Charles Gray, Jennifer Zamorano, Allegra Durante, Hannah Madeleine Goodman, and David Serero
Opera fanatics might have gotten their knickers in a twist at last night's production of Mozart's Nozze di Figaro but everyone else, ourself included, had a grand time. Gone were the lengthy intermissions, missing were a few characters, and lengthy recitativi were replaced by English dialogue that advanced the action. We are happy to report that most of the major arias were retained, giving us the opportunity to appreciate some fine singing.
This adaptation was written and directed by baritone David Serero, a larger-than-life character with a larger-than-life personality. Mr. Serero himself took on the part of Figaro and played to the (nonexistent) balcony. If we had been at the Met, his voice would have reached the Family Circle and his acting would have successfully limned his character to the audience thereof.
Mr. Serero likes to put his own spin on things and the dialogue he wrote was peppered with Yiddish expressions. A mysterious figure appeared from the wings at one point, accompanied by a theme from the film The Godfather. This presence represented the sneaky Don Basilio; a photo of this character (actually Mr. Serero with a mobster accent and mafioso costume) can be seen in the carousel of photos on our Facebook page (called Voce di Meche). At another point, Charles Gray's Count Almaviva appeared dressed as Darth Vader, accompanied by appropriate music. That's one way to threaten a wife!
At another point Mr. Serero interpolated the "Figaro Aria" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Forget the "fourth wall". Mr. Serero does everything he can to engage the audience and they all adore him; they even sang along at his bidding. A Tom and Jerry cartoon of this aria was projected and reminded us of our very earliest exposure to opera.
If this sounds like your cup of borscht, we urge you to go and have a good time. Make sure you bring an opera "noobie". The one we invited had a swell time. Not only will you have a great time but you will hear some fine voices.
As the sprightly Susanna, we heard Hannah Madeleine Goodman who was completely convincing as the practical problem-solver, a fine match for her Figaro. She deftly illustrated quite different responses to her beloved fiancé and toward the importuning Count. In what would have been Act IV, her "Deh vieni, non tardar" was beautifully rendered and quite moving, by virtue of some exquisite dynamics.
As the neglected Countess Almaviva, Jennifer Zamorano made her entrance in sunglasses and shopping bags. It was easy to accept her as a woman of dignity, reduced to seeking help from her servant Susanna. She shone in both arias--"Porgi amor" and "Dove sono", eliciting compassion in the midst of all that hilarity. Her instrument has a lovely vibrato and opens up beautifully in the upper register.
Equally convincing was the Cherubino of Allegra Durante who did justice to both of her arias "Non so piu" and "Voi che sapete". The scene in which the Countess and Susanna dress Cherubino up as a girl wound up on the cutting room floor, along with Marcellina, Dr. Bartolo, and Barbarina. It seems to us to be quite a challenge to retain the thread of the story whilst eliminating all the subplots--but it worked just fine.
As Almaviva, Charles Gray also evinced a different relationship with Susanna and with his wife. He sported a cockeyed white perriwig and satin coat. It was interesting that the male characters were in period dress whilst the female characters were in contemporary attire. Notes to the Count were handled by text with appropriate sound effects, bringing this costume drama right into the 21st c. and adding to the general merriment.
There was no set to speak of but projections sufficed to establish the setting.
The piano score was well played by composer Felix Jarrar who switched readily from Mozart to cinematic score.
Once more, Mr. Serero has done his part in bringing opera to new audiences with his creative slant. This production was held in the comfortable theater of the Center for Jewish History and was presented by The American Sephardi Federation which generously supports these works. He shared with the audience information about Lorenzo Da Ponte, who was Jewish. He related how Da Ponte brought opera to New York City--a tale which was well told by Divaria Productions which we reviewed in May of 2018; it can be read at this link if you are interested. http://www.vocedimeche.reviews/2018/05/don-giovanni-in-new-york.html
There will be a couple additional performances and we hope you will take advantage of the opportunity for some hearty laughter.
We are looking forward to the production of Anne, a musical about Anne Frank which will take place in September.
Elisabeth Harris as Prince Orlofsky and Chorus in Act II of Die Fledermaus
We never tire of Johann Strauss II's comic operetta Die Fledermaus. The witty libretto by Karl Haffner and Richarde Genée pokes a finger in the eye of late 19th c. Vienna with all its hypocrisy, class consciousness, and upper-class frivolity. The composer's music is equally witty and the score is well knit from overture to finale with glorious melodies tumbling out one after another--danceable waltzes and duple meter ones as well. Conductor Valéry Ryvkin and his excellent orchestra didn't miss a beat or a bubble in this champagne score.
Last night's production by Prelude to Performance was somewhat simplified as compared with the lavish one of 2016 with evening dress substituted for period costumes and projections standing in for elaborate sets. Nonetheless, the evening glittered by virtue of some outstanding performances.
If you don't know the story, dear reader, please enter Die Fledermaus in the search bar; we have told the story too many times to repeat it--once for Prelude to Performance and once for Amore Opera (both outstanding iterations.)
We have written every summer about Prelude to Performance which is celebrating 15 years of training young artists in many areas of performance, most notably that of character interpretation. We have never seen/heard anyone in one of their performances that failed to fully inhabit their character and bring it to vivid life. That is thanks to input from Artistic Director Martina Arroyo, the legendary soprano who has devoted her post-performance years to developing the talents of the up and coming young singers in her program.
Take, for example, soprano Lisa Faieta who gave us a complex and believable Rosalinde. Whether fighting off the attentions of Alfred (the aptly named Congju Song whose prodigious talent is new to us), soothing her about-to-be-jailed husband, rejecting the pleas of her maid Adele, or affecting the identity of an Hungarian Countess. As a matter of fact, it is in the latter guise that we were best able to appreciate her skills. Voice and gesture joined in this convincing portrayal and we were dazzled by a stunning messa di voce in"Klänge der Heimat". Two years have passed since we heard Ms. Faieta with IVAI; her voice has developed wondrously.
Soprano Yejin Lee took the role of Adele and impressed us with her sprightly portrayal and dazzling coloratura. We had only seen her briefly before as one of the nymphs (Echo, we believe) in Ariadne auf Naxos; it was great to see more of her. As Rosalinde's maid she went over the top in her wheedling efforts to get the night off. In Act II, wearing Rosalinde's gown, she pretended to be the actress "Olga" and audaciously confronted Eisenstein when he recognized her. She absolutely scored in her "Adele's laughing aria". In Act III as she tried to convince Falke of her acting potential, we thought she could have been more convincing. That's the right place for some over-acting.
Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Harris made an excellent Prince Orlofsky, emphasizing his bizarre personality and his ennui. Her arias were marvelously delivered. We always love "Chac'un a son goût" and the "Champagne song" in which the excellent chorus joins in. We could scarcely believe Ms. Harris' versatility, having reviewed her in several roles at Manhattan School of Music. What a contrast between Orlofsky and the cold-hearted Aunt Hannah in Tobias Picker's Emmeline!
As Eisenstein, baritone Jimin Park was lovable even when cheating on his wife (or so he thought). On his way to a brief jail sentence, he was lured to attend Prince Orlofsky's party. His dissembling with his wife Rosalinde and again at the party where he pretended to be Marquis Renard, established his character. His embarrassment when he sees Adele there was hilarious, as was his pidgin French with Frank the jailor who was posing as Chevalier Chagrin (neither man knew a word of French beyond "merci"), not to mention his flirtation with his own wife. All this comedy was accompanied by some fine singing that exhibited a tenorial quality in the upper register. We want to hear more of this young artist.
In the role of the jailer Frank, we heard baritone Yichen Xue, whom we heard two years ago singing "Scintille diamant" at Manhattan School of Music. We noted his excellent performance then and were glad to hear how his instrument has expanded. The scene in Act I in which he arrives to take Eisenstein to jail and finds Albert instead was a very funny one, as Rosalinde must pretend that Albert is her husband to preserve her reputation. He was quite funny again in Act II, pretending to be French.
The mastermind of this elaborate plot is Falke, so well sung by baritone Michael Parham, possessor of a fine instrument and elegant stage bearing--so elegant that we can just imagine the humiliation Falke must have experienced from Eisenstein's prior prank (the backstory) and his delight in the revenge.
Tenor Esteban Jose Zuniga, had a fine time and a funny one in the role of Dr. Blind, confirming everyone's worst expectations of the legal profession.
Stage Director Alan Fischer did a fine job of keeping the action moving along at a galloping clip. We could not find credit for the direction of the chorus but they were excellent. Vera Junkers as language coach made sure that everyone's German was crisp and clear.
One measure of the success of this production is that the opera "newbie" we brought had a fine time. Wasn't this operetta the perfect introduction?
We should also mention that during Act II, the action was suspended for performances by some famous singers who appeared as guests introduced by WQXR's Robert Sherman. We particularly enjoyed the performance of soprano Nicole Haslett in Nanetta's aria, a role she performed with Prelude to Performance in 2012 and reprised last night! She got our attention then and we reviewed her 4 years ago as a George London competition winner. But what really stood out for us was her performance as Chloe in Offenbach's Daphnis and Chloe.
That was the night we fell in love with Heartbeat Opera. Both Ms. Haslett and Heartbeat Opera are thriving, and to bring things full circle, she will be performing with them again next season in Der Freischutz. Nothing could keep us away!
Also on hand were soprano Mariana Zvetkova who sang "Io son l'umile ancella" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, soprano Harolyn Blackwell who sang "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, and tenor Noah Stewart who performed "Donna non vidi mai" from Puccini's Manon Lescaut.
Under the loving leadership of Artistic Director Judith Fredricks, the delightful singers of Opera New York have taken opera out of the concert hall and into the places where people eat and drink. One might think this would be noisy or distracting but that is not the case. People became very quiet until each number ended and then they burst into enthusiastic applause.
The pleasant and welcoming venue was Mont Blanc 54, a Swiss restaurant on West 54th St. We indulge in fondue only during the winter but the room was filled with people dipping bread into cauldrons of bubbling cheese or enjoying Veal Zurichoise. We can however attest to the quality of the french fries, of which we ate way to many!
Last night, the cast abandoned the world of opera for that delightful hybrid of opera and Broadway musical theater--operetta. Ms. Fredricks herself narrated the evening with interesting tidbits about the composers and the singers who popularized their work. The way it seems to us is that operetta began in Europe as light entertainment and was brought to the USA by composers who left their homeland for the New World and brought their music with them. This would seem to have evolved into "The Golden Age" of Broadway.
We are ardent fans of The Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live! which presents several Victor Herbert operas each year, so his music is familiar to us. Soprano Elena Heimur, a regular cast member of Opera New York, had a wonderful time singing the "Italian Street Song" with a lot of "zing-zing". This song was the hit tune of Herbert's 1910 Naughty Marietta. Ms. Heimur was joined by the male ensemble, comprising Walter Hartman, Scott O'Brien, Carlos Correa, and Robert Montgomery.
Heartthrob baritone Roberto Borgatti, another regular, had the audience members swooning with Sigmund Romberg's "One Alone" from the hokey operetta The Desert Song. Today we find these stories silly but a century ago they provided an escape from the upheavals of The Great War.
Herbert's Student Prince was given a lot of stage time, enough to grasp the familiar plot of an aristocrat courting a commoner. Soprano Tate Chu was lively as the barmaid serving steins of beer to the Ensemble and lovely as the love object of tenorrific Edgar Jaramillo (another regular) who leaned into the romance with gusto and open-throated singing.
The clever lyrics of "Every Day is Ladies' Day with Me" from Herbert's The Red Mill was performed by veteran bass Walter Hartman. We have seen the entire operetta, thanks to VHRPL! and cherished the opportunity to once again giggle along with the funny rhymes.
Who doesn't love The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar! The title role was sung by Ms. Heimur and we were dumbstruck at one point in "Vilja" when she leapt to a delicately floated high note and launched into a magnificent crescendo. She was accompanied by the ensemble. Her lover Danilo was persuasively performed by Mr. Borgatti who created a dapper "creature of the night" in the winning song "Maxime's", in which he tells of the many ladies of the nightclub --Frou Frou, and LuLu, or something like that.
But the number we all wait for is "The Merry Widow Waltz", which Mr. Borgatti sang in German and Ms. Heimur in English. Frankly, we prefer the German. The pair got to show off their ballroom skills in a charming waltz.
Rudolf Friml's Rose-marie is so silly that one couldn't play "Indian Love Call" straight and so Ms. Heimur and Mr. Jaramillo camped it up and the audience loved it.
There was also a surprise! As a teaser for the upcoming concert of Disney songs, soprano Zoë Lowenbein sang a song from The Little Mermaid. Although we prefer Dvorak's Russalka, we were quite happy to hear the charming Ms. Lowenbein's winning performance.
Accompaniment was provided by Michael Pilafian, another Opera New York regular. It seemed as if the artists enjoyed themselves as much as the audience!
Felix Jarrar, Scott Bromschwig, Zach Elmassian, Tatianna Overtone, Inbal Karmi Milliger, Betsy Diaz, and Mario Arevalo
Tenor Mario Arevalo has a heart as big as his voice. Not only does he maintain an international singing career but he finds time to run Una Voz Un Mundo, an arts initiative which he founded; its mission is to support humanitarian aid, arts advocacy, and the celebration of cultural diversity. Last night at St. John's in the Village, he presented a concert to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riot. This celebratory concert was called This is Us.
With a concept not very different from that of the recently reviewed Manning the Canon, composers of confirmed or suspected homosexuality were featured. Many of the songs were written about "the love that dare not speak its name" in disguised form. What was once hidden and repressed is now openly celebrated--which is all to the good.
We were quite taken with Cuban-American soprano Betsy Diaz, one of those big beautiful women with big beautiful voices. Let's call them BBWWBBV since it goes along with the recent expansion of LGB into LGBTQIA. Ms. Diaz sings with power and subtlety, an unusual combination. She gave an exciting rendering of Richard Strauss' "Morgen" with sizable tone and fine phrasing.
Just as exciting and more accessible was "I Could Have Danced All Night" from Frederick Loew's My Fair Lady. We were less enthralled by "Maria la O" by Ernesto Lecuona, but only because, as many times as we have seen it, we have been unable to relate to the telling of the tale. Lecuona shared a Cuban heritage with the singer.
Bass-baritone Zach Elmassian also has an exciting voice and his performance of "I Am What I Am" from Jerry Herman's La Cage aux Folles, began with parlando and opened up to an intense statement completely in line with Pride Week. The lyrics are as clever as they are meaningful.
He invested Lecuona's "Siboney" with as much sabor as a gringo could muster and we enjoyed the passion as much as the syncopated rhythm.
Mr. Arevalo performed Reynaldo Hahn's much treasured mélodie "L'Heure Exquise"with fine French phrasing and variety of dynamics. But he really got his groove on with Juan Gabriel's "Costumbre" the repetitive lyrics of which came across as a "popular" song, a category which we consider to be an "art song" when sung well without amplification.
Soprano Tatianna Overtone lost us in the first half of the program by attempting to perform Schubert's gorgeous "Ganymed" holding the score. This, as we have pointed out many times, not only restricts gesture but also impairs connection with the audience. However, she redeemed herself in the second half of the program with a stunning delivery of Ethel Smyth's "What if I Were Young Again" with good English diction and enough resonance to live up to her surname.
By the same token, mezzo-soprano Inbal Karmi Milliger lost us by attempting "The Dreamer" from Felix Jarrar's song cycle Eclipse. Her performance was impaired by being "on the book" and lacked involvement and energy. We liked the music and Brittany Goodwin's lyrics a lot, but found our attention drifting to Mr. Jarrar who was the excellent pianist for the evening. We were particularly puzzled by this wan delivery, especially since we are under the impression that she performed the premiere of the work. Such an honor would seem to require committing the work to memory!
What struck us was how excellently she performed George Gershwin's "The Lorelei". She had a wonderful time with the clever lyrics of this racy song, using her face and body along with her voice. We want to see her give the same involvement to Jarrar's work!
Baritone Scott Bromschwig also had an opportunity to sing one of Jarrar's compositions "A Nocturne in Ulster County", from a very personal song cycle--The Ulster County Songbook, for which he wrote the lyrics himself. In this cycle, Jarrar moves from a position of turmoil and pain to one of peace and acceptance in the final song "I One of Many" which was given a fine performance by Mr. Arevalo.
Mr. Bromschwig demonstrated a good command of Russian in Onegin's aria in which he returns Tatiana's letter. This was very welcome to our ears since we just heard and reviewed EugeneOnegin last night at the Eurasia Festival. Tchaikovsky's romanticism is always a gift to our ears.
We also got to hear Mr. Jarrar perform a solo piano work, the evocative "Jeux d'eau" by Maurice Ravel.
The evening ended with the entire ensemble joining forces for "Seasons of Love" from Jonathan Larson's Rent.
Maestro Aza Sydykov, Anastasia Sidorova, Antonina Chehovska, Gustavo Feulien, and Marc Verzatt
After three satisfying evenings at the Eurasia Festival, we are feeling very involved and reluctant to see the festival end. Last night's Eugene (Evgeny) Onegin was the capstone of the festival and left us in a state of bliss. Most operas are entertaining; occasionally one captures our intellectual curiosity.
