Monday, December 8, 2014

Holly, Jolly, Gallantry!

I've often stated I'm a big fan of opera presented by New York's smaller groups, featuring young professionals. I was happy to see Sundays presentation by enCANTA Collective: Holly, Jolly, Gallantry: The Christmas Rose, at All Saints Church on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The program featured a collection of Christmas-related art songs, Douglas Moore's perennial favorite one-act opera Gallantry, and Frank Bridge's Christmas one-act The Christmas Rose.

Erika Hennings
The opening section, entitled Chansons de Noël, was performed by soprano Devony Smith, mezzo Briana Hunter, baritone Jeffrey Goble, pianist Nobuko Amemiya (Music Director for the entire program and Artistic Director of enCANTA Collective), and on three songs violist Ervin Dede. Based on the translation sheet provided with the program, one or two didn't seem to be Christmas related, but that is a tiny nit to pick when all the songs were sung so well. Mezzo Briana Hunter opened and closed the section with two Brahms songs with viola obbligato, Gestillte Sehnsucht and Geistlisches Wiegenlied. Her voice is beautiful and even throughout her large range. I would love to hear her in some of the roles listed in her bio--Carmen, Cendrillon, Orlofsky. Devony Smith used her beautiful soprano to perform the Hugo Wolf song Ach, des Knaben Augen, and the Joaquin Nin song Villancico Castellano. Baritone Jeffrey Goble gave us Max Reger's Maria am Rosenstrauch and Roger Quilter's The Cradle in Bethlehem. As with all the singers on the evening's program, I look forward to hearing more from these three.

Douglas Moore's (1893-1969) 1958 one-act opera Gallantry (libretto by Arnold Sundgaard) is a send-up of the sponsored television soap operas of the 1950s, complete with commercial announcements by a glamorous hostess. Mezzo Erika Hennings was a very glamorous hostess indeed, in silver lamé gown and heels that accentuate her already very tall stature. Having heard Miss Hennings before*, one must observe that this was among the best singing this reviewer has heard from her--very free and even throughout--and one was also pleased with her saucy presentation of the sponsored items, fictional Lockinvar soap and Billy Boy spray floor wax. Soprano Sonja Krenek was appropriately virtuous as the ingenue Nurse Lola Markham, showing marked alarm and even violent reproach to the advances of oily surgeon Dr. Gregg, quite capably sung by baritone Greg Hoyt. Tenor Marques Hollie, whom we saw but were prevented by poor acoustics from actually hearing in Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's Macbeth, was quite amusing as Donald Hopewell, patient and boyfriend of Nurse Lola. Stage director Laura Hirschberg handled this opera well, but one wished for even more over-the-top nail biting and scenery chewing, accentuating the comedy of this delightful little opera. Miss Hennings and Miss Krenek were the two vocal standouts.

Adam Margulies
Frank Bridge (1879-1941) is known more for his chamber music than for his vocal works, as well as for tutoring Benjamin Britten in composition. His pre-World War I music is more popular than his music following the war, which adopted some of the post-Romantic and expressionistic mannerisms of the time. The Christmas Rose (libretto by Margaret Kemp-Welch and Constance Cotterell), premiered in 1932, during that post-war period. Having never heard this opera before Sunday, I can not say I'm eager to hear it again. I found the solo vocal writing too harsh and rambling, and the libretto lacking in charm or ingenuity. In a nutshell, two children of one of the shepherds on Christmas Night follow their father and the other shepherds, but despair over having no gift to present to the Christ child, only to have flowers miraculously grow and bloom in front of them--instant gift!

Although I didn't like the opera, I liked the singing. Musically, the most interesting and beautiful part to this reviewer was the women's chorus of angels. Bass-baritone Adam Margulies was the most exciting solo voice in this opera, in a role that didn't fit his voice at all. I am eager to hear more from this young man. (I learned later this role could be called a tenor role. I couldn't imagine why anyone aside from the Marquis de Sade would write something so torturous for a bass, but it could be handled by a tenor with a low voice.) Soprano Marie Marquis was another standout, with a beautiful voice and accomplished technique, but the unnecessarily stratospheric range of parts of the role left one more sympathetic than excited. Again, Laura Hirschberg staged this opera very well, using the chancel at All Saints quite effectively. Having much of the action take place under the suspended Advent wreath was an unintended charm, I'm sure, but effective.

Nobuko Amemiya
Once again, in both operas, Music Director Nobuko Amemiya gave wonderful support while playing the difficult piano scores. One hears through the grapevine that Ms. Amemiya is also a pleasure to work with.

I am charmed to be introduced to the work of enCANTA Collective. Quoting from their web site:
The name enCANTA Collective is a play on words: encanta in Spanish means “it delights,” canta is from the Spanish or Italian verb “to sing.”
Delight this program certainly did. Not one singer displeased this reviewer, and more than one thrilled. I hope to hear them all as they grow in their careers.

I applaud enCANTA's accomplishments, and I hope to hear more good music making from them in the future.

*Full disclosure: Miss Hennings is a personal friend of this reviewer, which gives said reviewer a rich memory of other performances for comparison.

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