Saturday, September 26, 2015

Hip Verdi Pills in Bushwick

Loft Opera Summer Session
Verdi Selections from Traviata, Luisa Miller, Trovatore and Aida
September 25, 2015
The Muse Circus School, Brooklyn

Viva Verdi!
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lei: Loft Opera did it again, they managed to pack a full house with a young, artsy, hip audience and make them cheer for Verdi as if it was the coolest new thing in Bushwick. Whatever their secret is, it works and it’s electrifying and refreshing to be a part of it. This time the venue was The Muse, a circus school in very, very deep Brooklyn, right next to an auto repair shop and a number of shady looking vehicles just out of car accidents or worse. I had to tiptoe around a lot of shattered glass and who knows what else to get to the front door, but once we were in the scene was incredible. Mismatched chandeliers dangled next to trapezes, a red curtain with a VERDI light bulb sign framed the back of the space, a piano in the center, wood platforms at the four corners. 
The perilous venue.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
The incredible part was that the public was mostly under 30 and the seats, benches and banquettes scattered around were all full, with people saving seats for their friends, so much that we had to go to back of the house to get a couple of extra chairs to sit on. At some point I even saw a girl taking a selfie with the VERDI sign, it does not get more XXI century than this. Most of the time the average public at indie opera shows is on the geriatric end of the spectrum and definitely does not fill up a space this big or takes selfies for that matter. This time I was not the youngest in the public and had very mixed feelings about it.

The public in Bushwick.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lui: LoftOpera has the winning combination – the special sauce, as founder Brianna Maury puts it. Somehow she manages to make opera infinitely hip. A hundred-odd youngsters, hipsters, artists mingle with the old timers and the intellectuals. The product is always high quality. The singing strong. The concept sexy. In fact that is quite possibly the true beauty of it. In addition to staging full scale scores in all their full-blown diva-filled glory, LoftOpera manages to boil the operatic down into little bite-sized nuggets.

Lei: The formula was pretty simple: 4 singers – soprano, mezzo, baritone and tenor – performed 4 show-stopping duets from Verdi operas accompanied just by a piano played by maestro Sean Kelly. As the program notes put it: “That’s what our Verdi selections are all about: giving you a chance to hear Verdi’s music, truly Olympic-level singing, from just a few feet away. Letting you feel how it makes your stomach vibrate and your ears ring. Find a seat, get your tissues ready, and hold on to your butts.”

Suzanne Vinnick as the pleading Leonora.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lui: The lightness of touch of the piano accompaniment allowed the voices the maximum exposure. It was raw and almost visceral especially if the singers were singing in your general vicinity in the cavernous postindustrial space. The singers sounded loud and clear. Their voices resounding among the rafters often over the sound of unexplainable drilling going on outside or on the roof?!? Or else clambering for prominence over the sound of a passing L train.

Lei: The voices and raw emotions were definitely front and center here. It was interesting to experience Verdi duets in this setting and even more so to observe how the hipster public reacted to it. While there were supertitles, it was hard to see them (at least from where we were sitting) because of how the lighting was set up, however that did not matter. The public was so captivated by the singing and the music that it was not even following the supertitles, since the narrative framing of each vignette provided in the program notes was sufficient to give a general sense of what was being sung.

Joshua Jeremiah unleashes his Conte.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lui: Tonight, they performed four Verdi duets from Traviata, Trovatore, Luisa Miller and Aida, and they closed with one of his most famous drinking songs (there’s one in every Verdi opera by my reckoning). In each case they managed to get me to rethink some of the details and minor themes lurking beneath the surface of these familiar moments from such classic works. Experienced in isolation like this, the theme of last resort love, loss and the inexorable passing of time really came to the fore from Violetta’s scene with Germont in the first excerpt from La Traviata.

Lei: As to the specific selections presented, the most successful was by far the Conte di Luna/Leonora duet from Act IV of Trovatore. Baritone Joshua Jeremiah and soprano Suzanne Vinnik not only sang their hearts out with passion and fire but also acted convincingly. Jeremiah embodied the evil Conte di Luna with a brutal rage so intense that it was scary, while Vinnik pleaded with him in desperation and offered her body with tragic sacrifice to save her beloved Manrico. The chemistry between the two singers was electrifying and goosebump-inducing. These two artists were good but not as sensational in their Violetta/Germont duet from Act II of Traviata, where, however, the soprano displayed a pretty impressive and powerful instrument, particularly in the higher register.

Dominick Rodriguez looks on.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lui: A profound intensity of emotion emerged from the duet from Trovatore. It was like jumping right to the juicy bits and made me hungry for our upcoming afternoon with Dmitri Horostovsky and Anna Netrebko in the same roles at the Met next week. It’s like seeing old friends with fresh eyes. In his second duet of the evening, baritone Joshua Jeremiah now singing the Conte di Luna had warmed up. He was suddenly much stronger, exuding an emotional intensity and belting out a rounder less tremulous sound out of his baritone voice. He sounded still green as Germont, but here he found his voice as a young and power hungry lover. Soprano Susanne Vinnik was a tortured soul in her own right. She let out her little yelps of resignation as she reciprocated with a tormented passion all her own.

Luscious sounding mezzo Karolina Pilou.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lei: The other duets were between tenor Dominick Rodriguez and mezzo Karolina Pilou, who sang selections from Luisa Miller and Aida. Pilou has a beautiful instrument with a lusciously plush sound and definitely a lot of power (so much that it often drowned her companion Rodriguez). Of the two duets they performed, the Aida one was most successful at displaying a more tangible tension between the characters portrayed. The finale of the show brought the four singers together in a light-hearted rendition of Libiamo nei lieti calici from Traviata, with LoftOpera general manager Brianna Maury handing out beers to the singers so that they could appropriately toast among themselves and with the public around them.

Lui: Tonight's program embodies a formula that can be infinitely reworked and repurposed with greater frequency. They can make little bel canto pills, tight baroque confections, miniature verismo morsels that have an even greater possibility of serving as a gateway drug to new opera fans. After all, there is an abundance of aspiring opera singers in this city, all of whom have at least a scene or two in the arsenal. LoftOpera could easily repackage and repurpose any of those pieces in any form they please. Especially if it has that pop. They could make opera cool and pertinent and now again. Sex it up. As they continue to prove. 

Lei: The non-traditional patrons went pretty wild and that was a testament to the genius of Verdi and the power of opera. One does not need to speak Italian or be a musicologist to be moved or appreciate extraordinary singing portraying powerful emotions and opera does not need to be stuffy or geriatric. Quite the contrary, when done in the right setting with a few beers around the place, opera can indeed be the next cool thing in Bushwick.

- Lei & Lui

Libiamo ne' lieti calici!
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
che la bellezza infiora
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Hip young public lingering and raving about VERDI
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

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