Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Verdi Goes Indie

May 25, 2014 - Verdi’s Rigoletto
Regina Opera - Auditorium of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Sunset Park, Brooklyn)

We got these Rigoletto tickets on a whim (Verdi’s luring force) but really did not know what to expect, as we were not familiar with any of Regina Opera’s work. We went through the hour-long subway ride to get to Sunset Park with a mix of excitement (Rigoletto in Brooklyn!) and trepidation (what if they butcher it?). One can legitimately worry about an “indie” production of this opera, as Verdi cannot really be done small and requires musical firepower, mature singers and strong acting. Our suspicions increased as we entered the basic school auditorium, but boy were we in for a surprise as Regina Opera’s Rigoletto turned out to be one of the most emotionally charged and vocally superb performances we’ve seen this year.

The emotionally devastating father-daughter duo
Photo credit: Sarah Moulton Faux's website
Baritone Peter Hakjoon Kim gave it his all as Rigoletto. He put everything he had into his embodiment of this poor, deformed, tormented father. We started crying with his first duet with Gilda in Act I and wept all the way through all of Acts II and III. By the time the courtiers pushed poor Rigoletto to the ground and he rose up on his knees, infuriated, and launched into the whirlwind of emotions unleashed by Cortigiani, vil razza dannata, we were emotional wrecks. He had us entranced by his every emotional turn on the roller coaster of this passage in the opera. He took us from infuriated anger to suppliant pathos, from harsh accusation to heart-rending desperation and back again. This is Verdi at his best and Peter Hakjoon Kim really rose to the occasion. Without getting all agitated and without running around the stage, he kept his acting movingly composed and under control, even while beating his chest and moving us to tears. Letting the music work its magic, he made every nuance of this emotional roller coaster ride extremely vivid. Hakjoon Kim sang his heart out and brought the whole spectrum of his character’s emotions to the fore, with rawness and intensity.

Soprano Sarah Moulton Faux was impressive as Gilda. From the moment she first opened her mouth on stage we were struck by the freshness of her talent. She achieved a purity of sound as she belted out many of her most poignant lines. Her singing is truly angelic, rivaling even the experience of hearing Sonya Yoncheva in this role at the Met this season. Moulton Faux embodied all the piercing lyrical innocence demanded of a moving Gilda with perfect Italian diction. Her rendition of Caro nome was pure bravura and her duets with Rigoletto heart wrenching. She also really carried the quartet in Act III, Bella figlia dell’amore, with the force of her sustained high notes, her voice taking the harmonies of the other three voices into the upper atmosphere, both striking like lightning through the tempest and rising up above the storm clouds of the opera’s grand finale. She was a revelation.

A great manly tenor, finally
Photo credit: Paolo Buffagni's website
Tenor Paolo Buffagni’s Duca was another revelation, and an utterly unique one in the panorama of the most commonly heard tenors in the city. His is a manly voice, full and powerful, but at the same time bright and tender. As an Italian-born singer, his diction is excellent. The poetry of the language filled his mouth and one could really feel him lingering on the sound of each syllable with freshness and  mature expressivity. Buffagni was terrific throughout the opera, but excelled especially in the Duca’s double aria Ella mi fu rapita. The power of Buffagni’s instrument was impressive, particularly in the higher end of his register, achieving that irresistible melting effect that only truly great tenors can deliver. Something that is all too rare in the singers we’ve heard even at the Met in these manly kind of tenor roles.

Solid and convincing performances were also delivered by bass-baritone Rocky Sellers (Sparafucile), mezzo-soprano Lara Tillotson (Maddalena) and bass Jacopo Buora (Monterone).

We stand by the fact that it fundamentally does not matter where you set this opera. Regina Opera could have spared themselves the amateur sets and kitschy costumes and just given it to us nudo e crudo – or set it in Las Vegas for that matter. When the singing is this good, the emotions take their place at center stage, where they belong, and everything else is just a distraction. This is, after all, an incredibly moving story of an ill-starred father-daughter relationship with some of the most beautiful music Verdi ever composed. We could listen to it all day. In fact, we didn’t even want this troupe to stop for intermissions. We could have kept on rolling right through the steady euphoria of experiencing Verdi’s Rigoletto performed by such an inspiring group of singers and musicians in such an intimate setting.

Gilda cannot resist a good tenor
Photo credit: Paolo Buffagni's website
Stage direction was generally pretty basic, though at times there were some nice touches, such as Monterone’s daughter shown as heavily pregnant, emphasizing the humiliation of her father. Also, in the always tricky scene of Gilda’s abduction, Rigoletto arrives swigging a wine bottle, suggesting that his failure to notice that the courtiers are actually kidnapping his daughter is due in part to his alcoholic intoxication. The finale was beautifully executed in its simplicity. Peter Hakjoon Kim and Sarah Moulton Faux gave a wrenching rendition of the closing duet in which Gilda dies in her father’s arms. There is no need for anything fancy here, which is exactly the way they did it. Front and center they exchange their final words. The whole thing was beautifully paced, with conductor Gregory Ortega guiding the singers through this climactic moment with such clarity that both Mr. Kim and Ms. Moulton Faux were able to wring every last drop of emotion out of the tear ducts of Verdi’s score. It was just fantastic and it left us utterly devastated, just as a great Verdi opera should, drying the tears from our eyes as the house lights came up and the cast took their bows.

Regina Opera’s location may not be the hippest, their marketing strategies are questionable and their raffle at intermission (while charming in its genre) left us puzzled, but their Rigoletto was by no means “indie” and well worth the long subway ride. While the Sunset Park audience is sure lucky to have Regina Opera in their backyard, the Manhattan public too badly needs singers of the caliber we heard here, and we do hope that these great artists bring their talent and dedication across the East River prestissimo.  

Lui & Lei

Image credit: Regina Opera

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Very Operatic NYC Summer

The Met 13/14 season just ended, but that does not mean that we will have to be opera-deprived for three months. Here's our overview of what looks enticing in New York this summer:

Image Credit: Gotham Chamber Opera
Gotham Chamber Opera will close its own 13/14 season with The Raven, a monodrama by Toshio Hosokawa, based on Poe’s classic narrative poem of love forever lost. We're intrigued by the combination of opera and ballet, as mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg will perform together with La Scala’s prima ballerina assoluta Alessandra Ferri. May 28 - 31, 2014 at Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College.

One can never get enough Donizetti, particularly if bel canto queen Mariella Devia plays her majesty Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux, with Stephen Costello in the lead tenor role. Brought to us in concert by The Opera Orchestra of New York. June 5 at Carnegie Hall.

Mariella Devia as Elisabetta I in Roberto Devereux
Image credit: Michele Balistreri
We love site-specific operas, even more so if baroque and ripe with Ovid literary references. On Site Opera’s performance of Rameau’s Pygmalion about a sculptor falling in love with his creation promises to deliver all of that with a gala performance set in Madame Tussauds’ wax museum and two additional shows at the Lifestyle-Trimco Showroom. June 17, 20 and 21.

Image Credit: On Site Opera
The feisty Opera Feroce will perform their exhilarating baroque pasticcio Arminio in Armenia we were lucky to catch last January and cannot recommend enough. June 22 at the St. Stephens and St. Martins Church in Brooklyn; June 25, 27, 28 at the Blue Building in Manhattan.

Image Credit: Park Avenue Armory
Park Avenue Armory is such an amazingly unique performance space that it’s hard to resist to pretty much anything they show. Their co-presentation with Lincoln Center Festival of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s holocaust opera The Passenger will take audiences on a voyage from the stylish deck of a luxury liner to the squalor of a Nazi death camp. The opera was banned by Soviet authorities upon its completion in 1968, resurfacing for its first full staging some 40 years later and only now making its New York premiere. July 10-13 at Park Avenue Armory.

The Lincoln Center Festival will also showcase Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride, performed by the Bolshoi Opera, no less! Not to be missed if, like us, one got under Russian opera spell cast by the Met earlier this year (with the new productions of Eugene Onegin and Prince Igor). July 12-13 at Avery Fisher Hall. 

Lovely Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
Photo Credit: Caramoor
Who does not want to drive one hour through the Hudson River Valley to catch some top notch singing performed in a gorgeous Venetian garden theater?!? Caramoor’s rich summer opera program includes semi-staged productions of Lucrezia Borgia and Rigoletto, an “Intimate Donizetti” concert of chamber music and vocal ensembles, a “Bel Canto Showcase” and a myriad of panel discussions, concerts and other operatic goodies. If you need further incentive: Angela Meade (who bewitched everybody with her Norma at the Met last fall) will play Lucrezia Borgia. The Intimate Donizetti: Chamber Music and Vocal Ensembles - June 26; Lucrezia Borgia - July 12 and 18; Bel Canto Showcase: Daniel Mobbs - July 17; Rigoletto - July 19 -- at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts. 

Angela Meade in the Venetian Theater
Photo credit: Caramoor
We discovered Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble last summer and were overwhelmed by the extraordinary results of their mission of coaching young opera singers into fresh and energetic (but also seriously solid) performances. This summer they propose an ambitious Shakespeare Repertoire Project, comprised of staged productions of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, Salieri’s Falstaff and Verdi’s Macbeth, as well as a concert of arias and duets based on Shakespeare sonnets and plays. August 7-24 at the East 13 Street Theater.

Mostly Mozart festival will be offering two Handel baroque gems by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra: Teseo (in concert setting – August 17) and Acis and Galatea (an exciting combination of opera and dance, showcasing the collaboration between choreographer Mark Morris and early-music specialist Nicholas McGegan – August 7-9).

The Mark Morris Dance Group
Photo credit: Mostly Mozart
Finally, for some al fresco operatic pleasure, we’ll look forward the Met Opera Summer Recital Series and its six performances in the parks of all five boroughs (June 23-July 10*). Few things are more blissful than listening to great opera arias while sipping chilled rosé wine on a picnic blanket at dusk - with NYC lights gradually turning on around you…

Lei & Lui

Opera and Manhattan Skyline
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera

Superstar mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton will perform on June 23 and 25

Monday, May 19, 2014

Cinderella, or Bel Canto Triumphant

Rossini's La Cenerentola
Met - May 2, 2014

Lui: Despite the serious moral pretensions of its subtitle, Rossini’s La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo (Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant) is pure opera buffa replete with all the musical fireworks that one comes to expect from a buoyant bel canto Rossinian romp. When it’s done right, it’s good. So good that you just can’t get enough, especially when the singing is amazing. As was the case in this run at the Met.

Juan Diego Florez sparkles as Prince Don Ramiro
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Lei: As there’s nothing more depressing than a below average tenor, there’s nothing more wildly exhilarating than an extraordinary one like Juan Diego Florez. We basically bought these Cenerentola tickets because of him (and Joyce and Luca too), so we were disappointed when we heard that he was canceling the first three shows of the run. We then regained a bit of hope when we heard that Javier Camarena was replacing him and got to look forward to catching this up-and-coming Mexican tenor. Then again, Juan Diego surprised us when he recovered sooner than expected and ended up performing for us after all. It’s always amazing to hear how his voice so effortlessly projects and fills the Met’s space with a sound so precise and pure and perfect Italian articulation. His tone is gracious, fresh and tender at the same time. Juan Diego’s virtuosism for bel canto is truly unparalleled among any living tenor I’ve seen. His acting is perfect too, convincingly ranging from ardent lover to prankster to irate monarch in the same act, keeping the public hooked whenever he’s on the stage. Florez clearly has the rock-star ability to literally drive audiences wild, this time so much so that he just had to concede an encore of “Sì, ritrovarla io giuro.” Which he could not refuse to do, perhaps because Javier Camarena also encored this same aria the week before? No matter the reason, Juan Diego was sensational and we were so very lucky to catch him.

Joyce DiDonato at her best as Cinderella
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Lui: This cast was packed full with talent. Joyce DiDonato has some of the most spectacular technique of any mezzo soprano I’ve heard live, and, unlike the tenor situation, there is no famine of talented female singers right now. She is consistently agile as she runs up and down the signature bel canto scales and fully devours all of Rossini’s vocal acrobatics. The range of this character is also striking because it combines coloratura acrobatics with extremely tender passages that Joyce DiDonato embodies so beautifully. Her agility defies the ordinary dictates of breath. She embodies every note of her challenging arias with a chesty presence in ways that few singers either male or female are capable of. More than any other singer tonight, Joyce DiDonato sent tingles through my body with the piercing purity of her technique and her sound. Especially in the passage that climaxes with the delicately plaintive yet profoundly optimistic “Nacqui all’affanno.” She filled the hall with her voice, in a way that I’ve only ever heard Juan Diego Florez do. She played the space of the Metropolitan Opera house as though it were an instrument.

Lei: Sure, the roles of Cinderella and the Prince are nice, but a great part of this opera’s success relies on the comic force of characters such as Don Magnifico (the greedy decadent stepfather), Dandini (the waiter acting as Prince), Tisbe and Clorinda (the gold-digging stepsisters). These are really the characters that have the best punch lines and sing the most colorful hilarious bits of the libretto. Think about Dandini’s “compliment” to Tisbe and Clorinda: “son tutte papà” (they look like their daddy). Or else when he is told that the prince’s choice of bride may be a bit more bizarre than expected, Don Magnifico wonders in an aside: Che volesse maritarsi con me? (Could it be he wants to marry me?).

Don Magnifico jockeys with Dandini
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Basso buffo Alessandro Corbelli and baritone Pietro Spagnoli were terrific as Don Magnifico and Dandini. Whenever I hear Italian singers at the Met (which is unfortunately not that often), I am reminded of what a difference it makes to hear native speakers perform, particularly when the nuances of the language are so important as in this hilarious libretto. Corbelli and Spagnoli not only savoured each word and delivered great coloratura duets, but were also highly entertaining comic actors. One example of the many duets they made shine is the one where Don Magnifico lists his extravagant expectations for his oh so desired status of father of the prince’s future bride:

Dandini breaks the news
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Abbia sempre pronti in sala trenta servi in piena gala, due staffieri ~ sei cocchieri, tre portieri ~ due braccieri, cento sedici cavalli, duchi, conti e marescialli a dozzine convitati, pranzi sempre coi gelati poi carrozze, poi bombè, ed innanzi colle fiaccole per lo meno sei lacchè.*

To which Dandini responds, taking off his mask:

Vi rispondo senza arcani che noi siamo assai lontani. Ho un lettino ~ uno stanzino; ma piccino ~ ma meschino. Io non uso far de’ pranzi; mangio sempre degli avanzi, non m’accosto a’ gran signori, tratto sempre servitori. Me ne vado sempre a piè, o di dietro una scappavia, se qualcun mi vuol con sé.**

The stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe are another important slapstick pillar of the opera and also in charge of extensive and challenging coloratura arias. Soprano Rachelle Durkin and mezzo Patricia Risley were vocally solid and funny to watch, maybe at times forcing the hand a bit on the silly end, though never disturbingly so. 

Daddy and his darlings: Son tutte papà
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera

Fairy godmother Alidoro
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Alidoro is a character with many hats: trusted advisor of the prince, disguised beggar testing the sisters’ good heart and Cenerentola’s fairy godmother (in this production with a very literal pair of golden wings; his name means “wings of gold”). Luca Pisaroni did a fine job with his ironically solemn acting and always strong expressive singing, though I believe he really shines in more dynamic roles (think Leporello or Caliban).

The plot is of course very simple and really just almost an excuse for a triumph of exhilarating delightful Rossini music, pure bel canto explosions and hilarious opera buffa moments. There are a number of digressions and skits that do not add much to the story but are wonderful mediums for pure operatic head-spinning entertainment. La Cenerentola is on the long side (2 hours and a half hours with 2 intermissions), but it really never has a dull moment and it’s so deliciously bubbly that one wants to drink more and more of it, particularly when Fabio Luisi is conducting.

Goodness always shines through
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera 
Lui: This is obviously how most of the audience experiences the opera: frivolous and fun. But Rossini’s Cenerentola functions on two levels. The message that the audience drinks down with this bubbly beverage is a simple one, but its worth stating: goodness triumphs in the end. At every turn the librettist, Jacopo Ferretti, gives Cenerentola the opportunity to demonstrate magnanimity, generosity, kindness and forgiveness. It is her greatness in spirit that wins out in the end and the careful listener will pick up on just how forcefully this facile lesson is hammered home throughout the opera, amidst all the effulgent humor and musical inventiveness, especially at the end. The Cenerentola character is more fleshed out and multi-faceted than the rest of the cast, and this production does a particularly good job of emphasizing this aspect of the opera. Only Cinderella and the Prince appear without mime-like white powder make-up on their faces. 

The belle of the ball
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
But this is also a thematic aspect of the character. She is not as shallow as the others, like her half-sisters, for example, who are cruel, self-centered, miserly and generally clueless. Cenerentola on the other hand is quick to perform acts of charity when early in she doesn’t hesitate to help a hungry beggar in need. She confesses outright that he she isn’t interested in the man she thinks is the prince (Dandini the lackey in disguise), and admits to having developed romantic feelings for a man who occupies a far humbler station, his page boy (really the Prince in disguise). And then when she finally winds up on top of the wedding cake with the actual Prince, she doesn’t seek revenge against the family that had abused her for long. Instead she pleads for mercy and makes a case for why they should all be forgiven and embraced by life in the new court. And so: Goodness triumphs in the end.

Lei: The sets had several whimsical nods to surrealism: a Magrittian chorus of men with umbrellas, suitcases and bowler hats, parting asymmetrical walls, a wedding cake topped with actual singers playing the nuptial couple and a dream-like scintillating sea from which Cinderella emerges at the ball. While at first Cesare Lievi’s sets seemed too bare, as the opera progressed I got to appreciate their subtle irony since at the end of the day fairy tales are by definition surreal. Mime-type make up for virtually all characters except for the Prince and Cinderella was also an interest contrast to emphasize the “true” couple.

Cinderella magically emerging from the sea
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
The singers-topped wedding cake
Photo credit: Sara Kulwrich / The New York Times
The surrealist take was conceptually intriguing, with some things working nicely, as the trick of tying all the singers in a tangled knot, liberalizing the metaphor in the Act II sextet “Un nodo avvilupato,” and some others not at all, like the absurd trattoria-style feast à la Un Americano a Roma. All in all, I do prefer the 1981 movie version of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s landmark La Scala production, which is definitely more traditional but also more effective in conveying the social contrasts between the Don Magnifico household and the Prince’s palace, its caricature chorus of male lackeys more fitting the joyful music and more visually engaging than a group of stern grey men out of a Magritte painting.

– Lei & Lui
Un nodo avviluppato
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera

A royal palace banquet?
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera

* Always have thirty servants in full livery, with 116 horses. Invite dukes in coaches by the dozen for dinners with ice cream.
** Frankly, that won’t be possible. I never give dinner parties. I eat scraps, mix with servants, and travel on foot.

Dream Meets Reality

Bellini’s La Sonnambula
Met - April 1, 2014

I have never seen Bellini’s La Sonnambula performed “straight,” that is to say, in a traditional way, but I suspect I may find it flat after having discovered this opera through Mary Zimmerman’s production when it premiered in 2009. This was my third time seeing it and I continue to like it quite a lot, especially since it fleshes out and refreshes an otherwise pretty linear and not particularly exciting or dynamic story, all while expanding on its themes.

Diana Damrau stars as the star of the show
Photo credit: Marty Sohl 
The plot is very simple: village boy and girl are about to get married. Girl happens to be a sleepwalker and ends up in the bed of another man. Boy throws a jealous fit and calls off the wedding. Girl is heartbroken because she did not do anything wrong and really, really loves boy. Once the sleepwalking misunderstanding is cleared up everybody returns to their lovey-dovey selves again and all ends well.

The dreamer on set at rehearsal
Photo credit: Marty Sohl 
Zimmerman stages Bellini’s work in the rehearsal room of an opera company preparing a La Sonnambula performance. The production notes tell us that the story, actions and characters of the village are all coincident with those of the rehearsal room. This blurred line between reality and art (that is itself double faced – “rehearsal” vs. “Met” performance) raises questions of what is art and how life is influenced by it and vice versa. Since there is no distinct difference between the two, the viewer is kept wondering if she is seeing the opera or “real life.” This riffs on other contrasting themes of the original opera, such as the different perceptions of the same reality by the “awake” and the “sleepwalker” and the tension between what you see and what you believe. In many ways, the public of Zimmerman’s production experiences the same doubts and confusion of the opera’s characters, not knowing whether to fully believe what it sees is part of the show or part of the characters’ reality.

The chorus rebels
Photo credit: Richard Perry, NYTimes
Among the several hilariously entertaining bits, I particularly liked the anarchic frenzy at the end of act one when the chorus members/villagers think Amina has been spending the night with the count. They all give up on the rehearsal and start trashing costumes and destroying scores, even trying to pull the prompter’s (and the prompter himself) out of the hole, as if to say “if this is the way things are going we don’t like it and we don’t want to be a part of it anymore! We want chaste virtuous Adina, not this double-faced trollop!”

Diana Damrau dreams 
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera
Diana Damrau carried the show, being there and having fun, showcasing great acting and sense of humor – she even cartwheeled in the finale and at curtain call! Her singing was sensational, with light trills, piercing pure sound, ranging from the sweetest tone to the more cheerful energetic bel canto – just they way a coloratura soprano should be (though she can also do Verdi pretty wonderfully too).

Tenor Taylor Stayton was disappointing, even more so because the 2 prior times I saw this opera Alvino was played by Juan Diego Florez (who is perfect for this type of role). Stayton’s Alvino was shrill, lacked warmth and expressiveness and even his acting was bland – really showing that bel canto should either be done right or not at all.

Michele Pertusi and Rachelle Durkin share an intimate moment
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera
Baritone Michele Pertusi as Count Rodolfo was solid, with commanding acting and a warm, deep sound. Soprano Rachelle Durkin was an awkward and goofy Lisa but her slapstick acting worked with the character and all in all sang well.

La Sonnambula showcases the chorus way more than other bel canto operas and the Met chorus really shined, not only with great singing, but also having fun with Zimmerman’s production and playing a key role in emphasizing the theater within the theater side of it.

Damrau dances a joyful jig 
Photo credit: Jonathan Tichler / The Metropolitan Opera 
The finale is an uplifting celebration of all the confusion that has just transpired. Everybody ends up in costume as though they’ve finally stepped out of the rehearsal room onto the “real” Met stage to perform the show they’ve been preparing for. Except, in the very moment that all the different realities are meant to collide, the scenery breaks up and the illusion of the rehearsal room and the Met stage is laid bare. All is dream, all is reality.

Lei & Lui

Evvivan gli sposi!
Photo credit: Jonathan Tichler / The Metropolitan Opera