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.

Monday, July 1, 2024

DESTINY AND FATE


 Cast of Lighthouse Opera's production of Bizet's Carmen

The last time we saw Bizet's popular 1875 masterpiece, we were sorely disappointed in the director's betrayal of the intent of the composer and his librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy.  Although they did not adhere strictly to the 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, the opera, as written, is a powerful character study of an independent woman who is governed by her will (a Sigma woman, in contemporary parlance) facing off against a weak man who is governed by his feelings.

The third "character" of the story, the only character to which Carmen will submit, is that of Fate. Within the construct of Romany culture, all is destined. If one listen carefully to the music and the dialogue, Carmen knows even before she reads her cards that she will die. Don Jose, the hapless soldier who falls for her, is also a victim of superstition; he believes that Gypsies can cast spells and that the rose that Carmen throws at him has put him under a spell he is unable to resist.

Set in modern times, one would be tempted to assign psychiatric diagnoses to these characters, all the more reason to avoid such folderol.

On a huge stage with elaborate sets and costumes, it is easy for the listener him/herself to be seduced by the seductive rhythms and memorable melodies of Georges Bizet. Hearing the opera in concert  version, as produced last night in a special Manhattan performance at the National Opera Center by Lighthouse Opera (native to The Bronx), we were undistracted by spectacle and able to hear the piano reduction anew (sensitively played by Jason Wirth) and to relate to the aforementioned characterological issues.

The female characters stole the show. As the eponymous Gypsy, mezzo-soprano Victoria Thomasch remained in character for the entire three hours that she was onstage and held our attention throughout. Equally compelling in the "Habanera" and the "Seguidilla", she played against her Nordic appearance and convinced us totally of her self-determination, utilizing the darkish color of her impressive instrument.

No less compelling was the touching performance of soprano Lena Yasmin whose expressive instrument brought Micaëla's character into fine focus. The false bravado came across effectively, especially in her "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante". It made us wonder what would happen to her after this tragedy, a thought that we had never had before.

Tenor Chad Kranak portrayed the tormented Don Jose whose loyalty to his mother and his intended were destroyed by a Gypsy spell, his belief in such magic, or maybe just plain lust. We enjoyed his vocalism the most in the pianissimo passages. 

Baritone Chris Fistonich made a confident self-assured Escamillo without the hackneyed arrogance. The sweetest male voice we heard all evening belonged to baritone Sung Shin who eschewed the customary comic relief in the role of the smuggler Dancaïro. Mr. Shin has not been heard as often recently as we have wished and it was a genuine pleasure to hear him once more, as it was to hear tenor Julio Mascaro in the role of Remendado, although Mr. Mascaro has had a frequent stage presence recently. The two of them had a fine duet in Act II.

The remainder of the group of smugglers comprised soprano Olanna Goudeau as Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Tomoko Nago as Mercédes. One of our favorite scenes was the fortune-telling scene when the three female smugglers fantasized their futures in charming harmony, Carmen's dark prediction contrasting with the wish fulfillment of the other two.

The role of Zuniga was taken by Vladimir Avetisian and that of Moralès, by Yun-Jui Hsieh. Special accolades to the chorus who added color to the proceedings.

The entire evening was well-shaped by Maestro Brian Holman who kept things moving at a brisk tempo with energetic rhythmic propulsion. We particularly enjoyed the accelerating pace of the afore-mentioned trio in the card-reading scene of Act III. Other highlights were the duet between Don Jose and Micaela in Act I, the duet between Dancaïre and Remendado in Act II, and Carmen's dance "Je vais danser en votre honneur ... La la la".

It was a most compelling evening and we enjoyed appreciating the story, the score, and the characters in a new light.

© meche kroop


Saturday, June 29, 2024

PAPER DAUGHTER

        Whitney George conducting Bea Goodwin's "Paper Daughter"

There are very few people who can persuade us to depart from our customary reviewing goal--that of fostering the careers of young opera singers and encouraging the success of small opera companies. Tops on our list of such people are composer/conductor Whitney George and writer/director Bea Goodwin. We can count on this team to create works of originality and high emotional impact. Although we only had space in our schedule to see two of the six works that they presented at The Cell, we continue to hold their artistry in high regard.

Maestro George composed music for The Curiosity Cabinet Ensemble, comprising pianist Kristin Barone-Samadi, percussionist Tamika Gorski, flutist Alice Jones, and cellist Thea Mesirow.  Ms. Goodwin's "Paper Daughter" told the story of an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in San Francisco's Chinatown at the turn of the 20th c. and its effect on one family. Grandfather (Angky Budiardjono) is telling his grandson (Chu Sam) about the plague death of his mother ( Cynthia Yiru Hu) who had been adopted in an apparent scheme designed to bring Chinese children to the USA). Rob Chen played a number of parts, including a USA Immigration Officer.

Some stories are best told by essay and commentary (like some irrelevant and boring contemporary "operas") and others by original theater.  This story of anti-Chinese bias (dramaturgy by Yutong Yang) was theatrical and powerfully told; it filled us with sympathy and sadness. We were reminded of one of our earliest theatrical experiences in New York City, created (if memory serves us correctly) by solo artist Winston Tong, on the subject of foot binding--a work so powerful that we remember it decades later and can still feel the pain.

The work was part of a double feature festival entitled In the Throes of Death, produced as a tribute to the Golden Age of Radio, including "On Air" and "Applause" signs with live "incidental" music and authentic foley sounds (Patrick Litterst). We wondered whether anyone remembers the days before television when families gathered around the radio and used their imagination to visualize the dramas presented. We wondered what it might have been like to have experienced this work in a dark theater. 

We, as the "studio audience", had a different perspective, that of witnessing the actors in the drama standing in front of microphones. (Truth to tell, we found the sound design wanting and wished that the microphones had been only props. Regular readers will recall how deeply we detest amplification). The titles  (Miriam Rochford) were projected onto Chinese fans mounted on the rear wall. (Scenographer was Luther Frank with Lighting Design by Sasha Finley and 
Projection Design by Sierra Shreves).

The second half of the evening was the dramatization of "The Strange Library", a novella by Haruki Murakami.  What impressed us the most was how different Mo. George's music was from the Asian inflected melodies of "Paper Daughter". Apropos of the chilling plot of  "The Strange Library", her music served to intensify the spooky feelings of the story. There was nothing "incidental" about Mo. George's music, which was effectively realized by The Curiosity Cabinet Ensemble and sensitively conducted as only the composer can.

Unfortunately, the festival has ended but watch out for future productions by this superb partnership.

© meche kroop

Friday, June 14, 2024

FLEUR DU MAL

Sadie Spivey
(Photo by Brian Long)

What an exceptionally interesting idea to present a program of Charles Baudelaire's poetry as set by a variety of musicians of the 19th and early 20th c.! Of course, when one reads the program of an art song recital, the writer of the text is credited, but we had never realized the extent of Baudelaire's influence on so many composers--and not just the famous ones like Fauré, Duparc, Debussy, and Chausson! 

Last evening's entertainment, conceived and directed by Judith Barnes, was far more than a recital of mélodie. It was a peek into the mind of a literary artist whose life was a catastrophe but whose literary output was grand and influential. Ms. Barnes' program notes told us many things about Baudelaire's life; her thoughts were illustrated during the performance as the artists onstage read (in English) from his letters and journals telling us about his dissolute life as a wastrel. He burned through the family fortune in a brief period of time, necessitating what amounted to a guardianship. He died in miserable poverty, never knowing what work of art would result when French musical geniuses found the beauty in his verses, so maligned in his lifetime.

Although the readings were in English, the mélodies were performed in French by the following singers; Jason Adamo, Valerie Filloux, Sadie Spivey, Jeremy Sivitz, Olivia Ericsson, Alexandra Cirile, Helen Haas, and the final number "L'invitation au voyage" by Henri Duparc sung by Perri Sussman, perhaps the one most often performed in recital--but here, given new meaning.

The viewer was given the opportunity to connect with a strange and disturbing world, a louche world of dissipation and desire. Onstage elements, designed by Maestro Fecteau included a recamier, some chairs, a table with a decanter of vin rouge, un escritoire. Singers were costumed (by Angela Huff) in varied states of déshabillage, partly unlaced corsets, culottes, loosened coiffures, white stockings or pieds nus. Singers lounged about indifferently. Once two women rose and danced together. The chansons were interspersed with readings from Baudelaire's letters to his mother or from his journals. Ms. Barnes' direction was absolutely stellar.

Similarly, the musical accompaniment was perfection. The piano parts were performed by a tag team of Lara Saldanha and Maestro Chris Fecteau himself. There was a highly original opening to the evening when Mo. Fecteau played a captivating melody ( by Pierre de Breville. First movement of the Prélude, méditation et prière for organ without pedals (1912) on an antique harmonium. We were so enchanted that after the performance ended we insisted that he give us a demonstration of this instrument. (Dear Reader, we had made the same request of a glass harmonica player and a theorboist. We suffer from unbridled curiosity.)

The evening ended with the aforementioned Ms. Sussman singing the final Duparc chanson from a corner of the room, at the top of the raked staging, dressed in a long white garment, similar to the ones worn by Ms. Saldana and Mo. Fecteau. It was an eerie coup de theâtre which set the three of them apart from the others, leaving one free to speculate on the significance.

There will be one more performance of this unusual entertainment on Saturday evening and more information on the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble season can be found on their website...dellarteopera.org. If you have not yet caught any of the season, you are hereby urged to do so.

Since we cannot close without something nitpicky, the projected titles were blurry and nearly impossible to read. For our part, however, we preferred to listen to the music and mentally participate in the drama.

© meche kroop







 

Sunday, June 9, 2024

GUILTY PLEASURES


 Curtain Call for Guilty Pleasures

Friday night, Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble gave us two one-act pieces that made us think. Last night, they gave us an evening of pure entertainment. Is pure entertainment a guilty pleasure? LOL! We refuse to feel guilty about pleasure. We had a wonderful time, as did our companion. 

We think it's a great idea for opera singers to try their hand at cabaret; the need for gesture and facial expression should serve them well on the opera and concert stage. And from the audience standpoint, it was a real treat to hear the natural voice singing  the kind of music we usually avoid due to an intolerance of amplification.

Every artist was excellent and appreciated by a most enthusiastic audience. Some made a greater impact than others and only one interfered with audience engagement by the use of the loathed music stand. Let us mention a few of our favorite performances.

Mezzo-soprano Allison Deady, so effective as Annie in the previous night' production of Tickets, Please! showed a real flair for Offenbach in "Last night" from Christopher Columbus, an operetta with which we are not familiar and was equally impressive ending the show with the rousing "One Touch of Venus" from the eponymous Kurt Weill show.

From the same show, mezzo-soprano Rachelle Pike performed a sexy rendition of "Speak Low". Earlier in the evening, she delighted us with "Toothbrush Time" by William Bolcom, sharing an interesting anecdote with the audience.

Also from that show, Olivia Ericsson gave an expressive reading of "I'm a Stranger Here Myself", needing only to move around the stage more to take her performance to the next level.

Kaitlyn Tierney scored points for "Good 'n' Evil" from Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde. Helen Haas did a great job using gestures and voice to build up to a climax in some French songs that were completely new to us. 

Elizaveta Kozlova, so effective as Anna I  in the prior night's performance of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, showed a completely different side of her artistry, having fun with "Whatever Lola Wants" from Adler and Ross' Damn Yankees. Valerie Filloux's charming performance of a pair of Schoenberg songs from his Brettl-Lieder reminded us that the composer wasn't always atonal. The songs were most accessible.

We enjoyed Thomas Walter's rendition of the "Alabama Song" from Kurt Weill's Mahagonny because he made every verse different. And Maestro Chris Fecteau tossed off an impressively novel arrangement of "Mack the Knife", making the old trite song fresh to our ears.

It was a fun evening and the audience left smiling. What more could one ask for on a Saturday night!

