We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Eric Malson and Joo Won Kang

We confess to being overwhelmed with the wealth of vocal talent in New York City.  Sometimes a young artist has something special that sets him or her apart.  In the case of baritone Joo Won Kang it is the way he sings from the heart.  There is never a shadow of doubt that his thoughts connect deeply with the text and his body, with the music.  We don't mean that he gesticulates wildly or dances about the stage; on the contrary, he exhibits an economy of movement.  But one does get the impression that he is inhabiting the song physically.

His recital last night at The National Opera Center was the first of this season's Emerging Artist Recital Series and coincided with Opera America's second anniversary--a fitting celebration indeed!

Mr. Kang is the McCammon Voice Competition Winner of the year and comes to us from the Fort Worth Opera and the Opera Guild of Fort Worth. Notable to us New Yorkers is the fact that he received his Master's Degree from the Manhattan School of Music; several faculty members were in attendance to cheer him on.

Mr. Kang has a strong but mellow baritone, rich and sweet like a wonderful cup of coffee.  He uses it wisely with fine technique of which the listener is made unaware.  He sang in German, English, French, Korean, Italian and Spanish--all with fine diction.

He opened his program with Beethoven's "Adelaide", a song that disproves the commonplace remark that Beethoven was not a melodist.  Such a charming song!  His "purpurblättchen" gave us a nearly synesthetic experience; he is a master of word coloring.

"Pierrot's Tanzlied" from Korngold's Die tote Stadt showed off Mr. Kang's gorgeous legato (how rare in German!) and was filled with longing.

Gerald Finzi's Let Us Garlands Bring sets Shakespeare's texts to some quite lovely music and expresses many moods, all of which Mr. Kang captured--the morbidity of "Come away, death", the fatalism of "Fear no more the heat o' the sun, and the frisky joy of "O mistress mine" during which Mr. Kang's excellent piano partner Eric Malson let loose with some fine pianism.

With fine French style, Mr. Kang performed Poulenc's Chansons Gaillardes.  Perhaps, however, it was the three Korean songs which touched him (and therefore us) most deeply, especially the last one with its deeply felt homesickness.

To cap the evening, Mr. Kang sang one of our very favorite baritone arias "Di Provenza il mar" (from Verdi's La Traviata) in which Germont père tries to manipulate his wayward son into giving up his scandalous affair with Violetta and return to the family fold.

But there was more to come as Mr. Kang generously offered two encores, one prepared and one more that the wildly enthusiastic audience demanded.  We were overjoyed to hear some Spanish--"Amor, vida de mi vida" from the zarzuela Maravilla composed by Federico Moreno Torroba.  Now we yearn for the entire zarzuela!

"Some Enchanted Evening" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific ended the recital and the title could not have been a better description of our evening.

© meche kroop

Monday, September 29, 2014



The memory of this fine tenor lives on by virtue of the admirable work of The Giulio Gari Foundation; they provide awards, grants and performance opportunities to young singers on the cusp of major careers.  Few opera goers acknowledge the intense hard work that goes into career development and the high cost of lessons and coaching. We witness the end results and neglect the means.  It was up to Stephen De Maio and Licia Albanese to get together with Gloria Gari to honor Mr. Gari's memory in the best way possible, ensuring that the baton will be passed to younger generations.

The Giulio Gari Foundation presented their awards yesterday to as fine a group of young singers as we have heard. As a matter of fact we have been fortunate enough to have heard many of them before and were thrilled to have the opportunity to hear them again. . The winners we heard deserve every accolade they received. The foundation chose wisely and well; needless to say, each singer chose his/her material wisely and well, with an eye to showing off his/her own particular vocal range and style.  Piano partners Arlene Shrut and Mikhail Hallak partnered the singers with panache and versatility.

First prize winner Marina Costa-Jackson was saved for last. Without drawing any comparisons, let us just say that her family has astonishing musical genes which, along with dedication and hard work, resulted in a stirring performance of  "Stridono lassu" from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci; her gorgeous soprano evoked the flight of birds so envied by Nedda whose life is constrained, to say the least.  As she began, her rich low notes suggested those of a mezzo but then her voice soared into the sky with the most gorgeous vibrato and top notes.

Second prizes were won by Michelle Johnson and Chloe Moore, both sopranos.  Ms. Johnson sang "Io son l'umile ancella" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur and caressed each word and phrase with her silky sound which opened up beautifully in the crescendo.  Ms. Moore used her bright and shiny voice in "La Gavotte" from Massenet's Manon.  When she opened up at the top of the register we thought all the glasses in the room would break.

The brilliant bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, third prize winner, performed "Riez, allez, riez du pauvre ideologue" from Massenet's Don Quichotte with a big round tone and fine French diction.  We made sure to learn how to pronounce his name because we are going to be hearing a lot more from him.

Fourth prize was won by the excellent baritone John Viscardi who sang "Ya vas lyubil" from Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame; his performance was filled with Russian soul.  Oh, how we dearly love Tchaikovsky!

Fifth prizes were won by sopranos Elise Brancheau and Ewa Plonka Nino.  Ms. Brancheau performed Micaela's aria "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvant" from Bizet's Carmen.  Her fine vocalism and acting captured the faith-based courage of her character.  Ms. Nino did justice to "Acerba volutta" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. We enjoyed her pianissimo as much as the grand crescendo in which she spun a beautiful tone.

Grant winners were also on the program and every single one excelled.  Bass-baritone Leo Radosavljevic captured Figaro's outrage with his fine voice and expansive personality as he performed "Aprite un po' quegl'occhi" from Mozart's Nozze di Figaro (which we heard at the Metropolitan Opera and reviewed last night).

Soprano Liana Guberman and tenor Riad Ymeri harmonized perfectly in the tender duet "O soave fanciulla" from Puccini's La Boheme.  We enjoyed the depth of feeling they expressed.  We fondly recall Ms. Guberman's beautiful realized Mimi last season at Loft Opera.

Another brilliant duet was performed by soprano Mia Pafumi and tenor Mingjie Lei--"Una parola, O Adina" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore. Their characterizations were as admirable as their voices, both of them fearlessly tackling the fioritura. Both have sweet light voices, perfect for those roles.

We loved the way mezzo Shirin Eskandani realized the character of Rosina as she performed "Dunque io son" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia; she tore into the fioritura with gusto. Her Figaro was the fine baritone Christian Bowers; his reactions were priceless.   Instead of writing notes, they sent messages to Lindoro via cellphone.  The audience loved it.

The fiery duet from Donizetti's Anna Bolena--"Ah! Qual sin cercar non oso" was well performed by mezzo Lisa Chavez and baritone Jarrett Ott.  We always love a good bel canto duet and last evening we reveled in an embarrassment of riches.

Last but by no means least, we thrilled to the sound of trumpets.  That is we thrilled to the sound of "Suoni la tromba" from Bellini's I Puritani.  What thrilled us particularly was the big bass sound of Patrick Guetti and baritone Jamez McCorkle. Mr. Guetti, whose performances  we have enjoyed on several occasions, strikes us as one of those "stage animals" from whom one cannot takes one's eyes and ears.

Not only were we thrilled by the quality of the entertainment but we had the pleasure of experiencing the honoring of two renowned singers who have contributed so much to young artists--Marilyn Horne and Richard Leech, both of whom had interesting things to say.

And then...as they say...dinner was served. We would like to honor The Giulio Gari Foundation for their generous contribution to the world of opera.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, September 28, 2014


Ildar Abdrazakov and Isabel Leonard (photo by Ken Howard)

What is there new to say about Mozart's most perfect opera, Nozze di Figaro? It is not only a story of wily servants triumphing over clueless aristocrats; it is also the story of four couples in different stages of their relationships.  Hormonal Cherubino is in the flirtation stage; by the end of the opera he will be betrothed to adorable Barbarina.  Clever Figaro and charming Susanna are madly in love and about to wed--but touched by jealousy.  The nasty lascivious Count Almaviva cheats recklessly on the once-spunky but now lovelorn Countess.  Grumpy Dr. Bartolo and his grasping housekeeper Marcellina were once lovers and will be reunited by circumstance.

Sir Richard Eyre's new "Upstairs/Downstairs" production at the Metropolitan Opera is, for the most part, rather wonderful.  There is a lot going on onstage; during the overture, we see one of the Count's conquests hastily grabbing her clothes and running offstage and, as the grand turntable stage makes its turns, we see servants going about their business.  Characters are always motivated for their "stage business".  Although the production brings out the darkness in the Beaumarchais tale (so magnificently adapted by Lorenzo Da Ponte), there is an abundance of humor in this stage business.  

For unknown and irrelevant reasons, Eyre has elected to set the story in the 1930's. This is not a damaging update; perhaps there were Counts in 1930's Spain and perhaps Cherubino was being sent off to fight in the Civil War.  Whether the droit de seigneur still existed, we know not.  It may not have even existed in Mozart's day and perhaps was used by Beaumarchais with dramatic license.  The real problem with setting the opera in the 30's is the unflattering hairstyles and costumes.  Poor Susanna looks just like every other female servant in the house.

Maestro James Levine received a grand ovation from the audience, actually waved at his adoring fans and gave his customary illustrious performance.  The cast worked well as an ensemble and were almost entirely wonderful.  Chief among the wonderfuls was mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard who seems to own the role both vocally and dramatically.  She just keeps getting better and better.  This time, her sense of humor appeared sharper.  Just to watch her portraying a youth dressed in women's clothes and teetering on high heels was a major treat.

Ildar Abdrazakov made a delightfully sympathetic Figaro with his rich bass filling the cavernous Met.  Baritone Peter Mattei gave a rather darker and more brutal take on the Count and sounded just about perfect.  Soprano Marlis Petersen created a likable Susanna. Only soprano Amanda Majeski disappointed as the Countess.  Vocally, her voice seemed undersupported; she seemed to struggle with Levine's slow tempi in her big arias. We longed to see some of the spunkiness of Rosina and some of the dignity of her position in life but the performance seemed distant and lifeless.

Robert Pomakov made a terrifically pompous Dr. Bartolo and Susanne Mentzer shone as Marcellina.  Greg Fedderly was deliciously oily as the snooping gossipy Don Basilio.

Last but not least, Ying Fang, a member of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, fulfilled the demands of the role of Barbarina better than any we have ever seen.  Her lovely focused soprano and astute acting were a joy to behold.

Although we disliked the costumes, we give kudos to Rob Howell for his imaginative turntable set.  It permitted characters to be seen as they moved from one room of the house to another and lent an overall freedom to the drama.  Paule Constable's lighting was alright but we wish more had been done with the sky behind the house. The action takes place during one long day and the passage of time could have been indicted rather easily.  That dawn lasted forever!

To those readers who think I am opposed to new productions, these opinions may serve to indicate otherwise.  Eyre's production certainly shed light on the darkness of the score and also on Mozart's negative take on males in general.  In this production, everyone is scheming.  Sometimes funny, something not so funny.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Jamie Van Eyck and Katharina Hagopian

Artistic values triumphed last weekend when R.B. Schlather directed a unique presentation of Handel's Alcina--and without sacrificing musical values, thanks to a strong cast of singers and  an octet of fine musicians under the direction of Geoffrey McDonald who conducted with admirable verve.

The atmosphere was casual with musicians and conductor clad in grey t-shirts and a mostly young audience crammed into a black box space painted white.  The stage at the far end was raised high enough for everyone to have a good view and the singers entered from below.  Scenography by Paul Tate DePoo comprised only a short staircase and the head of a fierce wild boar mounted on a side wall, representative of one of Alcina's lovers whom she had transformed. JAX Messenger's lighting was atmospheric.

Costumes by Terese Wadden were vivid, colorful and whimsical.  The sorceress Alcina (Katharina Hagopian) appeared in slinky black with a huge black hat, then in snakeskin and later in a flowing blue caftan and an eerie white wig (hair and makeup by Dave Bova).  Her sister Morgana (Anne-Carolyn Bird) was dressed like a Disney princess with a tiny crown and red sequined shoes.

The knight Ruggiero (Jamie van Eyck in travesti) wandered around in a red kimono, dazed and confused by Alcina's magic spell.  His lover Bradamante (Eve Gigliotti) comes to Alcina's magic island disguised as her own brother, complete with funny moustache and an eye patch. She is accompanied by the knight's old tutor Melisso (David Adam Moore) intent on rescuing Ruggiero.

Oronte (Samuel Levine) is Morgana's lover but in true observation of Baroque gender confusion, Morgana drops him in favor of Bradamante, now called Ricciardo.  Got all that?  It's just one small part of a long and fantastical epic poem called Orlando Furioso written in the 16th c. by Ludovico Ariosto. The segment Handel used in 1735 involves a lot of attractions, deceits, betrayals, rejections, reconciliations, revenge, and gender confusion.

Mr. Schlather made the story interesting by directing his singers to be highly physical with the physicality accompanying the heightened emotions of the text. The young singers handled this well in every case while still managing Handel's elaborate embellishments with aplomb. The voices were excellent and the parts well cast.  The artists worked well as an ensemble.  

Some touches we loved were Morgana's LED-lit magic wand and the way she wielded it, and the magic fruit substituted for the magic ring, a device meant to counteract Alcina's magic spell and to restore Ruggiero to sanity.  There were as well some directorial touches that we failed to fathom.  We didn't grasp why Bradamante appears to Ruggiero in clothes that Alcina had worn, unless we were meant to see her through Ruggiero's mistrustful eyes.  And Melisso at one point appears in one of Alcina's costume with a white mask through which he seems to be inhaling a drug that makes him "stupid".

The small orchestra comprised a string quartet augmented by a bass, a harpsichord and a pair of oboes.  We found no fault with the music and particularly loved  what is arguably the best known of the arias "Verdi Prati", beautifully sung by Ms. Van Eyck.

Titles by Steven Jude Tietjen were barely legible during Act I but with the dimmer lighting of Act II were fine.

Although we can get pretty testy when a director tampers with The Ring Cycle or La Traviata, in the case of a rarely produced opera with such a nonsensical plot, we welcome originality and had a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, September 22, 2014


Musa Ngqungwana, Yunpeng Wang, Ashley Kerr, Shirin Eskandani, Rochelle Bard and Eve Queler

Could the season of vocal music have gotten off to a better start than the Musicians Emergency Fund recital at Alice Tully Hall?  We think not.  Maestra Eve Queler and her fine Opera Orchestra of New York served as background to showcase five superlative singers, all of whom we would happily listen to over and over again. The Opera Orchestra of New York has a long and venerable history in New York City, having presented over 100 operas in concert version and the Maestra has proven her worth, not only as a conductor, but as someone with a great ear for emerging stars. Similarly, the Musicians Emergency Fund has a history going back to the Great Depression and has also brought talent to the public's attention.

The five singers could not have been better chosen, nor could their material which, in each case, served to highlight the singer's special skills.  Let us begin with the sopranos.  Everything sung by Rochelle Bard was nothing short of sensational.  Her glamorous appearance served to augment her vocal skills as she portrayed the eponymous Tosca in Puccini's masterpiece. Her "Vissi d'arte" was deeply emotional and heart breaking.

In"Vivi,ingrato" from Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, her portrayal of an outraged and betrayed woman was so intense that the audience broke into wild applause before the cabaletta.  

This versatile young artist showed off the most beautiful legato in "D'amor sull' ali rosee" from Verdi's Il Trovatore, which ended in a thrilling trill.  As encore, she sang "The Vilja Song" from Franz Lehar's  The Merry Widow.

Soprano Ashley Kerr showed off a gorgeous instrument and an impressive French style in "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's Louise.  She exhibited fine dynamic control and when she sang the word "delicieusement" we thought that was the perfect description of her manner of performing. 

In an entirely different style, she sang Donna Anna's aria "Non mi dir" from Mozart's Don Giovanni; her fioritura was just about perfect. In yet a different vein, she performed Musetta's aria "Quando m'en vo" from Puccini's La Boheme, always a great showpiece.  And "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's Rusalka was another showstopper that revealed Ms. Kerr's seamless transitions throughout the registers.

Mezzo-soprano Shirin Eskandani turned in an excellent performance of "Non piu mesta" from Rossini's La Cenerentola; what made it a standout over other ones we have heard is that her fioritura seemed to emerge from deep within the generous character of the heroine, happy at last and ready to share her joy with everyone. And who wouldn't want to hear "Parto" from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito sung by such a talent.  We wanted to hear more!

There wasn't a tenor onstage but we never missed it because the two male singers were so outstanding.  Baritone Yunpeng Wang opened the program with "O Lisbon" from Donizetti's rarely heard Dom Sebastien which he sang in fine French, making every word clear, a great advantage since there were no translations.  Mr. Wang has a most pleasing tonal quality and ample coloring as he shifted from longing to passionate outbursts.

From Verdi's  La Traviata, his "Di Provenza il mar" was consummately persuasive, coming from a deep place of a father's anguish.  The legato line was a delight and had us wondering whether Mr. Wang is the Verdi baritone we have been waiting for.

Bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana pleased us with one our favorite arias from Puccini's La Boheme.  In "Vecchia zimarra", Colline is bidding farewell to the beloved overcoat he is about to pawn to raise money for the dying Mimi's medicine. He sang this with superb dynamic control and deeply felt grief.

In another mood entirely, his "Serenade" from Gounod's Faust employed the desirable word coloring that makes the devil so chilling.  The "Ha, ha, ha, ha" made our hair stand on end.

His interpretation of Leporello's "Catalogue Aria" from Don Giovanni was original.  We are accustomed to a Leporello who is sick and tired of his master's hijinx and humorously ironic in this aria.  Mr. N. presented the character as serious, severe and nearly menacing.  It was difficult to evaluate presented as a stand-alone but it was surely well sung.

The final work on the program comprised a duet between Mr. N. and Mr. Wang.  "Suoni la tromba" from Bellini's I Puritani offers some delicious harmonies and long lyric phrases.  The voices blended well and all that was missing was some connection between the two artists.

Maestra Queler led her orchestra as well as we have come to expect and we heard some lovely solos emerging from the orchestra.  The wonderful thing about opera (well, ONE of the wonderful things) is that each time you hear an aria you hear something new.  Yesterday, for us, it was some beautiful clarinet work in the "Parto".

To have so much talent onstage in one afternoon felt like an embarrassment of riches.  But we are gluttons for pleasure.  It was like the old adage about champagne--even if you have an excess, you can never have enough.  And if you didn't leave this recital walking on air, you must have been wearing cement shoes!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, September 19, 2014


Alexandra Haines, John Kaneklides, Terina Westmeyer, Eric Barsness

The Delaware Valley Opera has been providing live opera performances for residents of the Upper Delaware River Valley and Western Catskills for a quarter of a century, fostering both local talent and the emerging young singers to whom we are so very devoted.  Their summer residence is in Narrowsburg, NY and if we were given to driving we would surely have made the trip.  With our non-driver status, we were relegated to attending their benefit last night, right here in NYC.

Several performances knocked our proverbial socks right off our feet.  We have written before about tenor John Kaneklides about whom, if you haven't heard already, you will very soon.  If you recall the early performances of Rolando Villazon you will know exactly the delights of which I am speaking.  His ringy-pingy tenor, backed by some fine technique and intense involvement with the text, made Edgardo's desperate aria from Lucia de Lammermoor ("Fra poco a me recovero") feel like a stab in the heart. 

New to us but impressive were two very different sopranos.  Terina Westmeyer is one of those big beautiful girls with big beautiful voices, seemingly on the path to roles as a Verdi soprano.  One doesn't often hear arias from Verdi's Attila sung during recitals; her "Santo di Patria" was delivered with a penetrating and powerful sound that set the concert hall vibrating.  Admirable was her flexibility in the fioritura and her dramatic commitment that held the stage.

Alexandra Haines has a very different light lyric soprano that has a youthful brightness just perfect for Susana's final aria in Nozze di Figaro.  We liked the fine resonance and her expressive manner.  There was a lovely change of color toward the end when Mozart shifts to the minor key for just one phrase before ending in a glorious burst of major key exuberance.  Our only cavil regards the use of the music stand.  We hope that the next time we hear her she will have memorized the material and won't have the need for that "security blanket".

We do not have the same enthusiasm for bass Eric Barsness.  He certainly has the low notes but his unattractive voice sounded reedy in the upper register.  More serious is his lack of expressiveness.  We had a hard time staying interested and found our ears reaching out to the expressive piano of Christopher Berg.  The lack of color in his voice was relieved only occasionally and, similarly, the lack of movement vocabulary.  We found this astonishing since Mr. Barsness has a background in dance and choreography.  We generally admire people with the courage to branch out in a new direction but wish that he had brought some terpsichorean influence into his career change.

Part of the problem was his choice of material.  Although we have enjoyed other bass' performance of Sarastro's arias, we have never related to Brahms' "Vier ernste Gesange" with their rather stuffy texts from the bible.  We did hear some variety of color in "O Tod, wie bitter bist du".  The Charles Ives songs, usually so colorful, left us cold.  We missed the childlike excitement of "Circus Band".  In "Tom Sails Away" we missed the narrative engagement we usually experience.

And now…for the big surprise!  Readers may have realized that we have little affection for contemporary compositions but we heard an unusual work that we absolutely loved--loved for the clever text by Mary Griffin and for the apposite music composed by Joe Hannan.  There was a perfect marriage of text and music and a real ability by Mr. Mr. Hannan to write for the voice.  And there was HUMOR!

The work is called Christina the Astonishing and, since we only heard about half of it, we are left with a craving to experience the work in toto.  It is a retelling of the 13th c. biography of Christina, hilariously dubbed the Patron Saint of Psychiatrists by Pope John XXIII in 1950.  Thomas de Cantimpré's biography, written shortly after her demise, describes a shepherdess who died in 1224 and returned to life at her own requiem mass during the Agnus Dei.  She purportedly was sent back to earth to bear terrible sufferings on behalf of the tormented souls she had seen in hell.  Right!

In Ms. Griffin's libretto, Christina (Ms. Westmeyer) appears as a bag lady in NYC in our own times, scorned on the streets and subways.  Even her biographer (sung by Mr. Kaneklides) suspects that her sanctity is insanity.  Ms. Haines with her angelic soprano was just right as An Angel and Mr. Barsness took the role of god.

The work opened with the quartet sounding like church bells in perfect harmony with overlapping voices contributing more delights. Mr. Berg's marvelous piano was augmented by James Byars on the English Horn.  We consider this performance a musical triumph.

As encore, Mr. Barsness sang one of Mr. Berg's own compositions, a setting of Frank O'Hara's lightly humorous poem "Lana Turner Has Collapsed".  He seemed to come to life at this point.  Perhaps irony is his strong suit.

© meche kroop

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Anton Nel and Lucy Rowan

In 1864, Richard Strauss was born; in the same year Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote his poetic tale Enoch Arden, as part of a collection called Idylls of the Hearth. Strauss would set this moving tale to music in 1890, writing music that underscores and illuminates the drama by means of leitmotivs.

We have Manhattan School of Music to thank for bringing this masterpiece before the public in the capable hands of pianist Anton Nel and the thrilling voice of actress Lucy Rowan who narrated the spellbinding tale.

It concerns three children growing up in an English seaside town.  One can hear the waves breaking on the shore in Strauss' descriptive music.  Annie is friends with both Enoch and Philipp.  When they grow up Annie marries Enoch.  They have three children; the last one is sickly. He goes to sea and, due to a shipwreck, is gone for ten years.  Annie believes him dead and marries Philipp.  

When Enoch finally returns he witnesses his children all grown up with Annie and Philipp happy together.  With major self-sacrifice, he steals away and the family, by his own intention, does not learn of his survival and return until after his death. 

Ms. Rowan and Mr. Nel made perfect partners and kept us spellbound for the duration.  Can no one write like this anymore?

The program also included selections from Claude Debussy's Preludes, Book 2, works just as beautifully descriptive as the Strauss and stunningly performed by Mr. Nel.

© meche kroop