Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Double Delight

Much as we love Cav ‘n Pag (and we DO!) it is exciting to be introduced to two short operas that have been rather overlooked. For this blessing, we thank Duane Printz, Founding Executive and Artistic Director of Teatro Grattacielo. She has ceretainly found a niche in New York and fills it admirably. Her motto seems to be “No worthy realismo work will go undiscovered and unheard.” This year’s production was given at the Rose Theater and was well attended by an audience of enthusiasts. David Wroe conducted the Westfield Symphony Orchestra with a great deal of style. And this marvelous music deserved all the fine attention he gave it.

First on the program was Primo Riccitelli’s comedy “I Compagnacci”,which won first prize at a national opera competition in 1922 and premiered in Rome to great critical and audience acclaim the following year. Having studied with Mascagni, Riccitelli made good use of what he learned; his score is delightfully melodic and the orchestrations are fresh and tickle the ear. In America critics were not so kind and reviews of that epoch demonstrate a lack of appreciation for the way in which each generation of composers builds upon the works of prior generations. (This same flaw of music critics is heard today when they scorn tuneful works as “derivative”.)

The piece is one of a very few comedies of the realismo period and takes place in 15th c. Florence. In Giovacchino Forzano’s libretto a young woman is about to be married off by her inflexible uncle to a man she doesn’t love; she is rescued by the man she does love on the basis of a wager concerning the friars who are planning to walk on hot coals to prove Savonarola innocent. One need not be versed in Italian political history to enjoy the jokes at the friar’s expense; there are giggles to be had even by the ignorant and if you don’t understand Italian and are not up to following the libretto, the well-crafted music will tell you when to laugh! If one has seen “Gianni Schicchi” at the Met, one could very well visualize the setting in one’s mind’s eye and forget that one is listening to a concert version. All of the voices were fine and suited to the parts, with Jessica Klein portraying the young woman, Gerard Powers singing her beloved, and Peter Castaldi as the recalcitrant uncle.

Second on the bill was Giordano’s final opera “Il Re”, premiered in 1929 at La Scala and never before seen in the United States. This was a time when modernist composers were trying to change the musical language of opera and Giordano’s opera was considered old fashioned. But never mind what the critics had to say, the audience loved it. (Does this sound familiar?) To judge by the applause, 21st c. New York audiences loved it also. The music is filled with wit and humor; themes are bounced around from one section of the orchestra to another. The same librettist as that of “Il Compagnacci” seems to have had a love of humor. The story concerns a young woman who rejects her fiance after seeing the king, resplendent in his royal robes. She hears a chickadee singing (oh, that flute!) about her future as the king’s bride and she cannot be convinced otherwise. Her parents and her fiance ask the king for help and he agrees on one condition; they must send her to his royal rooms that very night. When the king removes his royal robes and wig she is horrified to see him as he really is and runs fleeing to the arms of her fiance. Problem solved.

Vocal honors for the evening went to Joanna Mongiardo whose dazzling soprano brought the audience to it’s collective feet. John Maynard sang Il Re, James Price the fiance, and the parents were portrayed by Lawrence Long and Eugenie Grunewald.
One can only hope that one of our small opera companies will decide to produce this charming double bill with sets and costumes. There is a built-in audience for sure.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ariadne auf Naxos

The Elijah Moshinsky production of Ariadne auf Naxos is delightful fun. The libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal does a great job of handling the dialectic of high art versus popular art, far better than Capriccio handled the dialectic of music versus lyrics. In the prologue we meet the characters--all stereotypic. There is the prima donna, powerfully sung by Violetta Urmana, the commedia dell’arte soubrette portrayed by coloraturist par excellence Kathleen Kim, petulant primo tenore Robert Dean Smith, and the frustrated underappreciated composer sung by the always excellent Joyce DiDonato. A benighted “Patron of the Arts” in 18th c. Vienna is entertaining his guests with a performance of a new tragic opera AND a comedy performance by the commedia dell’arte troupe. In order to get through in time for the fireworks he has ordered the two pieces to be performed simultaneously. The composer and the opera stars are outraged but the comedy troupe is sure they can improvise a solution. In this Prologue, the Music Master (Thomas Allen) tries to get the composer to compromise. He fails, but the flirtatious Zerbinetta, leader of the comic troupe, is so seductive that the composer relents.

