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.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019


Gina Perregrino, Devony Smith, Erik Van Heyningen, Danny Zelibor, and Philippe L"Espérance
surrounding Steven Blier at the piano

Is there anything to say about love that has not yet been said?  Is there anything to sing about love that has not yet been sung?  If there were, Steven Blier would have uncovered it and included it in his fulfilling program last night at Merkin Hall for New York Festival of Song. "Love at the Crossroads" was the title of the program which was organized into four parts to reflect the many stages of love. Mr. Blier related that his inspiration for the program was Mozart's opera Così fan tutte which we just reviewed three days ago.

The first "movement" of this Symphony of Love illuminated the early stages of what psychologists call "limerance". Infatuation is a state most people long for when they don't have it, suffer beautifully from when they achieve it, and get depressed over when they lose it or it transmogrifies into another state, as it must.

To express the glories of falling in love, Mr. Blier chose five songs in French by Camille Saint-Saëns, Ernest Chausson, Gabriel Fauré, and Édouard Lalo. The lovely lyrical lines could not have been given better voice than they were by soprano Devony Smith (well remembered from a Utopia Opera production of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia), mezzo-soprano Gina Perregrino whom we followed from Manhattan School of Music to Santa Fe Opera, tenor Philippe L'Espérance (our favorite Prince Charming), and bass-baritone Erik van Heyningen whom we have enjoyed countless times at Juilliard and with Mise-en-Scène Opera. We always enjoy concerts more when we know the artists.

Collaborative Pianist Danny Zelibor is new to us but we loved the way he supported the line of each singer and shared pianistic duties with Mr. Blier.

Getting back to the program, the entire set in French was filled with joy and wonder but our very favorite was Fauré's "Madrigal" performed by the ensemble. The wise and knowing text by Armand Silvestre dealt with one of the "puzzlements" of love--why we pursue those who shun us and shun those who love us.

The second "movement" comprised songs in English from Broadway shows. Mr. Blier's title was The Honeymoon's Over and the songs dealt with the reality of two people with different priorities and values coming to terms with disappointed expectations. 

Stephen Sondheim is a master of setting short punchy phrases to memorable tunes. Mr. Blier's witty description was "spitting Sondheim acid". We particularly enjoyed "Country House" from his Follies; it was both funny and painful to listen to a couple who are just not getting what they want from each other. It was like being a fly on the wall of a therapist's office. Ms. Smith and Mr. L'Espérance captured all the thwarted attempts to connect and did so musically and dramatically. This splendid song never made it to Broadway.

The third "movement" (a Scherzo) covered the subject of philandering--sowing wild oats, as it were. Ms. Smith and Ms. Perregrino were hilarious in "Modest Maid" singing about archery, bitchery, witchery, butchery, and lechery. Who knew that Marc Blitzstein had such a sense of humor!

Similarly, Mr. L'Espérance and Mr. van Heyningen put a gay spin on "The Tennis Song" from Cy Coleman's City of Angels. There were at least a dozen double entendre moments that tickled our funny bone and the two men mined every giggle they could from the risqué material.

Additionally, Mr. Van Heyningen led the ensemble in Ed Kleban's "Do It Yourself", another naughty but very clever ditty. All of these songs were new to us and throughly delightful. English lends itself so well to comedy.

There was an instrumental interlude by Brahms--his Waltz in G#minor played on two pianos by four hands. This is another piece we had never heard before and we could not imagine it in four better hands than those of Mr. Blier and Mr. Zelibor. How interesting it was to hear a smooth segué into Richard Strauß' song "Freundliche Vision" so warmly performed by Mr. L'Espérance with his beautiful tone.

The finale of this Symphony of Love was one of reconciliation. Readers will recall how much we love German lieder and we heard Schubert's "Licht und Liebe, Nachtgesang" sung by Ms. Smith and Mr. L'Espérance; Brahms' "Es rauschet das Wasser" from Vier Duette with Goethe's gorgeous text begging to be read aloud and set to music (so gorgeously sung by Ms. Perregrino and Mr. L'Espérance); and Schubert's "Die Geselligkeit" in which the ensemble of four voices rose in concert to extol the pleasures of companionship.

Nothing more was needed than to close the program with Manuel Oltra's setting of Federico Garcia Lorca's "Eco". Although we always enjoy the manner in which Mr. Blier's curates songs for New York Festival of Song, we enjoyed this program more than any other. When the last note of "Eco" died down, we wanted to hear the entire program again from the top!

(c) meche kroop

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