Wednesday, April 15, 2015

BYOB Opera in Upper Manhattan

Opera Company of Brooklyn (OCB) was founded in 2000 to give young singers experience with opera, and its Bring Your Own Beverage (BYOB) series of intimate readings began in 2005. With very little rehearsal as a group, OCB presents semi-staged readings (not yet memorized) of popular operas in intimate venues such as company founder and Artistic Director Jay Meetze's upper Manhattan apartment. The format of the BYOB series is to cut dialogue and most chorus music to focus on the music of the principal roles. On Saturday I was able to hear the group present the curious combination of The Impresario and Pagliacci.

Aine Hakamatsuka
Saturday night's performance began with Mozart's popular one-act opera Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario). Cutting all the dialogue left two arias, a trio, and a quartet, all beautifully sung. My favorite from this small cast was Aine Hakamatsuka, who sang Madame Silberklang with a light, agile sound, and acted the prima donna with the childish impetuousness required. Tenor Ivan Rivera was a fine Vogelsang in the famous trio, trying to make peace between the two warring prima donnas. Heidi Sauser as Madame Hertz and Boris Mitchell as Buff rounded out the cast.

It must have been the limited rehearsal time and the fact some of the singers had previously sung their roles in German that prevented Mr. Meetze from presenting the opera in English to really bring the comedy across. For shows like The Impresario and Die Fledermaus, I'm a big fan of performing in the local language and making the lyrics topical whenever possible.

Elana Gleason
The undisputed star of Pagliacci was Elana Gleason as Nedda. Although a lighter voice than one usually hears as Nedda, Ms. Gleason sang the role with great skill and beauty. Whether she was acting as Nedda, longing to run away with her lover, or play-acting as Colombine in the play within the play, one couldn't tear one's eyes away.

Nedda's young lover Silvio was well sung by Brian Ming Chiu. Villain Tonio was sung by Michael O'Hearn, who seemed impaired by allergies but otherwise fully committed to the jealous, vengeful clown. Canio, Nedda's husband, was sung by Byron Singleton. I don't think the role suits his voice, but he managed it capably.

Pianist Naoko Aita very capably accompanied both operas, with Mr. Meetze conducting.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

My Bachtrack review of Don Carlo at the Met

(c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
On Monday I was in attendance as the Metropolitan Opera presented this season's revival of Nicholas Hytner's 2010 production of Don Carlo. Verdi's longest opera is always a wonder, and this was a successful production, with good singing and acting. 

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Friday, March 27, 2015

My cover story in Classical Singer magazine!

Scholar and Singer: Ian Bostridge

by David Browning
To say that tenor Ian Bosridge’s path to a singing career was atypical is an understatement. Bostridge earned advanced degrees in history from Cambridge, wrote his first book on witchcraft, and worked in television before beginning his career as a singer at age 30. Now a veteran artist with performances at Covent Garden, Carnegie Hall, and Glyndebourne on his résumé, Bostridge has returned to writing, his most recent book focusing on Schubert’s Winterreise. Truly a scholar and a singer, Bostridge speaks about his views on art song, opera, musicology, and music history through both lenses.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Purcell’s and Peter Sellars’ Indian Queen at English National Opera

By guest blogger Judy Dixey

When you realise you’re going to a Peter Sellars’ production, you wonder how much will be lunatic, and how much will be magic. Getting tickets to the penultimate performance at English National Opera’s London Coliseum at the last minute – such a treat – you plunge in without much research or preparation; are you going to have to read detailed programme notes to find out actually what’s going on?

Maritxell Carrero
(c) Richard Hubert Smith
The answer to that is “yes” but the programme is worth it. A fascinating historic note outlines the machinations, political and personnel, which surrounded the first production. Purcell’s untimely death, actor walk-outs, companies amalgamating, combined with changing tastes, all mean there is little left of the original. The original Dryden play had been a big success in the 1660s with its bizarre pagan rituals and colour, and it was this that Purcell, 30 years later, was to begin to bring to life in music in the year he died. There are only about 45 minutes of music extant, so in creating a 5-act opera, Peter Sellars has really made a new piece, using Purcell’s glorious music. For the libretto, he is inspired by The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma, by Rosario Aguilar. This is written as a chronicle of the events, but giving a woman’s point of view. So he is able to focus on Teculihuatzin, the Indian Queen of the title, who was “given” to Don Pedro the Conquistador in marriage, but also as a secret agent for her people.

As a result, Mr. Sellars is able to engage the wonderful Puerto Rican actor Maritxell Carrero in the speaking roles of the Queen and her daughter, giving commentary and explanation, ramping up the emotion of Purcell’s plangent music. The Queen (peerless Julia Bullock, in her debut in London) falls head over heels in love with, and is then discarded by, the Conquistador, who returns to Spain to find a bride. All the while, there is the most outstanding singing from all the cast, and brilliant playing by the raised, in-sight orchestra. It’s all bad news for the Aztecs/Mexicans as they are betrayed and slaughtered.

The Indian Queen
(c) Richard Hubert Smith
Much commentary is also carried by four dancers, portraying the several ages of the Mayan Creation before the arrival of the Spanish, and then appearing as ghostly figures personifying the emotions of the final scenes. Think Rite of Spring in Nijinsky’s choreography, angular, jagged, but in this case, based on what is known of Mayan culture and images observed in their sacred places.

The superb cast also includes Lucy Crowe and Thomas Walker as the Spanish governors, and Noah Stewart plays the role of the caddish conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado. He does live up to the good looks which win over his Indian Queen. The ensemble has already performed this piece to great acclaim in Spain and Russia.

With all these forces, engaging music, voice, dance and design, Peter Sellars takes a piece languishing in 17th century obscurity and gives it a new life. He also brings in a certain 21st century feel, acknowledging and allowing for our contemporary attitude to, and deeper understanding of, the genocide of 400 years ago.

What an evening – fabulous Purcell – and a really interesting “new” opera for the 21st century!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

My Bachtrack review of the new Hoffmann cast at the Met

Audrey Luna as Olympia,
Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann
(c) Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Bartlett Sher's 2009 Metropolitan Opera production of Les contes d'Hoffman was revived this season, opening on January 12 with a cast that included Vittorio Grigolo and Thomas Hampson. On February 28 a second, quite stunning cast took over. I hadn't seen Mr. Sher's production before, and I was struck by all the dream-like, almost absurdist visual references – Bedlam, carnival in Venice, Versailles – that worked together to emphasize Hoffmann's decline into madness, which clearly wasn't a long journey for him.
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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My Bachtrack review of Ariadne at Curtis Opera Theater

Heather Stebbins (Ariadne) and Kevin Ray (Bacchus)
Photo (c) Cory Weaver
On Sunday, I was delighted to see the final performance of Curtis Opera Theater's Ariadne auf Naxos, produced in conjunction with Opera Philadelphia and performed at Philadelphia's beautiful Kimmel Center. I'm a big fan of opera on every professional level, including high-level conservatory productions like this. The Curtis Institute has long been considered one of the nation's top music schools. Its impressive list of alumni includes Leonard Bernstein and Eric Owens. To be part of such a school's voice and opera program suggests a great talent, and there was talent aplenty onstage Sunday afternoon.
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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

My Bachtrack review of the Vienna Philharmonic and Westminster Choir performing the Brahms Requiem

Soloist Diana Damrau
(c) Michael Tammaro
Imagine my joy at having the opportunity hear the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir perform Brahms' German Requiem, one of the most beautiful and deeply personal choral masterworks I know. I can not hide my love of choral music. There is something uniquely spiritual in the blending of voices with a common intent of communicating a message. There is something beautiful in the integration of voices of people from all backgrounds. There is something healing in singing and hearing this great music. I recall the performances of the Brahms and Mozart Requiems that were quickly produced across the U.S. soon after 9/11. My teachers in college told me of similar occurrences after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.   Read more.