The Hungarian State Opera fills the Koch Theater

The Hungarian State Opera and Ballet comes to the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center from October 30 through November 11. The four operas performed are Ferenc Erkel’s Bánk Bán (Bánk Banus (The Palatine Bánk)) in its US premiere, Karl Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba (Sába Királynője (The Queen of Sheba)), infrequently performed here, not heard at the Met since 1906, and, in a double bill, Béla Bartók’s A Kékszakállú herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), coincidently in the Met’s repertory this season, and a new opera by János Vajda, Mario és a varázsló (Mario and the Magician), after Thomas Mann’s novella. The full length ballets featured during the second week are Swan Lake and Don Quixote, and there are other tantalizing events as well, some at other selected venues in the city. Please check out the complete programing when ordering tickets.

The operas toured here are, I think, important works wisely chosen: they show the wide variety of musical forms used by Hungarian composers. Some history: as in other countries in Eastern Europe and Russia, the birth of a national opera in Hungary came with the rise of nationalism in the 19th century.* In the early 1800s, the repertory in Buda and Pest reflected what was popular in Vienna and Prague, primarily Italian and French opera, snippets of German, Mayr interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven, Mozart certainly, probably Weber as well.**

  Queen Gertrude enters the castle hall in Erkel's  Bánk Bán

Queen Gertrude enters the castle hall in Erkel's Bánk Bán

Erkel changed this. Much like Carl Maria von Weber in Prague, Leipzig, and Berlin, later Richard Wagner, who both sought to establish an authentic German opera, Ferenc Erkel (1810-1893) was a seasoned conductor/composer steeped in the styles of imported opera. He, too, sought to put on stage a work that spoke directly to his people. Though Erkel’s first opera, Bátori Mária, was mostly influenced by foreign sources, with only snatches of Hungarian musical idioms, his powerful Hunyadi László in 1844 brought Hungarian music more to the fore, primarily with the verbunkos,*** a rhythmically strong dance form made popular in the preceding century. Hunyadi László demonstrated that home grown Hungarian opera, replete with local rhythms, was a viable alternative to foreign fare.

But at the same time the desire for a Hungarian national identity was gaining strength. In 1848, a staging of Jozsef Katona’s play Bánk Bán further fueled the local passion for freedom from the oppression of the Austrian empire. But the Empire struck back: their retaliation, with the aid of Russia, crushed the temporary republic in 1849.

At this time Erkel was already working on his operatic adaptation of Katona’s Bánk Bán, but the premiere was delayed: the political landscape was far too repressive and certainly an opera that featured regicide as part of the plot might incite an insurrection.**** Bánk Bán finally received its world premiere in at the National Theatre in Pest on March 9, 1861, when Austria’s hold on the nation was weakened. Erkel himself conducted.

  Melinda looks on as Bánk Bán greets another. Queen Gertrude attends as well

Melinda looks on as Bánk Bán greets another. Queen Gertrude attends as well

Bánk Bán is generally considered the national opera of Hungary. Why? The plot, of course. Yes, Erkel structured Hunyadi László such that the music for the bad guys was in a more or less standard ‘international’ form, primarily from the French, but though the good guys start out in this form, their sound picture evolves, as the plot thickens, into more Hungarian-based idioms. Bánk Bán follows this pattern as well, but in this case the bad guys on the throne are oppressive foreign royalty from Germany: King Endre II and his Queen Gertrude and her despicable brother Ottó. Bánk, a local, represents the monarchy in the hinterlands and constantly tries to keep the peace. He is a Palatine, which is a position of privilege with the court, but he is not naïve: he warns conspiring locals around the palace to keep down their talk of anarchy. But then the Queen gives her brother Ottó encouragement to seduce Bánk’s wife Melinda, and Bánk becomes unsettled when he hears insinuations and then learns that the conspirators’ secret password is his wife’s name. Doesn’t bode well, does it.

To make a long story short, sad but true Ottó seduces Melinda; Bánk learns the truth, utters curses and orders Melinda and their young son out of his sight; Bánk then confronts and assassinates the Queen. Melinda, in her misery, drowns herself and the boy with her, her unhinged musings and farewell are peppered with mad scene coloratura; in the final scene, as the Queen’s coffin is brought before the King, Bánk is arrested for murder and learns of Melinda’s fate.

Whereas the Queen’s duet with Bánk in Act II could as well have been composed by Donizetti or a young Verdi, the music leans more toward the Hungarian mode as Bánk gains the upper hand; in Act I the local dance at which the conspirators gather and most of Melinda’s music throughout leans toward or is in the verbunkos form, with instruments associated with Hungarian music: cimbalom, viola d’amour, cor anglais, and harp. Don’t miss Bánk Bán.

And now for something completely different: Karl Goldmark weaves a pleasing and interesting musical fabric in Die Königin von Saba, but it’s not set in noticeably Hungarian styles. Verbunkos verboten! Goldmark’s intentions, his influences, and, most important, his source led him, for his first opera, in a different direction from that of Erkel.

The son of a Cantor, Goldmark chose the Biblical Jerusalem of King Solomon as the setting for his first opera. Die Königin von Saba is the tale of Assad. He, a young envoy of the King, has been sent to meet the entourage of the visiting Queen of Sheba from what is now Lebanon. But Assad returns from the assignment keeping a naughty secret: he has been seduced by an enchanting woman.*****

  Sulamith enters her wedding ceremony in the Temple in  Die Königin von Saba

Sulamith enters her wedding ceremony in the Temple in Die Königin von Saba

To make matters worse, Assad is engaged to marry Sulamith, the daughter of the High Priest, so, not surprisingly, Assad is tormented by his sin. The Queen ceremoniously arrives. Assad is shocked to learn the identity of his seducer! But, rank not an issue here, she continues to seek his pleasure in secret; he is seduced again. At the wedding ceremony to Sulamith in the Temple, Assad, like Tannhäuser in the Hall of Song at the Wartburg, breaks decorum, in this case, throws down the ring and exalts the Queen. Shocked, all assembled call for his death, but Sulamith, like Elisabeth, pleads for his life. Moved, the King, grants him clemency by exiling him to the desert. There, the Queen offers to take him back with her to Lebanon, but he resists her with all his might and dies in Sulamith’s forgiving arms.

Musically, Die Königin von Saba sports a rich fabric. Given the plot similarities with Wagner’s Tannhäuser but also with the seduction scene (Act II) and Temple scenes in Parsifal, one would expect it to be more Wagnerian in style. Yes, the characters have their themes or at least a musical color. The moods of the scenes throughout are spot on.

For instance, in the Prelude, the theme in the darker strings becomes associated with Assad’s inner anguish, his deeply troubled conscience. He is weak and he has sinned. The theme surfaces relatively unchanged at those times when his mental strife rears its ugly head, especially when the Queen lures Assad again into her arms, which leads to the central duet in Act II. Goldmark found his models in earlier sources: perhaps Meyerbeer in orchestration, more likely Lohengrin in rhythm and pace, maybe Weber’s Euryanthe. But the orchestral themes don’t morph and interweave themselves into a complex fabric, as one finds in later Wagner. This music simply wasn’t easily available: Tristan und Isolde was not performed widely, the 1876 Bayreuth premiere of the Ring hadn’t happened, and Parsifal hadn’t been written yet.

Die Königin von Saba premiered in Vienna on March 10, 1875; it premiered in Budapest a year later. It remained popular in Vienna until the rise of the Nazis. Its Metropolitan Opera premiere was on December 2, 1885, starring the great Lilli Lehmann as the Queen (she was Wagner’s first Brünnhilde at Bayreuth for the Ring’s premiere season); Königin was performed a total of 29 times, though many of these performances were on the Company’s tours. The Met even performed Goldmark’s Merlin around this time. Die Königin von Saba’s fame was propelled (and still is) somewhat by Assad’s lovely aria in Act II, Scene II: Magische Töne (Magical Sound). You’ll know it’s coming when Astaroth, the Queen’s slave, alerts the Queen that Assad is near, discovered walking in the cypress trees in the deep silence of a moonlit night. In a gentle voice Astaroth lures him closer; Assad remarks on the power of this magical sound and time seems to stand still. The aria was recorded by Leo Slezak in 1906, but he, alas, arrived at the Met after Goldmark’s ship had sailed.****** Don’t miss Die Königin von Saba.

Béla Bartók’s A Kékszakállú herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard’s Castle) is arguably one of the great operas of the 20th century, and a special favorite of mine. To the point here, it’s more familiar to local audiences; the new opera by János Vajda, Mario és a varázsló (Mario and the Magician) is not. A chance here to make the former a favorite and the latter a known composition. Both are sung in Hungarian.

Photos: Attila Nagy for Bánk Bán; Peter Rakossy for Die Königin von Saba.

The link to buy tickets for all performances is: Season-Tickets/18-19-Season/ Hungarian-State-Opera-New- York-tour-2018.aspx

Bánk Bán, sung in Hungarian, is performed in the David H. Koch Theater on the evenings of Tuesday, October 30 at 7:30 p.m. and on Saturday, November 3 at 8. Soprano Zita Szemere sings Melinda, mezzo Judit Németh sings Queen Gertrude, and Levente Molnár is Bánk; Balázs Kocsár conducts. The running time of Erkel’s Bánk Bán, taken from the Hungaroton recording of 1969 is 126.32 minutes; listed time here is 2 hours 20 minutes (with the time of one intermission excluded). Irrelevant but a coincidence: Anna Moffo canceled a Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met in, as I remember, 1968. Karola Ágay, the Melinda on this recording, subbed for Moffo. Beautiful singer, she!

Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba, sung in German, is performed in the David H. Koch Theater on the evenings of Wednesday, October 31 at 7:30 p.m. and Friday, November 2 also at 7:30 p.m. Soprano Erika Gál sings the Queen of Sheba, Boldizsár László sings Assad, and Zoltán Keleman sings King Solomon; János Kovács conducts. The running time for Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba, estimated from the 1980 Hungaroton recording is about 193.72 minutes; listed time is 2 hours 30 minutes (with the time of one intermission excluded.

The double bill of Béla Bartók’s A Kékszakállú herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard’s Castle) and the new opera by János Vajda, Mario és a varázsló (Mario and the Magician) is performed on the evening of Thursday, November 1 at 7:30 p.m and on the afternoon of Saturday, November 3 at 1 p.m. Andras Palerdi sings Bluebeard and Ildiko Komlosi sings Judit; Balázs Kocsár conducts. Running time is 1 hour 40 minutes (with the time of one intermission excluded).

As my dear friends are fond of saying, you never know when you’ll see this one again…

 Enjoy! Happy fall opera season. OM

*Other operas commonly tagged “national” have themes of the national identity defined by moral superiority, “who’s greater than we are?” (when compared to the outsiders) or by extreme heroism, maybe a sacrifice by a national citizen in the face of foreign oppression (in Russia, Mikhail Glinka’s Zhizn za Tsarya (A Life for the Tsar), 1836, or, more simply, the operas were composed by a great local composer to a libretto in the language of the people, have themes of national color, are performed in a national theater, and since then have come to be the international operatic face of that nation (in Germany, Weber’s Der Freischütz, 1821, in Bohemia, Smetana’s Prodaná nevesta (The Bartered Bride), 1866, or in Poland, Moniuszco’s Halka, 1854.

**In the other direction, the operas coming out of Hungary were most likely those of Franz Josef Haydn, who composed for the Esterházy family at the end of the 18th century. Haydn was kappellmeister on their summer estate from 1776 to 1790, composing new operas on command and also managing productions of operas by other composers.

***Scholars trace the main origin of the verbunkos form from music used at military recruiting events, the name coming from the German werben, to recruit, which is not the same as saying that the music itself actually originated in Germany or Austria, though one recalls that what is now Hungary was, off and on, a part of the Austrian Empire for centuries. But the music’s popularity with Gypsy bands increased the strengths of its identification with the Hungarian people, royalty, aristocracy, and everyone else.

Though obviously not a bona fide Hungarian opera, Johann Strauss II’s Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) has a Recruiting Scene as the end Act II, in which Graf Homonay, trying to enlist volunteers for the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s war against Spain, sings the Recruiting Song Her die Hand, es muss ja sein. Verbunkos, pure and simple, also thrilling. Strauss throws in a bold statement of his father's Radetzky March as well. It is fitting that Strauss and his librettist Ignaz Schnitzer consciously intended to realize a drama, albeit a light one, which revolves around the empowerment of the Hungarian people and the repatriation of those exiled under Austrian rule, just at a time when, in the real world, Emperor Franz Joseph needed a little help from his friends. Sándor Barinkay, the Gypsy Baron of the title, comes home from forced exile, reclaims his family’s land, enlists in the army in Act II, then returns to marry formally his gypsy bride. A special opera on my shelf!

But then, as long as we’re on Johann Strauss II, probably the most famous Czárdás, a close cousin to the verbunkos form, in opera’s standard repertory is Rosalinde’s Klange der Heimat in Act II of Die Fledermaus. She, disguised as the Hungarian Countess, seeks to verify her identity by wowing the guests at Prince Orlovsky’s masked ball (as well as everyone in the audience...hopefully). But if you do a little deeper digging into the operetta repertory Emmerich Kálmán’s wonderful Die Csárdásfürstin and Gräfin Maritza will entice you; further into that world are Kálmán’s earlier Zigeunerprimas and Lehár’s Zigeunerliebe. No, I’m not forgetting Swan Lake, but that’s not an operetta.

**** The troubles Verdi and Donizetti, to name two, had with the censors in Naples are the stuff of legend. Donizetti had to scrap the whole tale of Maria Stuarda, have the libretto rewritten and the opera renamed Buondelmonte and Verdi relocated the plot of Un Ballo in Maschera to Boston because the censors didn’t like the idea of monarchs getting beheaded or assassinated on stage. It might give the locals ideas, if you know what I mean. Indeed, on August 25, 1830 in Brussels at the Théâtre de la Monnie, with King William I of the Netherlands in the audience, a disturbance broke out during a performance of Auber’s La Muette de Portici, an opera about an aborted revolt in Naples. The locals were roused to action, fanned by the duet in Act II between Masaniello and Pietro, in which the verse Amour sacré de la patrie is repeated to a strong rhythm. The disturbance eventually spilled out into the plaza by the end of the performance. The riots led to the independence of Belgium from the Netherlands.

*****This is a fate similar to, among operatic others, Samson, Don José, Tannhäuser (by Venus), Vasco de Gama (by Selika in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine), Énée (by Dido in Berlioz’s Les Troyens), with the near misses for Parsifal (by Kundry) and Jokanaan (by the title character of Strauss’s Salome), though it ends better for the former than for the latter.

******A bit of nostalgia: My first encounter with this aria was through my high school friends George and Peter, twins actually, who, because they were old enough to drive, would go to the grand flea market in Englishtown, NJ, to dig through boxes of 78s looking for recordings of Caruso, Bjoerling, Gigli, etc. They had in the basement an old cranked Victrola with the horn and all. They loved great voices, but George, who was a singer, especially liked tenors. This was before the days of remastering 78s and rereleasing collections on LP, and therefore the only way to hear these performances. Leo Slezak was the tenor for Magische Töne; Nicolai Gedda sings it on an EMI opera arias disc; I lost touch with Peter and George.

A lot of addenda here.

Bard SummerScape performs Demon

This season’s production of Anton Rubinstein’s Демон was one of those bullseyes I talk about below. Leon Botstein clearly admires the score and has become one of its champions. He said so himself in the pre-performance talk this past Sunday. Here, Bard SummerScape has gone to considerable lengths to make it come alive: the production, sets, lighting, and staging all work well with the story and overall mood of the opera, therefore working neither against it nor distracting from it; the handpicked Russian cast of singers and traditional dancers is surely a plus.

  Model set designed by Paul Tate dePoo for Bard's   Демон

Model set designed by Paul Tate dePoo for Bard'sДемон

Paul Tate dePoo III’s flexible unit set provided the perfect screen for JAX Messenger’s lighting design and Greg Emetaz’s video design. The various moods are enhanced by Kay Voyce’s costumes and Anne Ford-Coates’ hair and makeup. Particularly striking were the contrasts between the claustrophobic cells of the nuns in the convent and the festive, brilliantly colored wedding party, but both could be transformed swiftly as suited the plot: the cells, seemingly safe and impenetrable, offer the nuns no protection from the evil influence of the Demon, who causes the sleeping sisters to have naughty thoughts and desires, or so it seems by their restlessness. He’s there why? He seeks to overcome Tamara’s resistance to his wiles, of course. The anticipatory joy of the wedding party vanishes when the body of Sinodal, Tamara’s betrothed, is brought in on a stretcher. The takeaway: the impact of the performance of Демон was considerably heightened by the mise en scene.

  Olga Tolkmit sings Tamara in Bard's  Demon

Olga Tolkmit sings Tamara in Bard's Demon

All of the singers are uniformly wonderful too, and I’m not just rushin' to finish this with collective praise…Tamara is the centerpiece here. Soprano Olga Tolkmit, who starred as Xenia in last season’s Dimitrij and who made her American debut as Electra at the SummerScape’s production of Taneyev’s Oresteia, once again takes her character to its emotional extremes. Poor thing, Tamara has become the Demon’s human of choice who, through her love, will assuage his boredom of eternally doing evil and creating havoc, probably meddling with elections. At least he sees her role that way, but, alas, she’s obviously not so quickly on board with this plan. Baritone Efim Zavalny, the Demon, is a smooth fellow who slips unseen in our midst. Evidence of his desperate anticipation of  success with the beautiful Tamara can be heard in the changes of his words, vocal line, and music.

  Efim Zavalny is the Demon

Efim Zavalny is the Demon

The final convent scene is cleverly staged: other male actors of similar height and build, costumed as our Demon, silently flit in and out of the nuns’ cells, infecting their nocturnal dreams. Yes, dear, the Demon is everywhere, just like they tell you in church.

  The Demon first injects himself into Tamara's consciousness in Act I

The Demon first injects himself into Tamara's consciousness in Act I

But Nadezhda Babintseva, the Angel, has Tamara’s back: though Tamara eventually caves in to the Demon’s unrelenting wooing…am I giving too much away?...she is rewarded by death and salvation in heaven. Babintseva is a force to conjure with.

Representing Team Humans, tenor Alexander Nesterenko is Tamara’s intended Prince Sinodal, a man sincere in his love for Tamara, en route to his wedding, but, alas, his life is cut short by marauding Tartars. Yakov Strizhak is his rich voiced Old Servant, who survives the onslaught to tender to all the details of the tragedy. Equally rich in voice is Andrey Valentii, Prince Gudal, Tamara’s father, who happily anticipated his daughter’s wedding, but who eventually consents to her pleas to enter a convent where, she feels, she’ll be safe from evil. Ekaterina Egorova is Tamara’s faithful Nanny; Pavel Suliandziga is the Messenger who, ahead of Sinodal’s caravan, thinking all is well, tells all celebrate the Princes imminent arrival.

The Bard Festival Chorale play a number of different roles, all wonderfully differentiated through costume and music. Especially effective were the Pesvebi Georgian Dancers performing the ballet sequences. The Dancers are based in Brooklyn. In sum, it was a festive wedding party in the grand style, set in stark contrast to the gloom of the Demon and the strict silence of the convent.

Thaddeus Strassberger as Director at Bard SummerScape adds now a fifth win to my score sheet.* The action never strayed from the trajectory of the plot and music, enhanced, as stated above, by the sets, lighting, and projections. Tamara’s final scenes, with and later without the Demon, are effectively staged. In addition, secondary characters, particularly the Old Servant, are given additional depth by their presence, even in their silence.

Do not miss Демон! As Leon Botstein claims, it is an opera fully deserving of a place on the world’s stage.

Reviewed performance: Sunday, July 29, 2018

Anton Rubinstein’s Демон is performed two last times in the Sosnoff Theater on the afternoons of Friday, August 3 and Sunday, August 5 at 2 p.m.

For tickets, please call 845.758.7900 or check out the website

Rimsky-Korskoff’s The Tsar’s Bride is given a concert performance on August 19. Also a fine opera!

Summer time! Next posting is the beginning of the Metropolitan Opera season…Time flies when you’re having fun!

* Strassberger’s staging of Shreker’s Der ferne Klang in 2010 was my first Bard SummerScape opera. I couldn't in good faith, as an opera lover and fan of this opera in particular, let this one slip by, though I'd missed, unfortunately all those seasons of wonders before it. His Le roi malgré lui was dazzling, the Oresteia dark and complex, and more recently The Wreckers were also wins in my book. But the Shreker opera started my relationship with Bard’s SummerScape, which has continued to be a happy and healthy one.

I feel I can count on Leon Botstein to, first of all, pick an opera I’ve not seen, one I would be curious enough to travel for, which, at this point in my life, still amounts to a sizeable number. Then, second, it must be produced and performed in such a way that I am deeply impressed, so much so that, consequently, I drive away, with the setting sun by my side, musically and dramatically rewarded, refreshed, and fulfilled. That’s the bullseye. Демон fit these criteria to a T. Thank you, Bard SummerScape. On to next season. See you there.

Have a wonderful August; gear up for September…J

Teatro Nuovo’s Tancredi on Opening Night

It was an auspicious Opening Night for Teatro Nuovo, a new artistic organization composed of singers, instrumentalists, musical staff, coaches, scholars, and educators dedicated to presenting, and thereby preserving, the very best of Bel Canto singing and the opera repertory on which it thrived more than two centuries ago. Will Crutchfield and his team have moved on from two decades of Bel Canto at Caramoor, decades during which audiences, I included, were privileged to hear the cream of a repertory too often neglected on the major opera stages nowadays. Teatro Nuovo’s mission is to train talented young singers and orchestra members, many of whom are currently performing in the world’s finest opera houses, in the style of Bel Canto singing and playing.

In this inaugural season at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, Purchase, NY, Teatro Nuovo presents a week of performance and educational events bracketed by two weekends of concert performances of two complete operas. Well, actually two and a half. And the first weekend has just passed.

Rossini’s melodramma eroico Tancredi was the opera featured on Opening Night. But also premiering on this festive evening were the conspicuous changes to the orchestra’s leadership, to the period instruments used, even to the seating arrangement of the pit. These decisions were fueled by Teatro Nuovo’s firm dedication to an authentic early 19th century Italian style of making music. Suffice it to say, the results were quite exciting.

  Tamara Mumford is the heroic Tancredi in Rossini's  Tancredi

Tamara Mumford is the heroic Tancredi in Rossini's Tancredi

Tancredi here is semi-staged, meaning the characters interact in an expressive manner, though without costumes, props, or set, come on, the set changes can be especially problematic because they often cause time consuming pauses in the action, such as it is. Without sets the empty stage of the Prison Scene looks remarkably like the Sicilian Mountain Region with Rivers. But truth is one quickly overlooks these aspects and one doesn’t much miss the helmets, swords and robes either: the males, principals and chorus (there is no female chorus in this one) wear tuxedos; the females wear concert apparel appropriate to their character’s rank and station.

As our hero Tancredi, a nobleman of the early 11th century Syracuse, a warrior in exile, mezzo Tamara Mumford wore black pants, a white blouse, jewelry to signify her nobility, and heels, all with nothing to conceal her abundant flowing locks of hair. Here, unlike in most of her smaller roles at the Met, she’s allowed to show her stuff. And wow, show it she does indeed! The depth of her lower register and the flexibility she manifests throughout her range are remarkable. Her Tancredi can be extraverted and bold or at times introverted and pensive; the ambiguity of her feelings for her beloved, wrongfully wrought by fake news, could be seen in her changing faces and postures. Yet Mumford’s singing remained expressive throughout.

  Amanda Woodbury as Amenaide in Rossini's  Tancredi

Amanda Woodbury as Amenaide in Rossini's Tancredi

She and Amanda Woodbury, as Amenaide, Tancedi’s true love, brought the house down in the duet Fiero incontro! E che vuoi? toward the end of Act II. They, certainly we, knew it was spectacular. The two singers returned to the stage, out of character, bowing to acknowledge each other and the long and loud applause. Their sheer joy in singing together was conspicuous. Bravi!!

It’s true today this sort of behavior in the middle of a performance on an opera stage doesn’t fly. I mean, imagine applauding, let alone stopping the performance to take a bow after Otello’s entrance in Otello (Verdi’s, of course) or the singer coming to the footlights after performing Siegfried’s Death scene in Götterdämmerung! But in the Bel Canto era of Tancredi, if one sought a sublime and moving rendition of Tancredi’s opening recitative O patria!—dolce, e ingrata patria! one wanted Pasta, not sets and swords. And one wanted to applaud and scream, maybe even demand an encore, in hopes the singer would add new, more adventuresome coloratura. La Voce was the thing to set before the King, plot be damned.

But I digress.

Tancredi returns to Syracuse in disguise to reclaim the land taken from his family. Coincidently, Amenaide, who fell in love with him in Byzantium, has written a letter to beg his return to her and his homeland. She is the daughter of Argirio, the head of another noble family in Syracuse. Amanda Woodbury met every high expectation I brought with me this evening: she soars through the coloratura with spot-on accuracy and fluidity and daring, but also can descend into dramatic despair. Savor her singing. Brava!

  Santiago Ballerini as Argirio

Santiago Ballerini as Argirio

Santiago Ballerini is forceful, manly, yet introspective in his role as Argirio, which makes his admirable and florid singing dramatically interesting as well as pleasing. I look forward to hearing him in Otello (Rossini’s, of course). Argirio, to be fair, doesn’t know that Amenaide loves Tancredi. For that matter he probably doesn’t even know he is alive, nor does he know that she has covertly sent for him. So to cement a common purpose against the Saracens, Argirio has given her in marriage to Orbazzano, another nobleman in Syracuse.

Orbazzano has intercepted Amenaide’s letter, which he interprets as her attempt to meet up with and wed Solamir, the Saracen ruler. Jilted, an enraged Orbazzano demands her execution for treason, also possibly to make a little more tender the hurt from her rejection of his suit. Leo Radosavljevic is a smooth and dark Orbazzano. The plot hangs in the letter. I won’t want to ruin the story, but if Amenaide had fessed up about the letter in the first place, read it out loud to all assembled…well, the opera would be a lot shorter.

Isaura, a noblewoman of Syracuse, is emotionally sung by Hannah Ludwig; Roggiero, Tancredi’s esquire, is taken by Stephanie Sanchez. The Teatro Nuovo Chorus, all male in Tancredi, was comprised of members of the 2018 Teatro Nuovo Apprentice Artists.

  Jakob Lehmann, First Violin, and Will Crutchfield lead the Opera Nuovo Orchestra

Jakob Lehmann, First Violin, and Will Crutchfield lead the Opera Nuovo Orchestra

Equally significant nods to the Bel Canto tradition were not only the use of original period instruments but also through the divisions of leadership of the orchestra and the placement of the players. Will Crutchfield is maestro al cembalo, seated in the center of the pit, playing his harpsichord as well as coordinating and cuing the singers on stage. Jakob Lehmann, primo violino e capo d’orchestra led the orchestra with a crisp and agile bow; I assume Hilary Metzger, principal Cellist, was the Violoncello al cembalo. Teatro Nuovo followed the seating plan from Teatro San Carlo in Naples at the time of Rossini’s directorship of the theater (which closely followed the premiere of Mayr’s Medea in Corinto there in 1813). The players are distributed differently from today’s orchestra, such that the orchestral sound is more evenly distributed throughout the house; the period instruments, redistribution of the players and the agility of the playing made for an exciting soundscape.

All in all, Teatro Nuovo’s Tancredi is a distinctly moving experience, certainly for the passion of its music and vocals and their performance, but also for the total package: the Bel Canto orchestra with period instruments, the seating arrangement in the pit, the overall ambiance...the acoustics in the hall were ample, the sound evenly distributed. This was especially noticeable from the side on which I sat: no sense of hearing only half of the music, in other words. And there were musical interludes of course one doesn’t hear if one plays only the arias or duets.

But, to repeat, very conspicuous was the joy all the players evidenced in their performances. I came away smiling a lot. Don’t miss it.

Tancredi is performed as written in two acts with one intermission. The total evening is about three and a half hours.

Reviewed performance: Saturday evening, July 28, 2018.

Photos by Steven Pisano

The remaining performance schedule @ Teatro Nuovo, the Bel Canto Festival at Purchase College, entitled The Dawn of Romantic Opera is as follows:

Tonight, Tuesday, July 31 at 7:30 p.m. Parlami d’amore (Speak to me of Love!). Bel Canto in popular Italian song.

Wednesday, August 1 at 5:30 p.m. Oldest Voices; Newest Voices: recordings of great singers of the past as well as Role Preparation by today’s soon to be great singers. Free to the public.

Thursday, August 2 at 7:30 p.m. Bel Canto Da Camera: Chamber music gems

Friday, August 3 at 7 p.m. Rossini’s Tancredi, the original Venice version, starring Tamara Mumford, Sydney Mancasola, and Santiago Ballerini.

Saturday, August 4 at 7 p.m. Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, starring Jennifer Rowley, Teresa Costillo, Derrek Stark, and Mingjie Lei.

Sunday, August 5 at 6 p.m. Rossini: Tancredi rifatto, starring Aleks Romano, Christine Lyons, and David Margulis. It is the version of the opera with the Ferrara ending and other changes after the world premiere.

Tickets range in price from $30 to $120. They may be purchased online at or by phone through the Performing Arts Center Box Office at 914.251.6200, Wednesday through Friday, noon to 6 p.m. Ample outdoor free parking is available at the Performing Arts Centre at Purchase College, which is located off Anderson Hill Road, just north of the Merritt Parkway. Light refreshments and tables are available as well.

Support your local opera. Especially when it is so excellent.


Bard SummerScape to perform Rubinstein’s Демон

This summer it’s a return to Eastern Europe, if you call St. Petersburg “Eastern Europe,” not “Western Asia”…anyway, Bard SummerScape performs Демон (Demon) by Russian composer Anton Rubinstein. In addition, the Bard Music Festival presents Rimsky-Korsakov and His World, with a focus on The Poetry of Cinema, and, among other things, a performance of Rimsky's The Tsar's Bride. Other features include Leonard Bernstein’s Peter Pan, based on the J.M. Barrie play, adapted and directed by Christopher Alden.

Anton Rubinstein’s operatic masterpiece Демон first premiered to great acclaim at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in January of 1875. It was his most successful opera, though neither his first nor his last; although performed frequently in Russia, the opera is infrequently performed in the USA or in Western Europe. It is known to most of us, if at all, primarily by recordings of live performances. Bard’s SummerScape brings it to life!

 Демон is based on a fantasy poem by Mikhail Lermontov, which was written in 1841. The opera is in three acts, these bracketed by a Prologue and Epilogue/Apotheosis. The opera boasts rich choral writing, a lot of moody solemnity, a range of emotional despair, death and transfiguration. Not to give it away, Heaven wins, the Demon loses.

  The Angel hovers over poor Tamara who is involved in at risk behavior with the Demon in Bard's production of    The Demon

The Angel hovers over poor Tamara who is involved in at risk behavior with the Demon in Bard's production of The Demon

The 2018 Summerscape production of Демон is conducted by Leon Botstein and directed by the renowned American director Thaddeus Strassberger, with sets by Paul Tate dePoo III, costumes by Kaye Voyce, and lighting by JAX Messenger. An all-Russian cast is led by the lovely sparkling-voiced soprano Olga Tolkmit in the role of Tamara, alongside baritone Efim Zavalny in his American debut in the title role. Bard opera fans will recall that Tolkmit appeared last season as Xenia in Bard’s stirring production of Dvořák’s grand opera Dimitrij.

The tale of the Демон is relatively straight forward: in the Prologue, the Demon is bored, even doing evil is no fun anymore. The Angel tells him love will solve his problem, but warns that love is sacred in Heaven and on Earth. In Act I, the Demon, cruising low, comes upon the beautiful Tamara and her Nanny. Tamara senses something: at first he is only a presence, but then he is a haunting, enticing voice, and finally he appears. Tamara is struck as much by his beauty as by her own strange emotions, but Nanny comes to the rescue. All the while Tamara is awaiting the return of Prince Sinodel for their wedding.

Change of scene: Sinodel, high in the mountains, longs to return to his true love. He is accompanied by his wise Old Servant and several retainers as they travel through the night, but they are ambushed by Tartars. The Prince is shot by the attackers and dies as the Demon appears to him, uttering Tamara’s name. Guess who probably recruited the Tartars.

Meanwhile, Act II, back at the ranch, Prince Gudal is preparing for the wedding festivities. The Messenger brings bad news about Sinodel’s death. Tamara throws herself on his corpse, hearing now the Demon telling her gently not to cry. This aria, Ne plach dit’a, ne plach naprasna (Do not weep, child, do not waste your tears), was recorded in 1911 by the great Feodor Chaliapin.* Tamara is justifiably confused. The Demon continues with the dreamy Na vazdushnam akeane (On the ocean of the air…), eloquently making promises of wonderful things and delights. But Tamara starts from her trance and, no fool, requests that she be delivered to a convent.

Now in Act III our Demon hovers outside her tower in the convent. He's conflicted about, on the one hand, being immortal and unhappy and bored in contrast to, on the other, being mortal, imperfect, of course, but perhaps a better match for Tamara, who fervently prays within. He is falling for her. However, the Angel warns him again not to mess with Tamara’s love. But our Demon seems to think she is his already, so he gets on with it by entering Tamara’s cell. He tells her who he is in the aria Ja tot, katoramu vnimala (I am the one to whom you listened in the silence of the midnight hour).  He and Tamara go back and forth, but Tamara, worn down, seals their “love” with a kiss…well, to quote the synopsis I’m paraphrasing this from, “The angels are stunned.” You betcha!

In the Epilogue, the Angel restores Tamara’s soul to grace and tells the Demon to get lost. Which he does. In the Apotheosis, Tamara’s soul is borne up to Heaven as the angels sing. (Somewhere I have in me a piece on variations on the theme of Devils and Love with Women on earth in opera to discuss, six at least, one in each major operatic language, Демон representing Russian opera…maybe later this month).

  Anton Rubinstein

Anton Rubinstein

Anton Rubinstein (1829 – 1894) was an enormous musical talent and to some extent a force in the establishment of "Russian" music. For some background, whereas Mikhail Glinka wrote the first major operas in Russian for the Tsar, he spent much of his time studying music in Germany with Dehn in Berlin and traveling to France and Italy, soaking up operatic styles. Glinka greatly admired and actually met Bellini, for one. A Life for the Tsar (St. Petersburg, 1836) established the genre of Russian historical opera, later mastered by Mussorgsky; Ruslan and Lyudmilla (St. Petersburg, 1842) established the genre of Russian fantasy opera, later mastered by Rimsky Korsakov. These are two fine operas! Glinka died in 1857.

Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Glinka's rival of sorts, composed operas based on French sources also in the French style of Meyerbeer and Halévy, but later, by the time he composed his Rusalka (St. Petersburg, 1856), he followed Russian folk songs and harmonies; his even later The Stone Guest (completed by Cui and Rimsky Korsakov in 1872) anticipated Wagner’s endless melody. This other Rusalka is a fine opera too! Chaliapin was outstanding as the Miller in Rusalka.

Rubinstein, as well, studied with Dehn in Germany, but sought to give more structure and identity to Russian music. He founded the Russian Musical Society in 1859 and the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862. Yet he, like his predecessors, was criticized for leaning still toward the West. His most famous student, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who traveled frequently to Western Europe, ‘sinned’ also by sometimes choosing plots from Western sources (as for his three full length ballets and then, e.g., Friedrich Schiller for The Maid of Orleans).

But by this time one Vladimir Stasov, the powerful critic, had brought together the so called moguchaya kuchka (the Mighty Handful) of Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, and Mily Balakirev, and, when he was sober, Modest Mussorgsky. Not only did the five work toward a ‘cleansing’ Russian music, they formally eschewed Western sources for their operas…well, Cui cheated often on this as far as subject matter and Rimsky Korsakov had a musical revelation on witnessing the complete Ring in St. Petersburg via Angelo Neumann’s touring group. Balakirev didn’t compose opera, Borodin died with Prince Igor unfinished. Igor Stravinsky emerged from this group to establish his own sound.**

The Demon was the first Russian opera to be performed in London (Covent Garden, 1881), though not in Russian; Демон was also the first opera performed in Russian in London (1888). The opera premiered in the USA in San Francisco in 1922; Демон has not been performed by the Metropolitan Opera, even during the heyday before WWI and the years twixt, the 20s and 30s, when Feyodor Chaliapin ruled the stage. Though it would seem so, it is not true that the role of the Demon was written explicitly for Chaliapin: he was just shy of two years old when Демон premiered. But the young basso first sang the role the year before the composer died, becoming later one of its champions, as he would for many strong bass characters in French, Italian, and Russian operas.

  Feodor Chaliapin as the Demon

Feodor Chaliapin as the Demon

There are numerous recordings. Mine is the Wexford Festival Opera Production in 1994. Others exist, though. Always good to prep for these things.

*The late baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky recorded the three arias mentioned above on a Philips CD, as well as other selections from the Russian vocal literature.

**The Bard Music Festival explores this notion of inventing Russian music during Weekend One (8/10 - 8/12); on Weekend Two (8/17 - 8/19), Rimsky-Korsakov and his followers are in the spotlight, culminating in a concert performance in the Sosnoff Theater of The Tsar's Bride, Rimsky's "verismo" opera of 1898 on Sunday, 8/19 at 4:30 p.m., following a pre-performance talk by Marina Frolova Walker. 

Демон is performed in the Sosnoff Theater on the evening of Friday, July 27 at 8 p.m. and the afternoons of Sunday, July 29; Wednesday, August 1, Friday, August 3; and Sunday, August 5 at 2 p.m. The Opera Talk by conductor Leon Botstein is on Sunday, July 29, at noon in the theatre.

For tickets, please call 845.758.7900 or check out the website See you there!

Summer time! Next posting will be the beginning of Year 5 of OperaMetro! Time flies when you’re having fun…

Teatro Nuovo’s premiere season at Purchase College

Music master Will Crutchfield (WC), at the helm as General  and Artistic Director of Teatro Nuovo, realizes a dream years in the making. The program this season, titled The Dawn of Romantic Opera, opens with one of two performances of the original Venice version of Rossini’s heroic Tancredi on Saturday evening, July 28, followed on Sunday afternoon by one of two performances of Johann Simone Mayr’s Medea in Corintoto, then one more of each later in the week, ending with a late afternoon performance of Tancredi rifatto, a Tancredi with the alternate scenes written later to replace some original numbers, on Sunday, August 5. See the complete listing of events below.

  Will Crutchfield at the helm

Will Crutchfield at the helm

OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege of interviewing the Maestro, via email, about the new venture, as well as about the musical fare and its place in this premiere season. Also a privilege, OM spoke with bel canto tenor Santiago Ballerini, who sings the role of Argirio in Tancredi. This interview is posted on the top of the page Interviews.

OM: Hello Will! Thank you for agreeing to do this. Our annual chats are always a special part of the summer for me.

WC: My pleasure.

OM: Teatro Nuovo is an exciting venture, a dream come true for you. Through Teatro Nuovo, what advantages are there for you as an artist and mentor to young singers?

 Tamara Mumford sings the title role of Tancredi

Tamara Mumford sings the title role of Tancredi

WC: It's a dream come true in multiple ways. Our training program has long needed the chance to expand, to add spaces for more intensive work, to add faculty, and to focus longer on the young singers who come to us. We had developed a curriculum over the years at Caramoor and will continue using it now at Teatro Nuovo. The curriculum is unique, unlike any other in the vocal world, because it combines three elements which are usually found separately, but can have major results when applied together. These are: a) information about performing style from the long historical paper trail; b) a strong commitment to the idea that style is inseparable from physical technique; and c) a strong focus on the way singers line up their technical and artistic details in the period before there could be any influence from "microphone singing."

OM: I know from our previous conversations that you are very much the archeologist of vocal technique, that your knowledge of great singers from the past is encyclopedic.

WC: Thank you. But though these ancient recordings can tell us really revelatory things about the "how," they come too late to tell us "what" if we're talking about early 19th-century bel canto style. The paper trail can tell us infinite amounts about what singers did, but it provides only limited info about how. So they need to be taken together. To connect the "what" with the "how," you need time and you need one-on-one sessions with the young singers. That's where we've expanded the most.

  Amanda Woodbury in Rossini's  Tancredi

Amanda Woodbury in Rossini's Tancredi

OM: I see that on Wednesday, August 1 at 5:30, the Festival will present recordings of some of these voices.

WC: Yes. Also, in the Festival itself, we have a chance to do something not yet tried in the US, and barely begun in Europe - bringing period instruments and all the creativity of the Early Music movement to Romantic Italian opera.  That is going to be a revelation, I think. It's a quite different sound-world. This music is great on whatever instruments an orchestra uses, but using the ones the composers knew and played clarifies their writing fantastically.

OM: Rossini’s Tancredi is relatively well known, if not often performed with any frequency, even in concert, but Tancredi rifatto (the bits and pieces from alternate versions of Tancredi) are probably completely unknown. Why the bits and pieces?

WC: I have done Tancredi often, and every time, I've looked at the alternate pieces published in the appendix of the score, and thought "this belongs on stage!"  It's fantastic music, and Rossini wrote it to be part of the opera.  Now's the chance! 

OM: Among those bits and pieces added to or subtracted from Tancredi must be the famous “tragic” Ferrara ending, as opposed to the original Venice “happy” ending. What process did you use to arrive at a final performing version for Teatro Nuovo?

  Santiago Ballerini in  Tancredi

Santiago Ballerini in Tancredi

WC: Let me break that into two questions.  Our process was simple: on the Tancredi nights we are performing the original Venice version, plain and simple. For Tancredi rifatto, we repeat the opera knocking out eight pieces (some long, some short) and replace them with the substitutes Rossini wrote for at least four later occasions.

OM: Okay, so far so good.

WC: Beyond that it gets complicated. Tancredi has made the rounds with at least one of the substitute pieces before. Operas in Rossini's day were not meant to have a "final version" - they were meant to be adjustable. The switch to Voltaire's tragic ending was not even Rossini's idea - it came from a literary-minded nobleman in Ferrara, Luigi Lechi, who wrote the Italian verses and asked Rossini to set them. But since tragic endings were not yet standard fare in that repertory, the new ending was forgotten until Lechi's descendants made the manuscript available in the 1970s. I would say the upbeat ending fits perfectly with where Italian opera was in 1813 and the tragic ending fits perfectly with where Italian opera was going. The main point is that there is an opera-and-a-half of top-quality music here in Tancredi, and Teatro Nuovo's audiences will get to hear all of it if they come to both versions.

  Jennifer Rowley in Mayr's  Medea in Corinta

Jennifer Rowley in Mayr's Medea in Corinta

OM: I know Rossini had been busy composing before he tackled Tancredi, but this one is often portrayed as a qualitative leap artistically, without precedent. Briefly, in what ways was it a leap? Was it pretty much out of the blue, or did everyone who was to some degree astute see it coming? Was its newness part of its popularity or was it not so much new as so well done?

WC: What people could see coming was a potent new musical voice. But I don't think anybody could have anticipated the craze for Rossini's music that started with Tancredi. He took all the threads of Italian opera as it existed at the turn of the century (including Mayr) and re-wove them according to his personal sense of rhythm and proportion, and the result was electrifying. There is a simple directness and a sheer excitement that propelled Italian opera to become the truly popular artform that it was through the so-called "golden century" from Rossini to Puccini.

  Jakob Lehmann co-directs both operas with Will Crutchfield

Jakob Lehmann co-directs both operas with Will Crutchfield

OM: Since you bring him up, you’re doing Mayr’s Medea in Corinto. I could be wrong, but Medea in Corinto is not a title bandied about in even the most operatic of households, let alone a title one finds packed away in a stack of programs in the attic. Tancredi, sure. In what ways is Medea in Corinto the missing link between Mozart and Rossini?

WC: As for Medea and Mayr - it's one of those accidents of history.  In the 18th century, all operas were forgotten as audiences moved on from one sensational season to the next. But in the 19th century, we started to accumulate "classics." Later still, early 20th century, we started to look back in history and pick up "revivals," such as Handel, Vivaldi, and Gluck. Well, when the repertory was first being sorted out, Rossini was the big name in Italy.  Just a decade earlier, it would have been Mayr - he was everywhere, from Venice to Milan to Rome to Naples.  And he was a genius.  We're doing this score not because it is an interesting curiosity but because it is a fantastic opera.  And there is more where this one came from.

OM: I shall obtain a copy for sure. It’s what I do. I see too that Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, with a libretto by Felice Romani, premiered in Teatro San Carlo in Naples in November, 1813, the same year that Rossini’s Tancredi premiered at La Fenice in Venice on February 6. In with the new and out with the old. I recall that a young Donizetti was one of Mayr’s prized pupils in Bergamo. And I believe the story goes that the theater holding the only score of Mayr’s La Rosa bianca e la rosa rossa, in Genoa, the city of the premiere, refused to return them to the composer. Young Donizetti went to the theater on three separate performances and copied out the entire score from his scribbled notes and exceptional memory.*

One last observation: apart from the operas, assumed in concert, possibly semi-staged, and the various young artist and historical features, there is a Masterclass Are these efforts to educate an audience as well as the young artists? I see Jennifer Larmore, who, as I recall, sang for you at Caramoor. Elaborate?

WC:  Masterclasses are part work and part show. Whether it's for the general public or just the other singers in the group, the teacher who teaches in front of a room of observers is "performing" as well as "teaching."  And when that teacher has a big personality, as Larmore does, then it can be a lot of fun for the public to follow.

OM: Wait, just kidding, positively the last thing. For the record, I think the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College is a very user friendly venue, indoors, comfortable seating, air conditioned, and also really centrally located for your numerous supporters and audience members, especially my team from the East.

WC: Those are pretty great advantages right there!

OM: Thank you for your intelligent words.

WC: Thank you. See you there.

* My memory confirmation and elaborative details for this, like which Mayr opera was held hostage, come from Herbert Weinstock’s Donizetti, New York: Pantheon Books, 1963, pp. 13-14.

Photos: Will Crutchfield by Gabe Palaccio; Jakob Lehmann by Patrick Vogel; Santiago Ballerini by Gabriel Machary. Others provided by Beth Holub.

The performance schedule @ Teatro Nuovo, the Bel Canto Festival at Purchase College, entitled The Dawn of Romantic Opera is as follows:

Saturday, July 28 at 7 p.m. Rossini’s Tancredi, the original Venice version, starring Tamara Mumford, Amanda Woodbury, and Santiago Ballerini.**

Sunday, July 29 at 4 p.m. Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, starring Jennifer Rowley, Teresa Costillo, Derrek Stark, and Mingjie Lei.

Monday, July 30 at 7:30 p.m. Jennifer Larmore gives a public Masterclass.

Tuesday, July 31 at 7:30 p.m. Parlami d’amore (Speak to me of Love!). Bel Canto in popular Italian song.

Wednesday, August 1 at 5:30 p.m. Oldest Voices; Newest Voices: rare recordings of great singers of the past as well as Role Preparation by today’s soon to be great singers. Free to the public.

Thursday, August 2 at 7:30 p.m. Bel Canto Da Camera: Chamber music gems

Friday, August 3 at 7 p.m. Rossini’s Tancredi, the original Venice version, starring Tamara Mumford, Amanda Woodbury, and Santiago Ballerini.

Saturday, August 4 at 7 p.m. Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, starring Jennifer Rowley, Teresa Costillo, Derrek Stark, and Mingjie Lei.

Sunday, August 5 at 6 p.m. Rossini: Tancredi rifatto, starring Aleks Romano, Christine Lyons, and David Margulis.

Tickets range in price from $30 to $120. Purchase online at or phone the Performing Arts Center Box Office at 914.251.6200, Wednesday through Friday, noon to 6 p.m.

**The running time of my complete recording of Tancredi (BMG 3 CDs with Kasarova, Mei, Vargas, Cangemi, and Paulsen, conducted by Roberto Abbado) is a little over 2 hours, 46 minutes; not having a copy of Medea in Corinto is a lapse of taste I shall hasten to correct.

Hey look, it's summer! But the Performing Arts Center is really cool!! As is the Teatro Nuovo program! See you there!

Yulia Lysenko stars in Princeton’s Madama Butterfly

OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege of chatting with Ms. Yulia Lysenko (YL), who stars in the Princeton Festival’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly this summer. How I would love to be doing this interview with Yulia in person, strolling on the walkways under the shade of the great trees on the Princeton University campus, but, alas, our schedules didn’t permit it and, what’s more, it seems to have been raining, cold and damp since 2016, maybe longer. Outside wouldn’t work anyway.

  Yulia Lysenko stars as Cio-Cio-San in Princeton's  Butterfly

Yulia Lysenko stars as Cio-Cio-San in Princeton's Butterfly

OM: Thank you for agreeing to talk to me today!

YL: You’re quite welcome.

OM: Sorry about the gray skies and the damp…not to mention the pollen!

YL: No problem.

OM: You’re performing probably one of the most affecting, emotional roles in the soprano repertory. Tell me a bit about your preparation for the role, your ‘history’ with it.

YL: I’ve never had the opportunity to perform the whole opera on stage before, just separate arias and duets at festivals and concerts. But I have been working to develop the character of Cio-Cio-San for the last few years with my mentors and coaches Lyudmila Bozhko (Ukraine), Teresa Zylis-Gara (Poland), Kaludi Kaludov (Bulgaria), and lately with a great American pianist and a coach Anthony Manoli.

OM: Ah yes, Teresa Zylis-Gara. Marvelous singer! Saw her many times at the Metropolitan Opera.

YL: She is the consummate artist. But all my mentors and coaches have been wonderful.

OM: Compared to other roles you’ve performed in your career, are there vocal or dramatic demands that are unique to Cio-Cio-San? Meaning, what other roles in your experience (or perception) is the role of Cio-Cio-San most like in terms of its vocal and dramatic demands?

YL: For me all my heroines are emotionally rich, expressive, multifaceted, and very expressive with their emotions unlike Cio-Cio-San.

OM: Unlike Cio-Cio-San?

YL: Well, when you think about it, Cio-Cio-San is more often calm on the outside while the orchestra transmits the storm of emotions inside her soul. With this role it is hard for me to stay calm with all that’s going on in her world.

OM: Tell about your conception of Cio Cio San’s character, her personality, mannerisms, etc. Is she a fragile butterfly or a strong woman or a mixture of both? And what, in your conception, are the transforming moments for her in the opera?

YL: I am impressed with how the characters are transforming during the opera. In the first act, Cio-Cio-San is an innocent young girl who wants to love and be loved. In the second act, after three years of waiting for Pinkerton’s return, she is 18 years old, but already a strong young woman who is still blinded by love and believes in a happy future. The first transforming moment for me is from Sharpless’s phrase: “What would you do Madam Butterfly, if he never returns?”

OM: The orchestra is rather clear about the impact of Sharpless’s question.

YL: Indeed! After this line, there is some dramatic anticipation added to her character. But she is defiant, she still believes in a happy future. Only in the third act, when she meets Kate, Pinkerton’s American wife, everything becomes clear for Cio-Cio-San. This is the last transforming moment, as she says, “it is better to die with honor, than to live without honor.”

OM: Powerful opera, to be sure. For the record, Butterfly is an opera I cry at the end of, actually a lot of the way through it!

YL: Oh yes. Madama Butterfly is the opera where there are a lot of emotional moments.

OM: Are there parts of Butterfly in which you, the artist, the real person, find particularly difficult to get through just because the moment is so emotional?

YL:  Puccini’s orchestra so vividly depicts emotions of Cio-Cio-San, that sometimes it is difficult to restrain my own emotions. The hardest to do it is in the last scene with her son.

OM: Would you say it’s become a favorite role?

YL: (chuckles) Right now of course my favorite role is Cio-Cio-San, but in a few months if I sing a different role, like Mimi, it will become my favorite.

OM: What other roles lie in your immediate future?

YL: I’d like to perform many roles in the future such as Tosca, Tatyana, Nedda, Liu and others. These will fit my voice the best just now.

OM: You’re a young soprano in the title role of one of the greatest operas in the standard repertory, staged as part of an important summer music festival. I’m sure it’s been a journey for you. What advice would you give to younger, less experienced singers who hope someday to be on the stage as you are now? In other words, what are the steps you took to be here in Princeton this summer?

YL: I think it all depends on you to find the way to your dream, so I don’t have a special secret to success. I mean, of course you must love your profession. That goes without saying, and that love should show in everything you do. And you have to do everything possible: always do your best, work hard, visit master courses, record yourself, analyze, etc. At least those are my steps. One day fortune will smile and you will be ready.

OM: So tell me, dear Yulia, what are your favorite pastimes, interests or hobbies, things that make you smile or relaxed when you’re not working hard, studying, rehearsing, or performing?

YL: In my free time, I like to relax with my family outdoors. They are a source of great happiness in my life.

OM: I wish you the very best in your upcoming performances of Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly with the Princeton Festival. Give my best to Richard Tang Yuk and Steven LaCosse and the other members of the cast and orchestra.

YL: Will do, thank you!

The Princeton Festival’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is performed in the Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ, 08540, on the evening of Saturday, June 16 @ 7:30 p.m., and the afternoons of Sunday, June 24 and July 1 @ 3:00 p.m. Richard Tang Yuk, the Festival’s Artistic Director, will conduct; Steven LaCosse is the Stage Director. Other principals include Janara Kellerman as Suzuki, Matthew White as Pinkerton, and Paul La Rosa as Sharpless.

Tickets for Madama Butterfly may be purchased through the Festival’s website: the McCarter’s telephone number is 609.258.2787.

Support your local opera!!

Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven…gotta think positively!

Berkshire Opera Festival stages Rigoletto

The summer brings opera to the Berkshires on the stage of the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA, as the Berkshire Opera Festival presents Verdi’s classic Rigoletto, arguably one of the most popular operas in the entire repertory. Once again, OperaMetro (OM) has the privilege to chat with Jonathon Loy (JL) and Brian Garman (BG), the Festival’s Stage Director and Conductor, respectively; once again, it would be nice to do this up in Massachusetts, face to face, back and forth, but the constraints of time/space force the good old fashioned electronic communication mode (did I really say that?)

OM: Gentlemen, a pleasure as always.

JL: As always!

BG: As always!

OM: Now with Madama Butterfly and Ariadne auf Naxos successfully behind you both, you’re taking on Verdi’s Rigoletto. Given that it’s an older style of opera both musically and dramatically, are there any challenges in front of you to “sell” it to today’s audience? First, have either of you worked on Rigoletto before?

JL: I have both directed and assistant directed Rigoletto before. I’ve also been listening to since I was a little boy.

BG: This will be my third production of Rigoletto; in fact, Rigoletto was the piece that made me fall in love with opera in the first place when I was a teenager, and it planted the seeds for my deep love of Verdi.

OM: Wow, likewise here: in fact it was the first opera I did standing room at the Old Met, though it was not my first Verdi opera in the House. Always a deeply felt favorite. But it is of an older style than Butterfly or Ariadne, yes?

  Sebastian Catana sings Rigoletto

Sebastian Catana sings Rigoletto

JL: Yes, but it’s perfect in its own way. And as they say, “if it ain’t broke…” Brian and I, we aren’t really changing anything about how we go about producing opera, whether it’s Puccini, Strauss, or now middle Verdi.  We just hope that every year we learn a little more about what works best with our resources and implement small changes here and there as necessary. But the core of how we produce an opera remains the same.

BG: I agree with Jonathon. There are no significant changes we're making to way that we produce opera. When you start a company, there's always a little guesswork involved about the unknown elements, but your plans are based largely on past experience. I feel we were also a bit lucky to have guessed right about so many things.

  Maria Valdes is Gilda

Maria Valdes is Gilda

OM: (turning to the camera, an aside) Rigoletto, jester at the court of the Duke of Mantua, is despised because of the mean barbs he aims at the courtiers and their women, but, secretly, he has a young daughter Gilda, his only joy, whom he shields from the evils of the world. Monterone, a noble father, publically denounces the Duke for molesting his daughter; when his rage and indignation are mocked by Rigoletto, Monterone lays a father’s curse on him. Rigoletto is greatly unsettled by this. Without knowing her identity, the Duke sees Gilda as just another conquest, disguising himself as a student to make contact with her; in the very same evening the courtiers, thinking Gilda is Rigoletto’s mistress, kidnap her and give her to the Duke. Rigoletto vows to have the Duke assassinated, but Gilda, not wanting the Duke harmed, takes the fatal blow herself. Rigoletto discovers too late that the corpse in the sack he's about to dump in the river is his daughter, not the Duke. Monterone’s curse comes true. (back to the interview) Tell me, given the story of Rigoletto, has your conception of the opera been influenced by the past year’s “Me Too” movement, to name one? Have contemporary politics and social awareness had an impact on your take on Rigoletto?

  Jonathan Tetelman is the Duke of Mantua

Jonathan Tetelman is the Duke of Mantua

JL: Certainly. Everything that happens in today’s world, everything that happens to me, everything that I experience, everything that I observe influences my productions. This should be true for almost any stage director today, I imagine. While Rigoletto is most certainly about Monterone’s curse, my production highlights the most topical elements of a woman’s navigation in a man’s world and the inherent abuses of power. I do not believe the Duke is anything other than a selfish, misogynistic, sexually greedy man. Gilda does not move him in any positive way; once he has had her, that’s it. I believe this is also made clear in how Verdi writes for the Duke musically. Compared to the other characters he only sings in an “old fashioned” style, that is: recitative, cavatina, cabaletta. And what the Duke does to Gilda awakens her to some extent, but in all the wrong ways.

  Maya Lahyani is Maddalena

Maya Lahyani is Maddalena

Our staging will speak to the issue: All male characters will be in black or shades of black and gray, all female characters will be in white.  The sets will employ all black and white palettes contained in what is essentially a three-sided muslin light box. The starkness will allow the story to speak for itself, recognizing that some things really are black and white.

OM: Getting back to the music and its place in Verdi’s maturation, Brian, why is Rigoletto special?

BG: Each time I return to it I'm amazed at how innovative it is for its time, especially in terms of the way Verdi treated the orchestra and structural elements of the opera.

OM: One senses a departure from Italian opera scores prior to 1850 certainly. Looking forward, in what ways was Rigoletto Italy’s “music of the future,” to borrow Wagner’s phrase from just about the same time?

BG: When Verdi began his career, the operatic tradition in Italy -- largely established by Rossini -- was very conservative, musically speaking. In other words, there were orchestrations that served only to support the voice, heavy ornamentation of the vocal lines, even arias from other operas inserted a singer's request, and so forth. But Verdi was such a man of the theater that he was interested in music as drama, and had no use for these old-fashioned conventions. So he was always trying to transform them, make them more cohesive dramatically. We see a lot of these transformations in Rigoletto. Take the woodwind introduction to the recitative before Gilda's Caro nome in Act I, Scene II:  in the early 1800s, there was no use of "families" of instruments in Italian opera as we consider them today. This was an early example of a composer treating the woodwind section as a self-sufficient entity. Earlier in that Scene, we also see the innovative stroke of giving the dark melody of the Rigoletto-Sparafucile duet to the orchestra, leaving the voices to converse above it, rather than sing an old fashioned vengeance duet. The once obligatory off-stage band is used here for a real dramatic purpose in Act I, Scene I to illustrate the vulgarity of the Duke's court, and in fact, the first scene is, without precedent, constructed as a single organism from beginning to end. Verdi himself said he conceived the entire opera as a series of duets, and, indeed, there is only one conventional "double-aria," (for the Duke in Act II, Scene I). Neither solo, Gilda’s Caro nome or Rigoletto’s Pari siamo is structured like that. And this is the only opera in Verdi's output not to use large ensembles as act finales, apart from the ensemble that concludes Scene I of Act I.

OM: I always ask this question to you both: what part of Rigoletto is the most emotional for you? And why?

JL: Easy: watching Gilda’s journey is heart wrenching throughout, and the final scream from Rigoletto, Ah, la maledizione!, the orchestra's crashing final chords with the whaling tympani, his world comes crashing down around him as his daughter dies in his arms, with no one to blame but himself.

BG: This is difficult, because there are so many. But yes, probably the single most striking moment for me is when Rigoletto discovers that the dying person in the sack is actually Gilda. This is an utterly stunning moment -- out of the one-and-a-half billion (at that time) people in the world who could be in that sack, the only person Rigoletto knows it can't be (because he sent her earlier to Verona) is the person it actually turns out to be.  He set this whole scheme in motion out of a desire to avenge his daughter's dishonor and shame, and she ends up paying for it with her life.  And coming at the end of the storm -- with thunder in the low strings, lightning in flute and piccolo, and the men's chorus imitating wind -- Verdi's setting of this moment is breathtaking.

OM: As a father of young women, I find the opera very difficult to sit through, particularly the duet at the end of Act II (as written). And, of course, the end. Heart wrenching. Wotan's Farewell to Brünnhilde in Act III of Wagner’s Die Walküre is another.

Gentlemen, I wish you the best for Rigoletto in August!! A pleasure as always talking to you.

BG: And to you as well.

JL: Yes.

Other principals include Joseph Barron as Sparafucile and John Cheek as Monterone.

Photos were picked from the Berkshire Opera Festival’s website.

The Berkshire Opera Festival’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto is performed on the stage of the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA, on the afternoon of Saturday, August 25 at 1:00 p.m., the evenings of Tuesday and Thursday, August 28 and 31, respectively, at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets may be purchased at the company’s website  

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