Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Recital of True Benefit

Natalie Mann, Soprano

Last Sunday, just short of a week past Valentine's Day, soprano Natalie Mann dared to program an entire evening of songs devoted to love at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York. Perhaps for this reason, to their loss, recently romance-saturated New Yorkers decided to miss Songs of Love and Hope, featuring the talented Ms. Mann and her incredibly skilled pianist Jeffrey Panko. Nevertheless, a modestly-sized but grateful audience fully enjoyed the ability and intensity both musicians had to offer for the benefit of all present, along with the American Heart Association to whom she dedicated her concert this American Heart Month.

While a few of the audience members hearts might have fluttered when the stunning soprano entered in a silvery corseted gown with flowing black skirt and shawl, Natalie Mann confidently began her performance without such hesitation. Intoning her first of two sets by living female composers, Though Love Be a Day by Gwyneth Walker, Ms. Mann sets a high bar of musicality and beautifully moving phrases. E. E. Cummings set four of the five texts, with the text of the final movement, "Still," written by the composer herself "to provide an intense and powerful closing to the cycle (quote taken from the author's website)."

Both the program notes and Gwyneth Walker make a special note of the fact that the verses within Cumming's After All White Horses Are in Bed first inspired her creation of the entire set to frame it as a centerpiece. Natalie Mann's stylized use of vibrato, alternating with a captivating straight tone on repeated themes serves to make the entire set clear and meaningful, and Mann and Panko appropriately use a more playful, almost mischievous character for the second and fourth texts. Seemingly as meaningful to the soprano as the composer both the third, After All White Horses, text and the final commentary by Walker compel the audience with not a moment of disconnection from the singer or pianist. Natalie Mann's high notes soar with no tension, and her full and balanced tone from top to bottom dances with Jeffrey Panko, whose sensitive clarity creates a musical organism between them throughout the concert.

After an incredible start to her diverse musical offering, Natalie Mann performs a French set with the Fiançailles pour Rire by Francis Poulenc and "Depuis le jour" from Louise by Gustave Charpentier. Poulenc wrote his composition as an excuse to dwell upon the thoughts of his dear friend and poet Louise de Vilmorin during World War II when she, trapped with her husband behind enemy lines, could not communicate with her friend Francis Poulenc (Brilliantly ironic to pair these with a piece from Louise). Not one of the Poulenc texts has a thoroughly positive outlook; I would have preferred to see a more convincing range of emotion from Natalie Mann within these pieces, along with a greater sense of abandon throughout Charpentier's "Depuis le jour." On the other hand, Ms. Mann does an excellent job of continuing her brilliantly sustained legato, undeniably stunning high notes, and impressive quality of pitch and tone center across the board. Unfortunately, her uneven mastery of the stresses and sounds of the French language makes both the Poulenc and Charpentier a poor match for her otherwise superb talents.

Returning to the stage after an intermission, Natalie Mann launches into a far more flattering set of three Richard Strauss songs that suit her as perfectly as the plunging red gown she wears, making no secret of her full and uninhibited breathing technique. She has a warm and rich tone less common in lyric sopranos, and both Strauss's writing and the German language embrace and support her technique gloriously. In general despite her excellent German, Ms. Mann seems most comfortable in English, and the following return to her native language with a set by living composer Lori Laitman (joyfully present in the audience) sets her at ease immediately.

Between the vocalist and pianist, their delivery of The Metropolitan Tower and Other Songs by Laitman feels intricately connected and intensely beloved. In this set, both become the poetry by Sara Teasdale, Jeffrey Panko giving motion to the fabulously lilting winds of "A Winter Night" and Natalie Mann providing a form for "The Strong House" in her tall, powerful stance. The final movement, "To a Loose Woman," gives them a chance to showcase their humor with a bit of a cheeky tango in the accompaniment, and the composer rises to accept unrestrained applause for a truly great song cycle.

Finally, before a Russian set to conclude the evening, Jeffrey Panko performs his second solo piano piece, "La Cathédrale engloutie" from Claude Debussy's Préludes. Earlier, after the Poulenc set, he played an expertly technical Jeux d'eau by Maurice Ravel with a rubato one might have imagined precisely timed by Quartz. With the "Cathédrale," which Panko lovingly introduces as the incarnation of the Breton myth of a cathedral which rises and falls in the sea, he clearly has found a more personal and dear piece to showcase his sensitivity even further. His excellent use of pedal keeps the cathedral bells ringing and connected while he clearly chimes each chord percussively before sinking into and lingering upon successive bass notes to bring the audience under water with the cathedral itself. As Panko so carefully delivers his final note, he releases it as if never to let go of the music he portrays so well and ardently.

In their final moments together at Weill Hall Sunday evening, Mann and Panko come together once more for Lilacs by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Antonin Dvořak's "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka. Delivering the Rachmaninoff simply, they allow the poetry to speak for itself. In general, although her Russian diction causes no interference with her clear, bright vocal technique, her consonants need much more weight in this language, which could use more coaching and study. Regardless, the aria from Rusalka seems to flow out of the pair as if they truly had performed it together in their sleep previously several times.

Mann manages to jump extremes of emotion extremely quickly and without reservation in her final piece, reminding everyone in the audience of her utterly thorough exploration of love through music in this offering for the American Heart Association. For not one moment did I question her vocal abilities, her musical instincts, her breath technique, or her commitment to the music. After Natalie Mann and Jeffrey Planko graciously accepted their heartfelt applause, they floated offstage. When the audience leaped to applaud at the entrance of a stagehand, these talented musicians had accomplished one of the finest goals in performance: to always leave them wanting more.

Abigail Wright

A Recital of True Benefit
Abigail Wright

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bartered not Martyred

Poor Marenka, the heroine of Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride”, is being sold as bride to an unfortunate young man she rejects; she is deeply in love with Jenik, and as sung by Paul Appleby, who wouldn’t be? Lovely Layla Clair portrays Marenka with charm, wit, enthusiasm and a gorgeous soprano. The chemistry between the two is totally believable. The wealthy suitor Vasek,to whom her father is selling her (to pay off his debt) is sympathetically portrayed by Alexander Lewis; he has a serious stutter and manages to be funny but not ridiculous. Just try making fun of a character with a disabiity in our PC age! Not to worry. The bride is feisty and refuses to martyr herself for the sake of her father. Her sweetheart is cunning and manages to work everything out, even while pretending to barter his own love for filthy lucre. Even Vasek gets his chance at romance with the darling circus performer Esmeralda, beautifully sung by Joyce El-Khoury.

This production was a joint effort of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts at the Juilliard School. The enthusiastic and talented young musicians were members of the Juilliard Orchestra playing Smetanan’s tunefully nationalistic music under the baton of HRH James Levine who well deserved the prolonged standing ovation. Over a velvet carpet of strings, plaintive melodies were spun out by the winds. Levine clearly loves this opera and so do we. Singers belonged to the Lindemann program or the Juilliard Opera. Dancers belonged to the Juiliard Dance Program and the excellent choreography by Benjamin Millepied added to the delights. Marenka’s choreographed tantrum in Act I was hilarious, as was Jenik’s in Act II.

Stephen Wadsworth directed the action with a lot of panache; every action seemed motivated by the dialogue. Thomas Lynch provided an effective unit set--a see-through cafe that revealed the villagers preparing for a festival and later enjoying a circus, complete with a humorous Ringmaster (Noah Baetge) and an American “Indian”, portrayed by an under-utilized Elliot Madore. Much of the audience laughter came from a “Bearded Lady” on point and in travesti (Miles Mykkanen) and the witty performance of the slimy matchmaker Kecal (Jordan Bisch) who had the best dialogue. The reason appears to be that the opera was sung in English which lends itself best to clever rhymes and jerky rhythms. Much was made of the new translation by J.D. McClatchy, not necessarily an improvement over the last translation. With the exception of Kecal’s dialogue, much of the rest was doggerel and accents often fell on the wrong syllables. Obviously, learning an entire opera in a little-sung language like Czech was not possible but I look forward to hearing it sung in Czech someday, even if it involves a trip to Prague.

Mr. Wadsworth’s Director’s Note clearly attributes the updating from the 1860’s to the 1930’s to budgetary considerations and can therefore be forgiven. The few traditional costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) that were seen were resplendent while the 1930’s attire appeared drab. References were made to Stalin and Hitler in an attempt to show resonance with a similar political situation in the original period.

These are small cavils in light of a most entertaining and musically valid performance. Mention must be made of the four parents, all ably sung by Donovan Singletary, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Alexander Hajek and Renee Tatum. The Peter Jay Sharp Theater is just the perfect size for such productions and more collaborative efforts such as this one are eagerly anticipated. Juilliard is indeed a jewel in New York’s crown.

-- Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Friday, February 4, 2011

A win for Miss Kim!

An elegant silver-haired man steps up to the podium. It is John Adams himself, conducting his 1987 opera “Nixon in China” which premiered at the Houston Grand Opera. The overture is sweeping and symphonic with interesting contributions from the muted trumpets. The excellent Met chorus sings what seems to be excerpts from Mao’s little red book. Maybe this won’t be as awful as one expects. Three “secretaries” gesture in unison. The accurate costuming and wigs manage to make the three lovely women as homely as any individual-extinguishing communist might wish. Wait...THAT’s Ginger Costa-Jackson, one of the most beautiful women now onstage made homely by theatrical legerdemain!

President Nixon, ably portrayed by James Maddalena, steps off a rather realistic looking plane that has descended from the skies, accompanied by Janis Kelly’s Pat. They are greeted by Russell Braun’s Chou En-Lai. Welcoming inanities are mouthed. Oops, I mean sung. Well, sort of. The music begins to resemble Philip Glass’ score to “Koyaanisqatski” released in 1982. If ears could glaze over like eyes, they would have. The libretto is excruciatingly tedious; in Scene 2 in Chairman Mao’s study, political apothegms masquerading as aphorisms are exchanged. Scene 3 is a banquet in the Great Hall of the People with identically costumed choristers sitting at huge tables. The libretto consists of a succession of toasts. Are we supposed to consider “Where is the bathroom?” to be a fit line to set to music?

Act II offers a bit more action. In the second scene, poor Pat takes the “revolutionary ballet” seriously and enters the action, to the embarrassment and distress of her hosts. Actually, Mark Morris’ ballet, whether spoof or satire, marks the highlight of the evening. He should consider including more point work in his choreography. The dancers were excellent and the audience enjoyed the humor. Kathleen Kim lets loose her magnificent coloratura in the only truly operatic moment of the evening, although Russell Braun’s Chou En-lai offers a sorrowful coda at the end.

Act III involves all the principles on individual beds, all in a row, as in a dormitory. They reminisce about their pasts and then seem to conclude that the visit was meaningless. So was the opera. One wonders whether political issues are suitable subjects for opera. Doctor Atomic was even more tedious than Nixon in China. That being said, Sherman Edwards composed music and wrote lyrics for “1776” that were musical and moving. Gilbert and Sullivan were able to parody political events of their epoch in a way that left the audience satisfied. Can one help wondering what Sondheim might have done with this landmark event in U.S. history? As audience members are we so desperate for novelty that we will applaud anything new without considering its value? As the young woman in my box opined, “This is boring. I don’t care what happens to any of the characters”. She left early and I wished that I had as well.

-- meche kroop for The Opera Insider