We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


Siberia at the turn of the 20th Century

We recently wrote about how a good concert version of an opera can be a very pleasurable experience.  Last night, Teatro Grattacielo's yearly entry in the verismo opera sweepstakes was Umberto Giordano's Siberia, an interesting and mostly satisfying evening for the opera lovers who crowded into the comfortable Gerald Lynch theater at John Jay College. 

This opera premiered at La Scala in 1903 and was not a hit, although it did receive positive notices in Genoa and Paris and reached the New World in 1906 by way of the French Opera House in New Orleans, where so many European operas got their American start.

The libretto is a bit strange (Thanks, Founding Executive and Artistic Director Duane Printz, for a fine translation), not making many issues clear until late in the opera. One would expect more from the fine librettist Luigi Illica who served Giacomo Puccini so well; it is unclear whether the libretto is his original creation or whether he adapted the story from Leo Tolstoy's novel Resurrection.

Perhaps this early 19th c. story might have made more sense to the early 20th c. audience who witnessed it. The tale concerns the beautiful Stephana, mistress of the young Prince Alexis who has furnished her with a beautiful palace and servants and gifts. We do not figure out until much later that the disagreeable Gleby discovered the poor young woman on the streets, recognized her beauty, seduced her, taught her the ropes (so to speak), and sold her to the Prince in exchange for a liberal pension.

It is, of course, in Gleby's interest to ensure her availability to the Prince and he is distressed when she stays out all night. The reason for her failure to live up to her duties is her true love for the soldier Vassili who thinks she is an ordinary working girl of the innocent variety, not the kind of "working girl" she really is.

She has kept her palatial home secret but young Vassili, called to war, comes to the palace to bid farewell to his mother (or so we think) and discovers Stephana who is upset to be found out. Alexis is also upset by Vassili's presence and the two draw swords. Alexis is either wounded or dies.

Vassili is sent to prison in Siberia and Stephana follows him (in a troika and swathed in furs) having given up her glamorous life. This seems to be partly out of love and partly to seek redemption.

Life in Siberia is virtually unendurable but she loves it there because of her love for Vassili and a renewed sense of purity she feels.  But the lovers plan to escape and are caught, perhaps because the jealous Gleby has also arrived at the prison and rats her out (or so we think). She is shot and dies (happily) in Vassili's arms.

Undoubtedly, the libretto could have been more clearly written. Nonetheless, the music is gorgeously orchestrated and was superbly sung by a really good cast. The deservedly famous tenor Raul Melo sang with clear ringing tone and high passion. Stephana was gloriously sung by soprano Marie Masters whose star is on the rise. The strange and undeveloped character of Stephana was effectively filled in by this fine young artist.

Highly impressive as the slimy Gleby was baritone Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee who injected 57 varieties of sliminess into his superb voice, creating an unforgettable villain. We enjoyed mezzo-soprano Jessica Grigg as Nikona, Stephana's anxious servant, and soprano Megan Monaghan in a small role as a woman looking for her father in Siberia.

Baritone Joseph Flaxman excelled in two roles: as a banker in the service of the Prince, and later as an old man who wants to help Stephana escape. Tenor Scott Joiner was the servant Ivan and later The Cossack; tenor Wesley Morgan portrayed Prince Alexis and later portrayed The Sergeant, bass Damian Savarino was Walinoff, also in the Prince's retinue and later, The Inspector.

In the Siberian  part of the opera we would meet The Captain (bass-baritone Sean Cooper), who also portrayed The Governor with appropriate stentorian sound. All the parts seemed well cast and excellently sung.

And what about the music? What made the strongest impression melodically was the "Song of the Volga Boatmen".  This is a traditional Russian song, collected by Balakirev and published in 1866; it has been appropriated by composers of many nationalities and here was most effective in expressing the despair of the Russian peasants in pre-Revolutionary Russia. It is heard many times in the course of the opera. The Cantori New York Chorus did well by it, under the direction of Mark Shapiro.

Conductor Israel Gursky commanded The Teatro Grattacielo Orchestra who did justice to Giordano's  colorful orchestration. When Vassili describes the living conditions in Siberia, the orchestra tells as much as the words. For example, the woodwinds do a great job of illustrating the "unrelenting winds". And a tuba lets us know about the howl of the wolves. (It was at this point that we decided that Siberia does not need to be on our "bucket list").

On the Sunday of Russian Easter in Act III, the chimes and the sextet of mandolins (YES!) took us right where we needed to be. 

There were few arias as set pieces, but Stephana's Act III aria "Qual vergogna tu porti", directed at Gleby, gave her a chance to open up her generous instrument and shine with a variety of emotions. Mr. Lee's high point followed shortly thereafter in "La connobbi quand'era fanciulla" when we finally learn about the origins of their relationship, or his interpretation thereof.

Melo's best moment was in "Stephana!..Dio!" in Act II when she arrives in Siberia. The pair also have a lovely romantic duet.

We only get these treats once a year, generally in October. Most of the luminaries of Planet Opera were in attendance and post-opera conversation was stimulating. 

(c) meche kroop

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