 4 3/4 hours after the disturbing opening chord. Sadly, we were not enthralled.

It was not the length that we objected to; we have sat through Wagner's Ring Cycle a number of times and the hours flew by. It may have had something to do with the medieval legend upon which Wagner based his libretto. The influence of Schopenhauer's pessimism made the love story unlovely. We cannot deem the idea of uniting in some fantasied afterlife as a desirable goal for lovers.

As a matter of fact, the situation between the two titular characters had nothing to do with love but rather with obsession. Who was Wagner to write about love! The philandering narcissistic composer disrespected his own wife! The true loves in this opera are that of the forgiving King Marke for his adopted heir, and that of Kurvenal for his friend Tristan.

Since you, dear reader, have probably already read about the prodigious gifts of soprano Tamara Wilson who used her huge instrument effectively and acted convincingly as the captured Irish princess, we would like to begin by noting the performances that captured our flagging attention.

When bass Eric Owens walked onstage in Act II, our tedium dissolved. In contrast with the wooden performance of heldentenor Simon O'Neill, Mr. Owens has stage presence to spare and a commanding voice, offering a sympathetic portrayal of a childless widower who has been pressured into remarrying the resentful Irish princess. The poor guy got a raw deal, getting betrayed by his designated heir Tristan with his designated bride Isolde. This bring us to our contrarian opinion that this is not so much a love story as a story of the consequences of betrayal.  Not only is King Marke betrayed by Tristan but Tristan is betrayed by his jealous friend Melot, well sung by apprentice Eric Taylor who made such a fine showing on Sunday as Siegfried. We are always happy to hear young voices tackling Wagner!

It helped significantly that Mr. Owens was costumed (by Carlos J. Soto) in regal red, quite a standout against the grey and white geometric set, designed by architects Charlap Hyman and Herrero. One could call the architectonic set interesting in its flexible uses but we found it sterile and more suitable to Schopenhauer's philosophy than to a mythic love story. Costuming for Mr. O'Neill was less successful; the armor made him appear to have no neck. The women, however were graced by long flowing gowns.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton made a convincing Brangäne and made good use of her rich middle and lower register. The performance we most enjoyed, however, was that of Nicholas Bownlee in the role of Kurvenal. He showed a deep commitment to the role and wanted for nothing in terms of dramatic effectiveness. His voice was the most successful at cutting through Wagner's dense orchestration and showed an interesting timbre. One might, however, wish for a bit more variety in volume. (His recent recital for Performance Santa Fe's Festival of Song revealed just how deep his artistry runs.)

Speaking of Wagner's orchestration, we are quite aware of the novelty of his harmonic structure and the way he avoided any kind of harmonic resolution until the very end, creating a sense of unease throughout the entire work. What we liked best were the quotations from his Wesendonck Lieder. The rising four note scale passage from "Im Treibhaus"  reveals how a simple four note rising scale passage can produce substantial emotional involvement.

The conducting of Maestro James Gaffigan was excellent and went a long way toward illuminating Wagner's dense orchestration. We were particularly taken with the lengthy searching solos for English horn and bass clarinet, an instrument we don't get to hear as often as we would wish.

It is always a thrill to hear apprentices onstage, making an impact in smaller roles. Tenor Jonah Hoskins sounded great in the role of a sailor, singing a song that Isolde takes as insulting. Tenor Dylan M. Davis appeared as a shepherd responsible for playing  a tune when Isolde's ship arrives to heal the dying Tristan. Baritone Erik Grendahl sang the role of the Steersman.

Although this particular production of this particular opera did not resonate with us, we admire Santa Fe Opera for tackling it and for bringing so much satisfaction to so many opera lovers. How gratifying that very few people left early. Although not overwhelmed we were left with some satisfying memories of King Marke and Kurvenal, the afore-mentioned woodwind solos, the play of John Torres' lighting on the set, and the formidable voices of Ms. Wilson and Ms. Barton.

Although we were not inspired to read more of Schopenhauer's philosophy, we were moved to think upon the heavy cost of betrayal. We did wonder how Wagner felt about his own bad behavior, betraying his wife and betraying his patrons by seducing their wives.

