|Cristina Maria Castro, Isabelle Freeman, Andy Dwan, David M. Sanchez, Carolyn Ramseur, Maria Brea, and Grant Braider|
In an impressively short period of time, City Lyric Opera (née A.R.E. Opera) has made a large splash in the pool of boutique opera companies. Led by lovely ladies (Kathleen Spencer and Megan Gillis as Co-Founders and Co-Artistic Directors, with Grace Lazos as Artistic Coordinator), one of the most important part of their mission statement is to put the artist first. When we inquired about how they acquired such an excellent roster of artists, the answer was short--"We pay our singers". Great idea! They deserve it.
Ms. Spencer and Ms. Gillis will be giving a joint recital next month which we will announce on our Facebook Page (Voce di Meche), but tonight they served as narrators for the program. It was a lovely touch but rather unnecessary since the program spoke for itself. The participants, most of whom we have heard before, are as gifted dramatically as they are vocally. The scenes were directed with a sure hand by Mikhaela Mahony, Alexandra Clint, and Helen Heuttner--a gynocentric team for sure!
One aspect of the program which we particularly enjoyed (we do love having our opinions confirmed!) was that opera and musical theater pieces were presented with the same respect. Stephen Sondheim may deny this all he likes, but he has written operas far worthier than some of the pretentious and tuneless trash that some critics fawn over, but which opera lovers may see once but never twice.
"Tonight" from Bernstein's West Side Story opened the program with a bang. We were very taken with Cristina Maria Castro's bright clear soprano when we heard her recently at the City Lyric Opera gala. Tenor David Sanchez is new to us and made a fine impression as Tony falling in love with her Maria. The two artists convincingly portrayed the dawning of love in clearly sung English; they touched our heart.
The lucky Mr. Sanchez got to make love to two women in one evening. His scene partner in "O soave fanciulla" from Puccini's La Bohême was the marvelous Maria Brea, a soprano we have long admired ever since Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance. We would not want to be asked to prefer one love scene over the other. There was not a "false note" in either portrayal of new love. We wished they had been performed consecutively because the first scene put us in a "new love" mood.
A duet of a totally different nature overwhelmed us with its clever dialogue which fit the music perfectly. "Have a Little Priest" from Sondheim's Sweeney Todd employs satisfying rhymes, witty beyond measure. The song was done justice by soprano Isabelle Freeman, who struck us as a strong spinto, and baritone Andy Dwan who has a mobile face and body, just right for comedy. It would be an understatement to say we enjoyed the duet immensely.
And what about a duet for two men? From Sondheim's Into the Woods we heard "Agony" in which two "princes charming" lament the unavailability of their love object. The very funny Mr. Dwan was joined by another baritone Grant Braider in this stellar performance. We love the way Sondheim marries short punchy phrases to music--the best way to deal with the rhythms of the English language.
Ms. Freeman as Vitellia was joined by mezzo-soprano Carolyn Ramseur as Sesto in the duet "Come ti piace" from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito. Until Titus pardons them, they get to raise all kinds of hell-- but with voices this melodious, who could dislike them?
Let us move on to some dazzling solo offerings. We have never been a fan of Tom Cipullo, nor had we ever heard of his opera Mayo. Some online research revealed that Mayo premiered last month at SUNY Potsdam. We don't know how Ms. Castro got her hands on the score but we loved "Valeria's Aria" which was (gasp!) actually melodic. Come to think of it, it was Ms. Castro who introduced us to some wonderful music at the gala last month. We now consider her our "go-to" for something new and special.
Ms. Brea gave a winning performance of "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's Louise. Her French was finely rendered and the work was beautifully shaped and dynamically varied. The upward skips were smooth and the line was lovely.
Ms. Ramseur made a fine showing in the "Composer's Aria" from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. The phrase "Musik ist eine heilige Kunst" could have been the theme for the entire evening. The German was clearly enunciated and the aria was delivered with just the right degree of passion.
Ms. Freeman got to show her stuff in "Tacea la notte placida" from Verdi's Il Trovatore. This is a large voice with interesting overtones and a lot of what financial analysts would call "upside potential". We liked the vibrato, the dynamic variety, and the Italianate legato. We loved the contrasting cabaletta.
Mr. Braider's solo was "Hai gia vinta la causa", Count Almaviva's aria from Mozart's Nozze di Figaro. The vocal qualities were excellent and what we'd like to see, to take the performance to the next level, would be to witness the inner workings of the Count's mind on his face. He's a rather dense character and he's trying to put 2 and 2 together but only comes up with 3 1/2. We in the audience need to be able to laugh at his benightedness.
Mr. Sanchez' solo was "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Franz Lehar's Das Land des Lächelns. He began in good German and switched to English for the final verse, a nice move we thought.
What evening is complete without a little cabaret? Mr. Dwan performed a pair of songs by William Bolcom, putting a very fey and very ironic spin on "Amor", and then told the tale of poor "George".
The famous Act III quartet from La Bohême is often heard on programs whenever you have a tenor, a baritone, and two sopranos. We almost always enjoy it but last night was one of the best we've heard. The contrast between the reconciling Mimi and Rodolfo and the embattled Musetta and Marcello was not only well-delineated vocally but also dramatically, due to some fine direction.
We also liked the direction for the closing number--the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen. Ms. Ramseur changed out of her male "drag" and appeared in a sexy gown, seducing with her voice and body. The rest of the cast was onstage, acting as chorus. It was a swell way to bring the evening to a close.
Music Director Jeremy Chan's contributions to the evening were significant. We particularly noticed his artistry in the Verdi and the Puccini. He found an entire orchestra within the piano!
City Lyric Opera is a company to watch with many interesting activities both educational and entertaining. Do visit their web site for more information--www.citylyricopera.org.
(c) meche kroop