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, August 24, 2019

GOOD WITCH BAD WITCH

Nobuki Momma and Merav Eldan


In a season devoted to works by women, Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble made an excellent choice in Francesca Caccini's 1625 opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina. The life of Donna Caccini would itself make a fascinating opera. As a child prodigy, she appeared onstage as a singer at the age of thirteen, accompanying herself on lute, theorbo, harp, and harpsichord! Hers was the first opera composed by a woman and the first to be performed outside of Italy.

She was born at the right time. Florence was under the rule of the Grand Duchess Maria Magdalena (a member of the Medici family) who commissioned an opera that would depict strong women. This opera filled the bill with two strong women battling for the soul of the warrior Ruggiero--the evil sorceress Alcina and the good magician Melissa. If this sounds familiar to you, dear reader, it is because Händel later wrote his opera simply called Alcina about the very same episode extracted from the epic poem Orlando Furioso. Caccini's librettist was Ferdinando Saracinelli.

We have no knowledge of performance styles of the early 17th century but what we heard last night delighted the ear. The gorgeous Baroque writing, reminiscent of that of contemporaries Claudio Monteverdi and Jacopo Peri, was performed by Music Director Charles Weaver, a star among Early Music performers, leading an ensemble of a half dozen Early Music specialists. There were three violins, a viola da gamba, a harpsichord, and two lutenists who doubled on theorbo.

The writing is interesting with male voices singing in sharp keys and female voices singing in flat keys. Of course, it is not necessary to know this to appreciate the sonic world produced by Caccini.

If the voices did not match the outstanding ones we heard last year at the Morgan Library, it does not take away from the pleasure we experienced in a second hearing of this rarely produced work. One would be hard put to match the Boston Early Music Ensemble which performs this type of work on a regular basis.

Still, it must have been a great experience for the young singers to gain experience in the Early Music style and most of them rose to the occasion. As is typical of the period, the Prologue is a separate entity to introduce the work--here a paean to the visiting Polish prince, a gracious tribute to his glory by the Medicis. The sea god Neptune (baritone Brian Alvarado) and the Polish river Vistula (soprano Robin Clifford) join with other water goddesses in the tribute. This episode is marked by gorgeous harmonic writing.

The story proper highlights the efforts of the good magician Melissa (Stephanie Feigenbaum) to rescue the knight Ruggiero--to get him back for his beloved but forgotten Bradamante (who doesn't appear in this opera but does in the Händel) and to continue fighting for fame in battle in Europe. For this task she disguises herself as his mentor Atlante.

Ruggiero (baritone Nobuki Momma) has been entranced by the devious witch Alcina (mezzo-soprano Merav Eldan) who makes it a habit of putting men under her spell and turning them into plants when she is through with them. Alcina is surrounded by a gaggle of girls faithful to her cause who sing of love in glorious harmony, just as glorious as the sea goddesses in the Prologue.

Also persuading Ruggiero about the glories of love are a shepherd (Christopher Fotis, a particularly mellow-voiced baritone) and a Siren (silver-voiced soprano Alessandra Altieri). Alcina's confidant Oreste (mezzo-soprano Micaëla Aldridge) has observed Melissa/Atlante convincing Ruggiero to cast aside Alcina's gifts and to return to his knightly duties.  She tattles.

This leads to Alcina's "mad scene" in which blandishments turn to tears,rage, threats, and recriminations. Ruggiero stands firm. But before they can abandon Alcina's island, Melissa must free all the enchanted men and their sweethearts who have come looking for them. Among them is Ruggiero's friend Astolfo (tenor Tyler Dobies whom we so much admired two nights ago as Joseph Treat in Mrs. President, and as Le Comte Barigoule in Cendrillon).

Once freed from Alcina's spell, the monstrous reality of the formerly appealing inhabitants of the island becomes apparent and Melissa must do battle and conquer them. The moral of the story is that danger awaits those who do not rule their passions. Tuscan women are praised for their beauty and urged to take a lesson in constancy from those loyal liberated ladies.

Sarah Young's direction was astute and we are quite sure that Emily Bishai contributed the graceful choreography. Joo Hyun Kim's set design included long strands of vines surrounding the stage, lending a verdant atmosphere. Claire Townsend's costume design was long on imagination, if short on funds. We love to see an artist make much from little!

There is only one more performance Sunday afternoon; if you love Baroque music, we urge you to go. Whether or not you go, feel free to take a look at Brian E. Long's excellent photos on our Facebook page--Voce di Meche.

(c) meche kroop



Friday, August 23, 2019

A STUNNING NEW OPERA

Whitney George, composer/conductor of Princess Maleine (photo by Brian E. Long)

It was a big gamble for Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble to commission a new opera; the gamble paid off and a stunning new opera was presented as part of the Summer Festival, honoring female composers, conductors, and directors. Billed as a fairy tale, we say otherwise. A fairytale is a folk tale that is handed down from one generation to the next with themes that are consistent from one culture to the next.

Whitney George's new opera has elements of fairy tales--Kings, Queens, a Princess in a tower, a Prince Charming, etc. but it is based upon an 1890's play by Maurice Maeterlinck that was not produced until after his death. The Symbolist movement in literature is difficult to define but, no matter, librettist and director Bea Goodwin has chosen her own take on the story, emphasizing the agency of the female characters. In this she has largely succeeded.

Actually, the most interesting character onstage is Queen Ann of Jutland, portrayed by the fascinating Mr. Liz Bouk whose regal appearance, expressive face and body, and arresting contralto voice lent verisimilitude to the characterization. Queen Ann is the very image of the evil stepmother, but here the character is the evil mother-in-law-to-be. She is a master manipulator, both of King Hjalmar of Ysselmonde, of whom she is the consort, and of her own daughter Princess Ursula (Uglyane in the Maeterlinck). She succeeds in killing the lovely Princess Maleine of Harlingen, a role portrayed beautifully by the lovely light soprano Elyse Kakacek, who looked and sang exactly right.

Bass-baritone Eric Lindsey lent his splendid voice to the role of King Hjalmar of Ysselmonde, a man whose power declines once he destroys the kingdom of his neighbor King Marcellus of Harlingen (portrayed by Jonathan Harris), a man who makes the foolish decision to insist that his unwilling daughter Princess Maleine marry a Burgundian, for political reasons.

The role of King Marcellus' wife Queen Godelive was superbly sung by soprano Kristina Malinauskaite. Her character was portrayed as kind and gentle but she dies along with her husband in the war with King Hjalmar. She reappears as a spirit again in Act II. Neither of the pair provide any support for poor Princess Maleine who has fallen in love with Prince Hjalmar, portrayed by Jeremy Brauner, whose grainy tenor seemed all wrong for the part, the only casting decision that seemed flawed.

Mezzo-soprano Nicholle Bittlingmeyer made a fine Aleta, Lady-in-Waiting to the Princess, accompanying her on her journey. The two of them had a lovely duet in Act I.

Playing The Fool was counter-tenor Jeffrey Mandelbaum whose flexible face, supple body, and eerie tone were just right for the part. Sometimes he commented on the action, sometimes he guided the action, and sometimes he lead the characters astray. But he always entertained.

Tenor Gabriel Hernandez and baritone Connor Lidell had a fine bit together as the Guards Vanox and Stephano. Baritone Shane Brown took the role of Angus, confidant of the Prince. In a confusing costuming decision, the two men who had a similar appearance, with matching bald pates and nearly identical costumes, seemed interchangeable.

We enjoyed the performance of soprano MaKayla McDonald as Queen Ann's daughter--a most reluctant bride for King Hjalmar's son. Her performance was both touching and humorous. The only plot point that was unexplained was how the two had never met since their respective parents ruled together!

The mime show held during the overture involved the petite Megan Vanacore  playing the part of Queen Ann's young son flying a kite. The libretto indicated that the kite represented a soul, yearning and aspiring--but held to the ground by the string.

Marcus Hollie portrayed the doctor who concocts poisonous elixirs for the evil Queen.

Stealing the show was a realistic puppet-poodle named Pluto, marvelously manipulated by the aforementioned Jonathan Harris.

There was something particularly special and seemingly authentic about a scene in which the Princess and Aleta escape from the tower and come upon a tavern. The libretto here was more than usually clever and made us think of Sondheim. Jessica Harika and Anna Woiwood were appropriately basse classe. We liked Ms. Goodwin's libretto best when it rhymed and scanned. There were some clever moments indeed!

What about Whitney George's music? Well, dear readers, we have saved the best for last. This was our first exposure to Ms. George's music although we have enjoyed her finely detailed conducting before. Unlike most contemporary compositions, what we heard offered delights aplenty. There was ample variety of styles and colorful orchestration for the 14-member chamber orchestra. Woodwinds and brass were particularly noteworthy, as were the ethereal sounds from the percussionist. Lyrical passages alternated with rhythmic staccato sounds. There were no longueurs; our attention was held throughout. As you may have predicted, we would have preferred more melody in the vocal writing.

There was even a tango, accompaniment to a scene in which Queen Ann tries to seduce the Prince. More credit to choreographer Lauren Hlubny!

Costume Designer Claire Townsend provided lovely gowns for Queen Godelive and the Princess, and a splendiferous one for Queen Ann. The two Kings, whilst a bit more modest, could not be mistaken for commoners.  The Prince, however was clad in a rather contemporary suit, as was his buddy Angus. It was difficult to see him as a prince.

Joo Hyun Kim's set was simple but effective with lighting handled by Dante Olivia Smith.

We would like to close by mentioning how much more enjoyable this original work was than the recently reviewed Thirteenth Child and Korngold's The Miracle of Heliane--both failed attempts to create a fairy tale. That is a difficult task to achieve, matching the wisdom of centuries of storytelling. Just think about the success of Cenerentola, Cendrillon, and Hansel und Gretel! Rossini, Massenet and Humperdinck had real fairytales to work with.

If you are tempted to see for yourself, there will be one more performance Saturday night. To tempt you further, we will post a carousel of photos on our Facebook page--Voce di Meche.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, August 22, 2019

AN EXALTATION OF WOMEN

Cory Gross and MaKayla McDonald in front; 
Kristina Malinauskaite, Brian Alvarado, and Jessica Harika in the picture frame
(Photo by Brian E. Long for Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble)

We have written at length about how Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble contributes to the development of young singers; so let us get right to the point--the performances of last night's program Voices from the Tower.  What a great theme for this summer's festival--presenting operas composed by women. Last night's program involved three separate parts. The first part was a one act opera composed by Pauline Viardot entitled Cendrillon.

Faithful readers will recall my ecstatic reviews of Ms. Viardot's melodies; that she wrote a chamber operetta was news to us. The work was performed in 1904 at the salon of the composer, then in her 80's. One immediately observes a youthful freshness that belies her age. We were struck most by the thrilling bel canto singing of the delightful score, written long after such tuneful music was in fashion. Clearly the work was not written to impress the academic establishment but to delight her friends. Delight it did!

Whilst the music is Italianate, the libretto contains much Gallic wit, particularly when Papa discovers some commonality with the Prince's assistant who has been masquerading as the Prince. The storyline echoes the original Perrault fairytale but is more lighthearted than the Rossini and the Massenet versions.

The two step-sisters are not wicked and are only slightly vain. There is no nasty stepmother. The Fairy Godmother not only transforms Cendrillon but appears at the ball and sings a song. The scene at the ball in Act II provides opportunities for improvisation according to the gifts of the members of the cast. Anarka Fairchild made a fine contribution.

Cendrillon, here called Marie, was winningly sung by soprano MaKayla McDonald whose instrument has a pleasing vibrato and whose expressive face contributed to the characterization. Her two sisters were named Maguelonne (sung by the superb soprano Kristina Malinauskaite) and Armelinde (sung by the marvelous mezzo-soprano Jessica Harik). A highlight of Act I was the trio sung by the three sisters in the most gorgeous harmony.

The entrance of La Fée was marked by soap bubbles and the performance marked by the lofty coloratura singing of the splendid soprano Heather Bobeck.  Baritone Brian Alvarado (in a very ugly wig) threw himself into the humour of the role and sounded great as Le Baron de Pictordu. Tenorrific Tyler Dobies exhibited some fine singing and winning stage presence as Le Comte Barigoule. The role of Le Prince Charmant was handled well by tenor Cory Gross.

The piano score was ably handled by Beau Dream and Lauren Hlubny's direction was apt. And if she created the humorous dances in Act II she deserves double credit. In an imaginative display, the transformation of elements into a coach for Marie involved the two stepsisters rotating wheels.

Jessie Chen's set was simple but effective--a couple of chairs and a suspended gilt picture frame which doubled as a mirror. Marie swept up rose petals which created a lovely picture. Heather Denny's costumes were simple. Marie's red jump suit hid under a drab black outfit just waiting to be removed. 

The mark of an opera's success for us is wanting to hear it again and the presence of melodies running through our head. This succeeded on both counts.

Geddy Warner and Anna Woiwood (photo by Brian E. Long)

The second part of last night's program comprised a few scenes from Victoria Bond's Mrs. President. We are not a fan of contemporary opera in English but--SURPRISE!--we truly enjoyed the scenes so much that we will be looking for a performance of the entire opera in the future!

Although we didn't leave humming the tunes, we did enjoy the music, the story, and the arresting performances. The story is that of Victoria Woodhull whose interesting life offered enough material for several operas or plays. Ms. Woodhull was quite a character--not only was she the first woman to run for President, a champion of women's suffrage and free love, but also a medium-- not to mention the fact that she had a seat on the New York stock exchange!

The scenes we saw began with choral music in which the voices of her seance attendees joined in strange affecting harmonies as they strove to reach the spirits of men they lost in the Civil War. Soprano Woiwood did a splendid job interpreting the role of the headstrong and independent title character as she roused her followers to her cause and as she seduced the hypocritical preacher Henry Ward Beecher, a man who practiced "free love" in secret while putting up a false front to his congregation. Tenor Geddy Warner was scarily convincing in his role, at first threatening Ms. Woodhull but succumbing readily to her advances, but only after she threatened to expose him.

Emily Bishai's excellent direction made the story both effective and affecting. Jessie Chen's set design included a desk stage left and a pile of pillows stage right. Nothing more was needed.

Tenor Tyler Dobies sang superbly as the rejected lover Joseph Treat. Other excellent cast members included Addie Rose Forstman as Beecher's sister, Jessica Harika as Victoria's mother,  and Robin Clifford as Elizabeth Tilton.

The excellent singing and riveting drama captured our interest from the first moment. We wish all contemporary opera was as well written. Hilary Bell's libretto lent itself readily to the music and was dramatically valid.

Lisa Faieta and Gabriel Hernandez (photo by Brian E. Long)


We wish we could say the same about the third part of the evening. We have seen a number of plays and films about Mary Queen of Scots which fascinated us but Thea Musgrave's opera missed the mark in spite of Emily Bishai's apt direction and some superb performances by soprano Lisa Faieta as the titular character, tenor Gabriel Hernandez as James, Earl of Bothwell who was supposed to be her protector, Connor Lidell as her brother James, and Jonathan Harris as Lord Gordon. Andrea Howland was affecting as the Queen's companion, also named Mary.

The problem for us lay in the unmusical music and awkward libretto. Although Ms. Musgrave has an excellent reputation in academic and critical circles, we simply could not get involved. Ms. Musgrave wrote her own libretto but the words seemed shoehorned into the vocal line, which was, in any case, non-melodic. The hoped for marriage between language and line was woefully missing. Much as we cared for Mrs. Woodhull in the prior scenes we found ourselves not caring at all for the destiny of the Queen. So unfortunate to have an excellent evening end in disappointment!

Director Emily Bishai succeeded in keeping the story moving, although the sword fight was somewhat less than convincing. Jessie Chen's set comprised a bed and a chair. Whitney George effectively conducted the chamber orchestra.

Well, two out of three ain't bad! We are looking forward to tonight's performance of Princess Maleine, composed by Whitney George, whose work is unfamiliar to us, with libretto by Brittany Goodwin, whose work we have always admired. Perhaps we will have an opportunity to get a better appreciation of the versatility of the singers.

(c) meche kroop











Wednesday, August 21, 2019

A SAD BUT BEAUTIFUL FAREWELL TO SANTA FE OPERA APPRENTICES

Elliot Paige, Sunwoo Park, Hayan Kim, and Duke Kim

Our last night in Santa Fe always coincides with the second of two concerts of opera scenes starring the Santa Fe Opera Apprentices. All summer these talented young artists spend their time honing their skills, fulfilling small roles in the five regular productions, and finally getting two successive Sunday evenings to star in eight different scenes. This is truly the highlight of our year. We are familiar with some of these young artists--those who live in New York City or have participated in award recitals and concerts. What a thrill to witness their artistic growth!

Many of last night's scenes struck us as being culled from popular operas, but not necessarily the scenes we consider the "best" nor the ones with the most famous arias or duets. It was a fine opportunity to expand one's focus.

Take, for example, the scene depicted above, from Mozart's singspiel-- Die Entführung aus dem Serail. This was a golden opportunity to enjoy the comic antics of Elliot Paige portraying the servant Pedrillo who wants to share his love of wine with the reluctant Osmin. It was so much fun watching the stiff poker-faced William Meinert being converted to loyalty to Bacchus!

David Paul's direction was absolutely perfect. When the other characters entered, the focus shifted to the parallel relationships between Pedrillo and Blondchen (the adorable Sunwoo Park) and that of Konstanze (the beautiful Hayan Kim) with Belmonte  (the terrific tenor Duke Kim). The two men reveal their suspicions of what their sweethearts did with the Pasha; the women are hilariously offended. Darby Newsome's period costumes were just right. The voices were uniformly excellent and so was the acting. We couldn't keep from imagining how the audience of Mozart's day must have roared with laughter.

In terms of excellent voices, we enjoyed watching the first scene of Of Mice and Men. We greatly admired Bille Bruley's tenoriffic portrayal of the emotionally impaired and childlike Lennie, whose care was entrusted to the much put-upon George, portrayed by the full-voiced bass-baritone Tyler Zimmerman who limned all the ambivalent emotions of his character.

We thrilled to their valid characterizations but not to the rather tuneless writing of Carlisle Floyd. Steinbeck's prose didn't need Floyd's music, but we couldn't help thinking what the prose might have sounded like in the hands of a Broadway composer; they seem to know better how to create melody.

The scene chosen from Donizetti's Lucia de Lammermoor was the one in which Enrico (baritone Benjamin Taylor) bullies his sister Lucia into being a political pawn to restore him to power. Soprano Jana McIntyre, costumed by Naomi Beetlestone Detre in a stunning red riding coat, sang and acted with great intensity, countering her bother's physical violence with some blows of her riding crop, making it the most brutal iteration of the scene that we have ever witnessed. Kudos to Paul Curran for his fine direction and to tenor Ricardo Garcia for his nasty Normanno.

The scene chosen from Verdi's Falstaff involved some excellent ensemble work. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Sarian made a fine Meg Page, comparing letters with her friend Anne Ford (soprano Ann Toomey)--both of whom were being courted by Sir John Falstaff. Also on hand was mezzo-soprano Kathleen Reveille as Dame Quickly as well as the young lovers Nanetta (Ms. Park) and Fenton (Mr. Garcia)--all splendid in their performances.

Mr. Curran directed the scene as a French farce with women ducking behind the laundry on stage right and the jealous husband Ford (baritone Jarrett Logan Porter) accompanied by Doctor Caius (Mr. Bruley), Pistola (Mr. Zimmerman), and Bardolfo (tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro) entered stage left. We loved everything about the scene except for the 1950's costumes. We fail to understand the penchant for translating operas into the 50's.  We suppose Maggie Drake was inspired by the production at the Metropolitan Opera.

In the Humperdinck opera, soprano Sylvia d'Eramo made an adorable Gretel whilst mezzo Gillian Lynn Cotter portrayed her brother Hansel very convincingly. Their respective voices balanced well. In the scene chosen the siblings are alone in the woods and comforted by the Sandman (Hayan Kim). Costumes by John Polles were most attractive and suitable.

A few years ago we saw Daniel Catan's Florencia en el Amazona and enjoyed both the story and the music, the vocal line of which was sung in Spanish. We were delighted to have our memory refreshed by the scene in which an unhappy couple are playing cards with journalist Rosalba (soprano Danielle Beckvermit) and the captain's nephew Arcadio (tenor Eric Taylor). The unhappiness of Paula (mezzo-soprano Kaitlyn McMonigle) and Alvaro (bass-baritone Andrew Moore) was expressively sung and in fine contrast with the apparent innocence of the younger folk.

Puccini's Tosca was represented by the first scene in which bass Cory McGee convincingly portrayed a desperate Angelotti, recently escaped from prison and seeking refuge in the church. Tenor Justin Stolz took the role of Mario Cavaradossi and bass-baritone Alan Higgs stole the scene as a very funny Sacristan. Mr. Higgs has a real gift for creating an individual character, as observed last week when he enacted the Mayor in Jenufa.

The evening ended with a jolly piece of fluff which seemed designed to send the audience out in a cheerful mood. From Kurt Weill's Street Scene, we enjoyed the scene in which Lippo Fiorentino (tenor Angel Romero) brings ice cream cones for his neighbors to enjoy and sings a paean to ice cream. The role of his wife was sung by Ms. Beckvermit, with the role of neighbors taken by baritone Ian Burns, Ms. McMonigle, bass Brent Michael Smith, and baritone Will Hughes. The ensemble work was flawless.

We can scarcely wait for next year's Apprentice Recitals and hope to hear once more some of these excellent young artists.  Bravi tutti!

(c) meche kroop


Sunday, August 18, 2019

ADULTING in the 19th century

Gabriella Reyes
(Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)
Vanessa Vasquez, Mario Chang, Will Liverman, Zachary Nelson, and Solomon Howard
(photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)



In today's musical universe, it is rather common for contemporary operas to be praised by critics (not by us, to be sure) but abhorred by the opera going public. How interesting it is to us that Puccini's masterpiece La Bohême was adored by the public right from its premiere in Turin in 1896, yet strangely attacked by critics.

Today, we cannot imagine anyone finding fault with Puccini's melodies as they twine themselves around our hearts; nor do we find the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa to be shocking or revolutionary. As a New Yorker, all it takes is a walk on the Lower East Side to see counterparts to the six young folk of the opera. Residing several to a room, scrounging meals, working day jobs to support themselves whilst they create art--all are features in common with the six young folk in the opera. Even Musetta has a counterpart among the young women who seek "arrangements".

The librettists wrote a somewhat romanticized version of the Bohemian lifestyle which the stories of Henri Murger presented in a more realistic fashion. This is a good thing because the carefree Mimi that Murger wrote about --who died alone in a hospital --might never have aroused our care and sympathy. As we  pointed out in our recent reviews, we need to connect with the lead characters and to see ourselves in them; we need to care what happens to them. The story is instrumental but it's the music inspired by the story that gives us the true operatic experience.

We have been looking forward for months to the production at Santa Fe Opera directed by one of our favorite directors--Mary Birnbaum. The cast is filled with familiar names --singers we have known and loved.

Take, for example, the radiant soprano Vanessa Vasquez who has won prizes at countless competitions singing Puccini; we have written many times about her glorious soprano and her convincing acting. Last night she gave the audience a memorable Mimi, perhaps a bit closer to Murger's Mimi than we usually see; she gave the impression of having had her eye on Rodolfo and was just waiting for an opportunity to connect with him.

As Rodolfo we heard the excellent tenor Mario Chang whose sweet vocal colors were just right for the role, although a bit on the soft side. We particularly loved the Act III duet "Senza rancor" in which the lovers go through several emotions, reminiscing about their lives together. We confess to being relieved when they decided to spend the rest of the winter together, even though we know the rest of the story more than well enough. We have been writing about Mr. Chang for years and still recall some noteworthy performances in the Lindemann Program of the Metropolitan Opera.

