Friday, March 25, 2011

Our reviewers are the best!

One of our most ardent supporters, Paulo Montoya is a young opera-lover living in Sydney. He's gaining quite a reputation there and abroad as a creative reviewer. Here's his latest piece on a concert by Cecilia Bartoli:

Also our die-hard-see-everything-in-New-York Meche Kroop sent her thoughts on "The Elixir of Love" at City Opera:

OK, so I didn’t fall in love with Nemorino. The last time I recall the New York City Opera taking a chance on a then-unknown Mexican tenor it was Rolando Villazón singing Rodolfo; I was hoping the lightning would strike twice but at this point I don’t think David Lomeli can ring my bell in the same way. That being said, he put in a charming and vocally sound performance; his voice is small but very attractive and he is a master of diminuendo with perfect breath control. Just as in the long ago La Bohème, there was also a Mexican baritone-- José Adan Perez singing Sergeant Belcore with a fine lyrical voice.

What we have here by way of plot comprises two oafs fighting over a fickle girl. Nemorino is the sincere shy oaf. Belcore is the pompous arrogant oaf. A snake oil salesman by the name of Dulcamara offers help to Nemorino, at a price--namely a bottle of alcohol which he passes off as the love potion Tristan used to snare Isolde. (HUH? I always thought it was the other way round.) Anyway, the love potion that gets all the women in town to chase after Nemorino (resulting in Adina’s appreciation of his charms) is actually a large inheritance. One of the funniest moments in the evening is when Dulcamara (well-played by Marco Nisticò) witnesses Nemorino’s sudden popularity and thinks that maybe his snake oil really works.

Cute story. An attractive young cast with pleasing voices is all it takes to provide an entertaining evening which is just what we have here. Stefania Dovhan was a fine Adina. The audience always goes wild for “Una Furtiva Lagrima” but there are many fine arias and duets in one of Donizetti’s most delightful operas. But what are we to make of updating this very 19th c. story to the 1950’s? Although there is surely a place in purgatory for the felonies committed by those who trash the great tragedies of the 19th c., updating a piece of fluff is only a misdemeanor. One just asks “WHY?” The English translation has to be distorted and characters’ actions are often just plain peculiar. For example, landowner Adina reading aloud to illiterate peasants in the 19th c. makes sense, but diner-proprietor Adina reading a magazine aloud to waitresses in her diner is just silly. Situating the diner in the middle of a desert in the American Southwest makes one wonder just which Army base the Sergeant comes from and which battle they are marching to or from. And how does a sergeant just happen to be authorized to enlist a new recruit and hand him $20? So, we cannot take these infractions seriously. Just go with the flow and enjoy the singing.

The effective revolving set conveniently shows the interior of the diner and also the rear of said establishment where there is a restroom that women line up to use. Now THAT’S funny! There are two gas pumps in front to justify Dulcamara pulling up in a very old car. Costumes appear authentic to the period, no more flattering than the wiggy hairstyles of the day. I am not sure why directors seem so eager to set their operas in that time period. I am recalling a perfectly awful updating of Carmen seen in Santa Fe in which Lillas Pastia’s tavern became a sock hop with a coke machine. Never mind. That’s another story!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Every Inch a Queen

Madame Armfeldt she ain’t! The elderly countess in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades is a bitter and nasty old woman with a colorful past; thanks to Andris Nelsons’ nuanced conducting of Tchaikovsky’s insightful music and Dolora Zajick’s vulnerable performance, one can actually feel compassion for this harridan as she reminisces about her youth. It is not so easy to feel this compassion for her misguided niece Lisa who throws off her elegant and devoted fiance Prince Yeletsky for the unappealing obsessed Ghermann. It doesn’t help that Karita Mattila and Vladimir Galouzine were not at their best vocally and seemed to have no romantic chemistry whatsoever.

There were some truly special moments: Peter Mattei poured his heart and soul into Yeletsky’s sumptuous aria in Act II. The consistently excellent and versatile Tamara Mumford lent her lovely lyricism to Polina’s charming Act I song, performed for Lisa and other ladies of the court, and also in the duet which she sings with Ms. Mattila. She gets another opportunity to tickle our ears in the Act II pastorale in which she portrays Daphnis to Dina Kuznetsova’s Chloe. One hears lots of Mozart here, including motives from Die Zauberflote. One also gets to watch some charming dancing, choreographed by John Meehan. Alexey Markov offered many delights as Count Tomsky relating the backstory to his comrades.

The 1995 Moshinsky production has held up well. The somewhat surreal set (Mark Thompson) in Act I which looked bare to 1995 eyes, now has become rather arresting. Off in the distance one can see the canals and lowslung buildings of St. Petersburg. The color palette throughout is black and white; the costumes (also Mark Thompson) are lavish and indicate very clearly that we are at the tail end of the 18th c. Paul Pyant’s lighting design is most illustrative of the cool Northern light in that part of the world and the way the sky darkens as a storm approaches. Not just stormy weather but some stormy psychological events of obsession and madness. It would be madness to miss it!

-- meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sunday double-header

It was the right decision to forego the Met National Council Awards this afternoon in favor of the Lotte Lehmann Foundation Recital at the intimate Christ and St. Stephen’s Church. Maestro Thomas Bagwell has a knack for finding wonderful singers and pairing them with works that fit them like custom-tailored suits. The hardness of the pews became irrelevant, so outstanding was the singing. Although most of the recital was devoted to art songs, the two opening selections were operatic in nature. An aria from Handel’s Giulio Cesare was brilliantly and excitingly sung by the ample-voiced (and ample-bodied) dramatic soprano Tami Petty. We forecast a Wagnerian future for this gal! Booming bass Matt Boehler equalled this with a nuanced and humorous delivery of “Il faut passer” from Lully’s “Alceste”. We see a grand Sparafucile in his future and a very funny Don Basilio.

The art songs sung by Ms. Petty gave her the opportunity to demonstrate her excellent German and formidable dramatic skills. She showed a wide emotional range without any artifice whatsoever; it seemed as if every gesture came from a deep inner place. The often heard and always appreciated Maestro was with her every step of the way and gave a particularly light and lively rendition of “Ganymed”. She was absolutely adorable singing “There are Fairies at the Bottom of our Garden” and charmingly sly in her encore, Granados’ “El Majo Discreto”.

Mr. Boehler had such a superb connection with the Shostakovich songs, creating four very different satirical characters that made their complaints obvious, even to a non-speaker of Russian. His acting is equal to his singing. We always love William Bolcom’s song “Black Max” and also enjoyed “The Man in the Starched White Shirt” by Lance Horne and Mark Campbell.

The second part of this Sunday Double Header was a Verismo recital by members of the Chelsea Opera Company, honoring American baritone Mark Rucker and enjoyed by a packed house (same church). Maestro Carmine Aufiero was on hand to conduct and piano accompaniment was by Audrey Saint-Gil and Sadie Rucker (Mark’s wife). Most remarkable was Michelle Trovato’s Gilda, La Toya Lewis’ Medora from Verdi’s “Il Corsaro” and Rachel Arky’s Suzel from Mascagni’s “L’Amico Fritz”, not recently seen in New York. Viva Verismo!

--meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Friday, March 11, 2011

She really won't be missed!

So Angela Gheorghiu dropped out of Roméo et Juliette this season AND Faust next season. Something about Gounod she doesn’t like? Not to worry. Hei-Kyung Hong gave a stellar performance as Juliette using her silvery soprano to its best advantage and her formidable acting skills to convey the youthful impetuosity of this child of the Renaissance.

Not since Alessandra Ferri danced the role has a mature woman so convincing enacted the role. Likewise Piotr Beczala lent his lustrous tenor and youthful acting to the role of Romeo. The pair had fine chemistry and the romance was totally believable. Their respective arias and duets were most moving. Ms. Hong shone especially in “Je veux vivre”.

Not as exciting as Prokofiev’s score for the ballet, Gounod’s lyricism is well suited to the libretto of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, which focuses more on the romance in Verona and less on the violence between the Montague and Capulet families. Minor characters have been dispensed with and a character has been introduced--that of Roméo’s page Stéphano, here beautifully sung by Julie Boulianne, the Canadian mezzo last admired in Gluck’s Iphegenie en Tauride. The venerable James Morris was a most welcome presence as Frère Laurent. Placido Domingo conducted with his customary excellence and the orchestra responded in kind. The chorus sang magnificently, as usual. Lindemann graduates Dwayne Croft and Jordan Bisch (seen recently as the matchmaker in The Bartered Bride) were just fine as Lord Capulet and The Duke of Verona.

Notable was the French diction, so far superior to that in the Gluck. Every word of every character was understandable, something one cannot take for granted these days. The costumes and wigs created in house were absolutely gorgeous. The set design was largely symbolic with painted Veronese street scenes surrounding a large circular astrological chart bearing an internal tilt-a-whirl that did exactly that, making one just a bit anxious for the dueling performers in the fight scene. A bit more anxiety occurs during the otherwise heavenly star-studded wedding night scene with the leads making love on a bed suspended from the roof.

Effective and sexy but scary! It was a relief when the lark was heard and the bed slowly came down to earth. An altogether heavenly evening at the Met.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insier

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Meche has a list...

First on the list is a big thank you to Regina Opera Company for 41 years of performances serving predominantly the Brooklyn Community, but at least one half-drowned Manhattanite who thoroughly enjoyed last Sunday’s performance of The Mikado, even after an hour plus spent underground and wading through flooded street corners.

Second on the list is a deep regard for the enduring joys of Arthur Sullivan’s captivating tunes and W .S. Gilbert’s catchy lyrics, wedded to one another in a manner never since equaled. Although the English language is difficult to sing, it is even more difficult to set; what this pair achieved will never grow stale. The rhymes and rhythms continue to delight the ear. It is customary to update some of the songs with references to topical issues which, in this case, were invented by the performers themselves to humorous effect and to the great delight of the audience.

Third on the list--the set design by Linda Lehr as realized by Richard Paratley was most effective in conveying a fantasy Japan-- an arched bridge, the suggestion of a carp pond (supported by the lighting design of Tyler Learned) and some sliding Shoji screens. Performers were finely directed by Ms. Lehr in every case so that all actions seemed suitably motivated. Costuming by Julia Cornely and Francine Garber-Cohen was colorful, although the over-the-top makeup and costuming for Katisha, by Albert Walsh and Patrice Miki, seemed excessively distracting, even for an over-the-top character.

Maestro Jose Alejandro Guzman’s energetic conducting kept the members of the orchestra in fine balance, although there were some intonation problems in the overture. Since there is no orchestra pit in Regina Hall it must be quite a challenge for the singers to project over the orchestra, even though Maestro Guzman did well to keep the volume down at crucial points.

That being said, several other factors interfered with the enjoyment of Gilbert’s clever lyrics. One factor was the variety of “mid-Atlantic” accents employed by the cast. Those who essayed a more British style were more comprehensible, as were the lower voices who had better diction. At the beginning of the performance, the libretto was projected overhead IN ITALIAN! I actually found it necessary to read and translate, so incomprehensible was the chorus. This device turned out to be a joke and the titles ended. April Fool!!!

Among the performances, the standouts were Jay Gould, an hilarious Pooh-Bah whose every word was understood; David Tillistrand, a most expressive Ko-Ko who got across every nuance, and Bryce Smith, a most regal Mikado with a big bass voice. Samantha Guevrekian sang Yum-Yum and Anthony Tolve sang Nanki-Poo. Laura Smith sang Katisha and might have done better with less mugging and more acting. Yum-Yum’s aria was well-applauded. Her two sisters were sung by Joan Callaghan and Bethany Richards. This cast will sing again for the Saturday matinee with a different cast singing on Sunday.

The petite Yoko Yamashita did triple duty as choreographer of the Japanese numbers, a member of the chorus and as a dancer; she was fine in all three positions. The chorus sang well although the diction needed improvement. The words of Mr. Gilbert are too precious to be flung off like so many rose-petals that were thrown onto The Mikado.

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Sunday, March 6, 2011


And thus composed Robert Schumann and thus sang baritone Luthando Qave and thus played In Sun Suh and thus were thrilled into rapt silence the attendees of Friday night’s Lindemann Recital. Dichterliebe is a thrilling work, comprising so many changes of mood and color; Mr. Qave and Ms. Suh nailed them-- all from the joy of “Im wunderschonen Monat Mai” to the ecstasy of “Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne”, to the bitterness of “Ich grolle nicht” and the sorrow of “Und wussten’s die Blumen, die kleinen” and the bewilderment of “Ich hab im Trau geweinet” and the resignation of “Die alten, bosen Lieder”. These young artists, with perfectly comprehensible German, elucidated every nuance in the poetry. The vocalism and the pianism were equally accomplished. The pair seemed to breathe together.

This major delight was followed by the elegantly beautiful soprano Emalie Savoy accompanied by piano partner Keun-A Lee. Ms. Savoy was a major prize winner just a week ago at the George London Foundation Award Recital at which she sang Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon”. At the Lindemann Recital she had chosen to perform two shimmering songs by Debussy, a few Schubert songs and several contemporary songs by Philip Lasser, a Juilliard faculty member whose lovely music was inspired by poetry written by the late Wynelle Ann Carson. It didn’t sound very inspired, coming after Heine, Schiller, Goethe and Baudelaire.

Ms. Savoy has a most pleasant low and middle voice but sounded a bit shrieky at the top. English is not the easiest language to make beautiful. I longed to hear something in Italian.

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

What Iph?

What “iph” the unfortunately sacrificed Iphigenia had been rescued by the goddess Diana? Such is the deus ex machina invented by Euripides. In Gluck’s opera, the most riveting scenes are the opening and closing ones when Diana (sung by the lovely Julie Boulianne) descends from the heavens. Otherwise, nothing much happens in the ochre and roseate temple below. It takes two and one half hours for Iphigenie to recognize the captured Oreste, mainly because neither tells the other their name. (How long did it take Sieglinde and Siegmund to find out their siblinghood? And to fall in love as well? And accompanied by stirring music?) Does this sound boring? Well, if you are a fan of Gluck’s music, stripped as it is of drama and vocal flourishes, it won’t be. One must listen strenuously for the revelation of character in this music. If you are passionate about high drama and vocal fireworks in your opera, this will not thrill you.

Vocally, the male voices stole the show at Monday’s performance when Susan Graham, taken ill, was replaced by Elizabeth Bishop. Ms. Bishop did her best in a committed performance and became more audible after an initial period of warming up; but her somewhat hard-edged tone was no threat to Susan Graham’s ownership of the role, as remembered from a couple years earlier.

Opera’s enduring treasure Placido Domingo showed his chops as Oreste and Paul Groves was a magnificently lyrical and moving Pylades, ready to sacrifice his life for his friend. It takes about an hour for them to resolve which one will die for the other.

The all female chorus sang beautifully, although not with the customary excellent diction. One was grateful for the supertitles. Women dancers repeated stylistic gestures and spun around like Turkish Sufis.

Lovely Diana reappears at the end to bring the drama full circle. Her descent frames the action and provides some missing excitement.

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Piazza Navona

Tunes, tunes, and more tunes! How rare to hear a contemporary opera that holds your ear and doesn’t let go. Christof Bergman has written a contemporary opera buffa replete with charming arias, duets and ensembles. Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre has given us an abridged version of this tale of some denizens of a Roman restaurant, a version that left one hungry for more. The piano score was well-played by Violetta Zabbi and the roles were finely sung by a rotating cast of enthusiastic young singers who would have profited by a firmer directorial hand, some acting coaching, and some consistency of accents.

Although sung in Italian, inarguably the most musical of all languages, quite a bit of singing was replaced by dialogue spoken in English with varying degrees of stereotypical Italian accents and wildly divergent acting styles, varying from wooden to caricature. Presumably, this abridgment served the interest of economy. Economics are always a factor with the shoestring budget of a small company but a few props would have gone a long way to relieve the singers of the need for confusing pantomime. The abridgment also resulted in some confusing moments and lack of continuity. The evolving romances seemed unmotivated and lacking in chemistry. The Italian stage director may have been thinking of pleasing an Italian audience with a different sense of humor.

The plot is featherweight but fits right in with New York’s food obsession. The owner of this restaurant has been alienating his staff and clientele with his increasingly weird concoctions. A modest vocabulary in Italian was helpful in understanding his clever song “Quaglia con Spuma di Bacca”. Anyone who has eaten the creations of a chef addicted to foams could enjoy a good laugh. When the staff learns that a powerful restaurant reviewer is on his way, a plot is invented to lure the owner/chef away from his post, allowing a new waiter with culinary skills to take over the kitchen.

There are a couple romantic subplots that, in this truncated version, went undeveloped but which provided for lots of enjoyable music. And this is music that most of us can relate to, music that delights the ear. It can be hoped that someday we will have a chance to see this opera in its entirety.

Opera Manhattan deserves much credit for giving young artists a chance to perform new roles. Giving new works a chance to be seen is also a worthy endeavor but perhaps it is too heavy a burden to essay both goals at the same time. Nonetheless, it was an entertaining piece of work which deserves a full production at some point.

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider