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.

Thursday, May 26, 2016


Melody Moore (photo by Chip Gillespie)
Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg

It isn't every day that we get to celebrate two debuts--that of the aptly named famous soprano Melody Moore, heretofore unknown to us, and that of musical wunderkind Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg, about whom we have been writing  for several years.  Mr. Wenzelberg sings, conducts, plays several instruments and composes. He is finishing his first opera.  But last night's impressive debut was a song he was commissioned to write for Ms. Moore.

It isn't every day that we hear the "f word" in Carnegie Hall and that is another first that we will get to further along in our review

Ms. Moore has been making quite a name for herself with her highly dramatic interpretations and warm stage presence.  The list of roles she has tackled and those upcoming give one the impression of astonishing versatility--Mozart, Wagner, Puccini, Verdi, Bizet, and Jerome Kern are all represented. With collaborative pianist Robert Mollicone, she held the Weill Recital Hall audience in rapt attention. 

Stefano Donaudy and Ottorino Respighi were contemporaries but their turn of the 20th c. songs could not be more different.  Donaudy looked backward to the 19th c. that we so love and Ms. Moore sang his "Amorosi miei giorni" with an attractive vibrato and well-shaped phrasing. The embellishments were superbly handled and we are hoping that Ms. Moore may get interested in the bel canto repertory.

Respighi's work looked more toward the future with less glorious melodic invention but more interesting harmonic structure.  Ms. Moore sang his "Notte" with gorgeous coloring. 

But nothing captivated us as much as  Puccini's early song "Sole e amore" to which, we believe, he wrote the text himself. We felt our eyes tearing up and realized that the melody and accompaniment were almost identical with those heard in his opera La Bohème!

Claude Debussy, a contemporary of Puccini, distinguished himself from his colleagues by setting prose and free verse that he wrote himself.  Thus what we are hearing seems to be an aural counterpart to paintings of the Impressionist school, although Debussy vociferously objected to his music being called impressionistic.  One's ears are surrounded by beauty that is mutable and unstable.

We were delighted to be introduced to his Proses lyriques, in which Ms. Moore and Mr. Mollicone painted pictures in sound.  In "De grève", the piano provided multiple images of the sea, both at rest and in its wildest moments. The final song "De soir" gave the singer an opportunity to paint auditory portraits of Debussy's varied images by means of gesture and vocal coloring.

The second half of the program began with Strauss songs, in which Ms. Moore's operatic voice seemed more at home. In the first half, the bronchitis which she had pushed aside (a less confident artist might have begged the audience's indulgence) lent a somewhat hard edge to her voice when she pushed for volume in the upper range. But in the Strauss, everything sounded just fine. 

We always love the bittersweet "Befreit" from his Op.39 in which the words speak of joy but the occasion is one of releasing a loved one to death. We heard a beautifully modulated performance in which Ms. Moore spun out the final note to great emotional effect.

The final work on the program sprang from an original idea. Ms. Moore asked five composers to set texts by a poet of whom she is very fond, Clementine von Radics. This young poet has been well-celebrated; we can understand why her texts about the female experience of love have resonated with her readers.

But when we read the texts they seemed to us like novelistic prose, requiring no music to make their impact. Obviously, the five composers felt otherwise and managed to make music for Ms. Moore and Mr. Mollicone to perform.

Having just reviewed an evening of Stephen Schwartz' music at Manhattan School of Music, we were most eager to hear what this versatile composer, equally at home with Broadway musicals and opera, would add to the text. We found he was the most successful of the group at emphasizing the vocal line, making it interesting and singable. His lyricism is wondrously accessible and he knows how to write for the voice so that every single word can be understood. We liked the way he used repetition, especially of the word "river" in "Someday I Will Stop Being Young and Wanting Stupid Tattoos".

It is interesting that Mr. Wenzelberg became friendly with Ms. Moore on the set of Mr. Schwartz' 2011 opera Séance on a Wet Afternoon, one of a very few contemporary operas that we would want to see a second time. We care not a whit if other reviewers find his work "too accessible"!

As far as the texts set by other composers, we admired the pianistic writing more than the vocal line. Since certain verses and lines were omitted from the program notes, there were many phrases that went by without comprehension, although it was no challenge to get the gist of what Ms. Moore was singing about.

Each composer was able to choose the text he wanted to set and Mr. Wenzelberg had felt a special affinity for "Some Things You Could Do to Heal Yourself".  We loved the dramatic intensity and the melismatic vocal line on the word "silly".

Scott Gendel's setting had some lovely writing for piano and Gregg Kallor wrote a suitably quiet setting for the text of "A Prayer".  David Hanlon wrote the cabaret-inflected music for "Poems and Other Sentimental Bullshit". 

It was in this song that the f-bomb was dropped. At the risk of sounding prudish, we do not find the "f word" suitable in an art song.  Clearly we were outvoted since the audience seemed to love this instance of  épater le bourgeois.  We would prefer "sentimental bullshit"!

As encore, Ms. Moore sang Mr. Rogers' song "It's You I Like", an original way to end the evening.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Kevin Nathaniel Hylton, Dawn Padmore, and Yacouba Sissoko

Salon/ Sanctuary Concerts was founded by Jessica Gould seven years ago, during the depths of the economic downturn; they have not only survived but thrived by virtue of presenting music from the pre-Romantic period.  Her finely tuned taste has managed to expand the horizons of our 19th c. ears. Last night she presented a program of the very earliest music extant.

Anyone familiar with the National Geographic website knows that mankind originated in Africa. So it is not surprising that music originated there as well, making African music the very oldest music one can hear--older still than Greek music.

With the collaboration of The Goddard Riverside Community Center on the Upper West Side, and with special thanks to Susan Macaluso, Salon/Sanctuary Concerts presented an evening of music entitled "In The Beginning" that was compelling and satisfying both physically and emotionally.

We entered to find the stage littered with unusual instruments; we could barely wait to learn how they would sound. The musicians were of world renown--not only performers and recording artists but scholars of African music and providers of outreach to several populations.

The music came from Western Africa with Yoruba songs, Igbo Songs, and one Liberian song--Liberia being the birthplace of the singer Dawn Padmore who sings with a generosity of spirit and lovely tone. The traditional songs spoke of celebrations and grieving, birth, healing, and death. We loved the one sung for the birth of twins, and the one about a neighbor's dearth of hospitality.

Although the Igbo songs were purported to be westernized, to our ears they seemed as authentic as the Yoruba songs.  Our favorite was a love song in which the man is described as a man who doesn't beat his woman but brushes her with eagle feathers. Ms. Padmore's warm spirit informed her every gesture, making this simple song sensual and erotic.

Mr. Hylton accompanied with the melodic Kalimba which has different names in different parts of Africa.  Actually, he played an entire selection of them, often within the deep bowl of a gourd which we imagined would amplify the sound. This instrument was not unfamiliar to us since we once owned and played a very basic version.

Another familiar instrument was the Djembe, a skin covered drum played with the bare hands of Anicet Mundundu. Although we had never seen one before, the playing style reminded us of the playing of a conga drum, providing incredibly complex rhythmic accompaniment.

The other two instruments fascinated us by virtue of their complexity and uniqueness. The string instrument known as the Kora was expertly played by the smiling Yacouba Sissoko, a Malian musical storyteller by heredity. The Kora has 21 strings with a row of 10 strings on the right side to be  plucked by the right hand, and 11 on the left side to be plucked by the left hand.  Each of the 21 strings is separately bound to the neck with cowhide thongs and must be separately tuned. There are no frets. The closest sound we could think of was that of the small harp played by Mariachis. The neck runs through the hide covering the calabash.

The second astonishing instrument is the Talking Drum. We would have a hard time summarizing the various sounds as "talking"--we heard grumbling and shouting, whispering and wailing, and a few gurgles. The technique for producing these sounds is fascinating. Kofo "The Wonderman" Ayanfowora (and he is indeed a wonder!) tucked his drum under his left arm and, using a curved stick, proceeded to produce the most amazing sounds by altering the pressure of his arm and the technique of striking the head. The pitch and variety of timbre seemed limitless in their range.

Also on hand for the second half of the evening was Fatima Gozlan who improvised on a most unusual flute and provided additional percussion by tapping on gourds covered with beads.

Although we did not accept the invitation to get up and dance, we were surely dancing on the inside!

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


Kim David Smith

We are sitting in the cozy but glamorous back room of Pangea in the East Village thrilling to the musical stylings of the naughty but nice Kim David Smith when who should appear onstage but Anthony Roth Costanzo, the world-renowned counter-tenor about whom we have been writing since his student days at Manhattan School of Music. 

We have no way of knowing if anyone in the audience was an opera lover when they sat down but we are quite sure that they have become opera lovers after Mr. Costanzo's riveting performance of "Tacerò purchè fedele" from Händel's Agrippina.

As if this were not sufficiently earth-shaking, he followed the Händel with "Summertime" from Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess.

It was altogether a delightful evening with Mr. Smith, about whom we have also been writing for a few years, pressing the advantages of his adorable faux-wicked persona and his charming Down Under accent. We have observed his career burgeoning with evenings with lots of pop music and a big band; but we enjoy him most as he was when we first heard him, focusing on captivating songs sung in fine German and French. His delivery keeps getting more and more refined.

Minus the black eyeliner and bowler hat, he still manages to suggest the atmosphere of 1930's Berlin. Happily, he performed all of our favorite songs, including William Bolcom's "Song of Black Max" and "The Black Freighter" from Brecht/Weill's Threepenny Opera.  Only Nina Simone's version can compare!

Whatever Mr. Smith sings has his own particular stamp on it that makes you feel as if you've never heard it before.  For example "You Keep Me Hangin' On" sung mostly in waltz time and then in 2/4 time. You never heard The Supremes sing it like that! Nor have you heard David Bowie's "Ground Control to Major Tom" like that either.

In Tracy Stark, Mr. Smith has found the perfect accompanist who can noodle effectively while he engages the audience and then keep up with his singing. Playing bass was the excellent Matt Scharfglass.

In addition to these two dazzling artists, there were two other singers who entertained us royally. Gay Marshall put an original stamp on some Edith Piaf songs, sung partly in English of her own (quite good) translation, and partly in French, which predictably we preferred. We'd certainly like to hear more of Ms. Marshall!

And finally we were given a very funny original song by fellow Australian Alexis Fishman. The lyrics were about masculinity and femininity and what happens when you reverse the polarity.  It was WAY clever in its rhymes.

Were it not for concepts we learned from Steven Blier's programming for NYFOS, we might have thought it strange to mix opera and Weimar cabaret; instead we were impressed how good music is good to listen to, no matter what the genre is. The only difference was that Mr. Costanzo does not use amplification whereas Mr. Smith does.

We love the idea of opera in new venues, as when Judith Fredricks produces her cabaret style opera at the Metropolitan Room.  We hope to have more evenings like this one.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, May 21, 2016


Aaron Blankfield, Laura Virella, Jessica Sandige, and Robert Garner in Amore Opera's production of Rigoletto

Every one of the smaller sized opera companies in New York has its own style, its own mission, and its own constituency. The plucky Amore Opera sprang like a phoenix from the ashes of the Amato Opera Company; they serve their audience well by presenting honorable productions of operas-- both well known and undiscovered ones alike. We use the word "honorable" because there is no giant ego here trying to make an opera "relevant" by updating it or shoehorning it into a different locale. The composer and librettist are well served, as well as the singers and the audience.

Here we have Artistic and Stage Director Nathan Hull who really understands opera and opera singers and lets them show their stuff in a highly legitimate fashion. Apparently, his view of the major themes of Giuseppi Verdi's Rigoletto is consonant with our own. He takes us exactly where librettist Francesco Maria Piave meant for us to be--16th c. Mantua, where a licentious Duke could surround himself with courtiers and employ a hunchback as his court jester.

As we see it, and Mr. Hull as well, the major themes are 1) the corruption of the spirit that can occur when a body is deformed, 2) the possibility of fine and tender sentiments in even the most abrasive character, and 3) the supernatural belief in the effectiveness of a curse.

When an individual is ostracized by society, his character gets deformed in any one of a number of possible ways. Rigoletto's eponymous hero is opera's version of Shakespeare's Richard III, trying to gain power over his tormentors.

Rigoletto, while a holy terror at court, is a devoted loving father to Gilda; his failure is loving too much and being too restrictive of her freedom. She has not had the opportunity to develop her own judgment, a quality that is earned by learning from one's mistakes.

16th c. folk took curses very seriously and it is here that Mr. Hull's directorial touches made perfect sense. Whenever Monterone's curse was mentioned, the lighting and the music and the acting let us know, in no uncertain terms, that Rigoletto was petrified.  (That was one of the failures of the Metropolitan Opera's most recent production which placed the action in contemporary Las Vegas.  As if anyone in today's America would be afraid of a curse!)

There is something about a small house that lets the audience members feel everything more intensely.  The theater in the Sheen Center on Bleeker Street only holds about 250 people and everyone gets to feel the annoyance of the courtiers, the callous indifference of the Duke, the shame of the abducted daughter, the grief of the father, and the flexible morality of the hired assassin Sparafucile.

As Rigoletto, baritone Robert Garner turned in his reliably excellent performance with acting that matched vocalism; he permitted us to see the softer feelings which underlay the hunchback's abrasive behavior at court. His Act I aria was performed in front of the curtain, allowing the sets to be changed for the scene in his home, and allowing the audience a greater understanding of his character.

Soprano Jessica Sandige made a fine Gilda, showing her character's innocence and devotion to her father by means of gesture and vocal color.  Their duet in the second scene of Act I began in 3/4 time but the time signature changed as emotions grew in intensity. We are very much looking forward to Ms. Sandige's performance with Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance in July. And we hope she will use her excellent "Caro nome" as an audition piece.

We first heard and reviewed tenor Aaron Blankfield four years ago at Chelsea Opera in the role of Goro and are glad to see his promise fulfilled. Last night he showed a completely different side of himself than he did recently as Nemorino. Going from that role to that of the Duke was like day into night but he acquitted himself well.  He really shone in Act II with "Ella mi fu rapita!" We actually like Mr. Blankfield's voice best in the more piano passages, at which he excels.

Another highlight of Act II was the scene in which Gilda confesses her shame to her father. She literally cannot face him. The emotionalism was intense.

As Maddalena, mezzo-soprano Laura Virella was totally believable--just as vulnerable to the charms of the Duke as Gilda was--and convincingly persuasive with her brother as she begged him to spare the Duke's life, even as he sings the famous "La donna è mobile", driving the audience wild.

The Act III quartet was brilliant with all four major character singing of their desires and fears. Most poignant is Rigoletto's wish for vengeance and Gilda's desire for forgiveness for the Duke.

We enjoyed the substantial baritone of Sam Carl as the outraged Count of Monterone who lays his curse upon the Duke and Rigoletto, both indifferent to the violation of his daughter.  And this was a spot where Mr. Hull's direction amplified the impact.

In the same scene, the Count of Ceprano (baritone Thomas Geib) suffered extraordinary humiliation when children entered and literally placed horns on his head because the Duke was going to have his way with the Countess of Ceprano (mezzo-soprano Mary Gwynne Langston). Just another brilliant directorial touch that emphasized the cruelty of the court.

