Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Fall Opera Season beyond the Met

The new opera season will start soon and, while we are excited about the Met’s program (and bought tickets for 15 shows so far), the NYC’s opera scene goes way beyond it. Here’s an overview of the non-Met performances we’ll be looking forward to this fall:

Wilson meets Shakespeare meets Wainwright
Photo credit: Lesley Leslie-Spinks

BAM’s Next Wave Festival offers a collaboration between director Robert Wilson and composer Rufus Wainwright to transpose 25 Shakespeare Sonnets into music, set to “everything from medieval German Minnesang to cabaret rock”. While not strictly operatic, we enjoyed Wilson’s work in Einstein on the Beach and The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, so this one, too, may be an interesting experiment. Berliner Ensemble will perform. October 7-12 at BAM Opera House.

We’re always ready to discover a new Donizetti and are thankful to Amore Opera for showing his rarely performed opera semiseria La Zingara. Good old L'Elisir D’Amore is also a sure pleasure. Both operas are scheduled for dates in October TBA at the Connelly Theater.

Gioacchino Rossini
And speaking of non-mainstream bel canto, we’re in for a Rossini treat, with performances of L’Italiana in Algeri (by Utopia Opera) and Il Turco in Italia (by Juilliard). It will be interesting to catch these two in the same month as the 22-year-old Rossini composed Il Turco only a year after the successful premiere of L’Italiana. This second work stirred so much animosity that the 1814 Milan public accused the composer of cheating them, given the similarity between the two works. Let’s see what the NYC public thinks this November. Utopia Opera:  November 14-15 at the Lang Recital Hall (Hunter College) – Juilliard: November 19, 21 and 23 in Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater.

The first one of the two-fold Rossini bill this November
Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival proposes innovative and often experimental takes on traditional works. Of particular interest this year we flag two sacred music performances and one Romantic song cycle. Peter Sellars will stage Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion at the always-exciting Park Avenue Armory space. The performance will eliminate the separation between artist and audience, with “musicians and singers moving amongst each other.” Music by the Berliner Philharmoniker, with notable singers such as Eric Owens, Mark Padmore and Christian Gerhaher. October 7-8 at Park Avenue Armory.

Image credit: Park Avenue Armory
Another oratorio-ish White Light Festival experience will be How like an angel, where six acrobats will be soaring over the audience to the overtones of sacred song in a collaboration between Australian avant-garde circus troupe Circa and early-music choir I Fagiolini. Music will range from Renaissance motets, medieval monody, South African gospel, to contemporary music. Everything will be set in a church, of course. October 22-24 at the James Memorial Chapel, Union Theological Seminar.

Circus acrobats and sacred music
Photo credit: Chris Taylor
After being blown away by William Kentridge’s hypnotic animations for Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Met, we cannot but run to get our tickets for the South African artist’s new work of mixed-media landscapes for Schubert’s Romantic song cycle Winterreise. Baritone Matthias Goerne (who got many accolades last year for his last minute Wozzeck) will perform. November 11 at Alice Tully Hall.

Schubert meets Kentridge
Photo credit: Lukas Beck
Regina Opera’s Rigoletto was one of our great discoveries this year. Who knew such great Verdian talent was hiding in a church theater in Sunset Park. They will be doing another Verdi (Un Ballo in Maschera) in November. We’ll be there, ready to weep. November 22-23 and 29-30 at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help School (OLPH) Auditorium.

And of course one cannot go wrong with the always wonderful Joyce Di Donato. The mezzo soprano will be in charge of a “Perspectives” series at Carnegie Hall and she’ll be uncovering rarely performed baroque works such as Handel’s Alcina with an opera in concert on October 26 and Vivaldi/Rossini/Hahn arias in a recital evocatively named “A journey through Venice” on November 4.

