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.

Friday, September 19, 2014

DOWN IN THE VALLEY

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

LUCY DOES TENNYSON


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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

FEED YOUR HEAD

THE QUEEN OF HEARTS (Photo courtesy of Ballet in Cinema)


We adore story ballets but haven't seen a worthwhile one since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's 20th c. Romeo and Juliet.  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, presented by the Joyce Theater Foundation and performed by The National Ballet of Canada, stands ready to assume the mantle of the quintessential story ballet of the 21st c.

Credit for the adaptation goes to Nicholas Wright who starts the ballet with a scene revealing the circumstances of Lewis Carroll's writing the book for young Alice Liddell--or at least a dramatic recreation of it.  He has "aged" Alice into puberty and given her a love interest, Jack the gardener's son, a choice her domineering mother is quick to dismiss.

The reviewer at The New York Times had a problem with this artistic choice (among other criticisms) but we thought it made the ballet work.  In the prologue, young Jack is given a jam tart by Alice, at which point the mother exiles him; this justifies his being tried for theft as the Knave of Hearts in the final scene of the dream.  The story itself becomes Alice's dream  in which she works through a number of issues which plague adolescents--body changes, rebellion against maternal authority, puberty, and acceptance of responsibility.

A minimal knowledge of psychoanalytic theory allows one to understand the mother's anger when Jack gives Alice a RED rose, symbolic of menarche and sexual maturity. The mother wants everything WHITE for innocence.  Alice's dream about falling down a hole can be seen as a descent into the unconscious, a place where she can work through her anxieties and wishes.

Alice's confusion is understandable as she sometimes feels smaller and unable to "open the door" and sometimes feels so large that she is crowded into a tiny space. Her guide, the White Rabbit, is unpredictable.  Her mother appears as the evil-tempered and threatening Queen of Hearts who dominates her passive husband. (Can you guess why the Queen is revolted by the Duchess' sausages?)  The King of Heart's "hail Mary pass" is Alice's wish that her father stand up to her mother. Alice's assumption of responsibility for the theft of the jam tart is an indication of her growing maturity.

Many more such references are present but it isn't necessary to recognize them to relish the wild and wonderful theatrical effects--the disappearing Cheshire cat, the Busby Berkeley flowers in the garden, the tap-dancing Mad Hatter, the tumbling cards, the voyage in a paper boat, etc. Bob Crowley's designs never failed to enchant, while telling the story.  The costumes were colorful and imaginative.

The choreography by Christopher Wheeldon's struck us as some of his best.  We particularly admired his use of humor.  In an homage to the Rose Adagio in The Sleeping Beauty, the Queen of Hearts balances on point while accepting a jam tart. Using the vocabulary of classical ballet to tell a story is an art we prize highly. Needless to say, the dancing was extraordinary.  There is incredible depth in the corp de ballet.

The music by Joby Talbot, conducted by David Briskin and performed by the New York City Ballet Orchestra,  always underscored the action.  We are not sure why The Times found this too obvious ; we enjoyed it immensely, including the sound effects which seemed to emanate from all over the Koch Theater.  Sound Design was by Andrew Bruce.  Projection Design was by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, Lighting Design by Natasha Katz.

(c) meche kroop









Saturday, September 13, 2014

OH, SUSANNAH!

Shannon Jones and Steven Fredericks (photo by Kate Hess)

Carlisle Floyd's l955 opera Susannah premiered at Florida State University where Floyd was on the piano faculty; we are trying to imagine how the audience of that day took it.  While not exactly "backwater", Tallahassee (home of FSU) is rather far from liberal New York and the 1950's were not exactly famous for sexual liberation.

The opera was produced again at FSU in 2005.  "Autres temps, autres moeurs." We noticed on the FSU website that the university will not tolerate sexual violence. Could it be that the opera affected university culture?

Last night we attended a fine performance by Utopia Opera, the fans of which vote on which operas should be presented for the upcoming season.  No opera is too challenging for Director William Remmers.  Coming in November will be L'Italiana in Algeri.

The story is a brutal one and much of the music is brutal as well.  There is a great deal of dissonance in the orchestra, except for the welcome interludes of lyricism given to the folk music, some of which was composed by Floyd to sound like folk music, as in "The Trees on the Mountain", beautifully sung by soprano Shannon Jones, who turned in a lovely multidimensional performance as the eponymous heroine.

The poor girl, just 18 years old, is an orphan, raised in dire poverty by her much older devoted brother ; they seem to survive on what he can hunt and trap.  The repressive fundamentalist religious community she inhabits in rural Tennessee is, as one might suspect, composed of small minded people who judge her harshly on account of her lovely appearance and the alcoholic tendencies of her brother Sam, brilliantly portrayed by tenor Adam Klein (who also served as dialect coach).  

A quartet of church women (Jennifer Allen, Mary-Hollis Hundley, Mary Molnar and Sarah Marvel Bleasedale) gossip about her at a church square dance while their husbands, elders of the church (Glenn Friedman, Brian Long, Victor Ziccardi and Matthew Walsh), are paying more attention to her than their wives would like.  The green-eyed monster is a dangerous beast indeed!

A new preacher Olin Blitch (superb bass-baritone Steven Fredericks) comes to town hell bent (pun intentional) on saving souls, using every manipulative trick in the book to frighten the congregation with threats of eternal damnation.

The quartet of elders, searching for a suitable creek for baptismal purposes, espies Susannah bathing NUDE!  Overcome by lust, they cover up their feelings with indignance and accusations.  The acting in this scene was particularly fine; their words expressed outrage but oh, how they stared.  They even persuade her friend Little Bat (tenor Mitchell Roe) to lie and accuse her of seducing him.

Blitch tries to get her to confess but she isn't buying it; she knows she is innocent. When her brother is away for the night, Blitch rapes her with disastrous consequences.  No spoilers here!

Polymath William Remmers (both Stage Director and Music Director, not to mention engaging M.C.) led the orchestra of twenty with a huge sound that threatened to overwhelm the small sized Lang Hall.  But they did not drown out the three principals who had large intense voices and forceful personalities.

The chorus was notably excellent, singing religious hymns in the revival scene. The scenery, as usual, was sparse--a gun rack (hint) and a rocking chair.  Costumes were suggestive of the time and place.

We did not know that the work is the second most produced American opera (after Porgy and Bess); we knew of it only through performances of "Ain't It a Pretty Night" heard in recital and in competitions.  For us, that was one of the highlights, along with "The Trees on the Mountain" and the charming "Jaybird", sung in duet with Mr. Klein.

With our preference for 19th c. works in foreign languages, we are unlikely to visit it again so are pleased that we had the opportunity to hear it last night.  There will be another performance tonight and you may be pleased to attend.

What sticks in our mind is how contemporary the theme is--men of the cloth are still misusing their power over the young. Will this ever end?

(c) meche kroop



Friday, September 12, 2014

DINNER! THEATER!

Lauren Shannon and Matthew Cohn (photo by Peter Sylvester)

A truly unique and special event was given last night at the historic Casa Duse in Brooklyn--an hour train ride but worth every minute.  Two dozen lucky participants sat at long beautifully decorated tables watching the remarkable New Place Players performing William Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.  During the several intermissions we were served a delicious multi-course dinner catered by Chef Max Hansen.  There was food for the body as well as the soul.  The event had absolutely nothing to do with what one thinks of as "dinner theater".

Casa Duse is named for the famous actress Eleonora Duse and the New Place Players are named for the house Shakespeare purchased for his family in Stratford Upon Avon in 1597.  Such was his genius that over four centuries have passed and his plays are regularly studied and performed, not to mention the operas and ballets which were derived from them.  It is not only his poetry in iambic pentameter that delights us but his insight into human nature.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream he addresses the follies of lovers.  Theseus, Duke of Athens, (Matthew Cohn) has won Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, (Lauren Shannon) by the sword and now must woo her on the eve of their marriage.  

Four young people from Athens are brought before the Duke by Egeus, Hermia's father (Matthew Augenbaugh) to resolve the issue of Hermia's disobedience.  Hermia (Heather Boaz) is in love with Lysander (Aaron McDaniel) who returns her love--but papa wants her to marry Demetrius (Will Gallacher).  Helena (Olivia Osol) is crazy about Demetrius who "loves her not".

What a mess! By Athenian decree, if Hermia refuses her father's orders she must enter a convent. So, the couple decide to elope and then get lost in the woods.  Enter Oberon, King of the Fairies and his witty sidekick Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow (Adam Patterson) who try to solve the problem through magic and make things worse, much worse, before they make things better.

Oberon is played by Mr. Cohn and Ms. Shannon portrays Titania, the Fairy Queen. That pair is in a different stage of their relationship--not at all lovey-dovey and involved in a bitter power struggle.  Magic is also used here to win the upper hand. This magic is the juice of a certain flower that makes people fall in love instantly with the first person they see when they open their eyes.

Enter a group of rustic tradesmen who wish to be chosen to present an entertainment for the Duke's wedding.  Perhaps Shakespeare was inspired by the antics of his own theatrical troupe; the actors are not happy with their assigned roles.  Bottom the Weaver (Emilio Tirado) is hilarious as he wants to play every role.  He also gets to play a role he never anticipated as Puck transforms him into an ass and sprinkles the "love juice" on Titania's eyes.

Eventually, this being a comedy, everything works out in the end and the rustics get to produce their ridiculous play, using wonderful sock puppets,  with a great deal of disdain coming from the sarcastic Philostrate, Master of Ceremonies (Adam Patterson).  The Duke himself is more charitable and we can predict a happy future for all concerned.

Readers may have noticed that several actors played two parts and succeeded in portraying very different characters.  The altogether splendid cast also included musicians doubling as puppeteers manipulating Indonesian-style stick puppets, gorgeously illuminated and more convincing as fairies than actors have been.

As a matter of fact, everything about this production, so effectively directed by James Ortiz (a polymath who also designed the costumes, along with Molly Siedel, and the puppets), shone with imagination and originality.  The verses were beautifully spoken with fine diction and yet sustained a colloquial feel.  Costuming was contemporary for the humans and exotic for the fairy kingdom. The action was highly physical which also lent a contemporary feel.  There was not a whiff of staidness.

Musical Direction and Sound Design by Flavio Gaete was subtle but well chosen and effective--much of it by Mendelssohn.  Mr. Gaete also appeared as Snug the Joiner and Titania's fairy Mustardseed..  Co-director Craig Bacon performed the role of Robin Starveling the Tailor. Morgan Auld was Peter Quince the Carpenter; John Wahl was Francis Flute the Bellows-mender and Tom Snout the Tinker was performed by Matthew Augenbaugh.  Each and every performance was perfect in tone.

It was a rare privilege to see and hear Shakespeare up close and personal (which seems to be our theme for the week--see yesterday's review).  We felt as if we were part of the court of Athens and part of the fairy kingdom.  We felt as if we knew the four young lovers, so contemporary were their passions, their despair, their confusions.  Never ever have we enjoyed Shakespeare more.

Should you have the opportunity to attend one of these special events, we hope you will seize the moment.  You would be sure to agree with our assessment.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, September 11, 2014

WHO IS SILVIE?

Nathaniel LaNasa and Silvie Jensen

Silvie Jensen is a versatile mezzo-soprano who has made quite a name for herself in many genres: opera, lieder, oratorio, and commissioned new works.  We were fortunate to be invited to enjoy her artistry in a private recital at Norton Hall--up close and intimate as lieder recitals are best enjoyed (and should always be, were it not for financial considerations).

The first half of the program was devoted to Schubert, and if there was ever a better composer of lieder we cannot think of one.  His setting of Franz Schober's "An die Musik", which opened the program, is the perfect tribute to the musical arts and an expression of the poet's gratitude.  Ms. Jensen sang it with consummate depth of feeling and communicative skills such that we were reminded of our own gratitude.

We are accustomed to hearing Die Winterreise sung by men and rarely hear it performed by a woman although there is a recording of it sung by Christa Ludwig.  Last night we heard Ms. Jensen sing several selections from it and pushed aside any judgments and just listened to the music.  Her artistry was such that we completely forgot the risk she was taking. Accompanied by the fine piano partner Nathaniel LaNasa, we were swept away to the lonely wintry landscape through which the poet plods, trying to escape from the despair of a broken heart.

Count on Schubert to limn a dozen shades of grief.  In "Gute Nacht", we hear the poet's disappointment as he sets out on his journey.  The song is strophic but our two artists made each verse sound new.  In "Der Lindenbaum" the gentle opening yields to the forceful pianistic and vocal depiction of "die kalten Winde" which chilled us, even in the warm room.

Both artists are experts at coloring the words.  The self-pity of "Wasserflut", the nostalgia of "Auf dem Flüsse", the false cheer of the dreamer in "Frühlingstraum", the menace of "Die Krähe", the morbidity of "Das Wirtshaus", and the mysterious resolve of "Der Leiermann" were all communicated.  Even in the repeated notes of "Der Wegweiser", there was not a hint of tedium.

We must add that Ms. Jensen's German diction was flawless and permitted us to pay full attention to the performance and none whatsoever to the translations.  Her French was just as fine in a cycle of songs by Poulenc entitled La Fraicheur et le Feu.

Although we do not understand Czech, we loved the sound of it and the delightful folk melodies of Bohuslav Martinu who wrote in the same time period as Poulenc.  We particularly enjoyed the charming "Touha" with its frisky piano part, as well as the lament "Smutny Mily".  We would love a second hearing of these songs.

Finally, Ms. Jensen and Mr. LaNasa performed selections from Britten's settings of folk songs.  We always love hearing the tale of "The Brisk Young Widow" and "The Salley Gardens" in which the poetry by W.B. Yeats inspired a lovely vocal line.

We were completely satisfied by this recital; but there was an encore that added a special thrill.  We never would have foreseen the smoky seductive timbre with which this cool Nordic beauty invested the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen.  Let us just say WOW and be done with it.

Although we understand that rehearsal time was short, we found the teamwork to be impressive.  Both Ms. Jensen and Mr. LaNasa are excellent interpreters and matched each other beautifully in their phrasing and dynamics.  We would gladly hear the two of them tackle the entire cycle of  Die Winterreise.  Perhaps next Winter?

© meche kroop

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

ONE NIGHT WITH FANNY BRICE

Patricia Dell

In our ignorance of popular culture of the early 20th c., we were not even sure who Fanny Brice was when we entered the theater.  By the time we left two hours later we felt as if we not only knew her but that we really really liked her.  As performed by the excellent actress/singer Patricia Dell (on the Voice Faculty at NYU Tisch School of the Arts) we got a glimpse into the life of a performer beloved by the American public-- and we witnessed how her private life was reflected in her art.

The early part of the show revealed her deep attachment to a charming father whose gambling, drinking and laziness were recreated by her long term attachment to Nicky Arnstein, a slick white-collar criminal and philanderer who went through her substantial earnings like a plague of locusts through a wheat field.  Her tough-minded mother, proprietor of a saloon, broke up the family to get away from the unemployed father but was never able to talk Ms. Brice out of her self-destructive attachment to Mr. Arnstein who served a couple terms in prison.

All of these events affected Ms. Brice's performance.  As a child she performed for her father who worshipped her and encouraged her talent.  Ms. Dell, a woman well into middle-age, was able to convince as Fania the child.  Significantly, in later life at the end of her career, she performed on the radio as a child --Baby Snooks, a character she created.

She started her career performing in amateur shows in Brooklyn, soon learning that men would take advantage of her.  She moved on to burlesque and finally found a welcoming presence in Flo Ziegfield with whom she enjoyed a long association.  As her relationship with Mr. Arnstein brought her increasing disappointment, her style shifted from comedy to torch songs.

The songs were of the period--Irving Berlin, Charles Warfield, Bob Carleton and Harry Carroll were some of the composers represented.  Ms. Dell animated all the songs with heart and soul.  "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" by Harry Carroll with lyrics by Joseph McCarthy was our personal favorite.  No one would be surprised by this since the theme was "borrowed" from Chopin.

The piece was conceived, written and arranged by Chip Deffaa whose concept put Ms. Dell onstage as Ms. Brice's ghost, illuminated initially by only a ghost light.  So there onstage we had a spirit sharing her life retrospectively--a most effective concept.

Musical director Kent Brown accompanied Ms. Dell on the piano.  He walked the tightrope perfectly, always lending a distinct musicality to the proceedings without ever overwhelming Ms. Dell's voice.

Amie Brockway, Producing Artistic Director of The Open Eye Theater, based in Margaretville, NY, directed with a sure hand.  Effective period costumes were designed by Nat Thomas with lighting by Erwin Karl.

That Ms. Dell held our attention for two hours is testament to the fine work of all concerned.  It was a fascinating evening spent in the company of two talented ladies--Ms. Brice and Ms. Dell.

(c) meche kroop