MISSION

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.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

GO FOR BAROQUE


 Emmanuelle de Negri

Every time Opera Lafayette makes their way north from our nation's capitol to The Big Apple, they have something unique to offer; it is always educational as well as entertaining. On this occasion, they brought Emmanuel de Negri to coach some young singers in the art of singing Baroque arias. The coaching was meticulous, worthwhile, and offered with humor and warm support. If anyone knows more about this art form than Ms. de Negri, we would be astonished to hear it. 

At the end of the masterclass we felt in a position to appreciate music that has seemed to us heretofore as pleasant but uninvolving.  Au contraire, dear reader! When properly performed it is as exciting as bel canto. It seems as if the more techniques singers have in their toolbox, the greater variety and interest they will be able to bring to their selections. We learned that in the Baroque period, singers improvised their own decorations of the vocal line, which was, in the Bel Canto period, written down by the composer. We believe that the cadenze of arias are, to this day, devised by the singers, an interesting holdover.

Many performers of Baroque music hew to a dry style of singing which sounds boring to our ears. Who's to say what it sounded like several centuries ago? We prefer to agree with those who achieve a dramatic and involving style of singing, as we heard the other night.

The first singer to be coached Grégorio Tanaguchi chose an aria from a cantata by Monteverdi in which Amor and Bacchus have an argument. (Somehow, this made us think of the singing competition in Mahler's lied "Lob des hohen Verstands".) There is plenty of back and forth and opportunities for dramatic voicing. It sounded quite good at first, but with some of the finer points shared by Ms. de Negri, it became dramatically valid and vocally more interesting.

Soprano Rachel di Blasio was coached in "Di misera regina" from Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria and we observed how some finer points could express Penelope's complex emotions more effectively.

Mezzo-soprano Naomi Steele received coaching for "Iris, hence away!" from Händel's Semele. We appreciated her crisp diction and enjoyed hearing how variations in the decorations could be used playfully to make the performance more interesting.

All three singers were superb in their initial run through; and yet we were impressed with Ms. de Negri's coaching that took these excellent performances to an entirely new level. What a feel this artist has for Baroque.  We don't think we will ever hear this music the same way as we did before!

© meche kroop


Monday, December 5, 2022

CHANNELING THE POET

 


Baritone Suchan Kim

Collaborative Pianist Eric Sedgwick



We hold 19th c. art songs in high esteem and have nothing but bitter scorn for any singer that fails to do them justice. On the other hand, when we hear a singer who shows us something new or something deeper, we want to fall to our knees in gratitude.

Last night at Opera America, we were gifted an evening of song cycles by Naama Zahavi-Ely that left us not only fulfilled but also transported.

Until last night, we had considered Schumann's Dichterliebe in somewhat second place to Schubert's Winterreise and Die Schöne Mullerin.

The performance of the Schumann by baritone Suchan Kim bumped it up to first place. It was so affecting that we needed to go out for a little tearful moment at the conclusion. Heinrich Heine's poetry seemed channeled through Schumann's music and then through Mr. Kim's performance so that we literally felt the many emotions expressed in a soul-to-soul fashion that is rarely achieved in a concert space.

A song cycle is actually a duet for voice and piano in which the piano part sometimes supports the text, sometimes alternates with the text, and sometimes tells us what the text is trying to hide. Collaborative pianist Eric Sedgwick added immeasurably to the effect. The "Dichter" of the title is not telling a story consecutively as is the storyteller in Die Schöne Mullerin. He is rather presenting the many aspects of a love affair gone wrong as in the kaleidoscope of memory;  fragments of emotions return to haunt the disappointed lover. He remembers the joys, the excitement, the betrayals, the resentments, the jealousy, the feigned indifference, the rage, the unwanted dreams of happier times, the attempts to forget, and all other aspects of dealing with grief.

In a performance like this, the listener can get wrapped up in what appears to be spontaneous but is actually the product of hours upon hours of work on the vocal aspects, the phrasing, the breathing, the language, the dynamics, etc. In a great performance the listener can forget all that and feel the emotions. However, due to the unavailability of titles, we couldn't help but notice how perfekt was the German diction. We understood every word. Final consonants were given their due and the terminal "ich" was never slighted.Our companion does not speak German but the storytelling took place in the voice and it was easy to grasp each emotion in its turn.

The power of this performance and its affect on us left us ill-equipped to change gears and focus on the second half of the evening as intently as it deserved. It was a tough act to follow, as they say. Soprano Kinneret Ely (pictured abovehas a bright tone and a most charming manner that lends itself well to the French repertoire. Berlioz' Les nuits d'ete seems more a collection of songs than a unified cycle and indeed we have heard these chansons sung separately more often than together.

The cheerful "Villanelle" and the fragrant "Le spectre de la rose" (the poetry of which inspired Michel Fokine to choreograph a ballet for Diaghilev) made small inroads on our dark mood. The subsequent "Sur les lagunes", "Absence", and "Au cimitière" were sorrowful but the ending "L'île inconnue" lifted our spirits with its playful tone. The cycle is marked by wide leaps and a wide range, a challenge for the singer to keep the voice centered throughout the entire register. In the upper register it is difficult to understand the words, a problem not unique to this artist but rather universal.

Mr. Kim returned to perform another cycle we love--Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. It shares with the Schumann the Romantic period focus on intense love and the despair of a spurned lover. Much has been written about the wandering keys of the four songs in the cycle and the autobiographical nature of the lyrics written by Mahler himself.

We would like to hear Mr. Kim perform this cycle in the future. It seemed as if he had not worked on it sufficiently. There was nothing wrong with the vocalism but the rare glances at the score of the Schumann were replaced here by frequent glances which broke the emotional connection.

Mr. Sedgwick's playing was consistently magnificent throughout the evening and always supported the singers. We left contented.