(c) meche kroop
 









Tuesday, August 23, 2022

FINAL SANTA FE APPRENTICE SCENES


 Justin Burgess, Vanessa Croome, Caroline Corrales, Daniel O'Hearn, and Joseph Parrish

It seems as if the eight scenes chosen to present to the public by the Santa Fe Apprentice Program are of twè kinds. One type demonstrates the ability of the young artists to work together as an ensemble; the other variety seems to highlight the particular talents of a pair or trio. 

Let us begin with the scene from Verdi's La Traviata in which the ailing courtesan Violetta is confronted by her young lover's irate father. Père Germont has come to persuade her to give up his son in order to get his virtuous daughter married off. He demands, cajoles, and manipulates. His arrogant mien softens when he realizes her humanity and dignity. Teresa Perrotta impressed us with a sizable soprano, lovely legato line, and accurate phrasing. Baritone Darren Lekeith Drone made an excellent Giorgio Germont, not only singing with intention but successfully converting our initial anger at his character for insulting our favorite operatic heroine to a feeling of sympathy for his bourgeois predicament. The scene was well directed by Crystal Manich.

Another duet  that impressed us was from Robert Ward's The Crucible. We generally find fault with contemporary opera in English for its lack of melodic interest; however, Maire Therese Carmack's performance as Elizabeth Proctor and baritone Erik Grendahl's as her husband John carried us fully into the story. The singing was superb but what we most appreciated was the completely comprehensible diction --something we never take for granted. James Robinson's direction made the relationship between husband and wife very clear. His prior adultery has left him vulnerable and his wife even more so as the community is involved in the Salem witch trials. This will not end well!

It is always a pleasure to hear young voices tackle Wagner and two tenors, singing in fine German, made much of the scene from Siegfried in which the eponymous hero confronts the dwarf who has raised him. If one didn't know the backstory one would blame the ungrateful Sigfried (sung by Eric Taylor) and feel sorry for the hard-working Mime (sung by Thomas Cilluffo) who can never satisfy his ward. Siegfried is, indeed, a dolt who "enters pursued by a bear" (oops, sorry about that, he was wearing the skin of a bear he slaughtered) and heaps abuse upon the dwarf who has raised him.  But we, the audience, know that Mime is pure evil and only wants Siegfried's treasure. This is serious business but it was clear that the pair of singers relished their roles and threw themselves into the scene, which was well directed by Ken Cazan.

The ensemble scenes offered a wide range of styles. Our favorite was the scene from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier in which the Marschallin, sung with beautiful tone and great dignity by soprano Murrella Parton, acknowledges the reality of her young lover Octavian (a most convincing Kathleen Felty in this mezzo-soprano breeches role) about to begin a romance with young Sophie (charmingly sung by Emilie Kealani). This is one of our favorite operas and we loved the way it was sung and directed. Kathleen Clawson directed the three singers to stand far apart as they each expressed different emotions. But after the Marschallin left the scene, the lovers were brought together in intimate joy.

The scene from johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus was an audience favorite, a comic operetta directed by Ms. Clawson as a farce.  Gabriel von Eisenstein (baritone Justin Burgess) is delaying his departure to serve a jail sentence in order to attend a party. The maid Adele (soprano Vanessa Croome) uses an excuse to attend the same event. Gabriel's wife Rosalinda (soprano Caroline Corrales) is entertaining a former lover, opera star Alfred (tenor Daniel O'Hearn). When jailer Frank (bass-baritone Joseph Parrish) arrives to take von Eisenstein to jail, Rosalinda, for the sake of propriety, must pretend that Alfred is her husband. We suppose that the work was sung in English because of the plot complexity but we find it funnier in German. We found it a bit over directed with an excess of shtick and physical comedy.There is enough comedy in the plot! Suddenly this season we are seeing a lot of Broadway type dancing that went out of fashion decades ago.  We can't help thinking of the can-can.

Rossini's Armida began with a touching love scene between the beautiful sorceress Armida (soprano Avery Boettcher) and the lapsed warrior Rinaldo (tenor Jonah Hoskins). The melodic vocal lines gave them an opportunity to show their stuff. But then, two men in army fatigues entered threatening our hero with pistols in one hand and what might be bibles in the other hand, laying a guilt trip on him for abandoning his war hero status. We felt sorry for tenors Philippe L'Esperance and Kameron Lopreore (as Carlo and Ubaldo) whose gifts we thought were wasted, with strange gestures distracting from their singing. Perhaps director Mr. Cazan wanted us to think of the conflict in the Middle East, but it did not work.