As Musetta, we heard Gabriella Reyes, another superb soprano who shared the stage with Ms. Vaquez at the Met National Council Finals. We recall her lovely "Il est doux, il est bon" from Massenet's Hérodiade, and an aria from Daniel Catan's Florencia en el Amazona. We had the pleasure of reviewing her excellent performances as a singer with the Lindemann Program, the most memorable of which, for us, was her singing in Spanish-- above all in zarzuela. Last night she showed her versatility, singing and acting up a storm; she showed very different vocal colors in her showpiece aria "Quando m'en vo" in Act II, and a far more tender side in Act IV.

Brilliant baritone Zachary Nelson admirably fulfilled the role of the painter Marcello, besotted with the mercurial Musetta. We particularly enjoyed his interaction with Mimi in Act III. Mr. Nelson has a long-standing relationship with the Santa Fe Opera and was first heard as an Apprentice a number of years ago. It delights us that his artistry was noted and developed.

Baritone Will Liverman made a fine Schaunard. We loved the part in Act I when he tells the captivating story of the poisoned parrot, and his three friends, distracted by the food and wine he has brought, pay absolutely no attention. Since hearing Mr. Liverman as an award winner with Opera Index, we have followed his promising career with interest. There have been awards and recitals aplenty but what we recall best is that he introduced us to two operas we'd never heard--Albert Lortzing's 1842 comic opera Der Wildschütz, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride.

This is only the third time we have heard the booming bass of Soloman Howard; once was as the Bonze in Puccini's Madama Butterfly and the other was as the Commendatore in Mozart's Don Giovanni; both performances at the Santa Fe Opera. We were quite impressed with the depth of his sound and by his compelling stage presence. Our favorable impression was ratified by his performance as Colline. His "Vecchia zimarra" was beautifully rendered; it is a real heartbreaker as we in the audience realize that the coat he is parting with is symbolic of the carefree days of youth.

Veteran bass-baritone Dale Travis could not have been better as the landlord Benoit, getting tipsy with his delinquent bohemian tenants, and as the much put upon Alcindoro, Musetta's latest "patron".

Santa Fe Apprentices filled the stage in Act II and three of them filled small roles--Elliott Paige as the toy-seller Parpignol, Jarrett Logan Porter and Seungyun Kim as Customs Officers.

Maestro Jader Bignamini led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra through their Puccini paces and brought out every theme as it recurred in different guises. He brought a lively tempo to the horseplay in Act I and a slow heartbreaking tempo to Act IV. 

Director Mary Birnbaum wisely did not alter the time or place of the opera and gave us a fairly traditional production with a few novel flourishes. We were surprised in Act I when Mimi made the move on Rodolfo. Our only moment of disbelief was when Mimi asks Rodolfo to stop something when he wasn't doing anything!

It was a novel idea to have the Parisian folk ice-skating (actually on roller blades which looked like ice skates) and it's a wonder that Ms. Reyes did a creditable job.

It was also a novel idea to have Musetta very very pregnant in Act IV. We don't think it added to the story.

Grace Laubacher's set was effective. The garret had a sloping roof made of leaded glass and was set in front of a backdrop of typical French buildings off in the distance. The tavern in Act III (humorously called "La Mer Rouge"--recalling the panting Marcello was working on) was realistic; in the transition to Act IV, it was turned inside out to become the aforementioned garret.

Camellia Koo's costumes worked well. The bourgeois citizens of Paris were dressed in colorful typical early 19th c. costumes. The "bohemians" were notably dressed differently. In Act II, Musetta appears in a shocking pink jumpsuit and in Act III, she is wearing a man's suit. But isn't that what young artistic folk do in every generation?

This is a story of "adulting"; the lives of the surviving characters will be forever changed. It is a mark of a production's success when we care!

(c) meche kroop







Friday, August 16, 2019

BLEAK HOUSE

Laura Wilde (Jenůfa), Gina Perregrino (Herdswoman), Katherine Beck (Karolka), Kathleen Reveille (Mayor’s Wife), and Richard Trey Smagur (Števa Buryja) (Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)


Contemporaneous with Puccini, Leoš Janáček wrote a very sad opera about sin and redemption in a small Moravian village; Jenüfa premiered in1904 after six years of compositional labor; it would not be heard in the composer's original version for seventy years. This is one of the first "prose" operas.

The grim story deals with issues of unrequited love, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, fraternal envy, violence, and infanticide. The eponymous heroine (soprano Laura Wilde) is in love with the fickle Števa (tenor Richard Trey Smagur) and is carrying his child. His half-brother Laca (tenor Alexander Lewis) is envious of Števa's favored position in the family and is jealous of Števa's relatioship with Jenufa. How this all works out is a gripping story.

Two elements pleased us even before attending the performance. Firstly, the opera is sung in Czech; this is a difficult language but every time we hear it sung we are impressed by how wedded are word and vocal line. Janácek wrote the libretto himself so this element is particularly important.

Secondly, the opera has been cast with singers we know and love, some of whom we heard last year as Santa Fe Apprentices, others we know from conservatories in New York or from competitions.

One of the hallmarks of a great production is that one can identify with the characters and care about them. The fact that the piece was updated to the mid-20th c. did not detract from its impact. This story might even take place today in a small town gripped by religious fundamentalism.

The eponymous Jenufa has been captivated by a man of poor character who seduces her and abandons her when her face has been disfigured. Who could not identify with an innocent young woman who falls for a narcissistic man! Soprano Laura Wilde (once an 
apprentice at Santa Fe Opera) used her generous instrument and agile body to create a Jenufa we could really care about. The dénouement of the drama finds her accepting her fate and possibly finding happiness with Laca. All of the emotions she experienced were revealed through vocal coloration and body language---anticipation, joy, anxiety, despair, grief, forgiveness, and reconciliation. What a stunning performance!

As Kostelnička, soprano Patricia Racette turned in a highly memorable performance. The intensity of her vocal expression and the measured use of vibrato made her a sympathetic monster. Under the stress of living in a religious community as the widow of the church warden, her experience of shame over her step-daughter's pregnancy and her efforts to find the best for Jenufa clashed with her religious beliefs; her desperate act left her feeling sick and guilty. Ms. Racette made her climactic realization --how she loved herself more than others -- convincing evidence of her emotional growth.

As the rascal Števa, tenor Richard Trey Smagur (well remembered from his Apprentice performances) created a character imbued with childish narcissism, caring only for his own desires--drinking and philandering. Whilst Jenufa was grieving he was busy courting the daughter of the Mayor. Mr. Smagur created a thoroughly detestable character but sang so well we were ready to forgive him anything. Additionally, he has a compelling stage presence that dominated the stage.

Tenor Alexander Lewis, whom we haven't heard in a few years, sounded terrific as Laca. Sulking around the stage as a grievance collector when the opera opens, he explodes with anger and slashes Jenufa's face. By the end of the opera he has matured emotionally; forgiven by Jenufa, he seems prepared to make a good husband for her. All of these emotions were made clear by Mr. Lewis, both in his vocal coloration and in his posture.

We enjoyed the performance of baritone Will Liverman, also a former Apprentice at Santa Fe Opera. His character was the foreman of the mill which Števa inherited and had the task of announcing the fact that Števa had not been drafted. His voice always lends a sense of import.

Renowned mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, a Santa Fe resident, created the role of Grandmother Buryjovka, mother-in-law of Kostelnička, and a seemingly kind woman who can also swat her wayward grandson with her purse. She became increasingly frail during the three seasons in which the opera takes place

Several apprentices graced the stage with their presence in smaller roles. Alan Higgs gave a fine interpretation of the self-satisfied mayor with Kathleen Reveille creating the character of his wife---critical and all too ready to humiliate Jenufa. Their daughter Karolka was portrayed by Katherine Beck as the superficial flighty beauty that Števa was going to marry. The three of them just made sense as a family.

Making brief appearances but sounding great were Gina Perregrino, Sylvia D'Eramo, Jana McIntyre, Kaitlyn McMonigle, Danielle Beckvermit, and Benjamin Taylor.

The chorus of Apprentices appeared as townfolk and sounded sensational, as usual. We loved the folk dances choreographed by Maxine Braham.

Maestro Johannes Debus honored Janáček by revealing all the colors of his palette. Our esteem for this composer grows every time we hear his compositions. His writing underscores the action at every turn. We loved the duet between mother and step-daughter which seemed more tuneful than the writing for solo voice. When Kostelnička sends Jenufa to bed, the orchestral writing has the quality of a lullaby. Our favorite passages are almost always the most lyrical ones but last night we found much to love in the forceful and dramatic ones.

Director David Alden similarly honored the work. His direction put a lot of space between the characters which emphasized their loneliness and isolation. There wasn't much love in this family! Fortunately, there wasn't even a whiff of directorial arrogance. Alden wisely allowed the tale to speak for itself.

Charles Edwards' minimalist set design neither added nor detracted but it was stunningly lit by Duane Schuler, who created chiaroscuro effects with dramatic shadows on the walls. We liked the way the boarded up windows exploded when the boards were removed and a storm occurred, lending verisimilitude to the storm within the family.

Jon Morrell's costumes were a propos to a small European village in the mid-20th c.. The folk dancers were colorful and the family drab. The mayor's wife and daughter were more lavishly costumed as befit their lofty position in the local society.

Unfortunately, this was the last performance of the season so unless you have already attended you are out of luck. But there is plenty more artistry to look forward to. We are looking forward to tomorrow's La Bohême and the Sunday Apprentice recital.


(c) meche kroop



Wednesday, August 14, 2019

INFIDELITY AND BETRAYAL

Amanda Majeski, Jarrett Ott, Rod Gilfry, Ben Bliss, and Emily D'Angelo
(Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)

It was at the tail end of the Enlightenment when Mozart and Da Ponte created their puzzling masterpiece Cosi fan tutte, puzzling because it has one foot in comedy and the other in tragedy. It must have scandalized the opera-going public at that time. As late as the 20th c. audiences might have understood the shame experienced by cheating fiancées; but 21st century morality has changed and partner swapping no longer shocks or shames.

Given Mozart's marvelous music and an attractive young cast, we expected a captivating telling of the tale, especially since we have previously enjoyed the fresh takes on Händel's operas provided by Stage Director R.B. Schlather. To say we were disappointed would be a gross understatement; in fact we were appalled by this meretricious production.

We frequently closed our eyes during the "important" arias so we could focus on the glorious voices. It was indeed a casting coup to have engaged these artists who were excellent vocally and who worked well as an ensemble, apparently doing their best to give Mr. Schlather what he wanted.

Tenor Ben Bliss, possessor of a gorgeous instrument, could have melted anyone's heart with his "Un'aura amorosa". His voice has expanded in the past couple of years without losing any of its tonal luster. It was amazing that Fiordiligi could hold out for so long!

Baritone Jarrett Ott has a compelling stage presence and sings with baritonal beauty that was never lost in this low lying tessitura. Mozart did not give him a memorable aria but "Non siate ritrosi" was given a fine delivery. He was memorable in his seduction of Dorabella.

The role of Dorabella was performed by the excellent young mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo who possesses an instrument of distinctive texture. We particularly enjoyed her performance of "Smanie implacabili" for its gorgeous vocalism and over-the-top dramatics.

The soprano role of Fiordiligi was performed by Amanda Majeski who readily conquered the wide skips of the showpiece aria "Come scoglio".  However we were distressed by a hard edge in her voice that sounded shrill. In duets and ensembles this feature created an unpleasant imbalance in the harmonies. Also, her ornamentation could have been crisper in its articulation.

Baritone Rod Gilfry is always a welcome presence, even when he portrays un unlikeable character like Don Alfonso. How can one like an older man who treats his young friends as puppets to play with!  We call him guilty of entrapment.

Soprano Tracy Dahl got a lot of laughs as Despina and we loved the particular timbre of her high soprano. It was particularly funny that her height brought her barely to the shoulders of the other artists. "Una donna a quindici anni" was given plenty of sass.

We always enjoy Mozart's duets and ensembles, especially "Soave sia il vento". The esteemed conductor Maestro Harry Bicket led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in a lively reading of the score, also giving the lyrical moments plenty of space.

We also noticed that moments of comedy were enhanced by leaving an extra beat of silence right before a humorous line. We don't know whether Mo. Bicket or Mr. Shlather was responsible for this but it worked well.

Now, about the production--we found it illogical, incomprehensible, and just plain ugly. It would take forever to relate every single instance of directorial waywardness but let us name a few. In Act I, all four of the young lovers were directed to move jerkily around the stage, roll on the floor, fight, and bounce off the walls. 

Despina has a magic wand to "heal" the poisoned "Albanians" (who in this case were silver-clad cowboys) and appears to use it to advance Don Alfonso's machinations. If "magic" is involved, it undercuts the theme of human foibles and succumbing to the pull of romantic variety. In this production the women can't really take responsibility for their lapses although they do feel shame.

The final scene was particularly confusing. Don Alfonso makes all four young lovers kneel as if preparing for an ISIS beheading; then he pours water or some other liquid on their heads. 

Characters were often onstage when they were not supposed to be. Don Alfonso had no justification for announcing the return of the fiancés just when everyone was partially deshabillé.

Terese Waddens' costume design furthered the confusion. The young men first appear in what seems to be tennis whites, as do the young women. The men then appear dressed as cowboys, so that when they next appear as the "Albanians" the only apparent difference is that their moustaches are gone. This makes it even more preposterous that the ladies don't recognize their fiancés.

Despina is costumed in an unflattering housedress and later in a spangled evening gown that harmonizes with those of her employers robbing her of her special role in the plot. No attempt was made to convince anyone that she was a notary or a doctor.

Dorabella at first looks very feminine with long hair. Toward the end she appears wearing a man's suit and very short hair. Why?

Paul Tate De Poo III's minimalistic set design was similarly ill advised. Flat architectural elements had square spaces cut out of them through which characters emerged in somersaults or fell through. The floor had a similar square hole through which characters emerged or descended. None of these movements served the plot. There were no props except for Despina's magic wand.

Perhaps Mr. De Poo and Ms. Wadden were just giving Mr. Schlather what he wanted, just like the singers. But the overall effect added nothing to our understanding of the characters. We speculate that Mr. Schlather wanted his audience to focus on the psychology of the characters and the emotional effects of their interaction. This is not the way to do it!

When we see a production that honors the intent of the librettist and composer and is given a specific context of time and place, we in the audience do the work of finding parallels with our own time and place, as well as differences. It gives us a feeling of participation and a sense of understanding of our place in history.

On the other hand, a barren production like this one was devoid of context. Such abstraction leaves us feeling alienated and disconnected, when we should be identifying with the characters and caring about their destinies.

So...Mozart 10: Schlather 2!  It was the production which was guilty of infidelity and the audience which was betrayed!

(c) meche kroop