Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Shabby Little Shocker at Merkin Concert Hall

On Tuesday evening, The Martha Cardona Theater presented Mr. Puccini's Tosca in concert at Merkin Concert Hall, a very ambitious undertaking. Daniel Cardona deserves kudos for producing this concert. Aside from a few technical glitches and a ragged orchestra, it was mostly a successful evening.

Tosca is based on Victorien Sardou’s play, La Tosca, with libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppa Giacosa. It is a story of political intrigue, murder, lust, and a jealous soprano. A Parisian critic wrote in 1900 that Tosca “is coarsely puerile, pretentious and vapid.” (The phrase “shabby little shocker” comes from musicologist Joseph Kerman’s 1956 book Opera as Drama, not from Puccini’s time.) Puerile or not, Tosca can always be counted on to sell tickets, and audiences leave humming its melodies. When done well, Tosca can be devastating.

And devastating it was. Soprano Stella Zambalis was 100% committed to Tosca from beginning to end. Her Tosca was both regal and childish, loving and self absorbed. Ms. Zambalis has had a long and distinguished career, and Tuesday's performance left little doubt of the reasons behind her success. Jason Stearns was an equally passionate Scarpia. Large of voice and commanding of presence, Mr. Stearns was every bit the equal of Ms. Zambalis in stage presence and commitment. Ta'u Pupu'a was a virile and ardent Cavaradossi.

All three principals had sung their roles at least once before, which was quite evident in watching and hearing them. Show pieces from the opera--Vissi d'arte, the Te Deum, Cavaradossi's two arias--as well as moments such as "Vittoria! Vittoria" and "O dolci mani"--were all sung and acted beautifully. All three singers had many truly stunning moments vocally, but all three also had one or two moments when fatigue or wear had a subtle effect on the most difficult vocal passages.

Smaller roles were filled with younger singers. The Angelotti of Matthew Curran and the Sacristan of Kian Freitas were particular favorites.

Brian Holman conducted a pick-up orchestra of very young-looking players. Their playing was a bit ragged--synchronization issues, missed entrances, intonation issues, balance issues with the cast--but Mr. Holman dealt with the apparent inexperience of the group and kept everything together.

The opera was semi-staged on Merkin's Concert Hall's stage. No program credit was given for a director, but I suspect it was Mr. Cardona himself. The size of the stage and the number of people on it at times made this a bit problematic. I feared the close proximity of cast to orchestra might interfere with the orchestra's playing. All three acts ended with someone on the floor, including Scarpia on one knee at the end of the Act I Te Deum, and it seemed awkward when they got up and walked off stage either with or after the conductor.

Quibbles aside, overall I call this concert a success. The rest of the audience certainly agreed with that opinion, generous with applause and shouts of "Bravo!"

Jason Stearns  Stella Zambalis Ta'u Pupu'a

Monday, November 3, 2014

Profile: Martha Cardona Theatre

Daniel Cardona never saw an opera before 2006. He fell so in love with the art form, just three years later he formed his own opera company. The Martha Cardona Theatre was formed in part to keep the memory of Daniel's mother, her love of music, and her generous nature alive, and in part to spread his love opera. (Mrs. Cardona died in 2005.) The company started small in 2009, with staged scenes and one-act operas, but by the next year was presenting concert performances of full operas like La Boheme and L'Elisir d'Amore. "We want to show everyone that opera is accessible and a thing of beauty and happiness," says Mr. Cardona. "All you need to enjoy it is your heart."

The Martha Cardona Theater will present a concert performance of Tosca November 18 at Merkin Concert Hall. Featured cast member include Metropolitan Opera veterans Jason Stearns and Stella Zambalis, and NFL star-turned-opera star Ta'u Pupu'a.