Diva Di Donato
Photo credit: Yankee Diva website
Image credit: One World Symphony
One World Symphony caught our eye with their pop culture flavoring of operatic recitals. Their marketing is catchy and cleverly aims at making classical themes universal and contemporary . An example of their “operasodes” (operatic episodes?) is “New Girls,” inspired by an apparently popular TV series - though we confess we are not familiar with it so perhaps we're not the targeted audience here. Regardless of the funky packaging, the show promises to deliver “some of opera’s most vivacious divas in their own life and love endeavors: feisty females like Adele (Die Fledermaus) or Susanna (The Marriage of Figaro), starlit scene stealers like Musetta (La Bohème), heart-melting heroines like Mimi (La Bohème) or Contessa (Figaro), or the ultimate new girl like The Merry Widow.” We’re all for sexing up opera to spread it to the wider younger crowds and we’ll be curious to see if the level of the performance will be up to the marketing one. October 26-27 at Holy Apostles (296 Ninth Avenue at West 28th Street, Manhattan).

We bid Natalie Dessay’s adieu to the operatic stage a year ago, and cannot be more excited that she’s apparently taking a break from her new jazz career to perform Le Concert d’Astrée, an all Handel program (including her dazzling Cleopatra from Giulio Cesare) at Alice Tully Hall. It’s a concert setting so probably no Bollywood dancing as in David McVicar’s production but still it should be grand. November 30 at Alice Tully Hall.

Our favorite Cleopatra
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / The Metropolitan Opera

- Lui & Lei

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Tiny yet Mighty Macbeth

Verdi's Macbeth

Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble 
August 24, 2014 - East 13th Street Theater

The scheming couple
Photo credit: Brian Long
Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble has done it again. Maestro Christopher Fecteau’s adaptation of Verdi’s score to the chamber setting worked beautifully. The small orchestra of just 20 musicians managed to convey Verdi’s firepower and grandiosity with a fierce intensity that literally made the air vibrate in the tiny space of the East 13th Street Theater. Counterintuitively, the intimate setting amplified the Verdian experience, making it more visceral and essential. Many times throughout the performance I felt the shivers run up my spine from the sheer haunting power of the score, a feeling that I did not experience when seeing Macbeth in a big house like the Met.

Ambizioso spirto, tu sei Macbetto
Photo credit: Brian Long
I was all tingles when soprano Mary Ann Stewart as Lady Macbeth took the stage for her first big aria (Ambizioso spirto, tu sei Macbetto) and came out larger than life. Initially she may have come out a bit too big, especially as she hit the notes in the higher range with a near brutal violence considering the intimacy of the black box space of the Classic Stage Company theater on East 13th Street, but this could also just be interpreted as part of her character – an almost vampiric femme fatale with an unwieldy will to power. Her initial vocal fireworks were so powerful that I can understand why Macbeth might be accustomed to feeling his hair stand up on end, as he sings elsewhere though about his encounter with the witches (Sento rizzarmi i capelli). I know that the hair on the back of my neck bristled as she burst into megalomaniacal song over the cryptic promise of a regal future for her husband. A promise that she very much intends to make good on.

Lady Macbeth on the verge of a nervous breakdown
Photo credit: Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
Stewart’s Lady Macbeth only improved over time. I feel like by the end she inhabited her voice with more and more control, and continued to tailor it to the context of the space better and better by the time she got to her famous sleepwalking aria in Act IV. She was as haunting as ever. Startling to see such a powerful woman fall from such heights and sink so low. As Verdi wrote some of the most dynamic music not for the eponymous male lead but for Lady Macbeth, this is really her opera. Stewart brought this paradoxically tragic figure to life.

King for a little bit
Photo credit: Brian Long
Baritone Jason Plourde as Macbeth had good stage presence and inhabited this challenging character convincingly. Some of his vowels in the Italian dropped out a bit but all in all his was a solid performance, growing particularly strong in Act III when the prophecies start to tragically come true. In the final act Plourde’s singing was raging and his acting intense, powerfully conveying Macbeth’s downward spiral journey.

Who's pushing whom?
Photo credit: Brian Long
I found it interesting that Verdi’s Macbeth needs so little coaxing from his overbearing wife in order to commit the initial crime. The opera streamlines most of their early sexually charged quibbling over whether or not to act on the prophecies of the weird sisters. Musically her character far and away outshines her husband in terms of character and willfulness, complexity and depth, however, in terms of the narrative Macbeth acts more of his own mind especially in committing the first crime, which is slightly at odds with the most common portrayal of the Shakespearean source material, not to mention the fact that it clashes with a weak or indecisive representation of Macbeth in his first series of encounters with the witches in the aftermath of battle. Macbeth in Verdi demands to be played as even more of a bear and a beast and a brute from the get go. Even if the thought to overthrow the king only dawns on him by the power of suggestion, first and foremost by the witches but later also by his wife, by that time, in Verdi’s version he seems to have already made up his mind to go through with it. And even then, the vision of the dagger with its handle pointed toward him seems to be far more the sign on which he acts, not the prodding of his alpha femme wife.

Banco, must thou die so soon?
Photo credit: Brian Long
Why does our favorite singer always have to die so soon? After dying early as Seneca in last year’s Poppea, bass Hans Tashjian prematurely left us again as Banco (Banquo) in this year’s Macbeth. Aside from Lady Macbeth’s magnetic yet frightening stage presence, Tashjian was on another level with respect to the rest of the cast. His enunciation was excellent and his bass instrument was low and bold and resounding. This singer is growing more confident and expressive every time we see him, really an artist to keep an eye on and always a pleasure to see. Now can we please give him more extensive roles? Where are all the bass leads?

The perfectly weird sisters
Photo credit: Brian Long
Monica Niemi (soprano), Jackie Hayes (alto) and Elizabeth Bouk (mezzo) were the perfect witches, their choreographies precise and their singing piercingly scary (as it should be). Musically their part needs to be played (and sung) with an almost breathless sense of urgency and in conductor Christopher Fecteau’s hands it was executed just so. Director Myra Cordell used the chorus of witches to very good effect as they just kept appearing (even when the score does not expressly call for them), emphasizing the haunting role of fate and superstition that runs throughout the opera. They served to deliver the dagger in Macbeth’s vision as well as to conjure the corpse of the dead Banquo to rise to his feet in the haunting Act II banquet scene. Written as a chorus of forty in the original Verdi score, their reduction to three lacked none of their signature bewitching sense of urgency. Not only were they hypnotic and scary but as three they were also more faithful to the original Shakespeare.

The ensemble/comprimari (Isaac Assor, Andy Berry, Jonathan Dauermann, Nathalie Dixon, Milica Nikcevic, Milan Rakic) did an amazing job in the chorus sections. It was surprising to see how only six singers could effectively convey the firepower of a Verdian chorus. When in their solo parts, I was particularly impressed by Andy Berry and Milica Nikcevic. Bass Berry’s Italian was excellent and his instrument soothingly powerful. Mezzo Nikevic had a clear piercing musicality, especially in her prophecy bit, that left me wanting to hear more from her.

Macbeth and his men
Photo credit: Brian Long
Last but not least, a special mention for very young actor Gabriel Griezelj as Banco’s son Fleanzio. He had great stage presence for his innocent role and added the perfect dramatic touch when deftly running away from Macbeth’s men sent to kill him and his father. Griezelj was so good that he'll be debuting at the Met in this same role in October!

Young Gabriel Griezelj in action as Fleanzio
It was another triumph of intimate opera. For what was billed as a semi-staged production, the Dell’Arte Opera cast and crew delivered an awfully captivating performance. The costumes by Nina Bova were simple but suggestive. Every scene was acted out vividly. While there were few props or sets of any kind, the spectacle still whisked us away. A great conclusion to NYC’s summer opera season.

- Lui & Lei

An explosively intimate Verdi
Photo credit: Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Donizetti Diamond in the Rough

Lucrezia Borgia (1833)
Gaetano Donizetti
Caramoor Opera (Bel Canto at Caramoor)

July 12, 2014

The Italian Pavilion at Caramoor
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lei: After being blown away by Roberto Devereux at Carnegie Hall last month, it was a pleasure to discover yet another rarely performed Donizetti gem at the Caramoor Bel Canto festival. We got to Katonah in the early afternoon so we had time to enjoy the gorgeous Italian-style gardens dotted with modern sound installations, attend intriguing panel discussions that fleshed out topics such as Victor Hugo in opera and Donizetti’s influence on Verdi, listen to a pleasant bel canto recital by the Caramoor young artists program and leisurely picnic in a bucolic setting feeling very much like Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe. By the time we got to the evening performance we were already bewitched by Caramoor’s charms, and their Lucrezia Borgia conducted by a high energy Will Crutchfield only made things better.

Lui: The opera’s plot is a tight succession of juicy dramatic tableaux that revolve around the anti-heroine Lucrezia Borgia: a fierce and reckless ruler with a penchant for disposing of her enemies with poisoned wine. Hated by many but possessively adored by Alfonso D’Este, her current jealous husband, Lucrezia kindles a motherly affection for her illegitimate son, Gennaro, who, of course, loathes the Borgias. Little does he know that he too is descended of that line. As in other Donizetti operas, the tension between the leading lady’s public role (as bloody ruler) and her private sentiments (as tender mother) creates explosive drama.

Mother and son in full cry
Lei: The duets between Lucrezia and her son Gennaro are often heart wrenching, particularly in the Prologue, when he confides in her his desire to be reunited with the mother he has never known (“Io non la vidi mai”). In Act I, when Gennaro is in trouble for having vandalized the “Borgia” sign (by removing the “B” and leaving “Orgia”), he prays to his unknown mother, who is simultaneously being coerced into poisoning him, only to immediately remedy that by administering an antidote. These mother-son exchanges culminate in the final scene, when Lucrezia reveals his identity to him (“Un Borgia sei”) and begs him not to commit matricide (“Ti risparmio un fallo orrendo, il tuo sangue non versar”). As in Verdi’s Rigoletto, likewise based on a play by Hugo (and conveniently paired Lucrezia Borgia in this year’s Caramoor program), Lucrezia’s vendetta backfires in a highly tragic finale where she ends up killing her own son, having poisoned him (again!) but with no time to save him.

Bosom buddies: Gennaro and Orsini
Lui: Who knows why this action packed and fiery pseudo-historical drama isn’t performed more often. In 1904 when the Metropolitan Opera last gave it a day at court, with no less than Enrico Caruso in the role of Gennaro, a reviewer for the New York Times brusquely wrote it off. Some say its because it lacks a central love interest. After the title character, Maffio Orsini occupies the center of the opera. Orsini is a dynamic trouser role composed to be sung by a mezzo-soprano. His/her arias were among the highlights of the night, starting with “Nella fatal di Rimini,” the first aria of the opera. The Orsini character occupies the same narrative and emotional space that the Duke occupies in Rigoletto. In his respect, rather than a love interest, this particular Hugo play (and Donzietti’s treatment of it) emphasizes the theme of male camaraderie. The strength of the bond between the two is particularly evident early in Act II, when Gennaro is about to leave (and thus escape death) but Orsini, deeply offended by his friend’s parting, convinces him to stay because their destinies are tied together. Their duet at the end of this specific scene is emotionally charged with joyful love, as is the libretto:

Sia qual vuolsi il tuo destino, 
Esso è mio: lo giuro ancora.
Mio Gennaro!
Caro Orsino!
Teco sempre ... o viva, o mora. 
Qual due fiori a un solo stelo, 
Qual due fronde a un ramo sol,
Noi vedremo sereno il cielo.
O saremo curvati al suol.*

Likening their affectionate bond to two flowers on one stem and two leaves on one branch, Orsini and Gennaro embody the classical ideal of friendship as the sharing of one soul in bodies twain. It is a moving moment in the score and occupies the space that would otherwise be reserved for a romantic subplot. Perhaps good, old-fashioned friendship does not appeal to audiences in quite the same way as a steamy love story. There is real feeling between Orsini and Gennaro, just as there seems to be between Gilda and the Duke in Verdi’s masterpiece.  

Lei: Rigoletto’s musical similarities with Lucrezia Borgia are astonishing, so much that I thought at many points: “This sounds so Verdian,” while of course I should have rather said that Verdi sounds “Donizettian.” The first time I heard Orsini’s drinking song, for example, I immediately thought about the opening party scene in Rigoletto, and that is just one of many passages that resonated with an anxiety of influence. The plots of the two operas also have a lot of common themes, which should not come as a surprise since both operas are based on Victor Hugo plays (Lucrèce Borgia and Le roi s’amuse). The infausto vaticinio by a cavaliere who prophesies that Orsini and Gennaro will die together and that they should beware the Borgias is not so different from Monterone’s maledizione. The tender duets between Lucrezia and her son Gennaro are poignantly reminiscent of those between Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda. Donizetti’s leading lady is as morally crooked as Rigoletto is physically deformed. The lurking spy Gubetta finds his echo in the shady assassin Sparafucile. And the list could go on.

Husband and wife go head to head
Lei: It was a semi-staged show with the orchestra on stage and the singers in the foreground in eveningwear and doing only a bit of acting. All performers were so stellar that I did not miss costumes and scenes but, rather, could focus entirely on the music and the drama, also thanks to the excellent acoustics of the Venetian theater. All singers had excellent Italian diction so I was not even distracted by the supertitles.

Christophoros Stamboglis sings Alfonso d'Este
Lui: One of the musical highlights of the night was the epic confrontation in Act II, in which soprano Angela Meade’s Lucrezia Borgia and bass Christophoros Stamboglis’s Duke of Ferrara go head to head over whether or not to poison Gennaro. In their ferocious singing they really brought the power struggle between headstrong husband and wife savagely to life. It was without a doubt one of the most vivid musical moments of the evening. Even though it was only a semi-staged show, both singers really let themselves get carried away with the emotions of the scene and together they achieved the kind of intensity of heightened emotion that only truly talented interpreters/singers of great opera can achieve. When Lucrezia reminds her husband that he better be careful since she’s a Borgia with a track record of getting rid of her spouses, Meade was all fangs and barbed threats. Her musical rage was scaring, in a crescendo of regal fury that literally made the air vibrate and the public gasp.

Angela Meade as Lucrezia Borgia
Lei: Angela Meade’s Lucrezia was on fire. Her voice has sheer power and agility, commanding bel canto fireworks but also delivering extraordinarily tender moments. Her range and expressivity were impressive. In her opening aria, while she laments that everybody hates her (“m’aborre ognuno”) and lovingly contemplates her sleeping son, Meade was profoundly lyrical and moving. This soprano is getting better every time I see her and I cannot wait to see her again. Her schedule will bring her back to New York for Guglielmo Tell (Carnegie Hall, December), Verdi’s Requiem (NY Philharmonic, January) and Ernani (Met, March/April).

Tamara Mumford
Michele Angelini
Mezzo-soprano TamaraMumford as Orsini was a revelation. She was high energy and embodied the male role with sass, wearing tight black pants, stilettos and a sexy white tuxedo jacket. The intensity of her acting matched her singing while she perfectly delivered the many layers of the Orsini role: from his chilling opening monologue that so succinctly sets the tone for the evil streak that runs through everything Borgia (“dov’è Lucrezia è morte”), to tender friendship moments with Gennaro, to the joyful drinking songs that open and close the opera. While reading Mumford’s biography I realized that we actually saw her before at the Met (singing smaller roles like Smeaton in Anna Bolena and Margaret in Wozzeck), Orsini is definitely a beefier part, that put this mezzo-soprano front and center and really allowed us to appreciate her.

Tenor Michele Angelini brought freshness to his portrayal of Gennaro. Although he was a bit dwarfed by the ladies’ firepower at the beginning, he warmed up after the first act and grew stronger throughout the opera. As an actor he embodied the right blend of arrogance and naiveté. Despite being an orphan who is a bit lost in the world, he is also at the same time independent minded and relatively sure of himself. Angelini brought out several of this character’s many layers.
Joseph Charles Beutel
Hans Tashjian
Zachary Altman

There was really not a weak link to be found, right down to the minor characters. Bass-baritone JosephCharles Beutel had great stage presence and a deep, well-rounded tone as Lucrezia’s spy Gubetta. His singing particularly raged in the fiery confrontation with Orsini in Act II. Baritone Zachary Altman had probably five minutes tops on stage as Astolfo (another villain at La Borgia’s service), and in so little time he was bewitching, extremely charismatic, with very clear diction and deep, expressive singing, that kept me on the edge of my seat – definitely a singer to look out for. Another artist that had limited but excellent stage presence was bass Hans Tashjian (as Don Apostolo Gazella, one of the anti-Borgia fellas), whom we discovered last year in dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and will look forward to seeing again in that same company’s Macbeth later this summer.

Lei & Lui

The Sunken Garden at Caramoor
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
* O thy fortune, whatever it may be, / Shall be mine, again I swear it, / Life or death, together we share it. / My Gennaro / Dear Orsini / Twin-born flowers, in union growing, / Twin-born leaflets upon a branch, / We show one smile, if summer be glowing, / ‘Neath the tempest we equally blanch.