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, March 30, 2013


Maestro Jorge Parodi
Director Dona D. Vaughn

 With stunning showmanship, Director Dona D. Vaughn has presented a memorable Orphée aux Enfers at the Manhattan School of Music.  Marshaling abundant musical resources, far outweighing meager budgetary resources, the performance of Jacques Offenbach's first full-length opera from 1858 was of the highest quality--dramatically, visually, and musically.  We have dared to call it an opera because we believe the title "operetta" would diminish its value.  We believe that opera can be, no should be, above all else, entertaining,

Liberated from some prior licensing restrictions, Mr. Offenbach was free to tackle his topics in greater depth, to give free rein to his gentle satire and to delight his audience with ideas that must have seemed risqué at the time.  We are fortunate that his oeuvre has aged well and that we today can be as delighted as were his contemporaries.

The tale being told is a frisky retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  In Gluck's opera Orphée et Eurydice, quoted musically in Offenbach's work, Orpheus grieves for his beloved Euridice and goes to the underworld to beg for her release.  In Offenbach's off-kilter version, the two dislike each other and Euridice is happy to be dead so she can be with her lover Pluto who had appeared to her disguised as a shepherd.  It is only the character known as Public Opinion who represents morality and insists that the recalcitrant Orpheus travel to the underworld to beg Pluto for her release.  After many plot twists and turns, there is a happy ending in store for all.  All except for Public Opinion who has been defeated.

Offenbach's music readily engages the ear with charming melodies right from the overture when the wind section seems to be having a blast, punctuated by pounding of the bass drum.  The small orchestra responded to the lively and impassioned conducting of Maestro Jorge Parodi (whom we have seen a great deal of lately, and only in the best places) with some superb musicianship.  We would expect no less!

And the singing!  There must be a great deal of depth in the Opera Program, of which Ms. Vaughn is the Artistic Director, to allow the parts to be so perfectly cast.  It is difficult to believe that the performers are all seniors in the program and that this is their first fully-staged performance with orchestra.  Monica Danilov used her bright lyric soprano and charm to fill out the role of the fickle Eurydice.  Stephen Biegner used his fine tenor as the musician Orpheus whose violin playing irritates his wife to the point of distraction.  This gorgeous melody was performed by Concertmaster Sven Stucke in the orchestra.

Sweet-voiced tenor Christopher Lilley turned in a fine performance as Pluto, god of the underworld masquerading as the shepherd Aristée; the score calls for some very amusing falsetto singing which he handled well.  Baritone Tyler Schoen made a superb Jupiter whose randy escapades were clearly annoying to his wife Juno, well performed by mezzo Claire Gellert.  (Hello Wotan and Fricka!)  Mr. Schoen was rolling-on-the-floor hilarious when he transformed himself into a lusty fly and made Euridice fall in love with him.

Mezzo Kendra Dodd was completely adorable as Cupid and used her voice well, as did mezzo Megan Samarin as Venus. Tamara Rusqué has a sizable soprano voice and used it well in Diana's showpiece aria.  Mr. Offenbach certainly knew how to write for the voice and all three women fulfilled the promise of the writing.

Baritone Alexander Chen provided even more laughs as the tipsy John Styx whose business it was to keep our heroine under lock and key in the underworld, to her obvious disdain.  Only Public Opinion was serious and mezzo Noragh Devlin made the pomposity funny.  We all love to see these scolds get the wrong end of the stick, don't we?  The chorus was superb and the can-can of the gods was enjoyed by audience and performers alike.  Denise DiRenzo is credited with the choreography.

The dialogue was appropriately spoken in English while the arias were sung in French.  Diction (coached by Bénédicte Jourdois) was as excellent as the singing.  Titles were present but barely necessary.  Sets and props were minimal, leaving the focus on the singers.  Costumes were partly improvised and coordinated by Rachel Guilfoyle, but that doesn't take away from their effectiveness.  There was not a wrong note (pun intended) in the entire evening.

An evening that puts a grin on your face for two hours should not be taken lightly.  The problem is that it is seven hours post-performance and we are still grinning.  Can we still call it opera?

© meche kroop

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