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