Opera

Largo al factotum: Rossini’s Barber at Baruch Performing Arts Center

Image © Gregory Briggler 2017

As I was making my way to the city from my apartment in Queens, the cold mist visible in the street lights made the decision to turn to flurries in the ten minute walk to the subway. I was late for the opera. The start time was 7:30 and not 8:00 as I had assumed. I missed the overture and “Figaro qua, Figaro là…” much to my chagrin. This would be my first time to see the Barber of Seville live, I thought on my way to the theater. Once I sneaked into the darkness, after descending through the Dynasty era decor of the lobby staircase, I remembered that I had played the opera over twenty years ago! Opera in the Ozarks is a fantastic summer program for young singers from all over the country to gain experience singing major roles in full stage productions. I sweated through many outdoor performances of this buoyant farce playing trombone in the orchestra. As a veteran of the pit, I was happy to see a small full orchestra at this performance.

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Keith Milkie as Don Bartolo & Katrin Bulke as Rosina

Some composers, like Bach, craft a logically flawless piece of music that can work for organ, kazoo ensemble, or slightly out of tune community band. Shakespeare is similar in Drama, all one need do is plant themselves on stage and say the words clearly for the audience to get something from the beauty of the language and insight into what it means to be human. For Rossini, however, the medium is the message- both the farce and the songs. The orchestration is intentionally simple. Rossini uses the instruments as the canvas and frame for the vocal impasto. The comedy is intentionally broad. There were chuckles throughout the night from the audience. I particularly enjoyed the Bill Irwin look-alike Don Raymond as Ambrogio. Deaf and trying constantly to react to the craziness around him he was always one step behind. Mostly, he wanted to eat peanuts out of his shoulder bag.

Count Almaviva, Rosina’s love interest and eventual husband, was sung by Sam Varhan. His voice had a very nice “Italian” ring to it, but it was very quiet. I kept imagining turning up his volume with a out sized, cartoonish volume dial. I say put a mic on him and let him sing “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables! Claudio Mascarenhas was a resonate presence as Don Basillio. I enjoyed the acting from the rest of the cast, although I would have liked a little more Three’s Company and a little less How I Met Your Mother from the action.

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The singing from everyone, however, was full of mistakes, chips, not-quite notes and forgotten lines. The stated purpose of Vocal Productions NYC, the producers of the evening, is “to cultivate opportunities for emerging musical professionals to perform roles, conduct ensembles, and accompany major musical works within a positive nonjugdemental [sic] environment.” I tried to approach the evening with this in mind. The production was fully staged, with nice costumes and a sturdy set, so the environment set expectations high for the audience. The Vocal Productions NYC website states that they are open to more than just opera, so perhaps a musical wouldn’t be out of the question for next time.

Precision was a problem both in the pit and on stage. The singers were sometimes out of phase with the orchestra which was often out of phase with itself. When the orchestra managed to bring it together here and there, it resonated nicely. The chug-chug from the strings and winds can be as enjoyable as the singing, but the band has to be in the pocket for the joy to come through. The ensemble finale was an interesting pastiche of tempos from all over the stage and from the pit.

There were some minor productions mistakes. For example, Don Basilio needs some pants underneath his robe!  The super-titles were missing throughout the first act. Count Almaviva had three or four costume changes while Rosina had none which seems unjust. Although not a mistake, keep an eye out for Danny DeVito and Eric Clapton among the soldiers in the chorus.

The cast is different each night, so it would be impossible to make suggestions for the entire run based on opening night. I suspect everything will be tighter on and off stage by, say, Thursday. The artistic director of the group, Valentyn Peytchinov, will sing Don Basilio on Saturday, December 16th which would be a good time to go. If you are willing to accept the imperfections of singing from emerging professionals, then feel free to enjoy. If you are more judgmental, then this isn’t the production for you.

The Barber of Seville
Gioachino Rossini
Sung in Italian
December 12-17
Baruch Performing Arts Center
55 Lexington Ave.
New York, NY 10010
(entrance on 25th St. between Lexington and 3rd)
$31 or $51
Vocal Productions NYC

 

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The Dybbuk: A Review of Opera in Concert

Image ©2017 Gregory Briggler

The biggest, most enthusiastic applause for the night came for the principal cellist before the performance. You see, he was late, and normally being responsible, had all of the music for the rest of the cello players. He realized his reputation for dependability was in peril halfway to the performance. The eighty four year old composer and conductor, Joel Mandelbaum,  walked to center stage in his comfortable shoes and explained good-naturedly in his Kissinger voice what the delay was about. As if on cue, the principal cellist rushes in and hands out the parts. The crowd of older opera enthusiasts and younger singers went wild.

Often times classical musicians, even in famous orchestras, can’t be bothered to dress well since black is the only requirement. This orchestra, however, was not only young but also well dressed. The concert master strode out on stage in a lovely, understated horizontal-stripe gown and the concert began. The orchestra held forty five members. There was even a harp poking up near the percussion and a microtonal electronic keyboard sitting in the middle. When I spoke to orchestra members during intermission and after the performance, they were all worried about overpowering the singers. Although I sat near the front, the balance seemed fine. A pit would have been better, of course, but the singers were up to the challenge.

Although I will mention bits and pieces of the plot here, the story is so overwrought and melodramatic that it would be a fool’s errand to try and offer a full summary here. The confusing, layered plot set in a 19th century Russian shtetl begins with a love affair set in a synagogue and ends under a marriage canopy with the dead lovers spending eternity together-  with an exorcism in between. This opera is not afraid of spiritual thinking. Based on the Yiddish classic “The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds” by the Russian playwright S. Ansky, it displays the realistic tension between religion and superstition which is prevalent in communities where God is taken seriously. The odd thing is that the action seems to “bless” superstitious and sacrilegious thinking and not the established faith.  Channon, a youth desperately in love with Leah, is the eventual dybbuk of the title, the ghost of a dead person which takes hold of another.  He is so desperate to impress the father of his beloved Leah that he gives his soul to the devil (in the synagogue no less), and that vow kills rendering him a ghost. That ghost first possess the body of Leah, and at the close of the opera takes possession of her soul, by her own desire. At first it seemed the main story was that of possession and redemption, it is called “The Dybbuk” after all, but at the end it was a twisted love story instead. The opera was at its best as a story of possession and the spiritual heroics of a uncertain rabbi. Yet Dybbuk is more Liebestod than The Exorcist.

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A Ram’s horn, called a shofar, is used even today as a faithful signal call during Rosh Hashana, the most important Jewish holiday of their religious year. In ancient Israel shofars were also used to signal during war. It is very helpful to listen to shofar calls before seeing the opera if you are not familiar with the sound and meaning of the instrument. They sound a fifth, the common interval of a trumpet fanfare, hold steady or then repeat in a kind of rat-a-tat. It helps to listen for these soundmarks (like landmarks) through the opera. The shofar-like blasts from the brass in the exorcism scene invoke the joining of faith and resolve needed for the spiritual battle taking place.

Mr. Mandelbaum mentions in the program notes that he used the notes of shofar calls to create a tone row, albeit a tonic one. In other words, instead of using a traditional scale, he decided to build his own with the notes expressed by the blowing of the ram’s horn trumpet. Do not worry, if you were to see the opera, this theory does not get in the way of music comprehension.

The world in which the characters live is very foreign to us and not only from the setting. At the time, it was common for a young woman had very little say in who she was to marry. In the middle of the opera, her new, unseen fiancee is set to arrive once the dybbuk, Channon, has been driven from her. But it is she who longs for her dead love interest which brings him back. Unrequited love has an durable appeal to many audiences. Another idea struck me during the two hour performance. What is it like to live with death all around? I assume Leah is very young, and yet her mother has died. Channon’s father is also dead. The town is centered on the grave of a murdered couple. Death is a major theme in this play upon which the opera is based. Perhaps in the imagination of Ansky, the young lovers receive in death which was unattainable in life.

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The evening was enjoyable overall due to the singing displayed by the principal players. The lovers were well matched in voice. Emily Misch sang with beautiful purpose as the young Leah.  She looked resplendent in a blue gown a la Grec and completed her look with a turquoise ring on her left hand. She describes herself in her bio as “clear-voiced, versatile, and intellegent…” a description that I am not sure I could improve upon. Singing as Channon, John Ramseyer’s voice was a light tenor which fit his role nicely, but it was hard to understand the words during the first act.  Gilad Paz had presence of voice and command of the stage fitting for the rabbi hero. He made strong dramatic choices for the constraints of the staging especially leading up to the exorcism when he removed his coat and then rolled up his sleeves to let us all know that there was work to be done. Playing the grandmother, Amy Maude Helfer also worked nicely within the confines of the concert with her expressive face, but she, of course, is much too young for the role. I would have liked to have seen a more age appropriate woman sing the role to bring some scratchy-voiced wisdom to the scenes in which she appears.

My desire for some timbral excitement does not stop with casting choices. Orchestral colors were at times fresh, but when I heard a chord that blossomed, it always seemed cut off too soon. The orchestra was conducted by the composer which was the only obvious misstep of the evening.  When Stephan Fillare stepped to the podium, the orchestra found more vigor and precision. This was necessary so that the composer could sit down to the microtonal keyboard for a scene in the fourth act.

The staging was not of the full four hour opera, thankfully. To fill in the missing pieces the bass Stephan Kirchgraber, in a fine and powerful voice, as the emcee kept us in the loop as far as the story was concerned and as “The Messenger” sang a “parable” about the love between the heart of the earth and a crystal spring on a mountain top. This was a marvelous musical opportunity to unspool this idea into a fantastical microtonal aria as if from a religious vision. Unfortunately, the music of the parable does not stray from the orchestration heard in the rest of the opera.

The writing for all the instruments seemed to sit in their comfortable registers giving the sonic landscape a sameness which made me want those few moments of pizzazz to last a dramatic beat or two longer. The musical concept was a Wagnerian approach to through singing enlivened at times by Broadway style orchestrations. It was tonal, but not tune-al. There was too much bowing and not enough pizzicato. Any rhythmic vigor was as short lived as timbral creativity. Throughout the performance, the percussion seemed to drop things clumsily, I am not sure if that was uncertainty with the score or the result of a tight squeeze on stage.

The text was taken fully from the Ansky play and needed to be pruned badly. Macheted, honestly. The libretto got in the way of the music. It reminded me of a comic book I once saw in which the words crowded out the pictures leaving only a thin strip of images pushed to the side, which is clearly not the point of the comic. It is also not the point of an opera. One singer would sing his soliloquy and then the next would sing hers. There were no music duets to speak of or ensemble singing other than short men’s choruses. The scene between the rabbi and his servant was touching, but they didn’t interact musically. The singers sang their block of words while many instruments played in the orchestra.

There were a few moments of silence to bring attention to important ideas. Leah sings of a couple buried in the center of her town murdered on their wedding day by Cossacks. The orchestra falls silent for the first time and she sings, “They were laid in one grave”. Then the next few lines ruins the moment, to paraphrase, “…where they would be together through the rest of eternity”. The point was already made with the rare moment of silence and the beautiful turn of phrase. No need to belabor the point.

After the musical drama ended, most of the audience stood to offer a warm ovation. Mr. Mandelbaum could not have asked for a better workshop revival of his 1972 opera.

October 26, 2017, 8 p.m. Merkin Hall One Performance Only

 

 

 

An Album Review: Lieder/Canciones by sTem

There are four pieces played on Lieder/Canciones by the contemporary classical trio sTem. Each piece is distinct. Two are commissions (Das Stunden-Buch and Preludio de un Diamante) and two are not (Der Hirt auf dem Felsen and Escúchame). Two are sung in German; two in Spanish. Both commissions are worthy touchstone recordings. The Schubert, new to me, showed off echo effects throughout for which it is probably famous. The final track Escúchame is a solid arrangement of an opera aria. Echoes are reflected there as well. This is one of the few obvious ties in the album other than the language bundles.

The most successful piece opens the album- Das Stunden-Buch, a commision from Rex Isenberg. Being very cool and mid-century it is a Sondheim-flavored miniature. Because it is sung in German, I had to rely on the work as a music event as it can’t speak to me any other way. This piece was a smart way to open the album as it best shows off the strengths of the ensemble: reliable piano playing by Sophia Vastek, remarkable clarinet from Eric Umble, and nice high-register control by the soprano Meagan Amelia Brus. This album opener successfully took me somewhere. I felt I was sharing an emotional journey- a foreign movie with no subtitles. Isenberg’s brocade sound world definitely has vaseline on the lens.

Unfortunately, each piece is best enjoyed individually. The album doesn’t take me on a ride like the individual pieces do.  At the end of listening, I wanted more shock and contrast. Not drama- I think the music has plenty of that built in. I would like to see the band chew the scenery a little more. They clearly have good taste in commissions and repertoire. I would like to see that taste slip a little when it comes to playing. Umble comes close at times with Klezmer chirps and breathy sighs. If the listener descends from the pastoral longings of the nineteenth century alps to the existential questions raised in a city like twentieth century Bogota, they had better know they are somewhere else musically and emotionally. Overall, I would like to hear bigger contrasts between the works.

The recording itself was the biggest problems that I had in listening to Lieder/Canciones. Das Stunden-Buch was recorded a little too close for my taste. It sounds as though the musicians are inches from you. I would have preferred a little more aural space. About nine minutes into the Schubert, Umble plays solo and reverb seems added out of nowhere. The mix is off kilter on many of the tracks. Again, in the Isenberg, the voice is suddenly shoved to the background while the clarinet comes to the fore. Elsewhere, I felt the piano was panned flat, but not fully, with the clarinet and voice laid in straight lines left and right and much too close.

This album would probably be most interesting to a soprano looking to spice up a recital or a clarinet player who wants to find an ensemble work to show off his chops. It has been out since September of 2016. It is well worth the $10 asking price at Bandcamp.

This is my first album review for brigglerintune.com. I hope to offer more in 2017!

Totestod – A Bleak Tristan and Isolde at The Met

Photo Credit: Gregory Briggler ©2016

I am not a fan of Wagner in general. Well, a fan of his orchestral writing, but not the rest. Who can tell if the singers are making up the never ending vocal lines as they go along? The storylines are often silly or become so. I never felt like he managed to “do it all” successfully. I feel the same about Tristan and Isolde specifically. The music is often precise and pulsating, but the story detail, the character development, is what kills the momentum especially in the first act. The first act is a prolonged lover’s quarrel on a ship after the kidnapping of Isolde. I fell asleep around “If you love me you’ll speak to me!” and woke up around “If you love me you’ll speak to me!”. That’s right, I dozed during the dress rehearsal I attended. Wagner writes the perfect napping operas.

The new production at the Metropolitan Opera, captained by Mariusz Trelinski, was licensed from the Polish National Opera give or take. Gird your loins for six hours of visual abuse. It is primarily bleak – brutal even – in true modern European style.The musical work is made secondary to the ideas of the directorial auteur. The stage is black and white each act. The only relief from that is a whisper, a breath of blue and green occasionally. Be prepared for the stunningly subdued “pop” of color when Isolde reveals her dark maroon velvet dress during the second act. The black and white aesthetic is made more intense by the bullying of the stage lights. The default light is a bare white. Upstage, there is a row of Klieg lights that are used like cannons to wake up or ambush the audience. Also, the director always needed to have “something” happening during the overture and prelude to the second act. The circle of a working sonar screen (green, of course) was projected onto the curtain for the duration as well as a film. The director was very fond of circles, they play a major role in the symbolism of the staging. At one point in the second or third act, another circle was projected onto the haze that constantly smogged the stage to great effect.

Not everything was an assault. Sometimes the stagecraft was amazing!  The most impressive stagecraft was the appearance and disappearance of characters while onstage. I was honestly surprised over and again by this device. The sets confined and defined the acts in a purposeful way. In the first act, the result often was to give the stage the feeling of a film which seems to make sense for Trelinski who began his career as a film director. The set for the second act was inexplicably “boaty”, though no less impressive. Over the course of the production, the staging opened up so that by the third act there was plenty of space for nihilism.

There was a choice by the director to exaggerate the importance of the fact that Tristan as a child lost his father to the sea. One line late in the opera was used to justify  a lot of psychological speculation. This idea was used in a film projected during the overture inside the sonar ring. Is this the story of a forbidden, tragic love of two young lovers? No! It’s the sea swallowing up lives. The production was so brutal and acerbic, the Liebestod comes across more as a Totestod.

The famous Liebestod, the culmination of operatic longing, the most famous melody from this sing-a-thon, and the point of the opera, is the end point of an arguably silly idea. But, it has its place and purpose as the logical conclusion of the action. How is the intractable problem of hatred turning to love ripening to despair solved? Life apart is resolved by death together. A powerful, ridiculous idea akin to the juvenile logic of Romeo and Juliet – both romantic and wrong. Or is it romantic because it is wrong? The story itself hints at the mindless origins of this poisonous thinking with a switch of love for hate by Isolde’s handmaiden early in the action. The faulty Liebestod is the fruit of magic- a poison switched for a potion, the effects of which were finally nullified by tragedy. Far from immersing myself in the ideas even for a short moment, the staging kept me from accepting the flawed logic and yearning for the power of forbidden, eternal love.

What can be said about the music and singing? Not much, but in a good way. Nearly flawless, from beginning to end. The orchestra, directed by Sir Simon Rattle, sawed away, unflagging for the duration. Tristan played by Stuart Skelton had a presence of voice that eclipsed everyone onstage until the end of the third act. By that point he began to chip around the edges. Nina Stemme sang beautifully, allowing her voice to blossom fully at the bitter end. Support was near perfection from Ekaterina Gubanova and René Pape.

My summary? This would be a horrible first opera to take a novice. The unceasing music is made less bearable by the bleak staging. What’s worse than six hours of Wagner? A stage director trying to one up Wagner for six hours.

Only a few more days to suffer for art’s sake. Tristan and Isolde is at the Met through October 27. Tickets almost certainly available here.

The Rake’s Progress (A Concert Review)

File_002The evening begins…

The venue for Eli Spindel’s String Orchestra of Brooklyn’s concert version of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Roulette Intermedium, sits within earshot of raspy-voiced island music thumping from cars on the street and within eyeshot of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower. The intimate theater (“Prime seats at the Met”) was perfect for this production. The concert-goers sported blazers and bowties, jeans and t-shirts and cocktail dresses. The small theater was full of young and old adults chatting. Dressed in black, the orchestra prepared for three hours of concentration the score demands. A screen hung behind the chorus on which to projected the super-titles. There were microphones in between the audience and orchestra which framed the evening as an inviting, open recording session.

The concertmaster, Gina Dyches, a staff member at Roulette, entered followed by the guest conductor Tito Muñoz, music director of The Phoenix Symphony and five year S.O.B. collaborator, who said a few things before the concert. He mentioned that everyone involved in the project was a volunteer, incredible considering the quality of the performance. Also, The Rake’s Progress is one of his favorite pieces of music. And with that, they began. The orchestra performed very well overall. There were moments of uncertainty, but the proper bounce, blend, and sheer concentration smoothed out any rough spots. Rebecca Steinberg should be praised for her trumpet solo in Act 2. Stravinsky always treats the trumpet player with respect and Ms. Steinberg reciprocated.

The chorus was small and rag-tag. The members offered unintended diversions during the performance. One was asleep in the front row during the first act; another pursed her lips in disapproval at the stage action later on. There was a thirsty bass on the back row three minutes after intermission and, another time, a snarky joke between two sopranos on the front. The chorus was on stage the entire night, so these discreet indiscretions helped move the evening along. I also enjoyed the unintentional gravitas added by Rebecca Pechefsky, the capable harpsichordist for the production, who occasionally descended and ascended the stage right staicase like Eurydice.

The audience enjoyed the production and singing. Both Tom Rakewell (Gilad Paz) and Anne Truelove (Stefanie Izzo) received ovations during the performance. Many in the audience stood to clap when the progress had wound its course. I enjoyed both the staging and singing as well. The petite soprano Izzo’s voice is anything but,and her Anne endearing. John Kapusta as Sellem the Auctioneer made an explosive entrance which made me laugh. He kept up the energy and character to steal his short scene. Mother Goose (Caroline Tye) was convincing as the Madam of a brothel. Amy Maude Helfer, who played Baba the Turk with skill, was difficult to hear with or without the veil covering her character’s bearded face. I expect more scenery chewing from Baba. Paul An (Truelove) was the granite presence that the small role requires.

The scenario is straightforward enough, but the welter of elements keeps you guessing. Anne is the heroine of the tale, but it’s hard to believe the sophisticated Auden and Stravinsky thought so. Anne shows up in technicolor OZ like a black and white Dorothy. I was taken with the coming and going of the characters. Each has their arch which undergird the structure and symmetry of the work. The progress begins with Tom and Anne together in Idyll. The progress is completed, after Anne, her work and charity finished, leaves. Tom in the asylum Bedlam with the chorus of mad accompanying him,dies. An epilogue with the five main characters is added a la Mozart. The work itself is an odd mishmash of seriousness and silly, romance and morality play, classical music and 50’s broadway, with scene, mood and character development turning like the flick of a playing card.

In tonight’s production, Tom’s death scene was very effective and seemed genuine, a rare feat on stage. Throughout, Paz was quite the leading man, giving Tom a kaleidoscope of feelings and character quirks throughout each tableau. His chemistry with Benjamin Bloomfield as Shadow was some of the best on stage tonight. Shadow had some moments of flubbing his lines here and there noticeable only because of the ever-present super titles. In spite of these small mistakes, his voice was nicely present and he certainly looked the part of Shadow by sporting a goatee and slicked hair. The menace of malice became real in his demeanor when he began to lose the impossible-to-lose card game to Tom near the end of the work.

Evil is very present in this work- Tom is easily talked into leaving Anne for money, easily talked into whoring and then a bad marriage. (“Marry Baba neither for desire or duty! Marry her because you can to be free!” Odd logic if logic it be.) Magic is present in this work, with Baba silenced like a canary simply by covering her head. Love is manifest by Father Truelove, Anne and Tom. Even when driven mad by Shadow, Tom as Adonis remains what he became during the card game – devoted to Anne, his chaste Venus.

Try and see this production tonight. The musicians work hard so there is no need for you to.


The Rake’s Progress

Music by Igor Stravinsky

Libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman

The String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Conducted by Tito Muñoz

8 p.m., July 23rd

ROULETTE INTERMEDIUM, INC

509 Atlantic Avenue (Entrance at the corner of 3rd Avenue)

Brooklyn, NY 11217

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