As soon as the artists were greeted and congratulated on their superlative performances, we rushed home to read more about Pushkin's 1833 verse novel, originally published in serial form; we read about Tchaikovky's 1879 adaptation for the opera stage; we read about Vladimir Nabokov's 1964 translation (used last night for the narration) which placed preservation of meaning over preservation of Pushkin's very specific rhyming and scanning scheme; we read about John Cranko's adaptation of the story for The Stuttgart Ballet in 1965.
We also learned some interesting points about dueling in 19th c. Russia and the fact that Lensky's "second" failed in his role by never offering Onegin the opportunity to apologize and thereby avoid the duel. We also learned that Lensky was only 18 years old which explains his impulsivity in challenging Onegin and also the immaturity of Olga in flirting with Onegin--a circumstance which provoked Lensky's jealousy and the challenge.
It was Cranko's ballet that first introduced us to the tragic story of a spoiled dandy, world-weary at age 25, who dismisses a provincial lass; later he realizes his loss when he meets her as the worldly center of Moscow society, and (alas!) married to the elderly Prince Gremin.
When we grew up we found opera more compelling than ballet and readily fell for the opera in its several iterations at The Metropolitan Opera. Last night we gained a new appreciation of the work due to a number of factors. The brilliance of the singing we will get to in a bit, but first we want to tell you about the success of this abridged semi-staged concert version. Pianist and Diction Coach Vera Danchenko-Stern adapted the script directly from Nabokov's translation; the script was read by Stage Director Marc Verzatt, who gave voice to each character and also read Nabokov's description of the action.
The interaction focused on the four main characters with all others eliminated. We confess that we missed the charming opening scene with Madame Larina reminiscing with Filippyevna about their youth and the singing of the serfs--but not for long because we were plunged into the relationship between Tatiana (the luminous soprano Antonina Chehovska) and her younger sister Olga (the arresting mezzo Anastasia Sidorova).
The two women, without benefit of costumes and scenery, conveyed the warmth between the two sisters by means of their tender harmonies. The acting was flawless with Olga's playful nature and Tatiana's reserved aspect accurately limned. The portrayal of their contrasting temperaments is crucial to the story.
When Lensky (terrific tenor Fanyong Du) arrives at the Larin estate he professes his love for Olga, his childhood sweetheart, in an ardent declaration which involved an exquisite messa di voce. Olga joins in and their relationship, as expressed in Tchaikovsky's music, seems solid.
Lensky's "city-mouse" friend Onegin (the compelling baritone Gustavo Feulien) has a profound effect on Tatiana, who falls for him instantly. The lengthy "letter scene" which followed was so magnificently sung and acted by Ms. Chehovska that we realized the universality of youthful impetuosity. Ms. Chehovska went through a panoply of emotions and colored her voice to suit. Mr. Verzatt's direction amplified the emotions.
The pain of Onegin's rejection (which was actually truthful and not unkind) we felt a hundred times over. By focusing on the interaction of the characters, this performance affected us more than ever before.
Lensky's scene and aria "Kuda, kuda" we've heard countless times before; from Mr. Du's performance we grew in appreciation of the youth's range of emotions. Too much has happened too fast and he is in far deeper than he intended. He says he accepts his fate but Mr. Du showed us the underlying pain and panic. He sings of his love for Olga but he is also singing some guilt-inducing words which spring from his anger.
In the duel scene, Tchaikovsky's music has the two men singing different text on different vocal lines up to a point where they come together. The tension in the music is almost unbearable.
Onegin's arioso is powerful and he is an almost irresistible force confronting Tatiana's immovable object. Like most 19th c. women, she puts duty above love. Tchaikovsky's music shows us by the gorgeous harmonies that she still loves Onegin.
One feature that made this adaptation work was the successful arrangement of the score for a chamber orchestra which Maestro Sydykov conducted with precision and a real feel for the romantic line. Perhaps because of the condensation, we came to realize the unity of the score. We asked Maestro Sydykov who performed the reduction of the score and he brushed it off with undue modesty, claiming that Tchaikovsky's music made it easy--only the loudest instruments like the trumpet and trombone were eliminated. Uh, really???
The musicians played as excellently as the singers sang. Much of the melody was carried by pianist Vladimir Rumyantsev, with significant contribution from violinist Vartan Mayliyantz whom we've enjoyed throughout the festival; from the marvelous clarinetist Bakhtiyar Dooranov whom we've also admired; and similarly from flutist Eliza Salibaeva. Raul Rodriguez was new to us but his French Horn provided some interpolated motifs that added hugely to the texture.
As far as the singers go, we are no stranger to Ms. Chehovska's artistry which we have reviewed about seven times. For details, dear reader, enter her name in the search bar and you will learn how impressed we have been with her artistry for the past four years. We have heard her sing in Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Italian, and French--all with the same attention to depth of interpretation, and vocal artistry. We have been there at most of the competitions that she's won. We have heard the "letter scene" a few times over the past few years and she just keeps getting deeper into the character.
Mr. Du is just "tenorrific" and reviewed as many times as Ms. Chehovska, mostly as he won competitions. It is an interesting coincidence that we wrote about the two of them singing a duet from Puccini's La Bohême. He has such a perfect control of dynamics that it seems that the term "messa di voce" was invented just for him!
The other two singers are new to us but impressed us very favorably. Mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova has one of those marvelous mezzo instruments that have a distinctively mezzo sound; many singers call themselves mezzos because they can handle the range but they don't have that very special sound. Add to this her fine phrasing and convincing dramatic skills and you will know why we look forward to hearing her again.
Finally, baritone Gustavo Feulien won us over with his rich and powerful sound and acting chops. We are quite sure we will hear him again soon as well. He was so convincing that we actually felt sorry for Onegin at the end.
We would never have predicted that an abridged concert version of an opera could be so affecting. Significantly, all four singers had the role securely under their respective belts, so to speak. The absence of music stands and scores goes a long way toward allowing singers the freedom to act their character.
And so the Eurasia Festival has come to an end with promises to return next year. Maestro Sydykov is not only a conductor but a concert pianist and vocal coach as well as President of the Kyrgyz American Foundation which sponsors the Festival. The mission of this foundation is to promote the multicultural heritage of Eurasia in the USA. The support of The Open Society Foundations (founded in 1993 by George Soros) has been instrumental in fostering democracy, justice, and human rights. We thank them from the bottom of our heart for supporting this festival.
Efraín Solis, Matt Boehler, Daniel McGrew, and Scott Murphree
In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of The Stonewall Riots, the wildly entertaining concert Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life was revived ten years after its debut at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center. Just as we feel a little bit Irish on St. Paddy's Day, and a little bit Italian on Columbus Day, we feel a little bit "queer" this month.
It surely wasn't necessary to be a member of the tribe to appreciate the program. In the eloquent words of Steven Blier, taken from his copious and fascinating program notes, it is "a rainbow-colored celebration of wit, beauty, emotion, and forthright honesty". The concert is a co-production of Mr. Blier, Artistic Director of New York Festival of Song, and Jesse Blumberg, Artistic Director of Five Boroughs Music Festival--both champions in the world of song.
And what songs we heard! Sets of well-curated songs about gay life were interspersed with songs by gay composers. The songs were universal in appeal; we all have a wide palette of feelings about love and sex, longing and disappointment, closeness and distance.
Our favorites ranged the gamut, from hilarious cabaret songs to serious 19th c. compositions. Let us describe a few. As readers may have predicted, for our ears Schubert always comes out on top. The four members of the cast joined in exquisite harmony for Schubert's "Der Gondelfahrer", a setting of text by Johann Mayrhofer with whom the composer shared a bed for a couple of years. The lyrics scan and rhyme just the way we like and the melody took its cue from the text.
Walking on the wilder side, we loved the cabaret song "An Admission" by Joseph Thalken with funny and tender lyrics by Mark Campbell whose libretto for The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs enchanted us so at Santa Fe Opera. The subject was the disappointment felt when one's prospective bedmate undresses and appears in all his naked inglorious glory. We are quite sure that everyone could relate to that one! Tenor Scott Murphree got all the feelings across, including the resolution at the end.
Drag offers so many opportunities for humor and John Wallowitch's cabaret song "Bruce" gave bass Matt Boehler an opportunity to use his loose-limbed frame, mobile face, and deeply resonant voice to portray a man criticizing Bruce's over-the-top style of dressing. The rhymes were beyond clever and Mr. Boehler did a swell job of getting the song across.
On the serious end of the spectrum, baritone Efraín Solis imbued Manuel de Falla's "Polo" with the requisite pain and just enough Latin sabor. Mr.Blier's insistent piano added to the drama.
There are songs that were written about a man and a woman that can be readily co-opted and placed firmly in the gay corner. Perhaps at the top of the list is Cy Coleman's "Tennis Duet" from City of Angels, for which David Zippel wrote the incredibly clever lyrics, filled with double entendres. Tenors David McGrew and Mr. Murphree made a marvelously flirtatious couple, sparring wittily with tennis rackets and provocative dialogue.
The program ended with Cole Porter's "You're the Top" in which the repetitive phrase "Baby, I'm the bottom you're the top" took on new meaning and was all the funnier for being played mostly straight by the ensemble. Porter's rhymes are hilarious and it was worthwhile to search out the lyrics to catch a few words and references we missed.
The encore was sensational--"My Guy", written by Smokey Robinson (of The Miracles). In true Motown fashion, there was plenty of extravagant synchronized gesture and terrific harmonies.
We are sure that every person in that room had their own favorites. Those were ours. We were there when the show had its debut at the same LGBT Community Center ten years ago and were happy to enjoy its warmth and wit once again. Indeed it remains a source of PRIDE for its creators and its cast.
Eurasia Festival Opening Night Gala at Merkin Hall
They came from Kyrgyzstan. They came from The Republic of Georgia. They came from the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Russia, China, South Korea, and the United States of America. In the words of Aza Sydykov, it was "a triumph of art over politics". As described by pianist Jonathan Levin, it was "the most beautiful music that you've never heard". All true! The two pianists are co-founders of the Kyrgyz American Foundation, whose mission it is to preserve and promote the multicultural heritage of Eurasia with the United States.
Let us begin by honoring the contributions of Kyrgyzstan. We must start at the end of the concert because we witnessed the most remarkable performance by Omurgazy Uulu Zhyrgalbek performing with flying fingers and fluttering wrists on the Komuz and the Dombra. The former has three strings and no frets; it is made from a single piece of wood. The Dombra is a long-necked lute with two strings. The artist appeared in native dress and we urge you, dear reader, to take a look at the carousel of photos on our Facebook page (Voce di Meche). We are rarely in such awe. There were times when the melody came from the left hand and not the right one which was strumming as fast as a hummingbird's wing.
Another performance which dazzled us was that of the Ukrainian flutist Denis Savelyev, accompanied by Mr. Sydykov, performing "Nocturne" by Zhanna Kolodub. We had an epiphany when we realized how much the flute resembles the human voice. With impressive breath control Mr. Savelyev negotiated the ascending and descending scale passages. After a lovely legato central section marked by graceful phrasing, the first part returned with high drama.
He also performed Daniel Wood's "Valse Caprice" which had a graceful pastoral mood and reminded us of singers being "on the breath". He produces a lovely tone and can decrescendo to a delicate pianissimo. Not only were we impressed but our flutist companion also sat up and took notice.
Mr. Savelyev's younger sister Maria is a cellist who delighted us with "Melody" by Myroslav Skoryk, accompanied also by Mr. Sydykov. The piece was marked by a haunting and lyrical melody. Both of the aforementioned composers belong to the 20th c. but managed to avoid the deplorable trend of assassinating melody! She also performed in a trio, with Uzbekistan violinist Vartan Mayilyantz and Mr. Levin, selections from Kyrgyzstan's first ballet Cholpon, dating from 1944. The flavor of Mikhail Raukhverger's music was distinctively Eastern and we had a fine time imagining the choreography.
We also heard three singers. Chinese soprano Nilara Mutalifu, an ethnic Uighur, let her generous soprano soar in three lovely songs by three different composers. The Uighur language was totally strange to our ears but the sound was sizable and the emotions deeply felt. Accompanying her on the piano was Mr. Levin who also performed his own composition --an original piano arrangement on a Kyrgyz theme based on the sounds of the Dombra. It was a world premiere. He also played another world premiere--a virtuosic arrangement by Eric Thompson of a Milos Rosza composition. Mr. Rosza is famous for writing film scores.
South Korean tenor Choong Lee performed a pair of songs by Rachmaninoff--"Dream" and "Do not sing, my beauty". He was accompanied by Russian pianist Vera Danchenko-Stern and in the second piece was joined by Mr. Mayilyantz who played an arrangement by Fritz Kreisler in which the violin took over some of that haunting melody. Mr. Lee has an easy full-throated voice production and came across much better when he relaxed and became freer with his gestures. He has a beautiful pianissimo.
Also from South Korea, baritone Hyungjoo Eom performed two Korean songs. At last month's concert Around the World in Song, soprano Sulgi Cho explained that the "art song" did not exist in Korea until rather recently but Hak Jun Yoon wrote one called "Majoong" on the cusp of the 21st c. and Mr. Eom gave it a lovely performance, along with a charming and spirited folk song.
We were quite impressed with Kyrgyzstan clarinetist Bakhtiyar Dooranov who gave an expressive performance of two 20th c. pieces which gave a colorful line to the clarinet with some staccato in the upper register and some well executed runs. Mr. Levin had some rumbling figures on the piano.
Another clarinetist, the Georgian Marita Pataraia was accompanied by Georgian pianist Merab Ebralidze for a piece by Irakli Gejadze. The clarinet enjoyed some rapid scale passages whilst the piano got involved in some interesting figures.
Mr. Mayilyantz played a cheerful "Waltz-Scherzo" by Tchaikovsky which we'd never heard. We liked the pensive central section and the highly embellished return, much like a bel canto aria.
Georgian violinist Gvantsa Butskhiridze was joined by Georgian pianist Marina Ghurchumelia for a frisky "Scherzo" by Vaja Azarashvili which featured a lot of pizzicato.
Kyrgyzstan flutist Eliza Salibaeva was accompanied by Mr. Levin for yet another U.S. premiere of Kalyi Moldobasanov's expressive "Rondo-Scherzo" and Muratbek Begaliev's Asian flavored "Elegy".
We cannot recall another concert with so much variety and so much international cultural sharing. Mr. Sydakov was right. Art definitely trumps politics. Oh dear! Was that a slip? Well, we'll let it stand! Maybe art trumps Trump.
Matthew Zimmerman, Lisa Monde, David Serero, Ashley Brooke Miller, David Mohr, Patrick Clark, and Felix Jarrar
Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet has survived post-modern productions, filming, ballet, West Side Story,and marionettes. The story is timeless and impresario/baritone David Serero has put his unique individual Jewish spin on the tale of star-crossed lovers, moving the action from Verona to Jerusalem, and pitting the Sephardic Capulets against the Ashkenazic Montagues. Contrary to our pre-performance expectations, they were not hurling matzo balls and falafel balls at each other!
Frankly, we never thought the two branches of Judaism had any animosity toward one another and an interesting conflict might have been between a Jewish family and an Arab family. But that would have deprived the audience of the pleasure of hearing folk songs from both cultures--the Ashkenazic family sang in Yiddish (which our knowledge of German did not help us understand), and the Sephardic folks sang in what we took to be Ladino, because we caught a few words that sounded at times like Italian and other times like Spanish. There was even a lovely song in Russian which we did not understand but liked a lot.
That Mr. Serero has a devoted audience is undeniable; the entire run was sold out and the standing ovation was generous. Mr. Serero is well known for abridging the classics (both opera and theater) and if this brings people into the theaters and opera houses to get a deeper exposure that is all to the good.
Most of the important speeches were there and Mr. Serero made sure that the basics of the story were told. Minor characters were eliminated as well. Although we didn't understand the music, the interpolated non-Shakespearean dialogue was mostly in Yiddish-peppered English. In any case, we all know the story. The production reminded us of a singspiel.
The costumes were gorgeous, giving Mr. Serero some funny lines at the curtain call about most of the budget going toward the costumes. In place of sets there were appropriate projections. Well known composer/pianist Felix Jarrar slid easily between his own improvisations and the various types of music.
No one minded the injection of humor into this tragedy and most of it came from stereotypes. The very elegant Lady Capulet (portrayed by Lisa Monde) donned a wig and became Romeo's guilt-inducing cheek-pinching Jewish mother. Matthew Zimmerman did double duty as the pugnacious Tybalt and Juliet's stern controlling father who had picked out "the wealthy Mordechai" to be Juliet's husband. Paris was booted right out of the play.
Friar Laurence became Rabbi Laurence who prayed a lot. The role of Romeo's friend Mercutio was well performed by Patrick Clark. And as for the fair Juliet, Ashley Brooke Miller was convincing in her innocence and willfulness.
Mr. Serero himself took the role of the ardent Romeo and garnered most of the laughs with his English dialogue. The sword fights between Tybalt and Mercutio were well executed and ended in Mercutio's death (of course) and the retaliatory fight between Romeo and Tybalt ended in Tybalt's death (of course). We didn't quite get the part where Romeo stabs himself after being banished, but then reappears in the next scene. Neither did our companion.
Mr. Serero made sure that everyone had a great time. What more could one want after all that tragedy, leavened with laughter and tunes? Well, there was more. The evening ended with the cast performing a popular song which was just as unknown to us as the Ladino, Yiddish, and Russian ones; disco dancing filled the stage. That was the one thing we could have lived without as it seemed to undercut the tragic ending.
But Mr. Serero wants everyone to have a good time! And they did!
Watch out for an upcoming Nozze di Figaro next month, also presented by The American Sephardi Federation at the Center for Jewish History. Mr. Serero was quick to point out the Jewish connection. Lorenzo DaPonte was indeed Jewish. But David, tell us, was he Sephardic or Ashkenazic?
Directors Marc Verzatt and Brittany Goodwin taking a bow with participants of IVAI
We were completely bowled over last night at the second and final evening of opera duets, trios, and ensembles. In the week we attended we witnessed something akin to a miracle--the transformation of a group of somewhat insecure and unsteady young artists into fully fledged performers. Perhaps all the requisite skills were there just waiting to be brought out. And brought out they were!
Much credit must be given to coaches Joan Dornemann, Jane Steele, Pei-Wen Chen, and Dura Jun and to the teachers on the faculty whom we never met; there is no doubt in our mind that they kept the students busy with constant lessons and coachings which we did not observe. What we did observe were the juicy fruits of their labor, tastefully arranged for our delectation by directors Brittany (Bea) Goodwin and Marc Verzatt who, without sets or costumes, created meaningful onstage interaction.
There were a number of instances in which we learned something new about characters that are customarily portrayed in a "stock" fashion. Let us provide a couple examples. In the card reading scene from Bizet's Carmen, our doomed heroine (the marvelous mezzo-soprano Jihyun Choi) was set on stage right brooding whilst Frasquita (lovely soprano Hanna Lee) and Mercedes (marvelous mezzo Xiaohan Chen) were having a gay time talking about their future fortunes and upcoming romances. This contrast emphasized the tragedy to come.
There's an even more poignant example from the same opera. Country girl Micaela is usually portrayed rather blandly, as an oblivious innocent. Last night, the way soprano Miriam Chaudoir portrayed her, she sensed, by his indifferent embrace, that Don José (Alonzo Jordan Lopez) was not really present for her. He sings of his joy in hearing from his mother and she sings along but you could tell from her facial expression and body language that she was hurting. She wanted him to sing about his joy in seeing her! This subtle difference made Micaela a complete character, not just a plot device.
In Rossini's Semiramide, the deluded title character, portrayed by soprano Melanie Spector, indicated by her posture and the imperious way she held her head that she couldn't even imagine that Arsace would prefer another. We might add here that Ms. Spector's coloratura fireworks were never impaired by the acting but rather served to illuminate Semiramide's character. Furthermore, Keymon Murrah's countertenor was superbly employed and one could read on his face his discomfort around the heroine's expectations. The two voices sounded so perfect together that we cannot imagine Arsace performed in a different fach.
Soprano Julia Katherine Walsh tackled Lucia's "mad scene" with relish and complete dramatic abandon while maintaining fine control over the vocal fireworks. She has resonance to spare in the high-flying tessitura that sent overtones bouncing around the room. Through her eyes we could see all of her frightening hallucinations. What a performance!
Juliet Morris created an imperious Queen of the Night from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, one that wielded authority without benefit of extravagant makeup and costuming. It was all done with posture, gesture, and vocalism. Ms. Morris really knew what she was singing about, making every word count.
The final scene not only knocked our socks off but also our shoes! We were completely unfamiliar with Rossini's Otello and are sure it would have been a major member of the current repertory, had not Verdi undertaken to write his Otello. What a treat to hear scenes from two serious Rossini operas in one night!
Soprano Jaeyeon Kim was incredibly touching as the frightened Desdemona, singing the heavily embellished vocal line with flexibility and the most gorgeous timbre. In a world in which sopranos sound so much alike, it was a special experience for us to hear a unique instrument. As the jealous Otello, tenor Eduardo Belmonte was threatening and scary, without any holding back. The scene gave ample opportunity for him to show off a strong and full middle voice.
From Puccini's audience pleaser La Bohême, we heard "O soave fanciulla" sung by soprano Clara Iranzo and tenor Eduardo Belmonte. Was it the excellent direction that made their romance seem so very real? Or was it the fact that they are a couple? Like Oscar in Ballo in Maschera, we know but won't tell!
A scene from Puccini's La Rondine was charmingly executed with tenor Nicolas Gerst taking the role of the poet Prunier, starting "Il bel sogno di Doretta" with Ms. Irazo's Magda taking over. In attendance were a group of gossiping friends (Mithuna Sivaraman, Nicole Karrs, and Michelle Encarnacion Pozo) and a finely drawn Lisette (the maid) enacted by Angela Candela. She was so compelling in the role that we wanted to see the scene in the café dansant! She is one of those "stage animals" that can lose herself in any one of a number of characters.
We loved the scene from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia in which Rosina beats Figaro to the punch. He is clever but she is still more clever. "Dunque io son" was given a humorous performance by mezzo-soprano Cloe San Antonio who is blessed with one of those distinctive voices of true mezzo timbre, flexibility in the fioritura, and a charming stage presence. Her chemistry with baritone Robbie Raso as Figaro was pure delight. We think this role suits him to a "T", giving ample opportunity for acting as well as singing.
From Massenet's Manon we enjoyed the scene in which the now-sophisticated heroine is enjoying some gambling with her fancy friends the "party girls", portrayed by Yingjie Zhou, Olesia Verzole, and Wenjie Zhang. They enjoyed being louche and we enjoyed their enjoyment. The harmonies were exquisite and the French was just fine.
More Massenet followed with a scene from his Cendrillon in which Prince Charmant (the ardent mezzo Heather Jones) becomes enraptured by the title character (soprano Lauren Curet) who sang with brightness and clarity. True to Massenet, the harmonies were again exquisite and no one failed their French.
Finally, we saw an appealing scene from Mozart's singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The two sopranos (Sarah Heilman and Hyune Kwon) and two tenors (Masachika Watanabe and Zachary Sebek) made some gorgeous harmonies together. It pleased us to see Mozart's genius with contrasting vocal lines so well executed.
This astonishing evening was, for us, the capstone of a wonderful ten days, although there will be one more performance--an evening of American song. We would like to point out that the youngest participant was but 18 years old and several of them are still undergraduates whilst others have completed advanced degrees. Obviously, the 50 participants began the program at varying levels of expertise but they all made a giant step forward. After a brief recess, the Institute will take place in Montreal. We wish we could be a "camp follower"!
Last night we attended a delightful evening of duets, trios, and ensembles performed by participants in the International Vocal Arts Institute at Mannes College of Music. We were both pleased and astonished to witness the growth of these young singers in the space of only one week.
It was interesting to note the difference in performance quality as each singer worked with one or more scene partners, in contrast with their performances in solo arias. We imagine it is far easier to slip into a role under such conditions as opposed to singing an aria whilst imagining the presence of the other singers. Singers who hadn't captured our interest on prior nights made a significant impression; those we admired before made an even better impression last night.
The scenes that were performed were well chosen (heavy on the Mozart) for these young voices, effectively coached by Artistic Director Joan Dornemann, Jane Steele, Pei-Wen Chen, and Dura Jun. Directing the scenes were Brittany Goodwin (whose work we have always admired) and Marc Verzatt (whom we do not know). What we have to say about the direction is that every scene worked with only a few black boxes onstage and a curtain covering the windows, which made a fine hiding place for Cherubino. More about that later. Maestro Brent Chancellor was conductor for the evening.
The program opened with a charming scene from Mascagni's L'amico Fritz--the "Cherry Duet". Soprano Jennifer Jaroslavsky made a perfect shy Suzel and we loved the part where she climbed the tree (a black box) to pick the cherries. We could see the tree in our mind's eye! Tenor Alonzo Jordan Lopez made a fine Fritz and there was wonderful romantic tension between the two of them as they moved closer and closer. In our mind we were urging them on! And that's an effective performance!
There were two scenes from Mozart's Nozze di Figaro. Soprano Miriam Chaudoir had the role of the terrified Countess with baritone Robbie Raso as the jealous Count. Helping Cherubino (mezzo-soprano Megan Mateosky) escape was the clever Susanna portrayed by the excellent soprano Elizaveta Kozlova who, we were informed, stepped in at the last minute. We have enjoyed her performances all week and are presently even more impressed with her versatility. Watching her racing around the stage and hiding behind pillars made us chuckle. We have her tagged as one of those "stage animals".
This scene was followed by the Act III sextet in which Susanna (the lovely soprano Eugenia Forteza) convincingly showed her character's fury at discovering her fiancé Figaro in the arms of Marcelina (mezzo Nicole Karrs). There is so much warmth and humor in the reconciliation that we were grinning from ear to ear.
Although we had to get accustomed to a different Susanna, the Count was again portrayed by Mr. Raso. Figaro (baritone Luka Jozic) was delighted to reunite with his mother and father Dr. Bartolo (baritone Gabriel Garcia) and we got "the feels", which is exactly what this scene should achieve. Tenor Nicolas Gerst took the role of Don Curzio, sharing the Count's dismay.
To thrill an audience, Léo Delibes' Lakmé requires two beautiful female voices. In this performance of the "Flower Duet" soprano Jessica Bayne in the title role and mezzo Xiaohan Chen as Malika could charm the birds from the trees with their gorgeous voices, their exquisite harmonic blending, and sympathetic friendship. We particularly enjoyed the change of vocal color in the repeat.
We returned to Mozart with a scene from Così fan tutte in which the wily Despina (Ms. Kozlova again) tries to convince the two sisters to accept the two prospective lovers. Ms. Kozlova accurately made the social class distinction between herself and her employers-the resistant Fiordiligi (soprano Hrun Osk) and the less resistant Dorabella (mezzo Emma Guo) who has the task of winning her sister over to the romantic adventure to follow. It was all well done and dramatically convincing.
The prelude to Claudio Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea is not always included in performance but it makes a charming "stand alone" scene as three sopranos, symbols of three qualities, make a case for their own importance. Megan Mateosky exuded confidence as Fortuna. Kaylene Dahl presented Virtù with appropriate smugness, but we all know who wins out in the end. It is Isabel Springer as Amor! Of course, if it were a singing contest we could never have chosen the winner. They were all excellent.
Another return to Mozart brought us to Don Giovanni-- to a crucial scene in which each character reveals his/her own true character. Soprano Jinni Shen reveals her mistrust of Don Giovanni, soprano Angela Canela was particularly fine as the conflicted Donna Elvira, Don Giovanni (Luka Jozic) shows his deceitful nature and the supportive Don Ottavio (tenor Zachary Sebek) is there for his betrothed. We were glad to see Mozart's genius composition honored so well.
The opening scene of Mozart's Die Zauberflôte is a masterpiece of vocal writing in which Papageno (baritone Gabriel Garcia) can only hum his vocal line because he has a padlock on his mouth--a punishment for lying. The three ladies (sopranos Mithuna Sivaraman and Wenjia Wei with mezzo Heather Jones) offer forgiveness if he will go with Tamino (Yunxuan Zhu) to rescue Pamino. They present Tamino with a magic flute and Papageno with some magic bells. The complex vocal writing was beautifully realized by all five of them and the direction and props added to the fun.
The program closed with the oft-performed scene from Donizetti's Don Pasquale in which Dr. Malatesta (the versatile Mr. Raso) explains his plot to Norina (soprano Emilia Poma) in which she will portray his convent-bred sister and marry the elderly Don Pasquale. This offers a grand opportunity for acting and the two singers rose to the occasion. We particularly enjoyed the directorial move of having her gestures timed to the beat of the music. We could hardly keep a straight face.
Photos of these scenes can be seen on our FB page-- Voce di Meche.
There will be another similar evening tonight and we wouldn't miss it for the world. And you shouldn't either!