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.

Friday, September 19, 2014


Alexandra Haines, John Kaneklides, Terina Westmeyer, Eric Barsness

The Delaware Valley Opera has been providing live opera performances for residents of the Upper Delaware River Valley and Western Catskills for a quarter of a century, fostering both local talent and the emerging young singers to whom we are so very devoted.  Their summer residence is in Narrowsburg, NY and if we were given to driving we would surely have made the trip.  With our non-driver status, we were relegated to attending their benefit last night, right here in NYC.

Several performances knocked our proverbial socks right off our feet.  We have written before about tenor John Kaneklides about whom, if you haven't heard already, you will very soon.  If you recall the early performances of Rolando Villazon you will know exactly the delights of which I am speaking.  His ringy-pingy tenor, backed by some fine technique and intense involvement with the text, made Edgardo's desperate aria from Lucia de Lammermoor ("Fra poco a me recovero") feel like a stab in the heart. 

New to us but impressive were two very different sopranos.  Terina Westmeyer is one of those big beautiful girls with big beautiful voices, seemingly on the path to roles as a Verdi soprano.  One doesn't often hear arias from Verdi's Attila sung during recitals; her "Santo di Patria" was delivered with a penetrating and powerful sound that set the concert hall vibrating.  Admirable was her flexibility in the fioritura and her dramatic commitment that held the stage.

Alexandra Haines has a very different light lyric soprano that has a youthful brightness just perfect for Susana's final aria in Nozze di Figaro.  We liked the fine resonance and her expressive manner.  There was a lovely change of color toward the end when Mozart shifts to the minor key for just one phrase before ending in a glorious burst of major key exuberance.  Our only cavil regards the use of the music stand.  We hope that the next time we hear her she will have memorized the material and won't have the need for that "security blanket".

We do not have the same enthusiasm for bass Eric Barsness.  He certainly has the low notes but his unattractive voice sounded reedy in the upper register.  More serious is his lack of expressiveness.  We had a hard time staying interested and found our ears reaching out to the expressive piano of Christopher Berg.  The lack of color in his voice was relieved only occasionally and, similarly, the lack of movement vocabulary.  We found this astonishing since Mr. Barsness has a background in dance and choreography.  We generally admire people with the courage to branch out in a new direction but wish that he had brought some terpsichorean influence into his career change.

Part of the problem was his choice of material.  Although we have enjoyed other bass' performance of Sarastro's arias, we have never related to Brahms' "Vier ernste Gesange" with their rather stuffy texts from the bible.  We did hear some variety of color in "O Tod, wie bitter bist du".  The Charles Ives songs, usually so colorful, left us cold.  We missed the childlike excitement of "Circus Band".  In "Tom Sails Away" we missed the narrative engagement we usually experience.

And now…for the big surprise!  Readers may have realized that we have little affection for contemporary compositions but we heard an unusual work that we absolutely loved--loved for the clever text by Mary Griffin and for the apposite music composed by Joe Hannan.  There was a perfect marriage of text and music and a real ability by Mr. Mr. Hannan to write for the voice.  And there was HUMOR!

The work is called Christina the Astonishing and, since we only heard about half of it, we are left with a craving to experience the work in toto.  It is a retelling of the 13th c. biography of Christina, hilariously dubbed the Patron Saint of Psychiatrists by Pope John XXIII in 1950.  Thomas de Cantimpr√©'s biography, written shortly after her demise, describes a shepherdess who died in 1224 and returned to life at her own requiem mass during the Agnus Dei.  She purportedly was sent back to earth to bear terrible sufferings on behalf of the tormented souls she had seen in hell.  Right!

In Ms. Griffin's libretto, Christina (Ms. Westmeyer) appears as a bag lady in NYC in our own times, scorned on the streets and subways.  Even her biographer (sung by Mr. Kaneklides) suspects that her sanctity is insanity.  Ms. Haines with her angelic soprano was just right as An Angel and Mr. Barsness took the role of god.

The work opened with the quartet sounding like church bells in perfect harmony with overlapping voices contributing more delights. Mr. Berg's marvelous piano was augmented by James Byars on the English Horn.  We consider this performance a musical triumph.

As encore, Mr. Barsness sang one of Mr. Berg's own compositions, a setting of Frank O'Hara's lightly humorous poem "Lana Turner Has Collapsed".  He seemed to come to life at this point.  Perhaps irony is his strong suit.

© meche kroop

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