Category Archives: Concert Opera

COT’s double-bill is ‘good to great’

Opertoonity.com Review“Two by Victor Herbert”
Live Performance
March 22, 2014
Presented by Concert Operetta Theater, Philadelphia, PA

4-stars

 

 

Composer Victor Herbert is perhaps best known (and only known?) for his two-act operetta Naughty Marietta.  As the Concert Operetta Theater of Philadelphia (COT) demonstrated this past weekend, they are keenly aware of dozens of other Herbert’s works–operettas, revues, musical comedies, and songplay because they have been presenting these pieces for years, most recently with their 2012 program Thine Alone! The Music of Victor Herbert.

The cast of "Two by Victor Herbert"

The cast of “Two by Victor Herbert”

So faithful patrons gathered at the Academy of Vocal Arts in downtown Philadelphia were primed for Two by Victor Herbert, ready for lush melodies and intricate harmonies and, dare I say, toe tappers?

And they most likely were startled to hear the first piece on the bill–Madeleine, a lyric opera in one act that had a very limited run of six performances at the Metropolitan Opera when it premiered in 1914. Definitely not a toe tapper.

The storyline, based on a French play, is droll: it recounts the disappointment of Madeleine Fleury, an opera prima donna who can’t persuade anyone who cares about her to dine with her on New Year’s Day. Yes, that sums up the plot. And yes, it is hard to take her chagrin seriously. If the opera is so dated as to be hard to appreciate, why not let it wither on the vine? Why resurrect it at all?

If Artistic and Executive Director Daniel Pantano can assemble a cast of talented singers and musicians like he did, well, why not resurrect it? Yes, this Herbert opera was panned in its time and cast off as a thinly-veiled Strauss for the excited and fragmentary manner in which it was written. But poor-man’s Strauss is not such a bad thing, is it? Some of the orchestration was sheerly lovely.

Jessica Lennick and Jonas Hacker

Jessica Lennick and Jonas Hacker

Also, Madeleine offered a splendid showcase for voices, particularly female voices. Soprano Jessica Lenick as Madeleine sang an inspired “O Perfect Day,” turning in a commendable performance overall, though she occasionally strained to hit some of the opera’s high notes. Soprano Christina Chenes was a delight from her first steps on the tiny stage. Chenes has a warm quality to her soprano that wraps around the listener like a velvet shawl. Jonas Hacker and Paul Corujo sang solidly as Francois Duc d’Esterre and Didier, respectively, earning accolades of their own.

But ultimately the show belongs to Madeleine and, at least in this performance, perhaps the musical director and pianist Tim Ribchester as well, who together with violinist Philip Kates, played the opera as if it had been lain across their hearts to render well. On the whole, Madeleine was a good effort.

Much more to my liking, and the rest of the audience’s apparently, was the second-half of the bill, a pocket opera called Cyrano de Bergerac, based, of course, on the famous French play by Rostand, never before performed in Philadelphia. When it premiered on Broadway in 1899, it was criticized as being nothing more than a burlesque of the original play, but 21st century audiences found it delightful. Here was the Victor Herbert we knew and loved for his lilting and stirring melodies bolstered by a clever new libretto by Alyce Mott of the Victor Herbert Source.

Number after number was delightful, from Roxanne’s lament “I Must Marry a Handsome Man” to Christian’s big number “The King’s Musketeer” to the utterly winning company number “Cyrano’s Nose.” The famous balcony scene when Cyrano feeds Christian with sweet nothings to woo Roxanne was so cleverly composed. And it wasn’t just novel composition on the page. It worked in performance, too.

Jonas Hacker and Brian Ming Chu

Jonas Hacker and Brian Ming Chu

Mezzo-soprano Evelyn Rossow sang beautifully as the impetuous Roxanne, distant cousin to Cyrano. She had the uncanny talent of appearing sweet and sultry at the same time.

However, my favorites in this half of the bill were Brian Ming Chu as the homely Cyrano and Jonas Hacker as the handsome Christian.

Ming Chu, a baritone, was appropriately cheeky and debonair and sang with resonance and power. The operetta is not as broadly comic as other more contemporary versions of the story, and he brought just the right sensibility to the Cyrano needed in this production.

Hacker, a first-year resident artist at the Academy of Vocal Arts, was simply a marvel. His strong tenor–a spinto–carried to the rafters. He has stage presence in spades.

All three leads blended to splendid effect throughout. Robert Finkenaur was appropriately oily as Comte de Guiche. Melissa Dunphy guided the audience through a great deal of exposition for a pocket opera with style and class.

COT’s interpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac was a great effort, from the first notes of the overture played by a gifted quintet under the baton of Tim Ribchester to the curtain call that everyone clapped along to.

Philly is chock full of musical talent–vocalists and musicians, a magnet for seasoned professionals and exceptional students alike. How wonderful that Concert Operetta Theater provides another showcase to appreciate all their gifts.

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COT’s 2014 season continues next on May 17 & 18 with  My Vienna, the music of Emmerich Kálmán and Franz Lehár, sung in English and German. More information is available at 215-389-0648.

 

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Filed under Concert Opera, Concerts, North American Opera, opera firsts, opera milestones, operetta, Reviews, seldom heard works, Uncategorized

Concert Operetta Theater presents 100th Anniversary of Victor Herbert opera

Concert Operetta Theater (COT) of Philadelphia launches its twelfth season this weekend with Two by Victor Herbert, a pair of rarely heard operatic pieces, Madeleine, a one-act opera, and Cyrano de Bergerac, an operetta, by the Irish-born, German-raised American composer.

Concert Operetta Theater

Tim Ribchester will be the music director and pianist with guest violinist Philip Kates of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Performances will be held on Saturday, March 22 and Sunday, March 23 at 4 p.m. in the Helen Corning Warden Theater of The Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce Street, Philadelphia.

Madeleine was written in 1914 for The Metropolitan Opera and debuted on January 24, 1914 starring soprano Francis Alda, the wife of the Met’s General Director, Giulio Gatti-Casazza. It was the opening opera to Pagliacci starring Enrico Caruso. Herbert was much better known by his operetta and was not accepted as an opera composer. The piece was thought to be too “abstract” by many with touches of Debussy, Delius, and Richard Strauss and reviewers never accepted the piece. It was last heard in Philadelphia on March 3, 1914 when the Metropolitan Opera toured it to the Academy of Music.

Cyrano de Bergerac was written in 1899 with a libretto by Harry B. Smith. It was written as a burlesque of Rostand’s famous play for comic Francis Wilson. It wasn’t accepted by the audience as a comic piece because the Rostand play was sentimental and touching, and was still touring in the United States. COT presents a pocket-version of this operetta with a new libretto written by Alyce Mott loosely based on the Rostand play.

Madeleine will be performed with piano and violin obbligato. Cyrano de Bergerac will be performed with piano and instrumental ensemble conducted by Mr. Ribchester.

Tickets are $30 General Admission / $20 Senior / $10 Student, free 16 years old and under. Tickets can be purchased at the door, cash and personal checks only. For more information call 215-389-0648 or visit www.concertoperetta.com for a list of upcoming productions.

Look for a review of this production on Operatoonity.com.

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, Concert Opera, operetta

contemporary opera? modern opera? define, please

This afternoon I’m seeing Opera Company of Philadelphia‘s Phaedra, a concert opera composed by Hans Werner Henze, which first premiered in 2007. I’m a little anxious about seeing it because I believe I am neither as fond of modern opera nor concert opera as classic opera performed full-out. I learned from watching musicals as concert pieces on PBS that I don’t even like concert musical theater. That’s because I love being engaged by drama and much prefer being invited to sit behind that invisible fourth wall and enter in.

I will however concede that my favorite production this spring was Séance on a Wet Afternoon presented by New York City Opera, written by composer Stephen Schwartz, and that I was prepared to not love that show either, feeling strongly that I needed to see it instead.

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Since that production, I have been made to consider why I liked it so much.  It was contemporary opera with which I have a limited musical vocabulary. One of the things I realized I preferred was the realistic, immediate storyline of Séance. It wasn’t about a bride who goes crazy on her wedding night or a small town opera singer who stabs a police chief with a steak knife. Or a Russian king who goes mad on a throne.

Drawn from a contemporary novel, Séance had characters and a storyline that seemed plausible and that I could relate to.

Lest you are wondering at this point whether I read classic literature, I can tell you that I unabashedly love Hugo, Hardy, Shakespeare, Dumas, and RLS, to name a few. But when it comes to classic opera, while the music is accessible, for me sometimes the storylines don’t grab me, and the whole affair can become what I imagine concert opera to be–you’re concentrating on the music and production of sound foremost and the story is a distant second.

That is probably my limited view of concert opera–which is another reason I’ve opted to see Phaedra. I want to expand my thinking on this experience and my appreciation for concert opera as an art form.

Back to the subject of modern opera or contemporary opera.  A bit of research suggests that anything goes for opera composers in the 21st century. If their musical sound hearkens back to an earlier musical era, then the modern composer’s work is labeled neo-classical or neo-romantic. If they want to skip arias, nothing will stop them. If they want to use atonality or a hybrid musical language such as the contemporary jazz rhythms and sonorities in Berg’s Lulu,  no one will bat an eye.

If such a description is accurate–that anything goes when it comes to opera in the 21st century–then isn’t modern or contemporary opera like a feast–a wonderful buffet–one in which you’re never quite sure if prime rib or pot roast will be the entree but that’s fine because you love both? Isn’t that more fun, more of an adventure than a prix fixe meal where you know every morsel you’ll be consuming in that sitting?

I don’t think I have contemporary opera figured out or completely understand all its parameters. But it’s fun exploring contemporary musical expression. How about you? How do you feel about modern opera? Here’s a clip from Phaedra to stimulate your thinking:

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Concert Opera, opera trends

‘Idomeneo’ welcomed into the world this day

On January 29, in 1781, Mozart’s first real operatic masterpiece Idomeneo, opera seria in three acts, premiered in Munich, Germany, with Mozart conducting.

Like Iphigenia in Aulis, Idomeneno is considered a sacrifice opera in that the story contains the perennially tragic story of the younger generation condemned to death by the vows or treaties made by their elders.

Idomeneo, the king of Crete, is returning home from the Trojan Wars during a storm, when he vows to sacrifice to Neptune (the Greek god Poseidon) the first living creature he meets ashore in return for his own safety. The first person he sees turns out to be his own son Idamante, and Idomeneo attempts to escape from fulfilling his vow. Idamante, meanwhile, is loved by orphaned prisoner Ilia and by the jealous Electra.

According to the Penguin Opera Guide, during the time when he was writing Idomeneo, Mozart was saddled with Karl Theodor‘s orchestra and opera company from Mannheim. Mozart considered the actors playing Idomeneo and Idamante “the two worst ever born” and that this perception influenced the music he wrote for them. Idamante was played by an untalented castrato Mozart dubbed, “amato castrato del Prato” but since castrati tend to be in short supply in modern times, it’s not uncommon for the role to be sung by a soprano.

Below, is a conventional interpretation of Idomeneo with Pavarotti singing the title role, clipped from performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1982, with Frederica von Stade as Idamante.  Wow, what a set!

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Fast forward to 2006,  when the Salzburg Festival presented a starkly beautiful production of Idomeneo  to celebrate Mozart’s 250th, featuring Ramon Vargas as Idomeneo, soprano Magdalena Kozena as Idamante and Ekaterina Siurina as Ilia. In the following clip, Kozena is completely believable as Idamante–one of the best pants role performances I’ve ever seen.

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Filed under Classical Composers, Concert Opera, Mozart, Video

opera and humanity . . . perfect together

Benefit concert for St. Luke's Children's Hospital/photo by Michael Chadwick

It’s beautiful and noble. Classy, classical, and charitable. It’s Opera for Humanity (OFH), and it has been aiding children and charities through benefit recitals since 2006. That’s when founder Amy Shoremount-Obra, a classical singer who trained at the Julliard School and the Manhattan School of Music, began combining her musical gifts with a desire to serve for children in need. 

Coloratura soprano and OFH founder Amy Shoremount-Obra/photo by Allan Reider

The New York-based Opera for Humanity is a vehicle for both social change and artistic development. OFH realizes their mission by helping children worldwide overcome poverty and disease through benefit performances of world-class opera by exceptionally promising young stars. Opera for Humanity is also committed to reaching many through outreach performances in communities where opera and classical music are not widely accessible. 

According to their website, in addition to its philanthropic activities, OFH is dedicated to providing opportunities for gifted young artists, helping to promote up and coming talent. Participating artists have the opportunity to help children in need and to give back to the community while collaborating with equally talented colleagues in prestigious venues. 

“We have already been fortunate enough to help many organizations,” Ms. Shoremount-Obra explained. Ronald McDonald House of New York City, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Bryan’s Dream Foundation are just some of programs they’ve supported. 

OFH's Lucia di Lammermoor/photo by Allan Reider Studio

OFH received official non-profit status in 2008. Proceeds from their inaugural performance of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love  established a fund for the company itself. Its recent performance of Lucia di Lammermoor raised $5,000 for the New York City Food Bank as well as children in Cambodia and Malawi through World Vision

Opera for Humanity has slated an entire series of recitals and a Holiday Benefit, beginning with Mim Paquin (Soprano) and Donna Gill (Piano) on November 5th, at 7:30pm at 345 E. 56th St, Kala Maxym (Soprano) and Maria Garcia (Piano) on November 19th at 7:30pm in the “Madame Butterfly” Room at 853 7th Ave. (For a special post about Kala Maxym’s upcoming recital, click here.)   

“Our Holiday Benefit will be at Bechstein Hall on December 17th,” Ms. Shoremount-Obra said.  “We are excited to announce that New York City Opera Director Beth Greenberg will direct!” 

OFH has two more recitals coming up in January, including one featuring Ms. Shoremount-Obra on January 21, to benefit the Scott Family.   

OFH participating in Make Music New York 2010

Amy is quick to credit the OFH team, which also includes Suzanne Halasz (the daughter of Maestro Laszlo Halasz, who founded New York City Opera, and also New York City Center), Director of Development; Linda Platzer, Director of Public Relations, and Julia Mintzer, Director of Production; for their tireless work in helping children in need while providing fantastic performing opportunities for young, talented artists. 

For more information on any OFH event or to be added to their mailing list, email info@operaforhumanity.org

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Benefit, Classic Opera, Concert Opera, Heartstoppers, Recitals