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, July 30, 2017


It is the Time of Troubles in Russia--the interregnum between the death of Ivan the Terrible and the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty--at the turn of the 17th c.  One would never know this from the staging of Dvorak's nearly forgotten opera Dimitrij, taking place in the magnificent Fisher Center of Bard College, as part of the annual Bard Summerscape.

The singers sport contemporary attire and the only clue that we are in Russia is the writing on the rear wall of the set which, according to our best source, means "Victory Begins Here". But Director Anne Bogart (significantly, an alumna of Bard College) has written in her program notes that she was thinking of the unsettled time following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. We would have greatly preferred to experience this story the way Dvorak and librettist Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova intended and to figure out the resonances on our own without being spoon fed.  Frankly, art requires no explanation.  If one needs program notes to explain your thinking, you have failed.

Fortunately, the musical values were exemplary and there was no failure on the part of the American Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Leon Botstein, who is famous for championing forgotten works.

To see one of Dvorak's ten operas, composed two decades before his famous Rusalka, was a rare opportunity, well worth the six plus hours on a bus. We were not so sure during the overture when the gorgeous music was not trusted but was accompanied by a child running around in circles.  Nor were we terribly thrilled during the static first act which did offer some superb choral writing and served to introduce the characters and their supporters.

Dimitrij arrives with his Polish wife, the noblewoman Marina, and an occupying Polish army intent on getting him on the Russian throne. On the other side we have the boyar Shuisky and Basmanov, followers of Boris Godunov, the death of whom has left the country in a state of chaos. Godunov's daughter Xenia is under the protection of Shuisky. For Dimitrij to access the throne he must be accepted by the widow of Ivan the Terrible, the Tsarina Marfa.

It was not until the successive acts that we were able to appreciate the gifts of the singers. We were thrilled to hear some fine arias and duets that were well worth a second hearing.

 As the eponymous Dimitrij, tenor Clay Hilley demonstrated a strong and clear tenor sound which appeared to be well suited to the heldentenor fach. His dramatic chops were equally sound and he generated sympathy for the character who, according to this version (playing fast and loose with history as opera often does) is unaware that he is not the son of Ivan the Terrible.  Indeed, in this version, he is the son of a peasant who has been raised to believe he is who he claims to be.  This makes it easy for us to sympathize with him.

Soprano Melissa Citro made a beautiful and hateful Marina. Her ample soprano has a steel core and her acting was convincing.  She is sufficiently beautiful to convince us that she would capture Dimitrij's love whilst her portrayal of self-interest, arrogance, and jealous rage were so believable that we were happy to see her dispatched. She behaved in such a way as to alienate the Russian people by refusing to accept the Orthodox faith in favor of her native Catholicism. We hope to see this splendid soprano soon in one of her several Ring Cycles.

As Xenia, soprano Olga Tolkmit used her somewhat smaller but highly focused instrument to convey the ambivalence her character must feel when wooed by the new tsar, who has just turned away from his narcissistic wife. Her petite stature and vocal colors contributed to her vulnerability; her death, ordered by the vengeful Marina, was a terribly tragic moment.

Mezzo-soprano Nora Sourouzian made a marvelous Marfa. Her voice is rich and dense with coloration and she totally convinced us of her inner struggle. She knows that Dimitrij is not her son but she believes his ascension to the throne will be good for Russia and publicly recognizes him as her offspring.  It is only at the end when the Patriarch (played by Peixin Chen with booming bass and imposing stature) asks her to swear on the cross that she collapses in fear of damnation.

We were completely satisfied as well with the performances of baritone Levi Hernandez as Shuisky and bass-baritone Joseph Barron as Basmanov. Under the direction of James Bagwell, the chorus was also fine. We could not have imagined better casting or a better realization of Dvorak's magnificent score. We believe this is the first time the opera has been performed fully staged in the United States.

We only wish the production team had given it a more Russian look and one that was authentic to the period. David Zinn's set was peculiar, looking like a recreation hall in a church. It had to serve as the gates of Moscow, the Kremlin, the tombs, Shuisky's house, and Dimitrij's lodging. The lackluster setting was helped by Brian H. Scott's evocative lighting.

As far as Constance Hoffman's costume design, if she had been told to create costumes of contemporary casual she succeeded, but it appeared as if the cast were told to rummage through their closet for any old thing.  No praise there!

The men just wore suits and ties, making it difficult to tell one from the other without opera glasses.  Only the Patriarch was appropriately costumed, looking just as one might have imagined. Marina's wedding costume went beyond casual contemporary but was neither flattering nor appropriate.

We were grateful that the opera was performed in Czech and loved the way the vocal lines parallelled the sound of the speech. Language coach was Veronique Firkusny. There will be a few additional performances and the opportunity to hear this opera is worth the trip.

We will close with an interesting tidbit reminiscent of the "flap of a butterfly's wing" theory.  The terrible famine in Russia in the early 17th c. which added so greatly to the country's turmoil, was attributed to a climate change wrought by the eruption of a volcano in Peru!

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


Opening Night of Mostly Mozart

Sometimes in life we get more than we bargained for, more than we expected, more than we hoped for.  We were thrilled with the idea of six singers, all of whom we have cherished and written about, having their simultaneous debuts with the Mostly Mozart Festival. They are all rising stars and they would be onstage together performing the solo roles in Beethoven's Fantasia in C minor, also known as the Choral Fantasy--a work we have never heard performed. What excitement!

We will get to the astonishing features of the rest of the program but we will start at the end, as we sometimes do.  Brilliant young pianist Kit Armstrong distinguished himself in the prolonged opening of the work. Beethoven's wild energy was captured by Mr. Armstrong's lightning fast fingerwork in the rapid scale passages and the lyrical moments were rendered with expressive introspection.

Beethoven distributed some splendid solos to the wind instruments and we particularly admired the lengthy flute solo and the clarity of the clarinet solo. Louis Langree's conducting style is emphatic and balletic, effectively limning all the voices of Beethoven's orchestration.

The six vocal soloists we came to hear were outstanding in their handling of the vocal lines, overlapping and weaving together in a tapestry of gorgeous sonic brilliance. One could not have asked for better singing than that delivered by sopranos Janai Brugger and Brandie Sutton, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenors Miles Mykkanen and Jack Swanson, and bass Adam Lau. Once young artists have reached this level of international fame, we have less opportunity to write about them and were doubly thrilled.

When we planned our attendance, we paid no attention to the rest of the program and were therefore non-plussed by our experience of the Young People's Chorus of New York City, a group of which we were previously unaware. Artistic Director and Founder Francisco J. Nunez must be some kind of wizard to have pulled such performances from these youngsters.

The lovely young ladies of the chorus were flatteringly dressed in royal blue dresses with red petticoats peeking out from under the skirts and matching headbands. The voices were, of course, far more important than the garb but it would have been churlish not to mention how visually attractive a picture they presented as they entered down the side aisles and took their places onstage.

The program opened with a stunning performance of the Kyrie K.90, written by the teenage Mozart. The harmonies were absolutely exquisite. But the piece that mostly astonished us was Marcos Leite's arrangement of Tres Cantos Nativos dos Indios Krao. There seemed to be no extant translation and none was necessary. What we heard (and we did NOT read the program in advance) were the sounds of a rainforest and a coming storm, just as effectively rendered as in Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.

The young singers used their bodies in unison to create all kinds of natural sounds emulating birdcalls and finally raindrops falling. They clapped their hands and tapped various parts of their bodies to create a miraculous soundscape, the beauty of which brought tears to our eyes.

The thought came to us that talent knows no age. These youngsters seemed to represent a mosaic of our wonderful New York City with complete diversity of size, shape, and color.  Glorious!  We need not worry about the future of music!

Not only were the aisles put to use for conducting, entrances, and exits--but also the balconies, giving us a "surround sound" experience with overlapping voices in the other numbers they performed--"Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal" and "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel".

The Young People's Chorus was joined by the Children's Chorus for Maestro Nunez' own arrangement of "Ah vous dirai-je maman".  They were also wonderful. We thought a golden opportunity was missed to pair that with Mozart's own variations on that childhood tune.

The encore was the finale of Bernstein's Candide, a true crowd pleaser.

There were features of the programming that bothered us. Splitting up symphonies into their component movements may have been common in the 18th c. but we failed to appreciate the dissection of Mozart's "Haffner" symphony.  To our ears it was disruptive and we object to the loss of continuity and the feeling of completion we usually experience when a symphony is brought to its conclusion.

Still, we agree that the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra played beautifully under Maestro Langree's dramatically wielded baton. There were places in the first movement with such suspended energy that we wanted to stage it in our mind's eye as a scene in an opera, a scene ripe for explosion.

Although the program notes, which we finally read when we returned home, tried to justify the interpolation of songs by the Young People's Chorus between the movements with an overall theme of youthful energy, we thought that was working very hard to justify a peculiar decision.

There was one further decision that didn't sit well with us.  We adore Bernadette Peters on the Broadway stage but choosing her as host for the evening was not a fortuitous one. Her baby-doll voice was over amplified and her reading of the narration was frequently incomprehensible. Additionally, a host should be able to name the conductor and the composer without reading from cards.  Sorry, not sorry, dear readers--but we calls 'em as we hears 'em.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, July 13, 2017


Davone Tines, Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Ambur Braid

We are accustomed to gender bending at National Sawdust (Heartbeat Opera's Mozart in Space) but we confess to being rather confused by this production.  Let's see if we can get this straight. The role of Aci (a man in the ancient myth which inspired the story in Book XIII of Ovid's Metamorphoses), was sung by soprano Ambur Braid. The role of the (female) sea nymph Galatea was sung by counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. No wonder we were confused. There was no confusion about bass-baritone Davone Tines in the role of the monster Polifemo.

If Director Christopher Alden wanted to make a point about gender stereotypes, he did not succeed. The result in our case was to stop trying to figure out who was whom and to just relish the gorgeous Handelian melodies so well played by the Ruckus Ensemble and so well sung by the three artists.