© meche kroop

THE WAGES OF SIN


 Tickets, Please!
(Photo by Brian Long)

Dear Reader!  We are halfway through Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's exciting Spring season and having a fine time. We would, however, want you to have an even better time than we did, so we urge you to prepare yourself before the upcoming double bill of  Tickets, Please and The Seven Deadly Sins. We make it a point to avoid reading about productions before attending, hoping that the works will speak for themselves. In this case, some preparation would have been helpful.

What we enjoyed at the double bill was some excellent singing and acting and some highly astute direction by Jessica Harika. Maestro David Štech conducted and Maestro Chris Fecteau provided keyboard accompaniment. What was missing was a program with a synopsis. There were no projected titles and one's ability to understand rested heavily on the clarity of each singer's enunciation. The setup was a stage with areas of seats facing each other, somewhat reminiscent of "theater in the round" in which actors are often facing away from you and not clearly audible.

The best preparation for Tickets, Please would be reading the short story with the same title which was contained within D.H. Lawrence's compilation England My England which was published in 1922. Lawrence had plenty to say about the effects of The Great War on British society, particularly about the absence of men on the home front and the masculinization (liberation) of women who were allowed (needed) to take on "man's work". Part III of the story was adapted by Sidney L. Berger and set to some agreeable music by Robert Nelson.

The work is accessible and can be experienced as social commentary with amusing moments and rueful ones. In the past century, the battle for gender dominance has not been won, making the work relevant. A group of women employed as transit workers gang up on their supervisor who has been careless with the affections of Annie (the excellent Allison Deady). The boss John Turner (effectively portrayed by Dicky Dutton is beaten and humiliated by his crew, comprising Rachelle Pike, Sadie Spivey, Helen Sanchez, Kaitlyn Tierney, and Carlyle Quinn. You will have to see for yourself (and we do recommend it) to learn whether Annie gets vindication, or...........

Sunday, June 2, 2024

THE PEOPLE'S OPERA IN BRYANT PARK

 


Ashley Galvani Bell, Victor Starsky, Tatev Baroyan, Maestro Joseph Rescigno, Irina Rindzuner, Todd Thomas, and Woo Young Yoon

What a grand night for singing! Last night was the centenary of the death of Giacomo Puccini. What a grand way to celebrate his life and his 42 year career of composing some of the world's best loved operas! The crowd filled Bryant Park from end to end and side to side. We would be surprised if anyone noticed that we were sitting in a canyon of skyscrapers. We would be delighted to learn that some members of the audience were new to opera and became converts. 

If they did, perhaps they were enchanted by Puccini's melodic vocal lines or perhaps it was the quality of the singing (although difficult for our ears to appreciate due to electronic amplification, necessary because of the venue). What we mostly appreciated was the fact that there were representative arias (or duets, or ensembles) from every single opera the master ever wrote--performed in chronological order so that one might appreciate his evolution over a period of four decades. It was an interesting novelty for which we thank the venerable New York City Opera .

The program began with an ensemble from Puccini's 1884 Le Villi, which we had never heard. Similarly, an aria from Edgar, performed by stellar soprano 
Ashley Galvani Bell, was new to our ears. One definitely got a sense of a major compositional artist in the making and Puccini needed only a fine librettist to make a major impact.

We very much appreciated being introduced to two singers we had not heard before. Dramatic soprano Irina Rindzuner  made a fine Manon and a powerful Tosca. Even better was her Minnie in the tension driven card game scene from La fanciulla del West. Her Jack Rance was played by baritone Todd Thomas who was as chilling as he was singing Scarpia in the Tosca.

What we appreciated even more was reconnecting with artists whose earliest years were noted and admired by us. For example, the sweet lyric tenor of Woo Young Yoon first impressed us nine years ago when he was a student at Manhattan School of Music. We noted his artistry not too long thereafter in a master class with Prelude to Performance when he dazzled us with his Rodolfo.  How fitting that he sang the first act duet from La Bohême with Ms. Bell, whom we will get to shortly. That is truly his signature role, leading to an award from Opera Index. We also heard his award winning performance of some Mozart and Donizetti at a Marcella Sembrich competition. What a great pleasure to witness his artistic development!

