|Maestro Keith Chambers and Cast of Massenet's Hérodiade|
The title of this review is not a typing error. We see Maestro Keith Chambers as a HERO on Planet Opera for introducing us to works that are insufficiently performed and for finding the perfect cast to fill the roles.
We might also mention that Maestro Eve Queler is similarly a HEROine for providing New Amsterdam Opera with the score. She last presented Massenet's Hérodiade in 1995 with a young Renée Fleming as Salome. It seems to us that Maestro Chambers is similarly gifted in choosing singers destined for major success.
We pondered why this opera is so rarely produced and this led to the following speculation. A very worthy opera can readily be eclipsed when another composer tackles the same material in a way that pleases the public more. For example, Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia stole the thunder from the Paisiello iteration, one we enjoyed immensely when produced by On Site Opera. Similarly, Otto Nicolai's Die lustigen weiber von Windsor, recently presented by Juilliard Opera, and Salieri's Falstaff, recently produced by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, were both overshadowed by Verdi's Falstaff.
No doubt, Richard Strauss' 1905 Salome, adapted from an 1891 Oscar Wilde play, drew attention away from Jules Massenet's 1881 Hérodiade by means of its lurid story and modern music. This is a shame because Paul Milliet and Henri Grémont's libretto tells the tale from a different point of view (based on an 1877 novella by Gustave Flaubert) and Massenet's music is compelling although refined; the melodic nature of the arias causes them to be sung in recitals and competitions.
Strangely, neither composer nor librettists were mentioned in the program! However, the synopsis was quite complete and a minimal knowledge of French allowed the members of the audience to follow along quite well, assisted by some superlative diction by the singers. Titles might have been helpful but were not absolutely necessary.
Maestro Chambers led the New Amsterdam Opera Orchestra with Stephan Fillare as a most effective concertmaster. The orchestra occupied the entire stage with the fine chorus elevated behind the orchestra. The singers stood in front of the orchestra and we couldn't figure out how they were able to follow the conducting so well but they did. We have nothing but good things to say about the pacing and the balance. We were happy not to have to watch the ballets that are so much a part of French opera but are rarely well done.
The singers were superb across the board and everyone's French was clear. The title role was performed by mezzo-soprano Janara Kellerman whose tone is plush and dusky. Her character has (backstory here) abandoned her daughter to wed King Herod and is consumed with jealousy by his interest in Salomé even before she acknowledges her as the abandoned daughter. We all know about denial, don't we? She is also vengeful and wants Jean (John the Baptist) dead because he insulted her. Her "Ne me refuse pas" was delivered with intense passion, a touch of manipulation and an affecting pianissimo.
Soprano Mary Stonikas was similarly superb in the role of Salomé, a very different character than the one in the Strauss opera. This young woman is victim, not predator. Her only consolation in her abandoned state has been Jean for whom she has developed a deep devotion and a pure love. Her character gets the first major aria of the opera "Il est doux, il est bon"; the way Ms. Stonikas colored her voice along with a fine vibrato revealed her sweetness. She has a lovely "ping" in the upper register.
The character of Hérode was magnificently realized by baritone Jason Duika. His character had more dimension than the others as he struggled with his lust and political issues. He seemed to care for his wife but was obsessed with Salomé. His virile instrument is of fine and full tone and his delivery of "Vision fugitive" was impassioned and moving. When he approaches Salomé he repeats her name countless times and always with a different color!
Like any ruler, he has his hands full trying to deal with Roman occupation and a people who seem to want freedom from Roman rule but are easily "bought" by promises from Vitellius, the Roman consul--a role excellently sung by young baritone Charles Eaton. Hérode's position is complicated by the presence of Jean who also has a following. He would like to enlist Jean's help but his wife wants the prophet dead. In this admirable performance, Mr. Duika was able to convey all kinds of emotions vocally since singing behind a music stand prevents the gestures and movements that tell us so much about a character.
As Jean, we heard tenor Errin Duane Brooks who delivers the final memorable aria "Adieu donc, vains objets qui nous charment sur terre" with ringing tone.
The role of Phanuel was sung by the rich-voiced bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala and the very pretty young soprano Brooklyn Snow sang the role of a Babylonian woman who provides an hallucinatory potion for Hérode. She has a well-focused instrument with pleasing colors that should take her far.
We particularly enjoyed the blending of voices in the quartet which ends Act II--Hérode, Hérodiade, Phanuel, and Vitellius--and the sextet which ends Act III. Orchestral playing was remarkable throughout with Maestro Chambers showing a keen ear for Massenet's lovely music. We enjoyed the heraldic moments given to the brass which told us when we were in the palace-- as effectively as any scenery might have. And the hints of exoticism in the score were not neglected.
What a special evening! We would love to see a full production with the same cast, unconstrained by music stands and able to move around the stage. Won't someone build a mid-size theater with an orchestra pit?
(c) meche kroop