Handel composed this one-act work in impressive Italianate style when he was but 23 years old in 1708. He would go on to compose another more famous version ten years later with an English language libretto. We are glad to have heard the Italian version in which the music and lyrics are as beautifully committed to one another as Galatea was to Aci.

The devotion was so strong that when the jealous Polifemo kills Aci,  Galatea transforms him (her?) into a stream. The musicians, including two theorbos (theorbi?), not only played music but created the most dazzling sound effects. We were not close enough to them to witness the method but the results astonished us. Or perhaps it was the sound design of Mark Grey.

The singing was sensational all around. We first heard Mr. Costanzo about 9 years ago at Manhattan School of Music, before we began writing about opera. He starred as the eponymous Griffelkin and we were totally taken with his startlingly beautiful instrument, the way he employed it, and his stage presence. We have written about him several times since then and his gifts have grown. The unique timbre of his voice ignites all kind of molecular vibrations in our head.

Soprano Ambur Braid is new to our ears but a welcome onstage presence with equivalent facility in her fach. We would be happy to hear her sing again. The timbre of her voice is brilliant and crystalline with great flexibility in the ornamentation.

Bass-baritone Davone Tines, on the other hand, is well known to us from Juilliard where we enjoyed his sturdy voice in numerous productions and particularly appreciated his operetta and zarzuela singing with Stephen Blier's New York Festival of Song. We recall that he also played the violin! What is impressive about his voice, beside the coloration, is the range. At the bottom of the register, the bass is rich and full but there is no shrinking when the tessitura is high.

All three singers provided variety to Handel's music by keen control of dynamics. There were times when the vocal line was spun out like a fine silken thread, causing us to hold our breath. So we would have to declare the evening 100% successful in its musical values.

As far as the production goes, we had difficulty relating to it. As it opened, Aci and Galatea were two janitors wearing what appeared to be surgical scrub suits. Costuming was by Terese Wadden. They were pushing brooms and polishing the back wall of the set (design by Paul Tate dePoo III) which was a projection of tiny squares with designs related to the sea--boats, fish, etc.  There was nothing else onstage but a large bathtub. Mark Grey is credited as sound and video designer.

If we failed to appreciate the perplexing concept of Mr. Alden, it did not spoil our pleasure in hearing three magnificent voices filling our ears with music.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


Inbar Goldmann, Avigail Malachi-Baev, and Elad Kabilio

When Music Talks, we listen! There is a reason for Elad Kabilio's success with his Music Talks. One reason is his enthusiasm and commitment to his work; the other is his giving the music world something unique. Perhaps these two features are common to all successful people.

Last night's presentation, given at the Center for Jewish History, attracted such a large audience that there was standing room only. The theme was Jerusalem-- as a symbol of longing for peace, for home, for a place of one's own.

We do not know whether Judaism is a religion, a race, a nationality, a birthright, or a chosen identity; but we do know that there is a culture that has been sustained over centuries in spite of persecution, ethnic cleansing, and the holocaust. To many Jews, Jerusalem represents a state of mind as well as a geographical place.

What Mr. Kabilio's Music Talks offers is education and illumination along with entertainment. What he relates is always interesting and conveyed with gusto, then illustrated with music. (If there is a word for aural "illustration" we hope one of our readers will comment below!)

These programs are so interesting that we find ourselves widening our musical horizons beyond opera. That being said, we were delighted that the program featured a most unusual arrangement (by the three artists themselves) of Verdi's "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from his opera Nabucco. The strong voice of mezzo-soprano Inbar Goldmann carried the melody with Avigail Malachi-Baev's clarinet playing some gorgeous arpeggios and the cello filling in the bass line.

In the opera, the Hebrew slaves are held captive in Babylon and long for their homeland. This chorus is famous in Italy as "Va pensiero" and was important in Verdi's time. Although there is some historical revisionism occurring, it has long been thought to be important to the Risorgimento and a rebellion against foreign rule. It almost became the Italian national anthem; it succeeded as the anthem of one of their many political parties.

The rest of the program was new to us. We heard songs about Jerusalem coming from both traditions of Judaism--Sephardic (Middle Eastern) and Ashkenazic (European). We did not hear that much of a difference but we did very much enjoy the singing in Ladino, a form of early Spanish spoken by Spanish Jews. Prior to the Inquisition, Spain enjoyed an artistically fertile period during which the three Abrahamic religions coexisted peacefully!  Imagine that!

In any case, the language sings beautifully and much of it was easy to understand to anyone who speaks Spanish. 

Hebrew, on the other hand, was resurrected when the state of Israel was formed. This new country needed a language and its own music. Much of this music was created by women. Tzvi Avni set psalms to music and we heard "Yefe Nof".

We also heard klezmer music which we had thought of as Ashkenazic, but to our ear it didn't sound all that different. There was a definite Middle-Eastern feel to it in the melodies played by the clarinet. There was also a section with a very high tessitura. The second piece was identified as a celebration song; it is played at Jewish weddings and all the guests rise and join in a circular dance; it is called "Hava Nagila". Interestingly, this melody was brought to Palestine by Hasidic Jews from Europe and has an interesting history, available online to the curious.

We heard a song known as "the second anthem" of Jerusalem in which the cello initiated and played an embellished line filled with turns and trills; the voice joined in, and finally the clarinet. This was composed by a woman.

We also heard "Kaddish" from Deux Melodies Hebraique by Ravel, transposed for cello.

It goes without saying that the musicianship was excellent. We have always enjoyed Mr. Kabilio's cello but this is the first time we heard Ms. Malachi-Baev's clarinet and it was quite lovely. Ms. Goldmann's voice is strong and passionate and she clearly connected to the music she sang.  But it wasn't until the final piece about peace ("Salaam") when she sang "off the book" that we felt her connection with the audience.

We are always grateful to Mr. Kabilio for expanding our musical horizons!

(c) meche kroop

Monday, July 10, 2017


Hyungjoo Eom, Sigal Chen, Roselin Osser, Alyson Sheehan, Aaron Halevy, Christian Kas, Rocky Sellers, Cassie Machamer, Matias Moncada, and Lisa Parente
We have cherished Mozart's Nozze di Figaro perhaps more than any other opera. We have probably seen and heard it more than any other opera. Do we care if the production says anything new about the opera?  No, we don't! We are totally content to hear the music afresh each time, to hear the care Mozart lavished on limning each character and the humanity expressed in Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto.  Each character is flawed but loveable.

Last night's iteration was presented by Manhattan Opera Studio which we were introduced to last summer in a performance of Hansel und Gretl (review archived and found through the search function). This summer training program for young artists has grown rapidly from performing at Scorca Hall to the much larger and more comfortable theater that was formerly occupied by DiCapo Opera. The small orchestra which was squeezed into Scorca Hall now numbers 19 and occupies a proper pit, giving conductor Keith Chambers plenty of room to conduct an orchestra comprising many instrumentalists that play under his baton at New Amsterdam Opera.

Once upon a time we asked a famous symphony conductor where was the best place to sit.  He replied, "As close to the conductor as possible". So it was that we decided to sit just behind Maestro Chambers on the front row, getting a first rate view of him and the musicians in the pit. This provided new revelations of just how marvelous Mozart's orchestration is and just how effective Maestro Chambers' conducting is. His style is restrained and not at all theatrical and there is a terrific rapport with the instrumentalists.

Kudos to Leesa Dahl for the harpsichord accompaniment to the recitativi.

The singing was excellent and gave evidence of some fine coaching. The acting revealed the fine hand of Stage Director Walker Lewis. We always appreciate the bits of stage business that make the characters seem like people we know personally rather than caricatures.

Pride of place goes to the eponymous Figaro, brought to vivid life by Matias Moncada. His characterization was so astute that we almost neglected to note his fine singing.  His fine rich sound was differentially colored since Figaro has different feelings for his bride Susanna than he does for his arrogant boss. Just listen to how the color changes when Marcellina is known to be his mother and not an unwelcome creditor!

As Susanna, Lisa Parente created a sweet spunky character, smart enough to help her Figaro to foil those who would block their marriage. With blond braids and a petite figure, she looked absolutely perfect for the part. Her voice is a bit on the smallish side, but Maestro Chambers kept the orchestra down and her Act IV aria "Deh vieni, non tardar" was well done.

As Count Almaviva, Hyungjoo Eom made a fine foil, an arrogant and entitled aristocrat with designs on Susanna. He gets baffled and outwitted a lot. Mr. Eom used dynamic variation and vocal coloration to express his many moods. His arrogance and lechery made us think of Trump; this self-induced connection was far more valuable than if the director had placed him in a red wig! We object when directors try to spoon feed us!

As the neglected Countess, Sigal Chen sang with a rich full soprano that was notable for some impressive legato and beautiful phrasing. For most of the opera she is either depressed or disgusted with her husband's philandering and her two major arias ("Porgi amor" and "Dove sono") were appropriately colored. It was lovely to hear her voice change at the end when she forgives her wayward husband.

Mozart ensured that each major character got at least two arias and so we heard Roselin Osser as Cherubino perform "Non so piu" and "Voi che sapete". The acting she did with her body truly amplified the character but we wish she had not mugged quite that much.

We enjoyed the Marcellina of Cassie Machamer and were absolutely thrilled to hear her Act IV aria "Il capro e la capretta" which is very rarely included these days. This would make a fine stand-alone audition piece for her.

Rocky Sellers' Bartolo made a fine impression and he created a character not as stuffy as he is usually made out to be. He too has an Act IV aria that is rarely heard and we were glad for the opportunity to appreciate his fine voice. He showed special skills in the patter singing.

Aaron Halevy made good use of his tenor and mobile body to create a Don Basilio that was more colorful and humorous than loathsome in his gossiping. We barely recognized him in the role of the sober notary Don Curzio.

Alyson Sheehan made a sweet Barbarina and Christian Kas was very funny in the role of the bibulous gardener Antonio who unwittingly nearly foils the elaborate plot of Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess.

The singers performed exceptionally well in the ensembles, particularly the quartet in Act II.  Ms. Chen and Ms. Parente sounded exquisite together with their two very different timbres.

The singing and acting were so impressive that we scarcely missed the lavish sets that are generally employed.  A few packing cartons indicated the room Figaro was measuring for the marital bed (and, in a cute directorial touch, measuring Susanna). The Countess' room needed only a desk and a chair for Cherubino to hide behind. The garden was represented by some tall poles standing in for trees.

That the costumes were contemporary streetwear was disjunctive since aristocracy and the custom of droit de seigneur belonged to the 18th c. We can understand the decision made for budgetary reasons and overlook the issue. It would appear that the singers chose clothes from their own closets that would best express their character's station in life.

Susanna's simple white blouse and skirt were a good choice. The Count's suit and tie seemed right, with Figaro's more casual attire illustrating the difference in their station. Bartolo's outfit fell in the middle but we couldn't understand what was intended by the white lines painted under his eyes and across his scalp.

Basilio's get-up was sufficiently "rainbow" and Antonio's garb was perfect for a working man. Cherubino's outfit just seemed wrong with a particularly unflattering hat. And we wished that the Countess' cocktail dress had been more on the elegant side.  No big deal, just sayin'.

The Italian was so well sung and the acting so effective that the lack of titles was not at all distressing, although we imagine that some people in the audience felt the absence.

All in all, it was a terrific evening; we would have been happy to see it once again the weekend of August 11th, along with The Magic Flute, which will alternate.  But we will be reviewing opera in Santa Fe.

If you love Mozart, put it on your calendar!

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, July 9, 2017


Angela Meade

Santiago Ballerini
What a superb farewell for the "Bel Canto at Caramoor"' program.  After twenty years of bel canto, the opera program at this beautiful Venetian estate will revert to its original mission of presenting opera from many different traditions and to continue training and fostering the development of young singers through its Schwab Vocal Rising Stars program; Maestro Will Crutchfield will move his Bel Canto program to the nearby Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase. The new program will be called Teatro Nuovo and we will keep our readers informed as details become available.

The glorious farewell piece was Vincenzo Bellini's third opera Il Pirata. Inspired by Mozart and admired by Wagner, Donizetti, and Chopin, Bellini was a child prodigy trained at the conservatory in Naples. He came from a family of musicians and attended by virtue of a scholarship.

The head of the school gave him a valuable lesson that we wish the composers of today would heed.  To paraphrase, if you don't master melody, you will wind up as a church organist in some small town. This must have stung since that pretty much described Bellini's family!

Fortunately, young Vincenzo heeded the advice and became known for his melodic gifts.  It seems to us that he spun out long silken melodies like a silkworm whereas Rossini's melodies tumble out helter skelter. If his brilliant fioritura is reserved for moments of heightened passion, it permits long lyric lines to unspool at leisure.

So it was with Il Pirata, so magnificently performed by some major stars with Maestro Crutchfield conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke's. Soprano Angela Meade, about whom we have written before, needs no introduction. She is a confirmed superstar with a luxurious sound that sets the air to vibrating and a generous palette of vocal colors. Her coloratura in the final mad scene drove the audience wild with appreciation.

On the other hand, Argentinean tenor Santiago Ballerini just appeared on our event horizon but we recognize a star when we hear one. His physical stature is on the slight side but his vocal stature towers over most of the tenors we have recently heard. Not yet thirty years old, he has created a sensation in South America and is just achieving recognition in the United States.

The timbre of his voice is hugely appealing and he does not push or oversing. He possesses a stunning messa di voce and manages to float the high notes without apparent effort. We consider ourself a fan.

The opera itself does not have the most interesting libretto but Felice Romani worked exceptionally well with Bellini and the poetry of the text is outstanding, especially as married to Bellini's gorgeous melodies.

The story concerns two rivals for political supremacy and for the love of a woman. Gualtiero, the Count of Montalto (Mr. Ballerini) had been defeated by Ernesto, the Duke of Caldora (bass Harold Wilson) and lost everything except for his love for Imogene (Ms. Meade) who was obliged to wed Caldora to save her father's life. That's the backstory.

When the opera opens, Gualtiero is a pirate and he is losing his ship. This is recounted by the superb chorus, comprising the Bel Canto Young Artists who performed magnificently throughout the opera.

In the subsequent two acts he and Imogene recognize one another and realize that their love will never be consummated. The two men duel. The Duke dies. The Count turns himself in and is executed. Imogene goes mad.

Not much of a story but this was only 1827 and the beginning of the Romantic period of opera. Since the opera was semi-staged there was no ship and no shipwreck, just a lot of fantastic singing--not only arias but some impressive duets, trios, and ensembles.

We were particularly happy to hear tenor Sean Christensen, one of Caramoor's Young Artists in the substantial role of Itulbo, Gualtiero's lieutenant. We have been writing about Mr. Christensen's pleasing tenor for some time now and admired his growth as an artist.

