Monday, December 27, 2010

A Tale of Two Conductors

Conducting calls attention to itself when it is truly awful or excellent. This week two different conductors in two quite different houses employed their batons equally effectively for two very different operas. On Monday at the Met, Simon Rattle did battle and totally conquered Debussy’s dense orchestration of Pélleas and Mélisande. The score totally “made sense” as he brought out the shimmering harmonies and textures; thick velvety strings underpinned snatches of nascent melodies from the winds. The harp was properly ethereal. Altogether one felt the mystery of the inexplicable story. It is a strange tale; the symbolism is murky and no motivation is given for the characters’ behavior. Several themes kept reappearing: darkness vs. light, hair falling down, arms reaching up (and down), aquatic bodies (fountain, pond, and swamp). But there is nothing that a psychoanalyst could make sense of. Perhaps a mystic could.

The singing was glorious and the acting seemed fine in view of the fact that nothing is comprehensible. Much credit to Magdalena Kozena, Stéphane Degout and Gerald Finley who did their best to make the characters sympathetic. But more credit to Maestro Rattle for making the score tell the tale. In light of its Medieval nature, the late Victorian costuming appears inapposite, although Mélisande’s wig was perfect; she looked like Rapunzel and even when Golaud tried to drag her around by the hair, the wig stayed on her head. The set was ugly and anachronistic, revolving like the rooftop restaurant of the Holiday Inn in Southfield Michigan. There was much talk of being in a dark forest with lots of trees but the set had only one skinny little specimen; the forest scene from Don Carlo was better by far. The pond where Mélisande meets Golaud is devoid of water. The lighting in the last scene seem to indicate the sun setting in two directions. Clearly they were not going for realism here. But the furniture in the castle was quite realistic, going for an “Upstairs, Downstairs” look with lots of uniformed servants and chandeliers, not to mention parquet floors where rough-hewn stone would have served better.

On Tuesday Christopher Fecteau gave a luminous reading of a Humperdinck opera; he apparently made a reduction of the score for a chamber group of seven musicians who must have rehearsed quite a bit to have everything sound so distinct yet so unified. “Königskinder” lacks the singable melodies of “Hänsel und Gretel” and the story is a tragic one, definitely not one for the kiddies. The Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble was wise in their choice of this gem and must be admired for giving New York the opportunity to hear an opera absent from New York stages for nearly a century. The Lynch Theater at John Jay College is a good size for chamber opera. Costumes, set and staging were of the bare bones variety and I would decline to comment on the singing with the exception of soprano Katherine Wessinger who was a most affecting Goose Girl. Her flock of geese were imaginatively created by the four arms of two performers. She and Maestro Fecteau ensured that it was a most well-spent evening. Let’s have more chamber opera in New York City!

-- Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Music cures a stammer

I went to see the exquisite film 'The King's Speech' last night. Yes, on Christmas. Ok, so let's be super honest here. We (my mother and I) actually went to see 'Little Fockers' but as it finished we realized that 'The King's Speech' was just starting at the next theater... so we ducked in and stole a couple seats down front.

If you haven't seen it yet, and it just came out so you may well not have, run to the cinema now. Of course most young women know Colin Firth (who plays King George VI, or "Bertie") from his portrayal of Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice" or perhaps as Mark Darcy in "Bridget Jones's Diary." This is an acting challenge of some significant measure, and he carries it off brilliantly.



Early on in the film Bertie makes his first visit to see Lionel Logue (played superbly by Geoffrey Rush), an Australian-born speech therapist, and wanna-be actor. He despairs as his stammer continues throughout the session. Logue asks him to put on some earphones and recite Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech into a microphone that is recording his own voice. Into the earphones Logue projects music. What music, you ask? Nothing less than the overture to "Le nozze di Figaro." Of course it could have been any music at all, but perhaps the undoubtedly familiar tunes of that music would have made Bertie feel more comfortable than a piece of music with which he might have been less familiar with. I had to smile as the music swelled and of course we later find out that he has spoken the words of Hamlet eloquently and without fault because his mind was occupied with rather more agreeable things than worrying about his stammer.



If you have a spare moment this Boxing Day, or coming into the New Year's Eve long weekend (for some of you at least I hope) do make a visit to your local cinema to see this riveting film.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A new heavenly constellation

Yes! And the sun is Thomas Bagwell, one of the most sensitive piano partners in the firmament. Under the auspicious auspices (Yikes!) of the Lotte Lehmann Foundation, the divine Mr. B. presented the first of a series of three art song recitals at Christ and St. Stephen’s Church, not far from Lincoln Center. I have already entered the dates for the next two on my calendar and so should you! NOW! March 13th and May 15th.

Soprano Martha Guth lent her full-throated soprano to some lovely Schubert songs, one of which was actually new to me and quite moving...”Die Abgebluhte Linde”. The poet writes of time passing, changes and aging. The gardener still loves the tree even when the west wind has stolen her blossoms.

Baritone Jonathan Michie (previously praised in a prior review for his performance in Santa Fe as the Vicar in “Albert Herring”) gave us some stirring interpretations of Schumann songs. I was particularly impressed by his “Widmung” and “Die Beiden Grenadiere”.

I was pleased to hear a composer previously unknown to me, the 19th c. German Peter Cornelius. I hope to hear more of his songs someday. His contribution to the program comprised two love duets. The voices of the two singers blended beautifully.

The second half of the program included a song cycle by a contemporary American composer Stephen Paulus, who was in attendance at the recital. He chose to set poetry by Kooser. His piano writing was completely evocative of the loneliness and isolation of the poetry. I could hear the dog barking and the snowflakes falling. Nonetheless, I could not find anything to hold onto in the vocal writing. A Frost poem set by Juhi Bansal produced the same feeling, as did the Tom Cipullo songs. If you have read my prior columns, you already know I am a melody person. I keep trying to like contemporary art songs but I would just as soon listen to the piano part with an actor reading the poetry. Or not.

Fortunately for my well-being, the evening ending with a charming duet by Brahms (now there’s a tune for ya’!) and another duet by Mrs. Amy Beach entitled “A Canadian Boat Song”, a setting of a poem by the 18th c. Irish poet Thomas Moore. How wonderful to leave a recital having been exposed to something new that you actually like! And how wonderful that there are people working to keep the art song tradition alive. Viva Thomas Bagwell and the Lotte Lehmann Foundation!

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Monday, December 20, 2010

EPATER LE BOURGEOIS

“Yo, Pollo, whazzup?”

“I told ya’ Frank, call me Willy, and I’mma major bored.”

“Ya just tired of blowing smoke rings, huh?”

“Any ideas Frank?”

“Let’s write an opera, WILLY. Let’s make the homies crazy like.”

“I’m in. What about?”

“Well, since the war, women aren’t having babies”.

“Right. They enjoyed working in the munitions factories too much.”

“Shut up! What if men had the babies?”

“Oh we wouldn’t have one or two at a time. We’d figure out a way to repopulate the world”.

“Keep goin’ dude.”

“So, we could turn the wife into a man and her husband could have lots of babies”.

“I love it. How would we stage that?”

“Hmmm. She could have balloons for boobs, tied on with a string, and she could cut the string and the boobs would float away!”

“Yeh, and we could put the husband in a dress”.

“We are amazing. We are righteous. We are THERE! We’ll have music schools producing this for generations to come. What’ll we call it?”

“How about...The Boobs of Berthe?”

“Nah, what about ….Les Mamelles de Tiresias? She starts out as Terese and becomes Tiresias. That’s got more class”.

“You are a genius!”

And so...Francis Poulenc and Guillaume Apollinaire came up with a totally outrageous but charming opera and Juilliard Opera gave it an appropriately wacky production. Set and costumes were perfect. Timothy J. McDevitt was a hoot as the husband in a dress (or his tutu was too-too) and Meredith Lustig was an adorable Therese. All roles were delightfully performed and Emma Griffin directed with consummate style. Who says opera isn’t fun???

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cosi fan tutti

That is not a misprint, tutti must include the men as well as the women who made this production at the Met a complete success. What great fortune and casting wisdom to have six superb singers onstage at the same time. Not only were they superb singers but they were also convincing actors who made this silly story believable and moving.

You see, we the audience are joining in the fun of the manipulative Don Alfonso (William Shimell) and disgruntled maid (Danielle de Niese). Only the four main characters are unhappy, confused and conflicted. Sisters Fiordiligi (Miah Persson) and Dorabella (Isabel Leonard) are tricked into cheating on their respective partners Guglielmo (Nathan Gunn) and Ferrando (Pavol Breslik) who have been “called off to battle”. And who do they cheat with? The same two guys disguised as Albanians (in this production, looking more like Berbers). It is to the credit of the performers and the production team that we can suspend disbelief. Persson and Leonard are quite believable as sisters reluctantly tempted to try out a new romance while their lovers are away. Gunn and Breslik are equally convincing as the two lovers--each alternatively enjoying the fun of trying to seduce the other’s beloved but horribly pained to learn that this own lover has promised herself to another.

It’s a crazy plot and I have never seen these 18th century hijinks made as believable as in this production. One is allowed to laugh along with Don Alfonso and Despina at the same time as one “feels the pain” of the four main characters who have so much to learn about life and love. Mozart and Da Ponte laid it all out for us with a worldly wise libretto and music that suits each character. Our ears are treated to the most gorgeous arias, duets and ensembles. We can hear foreshadowing of Donizetti’s frothy comedies and witness stock characters illuminated by the genius of Mozart and Da Ponte. These are people we can care about.

The sets place us squarely on the seaside of Naples with the two drafted military men sailing away on a most realistic boat. The color palette is washed out in the nature of a seaside community in sunlight. The costumes are gorgeous and authentic. And for once, the wigs are perfect; this is not always the case, therefore doubly appreciated.

Let us hope that the Met does not replace this charming production with some cinematic post-modernist monstrosity in the years to come.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Don of another color

Having given us a silly Don last month, the Met now gives us a tragic one--Verdi’s masterpiece Don Carlo based on Schiller’s play. Don Carlo (the crown prince) travels to France to get a glimpse of his intended bride, Elisabeth of Valois, daughter of the French King Henry. They meet cute in the forest of Fontainbleu after a shooting party, as the skies are darkening. Poor Elisabeth is frightened but Carlo volunteers to protect her, having identified himself as a messenger from the Spanish court. She is curious about her intended match and Carlo shows her a portrait of himself. Bingo! Both are instantly and deliriously in love. After their joyful duet all goes downhill. Canons announce a Franco-Spanish peace to be sealed by nuptials and the orchestra erupts with climactic bursts of sound. And who is wedding Elisabeth???? Surprise!

Carlo’s father has decided to take Elisabeth for his own bride, thus unleashing four more acts of friendship, sacrifice, betrayal, thwarted love, honor, rejection, self-delusion, disgrace, and an auto da fe. The four and a half hours fly by in waves of gorgeous melodies and apt orchestrations propulsively conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Horns are a constant presence and the entire brass section keeps our attention on red alert. There is no down time.

This is a more balanced casting than the one I saw some years ago that was dominated by the charismatic Dmitri Hvorostovsky. In this production the role of Rodrigo is sung by Simon Keenlyside who definitely could have put a bit more pizazz into the role. On the other hand, Roberto Alagna was everything he was supposed to be and more. I could completely believe him as the neglected and unloved son who cannot let go of the now-forbidden love for Elisabeth. Marina Poplavskaya is equally convincing as the honorable queen who is trying to do the right thing but carries her secret love in her heart and Carlo’s portrait in her jewel case. This leaves the door open for the jealous Princess of Eboli (ably interpreted by Anna Smirnova’s dusky mezzo) to betray her queen and to set in motion a chain of events that is tragic for everyone. Rodrigo has walked a fine line between loyalty to Philip, who has expressed gratitude for his support, and his loyalty to Carlo, born of friendship. He gives his life for Carlo but dies in vain. He never achieves his goal of freeing the beleaguered Flemish people from Philip’s tyranical rule, nor can he save Carlo from the envy and contempt of his father.

The surprising thing about the characterizations is that one can feel sympathy for each player in this sad tale. Philip is a lonely aging man despairing over his inability to win the love of his young queen. His aria (“Ella giammi m’amo”) is heartbreaking, particularly so as sung by Ferrucio Furlanetto who certainly has the “garlic”. He is terrified of losing power to Carlo and must ask the Grand Inquisitor for permission to kill him. The G.I. himself (in a terrific piece of acting and singing by Eric Halfvarson) is blind and feeble but wields unquestioned power over everyone. He assures Philip that he can sacrifice his son, Just as God sacrificed HIS son. The tragedy of living in a state of paranoia in a totalitarian nation is driven home over and over again.

The chorus was as potent as usual. I was pleased to recognize some favorite young singers onstage: Here is Layla Claire portraying Elisabeth’s page! Oh, and then there were Donovan Singletary and Christopher Schaldenbrand among the Flemish Deputies. That’s always fun.

So....dream casting, excellent performances, passionate conducting of gorgeous music and a stirring story. Can I find anything to complain about? Sure. The production seems threadbare and minimalistic and doesn’t add anything to the storytelling. The setting of the first act in the forest of Fontainebleu is the exception. We are in a cold snowy landscape with a visually arresting pathway snaking through; the chill is relieved when Carlo lights a (real) fire to warm Elisabeth. This works. But afterward we are frequently treated to bare walls with squares of color which I supposed were meant to look like shafts of light but looked to me like a geometry puzzle. The designers seem to favor a color palette of red, black and gold. In the Queen’s garden, the women of the court are dressed in black and wave red fans. This is visually compelling but steals drama from the Princess Eboli singing a song about a veiled woman deceiving her husband ( as in Nozze de Figaro) which foreshadows the veiled Princess Eboli herself appearing to Carlo. And what is that strange red piece of “street furniture”? It suggested to me either a wastecan or a portapotty. Well, at least the furniture didn’t sing so let’s give it a pass.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Winter Trip

Thanks to Christopher Dylan Herbert for taking us on a glorious winter trip last Wednesday, giving us something to be thankful for the next day. And thanks to the Austrian Cultural Forum and La Prima Volta for underwriting this project, giving talented young singers the opportunity to perform solo recitals in New York and Vienna.

Sensitively accompanied by the gifted Elaine Rinaldi, Mr. Herbert communicated every nuance of nine songs selected from Schubert’s “Die Winterreise”. His youthful and plangent baritone brought out every color--irony, sadness, bitterness, anger, despair and confusion. His German diction was so clear that I understood every word. Translations not necessary! I just want to hear Mr. Herbert sing the entire cycle. I am THERE!

I have heard it said that this cycle needs to be performed by someone older and more experienced but I beg to differ. Only a youngster would experience such intense experience from what seems to be the loss of a first love. And Mr. Herbert’s voice has that youthful bloom, especially when he uses his head voice in the beginning pianissimo. As the winter voyage continues, his voice deepens a bit as anger and despair take over. It seemed as if Mr. Herbert were telling his own story; now that’s performing!

The second half of the program comprised American songs which, with my bias against the English language, I do not feel capable of much comment. The audience seemed to enjoy these songs, especially a set commissioned by Mr. H, composed by David Sisco. Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York” was given a nice relaxed cabaret delivery which I did enjoy; and Marc Blitzstein’s “Zipperfly” was sung with a delightful sense of humor.

I wonder if this recital will be repeated in Vienna and how the Viennese will react!

-- Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I have been dared to print this!

As a guest critic on this blog, I am taking it upon myself to write about a thrilling recital I just attended which was given by an artist of the first rank, one whose modesty is only exceeded by her generosity and her talent. If you missed it, you have my sympathy. And who sang, may well you ask? Our own TOI co-founder Kala Maxym herself; in honor of her years ago bone marrow donation and as a benefit for Opera for Humanity. Ms. Maxym put together a mostly Spanish program that was well-paced and original.

Zarzuela was heavily represented and what a treat it was to hear more of this seldom-heard art form. My personal favorite was from Jose Serrano’s “Los Claveles”, a lament from a woman who sees her love object with another woman. Another wonderful choice was from his “Los de Aragon”. The Spanish theme continued with selections from Wolf’s “Spanisches Liederbuch” and I am pleased to report that The Divine Ms. M’s German is as good as her Spanish. The variety of moods in these little gems gave her the opportunity to show her emotional range; and the addition of the Seguidilla from Carmen allowed her to show her vocal range. Kala has this year made the transition from mezzo to soprano and her top notes have a clarity and ring but, in my opinion, she retains so much depth of color in the lower range that no repertoire would be closed to her.

The program was rounded out by Mompou’s “Quatre Melodies” which demonstrated a lovely fluency in French as well. Kala’s piano partner, Maria Paulina Garcia, who coaches, accompanies and performs at the Manhattan School of Music (one of my favorite haunts) also had an opportunity to perform a few solo pieces. My personal favorite was the Dedication to Poema en Forma de Canciones by Joaquin Turina.

It was indeed a privilege to be included in the select audience. This is a young singer to watch!

DISCLAIMER: I was in no way encouraged or even asked to write this review and am not sure that it will be published.

--Meche Kroop

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Well-done is rare

What is left to say about La boheme which hasn’t already been said? From the frisky opening scene which introduces us to the four rambunctious young men and the fragile Mimi, Puccini weaves his magical melodies into a tapestry that brings in new colors and textures--the narcissistic but good-hearted Musetta, the gullible landlord Benoit, the equally gullible Alcindoro, and popular Parpignol, not to mention the crowds thronging the Rive Gauche of Paris on Christmas Eve. He unreels this fabric revealing gorgeous arias and ensembles and delighting our ears until the last tragic C minor finale. Who would not admit to teary eyes at that point!

Opera Manhattan took this on, in a small black-box theater without benefit of orchestra, costumes or scenery, and provided an evening of excellent singing and dramatic validity. I admit to being no fan of updating since I believe every work of art belongs to a certain epoch; and this is most definitely a story of the 19th century. That being said, the sincerity of this production overrode my reservations. The direction by Elspeth Davis was creative and manifested a few original elements. The intimacy of the story was conveyed by the able artists: Lloyd Arriola conducted from the piano, assisted by Spencer Blank on keyboard. Edgar Jaramillo and Anna Noggle (outdoing their performances at the gala) portrayed Rodolfo and Mimi with impressive passion, throwing themselves totally into their roles and using their respective voices to great advantage. Vaughn Lindquist lent his beautiful baritone to the painter Marcello, while Kristina Semos was a feisty Musetta. Robert Maril was quite amusing as Schaunard and Bryce Smith winningly fulfilled the foursome in the role of Colline.

We are grateful to Opera Manhattan not only for entertaining us so well but also for giving performance opportunities to emerging artists. We in the audience can look forward to gloating about having seen these artists before they became famous, and let us hope that many of them will! The only thing I can complain about was the lack of bios in the program; I wanted to know more about the artists. There are a total of 8 performances. Make sure you catch one of them.

-- Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Epicurean Feasts at Manhattan School of Music

How is a vocal recital like a gourmet dinner? Let me count the ways.

When The Singing Chef plans dinner, she contemplates in advance the nature of the guests she will be serving; she gives serious thought to serving a variety of courses which will complement one another; she aims for contrasts of color, texture, and flavor, she researches recipes; she includes something familiar along with things that might be unfamiliar to the guests; she avoids cliches; and above all she want to send her guests home sated and satisfied.

So might an astute artist of the vocal persuasion give thought to the sophistication of his/her audience, the balance of selections, the inclusion of the familiar with the novel. Such was the case at the Manhattan School of Music last Tuesday when bass Colin Ramsey gave his graduation recital. Having heard Mr. Ramsey sing last year I knew this was a recital not to be missed, in spite of a couple very attractive vocal alternatives. (Oh, if only I could clone myself!)

Ramsey opened with two arias by Jean-Baptiste de Lully which showcased his acting skills as well as his vocal chops. There was a marvelous contrast between the humorous and the serious. Two arias from Handel’s Giulio Cesare demonstrated his vocal flexibility. The program closed with some Cole Porter, giving full rein to the artist’s 20th Century sensibility.

As encore, he offered Schubert’s “An Die Musik” which perfectly summed up the evening for this music lover, who left feeling totally satisfied and hoping to hear more from this young (but mature beyond his years) artist.

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Boris Goodenough

The Met got it absolutely right. If Russian opera is an acquired taste, this may be your best chance to acquire it. Although some audience members I spoke with found the scenery too sparse for their taste, this mattered not a bit to me. There was nothing to compete with Mussorgsky’s glorious music, which was thrillingly conducted by Valery Gergiev. There is nothing in the United States to compete with the versatile Metropolitan Opera chorus who brought the scenes with peasants and boyars to life in equal measure.

What could compare with Rene Pape’s interpretation of the czar, a man deeply troubled by a guilty conscience! Perhaps his guilt has been disproven by historians but it makes for a great operatic (anti)hero. It took about two and a half minutes of stage time for him to elicit my sympathy for this murderous monster. His tenderness toward his own children added still more depth to his character. His magisterial bass has been adequately lauded elsewhere. I couldn’t stop fantasizing about him as a candidate for the role of Wotan.

The entire cast was superb without a weak link. Ekaterina Semenchuk was admirable as the conniving Marina and Aleksandrs Antonenko dazzled as the psychopathic young monk who passes himself off as Dimitri, rightful heir to the throne.

The entire riveting evening flew by, giving the lie to the clock. Special mention must be made of Stephen Wadsworth who stepped in as director for the original director who flew the coop. Moidele Becker created some truly lavish 16th century costumes for the boyars and some suitable rags for the starving peasants but puzzled more than one of us by dressing the women of the Polish court in white gowns reminiscent of Napoleonic Empire crossed with Erte. Oh well. Just a tiny nit pick in a fulfilling evening--everything opera is meant to be.

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Friday, November 5, 2010

Wagner, Verdi, and Vodka

Wagner, Verdi, and Vodka: That is what was promised by Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre and that is what we got. In spades. What a glorious gala evening it was! V.W. Smith, affectionately known as Bryce, and Rebecca Greenstein merit major props for giving Manhattan opera lovers a truly stellar evening.

The evening began with Wagner, an ambitious undertaking to say the least. Most notable among many fine young singers was Grace Valdes who, with her dark, warm and powerful soprano, did justice to Senta’s Ballad from Der Fliegende Hollander and Ortrud’s Curse from Lohengrin.

The second part of the evening highlighted Verdi. Anna Noggle, previously seen at a recital for the Hispanic Opera Company, was a lovely Gilda. Maestro Carmine Aufiero did a most effective job conducting scenes from La Traviata and Rigoletto.

The third part of the evening was the festive gala. The young and lively audience dressed in fine style and did their best to polish off the generous spread of food and drink. But the capstone of the evening was the unexpected performance of a teaser scene from the upcoming La Boheme, performed by Edgar Jaramillo. This tenor, new on the scene, sang with such sincerity and presence, backed by a lovely ringing sound, that the noisy bustling crowd was stunned into silence. You can believe I immediately ordered tickets for November 12th, the night he will be performing. I am sure the other tenors will be equally fine but Mr. J. has such an amazing talent for bonding with the audience that I cannot do otherwise but cancel my plans to get there. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Thursday, October 21, 2010

An Atheist's Letter to God

Dear Wotan,

I never could believe in an all-loving shepherd-type God who let too many sheep wander off or die of unnatural causes. Nor could I worship a God who was supposed to reward the righteous when I see evil-doers thrive and the good die horrible deaths. BUT...a god just like the rest of us with all our moral failings is one I could relate to. I could learn from a God like you--not to break my agreements, not to sleep around, not to be greedy for power--useful lessons all.

At the temple of the Metropolitan Opera House, as you spoke and sang through James Morris, I could feel your pain. I could understand your desperate attempts to find your way out of a dilemma. I could even drop my feminist leanings and want you to triumph over naggy whiny Fricka. I could feel your love for and anger towards your rebellious favorite daughter. I could weep for your need to allow your beloved Siegmund to die. I imagined how disappointed you must have been in your L’il Abner of a grandson. Your diminishment left me grief-stricken. You had to leave that world of gods and demons and giants to destroy itself so we could begin all over. What a god you were Wotan!

But now, you have disappeared altogether; you have left your message to be spoken and sung by Mr. Terfel who doesn’t get it. I don’t give a fig for what happens to you anymore. As a matter of fact, Fricka’s point of view, as interpreted by Ms. Blythe is looking ever more attractive. I can’t believe that you could have fathered all those demigods on earth. Who could be seduced with that stringy hair hanging in your face, I ask you? And what on earth, dear god, happened to your home? What happened to the mountain tops and the craggy peaks? Who replaced it with post-modern machinery and neon? At least the pit-dark cave of your nemesis Alberich still exists, but then evil always has a home on earth.

Well, the entire creation myth has a new strange emphasis and I for one don’t like it. Perhaps when Brunnhilde comes on the scene next Spring, things may get back to being a myth I can believe in. Meanwhile, I’ll just have to remember the way your earthly temple used to be and try to resurrect my memory of good old Mr. Morris.

Yours sincerely,

Meche Kroop

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beginner's Luck

One of the benefits of working with The Opera Insider is that all of a sudden, I'm being showered with Press Tickets to shows around New York. How fantastic not only that I get to see them but that these companies and organizations are trusting me with their art and allowing me to see and write about it.

Last night I visited Merkin Hall in New York City for the very first time ever to see a recital by two young up-and-coming singers: mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke



and 26-year old tenor and 2009 Met Council Audition winner, Paul Appleby




with the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS). I have seen a few of the NYFOS recitals before, and have always left the hall at the end of the evening happier and lighter on my feet than when I walked in (even with my walking cast, it was still true last night). The programming is unfailingly inventive and the charisma of its founders, Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, shines throughout the evening. Last night's theme was "Beginner's Luck," focusing on the lives of young people as they navigate the hurdles of youth and young adulthood.

I was particularly drawn in by Steven Blier's short presentations before each set of songs. He has seen these two artists grow and develop over the last five to ten years, and they are obviously very close friends so his personal stories of the songs or song sets mixed with biographical information about the composers, poets, and music really made the evening so much more enjoyable.



To me, once Paul Appleby started singing, no one else had a hope of catching my attention. He IS everything a singer should be and HAS everything a singer should have: charisma, a fantastic voice, physical energy and strength, good looks, cheekiness and humor, flexibility, and above all else, an understated humility about his remarkable ability to convey intimate emotions. I was taken in by every note he sang.

Appleby is a member of the Lindemann Young Artist Program at the Met, and I am sure we will see much more from him in the future. If this is what the future is, then I am content.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

HD - Friend or Foe to Opera?

It was only late summer ennui combined with a great hunger for my favorite art form and the opportunity to sit outdoors in the Lincoln Center Plaza FOR FREE (thanks to The Neubauer Family Foundation, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s) that overcame a former near-insurmountable reluctance to see opera productions on video. Neither Hi-Def nor Lo-Def tempted me.

After several evenings spent at the Met’s Summer HD Festival I am ready to admit to a great deal of worth in what amounts to a new art form. Is it “as good” as live opera? That is not really the issue. One doesn’t need to compare artichokes with sunchokes. So let’s take a look at some of the differences.

It seems to me as if the major difference is the role of the HD Director. This individual seems to determine the visual focus for the viewer, deciding what part of the stage or which singer deserves our attention at any given moment. The viewer loses the right to decide where to focus. A good director has great instincts for when to focus on the singer, when to focus on the tableau on the stage as a whole, when to highlight an important set element, which singer in a duet to put in the camera spotlight, or what degree of close-up to offer.

I was most impressed by Barbara Willis Sweete for her direction of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Of course, she had a most excellent production to “film.” Not only was the opera sung as close to perfection as possible but it was cast with an eye to visuals--meaning that the singers all looked just right for the part. Close-ups were consequently most welcome and seeing the facial expressions added a new dimension to the experience, one not available at the Met even with opera glasses. The poignancy of the drama was thereby enhanced.

On the other hand, Gary Halvorson had much less to work with in Puccini’s Turandot. The Zeffirelli production shines on stage with its lavish grandeur but on the HD version it appeared dark. The intimate scenes did not work nearly as well on the big screen and Maria Guleghina in the lead role was not visually appealing in extreme close-up. Halvorson did better with Carmen but then again, Alagna and Garanca are simply more convincing in close-up as Don José and Carmen.

And so, it would appear that HD is a hybrid form (or even a completely new form perhaps?) comprising not just orchestra, singing, and stagecraft but also cinematic and video values which can add or detract. BUT to the central question: is it good or bad for opera? I vote for good. There are folks all over the country without access to live opera who deserve to experience opera in some form or other; and there are people who have never been to a live opera who are being introduced to it in HD form and who will become fans of opera because of it.

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Old friends, a choreographed orgy, panic, and skin-tight jeans

I saw that a few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled "Meeting new friends." Well, today I write a short note about meeting old ones.... and about people making stuff up.

I hadn't seen Kate in over four years, and to be honest, we hadn't known each other that well when we were together at Chicago Opera Theater back in 2006 (by the way I started that sentence thinking it was only three... then did the math, and realized that we met even longer ago than that!) She was a mezzo at the time, as was I, but made the switch to soprano soon after. It was absolutely fabulous to see her again and reaffirmed my belief in the fact that singers are truly a one-of-a-kind breed: We TRUST each other almost implicitly, almost from the word "go" and no matter how long we've been apart" We have to, really. And considering my first-ever professional gig involved a choreographed orgy, I certainly had to learn fast!

We met at the phenomenal restaurant Kashkaval on 9th Avenue between 55th and 56th street and gorged ourselves on hummus, red pepper dip, grape leaves, artichoke dip, and tzatziki while sharing stories of fach-changes, Met performances we'd seen (and loved or hated), mutual friends, and the like. A couple things kept coming up: age, real quality in singers, the difficulty of the business, and the fear of getting to a certain age and never having sung that first Tosca (for her), or that first Mimi (for me... she's done a few of those already!)

This business is one of panic:

I'm not singing enough.
I'm singing too much.
I don't have the right rep.
I have too much of the same rep.
I don't have an agent.
I do have an agent but s/he doesn't do anything for me.
I don't sing Handel.
I only sing Handel.
I'm too old.
I'm not old enough.

We are programmed from the time of grad school (I can't speak to undergrad since I did not begin studying voice in a regimented fashion until I reached grad school at age 24 but I assume even from undergrad onwards), to "play by the rules" or that's it. That means: have five contrasting arias in four (or five) different languages and styles, dress conservatively and elegantly for your auditions, always have your materials ready, etc.

Fair enough. All this is true and having five contrasting arias is not a bad idea of course. But if your voice REALLY does do one thing better than another, why try to fake it by making it do something it's not naturally born to do? Of course we need to be flexible, but at what cost? We spend so much time trying to make ourselves be as universally appealing as possible that we oftentimes forget the real meat of the matter. Why can't a soprano sing Charlotte if she has a great low range? Or Cherubino? Or Musetta? Oh wait, no, that's now acceptable. Who makes these rules? Who decided a few years ago that if you brought in "Quando m'en vo" as a mezzo you weren't completely off your rocker? When I was in grad school just five years ago, this was not considered acceptable. Now it is. It's a bit like skin-tight jeans. Who decided that was ok?

Excuse the rant but going back to another point made above, about the quality of singer, she, like I, had had several experiences sitting at the Met - the pre-eminent opera house arguably in the whole world - that left her cringing and writhing inside. I have left several operas at intermission there because the singing was so bad or because I actually got to that point where I had to agree with the masses who say "opera's just so boring." How do we expect to keep the art form alive when we so often settle for mediocrity and genericness?

I've decided to sing on my terms. Like it or not (and more often that not, I don't), I'm 31 now, and I'm done with pandering to people who want to put me in a box and label me. I sing Liu... and I sing Stephano. I sing Louise (almost!)... and Cherubino. And that's ok, folks. If you can do it, do it. Let us make our own paths, speak our own natural language, forge ahead in those areas in which we truly excel, and let's try to keep originality and fire onto the stage.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Vertical Player Repertory presents “Playthings of the Gods: Essential Myths”

Vertical Player Repertory’s “Playthings of the Gods: Essential Myths”

I was eager to finally see a performance by the Vertical Player Repertory (VPR) after an unsuccessful previous attempt – a friend had inadvertently purchased tickets to a Brooklyn performance of the play A View from the Bridge rather than VPR’s performance of the opera. For this performance, “Playthings of the Gods: Essential Myths,” fortune smiled upon me. I arrived at the correct performance at the correct place at the correct time, and I’m glad I did.

VPR is known for creative stagings in unusual venues, and last night’s performance continued this tradition. The program, which integrated music of the 17th and 20th centuries with readings by prominent actors, and which was performed on a candlelit stage at the stunning Christ Church Cobble Hill, was surprisingly effective. Co-creators Judith Barnes and Hayden DeWitt had clearly put a great deal of thought into the selections and their order. For example, a reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis was followed by Britten’s canticle Abraham and Isaac, and the composer’s The Journey of the Magi followed a reading of the T.S. Eliot poem to which it was set.

Soloists were strong across the board, and the quality of their acting matched that of the singing. I found the performances of two Britten canticles particularly affecting, and was impressed that tenor Daniel Neer and alto Hayden DeWitt as Abraham and Isaac, respectively, and baritone Phillip Cheah, who joined them for a performance of The Journey of the Magi, scaled their voices down when necessary to ensure that they blended well as an ensemble and that the audience could hear Britten’s intricate harmonies. (Cheah was equally comfortable as a countertenor, playing Oberon in the finale of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Other highlights included Melanie Long’s performance of Chers Corinthiens from Milhaud’s Médée and Judith Barnes’ performance of Britten’s cantata Phaedra.
The eye-catching costumes, designed by Deborah Houston, contributed to the drama. Also notable was the fine work of the instrumentalists (Kelly Savage on harpsichord, Motomi Igarashi on the viola da gamba, and music director Lloyd Paguia Arriola on piano) and the enthusiastic chorus.

My only quibble was with the acoustics of church, which created echoes (at least from where I was sitting), and made it difficult for the audience to understand the texts, despite the excellent diction of the performers.
That aside, it was an entertaining, thought-provoking evening -- the kind that makes you want to go to church again on a Saturday night.

-- Rachel Antman for The Opera Insider

Friday, October 1, 2010

Faust in Swedish at Folkoperan

Well, this trip has certainly been full of firsts for me. Last weekend I had the chance to visit Stockholm. It is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to and I loved every moment of being there. The city is made up of dozens of little islands all interconnected by bridges. Everyone walks or cycles, and thanks to some absolutely glorious weather, I was able to be out almost the entire weekend. Here are a couple stunning views to give you an idea of the beauty of the architecture and city layout.





The Royal Opera House is stunning, and I was sad that I wasn't able to go see a production there. Here is a view of the front of the house as well as from the back behind some beautiful gardens.





I did, however, have the chance to visit the Folkoperan, or "People's Opera," something along the lines of English National Opera in that they do all their productions in Swedish (so the general public will feel that opera is accessible, of course) but with a touch more bohemian flair than it's London partner. Their current offering is Gounod's "Faust." It's another opera I don't know nearly as well as I should or would like to and so it was a special treat to see it in a full production (though there were significant cuts to the score). I was totally up for seeing an opera in Swedish, and the beautiful sing-songy nature of the language lends itself extremely well to singing. My sources tell me the translation was accurate and in no way offensive or distracting... though of course I can't really comment on that personally.

What I can comment on, though, is this idea of a "concept opera.." or so I've heard it called. Of course had I been able to read the program (a secondary part of this "making opera accessible to the people" idea includes no English translations in the program either, which is certainly understandable but would have helped me in this instance), I might have understood what the Director, Mira Bartov, was going for. Her "concept" - somewhere between 1950s domestic, 1970s hippie, and 1990s dominatrix, mixed with a touch of old world Parisian flair - was visually pleasing and was not overly distracting. However, if there was a message she was trying to convey through it, I certainly missed it. Her staging at times greatly supported and at other times clashed with the sweeping melodies in the score.

The singing was, apart from one clear standout, acceptable. I always fear that when a young singer is heralded as the next young star, he or she risks tackling too many or too many large roles before he or she is ready. This is certainly what I felt was the case with, Daniel Johansson, the tenor who played the role of Faust. His schedule is packed to the gills this year, and he is on everyone's radar in the opera world here. However, other than some very powerful high notes, I did not find anything particularly remarkable about his voice. He kept his vocal and physical focus well through to the very end, but his voice sounded tired at times and the high notes were pressed. I worried during a few moments whether he could sustain till the end given how much power and strength he was asking his voice to give.

His presence was certainly perfect for the role: tall, handsome, manly, strong... but his voice was lost under heavy orchestral moments and in the trio with Mephistopheles and Valentin, he was barely audible below his uppermost register. Marguerite was sung by Ulrika Mjörndal, whose voice had something of an old-time, 1940s black-and-white film quality, maybe the opera equivalent of Katharine Hepburn. The voice was round and warm, but the top notes sounded a bit blasted, at times sort of popping out from the rest of the range, which was otherwise quite consistent. There was a bit of a lack of chemistry between her and Faust, but I rather think this may have been more because of the staging and cuts, rather than because the intentions weren't there. Marguerite's brother, Valentin - portrayed here as a Vietnam era soldier, I think, was sung incredibly by Daniel Frank. What a voice! Not a baritone by any stretch of MY imagination, and I hope that he will consider exploring the tenor rep in the future. His upper register was absolutely stunning, and he was certainly one of the strongest actors on stage that night.

For my money - and here I think this is truly a question of objectivity not subjectivity - the highlight of the evening was baritone Kosma Ranuer as Mephistopheles. His voice was sonorous and rich throughout, and his characterization of the devil imposing, yet calm (the most terrifying combination in my opinion). He didn't miss a beat in his portrayal of evil, and you could also see exactly how his powers were impossible to resist. I had the opportunity to meet Kosma afterward the show, as well as an editor for Opera Now magazine. Naturally, he was as humble as could be. I certainly hope that audiences in the rest of Europe will have the chance to see this marvelous talent sometime in the very near future.

The cast was rounded out by Marie Alexis as Siebel and Eva Marklund as Marthe, who I wish had had a larger role as her voice was pleasing throughout. There was no chorus (budget cuts) and this certainly took away slightly from the overall drama of the piece.

Overall, it was a unforgettable evening (not least of which because I now know how to say "My brother is a soldier," in Swedish and an eye-opener into the world of opera Sweden, and to a certain extent the trends in opera in Europe today.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Goteborgs Operan's The Rake's Progress

Sorry for the hugely long hiatus here, but traveling caught up with me a bit! Lots to talk about now, though, but I'll put it into a few separate posts.

So I've been in Sweden just over a week now studying with my teacher and also soaking up a ton of opera-related stuff in this beautiful country. I realized a couple nights that, even though I grew up in Europe for 14 years, I don't think I've actually been to an opera in Europe (excepting the UK) in probably about two decades. I have read a ton about "concept operas" sweeping across Europe, the insane Calixto Bieito, crazy stagings, etc., so I was especially excited to see what the Gothenburg Opera and Stockholm's Volksoperan had in store for me I saw last weekend. It was also lovely to make the acquaintance finally of a lovely American soprano, Rebecca Fromherz, who is pictured here with our teacher, Jean-Ronald (Ron) LaFond.



I of course also had to make sure I got my picture with him inside this beautiful theater as well!



It all started out last Friday night at the Goteborgs Operan with Stravinsky's masterpiece, "The Rake's Progress." Here we had an English opera in a Swedish opera house with Swedish surtitles sung by Swedes (minus one excellent Brit) really covered a whole lot of firsts for me. But what a way to start!

I didn't know this opera very well and was thrilled to see the production in its full glory. I had obviously heard the two main arias (though I believe that the two other arias sung by Anne Trulove and Tom Rakewell should be given more attention) in audition settings before and always thought they were very beautiful, but other than that, I didn't know much. A great place to be actually, if you ask me.

I had had the distinct pleasure of spending some time with tenor James Edwards (Tom Rakewell) the night before the performance and also the following morning, and had some fascinating discussions with him about opera in Europe, about the production, and about singing, both the business and the technical side of it. Of course I was duly tickled when I mentioned The Opera Insider, and he said, "Yes, I've heard of you!" In fact we had been in touch last summer about his recording studio, Vocal Recording, based in London! He is embarking on a very interesting project producing EPKs - Electronic Press Kits - for singers. I saw his and it is a minor masterpiece!

I also had the chance to meet and spend a bit of time chatting with Ingela Bohlin (Anne Trulove) and Ulrika Tenstam (Baba the Turk) at Bommen, the "Peach Pit" of the Goteborgs Operan regulars just across the street from the opera house.

Bohlin sang the role of Anne well, never wavering in her portrayal of a young woman's sweet naivete, but other than that, her voice seemed a bit ungrounded and there was little depth of personality that was allowed to shine through her crystaline voice. Still she sang beautifully and consistently in this demanding role, and was a pleasure to behold on stage. Edwards, tall, proud, and handsome, fit the role perfectly and sang the hell out of Tom Rakewell. A former baritone, his low register resonated roundly and gave his voice depth and feeling. A large presence on stage with no effort whatsoever, he truly inhabited the character and showed his descent into despair with clarity, thoughtfulness, vigor, and finesse. Tenstam was the life of the party as Baba the Turk, showing a fantastic flare for comedic timing and stealing the show on several occasions. Åke Zetterström's Nick Shadow was one for the records. His lanky, imposing physique and laser-beam voice added to the terrifying nature of his character. You would never have known that he was not feeling well since his solid technique and absolute command of the stage and of his character did not falter once.

The chorus was in excellent form. Their sound was warm and beautifully uniform, and it was obvious that the group had been working together for years, so cohesive was their presentation, both physically and vocally.

I must say that I felt the same way about the epilogue of this opera as I do about the last scene in Don Giovanni: simply put, I don't like it. Though it may well have been a comment on this style of opera in general, the final scene broke the silence and severity of the previous one, a hugely long almost half-hour scene that builds and builds until your heart is pounding, breaking almost at Tom's deperation. I found that it somehow cheapened the journey Tom had been forced to take. Talking to James afterwards about it, he felt the same way. "It's hard," he said, "to take twenty minutes to die, lie in a coffin uttering your last sounds, expire, and then have to get up and sing chirpy happiness. It just feels a bit unnatural."

Still, an unforgettable evening... and one I think I will have the pleasure of repeating this Saturday during their next performance.

To finish off, here's a beautiful picture of the Goteborg "Eye," at night, just outside the main entrance:



And another of the building itself, a truly magnificent structure.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Hanging with the Met chorus

It isn't often that I get to spend the day with 30 Met opera singers. Maybe one or two at once, if I'm lucky but not a whole gaggle of them!! Yesterday, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend the day in Newburgh, New York, at the home of two members (one former and one current) of the Met Opera chorus. Every year over the Labor Day weekend, they choose the best of their vegetables from their amazing vegetable garden, cook up a total feast, and invite about 50 of their nearest and dearest friends to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the country. Thanks to a good friend, I got to tag along this time around.

Apart from ogling the house, the grounds, the flowers, and the orchard (yes, they have an orchard in their back yard), another central aspect to the day were the dogs who came along to play. Being cooped up in Manhattan apartments made the big ones go a little nuts but we also had the opportunity to play with a few of the smaller guys, too. The one pictured here, Jemima Puddleduck, is a rescued maltese. She's quite sick, so we are wishing her a speedy recovery.



As was promised to me the food was abundant beyond belief and out of this world delicious (they even gave us all a bag of home grown tomatoes, fresh basil, and elephant garlic to take home with us!) The hosts were as gracious as gracious could be. I have to say the highlight for me came later in the afternoon. As I was sitting outside on a tree trunk enjoying the lovely sunshine, I suddenly heard soft jazz music coming from inside.



Our host, Kent, was sitting at the piano playing some show tunes. A few of the guests started humming along, then more and more people joined us until after a while the place was filled. Our other host, Marty, came and sang along with Kent in a crystal clear and beautiful tenor voice. After they had sung a couple numbers, they opened the floor up to whomever wanted to perform something. People played and sang, and those who weren't accompanying themselves had the pleasure of being accompanied by the Assistant Conductor of the Met chorus, Joe, whose playing was some of the most touching I have heard in a long time.

Yours truly had the opportunity to sing a little something, too. I offered my favorite songs of all time, Neil McKay's hilarious "Limericks" then finished off with "Carceleras," a Zarzuela by Chapi.

Some of those present - many in fact - had been in the Met chorus for years... decades even, and they still seem to love it. Well... they didn't want to hear any opera on a summery Sunday afternoon (!) but it was obvious that they absolutely loved their job. It was wonderful to see this, and a great pleasure to meet so many fascinating people. I suppose I'll see a few of them in the HD broadcast if I make it there for tonight's showing of "Carmen!"

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ridi Pagliacco!



Last night it all finally came together! I've been waiting for this night for months, I'm sure not with as much anxiety as Daria Parada, the Artistic Director of Mercury Opera, but certainly with a lot of excitement. Daria and I first met in January of this year and I was immediately taken by her energy, her commitment, and her passion for this project, which at the time, was still in zygote stages. Since then, in 8 short months, she managed to bring the production to fruition... not without stops and starts of course, but she did it and I commend her.

I was pleased to have a good friend with me last night, the very talented stage director and choreographer Heidi Lauren Duke. We have known each other for years, and it is always nice to hear about her fun and exciting projects.




Even from my partial-view seat at the side of the Museum and Circus Sideshow theater on Surf Avenue, just a few doors down from the Cyclone, I thoroughly enjoyed this production. The venue was intimate, just as it should have been, and we were even treated to a catered reception afterwards.



The cast had changed many times over the last few months and even the original conductor had pulled out so there were a few last minute replacements, most notably Perry Martinez as Cannio. It did not show and the cast performed so well with one another you'd have been convinced they had been doing this for weeks... not just five short rehearsals.

The vocal star of the evening was, without a doubt, Samantha Pruyn Guevrekian in the role of Nedda. Her voice shimmered in the high range and showed color and expression throughout her range. Almost even more remarkable than her pitch-perfect singing, however, was her innate ability to know when not to sing. She used her well-supported speaking voice in just the right places and just the right amount to capture the most vulnerable and tortured moments of her character. Her chemistry with baritone Stephen Lavonier was palpable and he was endearing as her lover Silvio (dressed not very obviously as a pizza delivery boy). Percy Martinez's Cannio was heartfelt if a little soft at times but as Pagliacco he was both calm and terrifying in all the right places. Chad Karl as Tonio/Taddeo showed remarkable acting skills but I did spend a good part of the time wondering whether he might actually be a tenor. His high notes were just too full and strong for me to be utterly convinced there wasn't a Heldentenor stuck in there somewhere. Boris Derow rounded out the cast as a hilarious Arlecchino providing the most laughs of the night with his Fabio wig and gyrating hips. Not to be forgotten was the chorus who did remarkably well considering there were only about two people to a part.

I commend the entire cast and crew on a fabulous night and can't wait to see this production again someday very soon.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Picking up speed!

I can feel the summer ending and the fall coming. I mean it's still hot as blazes outside and my AC is working overtime, but I can sense that the summer vibe is coming to a close, and things autumnal are starting to pop up: leaves are starting to change, fall fashions are hitting storefronts everywhere, and opera is picking up speed as seasons start.

Two nights ago I went to see a concert of Vivaldi. Just Vivaldi, six concerti to be precise by the amazing 4x4 Baroque ensemble at beautiful St. Peter's Church in midtown Manhattan.



Here is the wonderful ensemble just getting settled before starting their performance:



Each concerto lasted only about 10 minutes so the entire program was little over an hour, but what an amazing hour it was. The musicians played as if they had been grown in the womb together: one heartbeat, one breath. The skill of each individual player was only enhanced when they all came together in unison, creating a breathtaking musical effect.

Tonight's another doozy and one I've been looking forward to for months: Mercury Opera's Pagliacci on Coney Island. Daria Parada and I co-hosted an event for The Opera Insider and Mercury Opera in late June which was a huge success and we are so happy that they are finally getting their moment to shine.



I'm looking forward to seeing what they have in store for us - and of course a trip to Coney Island is never remiss!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Begone summer opera starvation!

And to go along with my most recent post, here is Meche Kroops's review of Opera Manattan's Eugene Onegin from this past Saturday night, August 28th.

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Begone summer opera starvation! The Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre has come to the rescue with a series of three summer concert presentations, just ended with a nourishing and tasty performance of Eugene Onegin.

Founded recently by opera bass Bryce Smith and musical theater singer Rebecca Greenstein, OMRT is meant to give opera singers the opportunity to take their careers into their own hands by learning new roles to appear on their resumes, thereby assisting them in getting performance opportunities of these same roles elsewhere.

The audience gets an opportunity to hear singers well worth hearing, who they might otherwise miss. Although future works will be done with sets and costumes (see www.OperaManhattan.com for details), the summer series is done concert style with piano accompaniment. I was privileged to have enjoyed both Anna Bolena and Eugene Onegin. Truth be told, I never missed the sets, costumes, titles or orchestra.

The “unsung” heroine of the evening, Violetta Zabbi (on faculty at the New York Opera Studio), played a piano reduction of Tchaikovsky’s score with subtlety and panache. I heard things that I had missed when the opera was presented at the Met with, of course, full orchestra. I admit that my memories of the Robert Carsen production and Michael Levine’s sets and costumes were very much in my mind’s eye as I listened; but memories of Hvorostovsky and Mattila, of Fleming and Hampson, faded in my ear. What was lost in star power was definitely gained in immediacy and intimacy.

Tatyana was beautifully rendered by Maryann Mootos who seemed to put every ounce of herself into the portrayal. Her “letter scene” was a standout. Lensky was very well performed by now-tenor Adam Juran (whom you may recall as a baritone) and I was sorry to see him killed off so early in the work! Vaughn Lindquist was a fine Onegin and Elspeth Davis sang Olga better and better as the evening progressed, although I did not hear a profound contralto quality in her voice.

I did hear a nice contralto quality in the voice of Andrea Nwoke, which lent substance and authority to the role of Madame Larina, Tatyana’s mother. Angeliki Theoharis was fine as Filippyevna, the nurse. In Act I, the quartet of women’s voices blew me away with tender harmonies. As a matter of fact, I found all the ensemble work to be extremely well-balanced.

Bryce Smith himself was princely in both voice and stature as Gremin, and special notice must be given to tenor John Wasiniak who gave a most individual spin to the role of Monsieur Triquet who composes and sings adulatory verses at Tatyana’s name-day party, proving that there are indeed no small roles. James Siranovich served ably as Music Director and Conductor.

Now, don’t I have to find something to complain about? Not from me but from the native-born Russian sitting next to me, came the reply to my question about the adequacy of the singers’ Russian. “Everybody need Russian coach.” Fortunately for me I don’t know a dozen words in Russian so it didn’t bother me one bit.

We can hardly wait for the fall season!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Eugene Onegin at Opera Manhattan

It's almost 11 pm and I've just come home and am about to sit down and devour some leftover pasta. I attended one of two performances of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin tonight by the Opera Manhattan Repertory Theater, one of the little gems in the opera world of this amazing city.

As any of you who read my blog know, I have formed a lovely friendship with a wonderful woman and fellow opera lover in New York, Meche Kroop. She attended the performance tonight as well and at the end we decided to put our thoughts side by side on this blog for our readers: she from the audience perspective, I from the viewpoint of a singer. We are grateful for your thoughtful comments about our respective ideas.

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I have to say straight off the bat that, after a short night of fitful sleep, I was a bit worried that I might feel the tendency to nod off towards the end of the opera, as I shamelessly admit to having done on several occasions (take note, Wotan!) Not even a yawn was in sight tonight! Overall the singing was absolutely superb and even though the performance was not staged with no costumes, set, or props, you felt like you lost not a minute of the story and followed the emotional roller coaster of each character at every step. The roles were well cast, and it was obvious to me that every singer was just thrilled to bits to be up there singing. I suppose it may have helped that almost all of them were only singing this one performance... so they really gave it their all.

Special credit, I feel, must be given to tenor Adam Juran who sang the role of Lensky. I have peripherally known Adam for about seven months now, ever since I walked in on the end of his lesson with our teacher, Ron LaFond. What I heard tonight was nothing like what I heard seven months ago. Surely, he still has a few kinks to work out in the uppermost reaches of his register but there were moments of absolute glory, warmth, and stability in his voice. His aria, "Kuda, kuda" left me on the edge of my seat. I would encourage him not to shy away from making eye contact and holding his focus while he sings as this will help him vocally, I think, as well. I commend him on some phenomenal work and wish him the best as he forges ahead in this very difficult repertoire.

In the title role, Vaughn Lindquist was stoic and sang with a strong, round, and capable voice. He made up for any fogginess in the highest notes in the role with his utterly convincing portrayal of the tormented Onegin. His final duet with Tatyana, ably and beautifully presented by Maryann Mootos, was absolutely riveting, and his final note appropriately sent the audience shooting to its feet. Maryann carried the show, as Tatyana really must do in this opera. Her acting skills were spot on and you were absolutely convinced that she had translated, read, reread and internalized every word and emotion of the Russian text. Her voice blended easily with Lindquist's as well as with Elspeth Davis's rich-voiced Olga. Her high notes spun perfectly and the famous Letter Scene was absolutely stunning.

As Tatyana's younger sister, Davis warmed up after the initial quartet where she was slightly outsung by Mootos, but was fiery and strong in the ballroom scene opposite Lensky. Bass Bryce Smith - also coincidentally the founder of Opera Manhattan - was as noble as noble could be in the role of Prince Gremin, Tatyana's husband, and the low note at the end of his Act III aria surely resonated all the way down to the toes of every member of the audience, this writer included.

Andrea Nwoke was a proud though appropriately motherly Larina. Although her voice wobbled at times especially in the upper range, it blended well with the voices of the other three ladies and she completely inhabited the role, winning us over with her stage presence and her absolutely conviction as to who this character was. Angeliki Theoharis as Filipyevna, Jonathan Harris as Zaretsky and the very hilarious John Wasiniak rounded out the cast extremely well. In the words of Meche after his aria, "there are no small roles in opera."

My advice? RUN, don't walk, to see this production!!!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pasta and Puccini... the miniature poodle

Last night I finally managed to sit down with Meche Kroop and Daniel Hernandez for a long overdue chat over dinner. Meche donned her apron and rustled up the most delicious dish of pasta with strawberry-marinara sauce. Yep, you heard right! Here she is in full swing preparing the sumptuous dish.




Meche is a doctor, a psychiatrist to be precise. I didn't know this before last night. What I did know about her, however, ever since she joined The Opera Insider about a year ago, is that she is probably more knowledgeable about opera than most people who get paid to write about it. She has been a die-hard opera lover for about 15 years and goes to at least one if not two, three, or four opera performances a week, perhaps interspersing them with a recital here, a symphony concert or a ballet performance there. "Culture," she says, "is just simply an addiction for me."

Danny is an old friend from my days at The Boston Conservatory but we both admit we haven't really keep in touch until recently when I came across his new company, Opera Hispanica, and he came across TOI. He's done amazing things with the organization so far and I can't wait to see where it goes. I believe their first performance is coming up this fall in November, and I for one will definitely be there. Make sure to keep an eye out for the first Latino opera company in NYC!



Also present was Puccini, Meche's miniature poodle, of whom I sadly do not have a picture. He wagged and bounced and jumped and yipped all evening, evidently just as excited as we were finally to be getting together.



One of the refreshing things about Meche, and honestly about Danny too, is her complete lack of embarrassment in expressing her feelings and opinions candidly. Anyone who knows me at all should understand that is of great value indeed to me. Her interest in opera is such that she will give pretty much anything a try but if she doesn't like she'll tell you so. But rest assured it won't be a simple "I didn't like it because it wasn't good." It will be a critical assessment of every aspect: story, melody, orchestration, voices, costumes... you name it. To be sure, her "thing" is melody: the music in the opera has to be singable for her really to enjoy it, but she isn't the type of listener who will simply not attend because it's "modern" opera, or because she's not familiar with it.



Most of the New Yorkers reading this probably already know Meche and hopefully very soon you'll all know Danny as well. We'll all be at Opera Manhattan's concert version of Eugene Onegin this Saturday night so come along if you have the chance!

Rants and Raves from the Front Row at Santa Fe Opera by Meche Kroop

New York City resident and opera fan Meche Kroop doesn't beat around the bush when she talks about opera. When it's good she'll tell you about it... when it isn't, she'll tell you about that, too. Santa Fe Opera is known to be among the best around, so we were particularly interested to hear her take on the summer season that just ended. Here's what she had to say about it!

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The sky shows you everything from the most radiant sunsets to the darkest thunder clouds, but the air is always fragrant with juniper. Breezes blow across the stage, fluttering anything unattached. People flock here year after year to partake in the magic atmosphere of Santa Fe, and this year was no different for me.

Nestled between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Jemez Peaks, the opera house is a wonder in and of itself. This year I had the pleasure of seeing every opera the company was producing this season. First prize must be awarded to Madama Butterfly. British director Lee Blakely made his SFO debut and so effective was he that I never want to see this opera again, lest I impair the memory of this one. Blakely conceives the story just as I do, not as a love story but rather as a tale of a love-sick teenager and a jingoistic child abuser. The casting helped a great deal. Brandon Jovanovich, in excellent voice, towered over petite Kelly Kaduce, a thrilling soprano, thus further emphasizing her juvenile vulnerability and placing it in contrast to his powerful presence. The acting was totally convincing and therefore everything worked psychologically as well. Keith Jameson turned in his customary excellent performance as the slimy Goro. Prince Yamadoro was not portrayed as a clown, as it often is, but given quite some dignity by Matthew Hanscom, thereby underscoring Butterfly’s unrealistic devotion to Pinkerton. Butterfly’s suicide (accurately represented in this production by a totally realistic slashing of an artery in the neck — accurate at least according to Japanese tradition) was not merely a ritualistic honor suicide, but rather a psychologically valid act of anger at her faithless lover... prefaced by much chair-throwing! Little Trouble does not fly into the arms of his heretofore unseen father; rather he steps back in fear. Much of the audience was sobbing at the end, this writer included. The cast was further supported by mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and James Westman as Sharpless, who both shined in their respective roles.

On the second night I was delightfully entertained by Christopher Alden’s production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman. My feelings about Alden’s “concepts” have varied from opera to opera. I greatly disliked his church basement AA meeting concept for Don Giovanni at New York City Opera but this time I think he got it right, setting the story in a German Bierhalle of appropriate vintage. The wine-soaked and dissipated Hoffman (a role to which Paul Groves gave his all, both vocally and dramatically) illustrated his tales on stages created by upturned Bierhalle benches. Characters in the stories were portrayed by denizens of the Bierhalle. Kate Lindsey gave a vocally lustrous and choreographically adept portrayal of his Muse and Wayne Tigges stepped in at a late date to inhabit Hoffmann’s nemeses. Erin Wall has done better work in the past than she did as Hoffman’s various loves but Jill Grove was certainly acceptable as Antonia’s mother. Not everyone “got” what Alden was after but I must say I was royally entertained… at least until the ending. I have always thought that the whole point of this story was that love comes and goes but that art endures. Art is continuous, unending, always faithful. After all, don't we still see Hoffman’s stories in today's world? So I have to ask why on earth Alden asked everyone to burn Hoffman’s manuscripts in a flaming punchbowl at the end of the opera? To me, that simply belittled and ruined the entire concept of the opera.

The third night was equally entertaining as the second. I allowed myself to be swept along by the delightful Britten comedy Albert Herring, ably directed by Paul Curran. The title role was charmingly sung by Alek Schrader, a young tenor who made a huge impression in the Met National Council Auditions back in 2007, and has gone on to make quite a name for himself. As the rather bumbling Albert, he showed true comic flair. Christine Brewer fully inhabited the role of Lady Billows, a role that made good use of her amply proportioned body as well as her amply proportioned voice. Kate Lindsey shone again as Nancy with Joshua Hopkins as her well-sung and well-acted boyfriend. Judith Christin as Albert’s mother and Jill Grove as Lady Billows’ housekeeper Florence were joined by a very primly humorous Celena Shafer as the schoolteacher. The role of the vicar was taken by a baritone apprentice from New York named Jonathan Michie who was astonishingly accomplished. I hope to hear more of him. All contributed beautifully to the success of this ensemble work, a very difficult opera to put together even with the best and most talented singing actors.

Nothing is worse than being in an audience that is having fun when you are not so the fourth night of my opera week left me sitting in the front row just seething. Tim Albery’s adaptation of Mozart’s classic opera, The Magic Flute, is the same one that left me annoyed a few years ago but I’d decided to give it another chance to win me over. No go! In spite of any real life connection, onstage Charles Castronovo’s Tamino and Ekaterina Siurina’s Pamina had zero chemistry. The costumes were completely ridiculous: Pamina was dressed for a 1950s sock hop, the Three Ladies and the Queen of the Night were clothed in Elizabethan attire, the “police force” guarding Sarastro’s temple were dressed as Nazi SS Officers, the male chorus wore frock coats and powdered wigs from the 18th century while the female chorus looked like ante-bellum slaves, and Papageno wore cutoffs, a baseball cap and yellow Keds. To top it off, the Three Spirits were bald Buddhist monks! With all that distraction who could focus on the voices? The set was ugly and plain with plywood silhouettes of animals. The dialogue was spoken in English with each performer struggling to maintain cohesion through his or her own dialect or accent. Particularly grating on the ears were the strong Italian inflections of Andrea Silvestrelli (Sarastro) who, in this case, also tended to speak with his hands. Sadly his singing the night I was there was also incredibly unmusical. Searching for one kind thing to say, let me compliment the performance of Renee Tatum as one of the Three Ladies. She impressed me at her Lindemann Recital and impressed me again here.

Now, what about the last night which showcased Spratlin’s long-neglected opera, Life is a Dream? My 19th Century ears were wishing it had stayed neglected. Calderon de la Barca’s 16th century masterpiece La Vida es Sueño would have made a gorgeous zarzuela but instead it has been dragged kicking and screaming into 20th Century serialism: frantic jagged vocal lines that assault the ear and nothing melodic to hang onto. Under these circumstances I think it would be best to say nothing about the voices. I will say, however, that Kevin Newbury directed the action in a meaningful way so that the story was able to shine through. David Korins did a wonderful job as set designer, with the exception of some puzzling railroad crossing beams hanging from the ceiling and Jessica Jahn’s costumes were indeed stunning. As my ears closed to the so-called music, my eyes at least were delighted by watching the beauty of the production, thus ending the opera week on a not-so-disastrous note.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Meeting new friends

I had the distinct pleasure on Saturday of meeting Clifford Bechtel and Bob Kingston, self-confessed opera fanatic, music historian and lecturer at Portland Opera, and also the author of a relatively new blog on opera called 'dramma per musica.'



Cliff and I have been in touch for well over a year now I think... probably having met first through Twitter or Facebook (who actually ever meets anyone the old-fashioned way anymore anyway?!) but we had never really found the time to meet in person. Bob and I really only "met" a few days prior through Cliff and also through various opera projects we were both interested in. He was also intimately involved in the production of "Cosi fan tutte - Some assembly required" that I attended and wrote about last week, and was in town to provide some back-up commentary and Tweeting on Friday and Sunday.



It is wonderful and exhilarating to spend time with two people so knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. Cliff is bubbly and energetic and one of the most dedicated singers you'll ever find. Forever posting clips on Facebook and recommending those old, wonderful recordings that are getting harder and harder to find, he's always eager to learn more, talk to new people, find new repertoire and broaden his horizons as a singer.



Bob has been studying music as a performer and then as a historian for two decades now, and loves his job at Portland Opera where he gives the "Pre-performance" lectures and also helps out with the relatively new Young Artist program, assisting them in selecting repertoire for their recitals and generally helping the company make sure it's as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.

We're familiar with that concept here!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cosi fan tutte - some assembly required

I often think that the reason people love dress rehearsals or masterclasses is twofold. One: because secretly they love to know that the perfection they see on stage at a full performance is exactly that: a performance, as in, not quite real and Two: they actually like to learn stuff. We find comfort in knowing that the people behind the costumes, down in the pit, or hanging from the ceiling are actually just regular old clutzes, like you and me. And we also like to leave somewhere feeling like we've actually engaged our brain a bit, widened our knowledge, challenged ourselves and come away with something new.

This was never more so the case than Wednesday night when I had the distinct pleasure of attending Operamission's "Cosi fan tutte - some assembly required" at the Gershwin Hotel in Manhattan. It was the second of four nights of this project, run by the incredibly capable conductor, coach, and pianist - and Operamission Founder - Jennifer Peterson (seen here peeking around from her perch on the conductor's stool to address the audience). Wednesday night finished up Act I, and Act II can be seen in two parts tonight (Friday) and Sunday evening beginning at 7 pm also at the Gershwin.



What made this event remarkable? What didn't, really. The setting is ideal really, just the right size so that it maintains intimacy but without feeling like you're sitting on top of the person next to you. The music wasn't perfect, nor were the acoustics. But you didn't expect perfection and really, you didn't even want it... and it was more humorous than annoying to hear the violins screech to a halt or the horns come in a couple bars late. Most importantly, you just didn't care because the point wasn't to present perfection. The point was to present process.

From old opera connoisseurs hovering over full orchestra scores using the light of their cell phones to follow the action to a couple people who had never in their lives seen or heard opera before, the crowd was enthusiastic, entertained and in every possible way supportive. They laughed and cheered all night long! Sadly I missed the first hour, but that still left me with almost two and a half hours to watch this thing come together.

The evening was hosted by Ned Canty, Cori Ellison and Marco Nistico (pictured in a very bad photo here) who also gave wonderful and insightful commentary. They, as well as several audience members, were encouraged to tweet the action during the evening, letting their followers know what was going on at that moment.


And as for the singing. Well, let me just say that I was absolutely blown away. I gathered that the cast(s) had been rehearsing for the better part of a week, so their cohesion as a group seemed completely natural. Still considering this was the first time they had gotten together with the orchestra and were now also faced with an audience, I was truly impressed.

The star of the evening, for my money, was soprano Jennifer Aylmer as Despina (pictured below). Despina is always the character who seems really to carry this opera. If she's not 'on,' then it just really doesn't work. In this case, there was no doubt about who was in charge! Here you see her in her first aria "In uomini, in soldati," one of the best renditions of this aria I have ever heard.



Someone whispered to me halfway through the aria that she had never done the role before. I find that impossible to believe. She inhabited it better than any Despina I have ever seen or heard, her Italian diction was impeccable, and she missed not one step the entire evening.

Also of special note was soprano Kerri Marcinko who sang the role of Fiordiligi. Apparently Mozart isn't her forte so she wanted to give it a go. Apart from a few lost notes in her lower range (and let's face it, who can blame a soprano for not hitting every low A in this score!) she shone throughout the night. A rich, though perfectly centered and easy voice that filled the room with warmth and charisma. Jennifer Berkebile as Dorabella was adorable and well cast, and the two friends Ferrando (sung by Asitha Tennekoon) and Guglielmo (James Bobick) could not have looked more different, but yet their voices and personalities both blended together as if they had been singing together since childhood. In the role of Don Alfonso Dennis Blackwell was hilarious, and any slight lightness of voice was made up by his dedication and absolute inhabiting of his role.

I wish I could see the rest of the production but sadly I have other commitments. I cannot possibly recommend this highly enough, however. Whether you know the opera and love it, know it and don't love it, or have never before listened to it, let this phenomenal group of people (all doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, by the way, not for the money or the fame) offer you one of the most enjoyable evenings this summer.


The orchestra from the woodwind section.
















The cast gets ready for the Act I Finale