We thought the scene selected from Mozart's Don Giovanni was not the best choice.  We are not sure why operas are recently getting tricked out with an excess of "stage business" which distracts from the singing. It seem as if an attempt was made to get as many singers onstage as possible and to give them as much to do as possible. Bass Allen Michael Jones made a believable Leporello and, to the extent that we could sort out what was going on, sang the role well. But why was Elvira (portrayed by Ms. Corrales) wearing a nun's habit when she is claiming to be DG's wife? Tenor Dylan Davis and soprano Caitlin Aloia portrayed Don Ottavio and Donna Anna, while Zerlina and Massetto were sung by Ms. Kealani and Jongwon Han. There was just too much going on to appreciate the singing.

And finally, we thought the very brief scene from Massenet's Cendrillon was also over directed by Mr. Robinson. Madame de la Haltiere was finely sung by contralto Megan Esther Grey but the severely overdone contortions of her two daughters was distracting. Noémie was performed by Amber Norelai and Dorothée, by mezzo-soprano Gloria Palermo.

In sum, it was a great evening, filled with delights and revelations. It is alway a pleasure to hear the stars of tomorrow at the relatively early stage of their careers.

© meche kroop

Sunday, August 21, 2022

A CLOSER SHAVE


Murrella Parton (Berta), Joshua Hopkins (Figaro), Emily Fons (Rosina), Jack Swanson (Count Almaviva), Nicholas Newton (Don Basilio), Kevin Burdette (Dr. Bartolo), photo by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera 


When we tell people how much we love opera, they usually assume we are speaking about a "very serious art form". They seem surprised to learn that opera can be lighthearted and even funny. Yet some of our greatest masterpieces are considered comedies. Does Il barbiere di Siviglia qualify as a masterpiece? We say YES!  In the wrong hands it could be dull and overly long.  but in the hands of the Santa Fe Opera we can not think of Rossini's work as anything but a masterpiece.  No wonder it is the hit of the 2022 season!

Stephen Barlow has directed with admirable panache. Not a single funny stone was left unturned. Andrew D. Edwards has designed sets and costumes with style and wit aplenty. The columns flanking the set were neither Dorian nor Ionian; they were "Barberian"--the familiar old-fashioned striped barber poles.

For us, the most important aspect of an opera is the singing and we cannot imagine better casting. In our review of Performance Santa Fe's recital, we admired the bel canto singing and believable chemistry between Emily Fons and Jack Swanson. What a perfect choice for the roles of Rosina and "Lindoro" (Count Almaviva). Both sounded even better than they did at the recital, and that's saying a lot. Rossini's elaborate vocal challenges were more than met. Fantastic fioriture and super scale passages, terrific trills, and commanding cadenze tickled the ear.

In the role of the eponymous barber, we heard baritone Joshua Hopkins, a Santa Fe regular whose performances we have always enjoyed. This role suited his vocal skills perfectly. His "Largo al factotum" was delivered with several original touches that rose above  the customary clichés.

Bass Kevin Burdette, another Santa Fe Opera regular, made a spectacular showing as Dr. Bartolo. The first time we saw him in a comic role we were astonished by his comic chops. Last night we were more impressed than astonished. We were not aware of the extraordinary flexibility of his body which he employed with as much artistry as he did his voice. The laughter when he slid out of his chair like a flow of lava just about drowned out the singing. The rapid patter of "A un dottor della mia forte" was executed with precision. 

The brilliant bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, making his SFO debut, brought his incredible artistry to the role of Don Basilio, using his magnificent instrument successfully, revealing a great sense of comic timing. We delighted in his aria "La calunnia" in spite of some excessive directorial touches which we will address later.

As a huge fan of the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program, we are most delighted to honor the performances of two apprentices who fulfilled their roles with equal aplomb.

Baritone Kyle Miller made a stylish Fiorello as he assembled his musicians to accompany Mr. Swanson's cavatina "Ecco ridente". Although the role is not a large one, he must set the stage for the serenade of his boss' lady love and this he did admirably.

Soprano Murrella Parton illuminated the role of Berta and was given some unusual stage business that increased her importance in the opera. We look forward to hearing more from these three gifted apprentices.

Also given quite a lot of importance was the chorus, so well prepared by Chorus Master Susanne Sheston. We are always dazzled by their vocalism but in this case they were given a great deal to do as Fiorella's musicians, each of whom had his own personality. Later they appeared as a swat team!  More on that anon!

Maestro Iván López Reynoso established the Rossinian pace right from the overture. We loved the contrast between the staccato themes and the legato ones. Just as the Finns should borrow some vowels from the Italians, so contemporary composers should borrow some tunes from Rossini! The master even borrowed from himself!

And now, we would like to address the issue of staging. Without a doubt, this production is a crowd pleaser and often the laughter drowned out the singing. We agree that humor is vital in an opera buffa but in this case we feel the direction was over the top and the high jinx frequently distracted from the singing. Surely the characters owe a debt to commedia del'arte but we want opera to build upon its origins and to rise above mono-dimensionality

We believe ours to be a minority opinion but we felt the work was over directed. Much of what we objected to involved the touches of contemporaneity. Count Almaviva, alone among the characters, is dressed in contemporary casual--a hoodie to be exact; and he pays Fiorella with a mafioso suitcase filled with cash. One of the musicians is drinking from a styrofoam coffee cup. Berta pushes a Hoover around the floor and describes the chaos to an unseen listener on the telephone. Don Basilio carries a laptop and takes selfies with his cellphone. Figaro reclines in Rosina's bathtub. The police who come to quell the chaos are a swat team. Berta emerges from her servant's uniform as a glamorous star surrounded by a chorus of men in top hats and tails. We could go on and on but we believe you, dear reader, will get the picture.

When every character acts bizarrely or inappropriately funny, the impact of comedy becomes lost. Among lots of peculiar characterization, the arrogant Dr. Bartolo was directed as a simpering fop. At one point, he donned a sweat band, spread out a yoga mat and began doing weird contortions.

This "originality" was echoed by the set. Dr. Bartolo's house was a plaster cast of Rossini's face.  His eyes were used as windows and his mouth as a door.  Hedges imitated a huge handlebar mustache. The audience applauded before the singing began. This stage element revolved to show the inside of the home. Below was a period parlor and above was Rosina's room. Bars around it suggested a cage, commenting on her imprisonment by Dr. Bartolo. She sat on a swing, going forward and back. Necessary stage elements like the doctor's piano were wheeled on and off.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, you will have a rollicking good time. On our part, we would like to "unsee" this production and remember the way the excellent cast sang Rossini's glorious music, the thrilling duets (not only the love duet but the one between Rosina and Figaro), and the many layered ensembles, so well crafted by the composer.

© meche kroop








Tuesday, August 16, 2022

FESTIVAL OF SONG--PART 2

EMILY FONS (photo by Dario Acosta)



 JACK SWANSON (Photo by Lily Lancaster)

Two of our favorite young artists presented a most satisfying vocal recital last Sunday. Thanks to Performance Santa Fe, singers from the Santa Fe Opera get an opportunity to perform art songs in an intimate environment, the charmingly decorated theater at the Scottish Rite Temple.
 
Soprano Emily Fons and tenor Jack Swanson have been on our radar for some time and we are looking forward to seeing them perform in Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Santa Fe Opera--and you should too. It is one of our favorite operas and always a good time, especially when cast with exciting young talent. These two artists have perfect voices for bel canto. 

The highlight of Sunday's program, for us anyway, was the final selection on the program, one from a different Rossini opera--Cenerentola. The two artists had excellent chemistry in the scene in which the Prince, in disguise, first meets our charming heroine. The scene opened with Mr. Swanson walking up and down the aisles, representing his search for a potential bride. We could not imagine a better depiction of love at first sight. The elaborate bel canto filigrees presented no challenge to these two remarkably flexible voices.  We were enchanted.

Now, what about the rest of the program! Ms. Fons led off with three songs by Charles Ives, of whom we have never been much of a fan. Surprise! The songs he wrote to German text were a revelation. We always love being introduced to something we never knew existed and these songs have many of the qualities we love in Schubert's canon. But of course the fine German texts that inspired Schubert could also inspire Ives to write gorgeous vocal lines. The piano parts were also notable with lyrical arpeggi in "Feldeinsamkeit" and some thrilling rolling chords in "Weil auf mir". We loved the way Ms. Fons colored her tone with gentle warmth.

