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, October 28, 2017


Cantanti Project creating Magic and Mayhem at Shapeshifter Lab

Once again, it is Halloween, our favorite holiday. Several performing groups have used the themes of Halloween to create unusual programs involving death (see yesterday's review of Death and the Maiden by Music Talks) and the supernatural. We wish we could clone ourself and attend them all!

Last night we trekked out to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn (was that the Gowanus Canal?) to share in Cantanti Project's celebration of Magic and Mayhem, which inaugurated the company's fourth season. The venue was the spacious Shapeshifter Lab and the informal nature of the table seating reinforced the values shared by many young companies. Intimacy of performance is paramount.

What struck us the most was the conception and realization of the theme which, we learned, was a collaborative effort. Familiar works, drawn from the worlds of opera, art song, and Broadway, were presented in dramatically novel ways that shed new light on them. At times, a singer was joined by other members of the cast who enacted silent roles.

At Music Talks, we just heard tenor Aaron Blake sing Schubert's lovely lied "Der Tod und das Madchen" in which he colored his voice to create both characters. But last night we heard two singers perform the work--soprano Sangying Li as the Maiden and mezzo-soprano Kirsti Esch as Death. Although the lied is brief, it magically became a dramatic scene.

Similarly, in Brahms "Walpurgisnacht", the queries of the child were sung by soprano Daniela DiPasquale whilst the responses of the mother were sung by soprano Lydia Dahling.

Ms. Dahling has become the source of a new interest for us. She sang a magnificent aria from an opera unknown to us by an equally unknown (to us) composer. The composer Ferenc Erkel was Hungarian and was the father of Hungarian opera. In wonderful 19th c. style, he set dramatic tales to luxurious music.

The aria we heard "Volt a vilagon ket kis madar" (sorry about the missing diacritical marks) is the lament of a woman who goes mad after the trauma of being raped by the Queen's evil younger brother, while her husband and the King are off fighting somewhere. The music has a distinct Magyar flavor and Ms. Dahling was superbly coached.  Not that we understand Hungarian; let's just say it sounded right. There were many changes of mood, all well realized by vocal coloration and acting skills.

We have reviewed mezzo-soprano Emily Hughes before and always enjoy her performances, especially in the title role of La Calisto at Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble. Last night, she made a fine Sandman, scattering sleepy-stuff over Hansel and Gretel in a scene from the Humperdinck opera.

She also delighted us with a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Unquiet Grave" in which her fine diction made every word clear. In this scene, the ghost of her lover was visible to us as well as to her, in the person of baritone Frank D. Fainer.

Mr. Fainer was the sole male in the cast and performed a duet from The Phantom of the Opera, with Ms. Li as Christine. This is a show that we had never seen and we were glad to be introduced to the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical by such a fine performance.

We were quite taken with the elegant performing style of mezzo-soprano Tara Gruszkiewicz who performed Schubert's "Der Doppelganger" with excellent German and an eerie coloration. We've never heard the lied performed by a woman before but the performance was all the more affecting for being so still and self-contained.

Just the opposite was the highly gestural style of mezzo-soprano Aumna Iqbal in "Crude furie" from Handel's Serse sung by the eponymous Serse. This time, the Furies were real! Ms. Iqbal also performed "The Worst Pies in London" from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. The acting was commendable but, unfortunately, the clever lyrics were not consistently understandable.

It was a generous program, including works by Purcell, Verdi, Wolf, Duparc, Mozart and Mussorgsky. We always love hearing Jezibaba's aria "Cury mury fuk" from Dvorak's Rusalka which was sung by Ms. Esch. For those who are curious, the words are the Czech equivalent of "abracadabra".

Adding to the effectiveness were marvelous masks created by Claire Townsend and the perfect accompaniment provided by pianist Maria Didur. The only time we missed an orchestra was for the Hungarian aria and that was solely because we are curious about a new composer and wondered what his orchestration would sound like.

The projections curated by Laura Mitchell went a long way toward heightening the drama. Translations were occasionally included but, unfortunately, not when they were most needed.

We have just written that Monteverdi's 1609 Orfeo was the first opera but we stand corrected, having learned that Cantanti Project is tackling Caccini's Euridice, which premiered in 1600. We have already put it on our calendar for Feb 23, 2018 and so should you!  The insanely gifted director Brittany Goodwin will guide the cast through the underworld.

Many thanks to Artistic Director Joyce Yin for taking Cantanti Project in so many interesting and novel directions.

(c) meche kroop

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