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.

Thursday, May 2, 2019


Sweethearts by Victor Herbert, brought to you by Victor Herbert Renaissance Project LIVE!

At the beginning of the 20th century, when modernism began to undermine the basic grammar of music, some of the principles that underpinned the workings of opera inevitably came under attack, too. Those of us who have sat through some pretty tedious atonal bores find relief in the music of Victor Herbert who kept audiences entertained and delighted with silly stories and melodious music. Last night's Sweethearts was the perfect antidote to works liked only by academia.

His Sweethearts premiered in 1913, just before The Great War, with a libretto by Fred DeGresac and Harry B. Smith. As is usually the case, Artistic and Stage Director Alyce Mott has rewritten the libretto to make the story flow smoothly and to appeal to modern taste. Happily, she has not attempted to change the period and we are left free to form our own associations to today's mating behavior and romantic (mis)adventures. Even more happily, Herbert's engaging music has been preserved and given over to the New Victor Herbert Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Michael Thomas with the superb William Hicks at the piano.

The ensemble nature of the company allows us to appreciate the same voices at every production with some new ones thrown into the mix for good measure. Soprano Claire Leyden has a remarkable voice and charming onstage presence that made her performance of the lead role a true delight. The large voiced Vira Slywotzky, generally cast in matronly roles, always tickles us with her humorous delivery. In this case, the excellent Joanie Brittingham played the "bad girl" part whilst the fine soprano Sarah Caldwell Smith was joined by Caitlin Ruddy, JoAnna Geffert, and Emily Geller; they made excellent music together as Dame Paula's four daughters.

They open the story and set the stage right after Dame Paula's narration. You see, Dame Paula, also called Mother Goose, owns a laundry in Bruge where the sisters complain about ironing all day. They are always flirting with soldiers who soon appear--Al-Jabril Muhammad, Drew Bolander, Jonathan Hare, and Keith Broughton.

Adopted daughter Sylvia is in love with a rake, Lieutenant Karl (played to the hilt by Jack Cotterell), who is having a flirtation (one among many) with Liane, a millinery girl played by Ms. Brittingham. Dame Paula warns Sylvia about this rascal but, just like girls of today, she loves him anyway.

Meanwhile, the Prince of Zilania (the fine Jovani Demetrie) falls for Sylvia, not knowing that she is really the heir to his throne, something of which she is ignorant as well.

The story concerns the machinations and manipulations of all the people who would stand in her way--the hypocritical and grasping Mikel, a diplomat of Zilania (played by the very funny Jonathan Fluck); von Tromp, a German diplomat (portrayed by Matthew Wages) who wants to grab the land to build a casino; and Algernon Percival Cuthbert Slingsby (the superb veteran operetta performer David Seatter) who wants to marry the lost princess, whomever she may be, to impress his father.

Liane, a thoroughly nasty girl, is co-opted into the plan but gets what she deserves. The message is of course that the kindhearted folk win in the end and the grasping nasty folk lose out.  Order is restored, romance wins, and we leave with a smile. Of course. Balm for the spirits.

Ms. Mott directed with her customary astuteness and Susanna Organik contributed some delightful choreography, particularly the waltzes and the opening song "Iron Iron, Iron".  The hit tune of Act I "Sweethearts" became so famous that it led to Herbert fighting all the way to the Supreme Court to establish ASCAP!

Beside those, there were so many other delightful numbers. "Mother Goose" was filled with humor, sung by Sylvia and the other four daughters. Von Tromp led the men in singing "Pretty as a Picture" about how women enhance their appearance, a song just as relevant today as a century ago.

Dame Paula, Mikel, and the daughters were engaging in the humorous "What She Wanted..And What She Got". Mr. Seatter delivered the spoken dialogue of "I Don't Know How I Do It, But I Do" in the first example of a number spoken over an instrumental score. 

Ms. Leyden's gorgeous voice maximized the impact of "The Angelus", a tender prayer for guidance. When Prince Franz joins her you just know things will work out for them in the end.

Everything about the music and its performance was topnotch and we loved the combination of instruments in the New Victor Herbert Orchestra. Not only did we have Mr. Hicks' wonderful piano but violin, cello, string bass, flute, harp, and percussion.

This is the end of the fifth season of VHRPL during which 10 staged productions and five concerts have been offered. We are very gratified to have seen the audience swell to capacity. New Yorkers know a good thing when they see/hear it. 

We got a peek at next season's productions and are giving you fair warning, dear readers. If you hope to see what this wonderful company can accomplish, be prepared to get your tickets in advance. It would be a shame to be shut out of such glorious glee!

(c) meche kroop

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