© meche kroop

BRUSH UP YOUR SHAKESPEARE


 Students of Undergraduate Opera Theatre at Manhattan School of Music

"Brush up Your Shakespeare" from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate ws indeed the encore number of Scena Shakespearean: Scenes by the Bard and a clever choice indeed to end a delightful evening of scenes conceived and directed by A. Scott Parry who seemed to know exactly what to do with these talented youngsters, giving so many of them time onstage. It was difficult to decide who had more fun, the students or the audience.

Scenes were chosen from among works created in the 17th c. right up to the present time and languages included not only English (of course) but also German, French, and Italian. Coaches who accompanied the scenes were Travis Bloom, Djordje Nesic, and Chun-Wei Kang. There was no costuming and no sets; just a couple of benches and a stepladder. It was the fine direction, singing, and acting that provided such delight.

There were way too many admirable performances in the twelve scenes for us to single out any individuals so we will just share with you which scenes we enjoyed the most. Tops on the list was the final fugue from Verdi's Falstaff. Young singers rarely get to tackle anything by Verdi so it came as a delightful surprise. We have never taught or coached singers but we can't help wondering why, in a small hall and no orchestra over which to project, young singers cannot be given the Verdian experience. We would have loved to have heard the three witches from Macbeth, for example, or something from Otello.

On the other hand, the finale from Thomas Adès The Tempest has a stratospheric tessitura that was a bit much to tackle. What we most enjoyed was the terpsichorean Ariel. We heard a potential Queen of the Night.

We suppose these young singers will have to deal with contemporary music (more's the pity) but Anthony Davis' score for Lear on the 2nd Floor seemed to have nothing to do with Shakespeare and everything to do with a jagged unmusical vocal line.

Far better was the Act II trio from Berlioz' Béatrice et Bénedict in which the three young women filled the performing space with resonant overtones, so pleasing to the ear. Similarly the duet finale from Händel's Giulio Cesare had some gorgeous harmonies, as did the selections from Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor.

As far as more recent works, the prize goes to Bernstein's West Side Story in which Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and Bernstein's music joined to create what we consider a 20th c. American opera. Argue with us if you must!

© meche kroop

Thursday, December 1, 2022

RETURNING TO JUILLIARD


 Natalie Lewis, Shavon Lloyd, Brian Zeger, Shelén Hughes, and Colin Aikins

Masks off!!!!  Time to give Juilliard the attention they deserve.  After such a lengthy covid-induced hibernation, how happy we were to watch four gifted students showing off what this incomparable institution has to offer. Last week we reviewed some superb singers doing justice to Händel's glorious music in Atalanta and this week we had a grand time at the annual Juilliard Songfest.  

Brian Zeger, Artistic Director of the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, has lent his formidable collaborative piano artistry to some of the world's greatest voices; he offered no less to these post-graduate students. We loved his idea for the first half of the program--that of letting  the four singers choose their own programs.  Long ago, when Isabel Leonard was being coached by Maestro James Levine in a master class, he dropped some words of wisdom.  "Sing what you love!" Hearing these singers performing songs of their own choosing gave us a glimpse into their inner lives.

Leading off was soprano Shelén Hughes who impressed us as a student at Manhattan School of Music when she performed the lead in Snegurochka, Rimsky-Korsakov's opera of the same name (known in English as The Snow Maiden). This review is available by using the search bar. At the above-mentioned performance of Atalanta, she shone in the eponymous lead role. At this Songfest, her personal choice was Joseph Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne.

Ms. Hughes' connection with the material was a deeply felt one. The dialect is strange and difficult to understand without looking at the program; but the several stories came across by virtue of the artist's winning personality and artistic choices. Regular readers know how much we love folk songs for their memorable melodies and simple direct meaning. In "Baïlero" we particularly responded to the nonsense syllables which reminded us of "scat" in the jazz realm. What an opportunity to show off exemplary bel canto technique expressively used to convey emotion. 

The emotion of "La delaïssádo" was a mournful one, painting a portrait of an abandoned maiden.  In "Lo fiolairé" Ms. Hughes flirtatiously portrayed a frivolous girl who gives two kisses to the boy who asks for one. We had a smile from ear to ear. The cycle ended with a paean to the joys of female singlehood.

Next on the program was Shavon Lloyd whose richly textured baritone lent gravitas to text by Langston Hughes set by Leslie Adams. A composer himself, Mr. Lloyd clearly responded to this music and sang with conviction. Text by Georgia Douglas Johnson, "The Heart of a Woman", had a satisfying rhyme scheme, as did "Creole Girl" with text by Leslie Morgan Collins.  What we observed about Mr. Lloyd's fine technique was the strong connection between his rich round sound and his precise embouchure. This is something we never noticed before and we love learning new aspects of technique. We might add that every single word was intelligible, a rare quality on which we place a high value.

Tenor Colin Aikins's performance also taught us something new--that a supernal performance can change our opinions. When we saw the program our first impression was one of despair. We have complained bitterly about composers setting prose because it's never musical and the vocal lines are not interesting. We gritted our teeth when we saw a cycle called Dear Theo, settings of Vincent van Gogh's letters to his brother, adapted and set by Ben Moore. We were sure to be bored.

Not only were we not bored, we were riveted. We experienced Mr. Moore's composition as music to support an intense monologue that was delivered so dramatically by Mr. Aikens that it seemed he was channeling the painter, expressing the intense joys and despairs of a seriously troubled artist; and he did so with impeccable diction. This was one of those performances for which our impoverished words are no match. It was unforgettable!

Finally we heard mezzo-soprano Natalie Lewis perform four songs from Gustav Mahler's Rückert-Lieder, omitting only the transcendent "Um Mitternacht". Mahler's music always has a profound effect on us with his memorable melodic lines and pungent harmonies. We tried to figure out what disappointed us about the vocal performance. Did we mind that the songs were not sung in the compositional order, nor the publication order? We don't think so.

Was the German muddled? No. As a matter of fact we did understand every word. Our German companion noticed that the ending consonants were crisply and accurately enunciated, although we both noticed the inconsistent enunciation of the terminal "ich" which seems to create problems for many American singers.

