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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


John Brancy, Annie Rosen, Theo Lebow, Paul Appleby, Julia Bullock, Michael Barrett and Steven Blier

Last night at Weill Recital Hall, New York Festival of Song threw itself a party.  They called it a gala recital; we call it a love fest.

There isn't a shadow of a doubt how much Maestro Blier cares for the young singers he has championed and likewise how much they care for him.  He has nurtured their careers, coached them, taught them, encouraged them to develop in new directions and gotten them up onstage with programs of songs that are always as meaningful as they are entertaining.

They have learned well and we have witnessed their artistic growth over the past few years. Each and every one has broadened his/her reach and increased their versatility. Retreats at Caramoor have contributed to these Emerging Artists and the scope of the program continues to grow, gathering fans everywhere.

There was no printed program last night--it felt more like a celebration than a recital.  What joy to hear good songs without amplification, all treated with the same respect given to the repertory from other centuries.

Readers will forgive us, we hope, if we cannot correctly quote the correct title of each song and its composer.  We will do our best to share our wonderful memories. Mr. Blier narrated in his customary engaging manner and accompanied with an occasional relief from Mr. Barrett who is Associate Artistic Director of NYFOS.

Mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen began the program with a torchy ballad-- Bob Telson's "Calling You", to which Mr. Blier's piano contributed some harmonically interesting ascending figures. She clearly knows how to get a song across, which is true of all of these young artists. Later in the evening she sang "J'attends un navire" from Kurt Weill's Marie Gallant. Ms. Rosen sang it with passion and intensity.  Whew!

Baritone John Brancy sang a soulful version of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" to a wild piano arrangement. Later in the program he sang "I'm a Jonah Man" with as much substance as style. We always enjoy whatever Mr. Brancy gets his hands on.  Later he sang "If Ever I Would Leave You" from Lerner and Loewe's Camelot--a real romantic stunner.

Tenor Theo Lebow sang "The Judgment of Paris" from Offenbach's La Belle Hélène, in fine French; he sang it with such excellent dramatic instincts that it wasn't necessary to understand the French. Later he sang a Swedish song, the title and composer of which we did not catch.  Mr. Lebow has a fine flair for languages.

Tenor Paul Appleby has admirable dramatic instincts married to a fine voice and we have enjoyed hearing him for years.  Last night he sang Paul Simon's "So Far Away From Home". And he sang something from a song cycle by William Bolcom which we did not recognize, with four hands at the piano.  We enjoyed him the most in his duet with Julia Bullock-- "Only Make Believe" from Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern's Showboat.  These two gifted performers gave a sincere and affecting performance that had an interesting twist at the end when Mr. Brancy joined the twosome and made a threesome.

Ms. Bullock, a soprano of incomparable artistry, could sing the phonebook and we'd be enthralled. When she performed "Little David Play on Your Harp" we forgot we didn't like "spirituals".  Now we do!  That's amazing when a performance can turn you around like that!

The program ended with the entire cast performing a song about which we know nothing.  Was it "Zumba"?  It matters little.  Everyone enjoyed themselves, as did the audience.

Long may NYFOS thrive.  Viva NYFOS!  They sing the songs.  We sing their praises.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, March 30, 2015


Thomas Richards, Jennifer Zetlan, and Abdiel Jacobsen (photo by Richard Termine)

One might think of Gotham Chamber Opera's newest entry in terms of Richard Wagner's concept of gesamtkunstwerk--combining poetry, music, singing, dancing, set design and, of course video projections.  Another way to perceive the work is, as our companion for the evening called it--a haiku of a Shakespeare play.  We thought of it as a meditation on Shakespeare's Tempest with contributions from the 18th and 21st centuries.

The entire affair was directed and choreographed by Luca Veggetti, using four amazing dancers from the Martha Graham Dance company who impressed us with their dramatic intensity.  Peiju Chien-Pott stood out for her flexibility and breathtaking extensions, defying her peculiar costume of jeans and boots.  Abdiel Jacobsen partnered her effectively in some outstanding duets.  The other two dancers, Ying Xin and Lloyd Mayor were, for unknown reasons, swathed entirely in black which was unfortunate because they are very attractive performers.

Singing roles were taken by soprano Jennifer Zetlan, whom we had much admired in Two Boys at The Metropolitan Opera, and bass-baritone Thomas Richards, whom we would like to hear again, singing different material.

We are somewhat familiar with the music of Kaija Saariaho from her Amour de Loin which we saw in Santa Fe a few years ago. It may be very fine music but every time the program switched to songs of Henry Purcell from his 1712 version of The Tempest, we felt our taut nerves relaxing and our ears smiling. We particularly enjoyed Purcell's "Halcyon Days".

Purcell's songs are melodic and pleasing; Saariaho's belong to that category of post-modern composition that does not fall gently on the ear.  Many songs were declamatory and approached sprechstimme.  It is easy to evaluate a singer's quality in the Purcell (both singers were fine) but it was impossible to evaluate with the Saariaho. In one song, "Bosun's Cheer", Richards mentioned "roaring, shrieking, howling, and jingling". We wondered whether he was referring to the sea or to the sounds he was asked to reproduce!

The same issue occurred with the instrumental music.  The combination of period instruments conducted by Maestro Neal Goren sounded delightful in the Purcell songs. The Gotham Chamber Orchestra comprised a string quartet, a bass, a harpsichord and an archlute which we mistook for a theorbo.  (Following the performance we had just enough time to visit the Met's exhibit of Caravaggio's paintings of musicians and their instruments.  There were also real antique instruments under glass. Nice tie-in!)

We did not find the Saariaho delightful--interesting, dramatic, but not delightful.

The simple but effective set by Clifton Taylor, who also did the moody lighting, included a huge globe on which were projected images suggestive of a tempest at sea, and later showed images of the performers themselves.  Video projections were by Jean-Baptiste Barrière.

Costumes by Peter Speliopoulos did not amount to much. Ms. Zetlan was clothed in a shapeless shift that achieved the goal of timelessness without flattering her figure. Others wore street attire.

Gotham Chamber Opera is known for taking risks and this one seemed to please the audience in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum. We consider it a worthwhile adventure although not altogether pleasing.  Let us say rather that it was dramatic and interesting.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, March 28, 2015


Heidi Stober (photo by Simon Pauly)

We have long been a fan of lyric soprano Heidi Stober whom we have enjoyed several times on our summer sojourns to the Santa Fe Opera. We particularly recall her delightful performance as Folly in Platée and as Zdenka in Arabella.

Her New York recital debut at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall revealed her artistry as a recitalist. She spoke readily of her joy as mother to a two-year-old and, indeed, based much of her recital on that premise.

Her bright and penetrating instrument is particularly suited to Strauss and her set of songs by that composer comprised songs that referred directly to motherhood like that amusing narrative "Muttertänderlei" in which a mother boasts of her very special child, the worshipful "Meinem Kinde", and "Jungenhexenlied", the charming tale of a young witch racing home to her little boy.

More of a stretch in terms of interpretation were "Ich trage meine Minne" and "Mein Auge" which we had always thought referred more to romantic love.  Never mind!  It all worked out well and now we have an interesting new way to hear these lovely songs.

Speaking of a stretch, we could not fathom the connection between the five excellent Schubert songs in the next set.  Ms. Stober told the audience that her collaborative pianist, the affable and sensitive Craig Terry, came up with the idea of providing a backstory and sequel to "Der Zwerg".

Here-- a "Gute Nacht" from Winterreise.  There-- an "Am Feierabend" from Die Schöne Müllerin.  Then the lovely waltzy "Auf dem Wasser zu singen" and--as postlude "Im Abendrot" with its profoundly spiritual nature.

