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, July 18, 2016

LA CLEMENZA D'IL BARBIERE AT CARAMOOR

Sean Christensen, Thomas Lynch, Tamara Mumford and Georgia Jarman in Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira


Upon hearing the overture to Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira, one might be forgiven for believing that one had mistakenly wandered into a production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. At the age of 20, Rossini had already composed nearly a dozen operas and in this long-forgotten one, we hear the young master literally bursting with melodic invention and injecting romantic notions into moribund classical forms and themes.

Due to a number of problematic issues, the 1813 production amounted to a stillbirth with body parts harvested for future operas. Il Barbiere di Siviglia would not be composed for another 3 years with Aureliano's music repurposed; the autograph version of Aureliano in Palmira was lost. There was no authoritative score extant--until now, when Caramoor's Director of Opera, Maestro Will Crutchfield, accepted the invitation of Pesaro's Rossini Foundation and laboriously reconstructed a version of the score, restoring all the original music. We are not at all surprised that this version won first place for 'Best Rediscovered Work' at the 2016 International Opera Awards in London.

None of this history means anything unless the results are both artistic and entertaining. Thanks to Caramoor's sensational casting decisions and Rossini's magnificent music, the nearly four-hour semi-staged production seemed to fly by. The libretto by the equally young Felice Romani relates a very simple story. Roman Emperor Aureliano does battle with Palmyran Princess Zenobia who is assisted by her loyal lover Arsace, Prince of Persia.

The Romans keep winning and Aureliano, who has fallen in love with the warrior princess Zenobia, suffers from ambivalence. He wants to win Zenobia and push Arsace out of the picture; he wants also to punish the rebellious pair; but he also admires their steadfastness and eventually forgives them in a magnanimous gesture.

An amicable solution is found. They will be free to continue their relationship and to rule if they swear allegiance to Rome. So we have neither comedy nor tragedy but an opera seria with a happy ending. There is no onstage action, just a musical exploration of the characters' feelings.

In this production it was the consummate artistry of the singers that successfully conveyed the emotional nature of the characters. An uncredited lighting designer flooded the backdrop with colors that suited the emotions being expressed. It was simple but effective.

As Zenobia, Georgia Jarman, a soprano whom we greatly enjoyed at the Santa Fe Opera as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto, handled this difficult role with ease. Gilda is an ingenue but Zenobia is a warrior; she must convey great strength in the role, but also tenderness in her divine duets with Arsace. Her facility with vocal coloring was matched by the force of her sound and the accuracy of her phrasing and embellishments.

Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, whom we so highly praised as Smeaton in Anna Bolena at the Metropolitan Opera, made a superb showing as Arsace. The role was written for a famous castrato of that time and we are happy to report that Ms. Mumford appeared to have made no sacrifices, anatomic or artistic. Her burnt umber timbre made her completely convincing and the involvement with which she approached the role was stunning.  She too brought out all the subtle refinements of color in her character--different colors for the lover and the warrior.  Her prolonged second act aria offered more fireworks than Independence Day.

Tenor Andrew Owens, heretofore unknown to us, handled the role of Aureliano well enough, but if we had to place him as either lover or warrior, the timbre of his voice leans more toward that of a tender lover.  Of course, the way his character is written, he is not given to raging and fuming. In any case, he produced a sweet sound!

Regular readers know by now how much we love duets and this work has a plethora of stirring duets, both confrontational and romantic. The romantic duets between Zenobia and Arsace could melt the coldest heart! And their mutual devotion in fact succeeded in melting the heart of Aureliano.

Paving the way for Verdi was Rossini's luxurious choral writing.  Members of the Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists and Apprentices sounded sensational whether they were priests praying (to the tune of Fiorello's serenade of Rosina) or shepherds and shepherdesses sheltering Arsace when he escaped from prison. Props to Chorus Master Derrick Goff.

Three young artists excelled in small roles. Tenor Sean Christensen sang beautifully as Oraspe, the Palmyran General. We have been writing about Mr. Christensen for a couple of years and are so pleased by his artistic growth.  It has been slightly over a year since we reviewed Xiaomeng Zhang Master's Degree Recital at Manhattan School of Music and it delighted us to witness his excellent performance as Licinio, a Roman tribune.

New to us were mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams who made a successful appearance as Publia, a Roman noblewoman crushing on Arsace and baritone Thomas Lynch who made a fine High Priest of Palmyra. Now that we've heard them we will surely be looking forward to future opportunities.

We also spotted some young artists in the chorus whom we have heard and enjoyed onstage in New York City.  Mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh is lovely in so many roles, and was recently heard in Beethoven's Fidelio as Marzelline, with the New Amsterdam Opera; and Alison Cheeseman made a lovely lead in Massenet's Cendrillon at Utopia Opera. How exciting to see them onstage in the chorus.

Maestro Crutchfield conducted as if he'd written the work himself which is understandable, considering his personal involvement. We could not find the names of the instrumentalists in the program but were impressed by the harpsichordist, the first violin who had an excellent solo, and some fine sounding horns.

What a wonderful gift Mr. Crutchfield gave to the opera world, discovering and refurbishing a memorable masterpiece that Rossini himself probably forgot.

(c) meche kroop

LA CLEMENZA D'IL BARBIERE

Sean Christensen, Thomas Lynch, Tamara Mumford and Georgia Jarman in Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira


Upon hearing the overture to Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira, one might be forgiven for believing that one had mistakenly wandered into a production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. At the age of 20, Rossini had already composed nearly a dozen operas and in this long-forgotten one, we hear the young master literally bursting with melodic invention and injecting romantic notions into moribund classical forms and themes.

Due to a number of problematic issues, the 1813 production amounted to a stillbirth with body parts harvested for future operas. Il Barbiere di Siviglia would not be composed for another 3 years with Aureliano's music repurposed; the autograph version of Aureliano in Palmira was lost. There was no authoritative score extant--until now, when Caramoor's Director of Opera, Maestro Will Crutchfield, accepted the invitation of Pesaro's Rossini Foundation and laboriously reconstructed a version of the score with all the original music. We are not at all surprised that this version won first place for 'Best Rediscovered Work' at the 2016 International Opera Awards in London.

None of this history means anything unless the results are both artistic and entertaining. Thanks to sensational casting decisions and Rossini's magnificent music, the nearly four-hour semi-staged production flew by. The libretto by the equally young Felice Romani relates a very simple story. Roman Emperor Aureliano does battle with Palmyran Princess Zenobia who is assisted by her loyal lover Arsace, Prince of Persia.

The Romans keep winning and Aureliano, who has fallen in love with the warrior princess Zenobia, suffers from ambivalence. He wants to win Zenobia and push Arsace out of the picture; he wants also to punish the rebellious pair; but he also admires their steadfastness and eventually forgives them in a magnanimous gesture.

An amicable solution is found. They will be free to continue their relationship and to rule if they swear allegiance to Rome. So we have neither comedy nor tragedy but an opera seria with a happy ending. There is no onstage action, just a musical exploration of the characters' feelings.

In this production it was the consummate artistry of the singers that successfully conveyed the emotional nature of the characters. An uncredited lighting designer flooded the backdrop with colors that suited the emotions being expressed. It was simple but effective.

As Zenobia, Georgia Jarman, a soprano whom we greatly enjoyed at the Santa Fe Opera as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto, handled this difficult role with ease. Gilda is an ingenue but Zenobia is a warrior; she must convey great strength in the role, but also tenderness in her divine duets with Arsace. Her facility with vocal coloring was matched by the force of her sound and the accuracy of her phrasing and embellishments.

Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, whom we so highly praised as Smeaton in Anna Bolena at the Metropolitan Opera, made a superb showing as Arsace. The role was written for a famous castrato of that time and we are happy to report that Ms. Mumford appeared to have made no sacrifices, anatomic or artistic. Her burnt umber timbre made her completely convincing and the involvement with which she approached the role was stunning.  She too brought out all the subtle refinements of color in her character--different colors for the lover and the warrior.  Her prolonged second act aria offered more fireworks than Independence Day.

Tenor Andrew Owens, heretofore unknown to us, handled the role of Aureliano well enough, but if we had to place him as either lover or warrior, the timbre of his voice leans more toward that of a tender lover.  Of course, the way his character is written, he is not given to raging and fuming. In any case, he produced a sweet sound!

Regular readers know by now how much we love duets and this work has a plethora of stirring duets, both confrontational and romantic. The romantic duets between Zenobia and Arsace could melt the coldest heart! And their mutual devotion in fact succeeded in melting the heart of Aureliano.

Paving the way for Verdi was Rossini's luxurious choral writing.  Members of the Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists and Apprentices sounded sensational whether they were priests praying (to the tune of Fiorello's serenade of Rosina) or shepherds and shepherdesses sheltering Arsace when he escaped from prison. Props to Chorus Master Derrick Goff.

Three young artists excelled in small roles. Tenor Sean Christensen sang beautifully as Oraspe, the Palmyran General. We have been writing about Mr. Christensen for a couple of years and are so pleased by his artistic growth.  It has been slightly over a year since we reviewed Xiaomeng Zhang Master's Degree Recital at Manhattan School of Music and it delighted us to witness his excellent performance as Licinio, a Roman tribune.

New to us were mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams who made a successful appearance as Publia, a Roman noblewoman crushing on Arsace and baritone Thomas Lynch who made a fine High Priest of Palmyra. Now that we've heard them we will surely be looking forward to future opportunities.

We also spotted some young artists in the chorus whom we have heard and enjoyed onstage in New York City.  Mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh is lovely in so many roles, and was recently heard in Beethoven's Fidelio as Marzelline, with the New Amsterdam Opera; and Alison Cheeseman made a lovely lead in Massenet's Cendrillon at Utopia Opera. How exciting to see them onstage in the chorus.

Maestro Crutchfield conducted as if he'd written the work himself which is understandable, considering his personal involvement. We could not find the names of the instrumentalists in the program but were impressed by the harpsichordist, the first violin who had an excellent solo, and some fine sounding horns.

What a wonderful gift Mr. Crutchfield gave to the opera world, discovering and refurbishing a memorable masterpiece that Rossini himself probably forgot.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, July 14, 2016

PARADISE INTERRUPTED

Qian Yin in Paradise Interrupted (photo by Stephanie Berger)

Last night was the opening of the Lincoln Center Festival and we were filled with anticipation for Paradise Interrupted, playing at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, a comfortable venue for productions of this kind.  Like all summer art festivals, risks are taken, rules are broken, and much debate ensues.

One's appreciation for this "art installation opera" largely depends upon how one approaches the work. The booklet that we received will occupy us for some time to come if we wish to learn more about the kunqu style of Chinese opera and the interesting instruments (dizi, sheng, and pipa) that were included in the 14-piece orchestra. The words of the director (and visual designer) Jennifer Wen Ma offer an almost exegesis-like description of her concept--the melding of Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden and a dream of Du Liniang of The Peony Pavilion, which we unfortunately have never seen.

But we have seen and enjoyed Chinese opera of every variety from the most rustic works of the provinces to the refined Beijing Opera. We have discussed with some of our Chinese singer friends how they incorporate the various tones of Mandarin into the melody of the Chinese songs they have sung on their programs. We were informed that the tones of each word are more or less ignored in deference to the overall melody.

In the case of Huang Ruo's composition of Paradise Interrupted, such was not the case and Mr. Ruo (composer of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, which we so enjoyed at the Santa Fe Opera) put a great deal of effort into composing the vocal line to respect the tones of the words. The artistry of Qian Yi gave the same respect in her execution of the vocal line.

In our opinion, a work of art needs to stand alone and to be appreciated for what it is, not for what the director tells us it is.  If there is a story, or a moral, we want to find it for ourselves. Each of us brings something to a work of art and it will resonate with us in a unique way. We personally don't want to be thinking about the underlying machinery.

On this basis, our appreciation of this work was guided by our senses and private associations. The work seemed to be about the search for something lost--a lover perhaps. Toward the end, the heroine finds love in what seems to be a geometric flower but is held captive and must escape. Is love a trap? What seems to be a rain of ashes becomes a pool of ink.  Could this be the ink a woman needs to write or paint her own destiny?

We enjoyed the performance of Qian Yi to the maximum possible extent. Her lovely voice brought out every nuance of Mr. Ruo's music and her movement, while not quite what we Westerners think of as dance, had all the grace of ballet. Her arms, as flexible as a swan's neck, spoke volumes and the delicacy of her hands expressed an entire range of emotion. Her tiny shuffling steps across the stage made her appear to be floating an inch off the ground. Gwen Welliver is credited as choreographer.

There were four male voices acting as elements of nature and when they joined in harmony toward the end, it was a very special moment. Counter-tenor John Holiday is known to us and greatly admired; he got a huge hand during the curtain call. Tenor Yi Li, baritone Joo Won Kang, and bass-baritone Ao Li were similarly excellent.

Mr. Ruo's music delighted us with its strange harmonies and textures; it was at times thoughtful, at other times vivid, at other times playful.  It was never ugly as so much contemporary music is. Maestro Wen-Pin Chien guided the  Ensemble Fire into a harmonious union of East and West.

The libretto, by Ji Chao, Jennifer Wen Ma, Huang Ruo, and Qian Yi had little to add. Perhaps the Chinese poetry lost something in translation but we enjoyed just listening and looking.

The stark set by Matthew J.Hilyard was entirely black and white--quite a departure from the vibrant colors of traditional Chinese opera. There was a bare tree that eventually bore fruit. There was a "garden" constructed of intricately cut and folded paper. 

Video projections of moving lights (meant to be fireflies) were shown in the background during one of the more interesting segments. They seemed to respond to Ms. Yi's voice. Austin Switser is credited as Video Designer with Guillermo Acevedo responsible for the Interactive Video Design.

The costuming by Melissa Kirgan and Xing-Zhen Chung-Hilyard was perfect in every respect.  Ms. Yi wore a loose white shift with a long white scarf substituting for the traditional water sleeves. The four men were in traditional garb in shades of grey making them look almost like statues of stone when they were not moving.

Toward the end, the set was illuminated with colored light and we realized how thirsty were our eyes for some color! Lighting design by Lihe Xiao was adapted by Andrew Cissna. 

The work premiered last summer at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston.  The brief 80 min. production will be repeated Friday and Saturday night.

Although we failed to grasp Ms. Ma's "concept" we were content to appreciate the work on its aural and visual terms.

(c) meche kroop




Sunday, July 10, 2016

THE DELICIOUS FRUIT OF THE LINDEMANN TREE

Dan Saunders, Michelle Bradley, Yunpeng Wang, and Kang Wang

Thanks to Mother Nature holding off on the threatened rain and thanks to the Lindemann Young Artist Program (and all the city agencies and foundations supporting the Summer Recital Series), a large audience at Jackie Robinson Park had the pleasure of hearing a thrilling recital of arias and duets last night. Our only complaint is the brevity. Not that the artists were stinting in their generosity; just that our ears were greedy for more!

The program was wisely chosen with well-known arias and duets that most people would have recognized. Even small children were held spellbound; even the page-turner got applause during the standing ovation.

Do we tire of these familiar numbers?  Oh no!  Each one is so well written that there is room for a great artist to tell us something new about the character who is assigned that particular piece of music. Although each Lindemann artist is uniquely gifted, there is a common thread among them all; they do not just "perform", but rather they inhabit the character so completely that our mind's eye supplies the sets and costumes and story leading up to the aria or duet.

However, in a generous touch that impressed us, each artist introduced her/himself and explained what was going on. In that fashion, audience members who were not familiar with the piece and who may not have understood the language were made to feel  a part of the proceedings.  No one could have felt left out. We hope those who were introduced to the joys of opera will proceed to investigate further.

Michelle Bradley not only has a thrilling soprano but she is a true diva, commanding the stage with real presence. Equally adept at the long French lines of "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's Louise and the round delicious flavor of Italian, she made good use of her stature and ability to engage; the audience was completely carried away. She has a special gift for portraying young women in love, as seen in the afore-mentioned and also in "Mercè, dilette amiche" from Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani and in "Doretta's Song" from Puccini's La Rondine. Her voice, expansive with resonant overtones, swells magnificently from a firm center. Her encore piece "He's got the whole world in his hand" brought the audience to their collective feet.

Tenor Kang Wang has the sweetness and ease that we so love in the tenor instrument but do not always hear.  He never pushes and therein lies the aural pleasure we experienced. He excels at young men in love.  "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore  was given a tender timbre; "Lunge da lei...De'miei bollenti spiriti" was sung with heartfelt enthusiasm; encore piece  "No puede ser" from Pablo Sorozábal's zarzuela La Tabernera del Puerto was colored with incredulity.  "La donna è mobile" from Verdi's Rigoletto required a bit more caddishness which we suspect is foreign to this lovely artist.

Baritone Yunpeng Wang was in top form. Every time we hear him he seems to grow in stature. He sang Figaro's "Largo al factotum" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia as if he were born to sing it; every expression and gesture served the character. He colored his voice completely differently as he portrayed Germont Père in "Di Provenza" from Verdi's La Traviata; although he was portraying a character twice his age, he channeled his own father and became completely convincing. 

Probably one of the less familiar numbers on the program was "O du mein holder Abendstern" (from Wagner's Tannhäuser), one of our very favorite baritone arias, and here given a beautiful interpretation by Mr. Wang. Accompanist Dan Saunders, fine throughout the evening, recreated the harp arpeggios on the piano and Mr. Wang's ornamentation on the word "engel" was exquisite. One senses the Italianate influence of Verdi on Richard Wagner but one can also appreciate Mr. Wang's crisp German diction and the depth at the very bottom of his register.

In Padre, Padrone, a film by the Taviani brothers, the hero hears this aria when he is a young shepherd in the mountains of Sardinia--and it changes his life. That's just the kind of aria it is. We imagined that Mr. Wang's performance changed some lives last night.

Mr. Wang's encore piece was the "Champagne Aria" from Mozart's Don Giovanni in which he got to express his impressive versatility.

Several duets were presented which permitted various combinations of voices. "Au fond du temple saint" from Georges Bizet's "Les Pêcheurs des Perles" allowed both Wang's to join voices in perfect harmony.  From Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, Ms. Bradley and Mr. Yunpeng Wang performed the realismo love scene between Nedda and Silvio. Ms. Bradley and Mr. Kang Wang created the joy of young love in "O soave fanciulla" from Puccini's La Bohème.

To have heard such a recital with so much talent onstage and all that great energy was one of the summer's greatest gifts.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, July 9, 2016

COMEDY TONIGHT!!!

Prince Orlofsky's ball--Act II of Die Fledermaus (photo by Jen Joyce Davis)

Thursday night at Prelude to Performance's La Bohème we wept and couldn't stop the tears; last night at their performance of Johann Strauss Jr.'s Die Fledermaus, we laughed, we giggled, we guffawed--along with the rest of the enchanted audience.

Comedy is more difficult than tragedy to perform; the cast must play it straight so we can laugh at their foibles.  They are funny because they take themselves seriously. Nothing is worse than a performer working at being funny. We are happy to report that the totally terrific cast of this Prelude to Performance production got everything right. We can't remember having a better time.

The libretto by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée sparkles with wit and takes delight in poking a finger in the eye of 1874 Vienna with all of its hypocrisy. The entire story is one of deception and pretense. Dr. Falke (portrayed by the excellent baritone Thaddaeus Bourne) has orchestrated an elaborate charade to get revenge on his friend Gabriel von Eisenstein (brilliantly performed by Jonathan Tetelman, whose change of fach from baritone to terrific tenor was a wise choice);  Eisenstein once abandoned his friend drunk and in full chiropterological drag. (Now that morning return home must have been some "walk of shame").

Falk has invited all the characters in his little drama to a ball given by the idiosyncratic Russian aristocrat Prince Orlofsky (in a star turn by mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu, whose voice has a gorgeously unique timbre). Orlofsky is bored by life and only wants to be amused.  Amusement he gets!  In Spades!

Eisenstein has been invited to the ball as a last gasp of wild fun before he serves a brief prison sentence. (Something akin to a bachelor party!) He hopes to flirt with some dancers there but becomes entranced by his own wife Rosalinde.

Rosalinde has been invited, and is bent on getting even with her deceiving husband. She is disguised as a Hungarian countess and if the role could have been better portrayed by anyone but stunning soprano Haley Sicking, we have yet to imagine it. Her comedic skills are prodigious and her lusty soprano shone in the Czardas--an over-the-top Viennese interpretation of Hungarian "soul". The scene of the husband trying to seduce his own wife was one of the many highlights of the evening.

Rosalinde's chambermaid Adele (charmingly sung by the sparkling soprano Shana Grossman) has also been brought to the ball under false pretenses. She thinks the invitation was from her ballerina sister but we learn that it is Falke's doing. She begs Rosalinde for the night off "to visit a sick aunt" and "borrows" a gown from her bosslady. She pretends to be an actress and entrances Frank, the prison warden who is also there under false pretenses.  He is delightfully portrayed by baritone Paul Grosvenor, pretending to be Chevalier Chagrin while Eisenstein is pretending to be the equally Gallic Marquis Renard. Another comedic highlight was witnessing the two faux Frenchmen trying to communicate in pigeon French.

There is a subplot of Rosalinde being caught in an almost compromising position by Frank in Act I when an old lover named Alfred (enacted by Spencer Hamlin whose ringing effortless tenor made him perfect for the part of a singing teacher) is having a nocturnal tête-a-tête with Rosalinde. To spare her being dishonored Alfred pretends to be her husband and goes to jail with Frank.

Another source of humor was the bumbling lawyer Dr. Blind, portrayed by Joseph Sacchi, who was literally chased out of the house by the Eisensteins. So much physical humor!

There is yet another source of hilarity--the bibulous Frosch, portrayed hilariously (and in English spoken dialogue) by Steven Mo Hanan.

With musical and dramatic values at such a high professional level, it would be a pity to miss this witty production, directed with a fine hand by Gina Lapinski.  It will be reprised at Sunday matinée with the same fine cast.

Strauss' tunes have stuck in our mind and we have been humming them all night while we write. From the first theme in the overture the melodies are completely captivating. Maestro Steven M. Crawford kept the energy flowing non-stop with much of the music being in waltz or duple time.  It was difficult to sit still! 

As if that were not sufficient, the gorgeous costumes of Charles R. Caine dazzled the eye and transported us to a glamorous time and place. Abdul Latif's choreography added to the delight. The party scene in Act II gave an opportunity for chorus members to strut their stuff, under the guidance of Chorus Master Noby Ishida.

The set was simple and seems to have served for both this production and La Bohème, neither enhancing nor detracting from the action. 

Both singing and spoken dialogue were performed in the original German and performed with clarity. Although Brett Findley's titles were excellent for non-German speakers, we confess to getting a kick out of understanding the well-enunciated German. Credit for German coaching goes to Vera Junkers. 

(c) meche kroop



Friday, July 8, 2016

OH THE INTIMACY OF IT ALL!

Chunfeng Li, José Rubio, Eric Delagrange, Jeff Byrnes, and Dángelo Diaz (photo by Jen Joyce Davis)

Regular readers will recall the high esteem in which we hold Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance which has been providing training and performing experience to young artists for the past dozen years. So let us get down to the specifics of last night's La Bohème--the anti-Zeffirelli version. We do not mean to express the slightest dissatisfaction with that version and would despair if the Met replaced it, as it has regrettably done to so many of Zeffirelli's masterpieces.  We only want to suggest that P2P has provided a different way of looking at this intimate story--a story of growing up and accepting reality.

P2P's annual performances always accomplish miracles by focusing on the interactions between the characters, who seem to grow before our very eyes. In the horseplay of Act I, Scene I (pictured above) we see a group of young men sharing a garret in Paris, unable to afford food and wood for the fire.  We do not need modern dress or contemporary slang to identify with their predicament. They joke and tease and cheer each other up. They pull a fast one on their landlord Benoit (a hilarious performance by Eric Delagrange) by getting him tipsy, drawing him into a confession of sexual escapades, and then mock-shaming him.  So puerile!  So believable! How can one not think of the young men who converge upon NYC and cram themselves into a tiny space, just for the stimulation of living here! 

Director Ian Campbell did not miss a single trick in illuminating the personalities of the frustrated writer Rodolfo (Dángelo Diaz), the equally frustrated painter Marcello (Jeff Byrnes), the unshaven philosopher Colline (Chunfeng Li) and the musician Schaunard (José Rubio) who seems to be the provider of sustenance.  

When Schaunard is relating the amusing story of how he earned money to bring home the bacon, no one pays attention because they are only interested in stuffing their famished mouths. Joking about saintliness and placing a large round platter behind the head to look like a halo in a religious painting was another clever touch. Every bit of Puccini's well-considered orchestration was employed to support the onstage action.

When Mimi (Jessica Sandidge) enters to get a light for her candle, the entire mood changes and the frisky tunes turn lyrical. Anyone who has had the experience of meeting a potential lover will recognize the verisimilitude of this scene in which Rodolfo sings about himself in boastful terms and Mimi, visibly impressed, searches modestly for something to relate about her own life, and gradually opens up emotionally and vocally.
Eric Delagrange, Claire Coolen, and Jeff Byrnes (photo by Jen Joyce Davis)

In Act II, the wealthy fop Alcindoro (Mr. Delagrange, revealing significant versatility) is outraged by the behavior of Musetta.  We have never witnessed a production that so cleverly used Puccini's music.  Three admirers of Musetta successively present her with roses (yellow, of course) just before her big aria--all set up by Puccini's score and realized by Mr. Campbell.  

She inches her chair ever closer to the man she really loves (Marcello), leaving poor Alcindoro sitting at the table by himself. This "relationship" makes one think of the wealthy older men and the nubile young women who meet on the website "Seeking Arrangements". Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies. Everything old is new again.

Even Mimi's character is revealed a bit more in this scene as she flirts with a gendarme--and Rodolfo's jealousy emerges.  He has just bought Mimi a bonnet and now that he has invested in her he needs to protect his investment. 

The rowdy children and their put-upon mothers were well-portrayed as the children begged for toys from Parpignol (portrayed by Sergio Stefani).

In Act III, the scene opens at the city gates with a passive-aggressive Sergeant (a most believable Thomas Petrushka) who is going to take his sweet time drinking his coffee while the tradespeople are kept waiting in the cold. Does this not remind us of civil servants of today?

Mimi has come to find Marcello to get some advice. Rodolfo's affections have cooled. Marcello confronts him and, like any young man of today, he first blames Mimi for being a flirt, but finally owns up to his deepest fear-- she is terribly sick and he cannot even express the fear that she will die and leave him.

Mimi is hidden in the shadows eavesdropping and one can witness her dawning realization of the extent of her illness. We get to see her inner strength of character. We feel the grief of young people whose lives will be terminated before they have time to have lived them.  This act was a masterpiece of direction and acting.
Dángelo Diaz and Jessica Sandidge (photo by Jen Joyce Davis)

In Act IV, Rodolfo and Marcello pretend to each other that they don't care about their lost loves but their private thoughts are revealed both musically and lyrically. Who cannot relate to these attempts to deny loss! We get to see Musetta's noble character that underlies her superficial histrionics.

When Colline clutches the overcoat he will pawn we know he is bidding farewell to far more than a piece of clothing.  Can we all remember a time when we suffered a nearly unbearable loss and just knew that our lives would never ever be the same?

This group of six young people will be reduced to five. In some ways, their lives will be diminished but in other ways they will have grown up.  The final tableau when, one by one, they realize that Mimi has died was a stark one and perfectly matched Puccini's tragic music.

We have dealt at such length with the characters themselves because that is what struck us most. A sterling production like this one causes us to relate to people of other times and places. P2P's productions are always authentic. Mr. Campbell's direction served the libretto of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. There was no pandering to "modern audiences".  There was no self-serving egotism.
  
But let us not neglect the musical and production values which underlay the excellence of the drama. The singing was of the highest order and always supported the characterization. Ms. Sandidge's lovely soprano was appropriately colored between moments of joy and moments of anxiety and pain.  It was a knockout performance.

Another knockout performance was that of Ms. Coolen whose robust soprano sailed over the orchestration and was accompanied by all the right gestures of a woman accustomed to manipulating men. Her delivery of "Musetta's waltz" had an astonishing diminuendo that was spun out beautifully for a time in which we held our breath!

Mr. Diaz' tenor has a wonderful timbre and he established good chemistry with Ms. Sandige. Like many young tenors, he will have to learn not to push for his high notes but rather to work on floating them. 

Mr. Byrnes uses his baritone instrument well and impressed us with his sincerity and musicality.
We have nothing but admiration for the way Mr. Li's bass resonated in his "Vecchia Zimarra" and for Mr. Rubio's recounting of the tale of the parrot and the poisoned parsley.

Mr. Delagrange delighted and Mr. Petrushka evoked some knowing nods.

Maestro Willie Anthony Waters led his orchestra with clarity of line but occasionally overwhelmed the singers. There were times when we wanted him to just lighten up.

Noby Ishida provided for a very well trained chorus.

Charles R. Caine's costume designs were just about perfect.

April Joy Vester's set utilized something resembling large shoji screens as background which served well as garret windows but were just confusing in the Café Momus scene as well as the scene taking place at the city gates. However, it did allow for short intermissions! The furniture in the garret was appropriately minimal.

Joshua Rose's lighting was effective, indicating when the fire in the stove was burning hot or dying down.

Italian diction was excellent, with much credit to Italian coach Sergio Stefani. We never noticed when the titles vanished for we-don't-know-how-long. Every word was crystal clear.

This most remarkable success came out of six weeks of intense work in every aspect of performance and the establishment of a true ensemble feel. All this training is provided at no cost to those accepted into the program; and this year, for the first time, the generosity of patrons permitted stipends for the performers. 

There will be another performance with this same wonderful cast on Saturday night. And on Friday night and Sunday matinée, other members of this program will perform Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus. We can scarcely contain our excitement.

(c) meche kroop



Monday, June 27, 2016

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA

Elizabeth Caballero, Kevin Thompson, Lisa Chavez, Luis Ledesma, and Sarah Beckham-Turner on board The Eldorado (Photo by Sarah Shatz)

In 1985, the famous Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez published his novel Love in the Time of Cholera, a brilliant work of magic realism, the themes of which seem to have influenced Daniel Catán's striking opera Florencia en el Amazonas. The opera, with libretto by Catán's student Marcela Fuentes-Berain, was the first Spanish language opera to be commissioned by a major United States opera company; indeed it was a co-commission by the Houston Grand Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, and the Seattle Opera; it premiered in 1996 and it took twenty years to get to New York!

As our readers may have noticed, we love the sound of the Spanish language which "sings" as well as Italian. We can scarcely believe that we were enthralled by a contemporary work but indeed we were. The music is lush and the orchestration lavish, not very far removed from Puccini.  Under the baton of Maestro Dean Williamson, the dense orchestration was given clarity and definition. New York City Opera presented it at the Rose Theater last weekend.

There was not a weak leak in the vocal department nor was there a single dramatic lapse. As the eponymous Florencia, soprano Elizabeth Caballero sang her heart out and was totally believable as a diva traveling incognito to the opera house in Manaus, where she hoped to reconnect with the lost love of her youth, not knowing whether he was dead or alive.

Also on board, for further romantic interest (we eschew modern opera when it is political--we want our operas to be about love) were two couples. Soprano Sarah Beckham-Turner was completely convincing as the young woman who has been taking notes for two years for a book she hopes to write about Florencia. Her focused instrument sailed over the orchestration.

Her potential love interest, the young nephew of the captain, is named Arcadio. He is vaguely unhappy with the tedium of shipboard life and longs to be free to explore the world. Terrific tenor Won Whi Choi inhabited this character perfectly and sympathetically.

In contrast with this young couple who are facing their fears of falling in love and relinquishing their independence, there is a second middle-aged couple suffering from the curdling of their love.  Paula (marvelous mezzo Lisa Chavez) and Alvaro (the gifted Mexican baritone Luis Ledesma) are painfully embattled, bickering over everything. It is only when he is washed overboard during a storm that she realizes that pride has overwhelmed her love for him.

Unlike the dissatisfied Arcadio, the captain of the Eldorado, strongly sung and played by bass Kevin Thompson, is thoroughly content with his lot in life, plying the waters of the Amazon. He represents stability and the world of reality.

The mystical world is represented by bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos, in the role of Riolobo (river wolf). His singing was superb but he was visually more believable as the sturdy first mate than as a spiritual being. His appearance as a butterfly was, well, kinda strange.

The last character of the opera was not sung.  It was the Amazon itself and well represented by the orchestra.  It gives life and it takes life.  The orchestra did a fine job of creating a wilderness of birdsong and waters that can be peaceful or churning. The latter was abetted by the agile dancers of Ballet Hispanico's BHdos who tumbled artistically in front of and below the stage proper.

This production originated from Nashville Opera, conceived by John Hoomes, who directed, with Barry Steele (Video and Lighting Designer) and Cara Schneider (Set Designer); it was bursting with creativity. Contributing enormously to its success were the effective rear projections; it made us feel as if we too were traveling on the riverboat with scenery passing by.  The shallow stage of the Rose Theater served well as the deck of the boat with ropes strung across and a captain's wheel.

When Florencia is alone in her cabin during the storm, we experienced the claustrophobia as well. Although magic realism lends itself more to the medium of the novel, the projections provided sufficient visual metaphors to realize the intentions of the story.  At the end, Florencia is transformed into a butterfly joining her beloved Cristóbal, a butterfly collector.

Ildikó Debreczeni's costumes were appropriate to the early 20th c. and quite lovely.

Some vocal highlights included not only Ms. Caballero's moving arias but the duets between Ms. Beckham-Turner and Mr. Choi. The point of the story seems to be that Florencia sacrificed her love for the sake of fame but came to realize that this love was the wellspring of her success. Hopefully, Rosalba and Arcadio will allow their love to blossom and find sustenance therefrom.

If you have read this far, we would like to share with you a linguistic point that you might have missed if you are not Spanish speaking.  Just as the boat approaches Manaus, the passengers cannot disembark for Florencia's recital because the city has been stricken by the fatal cholera.  The word "cólera" represents not just a disease but also means "passion, ire, anger". We believe that the librettist, as well as García Márquez, was making a point about love that endures for decades.  Please let us know what you think.

(c) meche kroop