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!

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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.

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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 René 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!

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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.

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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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Medium-rare and Well-done

Gian Carlo Menotti’s darkest opera “The Medium” is RAREly done and was WELL-DONE by the Chelsea Opera at St. Peter’s Church. This is not the most comfortable venue for audience members, what with the hard wooden pews and poor sight-lines, but none of that mattered when Maestro Carmine Aufiero picked up his baton. He led his 14 musicians through Menotti’s interesting score, notable for its harmonic dissonance wedded to an innate lyricism that effectively parallels the emotional language of the singers. Listening is an altogether eerie experience suitable to a ghost story.
The story is compact with no subplots and the opera lasts under two hours including intermission. That is just the right amount of time to illustrate the mental decompensation of the (anti)heroine, one Madame Flora who runs phony seances. Once she begins to have tactile and auditory hallucinations she turns to religion and refunds her clients’ money.

At Saturday night’s performance the title role was performed by mezzo Mary Clare McAlee who gave her all vocally and dramatically; she was totally believable in her descent from general meanness into paranoia and madness.
As the daughter whom she bullies into assisting at the seances, the lovely soprano Rachel Sitomer sang beautifully but was not always intelligible. This may be due to the difficulties of singing English in the upper registers but one longed for either better diction or the presence of surtitles. Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau were sung by soprano Susan Holsonbake and baritone Giuseppe Spoletini. They sang well and were quite affecting as a couple trying to contact their long-dead little boy. Mezzo Patrice P. Eaton was equally affecting as a mother wanting desperately to believe that the white robed figure of Monica was the teenage daughter she lost. One of the major plot points is the gullibility of the bereaved who want more seances, even when Madame Flora tells them of her fraudulence.

The one character that failed to convince was the role of Toby, a mute gypsy boy that Madame Flora had taken in and then exploited, beat, and finally killed. It may have been his appearance that defied believability or perhaps it is very difficult to act without the use of the voice, but one should experience Toby’s death at the end as devastating, especially since Monica and he are in love. But the chemistry between the two of them just wasn’t evident.

The production was effectively directed by Laura Alley whose work is always superb; the actors seemed to move comfortably about the stage and their “stage business” always seemed connected to the lyrics. The simple set and lighting by Joshua Rose and Michael Megliola made the most of the limited playing area of the church. Costume design by Lynne Hayden-Findlay was true to the period of the story, the 1940’s.
One cannot help but think of Stephen Schwartz’ “Seance on a Wet Afternoon” performed last season at New York City Opera. What will be next, vampire operas? Stay tuned.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Big Hair, Big Voice

Every inch the Principessa, force of nature mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili easily won the Act III catfight with Adriana Lecouvreur in the eponymous realismo opera by Francesco Cilea given by The Opera Orchestra of New York in concert version at Carnegie Hall. Such female rivalry seems to be a common theme in 19th c. opera. Think Aida, Anna Bolena, Norma. In this early 20th c. opera, the one with the bigger voice took the day. Both women looked ravishing, lavishly gowned and coiffed. But, painful to say, poor Angela Georghiu, so effective in La Rondine last season, was rather overwhelmed by the part. Her lovely voice shimmered when the orchestra was silent, but otherwise it was swallowed up, even in the alpine reaches of Stern Auditorium where the sound is usually superb. It appears that a bigger voice is needed to do the role justice.

On the other hand Ms. Rachvelishvili let loose with a large and dusky sound that filled the house. You loved her even as you hated the character. Her scenes with glamorous tenor Jonas Kaufmann generated far more chemistry and excitement than his scenes with Ms. Gheorghiu. There is something amiss when an unrequited love is more exciting than a requited one. Mr. Kaufmann had sung with Ms. R. in the final scene from Carmen Sunday evening at the Richard Tucker Gala and the same excitement was evident; they seem to be opera’s new power couple. It didn’t make much difference whether it was the man or the woman who went unloved; the singing was intense and riveting. The third remarkable presence of the evening was baritone Ambrogio Maestri, performing in New York, I believe, for the first time--but not the last. His upcoming performance at The Met as Falstaff is one to be highly anticipated. As Michonnet, stage manager of La Comedie Francaise, he created a character with a heart as big and warm as his voice.

It was strange to see anyone on the podium but Ms. Queler, the founder and conductor laureate of OONY, but Maestro Alberto Veronesi was a welcome presence and conducted with panache. The New York Choral Ensemble did a fine job, but somehow not as fine as the Metropolitan Chorus.

As far as the libretto goes, perhaps the less said the better. Adapted by Arturo Colautti from the drama by Eugene Scribe and E. Legouve, it concerns a romantic intrigue leading to the death of the heroine--death by poisoned violets as a matter of fact. Nothing was done to make the story clear; the lengthy and confusing summary in the program was no help. The situation dictated that one sit back and revel in Cilea’s gorgeous tunes which wove in and out of the action almost like Wagnerian leitmotifs.
Also heard were the fine Nicola Pamio as the almost comic Abbe and the equally fine Craig Hart as the cuckolded Principe. Various members of the acting company were portrayed by Danielle Walker, Jennifer Feinstein, Zachary Nelson, and Alexander Lewis from the Lindemann Young Artist Program.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Lindemann comes to Austria

A good recital fills your heart with gladness and lightens your step. Such was the case when three gifted members of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program paid a welcome visit to the glamorous townhouse occupied by the Austrian Cultural Forum. Everyone benefited. The Lindemann program got some great publicity, the Austrians promoted their culture, the singers acquired many new fans and the audience got an evening to hold to the heart.

Beautiful soprano Lei Xu stepped out on the small stage, dressed in a becomingly draped gown, looking every inch the star. Her three Schubert songs gave ample opportunity for her to run the gamut of emotions from the exultation of “Ganymed” to the anguish of “Gretchen am Spinnrade”. Ms. Xu seems to get inside a song and plumb its depths; and it all feels spontaneous as if she had written the poetry herself. Later in the program, she sang Hugo Wolf’s setting of “Ganymed”; the gestures and word colorations were completely different and totally in line with Wolf’s less classical harmonies.

Baritone Elliot Madore (madore-able) gave us four contrasting songs from Schubert’s “Schwanengesang”, from the powerful “Kriegers Ahnung” to the lyrically impassioned “Standchen” which could have charmed the birds from the trees, not to mention luring the object of his affection from her boudoir. This seductive charm was utilized even more effectively in a duet with Ms. Xu given as an encore. You guessed it! Don Giovanni and Zerlina! What a delightful display of an entire opera scene presented on a tiny stage. One could not imagine a better performance. Likewise, the other duet from Herr Mozart “Bei Männern” from “Die Zauberflöte” showed just how suited to Mozart this pair is. Fortunately, diction was crystal clear and every word could be understood.

Five songs of Fauré were sung by Ms. Xu and the “Siete canciones populares” were presented by Mr. Madore. A delicate and tender side was most welcome in the lullaby “Nana”. How refreshing to hear a lullaby sung by a man, and affectingly sung at that.
Pianist Bryan Wagorn completed this terrific trio with his skilled piano partnering, always supporting the singer without becoming “invisible”. His work shone as he created Gretchen’s spinning wheel. One hopes that there will be more ventures like this to look forward to. Much gratitude to the talented trio, to the ACFNY and to the LIndemann Program. Bravissimi tutti!

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Star-spangled Sunday

This year’s edition of the Richard Tucker Gala can be considered an unqualified success. All the stars, both new and familiar did their best to make the early evening event glorious. After a somewhat disjointed rendition of the erotic “Bacchanale” from “Samson et Dalila” conductor Emmanuel Villaume brought it all together with a display of precision and drama that led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to its customary peak of performance. Even allowing for the unfortunate absence of Marcello Giordani and Marina Poplavskaya, there was an abbondanza of talent onstage. Not to mention the huge forces of The New York Choral Society.

Angela Meade, a young soprano who has been winning competitions and dazzling audiences for the past few years lived up to her potential in “Santo di patria” from Verdi’s “Atilla”. Her voice is as ample as her body and she is sure to have a stunning future, with several appearances upcoming at the Met. Later in the program, she assayed the trio from Bellini’s “Norma” (the finale of Act I) with Dolora Zajick and Frank Porretta, a tenor who brought very little to bear on the performance. It was here that Ms. Meade revealed some minor shortcomings in the coloratura that a few more years should dissolve.

Ms. Zajick’s powerful voice was heard later in the program in Tchaikovsky’s aria “Tsar vishnikh sil” from “The Maid of Orleans”. Comparing this with a later duet, “Tu, qui?” from “Cavalleria Rusticana” demonstrated how much she requires another singer onstage to relate to. The first was rather lackluster, but bouncing off Yonghoon Lee’s persuasive tenor inspired her to a far higher level of performance; the acting was searing in its intensity. Mr. Lee, on the other hand was equally persuasive by himself in Massenet’s “O Souverain” from “Le Cid”. Just recently we had enjoyed his performance in “Nabucco”. He is a tenor to watch!

In the tenor department, Jonas Kaufmann made a splendid showing as Turridu in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”, squeezing every ounce of passion from “Mamma, quel vino e generoso”. There is something about his way with dynamics that tears at the listener’s heart. He can trumpet out a great big sound and then gently caress the vowels in a pianissimo that is still very audible. His duet with Bryn Terfel, “Dio, che nell’alma infondere” from Verdi’s “Don Carlo”, was thrilling, their two voices being so well matched.

Mr. Terfel was equally brilliant in his solo aria “Udite, udite, o rustici” from Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore” in which he was able to show a delightfully relaxed and humorous side of himself, engaging both the conductor and the audience. One wondered what he might have done with the role of Wotan, had he been unencumbered by “the machine” and clumsy costume and wig.

Two other “forces of nature” were on hand. Mezzo Stephanie Blythe gave a luminous performance of Ambroise Thomas’ melodic “Connais-tu le pays” from “Mignon”. One could listen to her large and lovely voice all night and never feel bored. Soprano Maria Guleghina also let loose with “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca”. If there had been scenery one could say that she chewed it up. It was very emotional and very convincing, as was her performance in the aforementioned “Nabucco”.
Baritone Zeljko Lucic is always a pleasure to hear and his “Eri tu” from Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” was finely wrought and beautifully accompanied by flute and harp solos.

As a special treat added to the program, we got to hear and see the dazzling young mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili as she rejects Jonas Kaufmann’s Don Jose in the final act of Bizet’s “Carmen”. It is difficult to imagine anyone rejecting the glamorous Mr. Kaufmann, but she gets to die in his arms instead of falling to the ground. Oh rapture unforeseen!

The program closed with the final fugue from Verdi’s “Falstaff”, with parts being played by two stunning women, soprano Deanna Breiwick and mezzo Renee Tatum and by tenors Theo Lebow and Ta’u Pupu’a, baritone Edward Parks and bass Keith Miller. The orchestra played brilliantly and the voices blended masterfully, bringing this star-spangled event to a rousing close.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


So much has already been written about “the Machine”! I finally found someone who liked it. He was sitting in the balcony box with me and he told me he is an architect. That figures. As for me, I feel like poor Papageno who has been given water instead of wine and stones instead of bread. I wanted magic and got technology. I feel punished. The machine is noisy and clunky and distracting. And what about the 3-D projections? As the cute little yellow bird flitted around the stage I kept thinking of the eponymous calypso song... ”Yellow bird, up high in banana tree.” Were those earthworms crawling around before Act I? I guess it depends on where you sit. From the balcony boxes, where sight lines are generally partially obstructed, one could get a fine view of Mime’s subterranean lair which might not have been so visible from the orchestra. Likewise the fake lake. Lots of the projections reminded me of those gigantic photo murals on the walls of dental offices. Enough said. What about the singing?

The third act was quite wonderful with the radiant Deborah Voigt showing singing and acting chops as the stunned Brunnhilde awakening from her long sleep. She was totally convincing in her fear of her newly mortal longing for her nephew Siegfried, the hero meant to save the world. Her capitulation was quite touching and she seemed to bring out the best in tenor Jay Hunter Morris who might have been saving himself for the big duet. The major shortcoming of the scene is when the actions did not fit the words, but at least we were spared the sight of Brunnhilde hanging upside down by her feet. As a matter of fact, at the beginning of the scene, she walked on, lay down and put the shield on her chest. Perhaps this was another mechanical failure that the audience is asked to overlook. The endless loop of projected flames grew very tiresome.

Bryn Terfel sang with power and more stage presence than in the first two installments. He seems to be growing into the role of Wotan, now called The Wanderer, but cannot fill James Morris’ shoes. Fortunately the horrible stringy dark wig that covered his face has been retired and replaced by a stringy white wig that doesn’t, but he still does not seem perfectly at ease.

Eric Owens has less stage time as Alberich but sings with great power and finesse, hampered only by a ridiculous costume. His brother Mime is portrayed by German tenor Gerhard Siegel who whines and wheedles and tries to induce guilt in the boy he has raised as an investment in trying to recapture the ring from the dragon (in this case a funny snake) who is really Fafner. The ludicrous aspect of this snake robs Siegfried’s killing of him of its power.

Glamorous Irish mezzo Patricia Bardon, gowned in a slinky black number, looked like anything but Mutter Erda but sounded fine. German soprano Mojca Erdmann, so adorable as Zerlina last week, is not seen at all but delights the ear as the Forest Bird. German bass Hans-Peter Konig is heard briefly as Fafner, lending some menace to that silly snake. Derrick Inouye conducted, not badly but not brilliantly. Mr. Levine simply cannot be replaced.

Final Score: Wagner 10, LePage 2

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Intimacy at the Met

The art of the lieder recital requires the creation of a sense of intimacy. But, with what? The audience? The piano partner? The music? The entire idea is baffling and no one since Pavarotti has given such a recital at the Met until last Sunday afternoon when tenor-of-the-moment Jonas Kaufmann did so with piano partner Helmut Deutsch. Staring at this beautiful and talented tenor through my opera glasses from a balcony box was not the best circumstance for a feeling of intimacy I am not sure that sitting in the front row of the orchestra would have helped since the size of the house mitigates against the feeling of “you, me and the music”. But it is unlikely that one would ever have the opportunity to see and hear such a super-star in a tiny venue.

This cavil aside, it was a great privilege to be in the audience and to hear Mr. Kaufmann’s impressive artistry and to see his engaging stage presence. He and Mr. Deutsch opened the program with some lesser-known songs by Franz Liszt, including the charming “Die drei Zigeuner” a setting of a poem by Nikolaus Lenau that gives us good advice on dealing with the darkness of life by smoking, sleeping or playing music.
Next Mr. Kaufmann gave us Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder which allowed him to show off his lovely phrasing, varied moods, and marvelous control of tone and color. In spite of having a dark Germanic sound, he can float a pianissimo with the best of them. He is quiet and poised onstage and restrained in his gestures, allowing his voice to convey the emotions.

After a handful of chansons by Henri Duparc, who chose some fine poets to set including Baudelaire, our artists moved on to six songs by Richard Strauss, and it is here that Mr. K. did his most thrilling singing. He clearly has a special feeling for Strauss. Who would not weep listening to “Befreit” or feel the peaceful joy of “Morgen!” or the exaltation of “Caecilie?

The audience demanded encore after encore and Mr. K. generously provided a half dozen, sounding just as fresh as he had at the beginning. Strauss followed Strauss followed Strauss; perhaps “Zueignung” was the favorite. He closed the program with “Dein ist Mein Ganzes Herz” from the Lehar operetta “Das Land des Laechelns”. We left the Met grinning from ear to ear and humming along with several other people who apparently were similarly affected. Bravo Jonas!

(c) Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Monday, October 31, 2011

Mariusz! Mariusz! Mariusz!

“Oh, Mr. Kwiecien, you have seduced and abandoned me but I love you still. You are exciting, dangerous and compelling. You are in control. Nothing diverts you from your purpose in life. You are a Don Giovanni for our age.”

Watching and thrilling to this year’s version of Don G. at the Met I realized that if anything is going to “show me something new” about any given opera, it is going to be the cast and the conductor, not the director. Much has been written about the disappointment of Michael Grandage’s production and its failure to say anything new. Whatever new that can be said about this opera was “said” by Fabulous Fabio Luisi’s crystal clear conducting which brought forth new delights by limning inner voices with astounding clarity. Whatever new insights that could be found were discovered by the sensational international cast who made each character believable.