Ms. Stober is a born storyteller and each song was compelling and deeply felt.  But they did not add up to a narrative.  We mostly enjoyed "Am Feierabend" as Ms. Stober colored her voice differently for the young poet/apprentice, his miller/boss, and the miller's daughter.

Four selections from Debussy's Ariettes oubliées were sung in fine French with long languorous lines except for the passionate climaxes. We heard "C'est l'extase", "Il pleure dans mon coeur", "Spleen", and (our favorite) the lively "Chevaux de bois" which injected welcome variety.

Selections from Jake Heggie's From the Book of Nightmares belong to that category of contemporary works that make us wonder why a composer would choose such unmusical poetry (by Vermont poet laureate Galway Kinnell).  Heggie's writing for piano and cello was most interesting with David Heiss bringing out the interest in the cello line and Mr. Terry doing the same on the piano. But the vocal line did not "sing" although Ms. Stober brought all her artistry to the table.

The final set had the theme of Ms. Stober's home state--Wisconsin. The most substantial work was Cécile Chaminade's wonderful "Chanson de neige" in which Ms. Stober heightened the emotions almost to the point of irony.

Max Reger's "Die bunten Kühe" brought in some light-hearted humor. Henry Leland Clarke's "Of Cheese" struck us as trivial.  Alec Wilder's "Milwaukee" was fun and in the jazz-pop mode.

It was a generous recital given by a beautiful star who comes across as the girl next door.  This girl next door graced the audience with yet one more song.  As encore, she continued the motherhood theme with "This Child is Born" with music by Thad Jones and lyrics by Alec Wilder.

(c) meche kroop


Dan K. Kurland and Miles Mykkanen

Tenor Miles Mykkanen is mature beyond his years and versatile beyond belief. We have had the pleasure of hearing him sing and witnessing his compelling performances for several years now and are always astonished.  Yesterday he presented a recital at Juilliard as partial fulfillment of the requirements for his M.M. degree.  Importantly, it fulfilled all the requirements of audience engagement.

Our favorite parts of the program were the beginning and the end although there were delights aplenty in between. Ever since Lachlan Glen's perusal of all 600+ of Schubert's lieder output we have been more than usually excited when we see the name of this liedermeister on a program.

Mr. Mykkanen's three choices were perfect for his unique voice and style.  The lilting "Ganymed" is filled with rapture and left us with rapturous feelings. The tender "Der Vater mit dem Kind" was no less wonderful.  But it was the well-known "Erlkönig" that knocked our socks off.  The young artists at Juilliard have spoiled us for other performances with the intensity of their dramatic involvement but Mr. Mykkanen's performance was beyond.

He employed his impressive instrument with different colors for the narrator, the frightened child, the reassuring father and the deceitful Erlkönig. But he somehow managed to alter the colors from one verse to the next as the child becomes more terrified, the father in greater denial, and the Erlkönig nastier. This was the work of a true artist of the stage and Mr. Kurland's piano kept up with him every step of the way. We confess to being overwhelmed. We give credit to Goethe's poetry and Schubert's music, of course.

The following set, which Mr. Mykkanen thoughtfully introduced, comprised three selections from Benjamin Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. These were written for Michelangelo's young male lover and Britten set them for his male partner, tenor Peter Pears. They were so passionately sung that one would think they were written for Mr. Mykkanen.

Having sung in such perfect German and Italian, Mr. Mykkanen moved on to French, also perfectly sung.  We heard Albert Roussel's "Sarabande", Gabriel Fauré's "Clair de lune" and Claude Debussy's "Le jet d'eau". French songs can sometimes sound a bit effete but not here!  Mr. Kurland's piano added to the magic with pictorializations of fountains and moonlight.

Mr. Mykkanen is one of the few singers whose English diction is likewise perfect. "Ain't it a pretty night" from Carlisle Floyd's Susannah was an unusual choice but made perfect sense as the longing Mr. Mykkanen experienced to move to New York City.

It was the closing set of Sondheim songs that best illustrated Mr. Mykkanen's versatility and the influence of Steven Blier and the New York Festival of Song. When sung without amplification, we accept Mr. Sondheim as composer of 20th c. operas and his songs can stand next to those of the old masters of the 19th c. (Mr. Sondheim may see things differently).

We were treated to a few songs from Sunday in the Park with George--"Putting it Together" was a bit revised to indicate that the art of which Mr. Mykkanen sang was the art of making music, not painting. No harm was done!  "Finishing the Hat" and "Move On" were equally excellent.

We particularly enjoyed songs from Company--"The Little Things You Do Together" and Mr. Mykkanen's encore "Being Alive".

But there were two songs about children that captured our heart--"The Glamorous Life" from A Little Night Music in which Mr. Mykkanen was able to illustrate both the pride a child has in a famous mother and also the loneliness.  And then the cautionary "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods.

Mr. Mykkanen, as versatile as he is, can look forward to a major career whether he chooses opera, recital or Broadway.  Everything he sings is golden and he knows how to get a song across.  Once you hear him he is unforgettable!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, March 27, 2015


William Kelley, Juliana Han, Eric Jurenas, and Theo Hoffman

We confess to greediness where pleasure is concerned. Last night's Vocal Arts Honors Recital at Juilliard could easily have gone on for another hour.  It left us wanting more--not in any way unsatisfied, just wanting more goodies from the four gifted artists who graced the stage at Alice Tully Hall.

The two singers were nominated by their voice teachers for a competitive audition and then selected by distinguished judges.  Each chose his own program and that lent a degree of excitement to the evening--learning a bit about how they experience their own particular talent.  The two pianists were chosen from the Collaborative Piano Department.

The first half of the evening was performed by counter-tenor Eric Jurenas accompanied by the lovely Juliana Han. If you read our review of Anthony Roth Costanzo last week, you may recall how fond we are of this special fach.  If you are a regular reader, you may recall that we do not prefer singing in English. We are now back-pedalling since Mr. Jurenas' superb English diction and Henry Purcell's lavish melodies ensured that this was our favorite part of his offerings.

Mr. Jurenas has a finely focused instrument that is brilliant in the upper register and manages to bring an amazing roundness of tone in the lower register.  Although no one knows what the castrati sounded like, we were imagining that was the sound. We are glad, however, that Mr. Jurenas was never called upon to make the necessary sacrifice.  Hard work is sacrifice enough!

The Purcell songs were the perfect choice for his instrument and he brought the text to life with dramatic expressiveness, dynamic variety and thoughtful word coloring.  "Music for a While" from Oedipus has rarely fallen on our ears with such delight.  In "Sweeter than Roses" from Pausanias, we loved the melismatic singing on the word "victorious"; what Mr. Jurenas did with the word "freeze" made us shiver!

He showed some fine French style in Ravel's Épigrammes de Clément Marot which gave Ms. Han an opportunity to shine.  He evinced equal skill with German in a selection of songs by Alexander Zemlinsky and Gustav Mahler. We have always enjoyed "Lob des hohen Verstandes" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn--a metaphor for ignorant audience members (the donkey) who can't tell good music (the nightingale) from bad (the cuckoo).  Of course that doesn't apply to New York audiences! Mr. Jurenas sang it with great style and humor.

Another text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn--"Das irdische Leben" was given all the tragic interpretation Mahler wrote into it, a real heartbreaker. No one can do tragedy like Mahler!

The second half of the program belonged to baritone Theo Hoffman and collaborative pianist William Kelley. Mr. Hoffman has impressed us since his very beginnings at Juilliard and he just keeps getting better. His many awards and multiple castings indicate that we are not alone in being impressed.

He sang three Tchaikovsky songs that were wildly romantic. We do not speak Russian but they sounded very authentic to our ears.  More importantly,  the words came across as if they tasted delicious in his mouth. His dynamic range is huge; he began at barely a whisper and opened up to an astonishing crescendo of passion.

The concluding song of the set, "Whether day dawns", gave Mr. Kelley a chance to tear into the passionate postlude.  The set of songs were so powerful and so dramatically sung that the next set of songs by Carlos Guastavino allowed the temperature in the hall to cool slightly while still upholding artistic intensity.

Guastavino composed in the early 20th c. when poetry still scanned and rhymed.  The vocal lines are lovely and Mr. Hoffman's Spanish was perfect, according to our native Spanish speaking companion. In "Ya me voy a retirar" the pain of the poet's loss is converted into beauty.

Our favorite of the set was "La rosa y el sauce", a plaintive song that ended in a dazzling vocalise.

Mr. Hoffman's program ended with the New York premiere of Three Tennyson Songs by Jonathan Dove, a contemporary composer who manages to write melodically. Perhaps choosing a "good" poet like Alfred Lord Tennyson brings out the best in a composer. Mr. Kelley had a great time with the prelude to "O Swallow, Swallow" and played some interesting octaves in "Dark House" while Mr. Hoffman employed vivid word coloring.

We longed for some encores but there were none.  We comfort ourselves knowing that there will be many more opportunities to hear these artists in the future. They have been winning prizes hand over fist and are already much in demand.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Jon Thomas Olsen, Jessica Sandidge, Sonja Krenek and Steven Wallace

We can never get enough Puccini!  Hours after Chelsea Opera presented an evening of scenes from Puccini's opera, we are still singing the wonderful melodies.  We think it's likely that many people in the audience are doing the same.  The concert was underwritten by Project 142; Christ and St. Stephen's Church on the Upper West Side was filled to overflowing, with bridge chairs hastily being commandeered in an attempt to accommodate the capacity crowd.

The evening opened with scenes from Turandot, the opera Puccini never finished. Ping, Pang and Pong (sorry but we can never remember which is which) have a wonderful trio and tenors David Kellett and Jon Thomas Olson with baritone Scott Lindroth brought it to vivid life.

Liù's suicide scene was movingly performed by soprano Rosa Betancourt who created a sympathetic character and enlived her with some persuasive acting.  She has a lovely vibrato and we enjoyed her later performance of "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi.

From the very early Edgar, composed when the master was only 26 years old, we heard bass-baritone Bryan Glenn Davis sing "Questo amor, vergogna mia". We liked him even better as the evil Scarpia from Tosca when he sang "Tre sbirri...Una Carrozza...Presto!" which suited him well.

From Le Villi we heard soprano Sonja Krenek sing "Se come voi piccina".  She made a fine Mimi in the "breakup" scene from La Bohème with tenor Steven Wallace as Rodolfo.  The heartbreaking scene was given comic relief by the embattled lovers Musetta (soprano Rosa Betancourt) and Marcello (baritone Scott Lindroth) whose music is in counterpoint with Mimi and Rodolfo's.

Our Tosca for the evening was the versatile Megan Nielsen who wowed the audience with her "Vissi d'arte". What a change from the character she portrayed just before--Suor Angelica from the eponymous opera.  Talk about heartbreak!  The poor woman was put away in a convent by her aristocratic family, after bearing an illegitimate child. Her aunt, La Zia Principessa, cold-heartedly tells Angelica that the child has died. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Moulton, a lovely jovial person in real life, demonstrated fine acting chops as she assumed her imperious manner. Poor Angelica sings out her grief in "Senza mamma".

Tenor Taras Chmil sang the favorite tenor aria of audiences everywhere--"E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca.   We realized that Puccini wrote his best music for characters who were about to die! Mr. Chmil also sang "Ch'ella mi creda", Dick Johnson's aria from La fanciulla del West.  Fortunately, Dick Johnson does NOT die!

Stacey Canterbury has a sizable soprano and used it well in "Un bel di" from Madama Butterfly, another heartbreaker.

Soprano Julia Rolwing sang Manon's final aria from Manon Lescaut--"Sola, perduta, abbandonata"--another death aria!  David Kellett sang Des Grieux's "Donna non vidi mai".

The delightful closing scene was from La Rondine featuring the quartet from the photo above.  For this scene, Magda was sung by Sonja Krenek with soprano Jessica Sandidge impressing us with her sweet voice and sparkling personality as Lisette. Steven Wallace sang Ruggero and Jon Thomas Olsen sang Prunier.  Happily, the rest of the cast became the onstage partygoers and, as directed by Lynne Hayden-Finley, were completely convincing.

In place of an orchestra, we had Christopher Cooley, who accompanied beautifully.

The delightful evening served to whet our appetite for the upcoming Tosca which will be performed in St. Peter's Church in Chelsea on 6/4 and 6/6.  It seems pretty far down the road but Chelsea Opera will also present Suor Angelica in a year's time.  We would be happy to hear Megan Nielsen once more in that role.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Nathan Haller and Leann Osterkamp

Graduation recitals are always cause for bittersweet feelings.  We are joyful to mark the occasion of an artist's achievement and excited about their future; at the same time we feel sad that we will miss seeing and hearing them perform.  For the most part we have been watching their artistic growth from the sidelines and have developed feelings of involvement.

Yesterday superstar tenor Nathan Haller performed his final recital at Juilliard and impressed us with his suave stage presence, his linguistic skills, and his versatility. He opened his program with scenes from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  

This was not just a performance of arias; Mr. Haller as Belmonte enlisted the help of two superb colleagues--tenor James Edgar Knight in the role of the goofy Pedrillo and bass Önay Köse as the growly grouchy Osmin. Not only was the singing glorious but the acting was as fine as one would wish for, had the opera been fully staged. Mr. Haller is a natural for Mozart and made excellent use of his refined messa di voce.

Vincenzo Bellini set a text by Metastasio to a gorgeous simple melody; Pavarotti recorded it with James Levine in 1988.  We could listen to it over and over again; Mr. Haller's performance required no comparisons.  He sounded terrific in his own right, singing with highly expressive sincerity and a lovely legato.

Fauré's "Adieu" was sung with a long lean Gallic line and excellent French diction. Benjamin Britten's "Before life and after" was impassioned.

A set of Schubert songs closed the all-too-brief program.  It was in this set that we got to appreciate collaborative pianist Leann Osterkamp, especially as she matched the variety of Mr. Haller's colors in our personal favorite, "Erlkönig". The matter-of-fact narrator yielded to the frightened piping child, the steadfast reassuring father, and the slimy seductive titular Erlkönig.  It was such a stunning performance that we wished it had been the closing lied.

It had such a strong emotional impact that we had to struggle to "let it go" and focus on the rest of the Schubert--all of which were excellent.  "Liebesbotschaft" permitted Mr. Haller to show sweeter coloring while "Kriegers Ahnung" took him into his lower register where he assumed darker coloring.

The romantic "Ständchen" always melts our heart and Mr. Haller's delivery reached perfection.  He accurately portrayed the pain and futility in "Der Atlas".  "Der Doppelgänger" was appropriately spooky, anguished and intense. The final lied "Taubenpost" is a cheerful one which left us smiling.

Unfortunately, there was no encore; we would have happily enjoyed another hour of music by Mr. Haller and Ms. Osterkamp.  Mr. Haller has an excellent position next season in Switzerland and we are consoling ourself over our loss by thinking how much the Swiss will embrace his prodigious talent.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, March 23, 2015


Bryan Wagorn, Nadine Sierra, and Anthony Roth Costanzo

We get warm fuzzy feelings when we witness the meteoric rise of artists we've noted and admired since their student years. Such was the case yesterday when The George London Foundation for Singers presented two of their winners from 2010 at The Morgan Library. This series is consistently wonderful and The Morgan Library space is just the right size for vocal recitals.

We had not even begun writing about the vocal arts when we first heard soprano Nadine Sierra and counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.  It was even before they won their prizes in 2010.  But we knew enough about singing to have recognized their respective gifts and to have predicted the major careers that they have earned.

Maestro Wagorn has played for the best in the business and was the perfect choice as collaborative pianist; he is unfailingly in tune with the singers and matches their moods and the feeling tone of the text and music.

If you read through to the end you will learn about the wildest craziest encore we have ever heard.  But let's begin at the beginning. Ms. Sierra, appearing like a Greek goddess, sang a pair of songs that Franz Schubert wrote in 1825 for a play with a very complicated Shakespearean plot, entitled Lacrimas.  Typical of Schubert they are lavish with melody and Ms. Sierra caressed every word in an expressive but unaffected manor. "Lied des Florio" was replete with sadness while "Lied der Delphine" was in a more cheerful vein.  Both were lovely.

Mr. Costanzo followed with three of Henri Duparc's jewels.  Mr. Wagorn's rippling arpeggios and Mr. Costanzo's superlative French diction contributed to their overall success.  He floats his high notes like mist in the moonlight and can spin out a final note until it is a silken thread.  His breath control is non pareil and allows him to achieve wide dynamic variety.  His word coloring is painterly.

"Chanson triste" achieved a hopeful mood behind the melancholy.  "L'invitation au voyage" brought us to foreign shores, with the final word "volupté" leaving us stunned. Never mind that we just heard it the day before; he made it fresh.  In the terrific "Phidylé" we heard an astonishing messa di voce, one that had us holding our breath.

Ms. Sierra absolutely commanded the stage in her selection of songs by Joaquin Turina and Mr. Wagorn matched her Iberian charm, note for note. "Cuando tan hermosa os miro" and "Si con mis deseos" are love songs while "Al val de Fuente Ovejuna" is a charming tale, sung with charm, about a shy maiden hiding from an importuning man.

The first part of the program ended splendidly with a duet from Händel's Rodelinda, "Io t'abraccio".  The text refers to the pain of parting and the two singers were indeed spatially separated. We lack words to describe the deliciousness of the harmony and the way Baroque technique was used to indicate sobbing. By the end, we ourselves were close to sobbing.

Mr. Costanzo opened the second half of the program with what he does best. Even those who don't quite "get" the counter-tenor fach would have been brought to their knees by "Rompo i lacci" from Handel's Flavio. The wild flights of fioritura presented no obstacle to this intrepid artist, a master of the Baroque style.  Händel knew how to write for the voice and his arias have many sections of various moods and tempi. The slow section could have broken hearts but the fury of revenge in the fast sections could make you weak in the knees.

Ms. Sierra began her aria "Arpa gentil" from Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims from offstage to the sound of a harp produced by Mr. Wagorn's delicate arpeggios on the piano. She has mastered the Bel Canto style and made her embellishments as meaningful as they were perfectly precise.

We even enjoyed her English in a quartet of songs by Ned Rorem.  Our favorites were the sweet "In a gondola" which describes two different types of kissing and "Song for a girl" in which a 14-year-old girl sings of her innocence and how she expects to become more devious as she gets older.  Ms. Sierra sang them truthfully and with deep feeling.

Five songs by Franz Liszt were performed by Mr. Costanzo.  Our favorite was the peaceful "Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh" but we must say we prefer our favorite counter-tenor in the more fiery operatic material.

The recital ended with a brilliant duet in Latin--two selections from Giovanni Batista Pergolesi's Stabat Mater in which the harmonies were a touch more dissonant than those of Händel and even more interesting.  The second feature that captured our attention was the fact that the two singers were singing different lines. It was nothing short of astonishing.

And now we get to the best part....the encores.  Ms. Sierra won everyone's hearts with "O, mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. Only the most cold-hearted father could have resisted her importuning! This aria seems to have been written just for her!

Mr. Costanzo chose for his encore....drum roll please...."Summertime" from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. In an engaging introduction, he told the audience that the biggest obstacle to becoming a counter-tenor was a psychological one and that his parents were both psychologists.  When the first song he wanted to sing as a child was "Summertime" they encouraged him. This story made us smile.  A lot.  And we'd have to say we have never heard that aria sung like that before. And likely never will again.

And now, the crazy wild encore you have been waiting to hear about...the two artists sang "La ci darem la mano" from Mozart's Don Giovanni--with Ms. Sierra singing the Don and Mr. Costanzo singing Zerlina.  Such gender bending is fun but it also forces us to look at gender roles and expectations in a fresh way.  We were not alone in having our funny bone tickled.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, March 22, 2015


Gary Ramsay, Karin Mushegain, and Nicole Haslett (photo by Christopher Ash)

What could make a veteran opera goer happier than seeing a house full of 20-somethings laughing and cheering at the opera?  We have nothing but accolades for the yearling Heartbeat Opera, the members of which put all their heart and soul into presenting Jacques Offenbach's one-act ribald opera Daphnis and Chloe.  It was a wise choice and high in entertainment value. In spite of claims of minimal means, the production appeared rich in imagination, creativity and color.

Even before the opera began, the audience was serenaded by the chamber group Cantata Profana comprising Nathan Lesser violinist, Colin Brookes violist, Samuel Suggs bassist, Joshua Anderson clarinetist and Andrew Parker Oboeist; the graceful strains of the latter teased our ears with the opening theme. Their motley attire added to the fun. The hands-on batonless conductor was the fine Louis Lohraseb and Offenbach's score was arranged for the quintet by Daniel Schlosberg.

The voices were uniformly excellent with winsome soprano Nicole Haslett (well remembered from Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance and from The Ghosts of Versailles at Manhattan School of Music) performing as Chloe, mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain taking the role of Daphnis, Gary Ramsey (remembered as the lead in Dell'Arte Opera's production of Salieri's Falstaff) playing the raunchy Pan.

The four Bacchantes were excellently sung and acted by Tynan Davis, Kristin Gornstein, Alexandra Loutsion and Molly Netter.  It was a treat for the eye to see the costuming by Beth Goldenberg; the four women were decked out in feather boas, layers of underwear, chains and safety pins and lots of plastic.  Their faces were decorated with paint and their wild hairdos augmented by whatever artistry Jon Carter brought to the table. Perhaps he was also responsible for Pan's goat feet and horns.

The story is a simple one. The shepherd Dafnis and the shepherdess Chloe are sweet on one another but haven't a clue about how to express it.  The god Pan, pretending to be his own statue, is enamored of Chloe and determines to initiate her into the art of love whereas the Bacchantes, all crazy about Dafnis, plot to seduce him with the waters of forgetfulness from the River Lethe.  They succeed and the lovers are then ready to wed.

This silly tale offered the canny Offenbach an opportunity to make lots of rowdy jokes which amused last night's audience as much as they must have amused his 19th c. audience.  You had to be there to appreciate Pan's pipes.

The effective set by Reid Thompson included a backdrop of silver streamers, a floor strewn with flowers and a sequined pedestal to permit Pan to hide his goat feet. Oliver Wason's lighting was effective.  Choreography was by Chloe (sic) Treat (sic).

The entire affair can be attributed to Heartbeat's Co-Artistic Directors Ethan Heard and Louisa Proske who also directed.  The two came out of the Yale School of Drama which has been the source of so many superlative productions and skilled artists.  We love and support their mission to bring opera to youthful audiences in intimate venues.

Our only cavil with the evening was the English translation. Presumably the intent was to make it more accessible but we would have preferred to hear it sung in French with English dialogue.  Some of the singing in English was not clear enough to be understood anyway.  Still, it was not that important since the story was simple and well told by the performers' physicality.  Just sayin'.  We prefer the cadence of French.