We have similar feelings for Ms. Bell. We became acquainted with her artistry through a number of productions by Divaria Productions, every one of which was unique and elicited different aspects of her artistry. Her performance of "Un bel di" last night recalled her performance of Cio-Cio San with New York Opera Collaborative in which she appeared in full Japanese dress. Her involvement in the role has only gotten deeper.

Similarly, we have witnessed Victor Starsky's artistic development since 2015 when he sang Don Jose with New York Opera Exchange and later when he sang Rodolfo with Bare Opera, a role he revisited recently at a gala. Last night he let out all the stops in "Nessun dorma" from Turandot. These moments are precious to us. Future engagement will be even more so!

Soprano Tatev Baroyan has been on our radar for a short period of time. Just a month ago at the Gerda Lissner Award Recital, we noted her fine performance of Liu's aria from Turandot, the same aria she performed last night. It was quite affecting and we hope to hear it again soon (unamplified). 

It was a most successful evening and we are already looking forward to NYCO's production of a fully staged Tosca in Bryant Park on August 23rd and 24th. 

© meche kroop








Friday, May 31, 2024

RARE DOUBLE FEATURE

Maestro David Hayes and Counter-tenor ChuanYuan Liu

We do not usually review choral events but getting a chance to hear two "new" (new to us) works was tempting; sealing the deal was the opportunity to hear our favorite countertenor Chuan Yuan Liu as soloist at last night's performance by The New York Choral Society at The Skirball Center of New York University. The evening made a fine impression, combining excellent artistic values with compelling entertainment.

As is our wont, we will ignore any intended concept in favor of sharing with you, Dear Reader, our own impressions. The first half of the double bill was a fine performance of Leonard Bernstein's  incidental music for a Lillian Hellman play- The Lark. There was nothing "incidental" about this work which combined some gorgeous singing of what we believe to be a mass in Latin with a dramatic reading by Sam Turlington who, "incidentally" self identifies as non-binary. 

Personally we don't care what Turlington identifies as because this artist is dramatically exceptional. The exceptionalism was exemplified by the costume which appeared to be white on one side and black on the other, with trousers on one side and skirt on the other. Visually interesting perhaps but incidental to the impact of the affecting reading of the words of Joan of Arc, the anniversary of whose death took place (incidentally)  on this very date in 1431. Such a performance was Broadway worthy, with all the youthful passion and innocence well delineated.

The Latin choruses sung by the massive force of The New York Choral Society, under the direction of Maestro David Hayes, were marked not only by consummate musicality but also by the crispest diction we have ever heard from a chorus, every word coming through clearly.

The solo part, customarily sung by a soprano, so we hear, was performed by the afore mentioned Mr. Liu (who has not requested a gender neutral designation). He has the most angelic voice that fulfilled the role in a spiritual work just as successfully as he did the secular but fantastical role of Oberon in Britten's opera A Midsummer Night' Dream.

The second half of the evening was an equally rare experience. Gian Carlo Menotti's The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore seemed, to our ears, far friendlier than most 20th c. music. The libretto seemed to be a fable which, like most fables, makes an allegorical point. What we took away from this is the foolishness of following trends, a point with which we strongly agree, having despaired over the influencers on social media with their throngs of followers. 

In this fable, a spoiled Countess makes demands on her poor husband for rare creatures which she tires of and slaughters, always wanting a new one. The townspeople follow her taste blindly and, of course, that's when she must rid herself of the prior longed for creature and manipulate her poor husband into meeting her demands for a new one.

For this work, the chorus was augmented by some woodwinds and lower strings (the very fine Experiential Orchestra), whereas the Bernstein work involved only a bit of percussion and some clapping. As if the work were insufficiently entertaining, a troupe of a dozen dancers (Emerge 125) performed some dancing in which the costumes were more interesting than the choreography. They comprised floaty sheer white garments overlaying gilded tops. The heads of the dancers were covered with gold woven helmets reminding us of fencer's masks but completely obscuring the face and hair. Perhaps others in the audience had a greater appreciation for "modern dance" than we do; we were reminded of some strenuous classes at the local health club. Far from adding to the work, it was distracting.

Nonetheless it was a most worthwhile and satisfying evening!

© meche kroop