A strong Ruddigore by the Troupers in Norwalk

The Troupers Light Opera gave lower Fairfield County a real treat this past weekend: Gilbert and Sullivan’s infrequently performed Ruddigore, a diamond in the rough if ever there was one. It is performed again this Saturday, April 13. Don’t miss it!

Okay, it’s not the big three of H.M.S. Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado,* but it’s infrequently performed for reasons other than its quality. Even compared to the aforementioned top-shelf trio, Ruddigore has an excellent score (it’s a long time favorite of mine) and a plot that is totally Gilbert, albeit not without small snags. Plus, this season Troupers will perform a version of Ruddigore more closely tied to the original 1887 version.**

Brett Kroeger as Rose Maybud with Wendy Falconer as Dame Hannah explaining etiquette subtleties

Brett Kroeger as Rose Maybud with Wendy Falconer as Dame Hannah explaining etiquette subtleties

The Troupers’ cast for Ruddigore is very strong this year, practically hand-picked for their roles. As in seasons past, Brett Kroeger is a master of voice, character, and wit. Her portrayal of Rose Maybud, who is the central love interest here, tacks variously with the emotional winds, though in each direction, short lived as it may be, she is genuinely sincere. Rose is often more erudite than her circumstances as an orphan suggest (Gilbert’s dialogue) and more sentimental and honest (through Sullivan’s music), despite of some of the silly things she comes out with (again, Gilbert’s dialogue). Kroeger’s stage presence is always in the moment, emotions always up front, giving three dimensions to a potentially two dimensional character. Brava!

Michael Constantino as Robin and Brett Kroeger as Rose, he being shy, she being bound by rules of etiquette

Michael Constantino as Robin and Brett Kroeger as Rose, he being shy, she being bound by rules of etiquette

The man who really loves her, Robin Oakapple (aka Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, bad baronet of Ruddigore), is deftly played by Michael Constantino. Rich in voice and focused in character, Constantino brings more voice to this Grossmith role*** than one usually encounters on stage. Robin is not quite as silly as Ko Ko nor as mushy as Bunthorne nor as stiff as the Lord Chancelor, but rather he is a gentleman with a little problem (painful shyness) and a big problem too (the curse on the lords of Ruddigore hangs over his head, forcing him into disguise). Constantino does exasperation well. But he loves Rose and in the end all will be good. Bravo and welcome!

Erick Sanchez-Canahuate as Richard Dauntless wows the Bridesmaids

Erick Sanchez-Canahuate as Richard Dauntless wows the Bridesmaids

The other man who “loves” her is Richard Dauntless. He is Robin’s foster brother and a sailor on a Man-o-war who returns after a 10 year absence. Dauntless is energetically sung (and danced) by Erick Sanchez-Canahuate. He captures the energy and waywardness of his character, a man of excessive good cheer, a womanizer, supportive of others when it suits him, but not opposed to a little betrayal now and then. Sanchez-Canahuate brings broad smiles throughout the evening; director Kevin Miller keeps him moving constantly. Bravo and welcome!

Sir Despard Murgatroyd, a wicked Baronet of Ruddigore, is darkly portrayed by Ben Hoyer, also a welcome newcomer to Troupers. Again, as with the three above, Hoyer is strong in voice and in character. Especially well handled is Despard’s transformation from the wild and wicked Baronet at the end of Act I to a quietly settled, mild mannered man in black who, with his new wife Margaret, is making do at normalcy, such as it is.

Sir Despard (Ben Hoyer) and Margaret (Marian Shulman) flaunt their new and on the whole more sane professions

Sir Despard (Ben Hoyer) and Margaret (Marian Shulman) flaunt their new and on the whole more sane professions

Marian Shulman’s Mad Margaret is quirky and scatterbrained, but it doesn’t take away from her wit-wandering Scena Cheerily carols the lark and her touching Ballad To a garden full of posies in Act I. It’s a favorite solo of mine in the whole G & S repertory.

Wendy Falconer is Dame Hannah, Rose’s Aunt, who was jilted years ago when the curse of Ruddigore sweeps away Sir Roderic Murgatroyd. She sets the background of the curse in her first solo, but it is in her simple Ballad There grew a little flower that she touches our hearts. In this she is joined by the shade of Roderic, bringing some closure to her sadness.

John Matilaine as Roderic and Wendy Falconer as Hannah reuniting at the end

John Matilaine as Roderic and Wendy Falconer as Hannah reuniting at the end

Long time Trouper John Matilaine is a mellow, not terribly menacing Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, the twenty-first Baronet of Ruddigore, long deceased. He comes to life twice: first to check on Sir Ruthven’s list of crimes, after singing the grand When the night wind howls, and second to see what all the rumpus is. Oh, Robin, now Sir Ruthven, has kidnapped Dame Hannah as one of his required crimes each day. Hannah and Roddy-doddy, as she calls Roderic were once engaged, which is why he joins her in There grew a little flower.

Frank Sisson plays gentle Old Adam Goodheart, Robin’s faithful steward, hearing trumpet and all. Gisella Surapine is a fetching Zorah, one of the Professional Bridesmaids. Apart from her solo in the opening number, Zorah gets the standout question to Robin “Who is the wretch who hath betrayed thee? Let him stand forth!” in the finale of Act I. Big moment well executed. Welcome to Troupers! Pia Romano returns to sing Ruth.

There was dancing, choreographed by Tiffany Williams, who also danced, joined by Neil Flores.

Though the sets for Act I of this Ruddigore are serviceable, appearing even more so on the bare stage of the Norwalk Concert Hall, Act II’s Portrait Gallery, the frames from which the ghosts of bad baronets past appear, is quite effective: the portraits were of the Troupers themselves, not simply approximations of a face, such that any player wearing the same costume could suffice. The effect is well done, despite the realities of lighting in the Norwark Concert Hall.

As to that, obvious in the photos, the costumes are sumptuous and colorful, thanks to Lea Kessler Shaw and Marian Shulman.

Kevin Miller’s direction keeps the action moving, in spite of Gilbert’s less than concise dialogue.**** Miller rounds out the characters and chorus members with signature expressions and behaviors. The ghosts, who are distinguished by costume as well, have their own identities.

Barring a few out-of-synch moments between sections of the orchestra, Erik Kramer led the wonderful music of Ruddigore with fine sense of forward progression. Sullivan’s scores never sag, nor should they ever.

The phrase ‘you never know when they’ll do this one again’ is oft spoken after a performance of one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas on the third shelf, where Ruddigore, like the half hidden violet amidst the roses, sits. In the Troupers’ seventy-four seasons, the first being 1946, the Company has performed it six times, 2019 being the seventh time. Obvious wise advice: don’t miss it this time around.

Troupers Light Opera will perform Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse at the Norwalk Concert Hall, located on 125 East Avenue in Norwalk, Connecticut, on Saturday, April 13, 2019. Matinees are @ 2:30, Evenings are @ 7:30. Ample free parking is available.

For tickets please visit the Troupers Website: trouperlightopera.org or call 800-838-3006.

* Please reference OM’s preview of this season’s Ruddigore in the post below this one.

** The first performance of Ruddigore at the Savoy Theatre in January of 1887 didn’t go well. G, S, and DC has withdrawn The Mikado, there were boos from the Balcony, Bloody-gore, etc. Gilbert complained to Sullivan that, among other things, George Grossmith’s Recitative Away Remorse! and the ensuing Song For thirty five years I’ve been sober and wary didn’t seem to work. By eleven days after the premiere, Gilbert had crafted a second version of the Song, this time Henceforth all the crimes that I find in the Times. In the first D’Oyly Carte revival of Ruddigore in 1920 neither version of the song was used, and so for the rest of time, until recently. The TER recording of the music and numbers from the premiere production includes For thirty five years; I forget which version Troupers used in Gayden Wren’s Ruddigore in 2003; this season Michael Constantino chose Henceforth all the crimes, but, as this is appropriate in our political climate today, he added an updated set of verses at the end. Quite funny and on target. 

*** George Grossmith was an entertainer who came to D’Oyly Carte to play John Wellington Wells in the premiere run Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer in 1877. Energized by its success, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote H.M.S. Pinafore with many of The Sorcerer’s cast, or at least ‘types’ in mind, cementing the musical character for the comic baritone (Sir Joseph, Major General Stanley, Bunthorne, the Lord Chancellor, King Gama, Ko Ko, and, in Ruddigore, Robin). To Sullivan’s frequent frustration, Grossmith, apparently, did not have much of singing voice.

**** Ruddigore seems more wordy than the other G & S libretti, which would explain why the first act is on long side. My deadline demands preclude doing the math necessary to calculate the ratio of dialogue to music and compare it with the others.

Enjoy! Support your local opera and young singers! OM

Troupers Light Opera to perform Ruddigore in Norwalk

In spite of its performance history*, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore is a top shelf light opera. It has a unique sound picture within G & S, more characters prone to melancholy, it’s true, and then the ghosts, let’s not forget the ghosts. Happily Ruddigore is performed in Norwalk at the Norwalk Concert Hall by the Troupers Light Opera on two Saturdays, April 6 and 13, a matinee and evening performance on each. Details below.

OperaMetro (OM) talked with soprano Brett Kroeger (BK), who sings Rose Maybud, an eligible young woman with, get this, a troupe of professional bridesmaids on hand every day just in case anybody’s going to marry her. Village employees, these, sure beats being on the dole. Also Director Kevin Miller (KM), who returns to the Troupers after a successful production of the PC Mikado last season. Just got a call from Jim Cooper (JC), who might stop in if he gets a break from multitasking.

Heavy gray skies. As we speak a gentle but persistent chilly mist blows in over Cornwall from the sea. A pub in Rederring: this calls for a hot toddy or a cup of grog...Well, the gray skies part is true today…but we’re speaking through emails, our busy schedules being what they are.

OM: Hello Brett and Kevin!

BK and KM: Hello!

OM: So, Ruddigore this season. Tell me about Ruddigore. Kevin, by the way, nice Company debut with Mikado last season. Congratulations!

KM: Thank you!

OM: Sorry I missed the opportunity to talk with you then. That was your first G & S?

KM: Yes, first opera actually. My background is in musical theater, Broadway especially, a lot of Broadway. Mikado was a jump into a different world. I was recruited by Frank Sisson, a musician whom I’ve known for many years.

OM: First impressions?

KM: Sullivan’s music, Gilbert’s lyrics and dialog, wow! Gilbert has a daunting sense of wit and humor. Through Mikado last season I began to form verbal and musical images of their style. And now for Ruddigore, I’ve again taken a long look at the text and lyrics in the libretto and how Sullivan sets these lyrics to music. You have to get a sense of how they think and create.

OM: It is a unique style within a genre.

KM: Yes, very intelligent, but economic too. And it just begs for accents.

OM: Accents?

KM: Yes, actions on stage related to the text and accented by the music.

OM: Interesting.

KM: As a kid I was very much into films. I still love films, but even then I was aware of how the best film composers would enhance or accent the actions and dialog on screen with their scores. The G & S operas just beg a director to take advantage of the opportunities for such accents.

OM: In live opera you’re working with a different breed of singer from that of Broadway, in addition to a different type of text and score. Your experiences so far?

KM: I should say that actually this is my third opera. In between Mikado and now Ruddigore I did Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, a collaboration of the Troupers with The American Chamber Orchestra.

OM: I was sorry to have missed that. Schedule conflicts.

KM: The biggest difference is the voices and what goes into producing that sound. I’m struck by how awesome the singing is, how well trained the singers are here with Troupers. Sometimes in rehearsals I have to stop and just listen. I’m learning too that some stage business may work for some singers but not quite fit others, so that what seems like an inspiration is not a really good idea with a particular singer in the current production. This said, the cast members in the Company are wonderful, willing to work on things, willing to take risks, but also willing to give me feedback so we can reach a common ground.

OM: It showed in your Mikado. That’s your cue, Brett. Good to have you again!

BK: Thank you, great to be back.

OM: So this year it’s Rose Maybud. Tell me about Rose Maybud.

BK: (laughing): Well, to be honest, my relationship with Rose has not been easy. Vocally, she’s lovely, no problem, but she is, well, shallow, don’t you think? I mean, she’s pressured from the beginning to be married, and by the end of Act I she’s said ‘yes’ to the man she really loves, Robin Oakapple, a pledge that holds until his true identity as the bad baronet of Ruddigore is revealed at their wedding ceremony. Already in her bridal gown and wasting no time, she then looks to Despard Murgatroyd, who’s just been released from the terrible curse of Ruddigore. She says “Take me—I am thy bride!” But he’s already reunited with Mad Margaret, the woman he ditched when he became a bad baronet. So to Richard Dauntless, a sailor who, for about ten minutes, was her suitor earlier in the Act, she sings “Thou art the only one that’s left, so I am thine!” All the while the Chorus of Bridesmaids sings “Hail the bridegroom, hail the Bride!”

OM: Fast thinking, Maybud! You have to admire that!

BK: But I am not she, is the point.

OM: So you sometimes speak even when not spoken to?

BK: Absolutely!

OM: You sometimes say ‘who’ when you should say ‘whom’?

BK: Doesn’t everyone?

OM: Good point! But as to that, though, you’ll agree that having a Chorus of Bridesmaids following Rose around day after day, singing at you before you’re fully awake even, does put an undo amount of pressure for her to wed, yes?

BK: Good point, indeed that would be pressure. Truth is that as the rehearsals progress I’m enjoying her details more and more: I love her quirky insistence on etiquette and her correcting mistakes of grammar, and Kevin is working with me to round out her character a bit more. He brings so much energy to our performances.

***The lights dim. At this point, OperaMetro breaks the fourth wall and addresses you, the gentle reader, directly, rather like the omniscient narrator in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.

            Similar to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or the Monty Python skits, most of Gilbert’s tales with Sullivan have a central absurdity, a knot to be untied or at least dealt with. It could be that infants of different ranks are switched at birth or that a young fellow has an overripe sense of duty and a birthday on February 29, and so on. In the case of Ruddigore, due to the bad behavior of an ancestor, specifically Sir Rupert Murgatroyd, who’s leisure was burning witches at the stake, brought down a curse on the House of Ruddigore. Each lord of Ruddigore must commit a crime every day or, if at last overwhelmed by guilt, die an agonizing death. Noncompliance clause. After his death the curse passes to the next in line.

            So far so good, right, me lad? But even more absurd than this is the twist that Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, next in line for the curse when his father passes in agony, has disappeared, like into thin air, leaving the curse to fall on his younger brother Despard. Ruthven, in fact, lives in disguise in the village of Rederring under the name of Robin Oakapple, a young farmer, raised with his foster brother Richard Dauntless. Now I ask you, gentle reader, how could a curse so freakin’ terrible, so automatic in its succession from victim to victim, let someone escape its deathly clutches simply by disguising himself as a farmer and living in the bloody seaside village right straight below Castle Ruddigore? And yet, it’s funny.

Has to get this point out!***

OM: I think there’s someone at the door. Walking to the door, remarking I remember…It’s Jim Cooper! Hello Jim.

JC: Hello!

OM: I was just about to say that Frank Sisson informed me that Troupers is planning to perform Ruddigore with its original 1887 overture, not the one we usually hear.** If this, then Troupers must be  doing at least some of the original but longer Act II, second verse of “Happily coupled” and Robin’s patter song, for two. The music for Robin’s patter song is in that original overture.

JC: Frank is right: we have returned to original material and are using the original overture, written from Sullivan’s sketches by Hamilton Clarke, rather than the 1920 Toye overture, and the original Act II Finale. There are also a few extra measures here and there throughout.

OM: I knew the original material existed. Troupers tackled some of that in 2003 under Gayden Wren.

JC: Yes, but I’ve prepared a new vocal and orchestra score for this show.

OM: Excellent! Thank you, Jim! We’re looking forward to hearing it.

JC: See you Saturday. Bye. Exit Jim Cooper.

OM: This is exciting, oui?

BK: Hmm. Well, for most of us this is our first try at Ruddigore so we don’t know differences between a fall back performing version with cuts and rewrites and a recovered original version. It’s just Ruddigore to us.   

OM: It will be wonderful, really! I’m looking forward to meeting you, Kevin, and to seeing you again, Brett. Best wishes to all!

BK and KM: Thank you! See you Saturday!

Troupers Light Opera will perform Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse at the Norwalk Concert Hall, located on 125 East Avenue in Norwalk, Connecticut, on Saturday, April 6 and Saturday, April 13, 2019. Matinees are @ 2:30, Evenings are @ 7:30.

Kevin Miller directs the production; Eric Kramer conducts a full orchestra. Principals in the cast include Michael Costantino, Wendy Falconer, Chris Hetherington, Ben Hoyer, John Matilaine, Erick Sanchez-Canahuate, Marian Shulman, Frank Sisson, Gisella Surapina, Pia Romano. plus members of the chorus.

For tickets please visit the Troupers Website: trouperlightopera.org or call 800-838-3006.

* It’s typically performed by companies dedicated to G & S, who’ve done most often the big three (H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado), who’ve also often, not ‘orphan,’ done next three (Iolanthe, The Yeomen of the Guard, and The Gondoliers), excellent creations, these, but they are bigger productions, and then, after several rotations of the six above, one or two of the next four (The Sorcerer, Patience, Princess Ida, and Ruddigore) will surface, entertain, and be filed away for another decade. That’s ten. Each of the ten G & S operas is sui generis, I certainly think, even if, compared to Victor Herbert’s or Franz Lehar’s operettas, they sound a lot alike.

The three other G & S collaborations (Thespis, Utopia, Limited, and The Grand Duke) are like the relatives talked about at Thanksgiving but you never hear from them. But…The Troupers have performed Utopia, Limited in the distant past and Thespis in the very recent past. Only The Grand Duke left! Bless the Troupers Light Opera Company for their occasional revivals of Ruddigore over their 70 plus years of performing G & S. So here we are again!

** This overture and, indeed, the whole reconstructed original score is available on a 1989 TER 2 CD set, based on performances by the New Sadler’s Wells Opera. It’s wonderful. The differences between the revised version and the original are mostly in the second Act: the restoration of deleted verses and even whole numbers. The ‘new’ (now traditional) Ruddigore overture was put together by Geoffrey Toye for the 1920 D’Oyly Carte revival, where also the cuts in Act II were made.

A (relatively) complete discography for Ruddigore is presented on OperaMetro on the page Historic Recordings. But…know that this discography of Ruddigore, including CDs and DVDs, being posted in fall of 2014, the first season for OM, alas, is at the very bottom of the page!! How can this be true? Patience! Cruise down slowly: there are several other interesting reviews there, as in: when was the last time you listened to the Sutherland/Pavarotti Turandot? Would you love it more in remastered sound? OM has a past, my friends…

Embrace the Troupers! See you Saturday, hopefully.


Bronx Opera opens the 2019 season with The Consul

The Bronx Opera, an artistic gem just north of the island of Manhattan, within shouting distance of the Zoo and the Gardens, performs two operas in this their 52nd season: Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

OperaMetro (OM) was privileged to discuss the Menotti opera with the company’s General Manager Benjamin Spierman (BS), the production’s director Rod Gomez (RG), and soprano Mary-Hollis Hundley (M-HH), who sings Magda, the central role of the opera. Marina Harris, how sings Magda in the other two performances, called to say she will be delayed, so we proceed accordingly. It’s too cold to do a walk and talk, all are too busy getting ready for the performances, so no time to chat in person or by telephone…but emails work. The conversation below is edited to make it seem as if we’re hanging out together, enjoying the warmth of each other’s company, which would be a far far better alternative than strolling through the chilly, windy reality of today. Brrrr.

Mary-Hollis Hundley is Magda in  The Consul  on Opening Night

Mary-Hollis Hundley is Magda in The Consul on Opening Night

OM: Ben, congratulations on your new season!

BS: Many thanks. A pleasure to speak with you again.

OM: So The Consul and The Mikado this season. I know BxO tends to do operas connected by some common theme, partly for your wonderful wide community and educational outreach. But, as I see it, these two have in common only that they were both originally composed to a libretto in English and the titles start with The…am I missing something?

BS: A central part of both operas is unchecked power, which opens the door for the potentially arbitrary and destructive nature of totalitarianism. We chose the theme because it’s becoming increasingly relevant today, not just ‘back then,’ like in the governments of the 20th or 19th centuries, or the old days of absolute monarchs, emperors, and sun gods. In The Consul Madga seeks a visa to leave the country, wishing to join her husband, who has fled to avoid arrest for political disobedience. But the Secretary of the Consulate clearly stalls at filling her request due to the ongoing police investigation. At any moment her world could come violently crashing down around her and her loved ones.

OM: Ah! I get it! And so The Mikado, in this framework, is no different: to disobey the Mikado’s laws is death, however whimsical the laws may be and however trivial the disobedience is.

BS: Exactly.

OM: And as The Mikado evolves through the course of the evening, the new laws are uncovered, ones that no one seemed to know about.

BS: Right, and they are to be carried out just because they are the laws of the Mikado, regardless of how absurd they are. The people have no way to contest the laws.  

OM: For instance, if a husband is beheaded for flirting, his wife must be buried alive. Now here’s a how-de-do! Ti’s death to marry you…Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko’s Solicitor, conveniently finds this old law.

BS: Right. Corroborated by all the other lord-high officials.

OM: Right. Pooh-Bah assumed all of their titles. Never been used because married men never flirt…

BS: Of course they don’t.

OM: But Mikado is to be done in the spring.

BS; Yes.

OM: Let’s talk about The Consul. Opens tomorrow.

BS: Exactly so. Another reason we chose The Consul is because it’s a fantastic opera. Menotti is like the bridge between the operas of Puccini in the early 20th century and the post war era. Part of the evolution of Italian Opera.

OM: I saw it once on stage with our local company. Really an excellent work! Rod Gomez, you’re directing this production; Mary-Hollis Hundley, you’re singing the central role of Magda tomorrow night in the production’s premiere and again the following weekend. Thank you both for speaking with me.

M-HH: You’re welcome.

RG: Thank you for having us.

OM: The Consul was written in the late 1940s, premiering in March of 1950. What with folks trying to escape from the Axis countries before and during the war, and then from the Communist block, the events portrayed in the opera are not at all far from a harsh reality we older folks are only too familiar with. If not these, what events in today’s world seem to you relevant to the story and emotions of the opera?

TG: Yes, it was written during a different time, but there are certainly things which resonate in our contemporary world. I base this production in 1984. The year is a sort of cultural touchstone for all of us who remember that time and, specifically in Orwell’s case, a metaphor for a dystopian world. But certainly it’s not difficult to draw parallels and see everywhere victims of an unfeeling, dehumanized government.

M-HH: I think it is utterly impossible to put on a production of The Consul and not get into politics! It is so completely (and unfortunately) relevant today. It’s a timeless piece in the sense that this family has been ripped apart and unable to survive because of seemingly arbitrary red-tape placed by the bureaucracy. Magda and the rest of their family are trying to join her husband, a freedom fighter of some sort who has fled the country. But all of the hurdles she faces in the consulate won’t allow that. He cannot not come back to get them as he would be arrested immediately and most likely executed.

OM: As an artist, do you tend to wrap yourself in today’s events to get into the proper frame of Magda’s character and the dilemma she faces?

M-HH: In general, sure, I find that in preparing most other roles I have to draw on personal life experiences or current events to get inspiration and perspective. However, I have to do the exact opposite in this opera: I find it to be so relevant and powerful that I rarely made it through the early rehearsals without crying. The Kavanaugh hearing was taking place the day of my callback, the very day I had to perform Magda’s iconic “To this we’ve come…” aria for the very first time. Like many Americans, woman in particular, I was overly emotional due to the proceedings. The aria really hit a little too close to home.

As an aside, ‘self care’ is an extremely important part of our profession and I’m finding the need to close myself off partially to the news these days, especially when I get home from rehearsals late at night. But I hope that I’m doing my part in some small way just by being a participant in this show. The Consul raises one’s awareness of the misuse of power through an eerily similar but distant-enough situation.

OM: As to Magda’s character, Mary-Hollis, give us five or six adjectives that for you describe her dramatic arc through the course of the opera.

M-HH: Almost all of Magda’s emotions are driven by the decisions of other people and outside forces beyond her control. She begins frustrated because her husband’s participation in an illegal political group has made their family a target of the police. When he has to run away to save his own life, he leaves her very specific instructions which she is determined to see through. Her tenacity becomes apparent as she returns to the consulate day after day to no avail, yet she stands up for herself and the rights of others waiting with her. This is when her hopeful aria takes place, although that emotion is tragically short-lived. Her family members begin dying of an illness, leaving her alone and more and more crestfallen. Her ultimate act of selflessness and bravery occurs at the very end of the opera when she has to resort to every tactic to save the lives of her husband and those that work with him.

OM: Which parts of the trajectory are due to face-to-face interactions, requiring the cooperation of others on stage (the stuff of recitative), compared to those parts due to reflections, remembrances, hopes (the stuff of aria)? Rod?

RG: Most interestingly, you’ll find that these things can happen simultaneously layered on top of one another. For example, in the sumptuous finale of Act I, Magda reflects on saying goodbye to the life she has known, but this happens only because, in classic operatic convention, time has stopped during her fight with John. He has just informed her he will be leaving. With his Mother, they all sing simultaneous monologues while being just about face-to-face with the object of their conflict at hand. And then later in the opera, in Act 3, in Magda’s fever-rich dream sequence, her ultimate act is aided and supported by all of the other characters in the opera, in a direct, face-to-face manner.... but this all occurs in the self-reflection of a barely-conscious dream, where Magda is continually facing her own juxtaposed conflict to hold on - and let go - to life itself as a sacrifice to save others, end her own life. Puccini’s Butterfly, of course, comes to mind, as does Suor Angelica.

OM: On the safe assumption that The Consul is not as well known today, as, say, Madama Butterfly, it’s probably a good idea to ask you what an audience member should attend to?

RG: Certainly the dream sequence just mentioned. Magda’s arias are central throughout.

OM: Are there moments in which the music, not the text, therefore not sung, determines the emotional quality of a Magda moment?

M-HH: Oh yes, there is a fabulous scene after the big aria in Act 2 in which Magda is finally given hope for the first time. It’s an opportunity to speak face-to-face with the Consul! The initial disbelief and then hope and excitement she feels can be heard building in the repetitive themes in the strings, but then (without giving TOO much away)…

OM: No, don’t do that…

M-HH: Her dreams are dashed and the mood swing is so great that it ends in her collapsing to the floor. Menotti has perfectly composed these moments and we’re lucky that Rod, our director, has also seen these actions so clearly tied to the music. In an opera that packs a ton of punches, this is one of my favorite moments.

OM: Rod, many of the other characters are to some extent ‘types,’ and if so, are there typical behaviors you seek to bring out so as to indicate that type?

RG: Certainly the nuclear family (Magda, husband John, and Mother) all function as protagonists, and I have aimed to make their relationships and dealings with one another and other characters as human and emotionally connected as possible, which, I should add, is always such a challenge in opera, when the musical and vocal demands are extreme and challenging!

The Secret Policeman is a classic antagonist and I have sought to underplay a menace which is already apparent in a riveting score: he exists as the shadowy, looming nightmare always hovering over, with the promise of ill-will. But lest you think all is doom and gloom in this Consul-land, meet the Magician, a quasi-foil to the linear drama, who, while not exactly comic relief, brings a relaxing of the inherent dramatic tension.

OM: From a singing actress’s point of view, Mary-Hollis, what qualities of the role of Magda make it special, worth your time pursuing it as an artist? Have you sung the role before? And apart from the joy of performing it well, what, so far, have been the most gratifying parts of the role?

M-HH: This is my first experience with Magda. I was not very familiar with The Consul before I was cast, in fact, I had never looked at the aria until preparing for the auditions. We know in the business it’s never smart to go into an audition with too high of hopes, but I must say I have rarely wanted to be cast so badly in a role. Magda is such a powerful woman and I find myself admiring her in many ways as I prepare the role. She is extremely dedicated to her family and, most of all, brave. She is brave in situations where I’m sure that I would shirk away. She stands up for her husband, for herself, for all the others struggling with similar bureaucratic nightmares and ends up making the ultimate sacrifice to save others. I find that I am enjoying the words and the acting almost more than the singing in some ways. It’s not that Menotti’s music isn’t fabulous here, because it is, very much fabulous and I love singing it! It’s just that I find Magda so complex and strong. It’s Menotti’s libretto that has been speaking to me. It could be a play with musical interludes/scene changes and still be successful, in my opinion. So as an actor, I can say that I’m enjoying this role immensely, even if it is extremely tough material to have to inhabit every day.

OM: What roles in your repertory prepare you best for Magda and in what ways?

M-HH: Not many roles that I have sung have truly prepared me for Magda. I recently sang the Mother in Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, so I thought “oh, okay, no problem, I already understand his language and how he composes for the voice...”

OM: There’s a ‘but’ here.

M-HH: Right! WRONG! This opera is next-level stuff! It’s fully orchestrated and lush with lots of brass, almost more like Carlisle Floyd’s works, and it sits in a similar range to many of the Benjamin Britten roles I’ve loved singing, so I’m finding those roles to be helpful in preparing for much of this middle-voice recitative-like singing.

As an aside, my dream role is Richard Strauss’s Salome.

OM: Wow!

M-HH: But before this I’m making my first advances into Wagner repertoire now. I think Magda may be the perfect bridge. This has been a rare and perhaps uniquely gratifying role for me in that way as well.

OM: Thank you all, thank you Ben, thank you Rod, thank you Mary-Hollis for your time and intelligent words. Wishing you all, the rest of the cast and company a successful run of The Consul. It’s been a sincere pleasure!

The Bronx Opera’s production of The Consul is performed in the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College in the Bronx. Eric Kramer conducts all peformances; Rod Gomez directs; sets and costumes are by Meganne George; lighting is by Joshua Rose. There will be a total of four performances in the two weekends. It opens Saturday, January 12, with Mary-Hollis Hundley as Magda, curtain at 7:30 p.m. With her is Jeremy Moore as John, Magda’s husband. His Mother is played by Caroline Tye, the Secretary is Cara Search, the Secret Police Agent is Joseph Gansert, the Magician is Daniel Foltz-Morrison, Vera is Amy Maude Helfer, Kofner is Ben Hoyer, the Foreign Woman is Leslie Swanson, Anna Gomez is Francesca Federico, and Assan is sung by Conrad Schmechel. This cast performs again, the last of the run, on Saturday, January 19 at 2:30 p.m.

The second performance of The Consul is this weekend, Sunday, January 13 at 2:30 p.m. Marina Harris sings Magda. With her is Markel Reed as John; his Mother is Allison Gish, the Secretary is Mary Beth Nelson, the Secret Police Agent is Wil Kellerman, the Magician is Stephen Steffens, Vera is Jackie M. Hayes, Kofner is Michael Cofield, the Foreign Woman is Miriam Chaudoir, Anna Gomez is Aida Carducci, and Assan is again sung by Conrad Schmechel. This cast performs The Consul again on Friday evening, January 18 at 7:30 p.m.

The ticket link for all performances is: https://bronxconsul.brownpapertickets.com

Best wishes to all for another great season BxO!

Shall survive the winter. Stay warm

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: 

https://davidhkochtheater.com/ 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 www.fishercenter.bard.edu.

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 www.teartonuovo.org 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 www.fishercenter.bard.edu. 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 Corinto, 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 teatronuovo.org 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: https://princetonfestival.org: the McCarter’s telephone number is 609.258.2787.

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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 www.berkshireoperafestival.org  

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