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, November 21, 2019


The cast of Victor Herbert's The Debutante

Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live! began their 6th season at Christ and St. Stephen's Church, having presented 15 glorious operas since their inception. Artistic Director Alyce Mott has found a winning way of presenting the legendary operettas of Victor Herbert; without altering a note of the music or a word of the lyrics, Ms. Mott manages to create a new libretto that tells each story in a cohesive and entertaining fashion, even when the original book failed or has become less than compelling with the passage of time.

Last night we attended the closing night of Herbert's 1914 The Debutante, a work just as wacky and wonderful as the others we've seen. The silly but entertaining plot is very much of its time with deception, jealousy, romantic rivalry and mistaken identity all playing their part.

The company is consistently wonderful. Not all 35 members appear in every performance but, as a regular attendee, we love seeing the same faces and hearing the same voices in one production after another. And what voices! Herbert's music is eminently singable with melodies pouring out treble over bass, ready to be sung and played to the delight of the audience.

As the headstrong and clever heroine Elaine, we heard the lovely songbird Claire Leyden--not just a splendid soprano but a marvel of convincing acting. Elaine has been promised at birth to Philip (the tenoriffic Drew Bolander) who was her childhood sweetheart; sadly he is no longer interested in marrying her, having become infatuated with the opera singer Irma, performed by the larger than life Alexa Devlin.

Philip is the son of the widowed American industrialist Godfrey Frazer (the excellent John Nelson) who has also adopted the young Elaine. He too is infatuated with Irma who lives in Paris. 

Trying every ruse known to operetta fans, Ezra Bunker tries to escape his bossy suffragette wife Zenobia to get to the same salon in Paris to premiere his "music of the future". He is portrayed by the reliably funny David Seatter, with the equally hilarious Vira Slywotzky as his wife. In a satiric moment, his "new music" sounds like some of the music being composed today, the kind we deplore. This marks Herbert as some kind of prescient visionary!

Also contending for Elaine's affection is the malaprop-spouting Marquis de Frontenac (played with high comedy by baritone Nathan Hull) who helps Elaine with her plot, and the handsome British Navy Lieutenant Larry Sheridan, soulfully sung and played by Christopher Robin Sapp.

The chorus comprised four naval officers, played by Jonathan Hare, Anthony Maida, Keith Broughton, and Shane Brown. On the female side we had Hannah Holmes, Stephanie Bacastow, Charlotte Detrick, and JoAnna Geffert. 

The action begins in Plymouth, England and ends in Paris at an artistic salon in which Scott Ballantyne portrays the famous cellist Testlavitz--and actually plays the cello quite beautifully.

Music Director Michael Thomas conducted effectively and William Hicks did his usual fine job playing a piano reduction of Herbert's score. And what a score it is! If we tried to tell you about all of the songs, we might be going on for several more pages but it is extremely difficult to select the best.

Mr. Sapp led the ensemble in "Love Is a Battle" in which we could truly appreciate Robert B. Smith's clever lyrics. He was also wonderful in "Peggy's a Creature of Moods" in which he gives an accurate description of a cyclothymic personality.

 "Married Life" gave Ms. Slywotzky and Mr. Seatter a chance to express very different views of their marriage. Ms. Leyden and Mr. Bolander had a charming duet in "The Golden Age", describing their happy childhood together.

Ms. Devlin played her role as a diva to the hilt in "When I Played Carmen". Ms Slywotzky got a side-splitting dancing lesson from Mr. Nelson who was disguised as a Spanish dancer.

What a sextet we heard in "The Face Behind the Mask"! The very operatic "Fate", sung by Ms. Leyden, Mr. Bolander, and Mr. Sapp led to a reprise of the same.

There were some unforgettable lines, especially when Mr. Seatter did a send up of opera, insisting upon scent as well as color in the vocal lines. And Irma, pursued by both father and son, uttered the following--"What am I, a family heirloom?" Priceless!

Emily Cornelius worked her customary magic as Choreographer. No one was credited as Costume Designer but there was no need. Women wore long gowns and the men wore naval uniforms or dinner jackets. Only Mr. Nelson was wildly dressed as some version of Escamillo.

Unfortunately, by the time you read this, it will be too late to see it. We have tried to give you as complete a description as possible. However, let us give you fair warning about the upcoming Madeleine which will be presented on March 3rd and 4th. We urge you to mark it on your calendar now, and to secure tickets as early as possible. As VHRPL! gains traction, tickets are getting ever harder to come by. This run was a sellout. Don't be among the disappointed!

© meche kroop

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