Bass Peter Ludwig sang the role of Sparafucile in a menacing manner. Baritone Stuart Whalen took the role of Marullo and tenor Daniel Kerr sang the part of Borsa. As Giovanna, Gilda's guilty governess, Janelle Kirton overdid her gestures in an inappropriately modern fashion.

Maestro Douglas Martin conducted with Verdian vigor. The strings  produced a lovely carpet of sound, but the brass took awhile to calm down. We particularly liked Richard Paratley's flute solo. It is challenging for the artists to sing over the orchestra, which is not in a pit. But that is just a factor to be tolerated since there is no way to change it.

Sets were simple but worked well. There was a throne and some panels to suggest the court. Rigoletto's terrace worked well with a street entrance and a rear one. Rigoletto's role in holding the ladder in the abduction scene was made clear. Sparafucile's tavern seemed barren and isolated which added to the feeling in Act III.

Costumes were colorful and suggestive of the Renaissance. Choreography by Dana Boll was effective but unnecessary. One minor flaw of Amore Opera is tending to crowd the small stage with either too many people or too much scenery.

Fine work was done by the chorus, under the direction of Susan Morton. Their voices added greatly to the storm scene, providing the sounds of the wind while the orchestra produced the thunder.

If you wish to see the same cast, you will find them onstage next Saturday night. However, we understand that the other casts are equally fine and there are several performances from which to choose.  There are even two Saturday matinees with an abridged version for children.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, May 16, 2016


Christopher Cano, Dimitri Pittas, and Jennifer Johnson Cano

The final piece on the program of yesterday's George London recital was the duet from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano singing the role of Maria and tenor Dimitri Pittas singing the role of Tony in "Tonight". Stephen Sondheim's words perfectly expressed the rapture of new love and Bernstein's luscious melody felt just right played by the versatile pianist Christopher Cano.

There was no encore but this was the perfect number to send the audience out happily humming. Shall we sulk because this was the end of a season of glorious recitals presented at the Morgan Library by the George London Foundation? No! We prefer to exult over our memories of this terrific season and the exciting program already set for next season, which we will reveal at the end of our review.  Hang in there!

We have been writing about Ms. Cano for at least three years now. Her fame onstage is richly deserved and well-earned. She seems to have a splendid partnership with her husband Christopher; the two share an emotional connection with each other and with the music they choose. It is always a welcome event to hear them together in recital.

The roundness of tone and fine technique have been recognized and celebrated by the Metropolitan Opera National Council, the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and the Richard Tucker Foundation, as well as the George London Foundation. But what makes us want to stand up and sing (her praises) is her gift for storytelling. The drama is operatic in scope and makes each song a deep emotional experience for the listener.

One of our favorite Hugo Wolf songs is "Der Feuerreiter" and this is the first time there was no doubt about the malicious intention of the subject of the song and his horrific end. Mr. Cano's piano joined Ms. Cano's voice in horrifying reciprocity. We liked the change of color in the final verse.

Another of our favorite Wolf songs is the sorrowful "Das Verlassene Mägdlein" which we just heard two days ago. The artistic couple took it at a very slow tempo, suitable to the depressed state of the abandoned girl. The lighthearted "Begegnung" allowed Mr. Cano to create quite a storm in the piano.

His magic fingers were able to bring the nightingale right into the theater in "La maja y el ruiseñor", a very fine song by Enrique Granados. Ms. Cano's Spanish was just as excellent as her German.

Jonathan Dove did well in his choice of text for Three Tennyson Songs, the settings of which were far more musical than most contemporary compositions. Ms. Cano's English diction and fine phrasing made excellent sense of the text.  Our personal favorite was "The Sailor-Boy" with its A-B-A-B rhyme scheme--an exuberant tale of a young man's thirst for adventure on the high seas.

In an interesting and probably coincidental bit of programming, tenor Dimiti Pittas had as his collaborative pianist his very own wife. If the name Leah Edwards sounds familiar to you, you may have been acquainted with her through the world of gymnastics, dance, Broadway, or opera. Yesterday she wore her pianist hat and we were most pleased with her stylish performance.

We have enjoyed Mr. Pittas onstage at The Metropolitan Opera and The Santa Fe Opera. We still remember his moving performance as Macduff in an otherwise distasteful production of Verdi's Macbeth. We wish we could say that we enjoyed him as much as a lieder singer.

Not every opera singer has the requisite skills for the art song. Mr. Pittas' approach failed to take into account the size and dry acoustics of the theater at The Morgan Library. He seemed to be pushing his voice to reach a non-existent family circle! Furthermore, there was a lack of subtlety in the coloration.

The Quatre chansons of Henri Duparc are mainly fragile things requiring a lighter touch.  Perhaps the best of the four was "Le manoir de Rosamonde" in which Ms. Edwards set the frantic mood in the piano and maintained the feeling of suspense throughout.

We were unable to understand Mr. Pittas' French; our Francophone companion was able to pinpoint the deficiencies in his French pronunciation--both of which could easily be corrected.  Like many Americans he overemphasized the "r" and failed to distinguish between "a" and "o". This would not matter much on the opera stage but does matter in lieder singing where the text is crucial.

His German was better than his French but the simple songs by Brahms also demanded a lighter touch. The gossamer delicacy of "Die Mainacht" was completely overwhelmed.

We promised to give you advance notice of next year's recitals so save the dates! On October 9th, Isabel Leonard will be joined by Jared Bybee and that recital should be a major treat. The George London Competition Finals will be held February 17th of 2017 and that is an event no opera lover should miss.

Fans of Paul Appleby (of which we count ourselves one) must wait until March 5th when he will share his program with relative newcomer Sarah Mesko. April 9th will bring us Amber Wagner and Reginald Smith, Jr.

We can barely contain our excitement over getting up close and personal with these superb artists.
The dates are already on our calendar. The singers that give us so much pleasure have all been recipients of awards from The George London Foundation for Singers. The funds have been well spent!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, May 14, 2016


Cast of Malvina Di Scozia with Director Judith Barnes and Conductor Hans Schellevis

Last week, Opera Orchestra of New York presented a rarely heard opera and this week it was Vertical Player Repertory that gave us a similar gift. We know OONY well but somehow never managed to catch up with VPR (which has been around since 1998)  but we will now consider ourself fans forever.  What a glorious evening we spent with this fine group--hearing music that may well have been lost forever.

The story of its unearthing may be as interesting as the story of the opera itself. Production Curator Thea Cook has long collected the works of one Giovanni Pacini, an Italian composer of the 19th c. This prolific composer is known to have composed about 75 operas which were rather successful in his time, although eclipsed by the more famous Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and ultimately Verdi.

Ultimately Ms. Cook was able to track down a score for Malvina Di Scozia, a turbulent tragedy about a dysfunctional royal family that premiered in Naples in 1851. The famous librettist Salvadore Cammarano, who wrote the libretto for Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor was obliged to move the story to Scotland (although, unlike Lucia, there is nothing innately Scottish about the story) to avoid offending the King of Naples.

There were other problems. The tenor withdrew and Pacini was obliged to rewrite much of the music, giving us that rare opera without a tenor in a leading role. This must not be considered negatively. Success was snatched from the jaws of defeat, since the resulting combination of voices produced some most interesting sonorities, as we observed last night.

The story was scandalous for its time. Prince Arturo has fathered two children with Malvina, without benefit of wedlock. His father King Malcom has arranged a marriage with Morna, an Irish princess--likely for political reasons.  Just like many 19th c. operas, there is poisoning, revenge, stabbing, kidnapping and slaughter.  This cannot end well.  It does not end well.

But the music, never recorded, definitely deserves to be. And the opera easily merits a full production with sets and costumes. It is unfortunate that the Metropolitan Opera keeps trashing the same old operas in its repertory or presenting contemporary works that no one wants to see twice. There must be treasure troves of undiscovered gems like this one, waiting to be unearthed!

Conductor Hans Schellevis was commissioned to create a performing edition of the score and did a superb job. The score was so well played by pianist Doug Han that it was easy to imagine the sounds of an entire orchestra. Within the confines of a concert presentation involving music stands, Artistic Director Judith Barnes staged the work well.

And the singing!!!  A fine cast was assembled and we were most impressed with the memorable dramatic mezzo-soprano of Karolina Pilou whose voice, once heard, will not be forgotten nor will it be duplicated.  In a world of cookie-cutter voices, it is a treat to hear a unique timbre like this one.  Ms. Pilou portrayed Morna, who gets to be noble in her compassion, as she spares the life of Malvina, the woman with whom her intended has bonded .

Malvina was sung by soprano Angela Leson who sang beautifully and created a sympathetic character as well. Her confidant Edwige was finely sung by soprano Katya Gruzglina.

As Prince Arturo, we heard lyric baritone Ben Bloomfield who handled the role with distinction. Bass Stephan Kirchgraber sang forcefully as King Malcom.

Yes, there was a tenor; Aram Tchobanian portrayed Wortimer, advisor to King Malcom, who creates all the misery in this unhappy family. Men who are scorned can created as much hellish fury as women in the same position!  Bass-baritone Javier Ortiz portrayed Rodwaldo, Captain of the Archers.

There was so much fine music, especially in Act I when the sonorous harmonies of the septet helped to limn the various concerns of each character.  In Act II, Malvina's lament "Stella nemica infausta" was incredibly moving and her duet with Morna was outstanding as well.  Prince Arthur gets his best moments in Act III with his aria "L'orror mi rese immobile" and he also gets a fiery cabaletta

Peter Szep was chorus master and we found the choral numbers to be well prepared.

We can add this one to our wish list of operas we'd like to see produced! Imagine bringing back to life a work that lay dormant for over a century and a half!  Our appreciation goes to everyone involved.

For those of you who would like more detailed information on this stunning work, we refer you to Thea Cook's highly informative article...http://vpropera.org/site/2016/05/07/pacini-and-malvina-di-scozia-a-history/

(c) meche kroop


Thomas Muraco
Winnie Nieh

As a rule we do not review rehearsals, but tomorrow's performance of ASPS (The Art Song Preservation Society) conflicts with a prior reviewing commitment and we did not want to miss the opportunity of hearing soprano Winnie Nieh singing some of our favorite lieder, with the esteemed Thomas Muraco as her collaborative pianist.

Any afficionado of art song would be delighted by the program and we sincerely wish that all of you will be able to squeeze into Christ and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church on W. 69th St. for the 3:00 recital. From what we witnessed yesterday, the program promises to provide deep aural and emotional satisfaction.

We know Ms. Nieh from her several performances with Utopia Opera and are so glad that she keeps garnering prizes and interesting roles.  She is an emerging artist with a great deal going for her. Her voice is pure, sweet, and well-focused--able to soar above piano or orchestra. Her German is as good as it gets with every word understandable.

In the set of songs by Franz Schubert, we had trouble choosing a favorite, since each one brought out different colors. In "Im Frühling", Schubert switches between major and minor and Ms. Nieh colored her voice appropriately for this bittersweet tale of love and sorrow.

In the contemplative "Nacht und Träume", Mr. Muraco's playing had a spiritual feeling. He emphasized the key change, a subtle but nonetheless jolting modulation--and Ms. Nieh matched him perfectly.

The rhythmic "Der Musensohn" made us want to get up and dance and the tender "Sei mir gegrüsst" brought tears to our eyes.  And if you are unable to feel for the young lady confiding her woes to her mother in "Die Männer sind méchant", you were never a teenager! This song truly allowed Ms. Nieh's acting skills to emerge.

A set of Hugo Wolf songs, with texts by Eduard Mörike, filled us with delight. "Der Knabe und das Immlein" is a real charmer and Mr. Muraco's piano provided the buzzing bee. The humorous play on words in "Elfenlied" provided further pleasures, as did the playful "Mausfallen-Sprüchlein". The two artists excelled in "Nixe Binsefuss" with Mr. Muraco playing what we called "fairy music" when we were small.

That was fine to end on because earlier we were close to weeping again when the pair performed "Das verlassene Mägdlein", one of the saddest songs with which we are familiar. Again, Ms. Nieh's fine acting put the song across just as Wolf intended. The attention to text and music vividly brought the picture to the mind's eye.

Mezzo-soprano Emily d'Angelo, a Metropolitan Opera National Council Award winner, will be performing some of our favorite songs by Brahms and this should bring further delights which we regret we will miss.

The second half of the program will be sung in French with Thomas Grubb taking over as collaborative pianist. Mezzo-soprano Sahoko Sato Timpone will sing selections from Hector Berlioz' Les Nuits d'Eté with text by Théophile Gautier and La Chanson d'Eve by Gabriel Fauré.

Baritone Robert Brandt will perform selections from Maurice Ravel's Deux Epigrammes de Clément Marot and from Histoires Naturelles.

It promises to be a most worthwhile afternoon! ASPS exists to promote the art song repertoire and the artists that perform it. We love their motto--"Where music speaks and words sing".  Most apt.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, May 12, 2016


Defying Gravity--the Magical World of Stephen Schwartz (photo by Anna Yatskevich)

Year after year, the students of the American Musical Theater Ensemble of the Manhattan School of Music present an evening of entertainment that rivals any evening you might spend on Broadway.

Last night's DEFYING GRAVITY presented the songs of Stephen Schwartz in a clever revue format, conceived and directed by Carolyn Marlow. The concept involved extracting songs from his large oeuvre and weaving them together with dialogue that posited interesting relationships among the members of the cast, comprising a dozen talented young performers, as adept at dancing and acting as they are at singing.

There was an arrogant male figure (Joseph Sacchi) and an insecure one (Luke Sikora), and a bunch of gals just bursting with pizazz. There was a big guy with an operatic voice (Christopher Lilley) and a skinny one (Frank Humphrey) who needed a lesson in "Style" from The Magic Show. 

Composer Stephen Schwartz has written a slew of captivating  award-winning musicals for the stage and for film--even having scored some Disney films. His tunes are memorable and the lyrics capture the zeitgeist beautifully. Having gotten on board too late for anything but Wicked, we will have to do a library search to get exposed to more of his writing, since the taste we had last night served to whet our appetite.

The voices were all excellent and the performers adept at creating believable characters. We particularly enjoyed Allie Altieri in the wistful "Lion Tamer" from The Magic Show and her moving account of "Just Beyond the Riverbend" from the film Pocahontas. Mr. Humphrey did his best work in "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin. The two artists sang these two songs simultaneously. (We don't know how they worked this out so successfully).

In "Style" the pair, pretending to be awkward losers, were coached by the very stylish Gabriela Moscoso and Christopher Lilley, both of whom had the moves. It's always humorous to see talented people pretending to be clumsy.

Ms. Moscoso was featured in a lot of numbers and impressed us with her high octane personality and expressive acting. She led Anna Mayo and Juliana Levinson in the wonderful "Sweet, Sweet, Sweet" from The Magic Show, and had a great solo in "Spread a Little Sunshine" from Pippin. 

Mr. Lilley commanded the stage in "Simple Song" from Leonard Bernstein's Mass (for which Schwartz wrote the lyrics) accompanied by Mr. Humphrey and some lovely flute playing from Aaron Patterson, who was just as fine on the clarinet as he accompanied the lovely Grace Callahan in "Blame it on the Summer Night" from Rags, for which Charles Strouse wrote the music. There was a fine bright ring in her upper register. We also enjoyed the duet "All for the Best" from Godspell, in which she was joined by Anna Mayo.

Ms. Mayo was lovely in "Since I Gave My Heart Away" from Gepetto while Nicole DeLuca and Joseph Sacchi did a graceful ballroom dance. There was a theme running through the revue that Ms. DeLuca, whose character was headed for a stint on Broadway, got nothing but negativity from her boyfriend, portrayed by Joseph Sacchi, as an arrogant philanderer, trying to keep his woman down on the farm, in pre-liberation mode.

Mr. Sacchi's solo "Proud Lady" from The Baker's Wife was excellently done. He got his comeuppance from the ladies of the cast in "Turn Back, O Man" from Godspell; they sure strutted their stuff and waved their feather boas!

There were some beautiful harmonies in "Serenade" from The Baker's Wife and even more harmony in five parts in "In Pursuit of Excellence" from Children of Eden.  

Juliana Levinson expressed some lovely sentiments in French in "Chanson" from The Baker's Wife.

Luke Sikora portrayed an insecure fella who finds his bearings during the show. There was nothing insecure about his performance however. His "everyman" in "Extraordinary" from Pippin was great and his "Dancing Through Life" from Wicked was even better.

The excellent musicians were not in the pit but were upstage. Music director and pianist Shane Schag was joined by guitarist Sean Richey, bassist Connor Schultze, percussionist Guilhem Flouzat and the aforementioned Aaron Patterson, a virtuoso on flute, clarinet and saxophone. Orchestrations were by Mike Webster with some special arrangements by Warren Helms.

The set and lighting by Shawn Kaufman were simple, involving staircases on either side with a walkway extending the width of the stage up above. The risers of the stairs were illuminated with tiny colored lights and the backdrop was washed in intense colors. It was simple but effective.

Colleen Durham's choreography was well suited to the skills of the students.  We particularly enjoyed a dance with black bowler hats that made us think of Bob Fosse.

Whether these students elect a career on the opera stage or on the Broadway stage, they do seem destined for success.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Brian Zeger and Ying Fang at Alice Tully Hall

Ying Fang's Neighborhood Concert on April 16th (archived here) was one of the highlights of the season. We were overjoyed to learn that she would be repeating the same program last night at Alice Tully Hall. The Alice Tully Vocal Arts Recital is given to promote exceptionally talented Juilliard singers on the threshold of a professional career. And Ms. Fang seems to have crossed that threshold and has had an enviable season of music making with more coming up.

 But we felt that we already said everything there was to say about the program and used every encomium at our disposal to describe Ms. Fang's overwhelming artistry. What more could we say?

That everything she sang was well worth a second hearing? That we would gladly hear her again tomorrow? That her opening song "Endless Pleasure" from Händel's Semele gave us endless pleasure?

We could add that she provided her own translations for three of the four lovely Chinese songs on the program sung in mellifluous Mandarin and that a second hearing of these songs convinced us that their quality merited their inclusion in the program.

Brian Zeger, Artistic Director of the Juilliard Vocal Arts Department and Executive Director of the Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, last night wore his collaborative pianist hat. He has played for all the greats of the opera world and we are happy to see Ms. Fang included in that illustrious company, a position she well deserves.

We love the softness of Mr. Zeger's hands and the way he always supported Ms. Fang. We noticed the unusual piano part of Bizet's "Oeuvre ton coeur" which has a martial feel but is in 3/4 time. We noticed how spontaneous was the appearance of Ms. Fang's gestures and facial expressions, in spite of the fact that everything must have been rehearsed down to the last flick of a finger. Artful but artless.

The audience would not be silenced, even after the encore. There were torrents of applause and a lengthy standing ovation afrer the moving "Shepherd's Song" from Wagner's Tannhäuser, which Ms. Fang has performed onstage at the Met. There had to be a second encore--and there was. Ms. Fang sang an aria from Händel's first oratorio from the 1707 Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disnganno, a work she will sing at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, in the middle of a very busy summer.

Aren't we lucky to have had her here in New York?

(c) meche kroop


Brent Funderburk and Onadek Winan

It is testament to Juilliard Vocal Arts Department that the young artists who come to study are the cream of the world's crop. The soprano who gave such a stunning recital yesterday is about to receive her Bachelor of Music Degree but has been singing professionally and winning awards since the age of 15! Her talents have been shared by France, the country of her birth, and New York. We are fortunate to have had her here.

Accompanied by the fine collaborative pianist Brent Funderburk, soprano Onadek Winan presented a fine and varied program that gave evidence of her technical prowess, her linguistic skills, and also of an engaging stage presence.

She has a glamour which is innate and not "showy", an abundance of expression that is never "fussy", and a bright sound that opens up at the top like a parasol.

She began her program with Cleopatra's Aria "Che sento? O Dio!" from Händel's Giulio Cesare. Händel's arias do go on, and it is up to the singer to provide sufficient variety to sustain the listener's interest; at this, Ms. Winan succeeded admirably. There were many colors to Cleopatra's pathos and we particularly enjoyed the slow section with her variety of dynamics and clarity of fioritura. What god would not listen to her plea to protect her man!

We enjoyed hearing the 1894 song cycle by Gabriel Fauré--La bonne chanson--a collection of songs centered around (what else?) love and nature, with text by Paul Verlaine.  Ah, l'amour et la belle nature! Ms. Winan related warmly to the audience, telling them how she learned this cycle ten years ago at the conservatory in Paris, and just now was getting to perform it.

Our favorite was "La lune blanche" but we were also thrilled by the melding of voice and piano in "J'ai presque peur, en vérité" with its ABBA rhyme scheme. The soft-handed Mr. Funderburk limned the quail and the lark mentioned in "Avant que tu ne t'en ailles".

Sophie's Aria from Act II of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier involves the young girl's reaction to the handsome young aristocrat who comes presenting her with a silver rose. With language that attempts to obscure her attraction to Octavian Count Rofrano (since she is supposed to wed the ill-mannered Baron Ochs), she sings of the "fragrance" of the rose and her delight. This was all captured in Ms. Winan's performance, who definitely has the voice for Strauss!

The program ended with Roger Quilter's "Love's Philosophy" and we were indeed sorry that there was no encore.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, May 7, 2016


Jerry Steichen at the piano with singers Adam Cannedy, Alex Corson, Claire Kuttler, Richard Holmes, Emma Grimsley, Bryan Elsesser, Natalie Ballenger, and Rachael Braunstein

Perhaps you have enjoyed listening to the Jerome Kern song "Look For the Silver Lining". Perhaps you even knew that it came from his 1920 show Sally. We did not know this yesterday, but now we do, thanks to a charming production of the show by Light Opera of New York. known as LOONY.

We don't wish to put too fine a point on the differences between American musical comedy, operetta, and opera. They are all art forms using singing to tell a story. This story, with book by Guy Bolton, is a sweet one, analogous to the Cinderella tale. 

A spunky girl from a settlement house is put to work as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Of course, she wants to be a star. Of course, the Russian star doesn't show up and she must impersonate her.  Of course, she is madly successful.  Of course, a wealthy young man falls for her.  Of course, there is a misunderstanding.  Of course, there is a reconciliation and a happy ending. Of course, the audience leaves smiling and happy.

The main thing is the music.  From the jaunty overture to the finale, we are swept along by a virtual tide of tunes, sung by a talented cast that is gloriously unamplified. In the lead role of Sally herself, we heard the winsome Emma Grimsley with her scintillating soprano and the dramatic chops to convince us--both as the spunky girl she really is and the Russian star she is impersonating. Her solo "Wild Rose", contrasting her personality with that of the  PRIMrose, was darling.

Tenor Alex Corson has a pleasing voice that sings out "Irish tenor". If he isn't Irish we will eat our words! He was utterly convincing as the rich fella who falls in love with the dishwasher AND the Russian star. Their duet "Whip-poor-Will" was lovely and sweet.

Otis, the agent who gets her the contract, was played by the fine Adam Cannedy whose newfound wealth from the contract will allow him to marry his heavily Brooklyn-accented sweetheart Rosie, humorously portrayed by Claire Kuttler. Their duet, "The Church 'Round the Corner" was pure delight.

The restaurant where Sally washes dishes is owned by Pops, played by the veteran Richard Holmes, and the waiter Connie by a very funny Bryan Elsesser. Of course, he is really a deposed Duke from some Mitteleuropean country called Czechokovinia! His star turn in "The Schnitza-Kommiski" kept us in stitches.

Also on hand was the snotty (of course!) aristocratic Mrs. Ten Bruck, played by Rachael Braunstein with a marvelous sneer, and her daughter Marsha, played by Natalie Ballenger.  Where would theater be without clichés???

The lyrics by Clifford Grey (with the exception of "Look for the Silver Lining",the lyrics of which were written by B..G. DeSylva) were short and punchy with lots of obvious rhymes like "title and vital", "shady and lady", "altar and halter", "lucky and plucky", and "seraphic and traffic".  Where would American music be without obvious rhymes???

This is not meant to disparage the writing.  It is just the kind of rhyming that the English language is meant for and is enormously satisfying to the ear, just like a 4-5-1 cadence. The reduction of the libretto was accomplished by John Ostendorf.

We were most gratified that the diction was perfect.  We missed not a single word. That skill with diction on top of the superb voices had us falling madly in love with the cast.

The excellent Music Director Jerry Steichen not only shone in his playing of the reduced score, but also narrated the omitted parts of the story from the piano. He is an engaging presence. One interesting tidbit is that Mr. Kern was not trusted to write the music for the big "Butterfly Ballet" number; that task was given to Victor Herbert!

Stage Direction was by Gary Slavin and it worked well without any set to speak of. No one is credited for the costumes and hairstyles but there was a definite 1920 look to the piece. The venue was 80 St. Marks Place Theater which appears to be of the same vintage and boasts excellent sightlines and good acoustics.

There is one more performance tonight and it would be a fine Saturday night to spend with a great group of singers/actors.  Feel the Kern!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, May 6, 2016


Peter Dugan and John Brancy

"If the recital were repeated today we would be there. They left us satisfied but somehow wanting more."  This is a quote from a review we wrote exactly three months ago (archived on this website) entitled "Painting the Picture and Telling the Tale". Well, we had to wait three months but last night's recital at The National Opera Center fulfilled our desire. 

Three months ago it was John Brancy and Peter Dugan at Carnegie Hall  and last night's recital was at the National Opera Center, as part of Opera America's Emerging Artist Recital Series. This brilliant artist appeared as winner of the 2015 Jensen Foundation Vocal Competition. The Jensen Foundation established their first competition in 2000 with 91 competitors.  My, how they've grown!  In 2015, 270 singers competed for 125 audition slots. We have nothing but admiration for any and all institutions that give aid and attention to young artists.

Mr. Brancy has won many other competitions and has been singing around the world; the performance we would have most wanted to see was his Dr. Malatesta at Glyndebourne. Let's just say that his dance card is filled.

Can it be just three years since we reviewed his graduation recital at Juilliard? Mr. Dugan, a fellow Juilliard graduate, has been his regular collaborative pianist and the two artists match each other breath for breath, mood for mood.

We consider it a privilege to witness the growth of a young artist. We have a special affection for Mr. Brancy, having recognized his potential from the start. His years at Juilliard refined and developed his innate artistry that, we believe, emerges from a very special inner worth. 

The effect on the listener is one of joining something larger--a sphere shared by the composer, the poet or librettist, the singer, and the piano--a communal experience. This artistry goes way beyond technique. 

Of course, the possession of a fine instrument is a starting point and we have heard this instrument become darker and more polished over the years, like oil paint on the canvas of an old master. 

So...getting to last night's program, a recapitulation of many songs from the Carnegie Hall recital was a welcome choice. Our only tiny cavil from that recital was the need for a lighter color for the voice of the child in Schubert's "Erlkönig" and for the voice of Die Lorelei in Schumann's "Waldesgespräch". Last night's "voices" were much improved. 

As a matter of fact, we love it when Mr. Brancy interposes a lighter tender timbre where appropriate. For example: in the middle of Schumann's lively enthusiastic "Aus alten Märchen"; when he sang about the weeping bride at the end of "Auf einer Burg"; the knight's serenade in "Des Fräuleins Liebeslauschen"; and Fauré's "Dan la Nymphée", which had an ethereal quality.

The consummate storytelling skills, which we thought were perfect 3 months ago, are even better now. Many of the tales just gripped us by the throat. There was a lot of horror in Schumann's "Balsatzar", Schubert's "Der Zwerg", and of course in the aforementioned "Erlkönig".

We also heard songs by Sibelius in both Finnish and in Swedish, as well as Frank Bridge's "Love Went A-Riding" and the marvelously funny and marvelously performed song "The Green-Eyed Dragon" by Wolseley Charles in which Mr. Brancy perfectly voiced and enacted the greedy dragon and also his spooky ghost.

A highlight of the evening was Mr. Dugan's wild arrangement of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King", reprised from the February recital. His fingers flew over the keys but the melody never got lost.

There was no chance that the audience would let the pair off the stage without an encore--(a "Swann song" if you will pardon the pun)--"Bilbo's Last Song" with music by Donald Swann and lyrics by J.R.R. Tolkien.  A suitable choice for an evening of fantasy ranging from macabre to ethereal!

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, May 5, 2016


Italo Marchini, Aaron Blake, Angela Meade, Eve Queler, Yunpeng Wang, Sava Vemic, and Mia Pafumi

We gave away the plot to Donizetti's rarely performed 1833 opera Parisina d'Este in last months's archived review (COVERS UNCOVERED) when the cover cast for Opera Orchestra of New York treated us to excerpts from the opera. We were enthralled and bursting with anticipation for Maestro Eve Queler's conducting of the entire opera. Last night at the Rose Theater, our hopes were completely fulfilled.

As a matter of fact, this opera goes on our wish list as one we'd love to see tackled by The Metropolitan Opera. During this concert version, we saw the entire opera in our head--sets and costumes included. 

The flow of the music and the complete involvement of the singers succeeded admirably in evoking the story--a typical 19th c. melodrama which librettist Felice Romani adapted from a poem by Lord Byron.

The tale moves forward without any distracting side plots. The characters are sympathetic and victims of their time (15th c.), place (Ferrara) and culture (arranged marriages). Duke Azzo and his wife Parisina are both miserable and political triumphs cannot relieve the gloom of the court.

Yunpeng Wang established his character (Duke Azzo) from the very start. He is madly in love with his wife who does not love him. Although it is difficult to forgive his behavior at the end of the opera, Mr. Wang's gorgeous baritone and warmth let us feel Azzo's pain. His duet with his minister Ernesto was nothing short of sumptuous. And to hear him change vocal coloration when he sang about battles was most impressive.

Sava Vemić's youthful appearance did not prevent him from creating a believable character who is both a loyal minister and a loving father trying to save his son from danger. Mr. Vemić's rich bass filled the theater and thrilled the ear. His character has the big "reveal" at the climax of the opera.

As the son Ugo, tenor Aaron Blake overcame some early problems with intonation to deliver a beautifully sung and well-phrased performance. Ugo is a man so obsessed with his childhood sweetheart, who now belongs to another, that he cannot preserve his own life.

Soprano Angela Meade gave a riveting performance as the eponymous Parisina, married to the Duke but in love with Ugo. In this opera, Donizetti eschewed lavish fioritura, but what embellishments there were to the vocal line were beautifully negotiated.

As Imelda, Parisina's confidant, soprano Mia Pafumi looked and sounded beautiful. Her duet with Ms. Meade was movingly tender.

Under Maestro Queler's baton, The Opera Orchestra of New York played Donizetti's profusion of melody with the excellence we have come to expect of them-- minus a recalcitrant trumpet. We heard foreshadowing of music from Lucia di Lammermoor, which he would write two years later, and echoes of "The Senator Song" from L'Elisir d'Amore, which he had written the year before. 

In Parisina, Donizetti relied heavily on the wind sections and Maestro Queler brought out every line. Perhaps (dare we say it??) the Rose Theater offers some acoustic advantage over Carnegie Hall. (Gulp!)

The New York Choral Ensemble, under the leadership of Italo Marchini, commented on the action and filled in the narrative. As all good choruses must, they made their words count.

With such high quality conducting, playing, and singing, we would count this as one of the highlights of the season.

Maestro Queler conducted this once before with Montserrat Caballé, James Morris, and Luis Quilico over 40 years ago. It is difficult to believe that this energetic youthful conductor has been around that long. We hope we won't have to wait that long to hear this wonderful opera again!

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Nicholas Phan (photo by Henry Dombey)

We came to last night's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's recital to hear tenor Nicholas Phan. Sadly, we could barely hear him. Was it because we were on the wrong side of the hall?  Was it because the horn of Radovan Vlatkovic was insufficiently muted? We do not know but it felt like the two artists were competing to be heard. What we do know is that Mr. Phan used a music score and his contact with the audience was thereby impaired.

This was disappointing because we rarely get to hear this wonderful song, the setting of a text by Ludwig Rellstab.

Oh well! We seldom get to hear chamber music and decided to enjoy the lovely program of Romantic era music by composers who wrote for the voice, and whose instrumental music always brings invented lyrics to our mind's ear.

The program opened with four selections from Dvorák's Slavonic Dances. These pieces put the composer on the map and led to many future commissions. We are glad that he was championed by Brahms or the world would never have heard his fine folk-inspired melodies and compelling rhythms. Gloria Chien tickled the treble ivories while Juho Pohjonen handled the lower notes in this four-handed work. We believe the composer orchestrated the work at the same time.

Star French hornist that he is, Mr. Vlatkovic managed to achieve a better balance with the other instrumentalists in Robert Schumann's Andante and Variations for Horn, Two Cellos (Nicholas Canellakkis and Mihai Marica) and Two Pianos (Ms. Chien and Mr. Pohjonen). This is a lovely work with lots of variety and complex rhythms. At one point we heard a motive from the composer's "Seit ich ihn gesehen" from Frauenlieben und leben. The work is infrequently performed due to the combination of instruments.

The two excellent pianists did well by Schubert in his Allegro in A minor for Piano, Four Hands, called "Lebensstürme" which was composed in "sonata-allegro" form. The two very different themes were woven together with fine craftsmanship and were performed with artistry and excitement.

But the highlight of the evening was the well-known Trio in E-flat major for Horn, Violin, and Piano by Brahms. Again, Mr. Vlatkovic balanced his sound well with that of violinist Paul Huang and pianist Mr. Pohjonen. We particularly enjoyed the rhythmic Scherzo with its graceful trio and the sweetly sad violin line in the Adagio mesto. By the time the trio arrived at the final movement, the audience was in a state of rapture.

We have always loved the sound of the French horn, even when it misbehaves, which it usually does.  Not for Mr. Vlatkovic, however. His superb connection with his instrument whipped that piece of brass into shape.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


Nathalie Paulin as the eponymous Sapho in Martini's opera 

Perhaps not every lover of the arts will agree with us but we believe that a work of art requires no explanation. It should stand on its own merits. We see people in museums being led around by a docent explaining why a certain painting is excellent.  We are the type to wander around and stop at a painting that arrests our attention, take it in, and decide for ourselves why we like it.

When we go to the theater and the director requires several pages to explain his/her concept and what he/she is trying to convey, we feel irritated.  Either it works or it doesn't.

On Sunday evening, Opera Lafayette, those welcome visitors from D.C., threw us a curve ball by presenting some strangely directed excerpts from three operas composed during the late 18th c. in France. No doubt the tumultuous political climate had an influence on the choice of libretti and compositional style.

However, we feel that Director Mirenka Čechová, in her attempt to do something new and interesting, decided to fit the scenes into a Procrustean bed. She elaborately described why she chose the colors of the French flag and laid a common motive onto the three heroines of the three operas from which the scenes were taken.  We got a headache just trying to understand her "Director's Note".

Judith A. Miller, Associate Professor of History at Emory University contributed several more pages about the French revolution. We would sooner read Simon Schama's 1989 tome "Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution". We do not come to the opera to be educated nor to be baffled.  We come to be entertained and inspired by beautiful music.

And beautiful music was heard, no doubt about that! Canadian soprano Nathalie Paulin gave an impressive performance in scenes from the three operas represented. In Sacchini's Oedipe à Colone she made a splendid Antigone; in Jean-Paul-Égide Martini's Sapho she was equally fine as Sapho; and in Luigi Cherubini's Médée she was incredibly powerful. Her acting was as fine as her singing.

We find no fault with the fine singing and acting of tenor Antonio Figueroa who excelled in the roles of Jason and Phaon. Baritone Javier Arrey was no less excellent as Oedipe and Stesichore. Soprano Sophie Junker was fine in the smaller roles of Cléis and Néris.

Ryan Brown's conducting of the Opera Lafayette period-instrument ensemble was thrilling, as it usually is.  With such fine musical values to delight our ears, it seemed a shame to clutter the stage with symbols.  This may be all the rage in Europe but it did not please us.

This is not to say that the images were unattractive. We mostly admired Martin Spetlik's lighting of Petr Bohác's interesting set design; it's just that the images, as striking as they were, seemed jarring against the music and apposite only to the unconscious of the director.

There were birds on sticks, men carrying suitcases leaking sand, an acrylic tub filled with water to drown the soprano, and what all else.  If music is to provoke imagery we want it to be from our own unconscious memories and fantasies, not from someone else's.

We hope Opera Lafayette's next visit will return us to the world of theatrical realism!

(c) meche kroop


Christine Price, Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Mikaela Bennett, Gerard Schneider, Dimitri Katotakis, and Kelsey Lauritano

It was the final "Sing for Your Supper" cabaret of the season presented by Steven Blier at Henry's Restaurant--and thus a bittersweet evening, as his singular students from Juilliard head off to fulfill their summer engagements and/or studies. They will be spreading their talents far and wide, leaving the Big Apple with a Big Bite taken out of it.

In January, on the stage at Juilliard, we enjoyed a program entitled "Harry, Hoagy, and Harold" (review archived) that was fully staged with plenty of room to show off Mary Birnbaum's directorial skills. Last night we heard some of the same songs and several new ones. Harry Warren (whom Maestro Blier considers to be quite overlooked), Hoagy Carmichael, and Harold Arlen wrote enough songs for dozens of evenings like this one. In many ways, we enjoyed last night's cabaret even more than the stage version. Cabaret as an art form works best up close and personal. 

We can't tell how many times tenor Miles Mykkanen has opened these programs with Richard Rodgers' "Sing For Your Supper" but the song belongs to him and he belongs to the song. He puts his own personal and slightly naughty stamp on the clever lyrics.  What a sensation! No less a sensation than his recent star turn as Tamino in Juilliard's Die Zauberflöte.

