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.

Saturday, April 22, 2017


Rachel Stewart

Years ago there was a saying about double features--"one piperoo, one stinkeroo". Let no one say that about the operatic double feature we enjoyed last night performed by the Opera Repertoire Ensemble of Manhattan School of Music.  Actually, there was plenty of resonance between the two tales of female suicide.

The heroine of Francis Poulenc's 1959 monodrama La Voix Humaine (adapted from a play by Jean Cocteau) suffers from romantic illusions whilst the heroine of Puccini's 1918 Suor Angelica suffers from religious illusions (or delusions, as the case may be).

Monica Talavera and Amber Evans

In both cases, the women have put their centers of gravity outside themselves, one willingly and the other as a victim of cultural and familial forces. The pairing, taking Suor Angelica out of it's place in Puccini's oft-produced trilogy, leads us to see the work in a new light. The only downside is leaving the theater feeling the full force of the tragedy without the relief of Puccini's light-hearted comedy Gianni Schicchi.

In the Poulenc, a woman with no name is having a much interrupted conversation with a lover who has ended the relationship. Clearly she is not ready to let him go and is still using terms of endearment. The role calls upon the soprano to sing a minimalistic vocal line based upon French speech patterns, and to inject her
lines with a full spectrum of emotions.

The listener hears only her half of the conversation.  The words of the man are left to the imagination of the listener to fill in from his/her own experience. He must obviously care for the woman to some extent to stay on the phone and listen to her protestations of love and her made-up stories which she later recants.

Continual interruptions and disconnections add to the fragmentary nature of the monologue, and are symbolic of the emotional disconnection. As "Elle", soprano Rachel Stewart rose to the vocal challenges and gave a shattering performance, involving the audience by means of her own involvement with the role. We wonder about a character who would give up her life for five years and center it around a man--but this was over a half century ago.  Autre temps, autre moeurs. 

Even further back in history, a century ago, getting pregnant out of wedlock was enough to cause a family to reject the unfortunate mother-to-be and to hustle her off to a convent to do penance for her "sin". Nowadays women who prefer to be unwed can deliberately create a child and raise it alone or en famille.

Suor Angelica's aristocratic family has immured her in a convent and deprived her of any contact. She suffers mightily from neglect and wants nothing more than to embrace her son. When she finally gets the longed-for visit from her aunt, La Principessa, there is no forgiveness or acceptance. The purpose of the visit is to get her to sign over her inheritance. Even worse, she learns that her child died several years earlier.

She poisons herself with an herbal concoction, becomes terrified about being damned, prays, and believe herself forgiven. She hallucinates her child welcoming her to heaven.

With meager resources at hand, the Opera Repertoire Ensemble gave the piece an excellent production, thanks to the breadth of vocal talent available.  The piece opens with the superb chorus singing an Ave Maria. The eponymous Suor Angelica was sung by the excellent soprano Amber Evans who was moving in her portrayal and sang with a light clear tone regardless of whether she was in ecstasy or despair.

The other superb performance was that of contralto Monica Talavera who created a character who was as cold as she was arrogant; her rich instrument stood in lovely contrast with Ms. Evans' soprano.

The entire cast of nuns sounded wonderful with voices raised in gorgeous harmonies and the brief solo lines were well handled by each and every nun.

Although we missed Puccini's lush orchestrations, a great job was done by pianists Jiwon Byung and Yi Xin Tan together with Jia Jun Hong filling in with special effects on the synthesizer.

As usual, Maestro Thomas Muraco's sensitive conducting pulled everything together to create a most worthwhile evening. Watching his hands is a treat in and of itself.

There will be a second performance tonight with some cast changes and we recommend it highly if you can snag a ticket. Last night had a waiting line to deal with so go early.

(c) meche kroop

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