Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Showing some love for Lindemann

In light of the glut of overcooked “concept operas” these days, it can be an extraordinary treat to hear opera scenes in which the gifts of the performers-- vocal, dramatic and pianistic, combine to give us the essence of what the composer and librettist intended. Such was the case on Sunday when the artists of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program showed their stuff, without benefit of sets and costumes, and without the dubious benefit of videos and machines. The program was created in 1980 by James Levine with the mission of identifying and developing young talent in the world of opera--singers, coaches and pianists. Proof of their success is the vast number of graduates of the program who are dazzling audiences worldwide. The recent partnership between The Juilliard School and The Metropolitan Opera has only added luster to both programs.

Here was a golden opportunity to see and hear these young artists in a variety of roles as they hone their already remarkable craft. Tenor Paul Appleby showed his comic side as a very fine Ferrando, with baritone Evan Hughes as an equally fine Guglielmo and bass Ryan Speedo Green as the older and wiser Don Alfonso, with Mr. Wagorn accompanying on the harpsichord. Let it be noted that Mr. Wagorn has a special flair for Mozart, as he accompanied soprano Emalie Savoy as Fiordiigi, this time on the piano. Later, Mr. Appleby tackled the role of Tom Rakewell and won, with soprano Layla Claire’s Anne Truelove and mezzo Renee Tatum’s Baba the Turk competing for his attention and Natalia Katyukova offering piano support. Further along in the program he excelled as Benedict with gorgeous soprano Wallis Giunta as his Beatrice, accompanied by the versatile Bryan Wagorn on the piano.

Ms. Claire later did justice to the role of the inconsolable Dorinda in a scene from Handel’s “Orlando”, accompanied again by Mr. Wagorn. Ms. Tatum was glorious as Medoro and soprano Lei Xu, whose voice is as supple as her figure and as bright as a penny, sang the role of Angelica. The three voices were perfectly balanced as one enhanced the other. Ms. Xu also made a stunning Juliette and was totally convincing in her scene with Romeo in the Gounod. First year artist Mario Chang’s Romeo was excellent and we are looking forward to hearing him again.

Tenor Alexander Lewis exhibited true comic flair as Nemorino with baritone Luthando Qave an equally impressive Belcore, while Alexandra Naumenko accompanied with panache. Mr. Lewis was heard later as Count Almaviva with the adorable Elliott Madore as the mischievous Figaro, this time with Ms. Naumenko essaying both piano and harpsichord. Mr. Madore and Ms. Xu made superb musical sense of a scene from Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”, an opera that had heretofore eluded me. Ms. Katyukova’s pianisme was perfect.

Baritone Evan Hughes also has a delightfully humorous side as seen in a scene from Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”. Ms. Tatum’s Isabella was memorable for its cleanly articulated coloratura. Bass Ryan Speedo Green, accompanied by Mr. Wagorn, was a powerful Blitch in his quest for divine forgiveness in Floyd’s “Susannah”.
The program came to a close with one of those tickling Rossini sextets “Fredda ed immobile” from “Il Barbierre di Siviglia” that sends the audience out humming this not unwelcome earworm. Ms. Giunta was captivating as Rosina; Mr. Lewis hilarious as the “drunken” Count; Mr. Qave a riot as Figaro pushing Mr. Green’s Bartolo around. This time, Ms. Katyukova did the pianistic honors while Mr. Wagorn put in an appearance as the arresting officer.

Scenes were directed by Stephen Wadsworth, Fabrizio Melano and Gina Lapinski. All the scenes were directed with style and substance and allowed each member of the program to shine. What a grand asset to the opera world is the Lindemann Program. Bravissimi tutti!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Gala Evening of Music, Food, and Drink

Among the many generosities of the Gerda Lissner Foundation--support for young singers and support for other organizations that support young singers--we must add the joyful holiday musicale. This year, introduced by Foundation President Stephen De Maio and hosted by Brian Kellow, author and features editor of Opera News Magazine, glamorous supertenor Jonas Kaufmann and fast-rising soprano Angela Meade were honored. Four young artists provided the entertainment for the enormous crowd of luminaries of the opera world-- past, present and future.

Mr. Kaufmann spoke briefly and engagingly about donating his award to his favorite charity which is involved in music education for the children of Munich. Then the enthusiastic audience was serenaded by mezzo Kathryn Leemhuis singing the “Seguidilla” from “Carmen”. Following this, baritone Liam Bonner gave us a very beautifully nuanced rendition of Yeletsky’s aria from “Pique Dame”; Tchaikovsky could not have been in better hands. Lots of “garlic” was dished up by tenor Leonardo Capalbo in “Ma se m’e Forza perderti” from “Un Ballo in Maschera ”; this is an exciting voice discovered a few years ago by Marilyn Horne and sounding better and better.

Bass-baritone Brandon Cedel did a fine job with “Aleko’s Cavatina” from Rachmaninoff’s seldom-heard “Aleko”. The program closed with Angela Meade singing “Io sono l’umile ancella” from “Adriana Lecouvreur”; it surpassed Georghiu’s performance recently at Carnegie Hall. This generously proportioned voice has a brilliant future. Piano accompaniment was provided by Jonathan Kelly, and for Ms. Meade, Arlene Shrut.
After all that food for the heart and soul, dinner seemed but an afterthought but gave the attendees many opportunities for socializing and sharing. Thank you to the Gerda Lissner Foundation!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Michele, ma belle

So much culture, so little time! December 1st offered so many tempting musical events that I almost missed a most fulfilling recital by Montreal mezzo Michele Losier, seen and reviewed a few nights earlier as Siebel in “Faust”. I dithered over whether an entire evening of French chansons might be a bit effete. Not to worry, the evening was delightful and varied; my decision was a good one. Mlle. Losier is a gifted recitalist who surely merits many more such evenings; Brian Zeger was intensely supportive as her piano partner.

The first half of the program comprised 19th c. romantic songs. Mlle. Losier’s extensive operatic background served her well as each song was imbued with drama. Cesar Franck’s “Le mariage des roses” was charming and melodic, whereas George Bizet’s “Adieux de l’hotesse arabe” was complex and intense; the singer reveals all the emotions and strategies of a woman who doesn’t want a man to leave. Massenet’s “Elegie” had the additional pleasure of Meta Weiss’ cello echoing the melody of the singer. “Bizet’s “La Coccinelle” offered ample opportunity for humor which the audience especially enjoyed.

Comprising the second half of the program were some 20th c. songs by Ravel, Poulenc, Satie and Weill. Ravel’s “Chanson Madecasses” had Mlle. Losier joined by Ms. Weiss and also flutist Daniel James. In this case, the voice was melded into the texture of a quartet. The irony of the Satie songs and the Weill offered an interesting contrast. Mlle. Losier and Mr. Zeger performed Grieg’s “Ein traum” as the sole encore and sole non-French offering. One could not have wished for a better recital but one does wish for more from this divine duo.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Friday, December 2, 2011

Faust, meet Dr. Atomic

This is a meeting that should never have taken place. In spite of some superb performances, Des McAnuff’s production is a bomb, one that failed to explode but just lay there like soggy cornflakes. One hopes Mr. McAnuff will stay on Broadway where he belongs. It would be a charitable speculation that he was trying to mine some serious philosophy according to Goethe but that is not the opera composed by Charles Gounod, a story of love and betrayal adapted from Michel Carre’s play “Faust et Marguerite” which in turn was loosely adapted from Part I of Goethe’s “Faust.” This is a Romantic opera which has charmed audiences for a century and a half with its direct emotional appeal and melodies that delight the ear and linger there as a fine wine lingers on the palate. In this production it was weighted down by symbolism.

The post-modern set by Robert Brill comprises walkways flanked by circular stairways reminding one of “L’Amour de Loin”. This is meant to represent some kind of facility that produces atomic devices. Chorus members dressed in white coats observe the action. There is a sink in which Marguerite drowns her baby. Pardon me while I puke!
The saviors of the evening were Canadian Yannick Nezet-Seguin whose baton led the fine Met Orchestra in a stirring and lyrical account of Gounod’s thrilling music; the fine Met Choristers; the compelling tenor Jonas Kaufmann who manages to caress every difficult French vowel and stay comprehensible; the formidable bass RenĂ© Pape who made Mephistopheles as debonair as he is wicked (and, who knew, with a delightful note of humor); and the penetrating soprano of Marina Poplavskaya who showed some excellent acting chops. She was totally believable as an innocent maiden, aided and abetted by costumer Paul Tazewell and a very youthful wig. She struggles mightily against the seductive Faust, but who could resist the very seductive Mr. Kaufmann and his very seductive aria. Hot stuff!!!

Marthe was sung by Wendy White and Russell Braun was a rather stolid Valentin. Mezzo Michele Losier was a fine Siebel and will be reviewed shortly as a recitalist of great merit. It was good to have a native French speaker aboard. Also enjoyable was Kelly Devine’s choreography; not so the distracting video projections of Sean Nieuwenhuis. What on earth is the point of projecting the singers’ faces on a scrim? As a matter of fact, what is the point of hiring directors who seem to know nothing of opera and want only to “express themselves” at the expense of dramatic and vocal integrity??? The devil take them!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Mi chiamono Hei-Kyung Hong

A singer cannot really steal La boheme from Puccini, nor from Zeffirelli, but she can fulfill the role of Mimi with such lyrical glories, focused tone, legato phrasing, total commitment and believability that one feels the story to be fresh and novel. Such was the case with Hei-Kyung Hong who was so beautiful and heartbreaking in her performance at the Met that one marvels at her artistry. There is not a trace of the self-serving prima donna about her performances. Quite simply, we adore her!

Susanna Phillips’ performance as the coquettish and fickle Musetta was nearly as impressive with her bright but warm soprano, allowing us to be tickled by her histrionic hijinks but ready to receive the generous heart underlying them.
Dimitri Pittas disappointed as he failed to convey much chemistry with Ms. Hong in the love scenes in Act I and II; his intonation was faulty in spots, he failed to float his upper register over the orchestra, and the legato line one hopes to hear just wasn’t there. It was curious that he connected better with Ms. Hong during Act III after he confesses to his buddy Marcello that he cannot deal with Mimi’s poor health and in Act IV when she is dying.

Alexey Markov’s healthy baritone seemed about right for Rodolfo, the jealous and frustrated lover of Musetta and Patrick Carfizzi sang Schaunard with good humor as he described playing for the parrot who died of “parsenic” poisoning. Bass Matthew Rose gave a fine account of “Vecchia zimarra,” an ode to his old overcoat that he is pawning to pay for the dying Mimi’s medicine; this is a most moving aria and we in the audience just know he is bidding adieu to more than just a coat.
Paul Plishka was delightful in both roles, as the befuddled landlord coming to collect the overdue rent from the four young men and getting sidetracked by their shenanigans, and later as Musetta’s wealthy elderly “admirer."

Conductor Louis Langree got the most out of his brass fanfares and lamenting strings; more importantly he did something unique and very effective by extending the moment of silence when Mimi dies. This accentuated the heartbreak of that very minor chord that never fails to bring tears to our eyes.

Finally, what can one say about Zeffirelli’s lavish production about which everything has already been said. Here’s what the Balcony Boxer has to say: we appreciate it for its verisimilitude. We are transported to early 19th c. Paris much as we are transported in Cavalleria Rusticana to late 19th c. Sicily. We are sick to death of the updated and modernized versions of Regietheater. We can make our own connections to the counter-culture youth of today and their moral provocations just as we can to the tragedies of young people dying of the diseases of poverty and poor living conditions. We love the way Puccini’s music is used to dictate the dramatic “business” onstage. We want this 30-year-old production to last forever and beg the Met not to retire it as they did with the glorious La traviata.

Now, what of Puccini’s music? How curious that La boheme was scorned by most critics during the late 19th and early 20th c. but adored by the public. Audience members have always had a strong emotional response to the lyricism of the score, the melodic invention, the subtle shifts that use the same themes to convey differing emotions in the four acts. It is well-known that Puccini gave a rather hard time to his two lyricists Giacosa and Illica who developed the libretto from the stories of Henri Murger. And we in the 21st c. are so glad he did. The result is a poignant and moving story told through glorious music that will thrill generations to come. If you have friends new to opera, this is a great introduction. And if you have seen it dozens of times as we have, you will never tire of it.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

From ghetto to palazzo

This original program, conceived by Jessica Gould, Artistic Director of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, presented the seminal music of the 16th c. Mantuan Jew Salamone Rossi Ebreo. Soloists of the Clarion Music Society, and Steven Fox as Music Director can be credited with giving sensitive performances. Liturgical pieces were sung a cappella in the Hebrew language; secular songs were sung in Italian and accompanied by David Walker on theorbo and Gabe Shuford on harpsichord. Although all the soloists sounded superb in the ample space of the Italian Portuguese Synagogue, we were particularly taken by Molly Quinn’s heartfelt performance of “Tirsi mio, caro Tirsi”.

One could be forgiven for being ignorant of the historical and social underpinnings but the program notes went a long way toward dispelling this ignorance. The history lesson was most welcome and augmented the appreciation of this relatively unknown composer whose music was lost for two centuries. The Gonzaga court of Mantua engendered a rare period of humanism and tolerance for Jews who had for centuries been walking a fine line between acceptance and exile. Only three professions were permitted--medicine, banking and entertaining. Under the protection of the Gonzagas, Mantuan Jews experienced a Renaissance of their own with renewed interest in the Hebrew language and scholarship. Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga struggled to withstand pressure from the Vatican during the Counter-Reformation to ghettoize the Mantuan Jews. This allowed Rossi (1570-c.1630) to distinguish himself by publishing 13 volumes of music (half liturgical and half madrigals and canzonettas that have much similarity with the works of Monteverdi). He introduced the bold innovation of polyphony in sacred music which challenged existing liturgical precepts and offended more conservative members of his community who thought that only monody was acceptable in the synagogue.

And what happened to this community? Sadly, Austrian troops invaded in 1630 and destroyed the ghetto whose inhabitants fled or were killed. The Great Synagogue of Mantua, founded in 1529, was razed by Mussolini. But fortunately for us, Rossi’s music survived to be “discovered” by Baron Edmond de Rothschild on a tour of Jewish communities of Northern Italy in the 19th c. The first modern edition of Rossi’s music was published in 1876.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

A Family Affair

Accompanied with great artistry by his beautiful daughter Joana Pons, reknowned baritone Juan Pons gave a most fulfilling recital at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, under the auspices of The New York Opera Society and The Institut Ramon Llull. The mission of NYOS comprises identification, funding and production of premiere performance opportunities, supporting the development of professional artists’ careers and expanding audiences for both traditional and contemporary operatic repertoire. The mission of The Institute Ramon Llull is to promote the culture and language of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. Both missions succeeded admirably, resting on the broad shoulders of this gifted dramatic baritone. Although known to most of us from his innumerable performances on the opera stage, this recital gave his fans an opportunity to experience his artistry in an intimate situation and in his native tongue.

Although the composers and lyricists were unknown to us and the language sounded quite different from Spanish (as different as Portuguese), the songs were lovely and clearly came from a golden age of song-writing. Whether singing of love, of loss, of death or of war, Mr. Pons invested each one with deep feeling. In spite of using the score, he demonstrated a remarkable ability to connect with the audience.

Following several songs by Antoni Parera Fons (lyrics by Guillem d’Efak), R. Martinez Valls (lyrics by Capdevila and Mora) and J. Ortega Monasterio (lyrics by Tofol Mus), the Pons family ended the recital with two Verdi arias, “Io Morro” from Don Carlo and “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” from Rigoletto. We could have listened all night long but still felt satisfied and enlightened about a neglected artistic heritage. Thank you NYOS and Institute Ramon Llull.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Monday, November 14, 2011

Six arias and a couple duets

One of our favorite groups in support of young opera singers had their annual membership party, offering six of the eight winners of “Encouragement Grants” the opportunity to sing for their supper--the bountiful buffet provided by the members themselves. President Murray Rosenthal offered a touching memorial to Robert F. Crosby who served Opera Index well from 1996 until his death. The sadness and feelings of loss were rapidly dispelled by the roster of young singers who delighted the membership with their talent and enthusiasm for performing. Tenor Adam Bonanni and baritone Julian Arsenault began the program by singing Mr. Crosby’s favorite, the duet from “Pearl Fishers”. Judging by the applause, it is the favorite of a lot of opera lovers.

Two fine mezzos treated us to some French favorites; J’nai Bridges sang the Habanera from “Carmen” and Kristina Lewis offered “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” from “Samson et Dalilah” --two very different seductions. Two terrific tenors were also on hand to tip the balance toward German; Kevin Ray sang “Wintersturme wichen dem Wonnemond” and Mr. Bonanni sang “Dein ist mein ganzes herz”. Lone baritone Mr. Arsenault essayed some Russian in “Jas Vas Lyublu” from “Pique Dame”. The sole soprano Maria D’Amato sparkled in “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from “La Rondine”. Accompanying the singers as piano partner was Michael Fennelly.

The ensemble closed the program with a drinking song which gave way to some wine-imbibing and food-devouring by the membership. This annual event gives the singers a good opportunity for exposure and allows the OI membership to see the stars of tomorrow. One look at the list of famous singers who received OI awards in the past is illuminating. The winners of the largest awards get to perform at other OI events later in the year.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider