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, June 24, 2018


Pablo Castillo, Rosa Betancourt, Laura Virella, José Heredia, and Keith Chambers

As explained in a most welcoming introduction by Laura Virella, La Noche de San Juan is a festive Latin American holiday, almost coinciding with the Summer Solstice--an amalgam of a Catholic holiday and a pagan celebration, involving bonfires and other festivities.

We were overjoyed to share this celebration (without bonfires) at the Inwood Art Works Culture Hub, a very new community center for the arts in Inwood. It is so new that the large crowd attending this special evening of art song and zarzuela was rather unexpected. We believe this to be Inwood's first cultural center and it is already wildly successful. "If you build it they will come."  And come they did!

We have noticed that along with the many small opera companies carving out niches for themselves, there has also been a movement toward bringing the arts to the various neighborhoods. When we first began writing, our world centered around Lincoln Center. Now we find ourselves traveling to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn and Manhattan, seeing new faces, new neighborhoods, and new venues.

The evening was an unqualified success. Readers know how highly we prize Latin American music and the program comprised both art song and selections from a zarzuela that we plan to produce next year in its entirety--Federico Moreno Torroba's 1932 Luisa Fernandez.

Three of the singers were known to us as was the accompanist Maestro Keith Chambers, who seems to be everywhere these days. He pulled some interesting sounds from an electronic keyboard.

Mezzo-soprano Laura Virella possesses a lovely expressive voice and a passion for Latin American art song that gives her delivery a jolt of drama, bringing each song to vivid life. She opened the program with a trio of songs about the sea by Jack Délano, settings of texts by female poets. 

The marriage of music to text in these mid 20th c. songs was pure delight, the likes of which we have not observed in 20th c. songs from our own country. It is obvious that Latin American composers were not taken in by weird academic movements that took songwriting into areas devoid of melody! These songs are delightfully tuneful!

Soprano Rosa Betancourt has a brightness in her instrument that was employed to highlight the cheerful beginning of Rafael Hernánez' "Lamento borincano" but there was an interesting switch to the minor mode when the hopeful merchant fails to find customers and pathos is heard. Mr. Chambers provided some lovely arpeggi in the left hand.

For her performance of Campos' "Felices días", she was accompanied by Ms. Virella playing the Guiro, a gourd with ridges that is stroked for a raspy sound. This song is typical of the "Danza", a turn of the 20th c. type of song that elevated folk music to the level of art song. (Think Stephen Foster).

Tenor José Heredia has a generosity and ease of sound that brought great passion to "Granada", written by Mexican composer Agustín Lara in 1932. He never forces his high notes and displayed a lovely messa di voce.

Ms. Virella returned for a quartet of songs by Puerto Rican composer Narciso Figueroa, written in 1976. We doubt that there is anything in the Puerto Rican song literature that Ms. Virella does not know. Her charm is like a perfume that scents everything she sings. We loved the romantic "Madrugada" and the regretful "Muerta". "Vida criolla" is a song in praise of ignorance and the simple life.

"Amapola" by Spanish composer José María Lacalle García, which was composed in 1920, is as recognizable as "Granada", a wonderful serenade. To hear Mr. Heredia sing it was a thrill. He easily assailed the "money note" without a hint of pushing.

Chilean Baritone Pablo Castillo closed the first half of the program with a 1965 composition by his countryman Vicente Bianchi, the setting of a text by Pablo Neruda called "Antes de amarte", followed by a tango by Argentinean Astor Piazzolla called "Los pájaros perdidos". Mr. Castillo has a lovely resonant sound and sang expressively in these songs which bore a less folklike theme and a more sophisticated text.

The second part of the program was devoted to zarzuela, the art form that has so captured our interest.  Torroba's Luisa Fernanda is one of the best and the four singers captured the essence of the story with a series of excerpts. Like all great stories, it involves a love triangle against a background of revolutionary politics in 1868, just prior to the revolution against Queen Isabel II, who will be dethroned.

The heroine Luisa (Ms. Virella) is fed up with her off-and-on lover, Javier, a military man (Mr. Heredia). She is courted by the wealthy older landowner Vidal (Mr. Castillo) who knows she loves Javier but is hopeful. Meanwhile, the Duchess Carolina (Ms. Betancourt) has her eye on Javier for reasons as political as they are romantic. She also has designs on Vidal who doesn't quite trust her.

This zarzuela has it all--a compelling story, unforgettable melodies, comedy, romance, pathos, and politics. At times we heard tunes that sounded downright Neapolitan. No wonder this zarzuela has seen over 10,000 performances.  That is NOT a misprint!

The evening closed with an excerpt from a different zarzuela of the same period--"El último romántico" by Sotullo and Vert. We heard Mr. Heredia perform the aria "Bella enamorada", a perfect way to end a glorious evening.

(c) meche kroop

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