We know that at least two of the six performers last night started their singing lives as "Broadway babies" but what about the other four? They have credited Maestro Blier with giving them the jazz style and the jazz beat. To have heard these young artists on the opera stage and then to see them tackle cabaret, without any of the phony cross-over sound that we so dislike, never ceases to astonish us.

Mikaela Bennett performed Harold Arlen's "Sleepin' Bee" from the not very successful 1954 musical House of Flowers; we enjoyed it far more than Barbra Streisand's recording. The piano arrangement by Maestro Blier took our breath away.

Her duet with Amanda Lynn Bottoms "Two Ladies in the Shade of the Banana Tree", from the same musical, was terrific. We have heard them perform this before and would happily hear it again. Lyrics by Truman Capote.

Ms. Bottoms gave a beautiful solo of "That Old Black Magic" which is so familiar--but she made the Mercer/Arlen song sound completely new.  

Kelsey Lauritano, whose recent graduation recital was so impressive, revealed her cabaret background with "I Yi Yi Yi! I Like You Very Much" from the 1941 Gordon/Arlen musical That Night in Rio.  (This was what we referred to in our review as having seen her dance with fruit on her head.) All we can say is "I Yi Yi Yi! We like YOU very much". The entire cast joined for this Latin celebration.

Soprano Christine Price, having just starred as Pamina in Juilliard's production of Die Zauberflöte, showed another side of her talent in a moving performance of the Washington/Carmichael song "The Nearness of You". We loved the way she floated the final note.

She joined Gerard Schneider, who was on hand with his ukulele and his guitar, and entertained us royally with a scene from the 1943 Harburg/Arlen Bloomer Girl. In "Evelina", the hero serenades the eponymous Evelina, thinking she is a servant in the household.  It was cute and funny, thanks to the talents of Ms. Price and Mr. Schneider.

Mr. Schneider also performed a lovely solo of "At Last" from the Gordon/Warren 1941 musical Orchestra Wives, putting his own spin on it.

Baritone Dimitri Katotakis serenaded us with "Skylark", the well known song by Mercer and Carmichael. Mr. Blier told the audience that he only considers two songs to be "perfect". This was one and the other is by Gabriel Fauré!

The ensemble had a few numbers in which to show their ensemble spirit, beside the aforementioned "I Yi Yi Yi". They performed "Cheerful Little Earful", the Ira Gershwin & Billy Rose song with music by Harold Arlen.

They closed the evening with a Mercer/Carmichael tune "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" from the 1951 musical Here Comes the Groom.  

And there was an encore with some lovely harmonies to relish--the Mercer/Arlen tune "Bye Bye Baby" which left the wildly enthusiastic audience in a state of midnight bliss.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, May 2, 2016


An embarrassment of riches--Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition Winners

Thanks to the incredible generosity of the Gerda Lissner Foundation, young vocal talent is spotted and successful careers are launched. Over two million dollars has been awarded to about 500 young artists.  This year's winners were culled from approximately 400 applicants and were astonishing in their talent.

The competition winners' recital, an annual event, was graciously hosted by Brian Kellow who introduced the honoree, no less an artist than star soprano Deborah Voigt. We were happy to hear Stephen De Maio, President of the Foundation, acknowledged and described as "a best friend to young artists".

And what a group of young artists we heard yesterday! As is our wont, we will not distinguish between levels of prizes. There were a number of features that were common to all the winners; they were all well-prepared, poised, and totally committed to what they were singing. There are difficulties in jumping into an aria without staging, makeup, and costumes. The singer must use only voice and gesture to bring the audience into the aria.

The Liederkranz Foundation is now associated with the Gerda Lissner Foundation and awarded  prizes to tenor Kevin Ray and to soprano Amber Daniel. Mr. Ray's performance of "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond" from Wagner's Die Walküre was delivered with a dark color but warm feeling. Somehow Mr. Ray managed to convey Siegmund's sorrowful backstory lurking behind the sudden joy of reuniting with his twin sister.  And that's artistry! We were hoping that the gloomy weather outside would yield to Spring but no such luck!

Ms. Daniel's "Dich, teure Halle" from Wagner's Tannhäuser was delivered with joyful abandon and a powerful ringing tone. Her German diction was excellent.

The Liederkranz Foundation does not just support Wagnerian singers. They also awarded a prize to Sean Michael Plumb whose baritone has impressed judges in several other competitions.  He performed "Bella siccome un angelo" from Donizetti's Don Pasquale and sold it to the audience just as successfully as Dr. Malatesta sold his "sister" to the eponymous hero of the opera. He produced a rich sound and a most dynamic presence as he waxed rhapsodic over "Sofronia".

There was a lot more bel canto on the program, to our delight. The long lyric lines Bellini wrote for Amina in "Care Compagne" from La Sonnambula were gracefully handled by the lovely soprano Hyesang Park; her fine voice and technique served this ingenue role perfectly.

Another modest bel canto heroine is Angelina in Rossini's La Cenerentola and mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano performed her final aria "Nacqui all'affanno...Non piu mesta"; she exhibited a true mezzo quality that opened beautifully at the top. The cabaletta could only be described as exciting.

Rossini's other mezzo heroine Rosina in "Il barbiere di Siviglia" is not so modest; she is as spunky as a 19th c. girl could be, and Samantha Hankey used her personality and her smoky sound to fine effect. The embellishments to the line were quite wonderful.

Tenor Fanyong Du exhibited fine Italianate technique as he tackled Bellini's stretched out line in "A Te, O Cara" from I Puritani. With his somewhat grainy tone he managed to invest the aria with profound romantic feeling and evinced superb dynamic control and an impressive legato.

Bass-baritone Pawel Konik engaged us completely with his delivery of "Aleko's cavatina" from the Rachmaninoff opera of the same name. His tone is warm with a pleasant resonance throughout his entire range. He delivered a beautifully modulated crescendo and not a hint of burliness.

We had hoped to hear some more Russian from soprano Antonina Chehovska but once we heard her "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's Louise, any hint of disappointment melted away. With gorgeous French she floated her top notes and won our admiration with a beautifully sustained pianissimo.

There was more French to be enjoyed. Soprano Alexa Jarvis did well by Gounod in "Air des bijoux" from Faust. Her voice sparkled like the gems that so impressed Marguerite and the performance dazzled us with authenticity.

Baritone Kidon Choi performed the beautiful "Vision Fugitive" from Massenet's Hérodiade and our first thought was "Verdi baritone in his future". We heard a lot of depth and breadth, especially in the lower register, and some quite lovely phrasing.

There was only one Verdi aria on the program but not for a baritone. Tenor Kang Wang sang Alfredo's Act II aria "De' miei bollenti spiriti" from La Traviata, with a most attractive sound and ebullient spirit.

Finally, we heard three Puccini arias. D'Ana Lombard drew us into "Si, mi chiamano Mimi" from La bohème. The modesty and lovely tone were just right for the character.

Although not at all adjacent on the program, her counterpart Rodolfo has an aria in the same act--"Che gelida manina" and tenor Galeano Salas performed it with his sizable warm instrument and Italianate sound, creating a most believable character with voice and gesture.

Finally, we were delighted by tenor Andrew Stenson's performance of Rinuccio's aria "Firenze è come un albero fiorito" from Gianni Schicchi. Mr. Stenson was just bursting with personality and employed his fine instrument with such gusto that we could indeed visualize everything he was describing about this beautiful city.

We couldn't imagine a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than by hearing such a wide variety of talent--each one with his/her own special gifts, each one on a different pathway which we hope will bring them all fame and fortune.

Piano accompaniment was provided by Arlene Shrut and Jonathan Kelly.

(c) meche kroop