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.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

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!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

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