Not only the Polish Mr. K. but, in no particular order, Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas’ stalwart Don Ottavio who expressed his devotion to Donna Anna with meltingly legato llines; Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka’s Donna Anna, Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli’s angry and frustrated Donna Elvira, Venezuelan bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni’s comic Leporello (made more so by Don G’s seriousness), the adorable German soprano Mojca Erdmann’s coquettish Zerlina, equally adorable Australian bass Joshua Bloom as her understandably angry hubby Masetto, and Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan as the murdered Commendatore. This United Nations of Singers said it all and said it well.
I don’t think Mr. Grandage owes us any apologies. It is true that the sets and costumes, credited to Christopher Oram were not exciting, but they permitted all the attention to be focused on the excellent singing. They were not nearly as egregious as Don G’s I have seen that were set in front of tenements or in church basements or funeral homes. When did opera become a director’s medium? Let the singers and conductors reclaim the art form! I wish to see and hear what the composer and librettist had in mind, not the “concept” of some director who wants to impose his vision on a revered work. Let us not repaint the Mona Lisa!

Please comment whether you agree or disagree.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Oh, Oh Obradors

A selection of songs by early 20th c. composer Fernando Obradors were given a splendid performance at the Morgan Library in collaboration with The George London Foundation for Singers by the gifted young soprano Ailyn Perez. When the recital by Ms. Perez and her equally gifted young tenor husband Stephen Costello was announced, I was filled with anticipation, having enjoyed her performance as Marguerite (in Gounod’s Faust) so much last summer in Santa Fe, and having enjoyed Mr. Costello’s performance as Lord Percy at the Met just a few days earlier. My very high expectations were met and perhaps exceeded. Ken Noda as piano partner contributed enormously to the success of this recital. He is always impressively attuned to the singers he accompanies.

Ms. Perez used her thrilling voice and her acting chops in the program opener--”Salce, salce” and “Ave Maria” from Otello. So committed a performer is she that my mind conjured the set as if I had just then seen the entire opera. Mr. Costello followed with some songs by Paolo Tosti; the two sung in Italian “Ideale” and “Non t’ami piu” were especially affecting, as sung in a beautiful Italianate style. The other two were settings of English and it seemed to me that the English language does not lend itself as well to beautiful vocal lines. Such was also noted in the premiere of Mr. Pasatieri’s “Bel Canto Songs”, taken on by Ms. Perez. These settings of texts by William Blake, according to the program notes “employ a pure bel canto aspect in the vocal line but which also feature a contemporary harmonic palette in the piano part”. Okay, that may have been the intention but it did not come through in the execution, in spite of Ms. Perez’ excellent technique. Mr. Pasatieri writes beautifully for the piano but the vocal line did not hold interest, and for this I blame the poetry--lovely to read on paper but in no way singable the way Italian is.

The program closed with a charming scene from Mascagni’s “L’Amico Fritz” a duet between Suzel and Fritz in which nothing is discussed but birdsong and cherry ripening; BUT, the lyricism of the vocal line tells us more than words could how these two people love one another. Noting that Ms. Perez and Mr. Costello both won awards from The George London Foundation in 2006, I wondered whether they had met one another at that time and fallen in love. Hearing such a romantic duet certainly prompts romantic fantasies! The only thing that might have added to this satisfying recital would have been more duets. More duets please!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Burnin' down the house!

There was lots of fire at the Met’s revival of the Elijah Moshinsky production of “Nabucco”: fire coming from the pit with Paolo Carignani’s spirited Italianate conducting of Verdi’s lavishly melodic score, fire from the gifted cast and real fire as the Bad Babylonians burned down the temple of the persecuted Judeans.

From the opening fanfare of trombones, one knew that a treat was in store. The overture alone was packed with enough tunes to keep one humming for weeks; the Met orchestra rewarded Maestro Carignani with luminous playing and the audience rewarded both orchestra and conductor with thunderous applause. This is early Verdi, composed when he was just 28 years old and marked a distinct departure from the bel canto style of mid 19th c.
Here we have some interesting characters in a rather stock situation. The vindictive Babylonian princess Abigaille is in love with the Judean Ismaele who is in love with Abigaille’s sister Fenena and seems to betray his country. The deluded Babylonian king Nabucco is drunk with power and declares himself to be not king but god. He goes mad and Abigaille seizes the crown; but his prayers to the Hebrew god restore his sanity and he reclaims the throne. It is easy to see how many opportunities this tale offers for impassioned singing and tender prayers.

This may be soprano Maria Guleghina’s best performance ever. She chewed up the scenery and spat it out. She easily leaped from chest tones to high C’s and dazzled with her virtuosity. Second year Lindemann artist mezzo Renee Tatum painted a believable portrait of Fenena with her fine supple voice and lovely appearance. So outstanding was her prayer in Part Four, one might wish that Verdi had written more for her. This is her largest role at the Met so far and we are looking forward to hearing much more from her.

Baritone Zeljko Lucic delivered his customary fine performance in the title role and was quite affecting in each of his many moods, from arrogance to pathos. Bass Carlo Colombara did full justice to the role of Zaccaria, the high priest of the Judeans. Tenor Yonghoon Lee in his second appearance at the Met was compelling in the role of Ismaele; he has a fine substantial voice that makes one yearn to hear more.
Perhaps more than in any other opera, the chorus is of critical importance and they did not disappoint. Their performance of “Va, pensiero” could make one weep. One cannot help thinking of the current upheavals in the Middle East--peoples trying to create or defend a homeland, nations struggling to redefine themselves. Not much has changed in two and a half millenia.

This is one production that the Met should keep in its repertory; one shudders to think how badly the opera could be damaged by some director’s “concept”. “Nabucco” belongs to the conductor and the singers who bring it to life. John Napier’s sets and J. Knighten Smit’s direction may be called “old-fashioned” but they are absolutely perfect. There is no elaborate stage business to distract one from the story-telling and the singing. The only false note was the presence of two gibbets in the final act. One doubts whether hanging was a biblical method of execution. Without knowledge of what people wore 2500 years ago, it is difficult to criticize the costuming of Andreane Neofitou. One could only say that the armies looked military, the Judeans looked only slightly drab, Ismaele looked just right to play Calaf, and the two women looked absolutely gorgeous.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Friday, October 7, 2011


Why rush to see yet another Barber after having seen it well over a dozen times? The best reason is to witness gorgeous talented Isabel Leonard make the most out of the role of Rosina. Having followed her career with delight after hearing a student recital at Juilliard, I am delighted to report that she is fulfilling her promise in spades (and diamonds for her sparkle and hearts because you will love her too). She has a sumptuous mezzo and flawless technique both in the legato and in the coloratura passages with precision of articulation not often heard. It was a pleasure to see her in a dress, and Catherine Zuber’s costumes were most becoming, as was the wig, something we cannot take for granted.

I wish I could say the same for Mexican tenor Javier Camarena, making his debut at the Met in the role of Count Almaviva. We loves us some Mexican tenors but this performance did not make the grade. In his Act I serenade “Ecco Ridente” coloratura passages seemed rather muddy and high notes felt strained, although he improved in Act II and in the ensemble work. He just doesn’t command the stage as, for example, Juan Diego Flores does. Towering over him by virtue of talent and height was Swedish baritone Peter Mattei who had enough stage presence for both of them. His generous baritone and ease on stage are always a pleasure to watch and his chemistry with Ms. Leonard far exceeded that of Mr. Camarena.

Bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro sang the role of the foolish possessive Dr. Bartolo with great style and humor. Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze sang the role of slimy music teacher Don Basilio and Lindemann graduate Jennifer Check did just fine in Berta’s Act II aria, as did another Lindemann graduate John Moore who portrayed Fiorello in Act I. Rob Besserer garnered lots of laughs as Dr. Bartolo’s elderly servant.
Maurizio Benini conducted with vigor and lyricism this opera which is nearly 200 years old, composed when Rossini was only 24 years old. Melodies just poured out of the young Gioachino, melodies that perfectly match the charming libretto by Cesare Sterbini based on the play by Beaumarchais. No wonder that “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” has survived for nearly two centuries and remains in the repertory of so many companies. Audiences love it and this production met with thunderous applause at the time of curtain call. One wishes that Rossini had written more than the 30 gems he left us with.

I personally am not fond of the Bartlett Sher production or Michael Yeargan’s sets. The stage is rather bare but cluttered with doors and one second story balcony achieved by staircase. There is entirely too much distracting business in the direction and a burro led onstage for no apparent reason. I don’t see much point in Figaro being “loved up” by hordes of women, some of whom are put to work pulling his beauty salon on wheels. I would have preferred to have seen the burro do the pulling and the women do the singing. However, I must be in the minority because all the pratfalls brought forth peals of laughter from the audience and it certainly is a pleasure to see an opera audience having fun!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Red Bed and Yellow Jacket

Aside from the gorgeous singing (more on that in a moment), what stands out in this monochromatic production of “Anna Bolena” is The Queen’s Red Bed and The King’s Yellow Jacket. Set Designer Robert Jones has given the production a castle with moveable walls, much like the sliding shoji seen in Japan. The costumes of Jenny Tiramani are absolutely accurate in their period detail, down to the undergarments. (Don’t ask how I know this.) However, the consistent use of black and white against the grey walls is fatiguing to the eye which yearns for some color. Fortunately, the astute lighting of Paule Constable goes a long way toward providing some atmosphere.
The production by David McVicar could best be described as static. Granted that not much happens in the opera. King Henry VIII has tired of wife #2 who has borne only a daughter and has his eye (and both hands) all over Jane Seymour, Anne’s lady-in-waiting. His method of dealing with this situation is to invite Lord Richard Percy (Anne’s great love whom she left to marry Henry) to return from exile and to thereby entrap Anne and get her convicted of adultery and dispatched by The Lord High Executioner of Titipoo, sorry, England. He implements the plot by manipulating Smeton, Anne’s pet musician who is also in love with her.

The Met’s superstar soprano du jour Anna Netrebko also has the entire audience in love with her. Well, most of the audience. She makes a huge impression with a weighty voice and some nice squillo at the top; she is ravishingly beautiful in spite of the recent “baby fat” and she chews up the scenery with a succession of emotions--pride, indignation, despair, jealousy, rage, terror, forgiveness, you name it. But something undefinable is missing. One has only to listen to some youtube recordings of Callas or Sills (from the New York City Opera’s mid 1970s heyday) to feel the goosebumps missing from Netrebko’s performance. Detracting still further was her poor diction in Italian and a bit of sloppiness in the coloratura. It wasn’t a bad performance, it just didn’t thrill the soul.

American tenor Stephen Costello was affecting as the lovelorn Percy, a role of daunting tessitura, and his Italian was far easier to understand. Ildar Abdrazakov was a virile and intimidating Henry. In the trouser role of Smeton, Lindemann graduate Tamara Mumford was outstanding. Her acting was completely convincing and her mezzo absolutely gorgeous. Ekaterina Gubanova sang Jane Seymour with a metallic edge to her voice that made it difficult to empathize. Keith Miller and Eduardo Valdes were fine in the smaller roles of Lord Rochefort and Sir Hervey.

Marco Armiliato conducted Donizetti’s dazzling melodies. There was one exquisite moment when Smeton is playing the lute for Ann, rather doing an excellent job of miming, while harpist Deborah Hoffman (I believe) is playing the actual music.
Having seen both the HD and the live performances, I wanted to close by reiterating a point made after attending 8 HD performances last month. The HD director has a large contribution to make and nowhere in the program was credit (or debit, in this case) given. The HD was even darker than the production itself and long shots were used when closeups were called for, and vice-versa. Opportunities for “reaction shots” were missed. I can only guess that the HD direction was somehow given short shrift or insufficient rehearsal. Or perhaps because it was filmed live during an actual performance. If any reader knows more, I welcome your comments. Also, if you agree or disagree on anything, please leave your comment.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Candidely Charming

To pursue yesterday’s line of thought about the importance of chamber opera companies on the New York opera scene, much credit must be given to Coopera: POM as in “Project Opera of Manhattan” (or, as the case may be, “Pom Wonderful”). Last weekend’s production of the 1973 one-act version of Candide, credited to Harold Prince, was wildly entertaining, cast with uniformly talented young professionals and supported by a fine orchestra conducted with panache by the equally talented Jorge Parodi.

Discussions of whether Candide is an opera or musical theatre are pointless. According to Anthony Tommasini’s criteria, it is both an opera because it is musically-driven and it is musical theatre because it is dialogue driven. One might consider the music to be one of Leonard Bernstein’s finest creations while the lyics by Richard Wilbur are extraordinarily witty and clever. I suspect that much or perhaps most of the wit was provided as “additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and John La Touche”. The Sondheim contribution is most evident. The story is loosely based on Voltaire’s “Candide”. The master himself was played by John Martello who stepped easily into the role of Dr. Pangloss.

Evan McCormack has a meltingly beautiful tenor and played the title role to innocent benighted perfection. Soprano Rosa Betancourt certainly has the high notes and portrayed Cunegonde most winningly. Their duet about marriage was charming. Sophia Benedetti was a very frisky Paquette while velvet-voiced Jorell Williams had a great deal of fun portraying the vain self-involved Maximilian. Laura Virella (cofounder and artistic director of the company) used her rich mezzo to great advantage in the hilarious role of “The Old Lady” who gets by with one buttock. The audience went wild for her big aria “I Am Easily Assimilated”.

The final choral number integrated their voices with those of Aaron Mor, Scott Power Elliot, Dorian Balis, Gregory M. Spock, Gerad O’Shea, Tricia Ostermann, Meagan Amelia Brus, Monica Hershenson Thuris and Christine Price who all had assumed various roles in the production. There wasn’t a single disappointing voice in the cast.

Coopera has a mutually beneficial relationship with the Players Club, a lovely venue for chamber opera with a large flexible room that permits a variety of seating and staging options. In this case the stage was a slightly raised platform in front of the 13-member orchestra. There were only minimal costumes and virtually no scenery to compete with the music and acting and one quickly forgot about the lack. The New York City Opera presented the work in 2005 and 2008 and I distinctly recall the cast comprising both Broadway people and opera people. Sadly, it was amplified. Yes, the sets and costumes were lavish but I prefer the intimate production I just saw. Never mind that NYCO called itself “the people’s opera”. I would say that Coopera is REALLY opera for the people!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Off-Broadway Opera

Opera lovers wanting an alternative experience to the Metropolitan Opera will be pleased to hear about some exciting options. Chamber opera is alive and well here in Manhattan. Just as one doesn’t need to compare apples to oranges, one doesn’t need to measure the works of these small companies to that of the Met. In place of famous singers, lavish sets, huge orchestras and ground-breaking (but not always cherished) productions one is offered an intimate experience with talented young singers, conductors and musicians without the distraction of binoculars and dubious cinematic production values.

Literally one block from Broadway the Calhoun School offered an 1812 Rossini opera never produced commercially in New York, a delightful farce entitled “L’Occasione Fa Il Ladro” that would make a perfect companion piece for “Gianni Schicchi”. The Calhoun School supports this company calling themselves Gotham Bel Canto and one certainly heard some uniformly excellent bel canto singing from the cast of 6. No programs were provided but the FB page identified the tenor lead as Nicholas Simpson, the baritone as Diego Matamoros, and the very funny bass as Pablo Provencio. The soprano roles were beautifully sung by Stacey Stofferahn and Sharee Seal. Brian Joyce also did justice to his tenor role. The director was Giovanni Pucci who missed no opportunity for “funny business”.

What pulled this entire collaborative enterprise together was the astute conducting of Ms. Ü Lee who accompanied the recitativi from the keyboard and drew a fine reading from her 18 musicians. Attacks were precise where they should be and equally gentle in appropriate places. The balance among the sections was perfect. One could detect a great deal of effort that went into making the music sound so effortless and effervescent. Some of the musicians came from the Calhoun School, as did the director and Mr. Provencio. Others knew each other from Manhattan School of Music.

There was also some magic present. The audience was more than half children, many of whom could not read the titles, but the wriggle quotient was nearly zero and the young faces were rapt. The story of the opera is one of misplaced suitcases and mistaken identity. If anyone asks how to deal with the aging of the audience for opera, we now have the answer. We must introduce our children at an early age to tuneful music and a story with lots of physical humor. They will “get” it even if they don’t speak the language which is sung.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Friday, September 23, 2011


Opera Lyra Ottawa Presented Cavelleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at the National Arts Centre Southam Hall in Ottawa on Saturday, September 10 at 8 p.m. with additional performances on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, September 17

There were more empty seats than the producers probably hoped for at the opening of Opera Lyra Ottawa's twin-bill production of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Although an evening of “Cav and Pag” used to be one of the staples of nearly every opera company, but in recent decades its star has fallen.

Why is that?

Perhaps it's because both operas have essentially the same plot. Cav and Pag tell of sordid yet plausible events, but how much adultery and bloody revenge do we need in an evening? Opera audiences are becoming more sophisticated bit by bit.

Cavalleria is widely, perhaps unfairly, considered the weaker of the two and opera companies tend to expend more of their usually finite resources on Pagliacci. So it was with this production.

There were many good things about the Cavalliera, chiefly the singing and acting. Richard Crawley was especially fine as Turiddu as was his opposite number, Lisa Daltirus, who sang Santuzza. The other principals were nearly as good, particularly Gae(aigu)tan Laperrie(grave)re who sang an Alfio not to be messed with.

The staging was a little wooden and the deployment of the chorus alternated between over-busy to virtually static. The costumes were not bad except for the one Wallis Giunta wore as Lola. In contrast to the black and other somber colours the other women were wearing, and would have worn in real life, she was dressed in bright colours and frequently had her shoulders bare. She is a slut of course, but it's inconceivable that she would advertise it like that.

Richard Buckley's musical direction was flaccid in Cavalleria, but more pointed and muscular in Pagliacci. In the latter, Michael Cavanagh's staging was effective, including the movements of the chorus.

Richard Leech was a superb Canio/Pagliccio, never hamming things up, never holding the high notes to show of the considerable beauty and power of his voice. And he did not shout or bellow the famous last words, “La commedia e(grave) finita.” He delivered them in a sinister whisper. Yannick-Muriel Noah was convincing as his wife, Nedda.

Gae(aigu)tan Laperrie(grave)re, the only principal to sing in both operas, played the combined role of the Prologue and the black-hearted Tonio. He was sinister and repulsive as the latter, but suitably animated and persuasive as the former.

Among the lesser roles, Jonathan Estabrooks' Silvio was particularly well sung and acted.

It was a shame that Cavalleria was not as well done as it should have been. A fair comparison between the merits of the two operas was scarcely possible. It's true that Pagliacci is more cleverly crafted, but Leoncavallo's musical language is very similar to Puccini's without having quite the same stamp of genius. Mascagni's melodies are more original and are endlessly beautiful.

Richard Todd for The Opera Insider

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Si si to HD

Has it been only a year since I wrote about reluctantly trying opera in HD? This summer I attended all eight with a great deal of enthusiasm and mourned the cancellation of the first two due to hurricane Irene. It is evident by now that the combination of the operatic arts and the cinematic arts is of great value. Many people in the audience let me know that they had never seen an opera live and only came because it was free and there was nothing better to do in the waning days of summer. In every case they manifested a high level of enjoyment and indicated a willingness to shell out some real dough for a live performance. So, in terms of audience building, the Metropolitan Opera’s offering, supported by a generous grant from The Neubauer Family Foundation and corporate sponsorship by Bloomberg (a big thank you to both!), is an unqualified success.

The 3000 groundlings who crowded the Lincoln Center Plaza were treated to an unending cascade of delights to the eye and ear; we saw more than the trust-fund babies saw, sitting in prime orchestra seating during the season. Many details of staging that were missed during live performances, details that helped make sense of the stories, were not only visible but highlighted by the respective HD Directors.

Barbara Willis Sweete, who impressed me last year with her “Carmen”, continued to do excellent work with Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride”. Now the Prologue, indicating Iphigenie’s rescue by the goddess Diane, was gloriously visible as were the memories and fantasies of the unhappy siblings. Likewise Sweete’s direction of “Fanciulla del West” allowed us to see Minnie’s hiding of the cards in her sock so she could win the poker game with the Rance. Her “Lucia” was equally impressive and permitted us to understand the ghost in the fountain. I recall the live performances in both cases when I wondered what was going on.

Gary Halvorson who had a hit and a miss with last summer’s offerings was right on the money with this summer’s productions. For example, in his “Don Carlo”, he was wise enough to give us a close-up of the photo of DC that King Philip finds in his wife’s jewel box so we would have no doubts as to why the King was so angry.
Brian Large’s “La Rondine” gave us great views of the details of Magda’s opulent quarters and costumes so we would know just how privileged and irresistible was her life as a “kept woman”. In his Boris Godunov he chose to focus on the Holy Fool in the opening and closing scenes, giving this character the significance he deserves. We see the faces of the suffering in the crowd instead of a massed chorus.
The one “miss” of the festival was Peter Sellars’ “Nixon in China”. His HD direction of his own production could not do anything to make this musically boring and dramatically inert opera worth watching or hearing. It was the only night that people fled in droves. His HD direction only compounded his felony by offering the audience a close-up of Chairman Mao forcing one of his acolytes to masturbate him. This was matched in offensiveness only by the scene of Scarpia being fellated in last year’s Tosca. The Bad Boy of Opera just cannot resist his puerile impulses. Well, thankfully, the one rotten apple did not spoil the barrel of delights on the other seven nights.

With such fine direction by Sweete, Large and Halvorson I am willing to allow the HD director to guide my gaze. Relieved of the burden of shifting from opera glasses to full stage to titles, we become free to follow the story and enjoy the music. During the overture, if nothing is happening onstage we are treated to close-ups of the musicians. In sum, HD has taken opera to an entirely new level. This is to be celebrated!

(c)meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The final installment...

My musical sojourn in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was brought to a most satisfying conclusion by the annual Apprentice Scene Program, at which the apprentices at the Santa Fe Opera get to strut their stuff. The program was begun by John Crosby to give young singers and technicians opportunities for advanced training and professional experience. The vocal apprentices appear in small roles and in the chorus of the five summer operas. But on this night they get to star. Tickets are inexpensive and the house is always packed, everyone looking for the next star.

All the apprentices performed well in their chosen scenes from Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen”, Hoiby’s “Summer and Smoke”, Corigliano’s “The Ghost of Versailles” and Handel’s “Semele”. But it was not until the second half of the program that I heard some young singers who not only entertained the ear but also the eye with convincing performances. Will Liverman, a recipient of a grant from New York’s own Opera Index put in a totally committed and believable performance as Porgy in Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess”. (Yes, Virginia, it is music-driven and it is an opera, in spite of whatever cockamamie interpretation is coming to NY this season). Stephanie Washington sang Bess with real feeling, although she hadn’t swept me off my feet in Part I. Michael Dailey made a splendidly seductive Sportin’ Life.

Alissa Anderson was notable as Carmen, with the roles of Frasquita and Mercedes being sung respectively by Rebecca Nathanson and Emma Char. Maria Lindsey made a winsome Semele with Randall Bills impressive as Jupiter trying to distract her from her plans for immortality.

The Apprentice Program is a great addition to the SFO scene and well worth your while if you enjoy discovering new talent.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hit or Miss, Part Tre

One would have to call the revival of Paul Curran’s production of La Bohème part hit and part miss. I recall enjoying the 2007 incarnation a lot more, possibly due to better casting or possibly to the freshness of the concept. In the past four years, I have seen several productions of this opera updated to the early 20th Century, and I can only ask myself WHY? Henri Murger wrote his autobiographical Scènes de la vie de Bohème in 1848 about his impoverished youth, and meant the story to occur in 1830. An updating by the New York City Opera used a WWI setting to illustrate a conception of the story as one of lost innocence; they had something new to say and said it rather well. In the case of the SFO production, updating the story adds nothing in terms of relevance. In this production, Musetta is dressed in Poiret (costume design by Kevin Knight) while Mimi is wearing drab attire from a prior period, thus illustrating Musetta’s success in social climbing and acquiring financial goodies from wealthy admirers.

The hit is, of course, Puccini’s music, conducted by Leonardo Vordoni with lots of “garlic”. The vocal interpretations were adequate but there were no goosebumps. The direction missed several opportunities to translate Puccini’s precious moments into stage business. Rodolfo (sung by David Lomeli) wipes Mimi’s face with a rag where Puccini’s music clearly indicates water splashing on her face. Puccini’s music tells us when the fire in the old stove blazes up momentarily and then dies; the stage direction and lighting (Rick Fisher) ignored this. In Act III the characters sing about the snow and the cold but no snowflakes were to be seen.

Mimi was sung by Ana Maria Martinez, Musetta by Heidi Stober, Marcello by Corey McKern. Even Colline’s fourth act elegy to his overcoat, sung by Christian Van Horn, failed to touch my heart. Markus Beam replaced Keith Phares as Schaunard. It should have been funnier when he tells his hilarious story about giving poisoned parsley (parsenic?) to his employer’s parrot while his starving roommates focused only on the food he has brought. I attribute the lack of excitement in this evening to a lack of good direction. Sorry to say this but our favorite “oldies but goodies “ require the same attention to detail as the glamorous new productions. Try harder Santa Fe!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hit or Miss, Part deux

So Faust was a hit. What about the miss? I regret to report that Vivaldi’s “Griselda” was a disaster. Never fond of Peter Sellars’ bad boy approach to opera, I still had no trouble believing what I overheard--that he accepted this commission from SFO with a great deal of reluctance, having called it “the worst opera ever written”, and only because he wanted to spend the summer in Santa Fe. There is nothing wrong with Vivaldi’s music as conducted by Grant Gershon whose balletic hands were far more interesting than anything happening on stage. Sadly, the arias are very long and very repetitive and were only brought to life through the stellar singing of mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, soprano Amanda Majeski’s brilliant coloratura (in a pants role !), the superb counter-tenors David Daniels and Yuri Minenki (who did amazing things by way of fioratura) and some nice legato phrases by Paul Groves who sounded a bit frayed on top as he assayed a thankless role. Meredith Arwady has a huge contralto that thrills and an equally huge body that made the ardent love protestations of her suitor a laughing matter. As a matter of fact, so much that transpired onstage produced titters and giggles which seemed to provide the long-suffering audience some relief from tedium.

The source for Carlo Goldoni’s libretto was the final tale of Boccaccio’s “Decameron”; it may have excited the pilgrims escaping from plague-ridden Venice but it does nothing for a 21st c. audience, dealing as it does with the wife of Gualtiero, King of Tessaglia, who subjects his loyal wife to about 16 years of abuse and rejection before taking her back; I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale”. Why was this dead opera resurrected? Why was so much talent wasted? Just because it had not had a major production in the US? Just to allow the so-called artist Gronk the right to install his eye-assaulting gronky painted backdrops? The costume designer Dunya Ramicova saw fit to dress the beautiful Ms. Leonard like a third-world prom queen and the Queen’s unwelcome suitor as a hip-hopster in a pork-pie hat. Isabel’s suitor and his brother made appearances in suits of blueberry and kiwi hue.

The direction was, in every instance, embarrassing. Ms. Leonard was made to grovel on the floor with no motivation; indeed, none of the stage business was motivated by the dialogue or situation or even the music. Automatic weapons, pistols and microphones were ubiquitous. One could almost believe that Mr. Sellars wanted to express his disdain for this “worst of all operas” by trashing it. Enough of Regietheater already! It’s time to respect music and story.

I hope that Mr. Mackay has chosen better for the 2012 season. There are so many deserving and underproduced operas from the past 300 years that could be given thoughtful productions and thereby win friends instead of enemies for the world of opera. At the final moment of the opera, poor Meredith Arwady, dressed like a janitor and pushing a broom, having learned that her husband is taking her back, stands there with a puzzled expression on her face. I saw the same expression on the faces of the departing audience.
© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Hit or Miss

The most desirable opera-going venue in the U.S. --thanks to the fragrant mountain air and cool breezes--sometimes gets things right and sometimes wrong. What could be better than an imaginative production of Faust by Stephen Lawless, conducted by Frederic Chaslin with true Gallic spirit and thrillingly sung by a young attractive cast? This French retelling of the German myth, based on a play “Faust et Marguerite” by Michel Carre which was in turn based on Goethe’s “Faust”, deals with issues to which we, as a modern audience, can still relate: the issues of desire versus morality, the corruption of innocence, cynicism toward religion, the despair of an unfulfilling llife and obsession with the road not taken. For this libretto by Carre and Jules Barbier, Faust composed melodies of incomparable beauty. Indeed, I found myself humming them even after attending several more operas!

A completely committed performance of the role of Marguerite was given by young soprano Ailyn Perez, a 2006 George London Award winner who will be giving a recital at the Morgan Library on October 16th (afficionados take note); her bright clear soprano fulfilled every vocal demand of the role and her acting was so convincing that she seemed not to be acting at all. Dimitri Pittas did justice to the role of Faust and was especially convincing as the elderly doctor railing against god in Act I. Mark S. Doss made a most charming and rascally Mephistopheles. Valentin was sung by Christopher Magiera and Siebel by Jennifer Holloway. Jamie Barton sang at her customary skillful level but was poorly directed as Marthe. There was just something wrong about her stealing Marguerite’s jewels and her scenes with Mephistopheles were made tasteless by his very visible show of disgust at romancing her.

There were other directorial excesses. Updating the story to the late 19th c. was not a problem and afforded ample opportunities for creative expression. The Kermesse scene was a carnival with townspeople (dressed very much like Lucia de Lammermoor at the Met) enjoying circus performers , a side show, and an onstage ferris wheel. The Walpurgisnacht ballet was performed by a sextet of opera heroines (Salome, Helen of Troy, Manon, Carmen, Cleopatra, and Delilah) emerging from tableaux vivant to dance Gounod’s gorgeous melodies. However, Mephistopheles restoring Faust’s youth with a giant hypodermic needle and a face transplant seemed over the top, as did Faust giving Marguerite an entire bijouterie in place of a cask of jewels, especially when the clumsy bijouterie kept getting stuck while being wheeled onstage. Mephistopheles’ appearance causes townspeople to go into spasms on the ground. It is only the strength of Gounod’s melodies that prevent these unnecessary flourishes from overwhelming the music.

So the creativity props given to Stephen Lawless’ direction, and Benoit Dugardyn’s sets are somewhat undermined by their not knowing when to stop. Costume design by Sue Wilmington was apt and colorful. On the whole, this was a splendid night at the opera and can be considered a true hit. Viva Gounod!
© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Art of Dell'Arte

It is a difficult task for young opera singers to make the transition to the professional stage and I heartily applaud Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble for giving them intensive coaching in stagecraft, body movement, languages, diction and mime and then giving them the opportunity to perform in fully staged productions. Scenery and costumes are kept to a minimum to focus attention on the performers themselves. For the past two weekends, New Yorkers were privileged to hear and see two excellent productions in an intimate setting, with four performances of each. This means that four different casts were trained, collectively and individually.

I have seen the dazzling production of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Met and I have seen the modest one presented at the East Thirteenth Street Theatre; the latter, surprisingly, was more delightful. The accomplished conducting by Christopher Fecteau of his own orchestration brought out every nuance in the Strauss score. There were interesting melodies and unusual harmonies that had gone unnoticed until then, so distracted was I at the Met by directorial and costuming excess. Maestro Fecteau’s orchestration included violin, viola, cello, bass, keyboard, French horn, trumpet, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and flute. And what a full, rich sound they made, without a trace of muddiness.
The singers all did justice to their roles and acted them convincingly; the strong directorial hand of Benjamin Spierman was evident. The libretto by Hugo von Hoffmansthal equally skewers inflated artistic egos and benighted bourgeois taste, as evidenced by the bizarre demand of the (probably parvenu) host who wants to combine the high art of opera with the low art of musical comedy in order to get the fireworks started on time. Everyone thinks only of his/herself. The stars of the opera serie have tantrums that are recognizable and therefore hilarious.The shenanigans of the musical comedy troupe are endearing to everyone but the stars of the opera serie who are wildly insulted. The young composer is crushed by the trashing of his work, but mollified by the attentions of the too-seductive-by-half soubrette of the comedy troupe.

Lovely harmonies were sung by Naiad, Dryade and Echo. The Major Domo, a speaking role performed by Eric Kramer drew major laughs with his over-the-top German rigidity. I will decline to single out any of the singers since I only saw one cast. Suffice it to say that there was a true ensemble feel which can only be created by a long period of rehearsal and much labor.

Dell’Arte also presented Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on alternate nights. Maestro Fecteau again did the orchestration, this time without violin and viola but with paired horns and clarinets; this suited the work perfectly. For this work, the conductor was Samuel McCoy and the stage director was Susan Gonzalez who kept the action moving along with some clever English dialogue which she herself wrote. It managed to walk a fine line--never archaic and never egregiously hip. Again, fine harmonizing was heard by the Three Ladies who fought over the unconscious Prince Tamino and by the Three Boys (sung by women) who show up to prevent Pamina from stabbing herself and to prevent Papageno from hanging himself. Emanuel Schikaneder certainly emphasized the numeral three! The work was composed as a Singspiel and clearly relates to Mozart’s and Schikaneder’s interest in Masonic rituals.

At times, the story tends to drag and can be insulting to women. Several lines state that a woman without a man should not be a ruler, that a woman needs to rely on a man, that women’s speech will lead a man astray, and so forth. We are free to tune out that dated nonsense and to glory in Mozart’s magical music.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


All great meals begin with an amuse-bouche; and, so I decided, a week of opera in Santa Fe should begin with an amuse-oreille, perhaps an afternoon vocal recital. I miscalculated. The planned amuse-oreille was a recital by the brilliant bass-baritone Eric Owens presented by the Santa Fe Concert Association which has been delighting natives and visitors to Santa Fe with glorious concerts for 75 years. This was their first summer series of vocal recitals and it was a huge hit. The recital was an entire meal for this musical gourmet and wound up being the highlight of my ten-day musical sojourn in The City Different.

Mr. Owens is a highly skilled performer, known to New Yorkers for his stunning performance of the role of Alberich in the new Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera. But here one had the opportunity to enjoy his deliciously deep and rapturously resonant voice in an intimate house, the Scottish Rite Center. Maestro Joseph Illick, Executive and Artistic Director of the SFCA as well as conductor of the SFCA Orchestra and Chorus, made the perfect piano partner.

The pair began with Mozart’s “Mentre ti lascio” which showed off Mr. Owen’s vocal agility and moved right along to some of Schubert’s more serious songs--”Prometheus”, “Fahrt zum Hades” and “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” which showed off his vocal power. Next he performed two songs by Henri Duparc--the well-known “L’invitation au voyage” and the lesser-known but no less lovely “Elegy” and “La vague et la cloche”; these songs enabled Mr. Owens to show a lighter and more charming aspect of his voice.
In all of these well-chosen songs, Mr. Owens “acted with his voice”; he is a very centered and unfussy performer. During the final set however, Ravel’s delightful songs “Don Quichotte a Dulcinee” were performed with ample and appropriate gestures that delighted the audience. Just another side of this versatile performer! Two stunning encores followed that revealed still more. King Phillip’s poignant aria from “Don Carlo”--”Ella giammai m’ami”-- when sung with such pathos can make us feel sympathy for the hateful King. The second encore opened an entirely new door. Generally sung by counter-tenors, Purcell’s “Music for Awhile” brought out Mr. Owens’ soft and delicate side and brought the audience to their collective feet.
What an outstanding afternoon! I only felt sad that I had missed the prior two recitals presented by the Santa Fe Concert Association--one by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard (a personal favorite) and another by bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch. It is with great anticipation that I look forward to next summer’s offerings. And if I had remained longer in Santa Fe, I would have been lining up for tickets to the August 28th Gala Opening Concert. If you live in the Southwest, don’t pass it up!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Friday, August 5, 2011

Prelude to Performance

There are many reasons one has for going to the opera. Sometimes it’s to hear that famous tenor hit all the high C’s, or maybe an opportunity to catch someone’s debut in a role. Sometimes it’s to “give a chance” to a new opera. But best of all circumstances is when one goes to the opera knowing one is going to be royally entertained.

After dozens of Don Giovanni’s, what is left to be said? What could one possibly add to all the stellar performances one has seen? Just ask much-honored Maestra Martina Arroyo and her dedicated and gifted faculty whose total commitment to performance skills enabled such a winning production to take place at the Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College. Nothing could compare to the joy of experiencing this opera with an ensemble of perfectly coached young singers who threw themselves into their roles with complete abandon.

No elaborate sets were necessary--a few pillars, a bench. However, appropriately period costumes by Charles Caine contributed much to the telling of the tale. And tell the tale they did! The ensemble work was most impressive to the extent that I would not venture to “name names” lest I shortchange the members of the casts that I did NOT hear. But I will make special mention of Laura Alley who directed her young Mozarteans with both style and substance. No action was unmotivated and stage business always supported the music. Don Giovanni is a long opera but not once did the action flag nor did the attention of the audience sag. Robert Lyall conducted with skill and gusto.

Could such a success be repeated with another opera? Need you ask? Although La Rondine would seems to be a piece of fluff next to Don G. the opera rose to the same heights on the shoulders of the talented singers who were utterly convincing in their dramatic interpretations. This one also had two casts and I have every reason to believe that the cast I did not see was just as accomplished as the one I did see. Again, the charming costumes were designed by Charles Caine but this time, Nicholas Fox conducted in true Puccinian style and Joseph Bascetta directed. In both cases the impeccable makeup and wigs were by Steve Horak.

I understand that these 40 gifted young singers, all in the early stages of their careers, were selected by audition from a pool of four hundred by the very same faculty who would coach them in every aspect of performance other than vocal production. Master classes were given (and open to the public) by Stephanie Blythe, Cori Ellison, Ken Benson and Ben Vereen. The valuable evidence of the superiority of this coaching was the performances themselves. Most impressive is the fact that the selected students pay no tuition for this valuable training. This year marked the seventh consecutive year of operatic delights presented by the Martina Arroyo Foundations’s “Prelude to Performance”. We wish them seven times seven more.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Sunday, June 26, 2011


So impressed was I by Doug Fitch’s direction of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen that I was inspired to search my notes on his 2005 Turandot at Santa Fe Opera. Here’s what I wrote. “This is the best Turandot I have ever seen. During the intimate scene in Act I between Liu, Calaf and Timur, there are minimal distractions.” So, much of the credit for The New York Philharmonic’s presentation of “The Cunning Little Vixen” must go to director Mr. Fitch who filled the stage with captivating woodland creatures cavorting on a simple but effective set and costumed with consummate cleverness and dazzling originality.

Among these creatures, the Vixen herself was convincingly portrayed by the captivating soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian whose vocal and physical ease made the drama believable. Mezzo Marie Lenormand was equally gifted in the role of her mate. Baritone Alan Opie was excellent as the Forester. The roles of the Schoolmaster and the Parson were finely performed by tenor Keith Jameson and bass Wilbur Pauley who also doubled as a Mosquito (!) and a Badger. Australian baritone Joshua Bloom portrayed the poultry dealer Harasta and was the only singer whose diction was so perfect that one didn’t need to read the English titles. Mezzo Kelly O’Connor was a totally adorable dog.
Although every small role was performed at the same high level, it was particularly rewarding to notice some personal favorites recognized from Juilliard who have been making names for themselves around town and winning competitions--sopranos Devon Guthrie and Emalie Savoy and mezzo Lacey Benter.

Alan Gilbert led the NY Philharmonic in a beautiful reading of a delightfully tuneful score. Special notice was taken of some interesting melodies in the wind section. Karole Armitage did some outstanding work as choreographer and there was a charming solo danced by Emily Wagner as the desirable young woman of the village. Cookie Jordan was responsible for the elaborate make-up which perfectly complemented Mr. Fitch’s costume designs.

My personal preference would have been to hear the opera sung in the original language, the better to appreciate the rhythm of the language dancing with the rhythm of the music. I suspect that there are not many singers available who can learn the role in Czech but I hope no one is claiming that it is easier to relate to operas sung in the language of the audience. Save for the one singer noted above, the titles were essential to understand the words which tended to get swallowed up in the cavernous Avery Fisher Hall. That being said, it was with profound joy and gratitude to the NY Philharmonic that we were able to experience a rarely seen opera during the operatic off-season. Let’s have more!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Of Queens and Fairies

Upon first hearing of Big Apple Baroque’s production of Purcell’s 1692 “The Fairy Queen”, I was not overwhelmed with enthusiasm. Little did I know! I went to witness the performance of our own dear Kala Maxym, expecting to be a bit bored with much of the rest of the evening. On the contrary, I found the entire work to be engaging and vastly entertaining with charm and laughs to spare.

The Fairy Queen is not exactly an opera but a masque; a great deal of research has gone into recreating the authenticity of the period and the work is a glorious gathering of baroque music, arias for the singers, pageant, dances and spoken dialogue, the latter credited to Shakespeare himself. It helped to be familiar with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” since the story gets a bit fragmented here and there, and interrupted by political in jokes. Had I not been otherwise engaged, I would have loved to attend the interdisciplinary conference of historians, musicologists and performers from the US and the UK. Still, I was able to find quite a bit of background on Wikipedia, too much to print here but readily available to any readers with curiosity.

It came as a surprise to me that the roles of Titania and Oberon were NOT sung but rather spoken, and to my Shakespeare-lovin’ ears, not that well spoken but glaringly amplified. This did not matter all that much since what went on with the orchestra and the singers would please any Purcell-lovin’ ears. In addition to more modern instruments, the violone, theorbo and recorder could be heard. Ms. Maxym lent her sweet soprano to the role of nymph, a charming aria involving a racy scene taking place in the hay. She reappeared after intermission singing the gorgeous duet with alto Alison Cheeseman, a duet in praise of marriage.

There was much humor to be enjoyed, particularly in the scene with “the Mechanicals” and later in the “echo scene” where voices performing the echos were scattered around Kaye Playhouse (Hunter College). It is difficult to know how a late 17th c. audience might have responded to the idea of the “Indian Boy” being Titania’s “boy toy”. Perhaps it was performed that way over 300 years ago or perhaps it was in the same category as the modernized dances performed by the Dusan Tynek Dance Theater which worked just fine in spite of their anachronistic nature.

Credit must be given to the authentic costumes designed by Carisa Kelly and props by Juliana Ross. The entire production left the audience with smiles of delight.

(c) Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hoffman Redux

What good fortune it was to have not just one additional opportunity to see Les contes d’Hoffman this year not just once but twic. Having previously written contrasting the Alden production in Santa Fe with the Scher production at the Met, my understanding of this opera has been further enriched by Linda Lehr’s production at the Regina Opera Company. A few hours on the N train were richly rewarded by a modest but effective production that drew me back for a second viewing/hearing. The talented Ms. Lehr not only directed but also designed the unit set on the compact stage of Regina Hall in Brooklyn. Texts of Hoffman’s stories printed in Old German papered the walls, lending an air of verisimilitude. A wine barrel and a few pieces of furniture were brought on and offstage as needed, a mirror for the Giulietta act, a transparent portrait for the Antonia act and the suggestion of a gondola in the Venice act completed the minimal set. Ms. Lehr made sure that every action was motivated with no extraneous stage business. These became Tales we could believe; we relished in the storytelling.

Under the enthusiastic baton of Scott Jackson Wiley, the small orchestra delighted the ear with Offenbach’s delicious melodies. Since the opera has been put together in various ways over the century, no one minds if the Venice act comes before the Antonia act. Special note was made of a celestial cello section with standout contributions from the winds. The singing was well done all around. Starting with the women, Maryann Mootos dazzled as Antonia and brought the audience to their collective feet with her luminous lyric soprano. The doll Olympia was winningly sung by an adorable Andrea Bargabos who got all the coloratura absolutely right. Christina Rohm did full justice to the courtesan Giulietta. Mezzo Margaret O’Connell was completely effective in the role of Hoffman’s muse.

As for the men, Bryce Smith turned in a riveting performance as the villains of the piece. He used his big beautiful bass to great effect, always menacing but subtly changing the colors of his voice to suit the characters of Lindorf, Coppelius, Dapertutto and Dr. Miracle. The menacing characterizations were further abetted by the skillful makeup by Andrea Calabrese and Wayne Olsen (who also did the set graphics) and costuming by Julia Cornely and Francine Garber-Cohen who were particularly clever dressing the Spirits of Wine and Beer.

Hoffman himself was well sung by tenor Ubaldo Feliciano-Hernandez who, like Filianoti at the Met, appeared a bit too dapper for the role of a dissipated alcoholic. As the younger Hoffman having his destructive love affairs such a look works fine, but during the prologue and epilogue I wanted to see him disheveled and dissipated. For want of space, all the outstanding singers in smaller roles will not be singled out except for one. The tenor Alex Guerrero singing Nathanael delighted with a sweet tenor and I hope to hear more of him.

Les contes d’Hoffman
is a tale of seduction; the Muse is seducing Hoffman, Hoffman is seducing women, Spalanzani and Coppelius are seducing Hoffman, Dapertutto is seducing Giulietta to seduce Hoffman, Dr. Miracle is seducing Antonia and finally the melodies are seducing our ears.

Let us raise our wine glasses to Offenbach, The Great Seducer.

© meche kroop

Sunday, June 5, 2011

On vocal recitals

Are there any readers who attend vocal recitals and care very much whether they are hearing arias or lieder? In the case of a program of arias, you are generally hearing a piano reduction of the score and you have to fill in the orchestra with your mind’s ear and the scenery in your mind’s eye, as well as remembering at what point in the story the aria is delivered. If you are an opera lover, this should be easy. Your focus lands squarely on the vocal skill of the artist and his/her own dramatic abilities. Should the singer “tone down” the drama or “let it all hang out”? I personally love the emphasis on the drama but recently shared an experience with some family members who are not very familiar with opera; one of them found a performance “excessive”. The glamorous and talented soprano Emily Duncan-Brown (reported to be “indisposed” but not to my ear) delivered a thrilling account of “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”. She actually got inside the song and wore it with as much style as the red gown she rocked. It was the entire romance encapsulated and truly filled the heart.

Further contributions were made by soprano Jessica Rose Cambio, mezzo Filomena Francesca Tritto, the on-the-brink-of-fame tenor Taylor Stayton, and baritone Shannon De Vine. Everyone sang beautifully but Ms. Duncan-Brown put her heart and soul into the performance. Piano partners were Douglas Martin and Maestra Eve Queler who generously provided this recital for her many fans from The Opera Orchestra of New York, which she founded and served for more years than her youthful appearance would indicate.

Now, what about the lieder recital? Here we have works written (usually) for voice and piano; it becomes even more incumbent upon the artist to tell a story. The text had better be good! Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler and Strauss generally chose beautiful poetry to inspire their equally beautiful music, whereas many 20th and 21st c. composers choose flaccid or prosaic texts. Leave it to dear Thomas Bagwell who, under the auspices of The Lotte Lehmann Foundation, makes the effort to find gifted young singers and match them with worthwhile but lesser known songs. This inaugural season brought us three concerts of impressive variety and depth and introduced some young singers who are fulfilling their promise. The last recital of the season brought us the impressive mezzo Heather Johnson who put her Scandinavian background to good use in a program of rarely heard songs, the most outstanding of which were the light-hearted “En Possitivvisa” by Wilhelm Stenhammar, “Fylgia” by Ture Ranstrom, Grieg’s better known “En Svane” and Sibelius’ “Var det en drom”. Pure magic!
Barihunk (forgive me!) Christopher Dylan Herbert gave us a lovely set by Korngold and made vocal gold out of Roussel’s “Le Jardin Mouille”, Auric’s “Le Gloxinia”, and Faure’s setting of a Victor Hugo poem “Puisqu’ici-bas toute ame”. Maestro Bagwell himself was the piano partner and played with his customary sensitivity and delicacy, always supporting the singer; indeed they seemed to breathe together. So...which will it be, lieder or arias? Thankfully in New York we can enjoy both. I will close by expressing my deepest gratitude for the foundations that provide this embarrassment of riches.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider