MISSION

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.

Monday, November 24, 2014

MORE BEL CANTO PLEASE

The cast of Bel Canto Gems

Scott Foreman-Orr established Clef Note Productions to offer talented singers a chance to be heard in themed concerts which would showcase their voices.  Last night's theme was Bel Canto Gems and we were delighted since that is our very favorite period of opera.  The definition of bel canto was somewhat stretched but there is no denying that we heard some beautiful singing.  The program included something for everyone.

Two singers made a huge impression--one known to us and one new to us, which is usually the case.  Soprano Zhanna Alkhazova is a singer to look up to, literally and figuratively.  Her imposing appearance is matched by a powerful voice giving her a great deal of onstage presence.  She blew us away with her intensity in Elettra's aria from Mozart's Idomeneo in which she handled the ornamentation with style.  Even better was her "Tacea la notte placida" from Verdi's Il Trovatore.  She was one of the few singers who prepared her arias well and sang off the book.

New to us was mezzo Hayden Dewitt who sang everything with grace and subtlety. She too was excellently prepared; singing without a music stand always permits greater connection with the audience.  From Rossini's Otello she sang the Willow Song "Assisa pie d'un salice" filled with distracted grief.  

She also sang in French--the part of Isolier in the trio from Rossini's Le Comte Ory and, more impressively, the part of Mallika to Julia Lima's Lakme from the Delibes opera of the same name. The harmonies were exquisite.  Still better was her ardent Romeo in Bellini's I Capuletti e i Montecchi.  

Her Giulietta for "Si fuggire" was the lovely soprano Sarah Moulton Faux who beautifully handled the trills and scale passages.  The harmony in thirds was glorious to the ear. There is nothing faux about Ms. Faux.  She is the real thing and was just as winning as Amina in "Son geloso" from Bellini's La Sonnambula.  Her Elvino was the tenor Jon Thomas Olson who has a sweet youthful sound. 

We enjoyed hearing soprano Rosa D'Imperio in several selections.  As Mathilde in "Selva Opaca" from Rossini's William Tell, she exhibited a lovely resonance and floated her top notes effortlessly.  Our only quibble was the use of the music stand. She has a real flair for Rossini and sang in the duet "Non arrestare il colpo" from the composer's Otello, although the role was written for a mezzo-soprano. 

We would like to credit soprano Rachel Hippert for her fine handling of the descending scale passages and syncopated rhythms as Isabelle in Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable.  

Julia Lima, so lovely in the Lakme has a lovely vibrato and was perky as Susanna in "Colle dame piu brillanti" from Mercadante's I Due Figaro.  Singing off the book, she connected well with the audience.  Soprano Roza Bulat made a fine Lucrezia in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia.

Space does not permit discussion of several of the other excellent singers but we are sure to have other opportunities in the future.

Accompanying was deftly handled by Ming Hay Kwong.  It was a long evening although shortened by the illness of some of the singers.  Happily, bel canto always leaves us wanting more.

(c) meche kroop

ZARZUELA!

Amaia Arberas, Hamid Rodriguez, Pilar Belaval, Rafael Lebron and Ilya Martinez

Thanks to Amigos de la Zarzuela we had the opportunity to hear selections from several zarzuelas written by a number of different composers.  The program defined zarzuela as Spanish musical theater but if you enter zarzuela in the search bar on this website you will be able to read a far more complete description.

We are huge fans of zarzuela for a number of reasons: first of all the Spanish language is enormously singable with pure open vowels that rival those of Italian; secondly,the melodies are memorable; thirdly, one hears interesting major/minor shifts, Middle-eastern turns and much melismatic singing; finally, the predominant subject is love--love yearned for, love achieved, love lost, love renewed, love requited and unrequited. Who doesn't care about love!

The program opened with the ensemble of five singing "Vamos andando por la calle de la fe" by Chueca y Valverde's Agua, Azucarillos y Aguardiente.  It closed with the ensemble performing "Mazurka de la Sombrilla" from the well known Luisa Fernanda by Moreno Torroba.

While all the singers were excellent, we were most impressed by soprano Amaia Arbera (more reviews of her by way of the search function) and mezzo Pilar Belaval who is new to us.  Their duet "Aqui estoy ya vestida" from Barbieri's El Barberillo de Lavapies was absolutely charming; both women have superb stage presence.

Ms. Arberas excelled in her solo "Pensar en el" from Arrieta's Marina and harmonized beautifully with tenor Hamid Rodriguez in the delightful duet "Ese panuelito blanco" from Moreno Torroba's La Chulapona in which they revealed a sympathetic connection.  Ms. Arberas' voice has a lovely vibrato and a soaring unfettered top; she always exhibits a gracious stage manner.

Ms. Belaval has a rich chocolatey mezzo that suited "Cuando esta tan hondo" from Chapi's El Barquillero in which the use of the minor key added depth.  She has a fine command of dynamics.

Mr. Rodriguez garnered huge applause for his performance of the familiar "No puede ser" from Sorozabal's La Taberna del Puerto.  We appreciated the variety of the central section in which he colored the words differentially.

Veteran singers Ilya Martinez, a soprano, and baritone Rafael Lebron contributed to the program a fine duet "Que esta esto muy bajo" from Sorozabal's La del Manojo de Rosas.  That work must be a favorite of Mr. Lebron since he rattled off the humorous patter duet "Quien es usted" (with Mr. Rodriguez) from the same work with admirable facility.

We enjoyed Ms. Martinez' duet with Ms. Belaval "Pobre viejecita, que delicadita" from Fernandez Caballero's La Viejecita.

As if that were not enough, dancer Gabriela Granados contributed two dances complete with chattering castanets and the rhythmic percussive footwork of which we are so fond.  One dance was choreographed to Granados' Suite Iberia and the other to Manuel de Falla's La Vida Breve.

We must mention the excellent piano work of Karina Azatyan who was particularly fine accompanying Ms. Belaval in Turina's soulful "Saeta en forma de salve a la virgen de la esperanza". Their partnership moved us deeply.

We hope that someday Amigos de la Zarzuela will mount a full-fledged production of one of these zarzuelas in its entirety.  We would probably choose El Barberillo de Lavapies.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, November 23, 2014

CARMEN at the APOLLO

Kimberly Van Woesik (photo by Paula Lobo)

The gypsy Carmen has fascinated artist and public alike since Prosper Mérimée published his novella in 1846; a Frenchman traveling in Spain, he was as interested in the marginalization of the Basque and Gypsy cultures as he was in the personal story of Carmen and Don José.

Georges Bizet picked up the story and, with Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy as his librettists, composed an opera in 1875; too shocking and morally offensive for that decade, it soon became one of the most frequently produced of operas and the favorite of many operagoers.  Its melodies, especially that of the Habanera, linger readily on the mind.

The dance history of the story has been somewhat less successful.  Roland Petit choreographed a one-act version for Les Ballets de Paris in 1949.  Alberto Alonso choreographed another for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1967 starring his wife Alicia Alonso in the titular role.  Bizet's music was "adapted" by Shchedrin.  Reviews were not enthusiastic.

A 1983 film by Carlos Saura told the story of a flamenco dance troupe rehearsing a performance of Carmen.

A tale can be told in words, music or dance.  We would have loved to have seen a full-length story ballet of Carmen within the classical ballet idiom--by John Cranko or Sir Kenneth MacMillan for example.  The 2012 work Carmen.maquia presented at the Apollo Theater last night by Ballet Hispanico in its New York premiere was not that work.

Taken on its own terms it is a bold and striking telling of the tale within the idiom of modern dance.  Choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano told the tale tautly and economically, closely following the story laid down in the opera.  The action corresponded closely with Bizet's Carmen Suite with a couple exceptions; a sexy duet between Escamillo and Carmen used music from Carmen's encounter with Don José in Lilias Pastia's tavern.  Strangely, Micaela's theme music was used at the end after Don José has stabbed Carmen.

The dancing was in every respect sensational.  Kimberly Van Woesik made a compellingly seductive Carmen and used her petite and flexible frame to great advantage.  Christopher Bloom made a highly conflicted and sympathetic Don José. His duet with Ms. Van Woesik in the tavern scene was replete with stunningly original lifts and there was no denying the chemistry between them.  His tortured body movements during the overture and at the end were disturbing.  

Min-Tzu Li was appealing as Micaela and Mario Ismael Espinoza made an effectively arrogant Escamillo.

Like much contemporary choreography in the modern idiom, there was a lot of herky-jerky movements which conveyed Don José's torment but were not pretty to look at. Several elements raised questions; i.e. in the tavern scene, several dancers clustered together suggested a bull but one could not be certain. 

The choreography avoided the clichés of flamenco but failed to have a distinguishing Spanish flavor. We yearned for some sazon!  One interesting moment was when Don José's regiment marched in the area below and in front of the stage, while he reflected their gestures onstage.

The set by Luis Crespo comprised a few white elements in various shapes and sizes which were configured and rearranged for each scene. The costumes by David Delfin were mostly white with a backless illusion for the women and sheer billowing skirts. The military men wore skin-tight white long-sleeved tops with black stripes; the pants were unattractive and baggy-seated with tight ankles.  At one point the corp appeared inexplicably in black shorts.

Confining sets and costumes to the non-palette of black and white suggested a denial of moral subtlety. The entire production was abstract but certain touches were jarringly realistic.  In the catfight between Carmen and another factory girl they attacked each other tooth and claw with loud shrieks!  In the guardhouse scene, one of the soldiers kept dozing off.  We liked the realistic touches but they seemed at war with the abstract nature of the overall production.

At the end, Don José recapitulated the tortured body movements of the overture. At the curtain call, the two leads had blue stains down the front of the costumes which we failed to understand.  They were clearly not "blue-bloods".

In sum, we were entertained but remained unmoved.  The image we wish to retain is of the beautiful duet with its original lifts.

(c) meche kroop


Saturday, November 22, 2014

CARDONA DOES TOSCA

Jason Stearns, Hugo Vera, and Kian Freitas

Stella Zambalis and Jason Stearns








The Martha Cardona Theater has been in existence for about five years--growing in stature and reach while accumulating a group of singers that deserve to be widely heard.

Finally, Founder and Artistic Director Daniel Cardona was ready to produce a full-length opera with a full orchestra.

For this landmark event he chose one of our favorite operas--Puccini's Tosca--and he chose to present it in a semi-staged production at the mid-sized and acoustically excellent Merkin Concert Hall.  By semi-staged we mean that there was minimal scenery but there was no shortage of convincing acting.

To present Tosca, one needs a larger-than-life soprano to play the eponymous heroine who is herself larger-than-life. A true diva, soprano Stella Zambalis exhibited such familiarity with the nuances of the role that she actually became the 19th c. diva in love with the painter Cavaradossi.  With a sizable soprano and convincing acting one could not have asked for more.  To see her attack the evil Scarpia was to tremble in one's seat.

The role of Scarpia was performed by baritone Jason Stearns who captured our ears (if not our hearts) with his oily menace.  He made the perfect villain and we would have been happy to see him die, were it not for the fact that we wouldn't hear his voice in Act III!

Bass Matthew Curran made a fine Angelotti, even though onstage only briefly.  His voice had a fine quality and his acting was convincing.

Even more impressive was bass-baritone Kian Freitas who created a most believable Sacristan; he became a real character, a priest who snooped in the basket of food and exhibited a number of other small believable gestures.  Previously unknown to us, we wish to hear more of him.

Tenor Hugo Vera sang well but over-acted the part of Spoletta, over-reacting to every nuance of everyone else's lines.   We picture Spoletta as more contained, more severe and less sneering.  Actually, baritone Samuel McDonald was far more believable as Sciarrone and sang with lovely tone and phrasing.

Lead tenor Ta'u Pupu'a as Cavaradossi was a bit disappointing.  We have heard him before and he was not his best for this performance. He seemed to be pushing his upper register and lacked the requisite chemistry with Ms. Zambalis in Act I.  He did improve over the course of the evening and was most touching in Act III as he faced death.

No one was credited with Stage Direction and one got the impression that each singer contributed ideas.  Most of them worked well.  We are quite sure that Mr. Cardona himself had a lot of directorial input. We forgot that there was no church, no Castel San'Angelo.  The character's interaction told us everything.

We particularly enjoyed the duet between Mr. Freitas and Mr. Pupu'a in Act I, the end of Act II when Tosca stabs Scarpia, and the interlude before Act III when Cavaradossi stands silently contemplating his anticipated death.  Much can be communicated with body language.

There was no problem with diction.  Every word was clear such that when the titles disappeared in Act III, we barely noticed.

Maestro Brian Holman's baton brought the onstage orchestra together for Puccini's glorious music; we were particularly fond of Melanie Genin's harp.

It was a fine evening; the house was packed and the entire cast received a lengthy standing ovation which they richly deserved.

We are looking forward to more fine work from The Martha Cardona Theater.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, November 21, 2014

LIEDERABEND AT JUILLIARD

Martha Mingle and Theo Hoffman


We couldn't imagine a better way to spend "cocktail hour" than attending a Liederabend at Juilliard.  It is a golden opportunity to hear the stars of tomorrow. Indeed we have a rather substantial list of artists whom we first heard at a Juilliard Liederabend who are now onstage at the Metropolitan Opera and other renowned venues.

Last night we heard eight promising artists--four singers and four collaborative pianists--in a program of 20th c. English art songs.  Our 19th c. ears have never taken to 20th c. English or American songs but last night's recital brought us closer to a state of appreciation that we have ever experienced.

For this we credit the superb diction of all four singers whose phrasing and performance style made sense of the poetry.  Additionally, the composers on the program selected excellent texts to set.  Who would not love Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden and Dante Gabriel Rossetti! Their poetry scans and rhymes and is well suited to musical elaboration.

Most impressive was baritone Theo Hoffman who formed a perfect partnership with pianist Martha Mingle.  They delivered a highly polished performance of three songs from Ralph Vaughan Williams' The House of Life.  Rossetti's poetry is highly romantic and Mr. Hoffman sang the songs with an economy of gesture but a lavish application of word-coloring and depth of expression.  Ms. Mingle seemed to breathe with him in a stunning duet.

We enjoyed Hannah McDermott, whose lovely mezzo voice we have admired before. Her time spent with Steven Blier's New York Festival of Song cabaret evenings has served her well and she uses her personality effectively to get a song across.  Last night's performance of four of Benjamin Britten's Cabaret Songs was delightful. Pianist Kathryn Felt joined her for the lilting "Tell Me the Truth About Love"--we loved the way she sang the phrase "Brighton's bracing air" with a charming buzz on the "br"s.  "Calypso" was given the proper propulsion but our favorite was "Johnny", her account of a lively girl dealing with a grumpy boring boyfriend.

Tenor David Smolokoff performed Gerald Finzi's setting of Thomas Hardy's A Young Man's Exhortation.  "The Dance Continued" was deeply felt but our favorite was the bittersweet "The Sigh" in which a man has been unable to forget or understand why his now-deceased wife emitted a deep sigh when he first kissed her.  We enjoyed the mystery.  Ava Nazar's piano was particularly lovely in the searching melody of "The Comet at Yell'ham".

Heard for the first time was soprano Tiffany Townsend with Hea Youn Chung as her piano partner.  These Finzi songs from Hardy's Till Earth Outwears are mournful ones--filled with nostalgia and memories of lost loves.  Anyone who's read Hardy's wonderful novels will have recognized his voice.  Ms. Townsend sang them with lovely phrasing, word coloring and excellent diction.  Our favorite was "Life Laughs Onward".

It will be so rewarding to observe these young artists as they continue their training at Juilliard.  Last night's program was coached by Andrew Harley.  Well done!

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, November 20, 2014

TURKEY vs. ITALY

Hyesang Park (photo by Ken Howard)

Of course we are not familiar with every single opera company in the USA but we would be surprised if any of them could put on a better show than Juilliard Opera.  If they presented a couple dozen operas each season we would be reviewing every last one. But of course, that is not possible and we must be content with three every year. We consider them major events on the New York opera scene.

Perhaps each one is a gem because such care is taken to hire the very best artistic and musical staff in the field.  Perhaps it's because so much care is taken with casting from among a group of singers that are so outstanding, all of whom are singing around the country in operas and recitals as well as winning competitions.

Last night's opening of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia was a resounding success. Composed two centuries ago when Rossini was but 22 years old (but with several successes under his compositional belt), the opera was a bit advanced for the moralistic Milanese population but went over far better in Rome and Naples.  The work achieved a second life when Maria Callas sang the lead in Rome in 1950 and hasn't been heard in NYC since Beverly Sills performed the role in 1978 at the New York City Opera.

Scintillating soprano Hyesang Park knocked our socks off last night as the fickle Fiorilla who manages men like a juggler keeping all his balls in the air.  First there is her cuckolded husband Geronio, sung by Polish bass Daniel Miroslaw; then there is her steady companion/lover (cavalier-servant) Narciso, sung by tenor Joseph Dennis; and finally the newly arrived Turkish prince Selim, performed by the very funny bass-baritone Michael Sumuel.

The meta-premise is that a Playwright (baritone Szymon Komasa) is stumped for ideas while visiting a spa in Naples and decides to both observe and manipulate the characters to advance the plot of his play.  The marvelous mezzo Kara Sainz portrays Zaida, a Turkish woman once in love with Selim, but now working at the spa; Albazar (tenor Nathan Haller) is her landsmann, now managing the spa. Just imagine the complications which ensue as Fiorilla tries to ensnare Selim!

We are delighted to report that the voices--every single one--excelled in their handling of the bel canto style.  Furthermore, the comic acting was fine all around; this is not a farce and it's more than an opera buffa.  It is a comedy of manners and the final resolution of the romantic adventures and misadventures is a bit shy of happy, even though the lovers and marital pair are reconciled.

In a stroke of luxury casting, we noticed that the chorus comprised several of our favorite singers--including Takaoki Onishi, Avery Amereau, Joe Eletto, Kurt Kanazawa, James Edgar Knight, Tyler Zimmerman and several other.  It was fun picking them out.

We hope you will still be able to get tickets to the subsequent performances and that you will notice some of the highlights we particularly enjoyed: the sparkling overture; Fiorella's aria sung with the arriving Turkish sailors singing a minor key chorale; the playwright instigating a catfight between Fiorella and Zaida, the towel fight between Selim and Geronio; the duet between Selim and Fiorella; Albazar's deeply felt aria. Oh well, there were too many outstanding moments to list them all.

A true coup was getting the superstar conductor Speranza Scappucci to lead the Juilliard Orchestra, equal contributors to the evening's success.  We hope the term does not sound rude but this beautiful woman is a "podium animal".  Rossini's pen never failed to turn out an endless supply of melodies that make our heart sing.  And her baton brought out the joy and sparkle of each one.

Director John Giampietro made some minor adjustments to fit the plot into a new time and place.  The band of gypsies were converted into spa workers and the work took on the flavor of the films coming out of Italy in the late 1950's and early 1960's.  This served the comedy well and did not detract at all.  Mr. Giampietro is a superb storyteller.

Scenic Designer Alexis Distler scored with an impressive spa, replete with palm tree, white latticework, rows of chaises longues and several dispensers of mineral waters. Lighting Design by Derek Wright was effective.  Costume Designer Sydney Maresca contributed smashing red and white uniforms for the spa staff, throwing in a doctor with a stethoscope. Fiorilla was dressed as perkily as her capricious nature called for. 

Our sole quibble was the Turkish-vested fellow wandering around onstage carrying a model of a sailing ship.  We never did figure out who he was!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, November 15, 2014

THIS MISS IS A HIT but THE HIT IS AMISS

Elvira and Mustafà's Harem in Utopia Opera's L'Italiana in Algeri

Stage Director and Conductor William Remmers had a radical concept for Rossini's first attempt at comedy--his 1813 L'Italiana in Algeri.  He achieved consistency within this concept, that of emphasizing the terrorism and violence, but paid the price of sacrificing the comedy.  In his version, Mustafà is not the corpulent buffone he was meant to be but a lean, mean and violent military dictator.  When Angelo Anelli wrote the libretto, all Europe was fascinated by all things Turkish, which meant the Ottoman Empire, actually already in decline.  Algeria at that time was part of the Empire, hence the title.

But updating the opera to the 20th c. brought it perilously close to our own time and the military costumes and assault rifles became an uncomfortable reminder of the Age of Terrorism, making laughter difficult.  This Bey was not a buffoon; the portrayal made it difficult to accept his being so easily tricked by the wily Isabella.

Sung by the radiant mezzo Caroline Tye, Isabella is emblematic of the modern woman and her feminine wiles contrasted beautifully with the submissive nature of Mustafà's rejected wife Elvira, sung by sparkling soprano Patricia Vital and her handmaiden Zulma, winningly sung by mezzo-soprano Kristin Roney.  

All three women sang superbly with excellent diction and enviable control of the embellishments.  Their skill at bel canto singing was impressive and made the evening a worthwhile one.  We loved the way Ms. Tye sang "Cruda sorte....Amor tiranno" and "Per lui che adoro", which we haven't enjoyed so much since Stephanie Blythe sang it in Santa Fe a dozen years ago!

One male role stood out as well, that of Taddeo, Isabella's traveling companion.  Jia-jun Hong exhibited admirable comedic skills as well as a fine voice which he used well. Still very young (perhaps as young as Rossini was when he composed this dramma giocoso) he is a talent to watch.

We wish we could have enjoyed the other male leads as well.  Bass Duncan Hartman sang reasonably well in spite of a vocal indisposition but seemed cast to fulfill Mr. Remmers' concept. He just didn't match the ridiculous figure we wanted to see. 

Tenor Chad Cygan neither looked like a romantic hero that the desirable Isabella would have gone searching for nor did he have the vocal chops for the role.  He handled the rapid-fire patter quite well and most of the recitativi but the upper half of his register was uncomfortably and unattractively strained.  This is regrettable since Rossini's melodies are so enchanting.

Roman Laba made a fine captain of the army, wearing a red fez.  Eric Lamp and Victor Ziccardi doubled as soldiers and slaves. They made some fine moves in a little dance. Jordana Rose, Erica Koehring and Winnie Nieh played members of the harem.

The manic energy of the ensembles with which Rossini generally ends each act were quite well done vocally but disturbing dramatically.  Act I ended in a virtual bloodbath with characters all attacking each other with guns, knives and robes.  When Act II began, all the characters wore bloody bandages, braces and crutches.  EWWW! Lindoro looked like Quasimodo.

The 17 member orchestra played well for the most part with occasional lapses of intonation.  We loved the pizzicato opening of the exciting overture after which the melody gets tossed around by the winds. Samuel Marques played some fine solos on the clarinet and Susan Morton was superb on the harpsichord. Mr. Remmers conducted with his customary gusto.

With audience-selected operas and a minuscule budget, it is amazing what Mr. Remmers can pull together.  There was, as usual, no set; costumes probably were assembled from the singers' very own closets.  

The feisty Utopia Opera has a most unusual double bill coming up in March.  Watch for it!  You may wish to vote online for next year's operas.  Participate!

© meche kroop