We found ourselves listening more to Mr. Zeger's piano--the earnestness of "Liebst du um Schönheit", the gentle airy lyricism of "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft", the hidden humor in "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder", and the quiet resignation of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen".

It is just a speculation on our part but perhaps, although Ms. Lewis enjoys singing these songs, the singer needs more age and experience to do them justice. We have never felt this when hearing a young tenor tackling Schubert's two song cycles --Die Schöne Mullerin and Winterreise.

We had no such problem enjoying Ms. Lewis' charming performances of several selections from Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch in the second half of the program. We have always been tickled by these miniature portraits of young lovers with all of their longings and adolescent angst. We are not familiar with the original Italian folk songs but the translation into German by Paul Heyse both rhymes and scans and surely inspired Wolf to write these accessible songs.

Mr. Zeger's idea to stage them with all four singers onstage interacting with one another was a clever one and added a new dimension. Ms.Lloyd seemed far more comfortable here and we were able to enjoy her ample sound and on point acting. There was courtship aplenty, jealousy, rejection, and every other shade of emotion found in early experimental relationships. We have never enjoyed this cycle more than we did with these four artists bringing the songs to life. They brought the evening to a satisfying close with "Nun lass uns Frieden schliessen".

© meche kroop

Sunday, November 27, 2022

CENTURY OPERA COMPETITION


 


Manli Deng, Yohji Daquio, Hyunju Ha, Allison Deady, Madison Marie McIntosh, Elizveta Ulakhovich, Jingjing Qi, Caroline Corrales, Rose Kearin, and Samuel White

It's always an exciting event when the finals of a competition are open. We were delighted to have been invited to The Century Opera Voice Competition to hear ten fine young singers. The singers each led off with an aria of their own choosing; then the judges requested another aria from their lists of prepared arias, presumably to learn something new about the singer, perhaps facility in a different style or different language. We enjoyed this rounding out of the picture. 

We do not envy the judges since each young singer offered something valuable. And so, we will not tell you, dear Reader, who won the prizes because they were, in our eyes (and ears) all winners! We will tell about the young artists in the order in which they appeared. 

First on the program was soprano Rose Kearin who did justice to "Ach, ich liebte" from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, sung in good crisp German.  We regretted missing Adelaide's Aria from Jonathan Dove's The Enchanted Pig, since we had never heard it before and might never have another opportunity.

Also superb in German was mezzo-soprano Allison Deady who gave a passionate delivery of Octavian's post-coital aria "Wie du warst!" from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. Equally fine in Italian, she sang "All'afflitto è dolce il pianto" from Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, meeting the fioritura challenge with grace.

We hadn't heard enough of soprano Caroline Corrales at the Santa Fe Opera when she sang Donna Elvira (in a nun's habit) so we were especially delighted to get a better "listen". Her sizable sound was perfect for Verdi and "Ernani, Ernani involami" was thrilling. Ms. Corrales is an emotional singer and Jenufa's prayer from the Janáček opera of the same name was stirring. We cannot comment on the language because we are completely ignorant of Czech.

"Stridono lassù" from Leoncavallo's  Pagliacci is one of our favorite verismo arias and soprano Manli Deng created a lovely sound world including a delicate trilll. Massenet's Le Cid, however, is not well known by us, but Ms. Deng evinced some fine sounding French in "Pleurez, mes yeux". Her use of dynamics were effective in eliciting emotion.

"Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" from Puccini's La Rondine was a much better choice for soprano Jingjing Qi than "Sleeping Beauty" from Menotti's The Hero. It is difficult enough for native English speakers to sing musically in English! However, there was a heart-stopping decrescendo that tickled the ear.

Soprano Hyunju Ha invested "Ah, non credea mirarti" from Bellini's La Sonnambula with dynamic variety, fine fioritura, and an affecting vibrato. In the exposed passage without piano accompaniment we could appreciate the musicality of her phrasing. Although her second selection was not listed on the program, the choice of Sophie's "Rose Aria" from Der Rosenkavalier came as a delightful surprise, sung with wide-eyed innocence in fine German. They were good choices because they demonstrated her versatility.

Tenor Samuel White was the lone male on the program and he showed his stuff in the "Flower Aria" from Bizet's Carmen and an intense delivery of "Una parola sola..Or son sei mesi",  Ramerrez' aria from Act II of Puccini's Fanciulla del West. Mr. White has a powerful voice and we longed to hear some tenderness in places.

We would like to hear soprano Elizveta Ulakhovich on another occasion. There is a lot o beauty of tone there but her choices did not seem suitable to us. Micaela's "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvant" from Bizet's Carmen requires a singer who can sound like an innocent country girl pushed to the limits of her fearfulness, a sense of "whistling in the dark". It wasn't there. Ms. Ulakhovich projects an air of confident glamor and we could think of far better material for her to sing.

Mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh, on the other hand, knows exactly where her strengths lay and how to play to them. She has a voice of unusual and exciting timbre with great flexibility in fioritura. "O mio Fernando" from Donizetti's La favorita is the perfect vehicle to show off her finely honed bel canto technique. The judges requested "Un'altra volta ancor" from Händel's Partenope which was just as splendidly performed; however, we would have much preferred to hear Waltraute's aria "Höre mir Sinn was ich dir sage" from Wagner's Götterdammerung. We hope we will have another opportunity.

Finally, soprano Yohji Daquio did get the opportunity to show off her versatility by performing two very different characters, the sprightly Marie from Donizetti's La fille du regiment showing her patriotism in "Salut a la France" with all its fabulous fioritura--and then meeting head on "I am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung" from Adams' Nixon in China. This aria involves a lot of rage and repetition and it takes a gifted singer to make it interesting. She succeeded. We were floored.

© meche kroop



Sunday, November 20, 2022

MORE BAROQUE FROM MANNES OPERA


 Curtain Call from La Calisto presented by Mannes Opera


Last night we attended a performance of Francesco Cavalli's l651 opera La Calisto, presented by Mannes Opera and directed most imaginatively by Emma Griffin. We don't know why all three opera conservatories in New York City chose to present a Baroque opera during the same time period; we thought we had had our fill and had no intention of writing another review. We only went to see the performance of a couple singers we admire. However, we were so taken with the production and the artistry of the singers and musicians that we feel compelled to share it with you, dear reader. If you read this too late to see it in person, we urge you to watch the livestream on December 2.

 We were amazed by the endurance of so many aspects of love that have remained unchanged for  four centuries. The stage was filled with nymphs and satyrs, gods and goddesses--strange figures to be sure; and yet their concerns are our concerns today.  The social media generation did not invent unfulfilled romantic longing, sexual dalliances overcoming chaste intentions, rejection, cross-dressing, lesbian love, romantic deception, cheating husbands, nor vengeful wives. There was something particularly thrilling about seeing ourselves onstage in a work dating back four centuries.  Not just thrilling but moving as well. Love and sex will always be with us until the robots take over!

It is difficult to believe that this marvelous work lay dormant until 1970.  How fortunate we are that it was discovered and revived.  It lets us in on what the mid 17th c. Venetians expected from a rather new and popular art form. Cavalli was there at the birth of opera!

Impresario/librettist Giovanni Faustini had created many operas with Cavalli; this one was their penultimate production. The story was derived from Ovid's Metamorphosis and recounts the myth of Giove pretending to be the goddess Diana in order to seduce the beautiful chaste Calisto. The tale is padded out with the love story between the real Diana and the shepherd Endimione. In every case, chastity falls under the weight of sexual desire. 

The wily Mercurio (fine and funny tenor Daniel Rosenberg) convinces Giove (authoritative baritone Christopher Lau) that persuasion is no match for deception when trying to seduce a woman. Their duet was musically gorgeous and also quite humorous. 

In the title role, lovely soprano Anna Aistova sang about wanting to lead a chaste life, devoted to the goddess Diana.  Giove transforms himself into Diana (beautifully sung by soprano Lindsey Kanaga) and successfully seduces her. The two women had a tender duet before entering a cave to exchange chaste kisses (which led to much more).

When the real Diana appears (Jihye Seo) her voice and gestures are very different and there is no doubt that she is the real thing. When Calisto refers to their makeout session, Diana is outraged by the inference and tosses Calisto out of the virginal sisterhood. 

Diana, on her part, is secretly in love with the shepherd Endimione (Elisse Albian) who expresses his longing for her in the most exquisite aria.

In a scene offering comic relief, Maia Sumanaweera portrayed Linfea, one of Diana's followers, who longs for romance. In spite of her desperation, there is no way Linfea is going to settle for the importuning of Satirino (Emmet Solomon), even though he tells her that while young, his tail is still growing!  He is a member of a clutch of satyrs, of which the leader is the god Pane, portrayed by Joohyun Kim. As Silvano, one of the satyrs, we enjoyed hearing Yuan Lai.

We were met with new delights as Giunone, the jealous wife of Giove, appeared to expose her husband's infidelity.  The stunning soprano Marieke de Koker just about stole the show as she gave her all to the revenge aria, in which she instructs women not to put up with philandering husbands but rather to take revenge.  Her particular revenge is to transform Calisto into a bear. Giove cannot undo this curse but finds his beloved Calisto a place in the firmament as the constellation Ursa Major, a condition foretold in the Prologue.

The Prologue was outstanding with soprano Yixuan Li taking the role of L'Eternita, soprano Jillian Agona appearing as Il Destino, and mezzo-soprano Morena Galan taking the role of La Natura. In a stunning opening scene the three women decide that Calisto deserves her place in the heavens. 

Taking the roles of The Furies were Olivia Gray and Anna Ruhland.

Emma Griffin, Managing Artistic Director of Mannes Opera, pulled exemplary performances from these gifted young singers and told the tale in a way that resonated with contemporary listeners, without robbing the work of its authenticity. Cavalli's music is very singable and  a small chamber orchestra, such as was heard in its own time, did full justice to Cavalli's writing, led by the rising star conductor Kamna Gupta.

We do not know who was responsible for the costuming and makeup but both contributed enormously to the effectiveness of the storytelling. What impressed us the most was how these wonderful singers are also terrific actors, especially in the comic roles.  We could see both the mythic characters and ourselves simultaneously!

© meche kroop

Saturday, November 19, 2022

MANHATTAN SHOOL OF MUSIC DOES CACCINI


 Curtain call for brilliant cast members of Graduate Opera Theater

The title was longer than the opera!  Rarely do we wish an opera was longer but in this case it was over too soon. La liberation di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina was composed in 1625 by Francesca Caccini, daughter of the famous Giulio Caccini who sired and taught two talented daughters and composed our favorite Baroque art song "Amarilli, mia Bella". 

When we first arrived in Manhattan we were exposed to an all-day outdoor production of Ariosto's epic Orlando furioso, and since then have seen operas based on the work from time to time. In this case, librettist Ferdinando Saracinelli extracted an episode dealing with the knight Ruggiero who abandoned his intended Bradamante and his military duties by virtue of--no by vice of--the seductive sorceress Alcina who seduces men and then turns them into beasts--in this case plants.

The "good" sorceress Melissa disguises herself as Ruggiero's father, breaks the spell, and frees Ruggiero to take up the sword once more and reunite with Bradamante. Then Melissa frees the enchanted plants and banishes the furious Alcina.

We read the director's notes after the performance as is our wont. James Blaszko had some interesting intentions of a political and sociological nature which seemed, in our opinion, a bit too heavy for this slight work to bear. We were happy to hear the gorgeous music and feast our eyes on a most imaginative production with stunning costumes. Mr. Blaszko deserves maximum credit for avoiding the trend of excessive stage business distracting from the singers, a defect in the recent Juilliard production of Atalanta.

As Alcina, Madison Marie Fitzpatrick gave a stunning performance, utilizing similar techniques as heard in bel canto singing to limn a deceitful character who is capable of lulling seductivenes in the early scenes and ravishing rage at the end when she loses everything. As Melissa, Margaret Macaira Shannon gave a performance of towering force with notable depth in the lower register. 

Justin E. Bell's performance was just right for the hapless Ruggiero, tender in the love scenes and ending up as a stalwart warrior.

Alcina's three handmaidens, in some gender blind casting, were portrayed by Zihan Xiu, Haolun Zhang, and Chenxin Wang. To hear the close harmonies of three high voices was unusual and stunning.

We are not sure what a "Scenic Coordinator" does that is different from a Set Designer but Rodrigo Hernandez Martinez might have been responsible for the several steel tables on which lay the "plants", injured and bandaged and tenderly watered and cared for by the three sirens. It was an arresting image and brought to mind how people give up power to be taken care of.

First and foremost in a work like this is the instrumentation and its execution. In this case Maestro Jorge Parodi used his magic hands to elicit some gorgeous playing by a small ensemble comprising a trio of violins, cello, double bass, and a pair of flutes plus a guitar. Continuo for the lengthy recitativi was performed by Jeanne-Minette Cilliers.

The imaginative costumes were designed by Christopher Metzger. They were colorful, interesting, and of no particular time or place.

We left thinking about some things that the director never intended. There is a parallel between this work and Wagner's Tannhäuser in which a man is torn between love/sex (bad) and knightly duties (good). This is pretty strange in today's world but, as they say, autre temps, autre moeurs. In our lifetime it has been more like "make love, not war".

When Signora Caccini wrote this piece, as a casual piece d'occasion for a visiting Polish prince, could she have possibly imagined that an audience of opera lovers would be sitting enchanted for a single hour? Can our music world today produce anything that will survive four centuries? This thought gave us chills.

© meche kroop

Thursday, November 17, 2022

KOME TO THE KABARETT

Sari Gruber, Naomi Louisa O'Connell, and Justin Michael Austin

We have missed the many pleasures of Steven Blier's New York Festival of Song but now that masking requirements have been lifted, it is just like the good old days B.C. (before Covid)...or almost. Loyal audience members have returned to Kaufman Recital Hall and Maestro Blier is back at the piano with his carefully curated program of songs, astutely chosen singers, and witty commentary.

Last night's concert was devoted exclusively to German cabaret of the 1930's, known as the Weimar Era, and the three singers lit into the material with gusto and wit. When we opened the program, our heart sank when we saw the English text. To our ears, the sound of German matches so perfectly with the music that we were sure we wouldn't like the English translations. However, once the program began, we started to feel appreciation for the skill of Jeremy Lawrence, the translator. The verses rhymed!  They scanned!

We very much enjoyed it none the less when some verses were sung in German, or spoken in one language and sung in the other. We still maintain that there is more of a bite to the German language but the trade off is that more members of the audience could understand the meaning. There was bitterness and irony and political criticism. There were amusing sexual innuendoes. There was plenty of gender bending.

Soprano Sari Gruber was joined by Irish mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O'Connell and baritone Justin Michael Austin, all of them known from the world of opera and art song, and all with the dramatic ability to convey the emotions of the song, be they anger, irony, or wistfulness. Solos alternated with duets and trios, in which the harmonies delighted the ear and the back and forth dialogue engendered knowing smiles.

The ensemble was particularly strong in the opening number, Mischa Spoliansky's "It's all a swindle" with lyrics by Marcellus Schiffer (English translation by Jeremy Lawrence); it could have been written this year. Schiffer also wrote the lyrics to "Sex Appeal" which was given a very entertaining performance by Ms. OConnell. Ms. Gruber charmingly delivered Mischa Spoliansky's "Maskulinum-Femininum" with Schiffer's gender bending lyrics . 

Speaking of gender bending, Mr. Austin sang "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss", Friedrich Holländer's famous song, sung by Marlena Dietrich in the film The Blue Angel--a song we recognized as "Falling in Love Again". Mr. Austin sang it straight which made it all the more powerful. Very different was his delivery of Hanns Eisler's "Rosen auf den Weg gestreut" in which. Kurt Tucholsky's ironic text was performed with intense passion.

What struck us was the similarity to our own epoch. Ninety years ago, Europe was gripped by difficult economic circumstances, fascism was encroaching, and sexual freedoms were being explored. Songs by Friedrich Hollaender, Mischa Spoliansky, Olaf Bienert, and Kurt Tucholsky could have been written today.  Most affecting were the anti-war pieces. We were deeply stirred as we considered the dire condition of the world at this very moment in time and how important it is for us to avoid another cataclysmic outcome.

Watch for more to come from NYFOS--of course the theme for the February 15th concert will be.,.."Amor"!

© meche kroop

Saturday, November 12, 2022

HIP HÄNDEL


                                                         Mary Beth Nelson and Shelén Hughes
 (Photo by Richard Termine)






   



                                                   Richard Pittsinger and Maggie Renée  (Photo by Richard Termine)

Now that masking is optional, we have happily returned to reviewing performances at  The  Juilliard School and last night we saw TWO performances. The first one was a musically authentic production of a Händel opera in which the stellar Maestro Gary Thor Wedow led Juilliard 415, the schools principal period instrument ensemble, in a musically authentic reading of Atalanta.  Thanks to some recent exposures to Baroque performances, we were not surprised by the presence of musicians onstage with the singers from time to time.  As a matter of fact, the overture put trumpeter John Thiessen onstage   and some excellent duets were heard with the woodwinds and theoborist/lutenist Dušan Balarin. Harpsichords were played by Mo. Wedow himself and David Belkovski,

Not only did Mo. Wedow draw such admirable performances from his orchestra, but the vocal values were equally dazzling. Soprano Shelén Hughes, whom we wrote about when she was a student at Manhattan School of Music, made a powerful Atalanta who is supposed to be a Princess disguised as a shepherdess named Amarilli. Ms. Hughes has a voice of notable flexibility and a strong stage presence.

As her beloved "Tirsi" (actually King Meleagro in shepherd disguise) we had the remarkable mezzo-soprano Mary Beth Nelson (whom we heard recently at the National Arts Club as Cenerentola) utilizing the same dazzling technique as she used in the Rossini.

Another mezzo-soprano Maggie Renée immersed herself totally in the role of Irene, aggressively tormenting the man who loves her in spite of some better advice by her father Nicandro (bass-baritone Donghoon Kang). Richard Pittsinger made an excellent Aminta who had such stunning vocal moments that we found ourself holding our breath.

The hit of the evening was baritone Jared Werlein (whom we wrote about enthusiastically in a freshman recital) who brought the opera to a close as Mercutio, about which more later. Keep reading!

So, what was the second performance we attended at Juilliard? Well, it was simultaneous with the one we just described! It was a Broadway show with a lavish set (by Ryan Howell) and striking costumes (by Ryan Park) with a crazy story having nothing to do with the libretto Händel chose on which to drape his fluent arias, of which there were many.

We completely understand that audiences of three centuries ago were enchanted by pastoral stories which could be rather boring for contemporary audiences. We have observed an unending series of performances of Händel's operas tricked out with beach chairs and umbrellas and all kinds of nonsense meant to engage a 21st c. audience. It seems like a lack of trust in the music to stage it so.

The theme of the story is how young people play games on the court of love. Our association was that of middle school students who fake disinterest in those on whom they are crushing and who try to make their crushes jealous by flirting with others. So we appreciate that there is room here for a "concept".  Much as we dislike updating, audiences must be attracted or opera will die.

In this production, director Omer Ben Seadia's concept was a group of young people at some kind of music/art festival in the desert. An overhead sign on stage read "Bacchanalia". On stage left was a performing stage with drums that didn't get played until the final postlude with the fantastically costumed cast trying to disco dance to Baroque music.  You can imagine!

On stage right was a food truck in which Aminta seemed well supplied with ingredients and a chef's knife which he wielded whilst singing, making us a bit nervous. When he and Irene finally get their games straightened out at the end of the opera they can be seen through frosted glass, presumably fornicating.

Irene seemed to be the one admitting outlandishly costumed participants to the festival, checking ID's and cell phones. But the platform shoes seemed more suggestive of the 70's. Does it matter?  No one seemed to care but rather enjoyed the eye candy. But the story seemed shoehorned into Ms. Ben Seadia's concept. After the opera we read her Director's Note and can see where she was coming from. However, the stage business was so overdone that it distracted from the music. It seemed as if every important aria was overshadowed by someone moving furniture or performing some kind of acrobatic activity. There were times when we had to shut our eyes to hear the beauty of the voices.

We did promise to tell you about Mr. Werlein's performance since one might say he stole the show. In extravagant white drag and platform boots, his Mercurio sang about the blessings of love, reminding us that this work was created to celebrate a royal marriage between Frederick (son of George II) and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. The bridal couple did not deign to attend the premiere which was anything but modest and involved a great deal of spectacle. Well, this 21st c. audience did not suffer from want of spectacle!

© meche kroop

Friday, November 11, 2022

ACTION FOR ARTISTS


 Emma Luyendijk, Jihye Seo, Chantal Freeman, and Dina Pruzhansky

It is always a great pleasure for us to find organizations that share our goal of helping young artists on their way--including, among others, Classic Lyric Arts and Career Bridges. Yesterday we were introduced to the very exciting Action for Artists, helmed by vocal coach and collaborative pianist William Hicks, whom we have listened to and admired for several years. His new project will award grants to emerging artists with, as they say, no strings attached. The six month grant will help with whatever the young singer, pianist, or composer needs and will be renewable for up to 2 years-- as long as the artist shows progress.

After a welcome by Mr. Hicks, the charming director Carol Castel. shared some words of wisdom from her late husband Nico Castel which was followed by an hour-long concert of beloved classics performed by some remarkable young artists and a reception. 

We have loved the compositions of Dina Pruzhansky for some time now, having heard her at Carnegie Hall and the 92nd St. Y. We heard two of her compositions last night, both excellent, with one of them highlighting what a gifted composer can do with the English language. We go numb when we hear deathless prose set to unmelodic music, but when we hear humorous text given a setting that highlights tha rhythm of the words and phrases, we feel fizzy with delight.

Sung by the splendid soprano Chantal Freeman, we heard "I am a Singer" from Ms. Pruzhansky's Heroes of New York. In this song (lyrics by singer Brianna Hunter), we are introduced to the exhausting life of a young singer with all of its trials and tribulations; Ms. Freeman captured the humorous mood perfectly, as did Ms. Pruzhansky's music.  In a second piece "Puzzling it Out" (lyrics by Mary Moore Easter) we made note of a lovely vocalise by Ms. Freeman.

The versatile soprano Jihye Seo was joined by the South African collaborative pianist Emma Luyendijk for two very different arias. In "Egli non riede ancora ...Non so le tetre immagini" from Verdi's Il Corsaro, the ill-fated Medora gives voice to her fearful premonitions as her beloved pirate Corrado will be going out to sea. Although you may not have ever seen the opera you would surely have recognized this gorgeous aria in 3/4 time which gave Ms. Seo the opportunity to show off a lovely legato, dynamics put to good expressive use, and an impressive messa di voce. Excellent breath control made possible an exquisite pianissimo.

Later in the program, she brought Pamina to life in "Ach, ich fühls" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. This sorrowful aria shows the character at her lowest moment as she fears abandonment by Tamino.

The third singer on the program was tenor Victor Starsky who excelled as an ebullient Rodolfo in "Che gelida manina" from Puccini's La Bohême. Mr. Starsky has a pleasing tonal quality and impressive acting chops, convincing us that he was an ardent young man out to win the affection of his modest neighbor. He acted just like any young man on a first date with someone for whom he feels intense attraction and wishes to impress.

He also sang "Je suis seul...Ah, fuyez, douce image" from Massenet's Manon. He surely conveyed the anguish of the abandoned Chevalier des Grieux as he, in spite of his clerical intentions, longs for his lost love. Mr. Starsky excels at using gesture and facial expression to limn his character, but he was most successful at drawing us into his grief and longing in the pianissimo phrases.

We were sorry when the singing ended. As much as we love bubbly, finger food, and socializing with the denizens of Planet Opera (and the room was filled with notables), we would have happily sacrificed that to hear more singing. Dear Reader, you have probably figured out by now that we were completely enchanted. Cheers to a worthy new organization which deserves our support.

© meche kroop

Saturday, November 5, 2022

THE THREE ''E"s of EXCELLENCE

Nicholas Simpson, Hannah Ludwig and Simone McIntosh

Jakob Lehmann and Lucy Tucker Yates
(photos by Steve Pisano)

An excellent evening comprises, entertainment, education, and enlightenment. That's a lot of alliteration! We have spent many evenings enjoying opera and have watched them evaporate from our consciousness by the next day. So many operas seem to be churned out like sausages. Well, how about an opera that involved probably a year of preparation to be seen only once? Should we consider that a rare privilege to have seen and heard it or a tragedy that it may never be repeated?

Teatro Nuovo, helmed by Will Crutchfield, is the only opera company in the world dedicated to historically informed performance of Italian music from the Bel Canto period (our favorite). What this means might have been gleaned by visual observation and a refined ear. In this case, it was described in the program and, even better, illuminated in a pre-opera lecture for which "standing room only" seemed a small price to pay.

As well as being Artistic Director, Maestro.Crutchfield is an exemplary lecturer, illustrating his points at the piano. We feel that what we learned about Gioachino Rossini, composer of the opera we were about to see, Maometto Secondo, added enormously to our fund of knowledge and appreciation. Let us give but one small example that tickled us. As complex as Rossini's music sounds, he made use of the same chord progression as is used in rock and roll! Once Mo. Crutchfield illustrated this on the piano we were astonished. It is his unique rhythmic variations that make Rossini's music sound complex, along with the decorations of the vocal line which (news to us!) were copied by the master from the singers themselves.  We could go on and on but less us get to the experience itself.

Upon arriving at the Rose Theater, the first thing we noticed was that the orchestra was on the same level as the audience. Then we noticed the double basses which were split up, two to each side, and raised a bit above the rest of the orchestra. There was no conductor at the podium. As was the custom in that period, all the musicians could see each other and were led by the primo violino (in this case the marvelous Jakob Lehmann). Equally prominent was Lucy Tucker Yates, maestro al cembalo (harpsichord).

We soon noticed the beauty (visual and aural) of the instruments. The woodwinds were wood and the brass had no valves. And what was that exotic instrument in the brass section? Unlike any instrument we had seen heretofore, it is called the serpentone and its player Barry Bocaner allowed us a closer look during intermission.

In this performance we experienced the orchestra as a character in the story, not just a support for the singers. The clarinet, played by Thomas Carroll, was given some memorable melodies woven through the texture of the music. Instead of feeling swept away by an ocean of music, we felt drawn into a fascinating fabric of harmonious threads.

The libretto by Cesare della Valle told the simple story well. The 15th c.Venetians were defending their territory from attack by the armies of Sultan Mehmed II; the romance of the opera was added on, as dictated by convention. The daughter of the Venetian Governor Paolo Erisso  had fallen in love with the Sultan who had previously wooed her under false pretenses. She cannot forgive his deceit; this will not end happily.

The glorious music held our interest throughout. There were only a couple pauses for applause since the music was continuous, rather than being presented as separate numbers. One could say that Rossini's late style had an influence on Richard Wagner. Another unusual convention presented itself. This was the first time we witnessed an onstage band (including a snare drum and a bass drum) except for the Act I serenade in Rossini's Il barbieri di Siviglia.

By this time, dear reader, you must be wondering about the voices. Whoever cast the roles made some fine choices. Rossini wrote the part of the daughter Anna and the part of Calbo  (the loyal general chosen by  Erisso to marry and defend Anna) within the same range. Here, both roles were given to mezzo-sopranos.  One could not imagine two more different voices--each beautiful in its own way, giving duets a special quality. Simone McIntosh possesses a crystalline tone in her upper extension and Hanna Ludwig has a depth and breadth of tone that borders on contralto. Not only did they make incredible music together but Ms. McIntosh had a duet with the harp, played by Chelsea Lane, that was as remarkable as Lucia's duet with the glass harmonica.

Nicholas Simpson's tenor was strong but unforced, musical in its phrasing; his very tall appearance added to the illusion that Anna was his child. As Maometto the conqueror, baritone Scott Purcell was suitably arrogant and vindictive; his voice had the interesting texture of corduroy.

If we have nothing further to say about the voices, it is for want of space. Let us just say that the singing was flawless on all counts and perfectly suited to the bel canto style with all its flourishes and fioritura
Even the smaller roles were well sung. Tenor Spencer Lawrence Boyd stepped out of the chorus to play Selimo and tenor Toby Bradford stepped out to sing Condulmiero. The chorus was excellent as well. There were a dozen women onstage together but unstaged, and a dozen men also unstaged.

Speaking of which, let us note that the principals did act in a believable fashion, although there were no costumes (just evening dress) and no props. The projected backdrops were drawings of scenes of palaces piazza, and pavilion. Nothing moved.  Nothing distracted from the music. We don't have enough space to mention all the excellent chorus members (Mo. Crutchfield also serves as chorus master) and all the musical soloists whose lines interwove with the singers.  Let's just say it was a memorable evening all around.

© meche kroop

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

A VISIT FROM OPERA LAFAYETTE


 Christa Patton and Markéta Cukrová

It is always a special event when Opera Lafayette comes to New York City from their home in Washington D.C.  The company makes an annual visit in the Spring, bringing neglected masterpieces, mostly from the 18th c. Opera Lafayette can be counted on to provide not only entertainment but education, by means of lectures which illuminate the operas that are presented.

Artistic Director Ryan Brown came to town for a short visit to pique our curiosity about this season's works and we will only give you a hint--they relate to Madame Pompadour--and we urge you to watch our FB page for advance notice. And if you cannot wait, go directly to their website (operalafayette.org).

Guests at this private event were treated to a delightful performance of Baroque music at a lovely space in Chelsea, not to mention a generously provided spread of delicacies and wine. But we are not here to talk about food (our other passion) but to tell you a bit about the music.  

Czechoslovakian mezzo-soprano Markéta Cukrová was accompanied by Christa Patton on a Baroque harp. True to Opera Lafayette form, we were not only entertained but also enlightened by Ms. Patton who demonstrated the unusual features of her harp.  Not only does it lack pedals but it has a third row of strings. Something that was entirely new to us is that the flats and sharps are played on different strings.  As an amateur pianist, we know that G# for example is played on the same key as A-flat. Not on this harp! We had to listen very closely to discern the difference in color and tonality.

Ms. Patton also introduced the gorgeous songs to which Ms. Cukrová lent her magnificent instrument. We had never enjoyed Baroque singing until our friend soprano Jessica Gould introduced us to her opinion that Baroque songs should not be sung dry, without overtones. And so we grew to love the early Italian canon when so performed.

Ms. Patton told us some interesting facts about the Caccini family. Father Giulio is the composer of "Amarilli", a song that has enchanted us since our first hearing. However we were a bit disappointed to hear that it might have been meant to be ironic. We have always taken it seriously when the poet says "Open my chest and see my love written on my heart".

We heard a number of songs and learned about his daughters and why women chose to be courtesans.

We were completely enraptured by the superlative artistry of both women. The singing was beautifully phrased and the dynamics astonishing. There were some delicate diminuendi that tapered off to a thin thread of sound hanging in the air. The fioritura was cleanly rendered. Although one song was of a religious nature, most were about love.  All were sung with consummate expressivity. We so enjoyed this trip back in time.

© meche kroop

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

ERIC OWENS AND FRIENDS



 

Sarah Fleiss, Lucy Baker, Joseph Tancredi, and Eric Owens

What a magical evening we spent in the company of four artists from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, on tour as part of Curtis on Tour. Led by esteemed bass-baritone Eric Owens, who graduated from the Curtis Institute a quarter century ago and who now serves on their faculty, three emerging artists dazzled us with their artistry. Mr. Owens' legendary gifts have been sufficiently recognized and treasured worldwide, so let us focus on the three young artists who seem to have profited enormously by his tutelage.

Let us begin by praising the program which contained not a single disappointment. There was something for every taste--art songs, folk songs, cabaret songs, musical theater songs, and of course a couple operatic scenes. The theme of the evening seemed to be love in all of its many manifestations--the longing, the satisfaction, the disappointments.

Who beside Brahms has brought so much artistry to the folk song! We never pass up an opportunity to hear his Liebeslieder Waltzer, Op. 52, but are far less familiar with his Neue Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 65. We imagine that the first collection was so successful that Brahms was urged to set more of Georg Friedrich Daumer's text. (The final song of the group was written to text by Goethe but it was not included.)

Accompanied by 4-handed piano (Ting Ting Wong and Miloš Repicky) The soprano of Sarah Fleiss blended beautifully with Lucy Baker's mezzo-soprano, Joseph Tancredi's tenor, and Mr. Owens' bass-baritone. Each song offered a different combination of voices and therefore different textures. 

The solos were particularly poignant, especially those given to Ms. Fleiss which seemed to emphasize the woes of a maiden unsuccessful at love--"An Jeder Hand die Finger" in which a maiden has bestowed all her rings on worthless men, and in "Rosen steckt mir an die Mutter", in which she sees herself wilting and stripped of leaves like a rose.  This characterization would be repeated at the conclusion of the evening when she sang a most pathetic Gilda in the quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto.

Ms. Baker was very well suited to the role of temptress in "Wahre, wahre deine Sohn" in which she tells a neighbor that she is going to bewitch her son. Later, she would be similarly seductive as Maddalena. Hearing the two women bring Sophie and Octavian to life in "Mir ist die Ehre widefahren" from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier was all one could wish for and gave the two of them an opportunity to interact, which was not possible in the Brahms. 

When a performance is that exquisite, the mind's eye supplies the costumes and settings and we were transported right into 19th c. Vienna. The two women sounded so harmonious together that we longed to hear them sing "Dôme épais le jasmin" from Delibes' Lakme. We are putting that on our wish list! 

We were also happy to hear all voices together in a few of the songs and cannot think of any work written for four voices that we enjoy more . None of the songs were written for two male voices but we did get to hear Mr. Tancredi and Mr. Owens harmonize in double delight with "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de perles, our favorite duet for male voices. 

We noticed a few things about Mr. Tancredi that augurs well for his future success. One is his vocal artistry; few tenors produce such round Italianate vowels, which we attribute to his consistent embouchure. There is no "spreading" and no forcing--rather, complete security of technique. We have reviewed Mr. Tancredi as an undergraduate at Manhattan School of Music where we noticed his promise. Again we observed his growth as a Santa Fe Apprentice in 2019. Nothing makes us happier than seeing growth in an artist. The other thing we appreciated was his total immersion in the character of Nadir. We saw the temple and the crowd through his eyes-- and that is the excitement of opera!

We have also heard Ms. Fliess  a few years ago, singing a duet from Rossini's Tancredi, singing the title role as a mezzo-soprano. We were surprised to hear her as a soprano but happy to report that the high notes are crystalline and unforced. It will be interesting to see where she goes next. Her duet with Mr. Tancredi from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel was a joy to hear.

Ms. Baker is new to us and we can hardly wait to hear her again. Aside from a lovely instrument she knows how to get a song across and we delighted in her delivery of "Langsamer Walzer" from Schoenberg's Brettl Lieder which is also known as "Den Spiegel von Arkadien" which we alway call "the Bum bum song". Her interpretation was highly dramatic and filled with humor, making every word count.

We have alluded to the closing number, the famous quartet from Rigoletto and it was the perfect way to end this varied program, leaving us with the impression that great voices and great music need not be categorized. Art song or folk song, aria or cabaret, just sing it with style and substance and we are happy.

© meche kroop