|Raul Melo, Markos Simopoulos, Steven Gaertner, Marsha Thompson, Anias Mejias, Christina Parnell, Nicholas Brownlee, Jennifer Feinstein, Caroline Worra, Philip Cokorinos, Kirsten Chambers, Pretty Yendy, MaryAnn Stewart, and Lauren Flanigan
It has been 22 years since superstar soprano Lauren Flanigan began hosting Comfort Ye, a Christmas recital to raise money for The West Side Campaign Against Hunger. There is always a roster of famous artists on the program and, recently, some of the young artists who have participated in her Music and Mentoring House. The recital was held at The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew. Music Director was the esteemed Kamal Khan.
This year's lineup could not have been more exciting. For three hours, the audience was held in thrall by an incredibly varied program and all different types of voices, everyone putting out their very best, as one tends to do for friends. And who is better at making and keeping friends than the warm and generous Ms. Flanigan.
To say that her performance of Lady Macbeth's aria "Vieni, t'affretta" was riveting would be an understatement. Ms. Flanigan's prodigious vocal gifts are matched by a deep understanding of Verdi's anti-heroine who uses every skill and emotional nuance to drive her husband to murder. We cannot stop thinking about this deeply felt and realized performance.
In a sea of superb performances, two stood out as being perfect--a word we rarely use. Two sopranos at the absolute top of their game, possessing every necessary attribute, delivered unforgettable performances,. Nadine Sierra sang "Regnava nel silencio" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. She is a master at bel canto and gave us chills. Our benchmark for a top performance is reached when we feel along with the singer and can see what she sees. Ms. Sierra made us see the ghost!
Just as wonderful was soprano Pretty Yende who performed "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which we normally prefer when sung by a mezzo. A mark of her success was that it sounded as if Rossini wrote it just for her. The extensive embellishments were created by her with pianist Kamal Khan, who played so magnificently for all the singers. Ms. Yendy lives up to her first name but her good looks are enhanced by her smile which lights up her face and added to her characterization of Rosina. This Rosina is more playful than spunky and the embellishments she devised with Mr. Khan were wildly playful.
Two promising young artists from Music and Mentoring House made a fine impression. Soprano Christina Parnell sang "Porgi amor" from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro and baritone Markos Simopoulos sang "Avant de quitter ces lieux" from Gounod's Faust, in fine French. The voices were healthy and suggested a fine potential. What needs to be layered onto that is the ability to create a character with vocal color and the use of the body.
Several other performances impressed us. Bass Nicholas Brownlee performed "Ves' tabor spit" from Rachmaninoff's one act opera Aleko. His vocal colors were so varied that we understood what he was singing about without understanding the Russian! Now that's impressive.
Another thing that impresses us is a singer who can be understood in English, which is our least favorite language for the voice. Tenor Aaron Blake sounded terrific in the program opener "Comfort Ye" from Handel's Messiah. He has a nice ping-y quality to his voice and admirable technique for the fioritura. Soprano Caroline Worra similarly made every word count in "Ain't It a Pretty Night" from Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, which we liked far more than we usually do,
Baritone Larry Woodard accompanied himself on the piano for Maury Yeston's "I Don't Want to Rock and Roll". We got every word! Not so the case when he accompanied Carol Skarimbas who sang the very funny Cole Porter song "Operatic Pills". The text is so clever and we really wanted to hear every word!
We wished we could hear the entire opera when soprano Anias Mejias sang "Merce dilette amiche" from I vespri siciliani by Verdi. We loved the bouncy bolero rhythm and her facility with the fioritura.
Soprano Marsha Thompson gave a dramatic performance of "Tacea la notte placida" from Verdi's Il Trovatore; she was especially fine in the cabaletta with some arresting embellishments.
Also from Verdi we enjoyed soprano MaryAnn Stewart's performance of "Pace, pace mio dio." We were just thinking how much we love that opera and wondering why no one does it, when Keith Chambers, of New Amsterdam Opera, gave us some advance notice of his concert version of the opera coming up March 24th. We can scarcely wait!
Soprano Kirsten Chambers, so well remembered from her Fidelio with the same New Amsterdam Opera, treated us to the "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.
Verismo was not shortchanged. Stephen Gaertner is a true Verdi baritone and performed "Zaza, piccolo zingara" from Leoncavallo's Zaza. Tenor Raul Melo has never sounded better than he did in his performance of "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci by the same composer. Every line was milked for emotional intensity and we loved it.
We are not sure which fach Mascagni intended for Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana but "Voi lo sapete" sounded great from mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein and every phrase seemed dramatically motivated.
As is customary, we heard several selections from the Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble, directed by Bettye Forbes. Beside "This Little Light of Mine" and "Go Tell It On the Mountain", we enjoyed an African piece we'd never heard.
Before closing with "O Holy Night", sung by the entire company, Ms. Flanigan treated us to a Leonard Bernstein song "A Julia de Burgos" about the bipolar poet laureate of Puerto Rico who died homeless--taking us right back to the raison d'etre of the evening.
It was a win-win evening. Singers got to show their stuff, the audience got some ravishing entertainment, and the homeless will get coats, blankets, and groceries donated by the audience. Is everybody happy? We think so!
(c) meche kroop