The second act is the opera itself. The comedy troupe invades Naxos and tries to cheer up the forlorn abandoned Ariadne. Miss Kim has a marvelously stratospheric aria following Miss Urmana’s moving lamentation. There is also a deliciously harmonic trio by three nymphs Naiad, Dryad and Echo (Audrey Luna, Tamara Mumford and Lei Xu) who try to console Ariadne.

The sets and costumes by Michael Yeargan are appropriate to the time and place and gorgeously rendered. The first act scenery actually looks like a palace in 18th c. Vienna while the second act scenery is more abstract and merely suggests a lonely place with a cave. The ship of Ariadne’s rescuer Bacchus is suggested upstage.

Fabio Luisi conducted the small-by-Straussian-standards orchestra. The audience was as generous with their applause as the singers were with their performances. It was just that kind of night when everyone goes home smiling.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Gluck’s music for Orfeo ed Euridice, often heart breaking but never showy, barely falls into the category of opera. It could almost be considered a cantata and might best be done in concert version. There isn’t much of a story. Newly wed Euridice has already died when the work begins; her distraught husband goes to the underworld to try and retrieve her, assisted by Amore. All he has to remember is not to look back at her. (Right. Don’t think about a pink elephant.) So boy loses girl but--deus ex machina--he gets a second chance and everyone goes home happy. So...how does one make this dramatically interesting?

Choreographer Mark Morris made the choice to decorate the stage with a number of highly distracting elements. There is set designer Allen Moyer’s three-tiered balconies filled with the members of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, each one garbed as one historical personage or other. Out come the binoculars. “Oh look, there’s Babe Ruth! Who’s that Native American down below? Yeah, a little to the right. Is that Goering? Wait, is that Queen Elizabeth? And who’s the one in the huge hat?” Gratuitously entertaining but not serving the opera.

Likewise, Morris’ dances add nothing. Clothed in boring contemporary street attire (costumes by the usually creative Isaac Mizrahi) they walk, they reach, they bend, they turn, looking very much like a class in your local gym. In the underground they are clad in grey; in the Elysian Fields they are all in white; at the end they are dressed in bright colors and the dancing is mildly more interesting but there is a total absence of poetry in the movement.

Fortunately, the regal Kate Royal is arrestingly gowned in white (Take THAT Kate Middleton!) and wins our attention away from the galleries above with her plangent soprano. The other soprano, Lisette Oropesa, is completely charming as Amore, descending from the heavens strangely attired in a pink polo shirt. Counter-tenor David Daniels gave a lovely performance of the hit aria “Che faro senza Euridice?” but was not always audible above the orchestra, conducted by Antony Walker.

Just another case of not trusting the material and tricking it out with irrelevant production values. Ho Hum.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Soneto de amor y muerte

Opera Hispánica, in cooperation with El Museo del Barrio, presented New York City with a generous Cinco de Mayo gift--an evening of Spanish music and dance created by Music Director Juan Pablo Horcasitas and Artistic Director Camille Ortiz-Lafont. The seed for the evening was a poem by Pablo Neruda entitled “Si Alguna Vez tu Pecho Se Detiene”. From this seed, they devised the story of a love affair between a young woman and her sweetheart who meet and marry. He is drafted and dies at war, but his spirit returns to console her and inspire her to go on.

Upon this framework songs from various sources (classical and popular) were interpolated to convey the wide range of emotions in this story. Perhaps best known were Pablo Sorozabal’s “No Puede Ser” and Xavier Montsalvatge’s “Cinco Canciones Negras”. Also heard were Enrique Granados’ “La Maja Dolorosa #1 and #2,” as well as his “La Maja y el Ruiseñor”.

A special treat was a tango performed by Sara and Ivan Terrazas who managed to be sexy without being slimy. Their fleet footwork reminded one of the wings of hummingbirds. The bandoneon, as played by Juan Pablo Jofre, was made to speak and to sing with great eloquence. It was a truly exquisite performance. Francisco Roldan performed with great sensitivity on the classical guitar. Ms. Ortiz-Lafont herself provided some delightful singing as did soprano Anna Noggle, tenor Aniello Alberti, and baritone Vaughn Lindquist.

New York has been too long deprived of the glories of Spanish music and San Antonio native Daniel Frost Hernandez aimed to rectify that situation by founding Opera Hispanica. Let us anticipate many more such evenings of celebration! Viva Opera Hispanica!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Music 10, Concept 2

Wagner’s glorious music for “Die Walkyrie” was passionately conducted by our own dear James Levine and just as gloriously sung by one of the best casts heard over the past few years. Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglind and tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund made a winning pair and watching their love develop, supported by the tenderest theme in all of Wagner’s work, is a highlight of the evening. Another highlight was the eight valiant Walkyries; the Met managed to find and cast women as well-endowed vocally as they were physically. Vocal honors must be heaped upon mezzo Stephanie Blythe, whose Fricka let us know who’s boss on that stage. Soprano Deborah Voigt portrayed Brunnhilde as heroic but vulnerable. Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel sang better without his hair hanging in his face as it was in “Das Rheinhold”. He still seems to be finding his way as Wotan; his tenderness towards Brunnhilde at the end was quite touching but he has not yet mastered the commanding aspect of gottheit, which came so naturally to James Morris. Bass Hans-Peter Konig made a fearsome Hunding, his presence perfectly matching the sound of his theme in the brass section.

On the other hand, the concept of Robert Lepage and the set designed by Carl Fillion remain as irritating as they were in “Das Rheingold”. Every culture has its myths and their concomitant visual representations. The Dark Ages of Europe, during which this epic seems to be set-- as evidenced by its tribal nature and its oppression of women--calls forth images from the fairytales of our childhood and not this high-tech monstrosity, many of whose images called forth titters. The Walkyries arrived sitting on seesaws? boogie boards? sliding boards? Yes, the concept is original, but it doesn’t at all suit the mood, the time, or the place. Siegfried arrives in Hunding’s hut and curls up on top of a rather well-carpentered table with matching camp stools which tucked neatly underneath like something you would get at the Door Store for a starter apartment. Fricka rolls in on a throne flanked by a pair of rams. It might have been an interesting idea to have Siegfried surrounded by Hunding’s vengeful clansmen during the fight, but his sword never shatters! We don’t see the shattered sword until Brunnhilde brings Sieglinde to her sister Walkyries. When Wotan is bidding Brunnhilde farewell there is a huge iceberg? behind them with projected avalanches of snow. The opera ends with her hanging upside down like the Hanging Man card in a tarot deck.

Aside from these peculiarities, the singers moved around the set effectively and interacted appropriately to each other and to the remarkable music, which is the true setting of the story. For want of Otto Schenk’s dearly missed production, it is best to mentally superimpose recollected images of same onto the travesty onstage.

(c)meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Peculiar Pleasures of Grief

The song cycles of Schubert, sad as they are, can leave us feeling emotionally drained and spiritually transformed in much the same way as Wagner’s Ring Cycle--but only when they are performed with great artistry, as they were this week by baritone Jesse Blumberg and piano partner Martin Katz. We leave behind our 21st c. irony when relationships are ended on Facebook and we enter the passionate romantic world of the 19th c. when a broken love affair could leave us with dozens of different shades of despair.

The hero of “Die Schöne Müllerin” starts out on a joyful journey of self-discovery--finding useful work that is appreciated and finding a girl to love (the boss’ daughter). Things do not go well for him because the girl is fickle and rejects him in favor of a hunter. He winds up drowning himself in a stream. Nowadays, we are more likely to hear about suicides in the young caused by academic failure or electronic humiliation.

Wilhelm Muller’s poetry scans and rhymes, a quality of great advantage to the composer, one which we have lost in our time. Schubert’s music artistically reflects the emotions of joy, determination, pride, hopefulness, elation, jealousy, and despair.

The hero of “Die Winterreise” endures a darker journey through the wintry European landscape. This cycle comprises mostly shades of mourning and loss that dig even deeper into the soul than Elizabeth Kubler-Ross could imagine. This young hero has already lost his love and any minor joys he experiences are in his dreams, from which he wakes up in anguish. If the Eskimo language has dozens of words for snow, the German language has dozens of words for grief.

It is the duty of the singer and the pianist to convey to us these subtle differences and Messieurs Blumberg and Katz accomplished this with consummate artistry; every word was caressed and colored. Mr. B. himself seemed inhabited by the hero; indeed, during the final song of “Die Winterreise”, such was the alteration of his voice, body and spirit, it was as if he channeled Herr Muller and Herr Schubert. It is worth noting that the voice is one of beautiful tone but it is the storytelling that counts in this case.

Much has been written about how mature a singer must be to take on these difficult cycles but Mr. B., while young, definitely had the maturity to take us on a very emotional journey with him.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider