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, March 11, 2016


Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!

Alyce Mott, Artistic Director of VHRP Live!, came up with a great idea a couple years ago--that of opening the treasure chest of Victor Herbert operettas and presenting their glorious music with abridged and tightened libretti which she herself would write.  In lesser hands, this might have been a train wreck; in Alyce's capable hands we have the opportunity to get to know this marvelous composer who achieved phenomenal fame between the Gay 90's and WWII.

Herbert was of Irish background but was raised in Austria and Germany and his music clearly shows the influence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Lavish tunes tumbled from his pen onto the page; last night at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church on W. 69th St., the tunes tickled our ears and brought smiles to our face.

The occasion was his 1898 work The Fortune Teller, his 6th opera which premiered at a theatre but 30 blocks from St. Stephen's.  Soprano Alice Nielsen had started her own opera company after breaking with The Bostonians, and prevailed upon Herbert to write an operetta with three roles for her own dear self.

Thus we get a crazy story of a ballet student (soprano Sarah Caldwell Smith) who, along with her twin brother Fedor (Ms. Smith)  was raised by gypsies and given the name of Musette (Ms. Smith). It might be best not to examine the plot too closely as confusion reigns supreme. 

Ms. Smith, who sang all three roles with a fine agile voice, must juggle three suitors: the Hussar Captain Ladislas, well portrayed by tenor Mitchell Roe; Sandor, the Gypsy leader, marvelously sung by bass-baritone Matthew Wages; and Count Berezowski, a composer of no renown and a great deal of debt, sung by the excellent Daniel Greenwood. Ms. Smith is an engaging stage presence with a fine acting style.

There is the recurring theme of a serpentine bracelet that will bring great fortune if the possessor weds; strangely, the bracelet keeps getting abandoned, although the ballet master, the very funny David Seatter, would like to finalize the match and get his cut.

Also involved is the imperious diva Madame Pompon, marvelously portrayed by Vira Slywotzky who would have chewed up the scenery had there been any. But none was necessary since her marvelously resonant voice and over-the-top acting carried the day.

Music Director Michael Thomas was a superb conductor and William Hicks' piano brought out all of Herbert's melodic gifts. There were two outstanding songs to be relished. One was Ms. Smith's ironic delivery of "Always Do As People Say You Should" and the other was Mr. Wages' stirring performance of the "Gypsy Love Song", which would be a perfect encore piece for a baritone's song recital.

It was quite a spectacle to see the group of hussars (Bray Wilkins, Drew Bolander, and Jonathan Rohr) galloping down the aisle and onto the stage on imaginary horses; sadly, the clever words of their chorus got lost with careless diction. But the humor was never lost! 

There were also three ballet students rounding out the cast: Katherine Corle, Chelsea Friedlander, and Angela Christine Smith.

Effective stage direction was provided by Ms. Mott who has no problem wearing several hats. It was a wise decision to remove the irrelevancies of the plot and to provide just enough to bind the lovely songs. It is most fortunate that we have artists in New York who can devote so much time and energy to keep alive music that is part of our history.

(c) meche kroop

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