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, January 29, 2023

DARK SISTERS

 


Mannes Opera Students

Although Managing Artistic Director of Mannes Opera Emma Griffin announced the evening as a "workshop" with minimal rehearsals, we thought the production given to Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters was first rate and required no apologies. Laine Rettmer's direction told the story (based on a true event) effectively; Geoffrey McDonald's conducting of the orchestra was up to his customary high standards; the singing of the six women and the lone bass-baritone was exemplary and notable for the clarity of their diction.

The story concerns the effects of the government raid of a compound occupied by  "The Prophet" and his five "sister wives" in which all the children were removed. The opera opens with a disturbing and dissonant orchestral clash followed by the five women lamenting the loss of their children in an interwoven choral episode. Choruses were performed a cappella or with spare accompaniment which we preferred to what sounded to our ears like a mismatch of voice and orchestra.

Although there was some interesting orchestration to be heard, the vocal lines were not among them.  More credit goes to the cast for making music out of Stephen Karam's prosy libretto. We thought this would have made a fine play! However, we did not think the music added to the story in the way that Poulenc's music and libretto (based on a play by Georges Bernanos) complemented and reinforced the storytelling of a different true story--Dialogue des Carmelites.

It is easy to be critical of the beliefs of religions other than one's own but that amounts to throwing stones when one occupies a glass house. Did "The Prophet" truly believe the nonsense he foisted upon his wives? Or was this just another case of men controlling women to suit their own desires.  We couldn't help but think of the animal world in which one male keeps a herd of females for his own insemination.

The way the talented Christopher Lau portrays him manages to sustain a hint of ambiguity.  There is plenty of ambiguity in the women as well. Eliza (well portrayed in the Saturday night cast by Sofia Durante) is the rebel in the group and uses her feminine wiles to blow the whistle on The Prophet. As the seriously troubled Ruth, Ziwan Nie was nearly mute but heartbreaking. The other women kept up the pious front and vied for the "favors" of The Prophet, probably brainwashed into believing the need to "stay sweet", a euphemism for obedience and submission. There was plenty of female "cattiness" and rivalry as one might expect. A parallel might be drawn with the complex households in ancient China in which there were several wives, often sold into what amounted to sexual slavery at a very tender age.

Mr. Lau had another role as a TV reporter, sitting in front of a photo of the Utah red rocks and interviewing the women who responded in unison as they had been brainwashed to do.  To his credit, he colored his voice differently and altered his posture for this secondary role.

The other women in the cast were equally fine, including India Rowland, Emily 
Summers, Joohyun Kim, and Carolyn Boulay.

The orchestral music, whilst not particularly melodic, offered some fine solos and duets for instruments of which we are very fond--English Horn and Bass Clarinet, not to mention the cello, harp, and percussion. No credit for costuming was given but the women looked appropriately inhibited in long drab garments and clunky boots.

© meche kroop

A WINTER NIGHT AT THE OPERA


 Eric Sedgwick, Julio Mascaro, and Daniela Yurrita

Your self-styled opera critic, Dear Reader, has strong opinions that not all of you will agree with. There are opera lovers that focus on the minutiae of vocal technique and get all bent out of shape if a note is a trifle sharp or flat, or if the soprano interpolates a higher note than is written, just because she can. (We actually read an entire argument on this point in a youtube of a performance by a famous soprano, who shall remain nameless.)

We, on the other hand, come to the opera to be entertained. No matter how exquisite the singing is (and last night's concert of arias certainly did have some exquisite singing) we want to be transported to another time and place by believable characters, inhabited by artists who share our predilection. This is, of course, easier to achieve on the stage of an opera house with the help of sets and costumes. To do so in a recital is far more difficult, and yet it can be done.
 
Our passion for opera was preceded by a passion for theater and this verisimilitude is essential for us to enjoy an aria or duet. We have seen and heard some very famous artists stand in front of a full orchestra to "deliver" an aria with admirable vocal perfection. These events were not really "performances" and likely were not meant to be; still, they left us cold.

In a highly satisfying concert of arias we attended at St. John's in the Village, well known for providing a home for such concerts (a few of which we produced B.C.), our highest expectations were met. A pair of young artists sang with such involvement in their characters that we were drawn into the operatic scenes they were creating as if they were in costume and immersed in a set.

When rising star soprano Daniel Yurrita and terrific tenor Julio Mascaro sang a few selections from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, there was plenty of time to develop the characters of Adina and Nemorino. Both the center aisle of the sanctuary and the side door were employed to show their comings and goings. "Una parola Adina" gave the pair an opportunity to illuminate their individual characters as well as to establish their one-sided relationship with one another.  In "Una furtiva lagrima" we could feel Nemorina's elation as he realizes Adina's underlying affection for him. By the time Adina gives us "Prendi, per me sei libero" our heart was filled with joy for the success of their relationship.

A different slant on the independent woman was created by Ms. Yurrita as Manon in "Je marche sur tous les chemins...Obeissons" and Mr. Mascaro was similarly convincing as the love-stricken des Grieux  in "En fermant les yeux".

This made his creation of the elderly Don Ottavio even more impressive. All of his paternal caring for Donna Anna came across in the devilishly difficult "Il mio tesoro" from Mozart's Don Giovanni. Similarly Ms. Yurrita changed from the world conquering Manon to the despairing Pamina in "Ach, ich fühl's" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.

An entirely different set of emotions were conveyed in the tragic final duet from Verdi's La Traviata. In"Parigi o cara", Violetta is hopeful to the point of delusion and poor Alfredo is both grieving and ashamed.

Another set of emotions were limned in a charming selection from Torroba's Luisa Fernanda, one of our favorite zarzuelas. "Caballero del alto plumero" is a featherweight flirtation with the most memorable melody involving a turn that has become a dangerous "ear worm".

We haven't even gotten to the elation of "Maria" from Bernstein's West Side Story in which Mr. Mascaro differentially colored each iteration of his beloved's name. And how about the quieter romanticism of "Un aura amorosa"!

The evening comprised even more delights but we think you, Dear Reader, will get the point. Every emotion was covered from ecstasy to despair! So, how was this magic achieved? Much of it with vocal coloration but also with full use of the performing area, bodily freedom, facial expression, and minimal props. This is artistry!

For once, we have not a single criticism of the vocalism which was always used to develop character, rather than for show. We particularly admire the way bel canto style was used to convey character. Accompanying on the piano was the superbly versatile Eric Sedgwick.

©meche kroop




Monday, January 23, 2023

OPERA INDEX HONORS JAMES MORRIS

Last night at the Metropolitan Club, Opera Index honored legendary bass-baritone James Morris with a Lifetime Achievement Award--and who would deserve this more than the only Wotan in our memory who showed us the complexities of this character as we needed to see them. Of course, Mr. Morris' biography is an impressive and lengthy one but that is how we wish to remember him. Mr. Morris' "third act" is coaching young artists and we can tell you, Dear Reader, how many young artists have shared with us the incredible value received from his tutelage.

The evening was led by Opera Index President Jane Shaulis who herself had a legendary career and who now does so much to benefit young artists. Speeches were given, toasts were raised, and the room rang with applause. After the lengthy Covid related "intermission" this was a golden opportunity for a gathering of the tribe and we were overjoyed to see so many familiar faces. But let's get to the stellar entertainment!


Donghoon Kang, Moises Salazar, Chuanyuan Liu, Vladyslav Buialskyi, Siphokazi Molteno, and Le Bu

From among 350 applicants for the Opera Index awards, 29 finalists were chosen, and 19 winners received $74,500. in prize money provided by foundations and individually sponsored awards. We can only imagine the tough job tackled by the judges to narrow down such a wealth of talent. Guests at the gala were privileged to hear eight of the winners and thankfully, dinner was not served until after the performances. To tell the truth, we felt so satisfied by the entertainment we experienced no need for food. Maybe we should share this information with those who are trying to lose weight. Feed the ears!  Feed the soul!  Not the belly.

Opening the program was magnificent mezzo Maggie Renée who moved around the audience seducing us with a spirited  "Seguidilla" from Bizet's Carmen. It is quite a special gift to combine a rich mezzo tone with technical aplomb and firm dramatic instincts! 

Ms. Renée was not the only artist to use the entire space of the room. Ukrainian bass-baritone Vladyslav Buialskyi achieved dramatic realism in his valid portrayal of Figaro in Mozart's Nozze di Figaro, as he opens the fourth wall and addresses the audience in "Aprite un po' quegli occhi". With superb vocalism he created a character in such a sure manner that the entire scene came to mind.

It was surely a night for the bass-baritone and it came as no surprise to learn that Le Bu studies with Mr. Morris. Winner of countless awards, Mr. Bu is firmly stage ready and can look forward to inheriting Mr. Morris' roles. Tackling the moving expression of Procido's patriotism in "O tu Palermo" from Verdi's I vespri siciliani, he got everything right--a stellar performance in every respect. 

Since we are now in the midst of celebrating the Lunar New Year, it gave us pleasure to have three Asian artists on the program--and all from different fachs. Chinese countertenor Chuanyuan Liu brought out every subtlety of the fioritura in "Si, la voglio e la ottero" from Händel's Serse. The plot is as elaborate as the fioritura but, truth to tell, we appreciate the latter more than the former, especially when delivered with pinpoint accuracy and fine flexibility as it was by Mr. Liu. What would countertenors do, were it not for Händel and his crazy plots!

We heard more French from South Korean baritone Donghoon Kang who performed "Riez! Allez! Riez du pauvre ideologue" in which Sancho Panza defends his poor confused master in Massenet's Don Quichotte. Mr. Kang effectively employed variation in dynamics and expansive expression to achieve emotional impact--another fine performance. 

Yet another admirable actor took the stage in the "Chanson de Kleinzach" from Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman.  Mexican tenor Moises Salazar is quite the storyteller and held us as spellbound as the character does to his audience in the opera. He colored every phrase with such dramatic interest that we almost missed noting the superb vocal qualities of his artistry.

The beautifully textured vocal quality of South African mezzo-soprano Siphokazi Molteno was also accompanied by firm dramatic intent as she portrayed the seductive Dalila in Camille Saint-Saëns'  Samson et Dalila. We have often heard "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" and indeed, it was our introduction to the Metropolitan Opera with Marilyn Horne as the doomed gypsy. It would be fair to say that in between that performance and Ms. Molteno's we have not enjoyed it as much.

We hear less French opera than we do Italian and were delighted to hear tenor Philippe L'Esperance perform Faust's serenade to Marguerite from Gounod's eponymous opera. Between Ms. Renée, Ms. Molteno, and Mr. L'Esperance we heard a lot of seduction in one night. Mr. L'Esperance's sweet tenor was well employed with some fine phrasing and Gallic style.

We did not get to hear all of the Opera Index winners but we are quite sure that the quality was equivalent. Young talent deserves our backing as well as our appreciation.  We hail the stars of tomorrow!

© meche kroop








 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

COMFORT YE!


 Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, Limmie Pulliam, Michael Recchiuti, Madison Marie McIntosh, Kamal Khan, Lauren Flanigan, John Musto, Amy Burton, and Philip Cokorinos

For a couple of decades or more, star soprano Lauren Flanigan has brought Comfort Ye to opera loving New Yorkers. We are happy to help support Ms. Flanigans's worthy initiative of helping the underserved members of our community with food, clothing, diapers, toys, and other essentials. The recipients of the donated  goods and money may change from year to year but one always knows the donations will go to a good place. In return, audience members get to hear some stunning arias sung by world class singers. One might call this annual event "Lauren and Friends". It is an event we look forward to every December and greatly missed during Covid.

The evening always begins with the selection "Comfort ye...Ev'ry valley" from Händel's Messiah. This year it was sung by the tenoriffic Won Whi Choi whose voice we have been enjoying for several years. It was thrilling to hear his voice open up for "La donna é mobile" from Verdi's Rigoletto. We love versatility and hearing an artist alter the color of his voice to suit the character. Mr. Choi is such a gentle fellow that his creation of the character of the licentious Duke was impressive.

Another favorite singer of ours, rising star mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh, swept us away with a most romantic performance of "O mio Fernando" from Donizetti's La Favorita. The fioritura was consistently on point and the cabaletta appropriately exciting. We liked the way she made use of the entire playing area and employed generous gestures to create the character of  Leonora.

Ms. Flanigan herself gave a powerhouse performance of "Do not utter a word, Anatol" from Barber's Vanessa. The richness of her voice is matched by the intensity of her characterization; we have never heard her give a performance that was less than riveting.

Chilling is the word that comes to mind when describing soprano Meigui Zhang's creation of the character of Lucia in the Donizetti opera Lucia de Lammermoor. In Act I, the soprano has to reveal the unbalanced nature of Lucia's character in order to account for the bloody act at the end of the opera. Donizetti has given the soprano plenty to work with and Ms. Zhang's facility with fioritura made the most of it. We loved the fact that the vocal line of every verse was differentially embellished. There was no problem understanding that Lucia was hallucinating even if you didn't understand Italian. We were made to see through her eyes!

Speaking of character creation, could one imagine a slimier Don Basilio than the one created by bass Philip Cokorinos? We cannot!  "La calunnia" is a standout character aria in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia and demands a singer who can act.  Mr. Cokorinos milked every single word of the clever lyrics with varying coloration accompanied by facial expression and gesture.

Another artist  that took our breath away was baritone Sidney Outlaw. His artistic toolbox is complete. It wasn't until he sang "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" a capella that we realized (or maybe imagined) that his singing career began with gospel singing. We heard subtle things that one cannot quite hear with accompaniment. Surely those subtleties affected his performance of "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen" from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt. There was a delicately drawn out "n" at the end of "sehnen"  that emphasized the longing of the character. Then, there was that final spun out "züruck" that went right to the heart. These are the subtleties that elevate a great performance into a sensational one that lingers in the memory.

Also deeply touching was soprano Mikayla Sager's delivery of Desdemona's final prayer from Verdi's Otello. Ms. Sager has a sizable soprano but can color the words to show her character's desperation, also making use of dynamic variation. It was touching and gripping at the same time.

Verdi was so adept at limning female characters and soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, accompanied by Michael Recchiuti, created a chilling Lady McBeth in "La luce langue". She was so convincing in her nastiness, conniving,  and manipulativeness that we couldn't believe her pleasant demeanor when the performance ended. We actually felt afraid of her!  Now that's another fine example of using technique to create character!

"Doppo notte" from Händel's Ariodante offers plenty of opportunity for fioritura and we enjoyed the performance of Sarah Nelson Craft as the jubilant title character celebrates some good news. There was some cross-over as well; she sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as an art song, with liquid tone, variety from one verse to the next, and delightful personality.

That wasn't the only cross-over on the program.  Accompanied by John Musto, soprano Amy Burton delighted the audience with Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance" and "Our Love is Here to Stay" by George Gershwin.

There were two artists on the program who were new to us. The very charming mezzo-soprano Sihpokazi Molteno gave a lovely performance of Charlotte's "Va!...laissez couler mes larmes" from Massenet's Werther. This is a rich and potent voice that she colored with grief. The big surprise, however, was an aria from a Zulu opera called Princess Magogo by M. Khumalo. We didn't know that Africa had an operatic tradition so this was a real eye-opener. The language is, of course, quite foreign to our ears and makes use of an unusual sound that Ms. Molteno told me is called a. "q" and which we have been trying to recreate for the past 24 hours without success! Nonetheless, it was lovely.

The other artist new to us is tenor Limmie Pulliam who had just gone on as Radames at the Metropolitan Opera. This artist has a set of pipes and the unmistakeable sound of a great Verdi tenor. We are not going to make comparisons or tell you whose voice came to mind but once heard, it will be remembered. It is a rich and sweet instrument with a very round sound and admirable phrasing. We'd like to see him without the loathed music stand that stood in the way of communicating with the audience but one could admire the voice with eyes closed.

Ms. Flanigan closed the evening with Ned Rorem's "See How They Love Me" and Ricky Ian Gordon's tango inflected  "I Understand You Coyotes", the text of which was delivered as only Ms. Flanigan can do.

Before ending we would like to give a shot to the admirable accompanist who brought everything together, matching each singer color for color. With the exception of Ms. Blanke-Biggs and Ms. Burton he gave splendid support to all the singers.  And he did something else. He called attention to the fact that so many of Verdi's operas deal with life's injustices and addresses the victims of oppression. We love when someone gives us something to chew on! We have always loved Verdi's music but never gave a thought to the stories he chose to tell. Thank you Kamal Khan!

© meche kroop

Sunday, December 18, 2022

SO MUCH TALENT!

t

 Singers and Judges at Premiere Opera Foundation Vocal Competition Finals

We can't decide whether it is worse to be a competitor in a vocal competition or one of the judges. The former have to deal with anxiety and the latter, with making difficult decisions. We do not envy either! But being in the audience is a real treat; one gets to hear the finest young talent taking their shot for the big prize. After all, these 14 supremely gifted young singers are the result of a difficult winnowing process, having been chosen from 150 applicants. The Premiere Opera Foundation is unique in that winners receive not only prize money but also the opportunity to be heard by those who may hire them. It seems to be a win-win situation.

As is our wont, we will not tell you who won which prizes; to our ears they were all winners. As far as vocal technique, all were top notch. Most seemed to have a knack for choosing arias that showed off their versatility. And some of them managed to evoke the entire scene of their chosen aria without benefit of costume and scenery.

We will not pick apart each performance but rather try to come up with what is unique about each singer and we will do that in the order in which they sang. The way the competition was organized, each singer performed an aria and then, after 14 performances, each artist got a second chance to perform a different aria; so we got a fairly decent idea of their versatility. All were accompanied by the able pianist Michael Fennelly who seemed to have a knack for coloring each aria in much the same way as the singer did. This is the great mystery of artistic performance.  How do they do that????

We also wondered how the singers chose their arias. To choose an aria that is commonly sung puts the singer in competition with all the greats who have sung that aria before. What a challenge to make one's performance stand out, to bring something new to the interpretation!  On the other hand, to choose an unknown or rarely heard aria presents its own challenges.

Leading off the program was the sweet voiced tenor Randy Ho who brought exuberance to "Ah!  Mes amis" from Donizetti's  La Fille du Regiment and tenderness to "Dies bildnis ist bezaubernd schön" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte He made the well-rehearsed gestures seem organic and spontaneous.

British mezzo-soprano Christine Byrne limned the character of Isabella in "Cruda sorte!" from Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri  by means of a richly textured instrument, which she also did as the doomed but peaceful Fenena in the lesser known aria "Oh! dischiuso è il firmamento" from Verdi's Nabucco.

Chinese soprano Yujin Zeng exhibited a lovely coloratura in "Ah! non credea mirarti..."Ah! non giunge" with a pleasing switch from a lovely legato to some fine fioritura in the cabaletta. There was a nice contrast with "Ach, ich fühl's" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. We wanted to bring Mr. Ho back onstage to do a Pamina/Tamino duet!

Chinese bass William Guanbo Su, long known to us, astonished us with his vocal growth in a forceful performance of "Quand la flamme de l'amour" from Bizet's La Jolie fille de Perth which was topped by "La calunnia" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, a circumstance in which we preferred hearing something familiar done in a more character driven way than we have heard it before.

Kenyan tenor Lawrence Barasa Kiharangwa exhibited an ample tone in "Se all'impero amici" from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito successfully conveying the emperor's generous nature. Showing another aspect of his fine instrument, he injected all the requisite enthusiasm in Alfredo's Act II aria "De' miei bollenti spiriti...Oh mio rimorso" from Verdi's La traviata.

Chinese soprano Siyi Yan accomplished the miracle of making the clever English text of "Glitter and Be Gay" from Bernstein's Candide completely comprehensible, so unusual in that very high register. She made use of lots of gesture with each and every word. "Caro nome" from Verdi's Rigoletto was given the same highly dramatic treatment.

Mexican mezzo-soprano Rosario Hernandez Armas, well known by us and oft-reviewed, gave a touching performance of Leonora's aria "O mio Fernando" from Donizetti's La favorita. This was matched or even exceeded by the fiery "Smanie implacabili" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, revealing how Mozart used the vocal line to limn the character of Dorabella.

South Korean baritone Minki Hong gave a successful portrayal of the angry Ford from Verdi's Falstaff in "E sogno? O realta" which was a nice balance with the lyrical "Vision fugitive" from Massenet's Hérodiade, sung in fine French.

Soprano Avery Boettcher let out all the stops in her portrayal of the angry Donna Elvira (oh how we love those angry characters) in "In quali eccessi o numi...Mi trade quell'alma ingrata" from Mozart's Don Giovanni, letting us see the drama queen nature of the character. This was balanced by the wistful Nedda singing "Stridono lassu" from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.

South Korean baritone Yeongtaek Yang brought humor to "Largo al factotum" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia and serious intent to "Nemico della patria" from Giordano's Andrea Chenier, successfully demonstrating his impressive versatility.

Tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro also showed versatility, choosing a strong Verdi character (Riccardo/Gustavo) from Un ballo in maschera singing "Ma se m'e forza perderti" with sorrowful renunciation and then singing the lighter role of Nemerino in "Una furtive lagrima" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore.

Cuban baritone Eleomar Cuello Calles performed "Mein sehnen mein wähnen" from Korngold's Die tote Stadt in the most perfect German we have heard from a non native German. It seemed a miracle that every vowel was given full value and every consonant was crisply enunciated. (Regular readers know how irritated we get when American singers maul the "ich" and the umlauts.) In Riccardo's aria "Ah per sempre" from Bellini's I Puritani, we heard a different style (bel canto) but much the same mood of romantic longing and disappointment.

Soprano Chelsea Lehnea tore up the stage with Violetta's Act I scene from Verdi's La traviata.  "È strano...Sempre libera" is a supreme challenge for any soprano who must show the heroine's ambivalence. The challenge was totally met in a way that far overshadowed her later performance of "I Can Smell the Sea Air" from Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire.

Canadian bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian took command of the role of Banquo in "Come dal ciel precipita" from Verdi's Macbeth, successfully conveying the ominous mood. Aleko's Cavatina from Rachmaninoff's eponymous opera also deals with betrayal and we think Mr. Gabrielian is very good at conveying that, not from personal experience we hope!

It was such an exciting afternoon that we didn't want it to end. We are anticipating success for all of these gifted young artists and hope to see them all onstage again in the near future.

© meche kroop

Sunday, December 11, 2022

FRENCH--FINE AND FUNNY

Yeong Taek Yang

Anna Maria Vacca and Huiying Chen

What a delightful night we spent at Manhattan School of Music! We are not sure we perceived it in exactly the same way as Director John de los Santos intended, but without reading his notes in advance (as is our wont) we felt free to enjoy the connection among the three French works in our own fashion.

The evening began with the one-act opera by Massenet entitled Le Portrait de Manon. How did we not know that this charming piece existed! The curtain rose on a most apt set by Ann Beyersdorfer which you can see from the photo above. Chevalier des Grieux has aged 20 years. (In this production he appears to be much older and we had no clue that he was suffering from syphilis as mentioned in the Director's Notes.)

We did see from Georges Boyer's libretto that he was grumpy and disillusioned with love, to the despair of his young ward Jean who wants to marry the lovely Aurore, ward of his friend Tiberge. Learning that she is a niece of the deceased Manon turns des Grieux around.

This slim story offered gorgeous music referring frequently to the original Manon.  Under the skilled baton of Maestro Pierre Vallet, the Manhattan School of Music Symphony created a richly textured background against which stood out a few soloists, particularly oboe and harp. Massenet's melodic music was just right for the members of the Graduate Opera Theatre.

We were greatly impressed by the performance of Yeong Taek Yang as the unhappy Chevalier. With fine vocalism and acting, he created a character that was believable and sympathetic against all odds. As Aurore, we found the brilliant soprano instrument of Huiying Chen absolutely ravishing. There was a freedom and clarity to the high lying tessitura and a winsomeness to her acting that had us rooting for her. In the breeches role of Jean, Anna Maria Vacca was convincing. The duet sung at the fountain in which the pair discuss means of suicide was magnificently harmonized and the music let us in on the hyperbolic drama of adolescents.

As the Chevalier's impecunious friend Tiberge, Moses Sunghyun Park gave a similarly fine performance. We might like to add that the French diction was excellent all around. Although our French speaking friend found fault we were delighted to have understood every word.

The eponymous portrait served an excellent purpose in joining the Massenet work to the Ibert work to follow. Following the curtain call for the Massenet, we saw a parade of women, dressed in the most gorgeous costumes of successive periods, ending with a character from the 1920's who would appear after the intermission in the Ibert piece. It was a brilliant device although the connection from the fin de siecle to the Roaring 20's seemed a bit jarring.  It was accompanied by Gabriel Fauré's Pavane in F# minor, op. 50, the choral version which gave the large chorus an opportunity to be heard, if not seen.

The Ibert piece Angélique was a real audience pleaser with plenty of imaginative eye candy. It reminded us of Francis Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésius which was composed two decades later but with the same absurdity. We don't find it necessary to apologize for the theme of Nino's libretto--trying to sell a disagreeable wife. It is a piece of a certain period and not meant to be taken seriously.

As the nagging aggressive wife, Emelia Petersen gave a stellar performance, performing a seductive vocalism from an open window.  Zhenpeng Zhang as her henpecked husband Boniface was funny.  James C. Harris was excellent as Charlot, Boniface's entrepreneurial friend. The three suitors that he rounded up were French clichés.  As the Italian, Benjamin Ruiz Scott was voluble; as the Englishman, Isaiah Traylor was pompous; as the American, Benjamin R. Sokol toted an outsized rifle and sported animal skins. We thought perhaps Nino was thinking of Davy Crockett.

The unsuitably named Angélique was dispatched to hell where even the devil didn't want her. Hang Su made a very fine devil indeed.The costumes were droll and the choreography clever. If you asked us about the music we couldn't tell you a thing!  With that much distraction onstage, we can't remember the music at all but we do recall that the spoken dialogue was in English and the singing was in 
French.

It is difficult for us to think of the piece as opera or even as operetta. It struck us more as cabaret, which is not a criticism. It was, after all, very entertaining.

© meche kroop

Saturday, December 10, 2022

DIVINE DAMSELS


 Sasha Gutierrez, Rosario Hernández Armas, and Maestro Predrag Vasic


Last night was special. It isn't every night that we get to witness two of our favorite young singers make a major step forward in their careers. We have been enjoying the scintillating soprano Sasha Gutiérrez and the marvelous mezzo-soprano Rosario Armas for the past few years but we have never heard them with full symphony orchestra. There is quite a difference between hearing a singer with a pianist in a small venue and hearing that singer in a large theater with full orchestral backing.

We were more than usually impressed by the manner in which these two lovely voices floated above the orchestra. The selections were wisely chosen both in terms of repertoire that suited their voices and personalities and also for accessibility by the audience, members of which may or may not have been opera fans. We are quite sure, as evidenced by the enthusiastic applause, that more than a few audience members became opera fans on the spot! 

Each artist had a chance to shine alone as well as to exhibit her ability to share a duet with harmony of voice and spirit. "Si. Mi chiamano Mimi"  from Puccini's La Bohême can make or break a soprano so we are happy to report that Ms. Gutiérrez made a lovely Mimi. She made use of an affecting timbre and fine vibrato to limn the character of the shy seamstress introducing herself to her writer neighbor in a beguiling fashion, just short of flirtation. 

Later in the program she showed her versatility by performing  Elena's Act V aria "Mercè dilette amiche" from Verdi's I vespri Siciliani. At this point in his long compositional career, Verdi still made abundant use of bel canto ornamentation and we enjoyed the artist's facility with fioritura, especially the very fine trill. We also noted how she brought variety to each verse.

Rosario Hernández Armas has an ample voice with true mezzo-soprano texture and endows everything she sings with individuality.  Last night she gave a powerful performance of La Principessa Eboli's aria "O don fatale" from Verdi's Don Carlo which we saw last month at The Metropolitan Opera. In this aria, Eboli blames her good looks for leading her into moral difficulties. It is as emotionally demanding as it is vocally challenging and Ms. Armas met the challenge successfully. 

Fortunately we got to hear another aspect of her gifts in the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen, sung with self assurance in fine French. She played it straight with out indulging in the cliché of seductive posturing.  It was all in the vocal timbre which we found dusky and seductive.

Hearing the two women in duet was even more exciting. There was a lovely balance between the two in "Ah, guarda sorella" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. This was a perfect choice and came across as totally believable. 

The harmonies of the voices came across even more than the silliness of Ms. Gutierrez' Fiordiligi and Ms. Armas' Dorabella. It probably has not been too many years since these two young artists were that age!

The characters in the Venice act of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman are meant to be somewhat more mature but our two lovely ladies were just as convincing as the courtesan Giulietta and Nicklausse, Hoffman's muse. The story halts here giving time and space for this gently lulling barcarolle "Belle nuit, o nuit d'amour". Such exquisite harmonies!  Such Gallic phrasing!

The UN Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Maestro Predrag Vasić and the program contained many lively pieces suited to the holiday period, particularly waltzes from Johan Strauss Jr. 

We found pleasure also in "A Little Fanfare for a Dream", a contemporary piece by Alex Craven which was surprisingly melodic and well orchestrated. It concluded with a bright and brief brass chorale.

This was a night well spent!

© meche kroop