(c) meche kroop


Thomas Muraco and Virginie Verrez

The Art Song Preservation Society of New York (ASPS) is dedicated to promoting the art song repertoire and those who sing it.  Opportunities for artistic development, education and performance are offered, as well as an annual competition and winner's recital in honor of Mary Trueman.  This year's winner is the dazzling mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez who yesterday presented a most impressive recital with famed conductor, coach and collaborative pianist Thomas Muraco.

At the moment you are reading this it is likely that Ms. Verrez is onstage at The Metropolitan Opera as a finalist in the Met National Council Awards.  As we told her, it seemed gratuitous to wish her good luck because she can make it on artistry alone. Every time we hear her sing we are enthralled.

Mr. Muraco is also well known to us as a brilliant conductor but this is the first time we have heard and experienced his artistry at the piano and it is just as remarkable. The two artists appeared to breathe together throughout the afternoon with the voice seeming to float just above the piano line.

The program opened with Ottavia's fiery aria from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea in which the queen lets loose her anger at men (particularly her unfaithful husband Nerone) and her bitter anguish over the victimhood of women. Her delivery was riveting.  At a certain level of artistry we lose awareness of the technique (the tone, the phrasing, the diction); we become lost in the poetry and the way the music enhances and amplifies it.

We always enjoy Brahms' Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103 for its tunefulness, its variety of moods, and its romantic vision of gypsy life.  Our favorite of the cycle was the sweet and flirtatious "Wisst ihr, wann mein Kindchen am aller schönsten ist?"  Our pair of artists made the most of this work and extracted every ounce of color.

It was a special treat to hear chanson performed by a native French speaker.  We enjoyed the early 20th c. Banalités of Poulenc more than ever before, especially the languorous "Hôtel" and the frisky "Voyage à Paris". The mysterious piano prelude to "Sanglots" was particularly lovely.

Two gems by master songsmith Henri Duparc were performed.  "L'Invitation au voyage" was exactly what the text indicated--calm, luxurious and beautiful.

We have always enjoyed Joseph Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne but this was our first exposure to the cycle Chants de France. The work has the charm of folksong but, as by the pen of Brahms, was given greater import by the intricacy of the piano writing.  We loved the tuneful "Auprès de ma blonde" and cannot get it out of our head.  The moving "Où irai-je me plaindre?" was heartbreaking.  Was it the way Canteloube wrote it or the way Maestro Muraco played it when we actually heard the rossignol singing?

The surprise of the afternoon was the cycle Paper Wings, composed by Jake Heggie to texts by....none other than Frederica von Stade!  Who knew!  "Mitten Smitten" was delightfully whimsical and "A Route to the Sky" given a bluesy mood.  We do not often favor contemporary song in English but the performance created the appreciation.

As if we were not sufficiently enchanted, we got an encore--Poulenc's "Les chemins de l'amour" with text by Jean Anouilh, written for Yvonne Printemps.  It sounded as if it had been written for Ms. Verrez!

We refer you to www.artsongpreservationsocietyny.org for information on their future recitals and upcoming master classes, of which there are many.  We like their motto..."Where music speaks and words sing". We couldn't agree more!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, March 21, 2015


Michael Brofman, Joseph Gaines, Kelvin Chan, Jocelyn Dueck, Kate Maroney, Miori Sugiyama and Justine Aronson

We have long been fans of Brooklyn Art Song Society (BASS) and have always enjoyed Justine Aronson's scintillating soprano.  We were delighted to learn that they were performing in Manhattan and more than happy to brave the final snow of the season, as was the crowd in the packed house.

Usually, the programs are curated by Artistic Director and pianist par excellence Michael Brofman.  Last night at the Tenri Cultural Institute, the program was given over to venerable composer Daron Hagen. Understandably, his own compositions occupied the major part of the program with the remainder chosen by him.

We listened to Mr. Hagen's instrumental compositions in advance and liked his writing. Although last night we enjoyed some of his vocal writing, much of it was not to our taste.

The program opened with three selections from Schubert's Winterreise, one of our favorite song cycles. They were performed by tenor Joseph Gaines who has a pleasant sound but indulges in some pretty distracting grimacing.  We found his delivery of "Mut!" a bit heavy-handed.  The hero of the cycle is meant to be putting up a cheerful front to hide his underlying grief.  Mr. Gaines' forceful delivery seemed unidimensional and missed the sorrow.

He was far better in "Die Nebensonnen" and evinced a lovely plaintive vibrato.  Miori Sugiyama's collaborative piano was highly sensitive and we particularly enjoyed her work in "Der Leiermann".

What followed was Mr. Hagen's cycle After Words (2013).  Speaking from the audience, he told us that this was supposed to be two angels witnessing life on earth and commenting on Winterreise.  Sorry to say, but Schubert's masterwork does not require comment!  And a work of art should not need an explanation.  We failed to see any cohesion that would constitute a cycle.

In the first song, the piano line often echoed Schubert's "Der Leiermann". Further entries in the cycle were settings of texts by Seamus Heaney whose free "verse" did not resonate with us.

We did enjoy the piano writing in "The Rain Stick" and found the vocal line of "Rimas - X" to be quite lovely as Ms. Aronson and Mr. Gaines went back and forth from Spanish to English.  Text was by Rubén Dario.

His Larkin Songs (2001) were purported to be about Larkin's life but we had trouble relating to the cycle.  There was something about the prose that failed to achieve universality.  That being said, we enjoyed the punchy humor of "Interlude #1" expressing irony about the reading public.  And we especially enjoyed Mr. Brofman's piano which reflected the delicacy of the vocal line in "Going".  But for the most part the verbal cadences of the text did not lend themselves to a musical vocal line.

This cycle was performed beautifully by baritone Kelvin Chan who also did a fine job with Hugo Wolf's Michelangelo Lieder, accompanied by Mr. Brofman's powerful performance on the piano.

In the second half of the program, we heard some of Mr. Hagen's cabaret songs, sung with panache by mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney, ably accompanied by Jocelyn Dueck. She has a nice easy dramatic style and in the duets with Mr. Gaines sounded just fine .  Our favorite of Mr. Hagen's works was "You Don't Fall Up You Fall Down" from I Hear America Singing (2014).  We also enjoyed Mr. Gaines' performance of "I Believe in Song" also from the same cycle. What a fine motto for an evening of song!

His "The New Yorkers" (2011) attempted to show an Upper West Side couple's development over four decades from "We can beat New York at its own game" to "We can love New York". We might have enjoyed it if there had been more specificity about the couple's experience.

Songs from Benjamin Britten's Cabaret Songs were also on the program--the oft-performed "Tell Me the Truth About Love" and "Funeral Blues".

This is the third time this week that we have attended song recitals in which so-called "art songs" shared a program with "popular songs". This seems like a trend. For our taste we like our "art songs" most when they have endured from the 19th c.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, March 20, 2015


Siyi Fang and Jessine Johnson

We hear so many young sopranos with beautiful voices and tons of talent that we wonder whether sufficient roles will be available for them.  But once in awhile we hear one of those big beautiful young women with big beautiful voices, voices that are less common and possibly more in demand.  Such was the case yesterday evening at Juilliard when we heard soprano Jessine Johnson who seems to have the potential for Wagnerian and Verdian roles.

She chose wisely for her opening aria--"Non mi dir" from Mozart's Don Giovanni.  Her sizable voice has a nice gleam to it without a hint of harshness.  She attacked the high notes as fearlessly as the daunting coloratura passages, demonstrating considerable flexibility.  It was all there--the good Italian, the legato phrasing, the variety of dynamics and color, the facility with the flights of embellishments.

We were already wondering what she would do with the Wagner songs which closed the program and we were not at all disappointed.  We greatly enjoyed three selections from Fünf Gedichte von Mathilde Wesendonk.  Both she and her superb collaborative pianist Siyi Fang made the most of the rising four-note scale passage (familiar from Tristan und Isolde) in "Im Treibhaus"; the lower tessitura was well handled. There was sufficient urgency in "Stehe Still" with its glorious piano writing. "Träume" was no less terrific.

Encores are not generally performed in graduation recitals but the thunderous applause generated a thrilling rendition of "Dich Teure Halle" from Tannhäuser, resulting in still more accolades.

What we really appreciated in Ms. Johnson's German was her crisp enunciation of the consonants, accomplished without sacrificing the value of the vowels. Many young singers, even those giving professional recitals, have demonstrated discomfort with the final "ch", a pet peeve of ours.  Not so here!

Let us not neglect what came between the Mozart and the Wagner.  We heard two light-hearted chansons by Debussy from his Quatre Chansons de Jeunesses.  In "Pantomime" the mood was frisky until the final tender verse, given its full emotional value by both Ms. Johnson and Ms. Fang.

We also heard four songs by Robert Schumann, three of them which were full of threat and menace ("Warnung", "Muttertraum", and "Der Soldat") and one in a lighter vein "Mein schöner Stern"--a consoling contrast to the darkness.

As far as the Libby Larsen cycle Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII, we found the texts sufficiently interesting to read up on Tudor history. But as many times as we have heard the cycle, we have not succeeded in finding the vocal line sufficiently interesting, even though Ms. Johnson sang it well.  The piano score is interesting but neither the piano writing nor the vocal line seemed to illuminate the words, which can easily stand alone as historical documents.  But they are not poetry!  We find no pleasure in musical settings of prose.

This recital was given to fulfill one of the requirements for receiving a Master of Music Degree from Juilliard but it was totally worthwhile as an evening's entertainment.  We foresee a fine future for both artists.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Front Row:  Peter Manning, Rachel O'Byrne, Dearbhla Maire Collins, Miles Mykkanen
Second Row: Avery Amereau, Rebecca Rodgers, Iain Burnside and Conor Hanratty
Third Row: Andrew Gavin, Sam Lilja, William Kelley and Angela Vallone

A stirring program outside of the usual is always welcome and last night's program at Juilliard--"Ten Thousand Miles Away"-- offered an opportunity for a trans-Atlantic collaboration between The Royal Irish Academy of Music, the Juilliard School, and The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art in Trinity College Dublin.  Students from the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts at Juilliard and students from Ireland participated in the program which was conceived by Iain Burnside and directed by himself and Conor Hanratty.

Last week the program was presented at LNADA in Dublin and this week presented here.  We found it absolutely enchanting, as we did the visitors from overseas.  The program was meaningful in several ways.  For one thing, the music that was chosen came from all genres and all were treated respectfully.  This can be considered a furtherance of our awareness from last night's NYFOS recital.  The program produced the same awareness of Ireland's musical heritage as last night's program produced for Italy's.

For another thing, it made us aware that, unless we are 100% Native American, we have all had ancestors that left the security of their homelands, bid farewell to loved ones, and set out for a new country to which they were obliged to adjust.  The main difference today is that most immigrants are able to return home to see those they left behind.  At the turn of the 20th C. the voyage by ship was a long arduous one and farewells were painfully permanent.  Of course there are many plays about the immigrant experience, especially Irish plays.  Still, there is something particularly poignant and universal about music.

In this case, printed programs were withheld until after the performance ended; this was a wise decision, permitting the audience to be totally present and not busy figuring out the program.  The directors made sure that the artists moved onstage in meaningful clusters and in a manner that heightened the drama. There was even some spritely folk dancing.

There were art songs by Samuel Barber, Ben Moore, and Frank Bridge and folk songs woven together with readings from Irish writers about the immigrant experience. Actors Sam Lilja and Rachel O'Byrne handled the readings beautifully. There was love and sex and religion.  There were texts from James Joyce, of course.

Juilliard soprano Angela Vallone and Dublin soprano Rebecca Rodgers were equally lovely and Juilliard mezzo-soprano Avery Amereau showed impressive depth of color. Juilliard tenor Miles Mykkanen used his versatile tenor in a new way and shared tenorial duties with the fine Dubliner Andrew Gavin.  Both excelled in conveying the feeling tone of the songs.  The sole baritone Peter Manning more than held up his share of the music-making.

Collaborative pianists also came from both sides of the Atlantic with Dearbhla Máire Collins sharing duties with William Kelley. There was always a special lilt to the music. The program was seamless without the usual pauses for applause resulting in an intense experience of the trials and tribulations of leaving, arriving and trying to assimilate.  This program achieved what the St. Patrick's Day Parade, with all its politics of pride had failed to do for us--to give us that special Irish flavor and a deep appreciation for a special people.

We cannot help but think that there might be musical solutions to the ubiquitous misunderstandings extant among the world's cultures today.  If only!

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Paying tribute to Steve Blier are Shea Owens, Alec Carlson, Christopher Reynolds, Chelsea Morris and Julia Dawson

If you have yet to spend an evening in the company of Steven Blier you don't know what you are missing but we plan to let you in on the good news.  Song is alive and well in his hands; he curates an evening of music around a given theme, unearths an amazing selection of songs, shares tidbits of information about them with his audience, and shows equal respect for the old masters and the contemporary ones. He accomplishes all this while discovering young talent and bringing them to the attention of the song-loving public.

Founder and Artistic Director of New York Festival of Song, Mr. Blier has fingers in many pies as master teacher, mentor, coach, collaborative pianist, arranger, writer, and raconteur. Last night's recital at Merkin Hall was the culmination of a weeklong training residency at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts--the Terrance W. Schwab Vocal Rising Stars program.  And what rising stars we heard!

To begin with the encore, soprano Chelsea Morris, mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson, tenor Alec Carlson and baritone Shea Owens joined voices in a gorgeous arrangement (courtesy of Maestro Blier) of Henry Mancini's "Moon River" from the film Breakfast at Tiffany's.  If this didn't stir you, you must be made of wood.  It sent the audience out the door with happy faces and dancing feet.

Speaking of dancing feet, a NYFOS first was an ear-dazzling tap dance by.....  (get this!) Christopher Reynolds!  Mr. Reynolds is a talented collaborative pianist who took over Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett's piano bench, sharing the accompanying duties with Mr. Blier. As if one major talent were not enough for one man! This amplified the pleasure of the quartet of singers joining voices for Harry Warren's "The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish" from Garden of the Moon.  The lyrics by Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer are highly politically incorrect and highly hilarious.

We have no idea how Mr. Blier finds these treasures but find them, he does.

The first half of the program comprised songs of the bel canto period by Italian masters while the second comprised 20th c. songs by Italian-American composers--a veritable treasure trove of gems.  Of course Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti were represented.  Bellini's long lyrical lines were given fine treatment by soprano Chelsea Morris in "La ricordanza", the music being recycled later for Elvira's mad scene in I Puritani.  Ms. Morris handled the fioritura with aplomb and precision.

Julia Dawson was equally excellent in one of Rossini's numerous settings of Pietro Metastasio's "Mi lagneró tacendo" with all of its broad skips and complex fioritura. The delightful duet "A consolarmi affrettisi" from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix was performed by Ms. Morris and tenor Alec Carlson.  Once again we thrilled to the accuracy of the embellishments.

Mr. Carlson sounded just as fine in the opening number, a barcarolle by  Alfredo Catalani entitled "In riva al mare", with its simple lilting piano. In a clever piece of stagecraft, baritone Shea Owens burst onto the stage, interrupting their bows with a confident stage presence and terrific tone, performing Giuseppe Verdi's Brindisi with all the bibulous panache one could wish for.  We hasten to tell you that it was all acting since Mr. Owens does not imbibe.  Coulda fooled us!

Composers who came on the scene a bit later maintained the tradition of beautiful melody--well into the 20th c. verismo period.  Stefano Donaudy actually called his collection of songs Arie di Stile Antico. He composed his "Vaghissima sembianza" when only 13 years of age. Both text and music evince confounding maturity. Mr. Carlson sang it simply and sweetly.

Franco Alfano not only finished Puccini's Turandot but also composed songs; many were settings of poetry by Rabindranath Tagore. We loved Mr. Owens command of color as he transitioned from the quiet meditative verse to the passionate one in "Non nascondere il segreto".  

Ms. Morris impressed us with the vocally spare "I pastori" by Ildebrando Pizzetti with text by Gabriele d'Annunzio and Ms. Dawson with her singing of a charming piece in Hebrew by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco "Ulai laze yihie li ometz", one of three works not in Italian. Another was "Wer hat das erste Lied erdacht" by Ferruccio Busoni, composed when he was 13 years old.  That made two adolescent composer honored on the program and Mr. Carlson again sang very sweetly.

The first part of the program ended with our favorite --"Sérénade napolitaine" a French song by Ruggero Leoncavallo in which Ms. Dawson's mezzo and Mr. Owens' baritone blended beautifully.

The second half of the program included many well known Italian-American composers, most of them friends of Mr. Blier.  Although we rarely find 20th c. American songs sufficiently melodic, the songs Mr. Blier chose were unanimously tuneful.  We heard Dominick Argento's "Spring" and Norman Dello Joio's "There is a lady sweet and kind".  We enjoyed the irony  of John Musto's "Penelope's Song" from his song cycle of the same name.  But we loved what the ensemble did with the irreverent "Some Last Words" from The Book of Uncommon Prayer.

Two selections from John Corigliano impressed.  Ms. Dawson sang the lovely "Irreverent Heart" (text by Yip Harburg) with great depth of feeling and the two lovely ladies performed a scene from his opera The Ghosts of Versailles.  With the two female voices and two pianos the texture was undeniably rich and thrilling.

"This Much is New" was written by Mark Adamo three years ago for Mr. Blier's wedding and this was the first time the piece (text by Mark Campbell) was performed in public.  A perfect marriage of melody and text, feelingly sung by Mr. Owens.

What a special evening!  We are already on board for the next entry on April 28th, Letters from Spain: A world of Song in Spanish Poetry.  Hope to see you there.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Eric Barsness, Christopher Berg, Youtha Franklin, Erin Ring-Howell, Violetta Zabbi, Kathy Geary, Kevin Hanek, Margaret Meyer, Gail Bedi, Carol Diefenbach, and Tshombe Selby

Sunday afternoon in the fine concert hall of Opera America, the Delaware Valley Opera Company offered a program of opera arias and American song.  For 29 years, DVO has been presenting opera and vocal recitals in the upper Delaware Valley of New York and Pennsylvania.  Their mission is to offer performance opportunities for singers at every level of experience, age, and professionality.

This was an opportunity to hear singers we would not ordinarily get to hear and, in one case, to hear an aria we'd never heard before.  The aria from Tchaikovsky's The Enchantress was called "Kuma's Arioso" and was sung by soprano Erin Ring-Howell. Although she has sung several times before in New York (as well as regionally) this was our first time hearing her; she has a lovely instrument to work with and did well conveying the love of nature expressed in the aria.  Her Russian was pleasing to the ear.  

She distinguished herself later in the program with "Tallulah's Aria" from Thomas Pasatieri's 2007 opera Hotel Casablanca.  Given our lack of enthusiasm for contemporary opera, we were  pleased to admit that we enjoyed it and would happily see the opera, given the opportunity.  Her perfect English diction made every word clear.

Also impressive was soprano Margaret Meyer who sang Donna Anna's "Non mi dir" from Mozart's Don Giovanni.  Ms. Meyer is sufficiently comfortable onstage to express all those feelings that bring the aria to life. Not only was she adept in Italian but also in English, dioing a fine job with "What good would the moon be?" from Kurt Weill's Street Scene and "Mr. Snow" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel.

A new young tenor on the scene is always good news and Tshombe Selby made an excellent impression \himself with Lensky's aria "Kuda, kuda" from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Along with superior tone, he showed a good command of Russian and of dynamic control with a delicate decrescendo at the end.  But the final work on the program blew the audience away.  "Ride on King Jesus" was given all the spiritual passion necessary to put the song across.

Besides these three promising newcomers, contributions were made by some veteran performers.  Carol Diefenbach, one of the co-founders of DVO entertained with a spirited rendition of the Seguidilla from Bizet's Carmen, in an English translation, no less. Kevin Hanek sang "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" from the same opera, this time in French.  Kathy Geary sang "Io son l'umile ancella" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur with depth of feeling.  Youtha Franklin contributed "Voi lo sapete, o mamma" from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Gail Bedi sang "S'altro che lacrime" from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito.

All were accompanied by the marvelous pianist Violetta Zabbi whom we have often heard and admired.  But composer Christopher Berg accompanied bass Eric Barsness who sang a trio of Ives songs. The second half of the program comprised mostly American songs, many from Broadway. All singers can be heard at DVO when you are in the neighborhood.

(c) meche kroop


William Remmers and Rachel Selan

We could scarcely believe our eyes and ears witnessing Founder/Artistic Director/Conductor/Emcee/Raconteur William Remmers wearing yet another hat. This time we were witnessing his hilarious comic timing as Thomas Brown, the Duke of Islington in disguise, in Sir Arthur Sullivan's 1875 curtain raiser The Zoo.  This charming one-act had disappeared from the operatic scene for nearly a century and lucky for us that it was rediscovered in the 1960's and there for us onstage at Hunter College last night as the second part of Utopia Opera's bill of two one-act operas.

The name is strange since Utopia stands for near perfection and this scrappy and very personal opera company offers everything but perfection.  Their performances are put together on a shoestring, with whatever serves as scenery and costumes contributed by the cast.  But what it doesn't offer in perfection it makes up for in sheer uninhibited fun in a "Let's put on a show" mode.  Who knew opera could be so much fun!  This is a poorly kept secret as masses of people crowded the 4th floor hallway waiting to be admitted to William Remmer's funhouse.

Sullivan wrote this work without W.S. Gilbert but librettist B.C. Stephenson, using the alias of Bolton Rowe, was no slouch.  The lines are brief and punchy and the theme is one of skewering Great Britain's peculiar worship of the aristocracy.

Thomas Brown's love interest runs the refreshment stall at the London Zoo.  Her reputation is somewhat suspect, as we learn in her very funny aria. Rachel Selan was an effective performer, singing of her various experiences with various lovers while hoisted in the air on a chair.  To win her affection, Mr. Brown devours all her refreshments until he passes out.  He finally wins her hand by offering to make her the Duchess of Islington.

There is a second romantic pair, of course.  Soprano Katherine Peck has a lovely voice and gave a fine portrayal of Laetitia Grinder, a lovesick maiden whose recalcitrant father (played by Alan Smulen) refuses to let her marry the apothecary who courts her, (a fine Erik Bagger).  Of course he keeps threatening suicide.  Our nobleman in disguise saves the day with a generous check.

Now who, you may ask, was conducting the fine orchestra whilst Mr. Remmers took to the boards?  None other than Jeremy Weissmann.  And what an orchestra we had, squeezed as usual onto the right third of the stage and spilling over into the aisles. Under Mr. Weissmann's alert conducting, all the humor of Sullivan's score was captured. Francisco Miranda did some amazing things on the keyboard.

The first part of the evening, conducted by Mr. Remmers, was given over to Ravel's delightful L'enfant et les sortiléges, a work dating back to 1925, a setting of a story by Colette.  In this short work a very naughty child, convincingly portrayed by Elsa Quéron, is treated to reprimand and revenge by all the things he has abused--animate and inanimate.  Although it has its humor there is also a beautiful dénouement as the boy learns his lesson and becomes humanized.

The funniest bit was the song and dance of the Teapot and the Teacup, performed respectively by Erik Bagger and Brittany Fowler singing a strange amalgam of French, Japanese and Mandarin. Likewise funny was the feline "romance" between Joshua Miller and Shawn Farrar.  More touching than funny was the Princess from a fairy tale (the lovely Winnie Nieh) who was in trouble because the boy had torn up the pages of the book that showed her Prince rescuing her with a sword. Jason Brook's flute solo made a fine accompaniment to her aria.

But it was not until the garden scene when the boy is confronted with the tree he wounded with his knife that the shift begins. Ultimately he binds the wound of the Squirrel (Sarah Marvel Bleasdale, who also played Maman), learns compassion and is forgiven.  We found this scene touching.

At the Monte Carlo opera, the dancing was choreographed by Balanchine, but we were not deprived of dancing furniture and, even better, dancing frogs, birds and bats. It was impressive the way a simple scarf could become wings and rubber bands could create ears from hair. We have rarely enjoyed ourselves so well at an opera and had an ear-to-ear smile all the way home.  We are still smiling!

Utopia's next production will be Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, expanded to four performances on June 5, 6, 12, and 13.  We are having trouble imagining how that can be done on a tiny stage on a tiny budget but we are getting accustomed to the idea that William Remmer can accomplish anything with his superfluity of imagination and creativity.  Stay tuned!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, March 14, 2015


Erica Lall and Garegin Pogossian
Rachelle di Stasio and Ilya Kolotov

We enjoy watching young ballet dancers on the cusp of a professional career as much as hearing young opera singers in the same position. Last night at the wonderful Schimmel Center at Pace University we were privileged to see some of the stars of tomorrow.  Undoubtedly you will see some of them perform in the near future with American Ballet Theater.  The starting point for dancers is far younger than that for opera singers.  These talented youngsters are all under 20 years of age.

But just observe how well they handled Act I of Marius Petipa's  Le Corsaire in a version by Anna-Marie Holmes!  We first caught sight of the elegantly lanky Ilya Kolotov in the role of Lankendem, the slave trader.  If there is anyone in this group better suited to the role of danseur noble we would be surprised.  He has an exceptional line and was effective in partnering.

Kudos to Rinaldo Venuti who mastered the difficult choreography of the role of Ali the slave, minus the feathered headband.  He is slight of build and talented in musicality, with the requisite deftness of phrasing. His rubato led to some breath holding on our part.

Hanna Bass excelled as Gulnare and Breanne Granlund as Medora. The three Odalisques, Wanyue Qiao, Clara Superfine, and Rachelle di Stasio were perfectly in unison.

We consider ourselves well acquainted with Antony Tudor's choreography but somehow missed Little Improvisations. The petite and playful Erica Lall had a wonderful time teasing her partner Garegin Pogossian and making interesting use of a piece of fabric. We would happily see it again.

Excerpts from Merce Cunningham's Duets was staged by Patricia Lent to some "music" by John Cage and showed what the company can do with more modern material.

The program ended with another modern piece that was far more to our liking--Hush with choreography by Stephen Mills to music by Philip Glass.  It was here that we witnessed four inspired partnerships: the long-limbed Mr. Kolotov paired well with Ms. di Stasio; Ms. Lall again danced with Mr. Pogossian; Mr. Venuti performed with Ms. Granlund and Tyler Maloney partnered the lovely Ms. Bass.  The simple blue leotards were simply effective, courtesy of Ballet Austin and we were tempted to rename the ballet Rhapsody in Blue.  It is a piece we'd never seen before and it left us with a fine impression of this young company.

You have two more opportunities to see them perform--today there are two performances, matinée and evening.  Seize the opportunity!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, March 13, 2015


Sasha Cooke (photo by Dario Acosta)

It's been over a year since we reviewed mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke at the Juilliard Vocal Arts Recital and a half-year since we reviewed her performance in As One at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She captivated us last night at Zankel Hall as part of the Julia Goldwurm Pure Voice Series.  Her performances are so fine that we hope we will not have to wait another 6 months to hear her again.  Of the many qualities that contribute to her success as a performer there is the likable and easy-going stage presence that leads us to feel that she is singing just for us.

There is that wonderfully textured tonal richness-- like a cup of espresso that makes one sit up and take notice.  There is that musicality by which each song is distinctive, made meaningful by phrasing, word coloring and variety of tempi and dynamics.  There is that deeply felt connection to the text, delivered without excess theatrics, that gives the impression that she is channeling the poet.

The fine program opened with Haydn's cantata Arianna a Naxos.  This work was a perfect choice for Ms. Cooke who negotiated the wide range of emotions without any hint of fussiness.  Rather she used her technique to serve the music without calling attention to herself.  The poor girl has been abandoned on Crete by her lover Theseus.  When she first awakes she is calling out for him with love in her voice. Only later does she realize she has been abandoned and she is consumed by anger at the betrayal.  At the conclusion she is desolate and wishes to die.  We are happy that Haydn used an Italian text.  The vowels were more than usually evocative.

Usually when we see a set of Liszt songs on a program, we expect intensity and perhaps even bombast.  But the four songs chosen by Ms. Cooke were gentle songs and we adored them.  "Wieder möcht ich dir begegnen" in a tuneful ABBA rhyming scheme expressed tenderness.  "Lasst mich ruhen" was likewise quiet with the piano of Julius Drake making clear the sound of the nightingale's songs.  Music to our ears! "Was Liebe sei" is a short song with a witty closing line perkily delivered by Ms. Cooke.  She used a generous amount of control to achieve the stillness required by "Des Tages laute Stimmen schweigen" with a peaceful decrescendo at the end.

We can never get enough of Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.  The text, by Mahler himself, is filled with the sorrow of lost love, despite efforts to find peace in nature.  In fact, the joys of nature seem to mock the singer.  Mahler makes liberal use of folk melodies and interesting harmonies.  The melodies are often heard woven through his symphonies.  Ms. Cooke sang the cycle with great depth of feeling.

Having impressed us with her facility in Italian and German, Ms. Cooke also included on her program three tonadillas by Enrique Granados.  These charming Spanish songs were customarily sung between the acts of a zarzuela in the 18th c. But Granados composed these Tonadillas en un estilo antiguo at the turn of the 20th c. They are filled with spunky humor and passionate feeling.

It must be a great thrill for a singer to have a work composed just for her.  Carnegie Hall commissioned a work from prize-winning composer Kevin Puts and we wish we could say we enjoyed it.  We did not.  The music is interesting with strange harmonies and key progressions.  To Ms. Cooke's credit she sang off the book and with perfect diction.  But we did not find the poetry interesting enough to lend itself to musical treatment and the vocal line was not memorable.

The first time we heard Die Schöne Mullerin we walked out of the concert hall singing.  Likewise for Winterreise and the Mahler cycle we just heard.  We could not summon up a single phrase to repeat from the Puts cycle.  We are just suckers for melody!

Melody we got during the encores which were happily dedicated to Steven Blier, our favorite songmeister.  One we couldn't identify called "Ooh, la la" and a rather récherché arrangement of Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night".  And THAT's a melody!

(c) meche kroop