Also new to us were some settings of Shakespearean text by Erich Korngold. The songs fit Ms. Fons' lovely soprano perfectly and we appreciated the clarity of her diction--a quality we never take for granted.  In "Come Away Death" there were unsettling shifts from minor to major. "Adieu Good Man Devil" gave her the opportunity to use facial expression and gesture to get the song across, and that is just what we look for in a vocal recital. Lacking costuming and scenery, the singer and pianist must tell the tale.

Ms. Fons' storytelling skills also illuminated a set of songs by Francis Poulenc. These miniature marvels also offer the artist a variety of moods to convey and she certainly did live up to the task. We loved the sweet humor of "Le carafon" and the delicacy of "Les anger musiciens". The decrescendo at the conclusion of "La reine du coeur" was exquisite. Her diction in French is just as fine as it is in English.

Alternating between these sets were those of the terrific tenor Jack Swanson. He also performed songs by Poulenc and gave a great interpretation of the ironic "C" with the support of Mr. Tweten's searching piano line. He used his instrument well and expressively; there were some lovely floated notes at the top of the register. His French was as fine as one would wish. We especially enjoyed his vocal agility in "Fêtes galantes", which was overflowing with personality and a true crowd pleaser.

We were very happy to see one of our very favorite Rossini songs on the program, one that we were introduced to by Pavarotti. "La promessa" is a simple song that goes deep, whether due to, or in spite of an uncomplicated melody, one which we have not been able to get out of our head since the concert. Of course, no one is, or ever will be Pavarotti--but Mr. Swanson did a creditable job. "Addio ai Viennesi" was new to us and must have an interesting story behind it. It suited his voice well and showed off his flexibility, although we thought the scale passages might have benefitted from a bit more articulation.

Franz Liszt's Tre sonetti di Petrarcha was an interesting choice for a bel canto voice and was only partially successful. There is power enough in the voice but pehaps insufficient variety of color. The poet is in torment in "Pace non trovo" and Mr. Swanson expressed that in spades, successfully negotiating the wide leaps. However, "Benedetto sia il giorno" requires a more tender color. In "I vidi in terra angelici costumi" the voice is placed in the lower register whilst the piano occupies the higher register. This was also well handled. We know Mr. Swanson can float his high notes and there were times in this cycle when we wished he wouldn't push for volume. Sometimes whispers speak louder than shouts!

Once again we were very engaged by the contributions of collaborative pianist Robert Tweten. It was not solely in the places in which the singer was silent that we noticed qualities of the music that had gone previously unnoticed. It was more the interplay between voice and piano that captivated us.

© meche kroop


Monday, August 15, 2022

APPRENTICE SCENES AT SANTA FE OPERA


Nicholas Newton, Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Lucy Evans, Ben Brady, Magdalena Kuzma, and Justin Burgess in a scene from L'Italiana in Algeri

What a delightful evening we spent watching and listening as this year's crop of apprentices showed their stuff.  And what stuff they showed! Nothing thrills us more than discovering new major talents and witnessing the ascendancy of their stardom. Last night, all of the apprentices sounded great but a few stood out, perhaps because they were given the right role to suit their unique gifts.

We chose the above photo of a scene from Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri because of its superlative ensemble work. Of course, Rossini is known not only for his comedic genius but also for his ability to combine several vocal lines into a tapestry of sound, almost always composed to bring an act to a rollicking climax. If anyone starts complaining that this opera is not politically correct, we will gladly stare you down!

In this case, marvelous mezzo Amanda Lynn Bottoms created a character with wondrous spunk; her Isabella used all her ingenuity to beguile bass-baritone Ben Brady's Mustafa. No one could doubt that she would secure the release of her lover Lindoro (tenor Andrew Turner) whom Mustafa had convinced to marry his cast-off wife Elvira (soprano Magdalena Kuzma). Rounding out the well-matched ensemble were mezzo-soprano Lucy Evans as the servant Zulma, bass-baritone Nicholas Newton as Taddeo, and baritone Justin Burgess as Haly.  James Robinson's astute direction created sense out of all the confusion.

Another charming ensemble piece, directed by Cristal Manich, was a scene from Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. We cannot recall enjoying this scene as much as we did last night. Soprano Amber Norelai created a flirtatious Zerbinetta who teases all the members of her troupe (tenors Thomas Cilluffo and Jordan Loyd, and bass-baritone Peter Barber) before running off with the patiently waiting Harlekin of baritone Luke Sutliff. Once again we marveled at the superb vocalism and acting skills of the entire cast.

On a more serious note, we were impressed by the ensemble work of the cast of Verdi's Don Carlos as they performed, in the original French, the scene in which Elisabeth de Valois (soprano Murrella Parton) confronts her husband Phillippe II (bass Griffen Hogan Tracy) about her missing jewel box. He in turn confronts her about his suspicions of her adultery.  Never mind that he has been committing adultery with the Princess Eboli whose entrance on the scene leads to her guilty confession of betraying her beloved Queen out of jealousy. And here, we get to the meat of the scene in which the Princess sings the famous aria "O don fatale". It was exciting to hear these fine artists being given the rare opportunity to tackle Verdi and, under the direction of Kathleen Clawson, to succeed so admirably. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Saturnino's Eboli was heart wrenching as she summoned a panoply of emotions and accepted responsibility for her misdeed. This is one voice we will definitely watch for future greatness!

Another serious ensemble piece was equally filled with confrontation. Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is one of our favorite operas, filled with glorious bel canto singing, luscious melodies, and a gripping story. No, we did not get Lucia's mad scene; rather we saw a scene of confrontations. Poor Lucia (Ms. Kuzma) has been forced by her desperate brother Enrico (baritone Sejin Park) to sign a marriage contract with the politically useful Arturo Bucklaw (tenor Tianchi Zhang). Her beloved Edgardo of Ravenswood (tenor Kevin Punnackal) arrives on the scene and confronts the victimized Lucia. Enrico challenges Edgardo and only the intervention of the family minister Raimondo (Mr. Newton) forestalls bloodshed. But we know that no one gets out alive. Lucia will murder Arturo and die of madness, Enrico's fate is not a good one, nor is Edgardo's. Everyone handled the bel canto lines with grace and accuracy. Ken Cazan's direction brought everything together.

Ken Cazan's direction of the scene from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte was somewhat less successful in that it tried too hard and wound up appearing excessive to the point of losing the humor. We thought it was a mistake to set the scene in what appeared to be the 1950's, as remote to us as da Ponte's time. (What's with the recent popularity of that unattractive period????)  Nonetheless, we enjoyed the singing of soprano Emily Richter as Fiordiligi, mezzo Sophia Maekawa as Dorabella, tenor Anthony León as Ferrando, baritone Kyle Miller as Guglielmo, Mr. Brady as Don Alfonso, and the Despina of soprano Amanda Olea. Conductor Robert Tweten brought the voices together into a satisfying whole.

Regular readers will recall our fondness for zarzuela and will understand how pleased we were to see a scene from Torroba's Luisa Fernanda on last night's program.The selection was brief but affecting with Ms. Oleo portraying the eponymous heroine and Mr. León filling the role of Javier Moreno. What gorgeous vocal lines! And Spanish sings so beautifully!

Another duet was staged by Ms. Clawson--the confrontation between the eponymous heroine of Puccini's Suor Angelica and her cold aristocratic aunt, the Principessa, in a stunning performance by contralto Lauren Decker, another artist marked for stardom by virtue of the unique timbre of her voice and intense delivery. We couldn't help thinking about the mores of Puccini's time and the rigid morality of Italy's declining aristocracy. Poor Angelica (affecting soprano Ardeen Pierre), having given birth without benefit of marriage, had been sent to a convent, presumably to lessen the impact of social opprobrium. For years she has longed for contact with her family.  Finally her aunt visits but only to get her to sign away her inheritance. The ultimate insult to her mental state was learning that the son she bore had died. Ms. Pierre sang movingly and was as convincing as a victim as Ms. Decker was as a rigid unfeeling tyrant.

The only contemporary scene on the program left us as cold as the Principessa. Next to all the passion and confrontation of 18th and 19th c. opera (and even into the 20th c.) Gregory Spears' Fellow Traveler lacked the intensity and melodic interest of the other seven scenes on the program. Nonetheless, the performances of Mr. Sutliff as State Department official Hawkins Fuller and tenor Jonah Hoskins as a milk-drinking young reporter were believable and vocally excellent. We just want to hear these excellent voices performing something less "conversational".

In sum, it was a stellar evening with plenty of variety. We enjoyed the piano accompaniment and never missed the orchestra. We are sure the young artists enjoyed performing with professional staging, direction, and costuming--all of which were of the highest order.

© meche kroop