As Goffredo, Gualtiero's former tutor, bass-baritone Joseph Beutel (well remembered from Santa Fe Opera) made a fine showing as well.  And soprano Robyn Marie Lamp excelled in the role of Adele, Imogene's companion, a more generous role than that usually given to companions.

It was a splendid evening and a genuine pleasure to hear such grand voices all onstage together. As Caramoor's operatic interest will expand to include different orchestras and conductors and Teatro Nuovo will continue to present bel canto masterpieces, there will be a strong impetus to pull this city girl upcountry! Caramoor's 2018 offering will be Handel's Atalanta.

We wish both programs well as we reflect on all the wonderful singing we have heard at Caramoor and all the special artists to whom we have been introduced.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, July 8, 2017


Cast of Prelude to Performance's production of Gianni Schicchi

We have already written extensively about Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance and we have just reviewed the first half of an evening of Puccini which we thoroughly enjoyed. The second half comprised a superb production of Gianni Schicchi, based on a minor character in Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.  Giovacchino Forzano created a compelling comic libretto and Giacomo Puccini created some sparkling music that tickles the ear.

The success of this masterpiece requires ensemble work of the highest order and that is just what we got last night at the Kaye Playhouse.  You can get it too if you move quickly, as there is a final performance Sunday afternoon and you may never again have the opportunity to see the tale this well told.

This is a story requiring authenticity of time and place in order for us to relate to its generality and its marvelous message.  We all love to see the greedy and grasping get what they deserve. We can recall so many plays based on squabbling families fighting over their inheritance.

In this case, la famiglia Donati is noisily and disingenuously grieving their newly deceased patriarch. All sorrow is gone when they learn that old Buoso (Steven Mo Hanan) has left all his money and property to the monks.

Young Rinuccio (tenor Spencer Hamlin) is in love with Lauretta (soprano Anna Adrian Whiteway) who is the daughter of the wily peasant Gianni Schicchi (baritone Joshua DeVane). Rinuccio's snooty aunt Zita (marvelous mezzo-soprano Leah Marie de Gruyl) forbids his marriage to a girl without a dowry.

When you hear Ms. Whiteway sing "O mio babbino caro" you just know that her father will relent and agree to help the family that disparages him, and help himself in the process. And when Rinuccio sings the praises of Firenze we know he deserves the girl! The duet of the two lovebirds was beautifully sung.

The opera revolves around Schicchi's elaborate and risky plot to create a new will through the offices of the notary (Ben Reisinger, who also played Dottore Spinelloccio ) and his assistant Pinellino (Charles Carter).

The squabbling relatives included Melanie Ashkar as La Ciesca, Nicholas LaGesse as Marco, Vincent Grana as Simone,  Nicole Rowe as Nella, Hao Hu as Gherardo, Frida Werner as Gerardino, and Karl Buttermann as Betto, the poor relation.

The entire cast played off each other with great humor and laughter rang through the theater on numerous occasions. That the singing was superb throughout could almost be taken for granted. Ian Campbell's direction kept things moving at a fast pace and provided many small touches that distinguished the characters from one another. The bit about forgetting the manner of crossing oneself was just one of many. Snuffing out the candles that were initially lit to honor the deceased--(post revelation of Buoso's will) was another funny moment.

Joshua Rose's set was far more elaborate than that for Suor Angelica and is exactly what we would imagine for Renaissance Italy. Costuming by Charles R. Caine was even more elaborate with each character dressed according to their age and station. The beard and makeup for Simone was notably convincing and accomplished by Steven Horak.

Maestro Willie Anthony Waters brought out all the humor in Puccini's score. There is a repeated motif of a downward inflected pair of notes, a whole tone apart, and all one has to do to burst out laughing is to hear that motif.

Don't miss this outstanding production.  You are not likely to see such a fine production again!

(c) meche kroop


Cast of Suor Angelica

Although Giacomo Puccini wrote a trilogy, Prelude to Performance wisely decided to present only two parts, focusing their attention on the two one-acters that employed a large cast and which provided a fine balance between the tragic and the comic. We are pleased to report a stunning success in that we were moved to tears and then to laughter. This only happens when a committed cast dedicates themselves totally to the work and the original intention of the composer and librettist are honored with fidelity.

The tragedy of Suor Angelica is both personal and cultural. The cultural tragedy is related to the sexually repressive period in late 17th c. Italy. Poor Suor Angelica has borne a child out of wedlock, probably due to innocence and ignorance; she has been hustled off to a convent and hasn't seen anyone from her family in seven long years.

The personal tragedy is that she finally receives a visit from her aunt La Zia Principessa who comes on a mission of getting Angelica to sign over her inheritance in favor of her sister who is about to be married, after a presumably chaste courtship. The aunt treats her niece with scorn and derision. What news of the male child?  He died of an illness a couple years earlier but no one had seen fit to share this news with the mother. "Everything was done to save him", claims the aunt. Somehow we did not believe her.

Angelica, an expert in herbology, takes poison then realizes she will be damned and prays to the Virgin for forgiveness. She experiences a vision or hallucination of the child she lost and dies believing in her salvation.

This is very much a story of its time since women can now choose to have a child without the questionable benefit of matrimony! Thankfully, the story was not updated and we did not spy a single sister bearing a cell phone.

What we did spy was a superlative cast working in concert and creating a supportive society filled with individual characters, each unique in spite of the uniform habits.

Soprano Michelle Johnson's performance of the lead role left nothing to be desired. During her scene with the rejecting aunt, she lost her convent cool and exhibited profound flashes of the anger and despair that had been suppressed and finally erupted.  Her "Senza mamma" was as moving as any we have heard. This is a sizable instrument used judiciously!

Similarly, mezzo-soprano Leah Marie de Gruyl created a hateful character that was just as totally believable as the one created by Ms. Johnson.  So effective was she that we couldn't keep from imagining what kind of upbringing she endured that made her place family reputation above familial love. Ms. de Gruyl has an impressive instrument that should take her far in the world of opera; she employed it in the service of characterization, coloring her voice with icy coldness.

The remaining nuns were also excellent. We were quite moved by soprano Nicole Rowe's Suor Genovieffa, a former shepherdess, who admitted to missing the pleasure of holding a baby lamb in her arms.

We also liked the two nuns who were responsible for provisioning the convent--Jenna Buck and Renee Richardson.  Melanie Ashkar sang well as La Maestra delle Novizia. There was not a mediocre voice onstage. Everyone sustained the beautiful legato line of the Italian. Molly Burke portrayed La Suora Zelatrice, Crystal Glen was Suor Osmina, Yulan Piao was Una Novice, Amy Guarino sang Suor Dolcina, Wan Zhao was La Suora Infermiera, and two Converse were portrayed by Hillary Hei Lee Law and Maria Zollo.

Ian Campbell's direction was superb with plenty of onstage business to keep the nuns busy. Joshua Rose provided the simple set with projections of a cloister for the first part and a sky filled with stars for the final part.  His lighting was equally effective. Charles R. Caine designed the costumes.

Under the baton of Willie Anthony Waters, Puccini's gorgeous lyricism shone brightly and limned the various characters and situations.

Review of Gianni Schicchi to follow!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, July 7, 2017


Emily Righter and Ben Werley

Last night we attended opening night of the 13th season of Prelude to Performance, Martina Arroyo's summer program in which 75 participants study for 6 weeks learning roles. They are given instruction in language, dramatic interpretation, recitativi, and stage combat; they receive coaching and also participate in several master classes, some of which we have reviewed. This program is unique in that the young artists receive stipends, thanks to the generosity of the donors who support the program. Many graduates go on to major careers.

Judging by the tumultuous applause that greeted the curtain call of Bizet's Carmen, the program is, as it has been, a major success. Participants learn a great deal and walk away with a role "under their belts" that should serve them well in the future. And the audience, comprising a Who's Who of Planet Opera, walks away happily entertained.

If you share our taste, it's likely that you have longed for a traditional production of Carmen. We have gotten rather tired of updatings and novel interpretations, with the exception of one very radical Carmen produced by Heartbeat Opera. One can always count on Prelude to Performance to do a traditional production and to do it exceptionally well.

Last night's Carmen can be seen again Saturday night and we hope you will still be able to secure tickets. You will see the beautiful mezzo-soprano Emily Grace Righter as Carmen and tenor Ben Werley as Don Jose. This tragic character must evolve from a rather buttoned up corporal as the opera commences into a raging murderous maniac at its conclusion. Mr. Werley's plangent tenor was most remarkable in his second act aria "La fleur que tu m'avais jetee"; he was totally convincing as the lovesick corporal and evinced a lovely legato.

We recall Ms. Righter from four years ago when we reviewed her performance in a small role in Rossini's Mose in Egitto, presented by New York City Opera. She is maturing into a fine performer with a very lovely instrument and fine stage presence.  As she grows into this role, we hope she will dig deeper into the earthiness, a difficult task given her refined appearance. There was nothing wrong with her seductive acting but we feel that there is a need for a deeper more organic approach.

Baritone Brian Major has a fine instrument well suited to the role of Escamillo but also needs a bit more work in creating the character from the inside out. Soprano Sarah Cooper performed the role of Micaela and grew in stature such that her third act aria "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante" brought down the house.

We greatly enjoyed the performances of soprano Shana Grossman (Frasquita) and mezzo Olivia Johnson (Mercedes) who threw themselves into their roles with abandon. As a matter of fact, our favorite part of the opera was the second act quintet which provides some necessary comic relief. Baritone Dan Ewart as Le Dancaire and tenor Hector Mir as Le Remendado turned in some fine performances as they joined the three women in the humorous planning of a smuggling operation.

Bass Zaikuan Song handled the role of Zuniga, Don Jose's superior and competitor. Phillip Bullock used his mellow low voice in the role of Morales, pressing his attentions on the shy Micaela at the beginning of the opera.

The chorus sang well and there was no fudging the French anywhere.

The work was finely directed by Laura Alley with some very lively business on the streets of Seville in front of the tobacco factory, and later at Lilas Pastia's tavern. There was also a twist at the end which we decline to reveal but it worked well. Recitativi were sung, not spoken. The long scene in Act IV with the parade of picadors was cut but no one seemed to miss it.

As usual, costuming (Charles R. Caine) was lavish, as one can see on the carousel of photos which we posted on our Facebook page (Voce di Meche). The tobacco factory girls were scantily clad (for that time period) and the gypsies and smugglers looked just the way one wants gypsies and smugglers to look. The military men looked exactly right.

Also as usual, the set (Joshua Rose) was simple but effective, making use of projections. The lighting was fine, especially in Act III where the dark lighting elicited a sense of menace, leaving the audience to imagine the mountain pass.

The overture began somewhat raggedly but Maestro Daniel Lipton brought the unruly strings under control rather rapidly and we particularly enjoyed solos by flute, clarinet, oboe and the brass section. 

Tonight we will be reviewing an evening of Puccini and hearing the large cast of women in Suor Angelica, most of whom are new to us. We are particularly looking forward to hearing Leah Marie de Gruyl as La Zia Principessa, having heard her in a master class.

No one will leave depressed because that opera will be followed by another one-acter by Puccini that always leaves us laughing--Gianni Schicchi. Remember "O mio babbino caro"? This is the opera from which that aria comes. But you knew that already, didn't you?

Do consider catching both the Puccini double feature tonight and Carmen tomorrow night!

(c) meche kroop 

Thursday, July 6, 2017


Kim Feltkamp, Emily Kate Naydeck, Griffin Candey, Amber Treadway

We are big fans of OperaRox Productions and generally admire their adventurous risk-taking productions.  In spite of some fine performances and Amber Treadway's on point direction, we felt a bit let down by last night's Sweets by Kate. 

Having been billed as "a lesbian opera" we wish the "book" had focused more on the relationship and backstory of the lead couple. We did glean that Elizabeth Brigmann (beautifully sung by Kim Feltkamp) had lost her mother and departed her small town because her father/shopkeeper Joe (Michael Hofmann) did not accept her sexual orientation.

We further gleaned that she had taken off for San Francisco a dozen years earlier and had a relationship with Kate (lovely Emily Kate Naydeck) who loved to bake and that the two of them returned to the aforementioned small town to open a bakery in the late father's shop. But we wanted a better grasp of who they were as people. Kaitlyn Day's 1950's costumes emphasized the "butch-femme" cliche but did nothing to show well developed characters; and composer Griffin Candey's music did nothing to limn the characters' personalities. It was difficult to care about these two-dimensional characters.

The opera comprised two short acts but there might have been time to develop the characters of these women had there not been a secondary story occurring, one that was given primacy for most of the evening. There is a satanic character named Carl (performed with sinister glee by Brandon Evans) who poisons the father and destroys the fledgling bakery with a spell making everyone who partook of the baked goods have feelings of despair.  But that was only after mistakenly hexing the baked goods with a spell of feelings of success in the consumer.

Perhaps that made an interesting take-home point.  Even gossipy small town bigots can feel tolerance when their lives are successful.  But watch out when people feel despair!

So, we found fault with the dichotomous nature of the story; we also did not care for Thom Miller's libretto. Although there were some attempts at rhyming the language was clumsy, save for some very clever wordplay when the ladies of the town met and, instead of exchanging information, spouted meta-communications like "gossip gossip bibble babble" and "appropriate greeting" and "comment about the weather".

We could not find much to like about Candey's music; if we had, we would have entitled our review "Sweets by Candey" or some such.  Maestro Candey himself conducted and we had no problem with the keyboard performances of Peiharn Chen, nor the violin of Sara Dudley or the cello of Spencer Shen. Candey did provide an aria for each of the main characters but none were tuneful or memorable. The recitativi would have been better spoken than sung.

We were impressed by how Amber Treadway made such good use of the miniscule stage upstairs at the historically important Stonewall Inn. We would be surprised if the stage exceeded 12' in width and 6' in depth!

We also enjoyed Keith Browning's turn as the funny job-seeker and would-be lover Doofey MacLaran who garnered most of the giggles. That is one funny guy!  Elizabeth's father was portrayed by Michael Hoffman and he was killed off early in the evening so there was no reconciliation scene with his daughter.

Ryan Colbert did a fine job as Mrs. Webster and the other three gossipy ladies of the town were Zoe Marie Hart (well remembered from her work with Utopia Opera), Emma Bonanno, and Sarah Murcek. We thought the entire cast did their best to bring this flawed work to life. No one stinted on commitment or were short of talent.  It's just too bad that the work itself was unfocused. 

Perhaps there is material there for two operas--one about two women winning over a small town with their wonderful baking, and another about a satanic character manipulating people's tolerance. But I would hope that the dialogue would be punchy and the music melodic!

(c) meche kroop