Jason Stearns  Stella Zambalis Ta'u Pupu'a

Other upcoming events:

January, TBA:   
Massenet's Werther
Featuring Ola Rafalo (Opera Carolina, Syracuse Opera) as Charlotte

January 28 at the National Opera Center
Quintessential Quintiliani, an Evening with Barbara Quintiliani
Ms. Quintiliani has been compared to such iconic singers as Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballe, and Rosa Ponselle, and has appeared with Washington National Opera (Elettra in Idomeneo, opposite Placido Domingo).
Musical Director/Pianist - Sean Kelly (Metropolitan Opera, Seattle Opera, Fort Worth Opera)

February, TBA, at the National Opera Center
An Evening with Sandra Lopez de Haro
Ms. Lopez de Haro has performed internationally on tour with Andrea Bocelli, and with such companies as The Metropolitan Opera, Fort Worth Opera and Florida Grand Opera.
Musical Director/Pianist - Howard Watkins (Metropolitan Opera, Tanglewood Music Center, Washington National Opera)


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Taminophile revisits the wonder that is Dame Janet Baker

I know this interview by dear Joyce DiDonato with Dame Janet Baker has been posted across the blogosphere many times since August, 2013, but I just now watched it again, and I am both remarkably inspired and in tears. Two very wise women get to talk in front of a camera.

Of course, this leads us to amazing recordings:

I've shared this amazing clip before--Dido at Glyndebourne, 1966, cond. Charles Mackerras:

Brahms Alto Rhapsody, 1979, Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra under János Ferencsik

This one is a surprise, but then again, maybe not (cond. Raymond Leppard, English Chamber Orchestra, 1972):

By contrast, not a surprise at all to hear this in Dame Janet's repertoire, or to hear it sung so beautifully (cond. Sir Neville Mariner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields):

Friday, October 31, 2014

CD Review: Gertrude McFuzz and The Polar Express

One of the delights of being considered a member of the music press is receiving advance copies of new recordings in the hope that I'll write about them. Such is the case with a new recording of Rob Kapilow's settings of Dr. Seuss's Gertrude McFuzz and Chris von Allsburg's story The Polar Express. Both pieces are favorites in the "family music" repertoire for young people's concerts, and it's a delight to hear them both and write about the performances on this CD.

The Boston Globe calls these pieces “The most popular ‘family music’ since Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra".' The Star Ledger (Newark, NJ) raves about Kapilow's music:
Every time you turn around, Kapilow is pulling another rabbit out of another hat.... There’s so much going on that our intrepid little concert-goers have no time to get bored.... The music never loses its atmosphere of slam-bam zaniness. Musically, the score stands up marvelously well — it’s clever and bright, there’s never a dull moment....
Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard sings the story of Gertrude McFuzz, a clever young bird who wants more feathers to become more beautiful. She learns beauty comes at a price, and eventually regains her former form in order to be able to fly. This piece is full of fun, and easily accessible to young listeners.

Baritone Nathan Gunn sings The Polar Express, the story of a young boy who learns there actually is a Santa Claus by taking a trip on the Polar Express, a train to the North Pole. This is the longer of the two pieces, full of descriptive language about the journey and what the boy finds at the end of it. On hearing the story, one's mind is full of beautiful images of snow and magic and joy.

Both singers are very accomplished in the opera world. They both sing these pieces with great love and care to phrasing and text, and there didn't seem to be a single word I couldn't understand. That is great praise for any singer, in my book!

I think this CD would be a great holiday gift for any child who loves a good story, who loves singing, or who loves fun. I recommend it highly.

Monday, October 27, 2014

We bloggers have a motto: Chacun à son goût

On Sunday, October 26, I had the pleasure of seeing Syracuse Opera's production of Die Fledermaus, the opening production of their 40th season. Die Fledermaus has long been one of my favorite shows, and I think Syracuse did a lovely job with it. The story centers around an elaborate practical joke by Dr. Falke at the expense of his friend Eisenstein, in retribution for Eisenstein's earlier joke on Falke. There are many concealed identities, a lot of champagne, and an annoying tenor. If I tried to explain more, it would just be confusing.

Michael Mayes
The excellent cast was the strongest component of this production, and I haven't a single complaint about any of the singing. Baritone Michael Mayes, whom I saw and loved in Madison Opera's Dead Man Walking last spring, was outstanding as Eisenstein, a role that couldn't be more different from Joseph De Rocher. His singing was strong and polished, and he seemed to relish every opportunity to be funny. His high voice made me wish I'd seen his Rigoletto last season, and any other Verdi baritone roles he has on offer. Cindy Sadler was an impressive Orlofsky, deftly handling the vocal challenges and also enjoying the comedy. Usually Orlofsky is sung by a lyric mezzo, but Ms. Sadler lists quite a few dramatic mezzo roles in her bio, so she deserves kudos for negotiating the high tessitura of the role. I hope to see and hear more of her. Katrina Thurman was a feisty Adele, and Jennifer Goode Cooper was a lovely Rosalinde. Neal Ferriera was a delightfully self-absorbed and clueless Alfred, the aforementioned annoying tenor.

Cindy Sadler
Photo:  Richard Blinkoff
Under the capable baton of Artistic Director Douglas Kinney Frost, the Central New York orchestra Symphoria played the score and the interpolated Strauss concert pieces delightfully. The Syracuse Opera Chorus clearly enjoyed this show, and sang well, although I can't help but wonder how much better it would have been had the chorus been twice as large.

The new English version by Jerald Schwiebert was quite a welcome change to some of the deadly dull or painful dialogue and lyrics we sometimes hear, and it tightened up the story and the action considerably. (The title of this blog post is a reference to a phrase from the older translation.)

Quibbles? Very few. Although the set (from Virginia Opera) seemed a bit amateurish in some ways, I did like the unifying element of the faux-great art works hanging on the walls in every scene. And  although I enjoyed the interpolated Strauss concert polkas, it made Acts II and III, which were combined with out an intermission, even longer than necessary.

My complaints are very few, and I must report that the performance as a whole was delightful.  Bravo Syracuse Opera!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Another beloved singer departed from us: Anita Cerquetti

Beloved Anita Cerquetti left us today, at the age of 83.  Here is my tribute to her from 2009:

I give you Anita Cerquetti. There don't appear to be any performance videos available, but here is 1996 video of her hearing a 1956 pirated recording of her Norma in Jan Schmidt-Garre's film Opera Fanatic..

Anita Cerquetti (April 13, 1931) is an Italian dramatic soprano who enjoyed a short but brilliant career in the 1950s.

Cerquetti was born in Montecosaro, near Macerata, Italy. She was first a student of the violin, she trained eight years with Luigi Mori. After a mere one year of vocal study at the Conservatory of Perugia she made her operatic debut in Spoleto in 1951 as Aida. She sang all over Italy, notably in Florence as Noraime in Les Abencérages, under Carlo Maria Giulini in 1956, and as Elvira in Ernani, under Dimitri Mitropoulos in 1957. Her Teatro alla Scala debut was in 1958 as Abigail in Nabucco. She also sang on RAI in a wide variety of roles such as Elcia in Mosè in Egitto, Mathilde in Guglielmo Tell, Elena in I vespri siciliani, etc.

Cerquetti made headlines in January 1958, when she replaced "in extremis" the ailing Maria Callas in Norma, at the Rome Opera House. She was already singing the role at the San Carlo in Naples. She commuted between the two cities to honor both engagements for several weeks. This "tour de force" won her great acclaim but had serious effects on her health. Shortly after she started withdrawing little by little from the stage until her complete retirement in 1961, aged only 30. [n.b. I am inclined to think her decline was because of singing all this dramatic repertoire at such a young age!]

Cerquetti sang relatively little in America. Her debut there was at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1955, as Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, opposite Jussi Björling, with Tullio Serafin conducting.

Cerquetti made only two commercial recordings, both for Decca in 1957, a recital of Italian opera arias and a complete La Gioconda with Mario del Monaco, Ettore Bastianini, Giulietta Simionato, Cesare Siepi. Among her "pirated" recordings is a 1958 Aida, from Mexico City, with Flaviano Labò, Nell Rankin, Cornell MacNeil, Fernando Corena and Norman Treigle. The Rome Norma of 1958 with Franco Corelli is also available.

(Bio from Wikipedia.)

Here is a link to another Cerquetti jewel on YouTube, "O re del ciel" from Agnes von Hohenstaufen. I know you don't know it, but go listen. It's terrif!

Taminophile sadly notes the passing of a great artist

Dear Rita Shane left us on Thursday. It is to my shame that I never presented her in this space. Toward that end:
Rita Shane as Zdenka
Photo: La Scala

Martern aller Arten, unattributed live recording:

Sempre Libera, also unattributed:

Private video of Ophelia's mad scene, unattributed: