Paley Center Presents Elaine Malbin as Suor Angelica with NBC Opera

Maestro Eve Queler with Composer Philip Hagemann. Photo by Judy Pantano

Once upon a time, lets say 1953, they had television executives who wanted to bring culture to a wider audience in America. “General” David  Sarnoff and Samuel Chotzinoff were two cases in point. In 1937, David Sarnoff created an orchestra to lure the just retired great conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957). Toscanini then led the orchestra in a series of broadcasts and telecasts for the next 17 years. (1937-1954)

The NBC Opera was also formed to promote great operas in English. Their first telecast was Amahl and the Night Visitors composed by Gian-Carlo Menotti for television and the NBC Opera. It was an enormous success when performed on December 24,1951. Other operas were Madama Butterfly, Salome and a host of others. The NBC Opera toured America but was disbanded after a few years.

Today most television producers and executives get as glazed as a dunkin’ donut when anything that is not “hip hop “or rock is mentioned. Most opera productions allow outrageous “updates” and violence to fill their coffers if not the house with the tattoo and nose pierced sets. Anything sentimental or traditional is scoffed at or is not considered politically  correct! What a pity because I believe that even the most hard hearted skeptic could not weep at the dilemma of poor Sister Angelica.

WQXR host Robert Sherman with Reviewer Nino Pantano. Photo by Judy Pantano

The great composer and man of the theater, Giacomo Puccini had a sister who was a nun. The Puccini family were church organists and composers for generations. Suor Angelica was written in 1918 as part of Il Trittico a series of three short operas. Il Tabarro is a dramatic love triangle tragedy, Suor Angelica initially dismissed as a “weak” piece and the delightful comedy Gianni Schicchi. Suor Angelica has come up from behind and is gaining new admirers for its musical elegance and overwhelming drama.

Murray Rosenthal, Mark Rucker, Eve Queler, Nino Pantano, Nimet Habachy, Bill Ronayne, Ken Benson, Judy Pantano & Sadie Rucker

On the afternoon of Sunday, June 10th at the Paley Center located on West 52nd Street in New York City, a brief welcome and introduction was given by Associate Curator Rebecca Paller. She expressed her wonderment at the marvelous treatment given the NBC Opera done “live” with beautiful sets, excellent camera work, intimate shots and thrilling music by the orchestra which was unseen even by the singers. Ms. Paller singled out some special guests like legendary Met Opera soprano Elinor Ross, famed conductor Eve Queler and “practically everyone in  the audience!” Suor Angelica was aired in 1953 and repeated “live” in 1954.

Puccini’s Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) takes place in Italy in 1680. Soprano Elaine Malbin, a young 21 year old Brooklyn born and raised was Suor Angelica. Sister Angelica’s sweetness and innocence prevailed and she was dutiful and resilient in her being. All the nuns were sworn to obedience and just once you wanted to hear “What do you do with a problem like Maria” from The Sound of Music. Suor Angelica gathers herbs for the nuns. Then there is a special visitor for her, her aunt. Sister Angelica was from a well to do family. She gave birth to a child and her family kept the child and they placed Sister Angelica in a convent. Her aunt, the Principessa (mezzo Winifred Heidt) is on a special mission and needs Sister Angelica to sign some papers dealing with property. Angelica queries about her child and is cruelly told that a few years back the child was ill and died of a fever. Angelica reaches out to the Principessa in her anguish but Zia (Aunt) steps back and prays, always remindful of the family disgrace wrought by Angelica. Ms. Heidt was riveting and flawless in her singing and acting. Her steely taut mezzo was symbolic of Hell’s wrath. Her exit left a chill in the room.

Soprano Elaine Malbin with daughter Amy & granddaughter Savannah. Photo by Judy Pantano

Suor Angelica is shocked by the news and sings “Senza Mamma” (without a Mother) ending on a high note that is from her heart to God. She mixes some poisonous herbs and takes them. In her delirium, she denounces herself for taking her own life which means Hell but as she dies, the Virgin Mary appears and lifts her arms in forgiveness and her child welcomes her to heaven.

Elaine Malbin was intense, her emotion profound, not one gesture wasted, her voice a laser of silver and gold as intense as a forger of steel. The final scene had me in tears, recalling my boyhood when things like the Madonna was so venerated by my Sicilian family. The Mother Superior Abbess (soprano Virginia Viney) was vivid and authoritative, but turned a blind eye when the nuns were eating sweets. All of the nuns sang with passion and fervor and were each and every one a gem. The Zia Principessa was like the ghost of Christmas Future in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. She was a heartless unforgiving spectre. turning her back on Angelica, showing punishment without mercy – a frightening figure, brilliantly portrayed and sung in a resplendent mezzo.

Peter Herman Adler was the most sensitive conductor and Kurt Browning the superb director. The producer was Samuel Chotzinoff with the Symphony of the Air Orchestra and the NBC Opera chorus. The beautiful sets were by William Molyneux. The English translations were by Townsend Brewster. When the lights were on again, on stage there was Elaine Malbin, looking remarkably young and given a long ovation. The eloquent and knowledgeable Robert Sherman from WQXR (The Listening Room) had a Question and Answer session with Ms. Malbin. She thanked her teachers in P.S. 234 in Brooklyn for her career. One teacher in particular heard her singing and made her join the chorus.

Soprano Elaine Malbin, with Janet Stovin & Murray Rosenthal from Opera Index. Photo by Judy Pantano

Ms. Malbin sang “Voi lo sapete Mamma” from Cavalleria Rusticana at age 14 and sang with the great Viennese tenor Richard Tauber while still in her teens. When asked by conductor Wilfrid Pelletier where she found such adult emotion at so tender an age she said, “I just felt it through the music – that’s all!”

An early La Traviata with Lawrence Tibbett as Germont and a brief study at the Stella Adler acting studio and the Stanislavsky method which she briefly used. But in reality it was just something she possessed and did. Elaine Malbin was given one weeks notice to learn the part and you could not see the conductor or orchestra. It was all savvy, Brooklyn grit and her own special gifts that allowed her not only to survive bur thrive. She also mentioned her Broadway play My Darlin’ Aida where she sang Aida six times a week. Rudolph Bing warned her “it will ruin your voice” but it never did. She sang at New York City Opera and did coach with Brooklyn’s Beverly Sills teacher Estelle Liebling. When the erudite Robert Sherman asked Elaine Malbin about her career losing its momentum, she proudly introduced her daughter Amy and grand daughter Savannah!

We then went from the Spielberg film room to the main room downstairs. A special Tony Bennett exhibit was on display showing his masterful paintings of people and places. We were pleased to chat with opera manager Ken Benson, conductor pioneer Eve Queler, Met Verdi baritone Mark Rucker and his wife Sadie from the Martina Arroyo Foundation’s Prelude to Performance, WQXR famed hosts Robert Sherman and Nimet Habachy, Opera Index treasurer Murray Rosenthal, Vice Presidents Philip Hagemann and Janet Stovin all from Opera Index. Murray Rosenthal requested this homage for Elaine Malbin and also presented the voices of several legendary sopranos on video: Callas, Caballe and Stratas all singing their interpretation of the famous “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. 

Dramatic soprano Elinor Ross was enjoying the party as was author Luna Kaufmann, Gloria Gari, from the Giulio Gari Foundation and Bill Ronayne from the Mario Lanza Society. Ronayne reminded us that Elaine Malbin made two recordings with Mario Lanza back in 1950 for the film album The Toast of New Orleans.

Reviewer Nino Pantano with Associate Curator Rebecca Paller. Photo by Judy Pantano

Unfortunately legendary soprano and “founder of the feast” Martina Arroyo could not attend but sent regrets and a reminder that the Martina Arroyo Foundation will present the young awardee singers in Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi and Bizet’s Carmen in early July at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. The playhouse is named after the great funny man Danny Kaye and his wife Sylvia Fine who were both Brooklynites. Martina Arroyo’s father Demetrio supported young Martina’s musical career as an engineer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Can you imagine an America where such magnificent cultural television once reigned? Giving voice to that significant minority-the lovers of classical music and opera? Television executives who respected the taste of their viewers – even if it was 10 million instead of 100 million? Thank you Martina Arroyo in absentia and Elaine Malbin. You brought back the thrill!

The Regina Opera Presents An Amusing L’Elisir d’Amore

Adina (Hannah Stone, center left) & Belcore (Peter Hakjoon Kim, center right) among a group of villagers. Photo by George Schowerer

On the afternoon of Saturday, May 20th, the Regina Opera concluded its 47th season with the charming comedy L’Elisir d’Amore. One more performance with alternate cast the next day! The great composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) wrote many tragedies such as Lucia di Lammermoor, but his comedies La fille du Regiment, Don Pasquale and L’Elisir d’Amore are still a source of great delight. Donizetti was a prolific composer and a master of melody. The librettist was Italian poet and scholar Felice Romani who wrote many librettos for composers Donizetti and Bellini.

L’Elisir d’Amore premiered in Milan on May 12, 1832 and has been a favorite ever since. On a sad note, on December 11, 1920, the great tenor Enrico Caruso sang Nemorino at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (BAM) He suffered a throat hemorrhage and the curtain came down after the first act. Incredibly Caruso sang three times more at the Metropolitan Opera in great pain. His last performance was in La Juive the following December 24th. He died on August 2, 1921 at the age 48, after a lingering illness.

Dr. Dulcamara (Luis Alvarado, center with basket) shows his potions to a group of villagers. Photo by George Schowerer

At Regina Opera, Principal conductor Maestro Gregory Ortega stepped up to the podium and the performance began. After the overture, the curtain rose to reveal a bright rustic inn and floral scene with Adina reading a book and a group of peasants nearby.

Nemorino lovingly gazed at Adina and sang “Quanto è bella, quanto è cara” about how beautiful and how dear she is. Lyric tenor Ivan Rivera, was the Nemorino for this performance. Mr. Rivera, born in Puerto Rico, has an endearing boyish appearance, is very mobile and resembles a young Cantinflas. (A brilliant Mexican film comedian) Rivera was perfect as the runt of the litter, the foil and fool, his head besot with thoughts of Adina who seemed to be totally out of his reach. He is the gnat that one slaps, a speck of dust in the eye of his unattainable beloved. Nemorino’s singing of “Quanto è bella” showed a somewhat different approach to singing, almost between his teeth-but the sound was that of a true tenore di grazie, of old, with a haunting vibrato and a full top. His interplay with Adina was most affecting and his singing of the great aria “Una furtiva lagrima” was one of the highlights of the performance. His diminuendos were exceptional, his spinning of the tone and heartfelt passages were moving. Rivera’s final cadenza, with fading and diminishing of the tone, was a marvel and his swelling of the note just before the conclusion was magical. Rivera’s comic acting with the so called “elixir” was great fun, his interplay with Belcore was like Lt. Colombo-always showing up and bothering, cloying and annoying! The finale, where he finally wins Adina’s heart, was absolute triumph and joy! A wonderful performance!


Dr. Dulcamara (Luis Alvarado, right) & Nemorino (Ivan Rivera, left). Photo by George Schowerer

Adina, a wealthy young lady, was enchantingly played by Hannah Stone whose attractive persona, lovely soprano and understated and subtle behavior made for an enchanting Adina. Her rouladescadenzas and stratospheric high notes throughout the performance made her the perfect match for her heartsick swain. Ms. Stone’s describing the story of Tristan and Isolde’s magic love potion to the peasants was dream worthy. Her sweet saucy soprano, was perfect in this role. There was exuberance as she hit her high notes with triumph in her duet with Dulcamara, “The Gondoliera and the Senator”, which was sung with delicious whimsy and abandon! Ms. Stone’s stunning singing of “Prendi, per me sei libero” with its cadenzas and vocal fireworks in the second act showed her artful best. It was a “tour de force” that was dazzling! The finale with she and Nemorino finally kissing as one made for much happiness.

Sergeant Belcore was brilliantly sung and acted by Peter Hakjoon Kim. Mr. Kim, a Regina Opera favorite, used his strong flexible baritone well – ensuring us that this braggadocio charmer would eventually get his comeuppance by the “dim-witted” peasant Nemorino. “In ciei, ingrazio, o babbino”  was sung with such scorn that it’s no wonder Belcore didn’t box Nemorino’s ears, or “bash his head” as promised. Kim’s robust singing with Nemorino in their duet “Venti Scudi” was unctuous and deliciously droll. Mr. Kim sang some great cadenzas and hit a few impressive high notes with great ease and this vainglorious “villain” loses his fiancée (and almost bride) Adina to his simpleton rival, only to march off with Adina’s friend Giannetta, his newest military “conquest.”

Belcore (Peter Hakjoon Kim, first row far right) & his fiancée Adina (Hannah Stone, to his right) with a group of villagers. Nemorino (Ivan Rivera, far left). Photo by George Schowerer

Dulcamara, a traveling “doctor”, was in the able hands of Luis Alvarado, whose generous basso-buffo ensured us of a strong performance. (I am always amazed at all the “Dulcamara’s” selling their magical cures on the Internet). After much pomp and trumpetry with descriptions of a golden coach, Dr. Dulcamara arrived with his assistant, riding a red bicycle! I recall at the old Met, the great 300 pound basso-buffo (later movie star) Salvatore Baccaloni, arriving in a balloon! Dulcamara’s singing of “Udite, udite o rustici” was sung with relish as he describes the various “cures” of his “magic elixir” warts, gone! widows rejuvenated! humps? gone! rheumatism, banished! A miracle elixir (cheap Bordeaux wine).

Alvarado’s comical singing of “The Gondoliera and the Senator,” with Adina at her “wedding” to Sergeant Belcore,” Io son ricco e tu sei bella” was most amusing. Alvarado  was a very noteworthy Dulcamara and his “patter singing” was first rate. The finale with his singing “Ei corregge ogni difetto” with chorus and company was an absolute delight.

Sharon Cheng was a most charming Giannetta with a piquant pretty soprano and a gleeful countenance.

Dr. Dulcamara (Luis Alvarado) & Adina (Hannah Stone). Photo by Sabrina Palladino

Sarah Barringer was the “quicker picker upper” as the erstwhile assistant to Dr. Dulcamara.

The chorus was in excellent form and I loved when they crossed themselves perpetually and with some glee, when they heard that Nemorino’s uncle had passed away and left him a fortune. Beloved chorister Cathy Greco’s crossing herself with such wide eyed sincerity with the others was notable. The colorful ensemble consisted of Valentine Baron, Susanna Booth, Justine D’Souza, Thomas Geib, Wayne Olsen, Raffaele Rosato, Samantha DiCapio and Cassandra Santiago.

The costumes by Marcia C. Kresge were perfect-from Adina’s rustic and lovely dresses to the peasants garb, Dr. Dulcamara’s pompous outfit, Nemorino’s somewhat threadbare outfits, and the dazzling red uniforms of Sergeant Belcore and his troop.

The Principal Conductor and Music Director, the ingenious Maestro Gregory Ortega led a strong unified and glowing performance. The 34 excellent musicians followed his invigorating beat which was truly blended to this joyous tuneful score by Gaetano Donizetti. Kudos to Jonathon Nelson on the keyboard for the parlando passages. The trumpet heralding the arrival of Dr. Dulcamara was adroitly played by Hugh Ash.


Nemorino (Ivan Rivera) & Belcore (Peter Hakjoon Kim). Photo by Sabrina Palladino

Sam Themer and Milan Rakic’s make up was flawless and Linda Cantoni’s super titles were invaluable.

The sets were beautiful and rustic, with garlands of flowers, overhanging vines, an open doorway with verdant outside, the intimacy of a small taverna and an elaborate wedding feast replete with food and fun. The versatile Wayne Olsen’s set graphics and principal flutist and set artist Richard Paratley’s painted backdrop and other artistic touches were truly admirable.

The mournful bassoon solo by Stephen Rudman in “Una furtive lagrima” deserves special mention.

Lastly, the one who infused this performance of L’Elisir d’amore with a special life is Stage Director and Set Designer Linda Lehr. Ms. Lehr’s balancing the various protagonists, freezing of images, making the action so wonderfully fluid and special whimsical touches from Belcore’s blustering to Nemorino’s “no room at the inn” gloom and doom and packaging it all into a fine surprise with a perfect gift wrap is a miracle. Dr. Dulcamara’s arrival after so much heralding, not in a golden coach but instead on a red bicycle was like the midget clowns at the circus following the giants.

We thank the indefatigable Francine Garber-Cohen, Producer and President, Joe Delfausse, Marlena Ventimiglia, Elena Jannicelli-Sandella and all the volunteers for always greeting one and all as they arrive for an afternoon of splendid opera at Brooklyn’s “crown jewel,” The Regina Opera.

Afterwards we reenacted the sumptuous dinner scene by dining at La Casa Vieja, a Mexican restaurant nearby where Lourdes Peña and company hosted us very well indeed!

See you next season – Regina’s 48th!

 

 

 

Dr. Robert Campbell & Cesare Santeramo Honored at Opera Index Spring Concert & Luncheon

Standing: Honoree Cesare Santeramo, Jane Shaulis & Joseph Gasperec-Opera Index. Seated: Sachi Liebergesell-Licia Albanese-Puccini Fdn. & Honoree Dr. Robert Campbell. Photo by Judy Pantano

The afternoon of Sunday, May 7th was a frantic one for New York and the world. The five boroughs were part of a super congesting bicycle marathon, street fairs were aplenty, France was having a controversial election and mayhem prevailed-but not at The JW Marriott Essex House in New York City. Here, all was music, harmony, peace and love. Two magnificent and important “givers” were honored and beautiful young voices prevailed with generous portions of food and wine!

Famed Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Jane Shaulis is the President of Opera Index which has been giving awards to young promising singers for 35 years. She proudly gave monetary statistics from Opera Index’s generous patrons and members that were impressive indeed! Ms. Shaulis singled out former Opera Index awardee soprano Jennifer Rowley whose recent performance at The Metropolitan Opera in Cyrano (Roxanne) won the highest praise from the critics.

Then with the excellent accompanist Michael Fennelly at the piano, the concert began.

Andrés Moreno Garcia started the concert with a fervent performance of “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure” from Gounod’s Faust. Moreno’s robust tenor voice had Italianate flair and French refinement. Moreno commands attention with his polished squillo, fine shading and a beautifully hit high C with a ravishing diminuendo which conjured up an image of his beloved Marguerite. Moreno showed us how to do this aria with ease.

Pianist Michael Fennelly & Singers Kidon Choi, Andrés Moreno Garcia, Amanda Lynn Bottoms,
Vartan Gabrielian & Opera Index President Jane Shaulis. Photo by Judy Pantano

Kidon Choi sang the popular “Il Balen” from Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi. Having heard the great American baritone Leonard Warren sing this aria, I dish out praise with extreme caution. Mr. Choi is the possessor of a large baritone voice with some fine shading and an impressive top. Di Luna is not a nice character but Verdi infused Di Luna’s love for Leonora’s aria with some of the most tender and sublime melodies ever. Mr Choi used his voice well and negotiated the passages with eagerness. Leonard Warren, looking down, is rooting for Choi and so are we!

Opera Index VP Philip Hagemann with David & Barbara Bender From Career Bridges. Photo by Judy Pantano

Amanda Lynn Bottoms in red shoes was a sultry Carmen. Her warm Amaretto mezzo made the “Habanera” from Carmen the sexy moment it should be. Ms. Bottoms did not over exaggerate or over act. She was as Carmen should be, sleek, stalking and deadly as a

rattlesnake. We hope she will grace the world’s stages soon!

Angela Vallone the soprano scheduled could not attend. However Vartan Gabrielian, bass-baritone ably filled the void with the glorious singing of Aleko’s song from Rachmaninoff’s opera Aleko! This tall imposing bass-baritone showed his inner Boris Godunov with his excellent Russian diction and emoting. Michael Fennelly’s powerhouse playing in this music took us to heavenly heights!

An encore followed with Andrés Moreno Garcia and Kidon Choi singing “O Mimì tu più non torni” from Puccini’s La Bohème. Mr. Garcia’s throbbing tenor and Mr Choi’s generous baritone went to the core of Rodolfo and Marcello’s plight – an unbearable life without their sweethearts.

Opera Index VP Janet Stovin & Mezzo-Soprano Nedda Cassei. Photo by Judy Pantano

To break the La Bohème mood of nostalgic sadness, Jane Shaulis regaled us with a Doctor-Patient song called The Physician by Cole Porter that was most amusing to hear. The doctor only sees her as a patient, never as a love interest or a goddess! Ms. Shaulis’s glorious mezzo and humorous gestures made for some wonderfully funny moments!

The two honorees were given a standing, cheering ovation by the crowd and Dr. Robert Campbell, looking quite chipper, was lovingly assisted to the podium. Dr. Campbell, a noted psychiatrist, was a clinical professor of Psychiatry at Cornell Weill Medical College and is Medical Director Emeritus of the New York Gracie Square Hospital in NYC. He is best known for Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary now in its 9th edition by Oxford University Press. He is a Knight of the Orthodox Order of St. John Russian Grand Priory. He has been a member of the boards of the Opera Orchestra of New York, Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation and the Ferro International Program for Operatic Scholars and Students. There is a photo in lobby of Robert Campbell and Cesare Santeramo with Princess Grace of Monaco that was breathtaking! Dr. Campbell accepted his award with a humble and witty speech in which he summarized the joys of living and the joys of giving!

Opera Index Treasurer Murray Rosenthal & Career Bridges Founder David Bender. Photo by Judy Pantano

Cesare Santeramo, was born in Newark, New Jersey and started singing in the boys chorus of his church when he was six years old. His first attended opera at the Met was La Traviata with beloved diva Licia Albanese and the great baritone Robert Merrill. He attended every Saturday performance until he was drafted into the Army. He sang with the Second Army Major Command Chorus which included concerts with Risë Stevens and appearances on the Ed Sullivan show. Santeramo had a successful singing career with the New Jersey Opera singing 15 lead roles over 25 years with the company including Alfredo in La Traviata with Licia Albanese. There is a photo of Santeramo in the lobby as Pinkerton. Santeramo was a board member of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation for 19 years. At the same time, he was Director of Conference Management and Food Services for AT&T. Santeramo is a Chancellor of of the Orthodox Order of St. John Russian Grand Priory.

Dr. Campbell and Mr. Santeramo have generously created an annual award for Opera Index with many past winners to the present. Their generosity is boundless. Cesare Santeramo and Dr. Robert Campbell are “Renaissance men” who by virtue of their talents and skills also season the world with elegance, style and grace (and to end it poetically), they make the world a better place!

Mr. Santeramo, looking the epitome of chic, graciously accepted the award with praise for his parents, for his lifelong friend Dr. Robert Campbell, for Licia Albanese and to the glorious art of opera.

Seated: Reviewer Nino Pantano & Soprano Lucine Amara. Standing: Opera Exposures Dwight Owsley, Computers George Voorhis & Opera Manager Ken Benson. Photo by Judy Pantano

In the star studded crowd were Met opera legends, soprano Elinor Ross, mezzo-soprano Nedda Cassei and long time Met soprano Lucine Amara. Ms. Amara, vibrant and witty at age 92 regaled us with many tales of the Metropolitan Opera in the halcyon Bing era and beyond. So many legendary comrades like basso Cesare Siepi who she said, loved playing practical jokes onstage, Jan Peerce short in stature but a splendid musician. Ms. Amara should write a book about her adventures in the opera world! Lucine Amara is a proud Armenian American and the Armenian bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian came to our table to chat with her and express his admiration. New York City Opera soprano Elaine Malbin was ever the soubrette in a flaming red dress and told us of her days with the NBC TV opera. Sachi Liebergesell who is President of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation is among the admirers of the two honorees. It was so nice to see her among the glitterati.

It was great to chat with Murray Rosenthal, Secretary of Opera Index and Vice President and composer Philip Hagemann whose opera Ruth was given at at the Brooklyn Music School around the corner from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) the night before. Janet Stovin, also Vice President of Opera Index, vividly recalled her childhood in the shadow of Ebbets Field, Bill Ronayne from the Brooklyn based Mario Lanza Society, Maestro Stephen Phebus and Linda Howes, pillars of Opera Index, the sparkling Barbara Meister-Bender and David Bender from Career Bridges, Duane Prinz from Teatro Grattacielo, Brooklyn born opera manager Ken Benson and computer whiz and concert maven George Voorhis and the dashing Dwight Owsley from Opera Exposures. Helen Doctorow, Jolana Blau and author Luna Kaufman lent their vital presence. We recall their valuable work at the Elysium-Between Two Continents headed by Gregorij von Leïtis and Michael Lahr, who are presenting many events in Germany and Europe this summer. Both Dr. Robert Campbell and Cesare Santeramo were recently honored with the Erwin Piscator Award from Elysium at the Lotos Club in New York City.

Edward Jackson, poet-Cavaliere lent his ebullient persona to the mix and the radiant Maestro Eve Queler who gave so many magical opera concerts with the Opera Orchestra of New York. We said a fond farewell at the door to Opera Index President Jane Shaulis and her spouse Joseph Gasperec who help make Opera Index the perfect place to host young singers.

Another great party for a truly worthwhile cause. All the best to our gallant Knights – Dr. Robert Campbell and Cavaliere Cesare Santeramo for their many accomplishments and deserved honors!

 

 

 

 

Metro Chamber Orchestra Presents Concert & Opera Ruth at Brooklyn Music School

A review by Nino Pantano
 

Artwork in Lobby of Brooklyn Music School. Photo by Judy Pantano.

The Metro Chamber Orchestra is currently in its 14th season. Maestro Philip Nuzzo is the founder, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Deborah Surdi is the Executive Director and Nathaniel Chase is the Assistant Conductor. The Brooklyn Music School is located at 126 St. Felix Street around the corner from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and has ambitious plans for its 15th season which begins in October.

 
On the evening of Saturday, May 6th, Maestro Philip Nuzzo began the concert with Siegfried Idyll by Richard Wagner. I was familiar with the piece having heard it via radio with the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) and the NBC Symphony. Richard Wagner (1813-1883) composed this piece as a birthday surprise for his second wife Cosima,(1837-1930) who was born on Christmas Eve in Como, Italy. Originally this rustic work was performed with 13 instruments and later its orchestra size was doubled. With the sounds of nature, leaves rustling, birds chirping, one can envision young Siegfried, rubbing his eyes to horns heralding the new day. The trembling of a leaf, the fleeing of a stag, salmon swimming upstream, the silence of a deer. All were heard in this piece which was incorporated in part, in his opera Siegfried. It still remains as a testament to Richard Wagner and his Cosima, who herself was a “love child” of Franz Liszt and his Baroness mistress Marie d’Agoult.
 
One heard all this and more in the subtle, ever ascendant beat of Maestro Nuzzo who built this tone poem into a resplendent tsunami of love and spring eternal. The members of the orchestra played with intense dedication and unity.

Maestro Philip Nuzzo and Orchestra. Photo by Judy Pantano.

Next came selections from “El Amor Brujo” by Manuel de Falla. (1876-1946) It is called “Broken Love” and it features the Fire Dance. I looked at some of the musicians just before they began playing and they had a look of anticipation and exaltation, eager and ready to express the passions of this great work. Maestro Nuzzo’s strong and steady beat ensured us of a passionate reading of this sumptuous score and he and the musicians nailed it right on the head.
 
I envisioned an MGM musical with José Iturbi or an early TV show with Liberace hitting the keys on a flame filled piano!
 
The Spanish born Manuel de Falla evokes Grofé, Thompson, Copeland, Gershwin and others of his era who used vivid and graphic ornamentation to absorb audiences right into the fabric of their music. Not Hollywood type “faux” Spanish music but the “real deal,” penetrating the soul of the listener. The main theme with its dark dramatic minor key repetition and pizzicato sections triggered off the Fire Dance and carried us along this magic carpet journey.
 
The second part of the program was a concert version of a one act opera by composer Philip Hagemann entitled RUTH
According to Shavuot: “The Book of Ruth is the eighth book of the Old Testament of the Bible. A short story, it tells how Ruth, the Moabite widow of a Bethlehemite, with her mother-in-law Naomi’s assistance, married an older kinsman Boaz, thereby preserving her deceased husband’s posterity and becoming an ancestor of King David.” Ruth and Orpha are sisters and daughters-in-law to Naomi.
 

Cast of Ruth with composer Philip Hagemann. Photo by Judy Pantano.

Ruth is indeed a victim that the drama swirls around. The music by Philip Hagemann is not atonal or melodic but rather sweeping and harmonious. It is not film music but evokes and impresses. It is an opera in brief that deserves to be a strong part of the contemporary operatic firmament. Hagemann has written ten short operas and several full length ones that bear listening.

 
Jessica Mirshak used her warm mezzo and stretched the envelope to indicate the sturm and drang of her character Naomi. Ms. Mirshak is the possessor of a mellifluent mezzo-soprano. Ruth, sung by Alyson Spina’s soaring soprano, made for a vocally and histrionically satisfying reading. Ms. Spina gave generous portions of her soprano plus a blend of defiance and resignation that was noteworthy.
 
Deborah Surdi used her beautifully polished soprano and floated some really impressive notes as Orpha. 
 
Boaz was strongly sung and acted by Stan Lacy whose lyric baritone negotiated the byways of this role with passion and ease. 
 
Theodore Chletsos as the servant/Amnon showed his inner Canio with a splendid tenor of squillo and abandon.
 
Tenor Christopher Tefft joined the chorus and blended well.
 
The Greek Chorus consisted of Jessica Doolan, Amal-El-Shrafi and Victoria Rodriguez. They made for a tantalizing trio of future Rhine maidens.
 
Maestro Nuzzo did a masterful job making the singers and orchestra play as one and showing his mastery of the music and its genre. Maestro’s code seems to be “to thine own self be true” and he conducts what he likes best!
 

Back row-Dr. Jerry Stolt, Midge Woolsey, Murray Rosenthal, Ella Godfrey, Philip Hagemann, Nino Pantano Bottom Row-Deborah Surdi & Eve Queler. Photo by Judy Pantano.

In the audience were famed Maestro Eve Queler from the Opera Orchestra of New York, Midge Woolsey, spokesperson from PBS’s Channel 13 and former radio host WQXR with her husband Dr. Jerry Stolt, economist, Brooklynite Ella Godfrey formerly from the Met Opera broadcasts, Murray Rosenthal, Treasurer of Opera Index and Philip Hagemann, Vice President of Opera Index and the composer of Ruth who received an ovation. Mr. Hagemann is the longtime director of the Rockland Choral Society and is also the composer of Fruitcake, a well known whimsical and popular choral work.

 
The Metropolitan Opera included the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of its tour until 1937. All the great vocal artists appeared at BAM. On December 11, 1920, Enrico Caruso collapsed on the stage of BAM after suffering a throat hemorrhage during a performance of Elisir D’amore. After a lengthy illness, the great tenor passed away at age 48 in his native Naples, Italy on August 2, 1921. 
 
On a happier note, fabulous soprano and silent film star Geraldine Farrar as the goose girl in Die Königskinder on January 13, 1914 by Engelbert Humperdinck was dismayed when her geese ran out of the house on to St. Felix Street. (Hopefully they were retrieved by the Met staff)
 
It was a rainy chilly evening but we all went to the nearby Berlyn Restaurant to celebrate over libations and sweet edibles. It was the ever young Indiana born composer Philip Hagemann’s night and many a glass was lifted in his honor. Our waitress Anna Schumann gave us impeccable service!
 
We look forward to future performances by this superb ensemble of Metro Chamber Orchestra. Maestro Philip Nuzzo has conducted in Italy and many international venues. A tree grows in Brooklyn and tonight it was a giant oak!

Art Work in lobby of Brooklyn Music School. Photo by Judy Pantano.

 

Gerda Lissner Foundation Hosts Annual Concert & Dinner

Review by Nino Pantano

One critic wrote “you could tell the quality of a forthcoming performance by the amount of food spilled by excited fans in the local cafeteria.” This was written at the Metropolitan Opera debut of legendary soprano Magda Olivero age 65 in 1975.
 
Such was the excitement of the crowd at Zankel Hall in Carnegie Hall in New York City (but without spilled food) on Sunday, April 30th when the Gerda Lissner Foundation, in association with the Liederkranz Foundation, presented concert winners of the International Vocal Competition for 2017.
 

Stephen De Maio President of the Gerda Lissner Foundation. Photo by Don Pollard.

Stephen De Maio, President of the Gerda Lissner Foundation started the afternoon by proudly thanking his board members as well as the singers for their prodigious efforts and hard work and the Liederkranz Foundation for its joyful collaboration.

 

Famed radio (WQXR) and Channel 13 effervescent personality Midge Woolsey, was the host and spoke eloquently of her love for opera and the human voice. Her current development work is for the concert series at St. Thomas Church at 5th Avenue in New York City and her activities with the Martina Arroyo Foundation. In her spare time, Midge loves to travel with her husband, economist Dr. Jerry Stolt and is thankful for the love they have been blessed to share.

Midge Woolsey, host. Photo by Don Pollard

Metropolitan mezzo, the radiant Susan Graham was honored and regaled the audience with some of her adventures here in NYC with a cab driver right out of a 1930’s movie à la Lionel Standler with a quizzical attitude and Brooklyn-type charm. She also told the young awardees to stand back until the time is ready. Ms. Graham’s recent “fairy tale” marriage to a long time suitor Clay Brakeley made happy headlines in the wedding section of the New York Times. 
The concert began with mezzo soprano Megan Mikailovna Samarin (Second Prize-Gerda Lissner) singing “Deh! tu, bell’ anima” from Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, generously showing the audience a clear, precise well controlled mezzo soprano singing a lush rhapsodic Bellinian line with dream like cadence. It was a bel canto journey of star struck lovers and two warring families, by Sicily’s great composer, the immortal Vincenzo Bellini. (1801-1835)

Composers Penny Leka (Knapp), Philip Hagemann and Met Opera Mezzo Honoree Susan Graham. Photo by Don Pollard.

 
Next was a spirited rendition of “Vous, qui faites l’endormie” from Gounod’s Faust sung by Joseph Barron (Second Prize-Gerda Lissner) who gave us Gounod’s devil, well served and savory. Barron’s captivating laughter had just the right balance between wickedness and cynicism. Google this aria from the 1953 filmTonight We Sing, where the legendary basso Ezio Pinza sings it. It will make one happy that this great tradition continues with Joseph Barron! We need more “dark” voices.
 
The concert continued with a “bright” voiced Maria Brea’s (Second Prize-Gerda Lissner) sparkling singing of “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from Puccini’s La Rondine. Ms. Brea revealed a lovely, lyrical, soaring soprano who under the surface, is scratching the romantic and vulnerable heart that is behind the facade, the far away dream that represents the notion of true love. Ms. Brea captured this like a rose within a white glove and gave it to one and all!
 
Corrie Stallings (First Prize-Gerda Lissner) captivated us with “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliet. It was sung with sophistication and elan. It was utterly Gallic in a beguiling way, evoking actress Veronica Lake in a film noir. Ms. Stallings’s dazzling coloratura cadenza ascent trill and descent took one’s breath away – visually and vocally stunning.
 
Angela Vallone (First Prize-Gerda Lissner) who continues to gather many laurels with her performances, never fails to enchant. Her sublime singing of “Azaël! Azaël! Pourquoi m’as tu quittee?” from L’enfant Prodigue by Debussy placed her “out of the commonplace and into the rare” (Stranger in Paradise Kismet) with a mood inducing, emotion ladeling, soul searching performance. Ms. Vallone’s special soprano gifts have earned her very high marks and a growing group of admirers. I see her in Puccini roles down the golden paved highway! Angela’s proud parents, Anthony and Maria and her handsome fiancee were truly overjoyed.
 
Australian tenor Alisdair Kent (First Prize-Gerda Lissner) once again proved that tapping “down under” there is vocal gold. He gave us a dazzling and magical performance of “Je Croix Entendre Encore” from Bizet’s early work Le pecheurs de pêrles. Mr. Kent has a voice of incredible sweetness, subtly seductive with sublime pianissimi and conjured images of a brilliant bubble floating towards the heavens creating moments of total immersion in the delicate and beautiful.
 
The excellent piano accompaniment of Jonathan Kelly (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera) ensured perfection and strong support.
 
After a brief intermission, part two of the program began with “Weiche, Wotan weiche” from Das Rheingold by Wagner sung by mezzo soprano Suzanne Hendrix. (Second Prize-Liederkranz Foundation) Ms. Hendrix is the possessor of a dark rich powerhouse mezzo with cavernous sound. One thought of Helen Traubel or the equally cherished Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936) whose Met farewell at age 71 was as Erda in Das Rheingold-then off to Hollywood for her screen debut in Here’s to Romance with dashing Met Opera tenor Nino Martini in 1935.
 
Polish soprano Alexandra Nowakowski (First Prize-Gerda Lissner) sang “Où va la jeune Hindoue” (The Bell Song) from Delibes’s Lakmé. This aria was sung in the past by coloratura soprano Lily Pons (1898-1976) whose piquant voice and chic elegance catapulted her to Hollywood fame. Before her appendectomy, Pons exposed her navel in Lakmé and also won raves. Ms. Nowakowski has a large coloratura sound à la Joan Sutherland but is capable of some wonderful shading and fine spun pianissimi. Her formidable trill was golden age in its execution. Polish diva Marcella Sembrich was the possessor of a phenomenal trill. The Semrich Museum in Bolton Landing on Lake George is open in summer and is a gem! Mme. Sembrich (1858-1935) would have been very proud of Alexandra Nowakowski. Mme. Sembrich was the Gilda in Caruso’s Met debut in Rigoletto November 1903.
 
Emily D’Angelo mezzo soprano (First Prize-Gerda Lissner) sang a sly, coy and saucy rendition of “Contro un cor che accende amore from Il barbiere di Seviglia by Rossini. Her marvelous subtle acting evoked the gamin presence of Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. She conquered the machine gun staccato and coloratura passages of this whirlpool piece and sealed it with an adroit combo of stylistic grace, virtuoso caprice and warm amber intonation. It was a Rossinian revolution and revelation! 
 
Lawson Anderson bass baritone made an indelible mark in Wagner’s “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” from Das Rheingold. Anderson is an Atlanta, Georgia native. He had a striking Teutonic-God like appearance and his richly textured bass had a rare combination of nobility and power perhaps unheard since the legendary Friedrich Schorr. No wonder he was given first prize by the esteemed Liederkranz Foundation.
 
Andre Courville, (the top prize Liederkranz Foundation winner), regaled the audience by strolling down the aisle singing “Air du Tambour-Major” from Le Caid by Ambroise Thomas. Courville then climbed on stage with athletic grace and serenaded my wife Judy (in the first row) in a brief unforgettable moment before resuming his triumphant march onstage. His flourishes, dazzling coloratura and posturing, vocal power appeal made him a true disciple of the genre. It was an energizing treat and a vocal firework show! Mr. Courville who hails from Louisiana will help restore the tradition started with legendary Met basso Pol Plancon. His top prize Gerda Lissner award was proudly presented by Barbara Ann Testa, trustee.
 

Lastly, Vanessa Vasquez (top prize Gerda Lissner Foundation) was presented with the award by Susan Graham. The familiar “Un bel Di” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was her offering. She sang this aria as a personal testament, bringing the audience along the journey. She followed the musical line perfectly as if you were reading her personal thoughts. Her whispers flew through the house like pellets of doubt but were cast aside by triumphant and hopeful ideas. Ms. Vasquez sang on the word as the great past Butterfly, Licia Albanese would have strongly recommended. By the time she hurled out her final notes, we were already part of Butterfly’s journey. Ms. Vasquez transformed herself from a Colombian beauty to that petite Japanese girl. She was so in character that it took a while for she and the audience to regain composure. A stunning performance! A grand ovation!

Last Bow, Winners of the Gerda Lissner/ Liederkranz International Vocal Competition. Photo by Don Pollard

The pianist for the second half of the program was the indomitable and gifted Arlene Shrut. Her husband Gary Kendall is her number one fan and his robust  basso laughter gives Mephistopheles some competition! 
 
A this point, the audience strolled two blocks to celebrate these future stars of opera at a sumptuous dinner at the New York Athletic Club on Central Park South. There were several hundred guests at this event and what a joy to “meet and greet before we eat” at this formidable happening. We spotted photographer Don Pollard and reviewer Meche Kroop. Cavaliere and Perugia’s poet Edwardo Jackson, Mario Lanza Society’s Bill Ronayne, opera lecturer Lou Barrella and wife Cathleen, the ever youthful Brooklyn born soubrette soprano Elaine Malbin, soprano-lecturer Jane Marsh, Gloria Gari from the Giulio Gari Foundation, Met Opera legend dramatic soprano Elinor Ross, Kennedy Center honoree and pioneer Martina Arroyo whose foundation paves the way with “Prelude to Performance” at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, “Mr. Opera” broadcaster vocal coach Ira Siff and Hans Pieter Herman whose recent cabaret show entitled “The Flying Dutchman” was delightful and a big hit at the Pangea Club in New York City. We missed Ira Siff’s great character, Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh from La Gran Scena Opera who surely would have been among the opera legends of the evening. 
 
It was great to see the gallant Glenn Morton, Artistic Director from Classic Lyric Arts, Brian Hunter, President of the Musicians Club of New York and of course the industrious and ever busy Stephen De Maio, President of the Gerda Lissner Foundation with the ebullient Michael Fornabaio, Vice President and Treasurer, the effervescent Cornelia (Conny) Beigel, Secretary and Trustee, Karl Michaelis ever dapper and the affable Barbara Ann Testa, Trustee. Ever chic Joyce Greenberg, who as competition assistant was the herald calling so many young singers before being judged and Sonja Larsen, also competition assistant. Diva and ageless Met legend mezzo Rosalind Elias and unforgettable ever vibrant Met soprano and now coach Diana Soviero. Famed Met mezzo and Opera Index President Jane Shaulis with husband Executive Director Joseph Gasperec, Vice Presidents Janet Stovin and composer Philip Hagemann, Treasurer Murray Rosenthal and Christine and Alfred Palladino from the Columbus Citizens Foundation added their special vitality to the mix!

Seated-Gerda Lissner Vice President Michael Fornabaio & Liederkranz General Manager Philipp Haberbauer.  Photo by Don Pollard

It was nice to see Philipp Haberbauer, General Manager from the Liederkranz Foundation, vocal coach Robert Lombardo, impressaria Diane Curci from Bensonhurst, beacon and pioneer Maestro Eve Queler from the Opera Orchestra of New York and Maestro Jan Wnek, vocal coach Arturo Colaneri, proud Brooklynite, opera manager Ken Benson, vocal coach Tami Laurance with rising young tenor José Heredia, evocative soprano Patricia Kadvan, from the New York Grand Opera, tenor/actor Anthony Laciura, opera autograph’s Bill Safka, Betty Cooper Wallerstein glowing patron and community activist, sparkling Don di Grazia, head of the Met Opera’s Patrons Box Office and charming wife Chi hosting her sister Lily Rudel.  
 
We thank Stephen De Maio and the Gerda Lissner Foundation for their noble quest to find and nurture operatic voices and Joseph Pfeifer of the Liederkranz Foundation and the Max Kade Foundation, Dr. Lya Friedrich-Pfeifer, President.
 
The superb dinner was by Openskies Hospitality Catering Service. Judy, myself and our guests will carry happy memories of this almost surreal exposure to a world of harmony, love and beauty for years to come! Gerda Lissner’s dream continues to come true as young talented future opera stars take off like dazzling fireworks to grace the future operatic heavens and ensure us of many more glorious sunrises! 

 

Martina Arroyo Foundation Hosts Spring Luncheon

Review by Nino Pantano
 

On the afternoon of Sunday, April 2nd at the JW Marriott Essex House in New York City, the Martina Arroyo Foundation held its Spring Luncheon. The luncheon featured a special cabaret performance by Marilyn Maye and Mario Cantone with present and past Prelude to Performance artists. The glittering crowd consisted of the shakers and breakers in the world of Broadway, opera and fashion. A dazzling potpourri of the doyennes, legends and admirers. It was a love boat that took us to exotic ports and entertained us royally. The auction featured everything from rock guitars to music memorabilia.

 

Doug Wood of the Ford Foundation & Soprano Martina Arroyo. Photo by Kevin Alvey.

The concert began with mezzo soprano Magda Gartner singing the “Seguidilla” from Bizet’s Carmen. Ms. Gartner’s voice has exceptional clarity, agility and a “cutting edge” that rivals how Carmen can cut a man and discard him like a shucked clam! Slam bam, shucked clam man! A very tantalizing hors d’oeuvre of what Ms. Gartner’s complete Carmen will be!
 
Saucy soubrette soprano Shana Grossmann was a particularly engrossing, piquant and ingratiating daughter as she sang an exquisite “O Mio Babbino, Caro” from Gianni Schicchi with subtle winsome gestures that made for an unforgettable operatic moment. Her clinging to the final “Pieta” made for great theater and a tiny humble gesture of appealing to her Daddy was the whipped cream on the Sunday, sundae!
 
Tenor Woo Young Yoon will soon be “the triumphant tenor talk of the town” for his splendidly lyrical and heartfelt singing of the Flower song from Carmen. His high note was caressed, swelled and diminished beautifully and the tender side of this future erupting volcano was bared unashamedly for Carmen, his delicious arsenic soaked peach! How could she not be moved by his singing of this aria? I know the audience was!
 

Shana Grossman (from left), Woo Young Yoon, Marilyn Maye, Mario Cantone & Magda Gartner. Photo by Kevin Alvey.

Metropolitan Opera conductor Steven Crawford was the brilliant piano accompanist.
Opera Index Treasurer, the erudite Murray Rosenthal, made opening remarks. He introduced the young singers and paid special recognition to legendary opera soprano Brooklyn’s own, Elaine Malbin, ever the soubrette in a dazzling red dress. Ms. Malbin sang the “Butterfly duet” with film tenor Mario Lanza for the recording of the film, The Toast of New Orleans and vividly remembers how beautifully Mario sang and how nice he was to her and her mother who flew out to Los Angeles. (she was only 19 years old ) A special event for patrons of the Martina Arroyo Foundation will be an upcoming showing of the March 7, 1953 telecast ofSuor Angelica starring Elaine Malbin at the Paley Center for Media on Saturday, June 10th at 3:00pm hosted by Rebecca Paller. Martina Arroyo will host a segment on golden age sopranos. Ms. Malbin sang with the New York City Opera and was a pioneer of opera on television with The NBC Opera. At our table, Elaine regaled us with many tales of both her operatic and Broadway career. (My Darlin’ Aida (1952-3) and Kismet (1955)
 

The salad was served as we recalled our “salad days” followed by a chicken dinner as we watched a cool young “red hot mamma”, Marilyn Maye and her superb trio for an afternoon of CABARET! The Marilyn Maye trio with Jeff Davis on piano, Tom Hubbard on bass and Daniel Glass on the drums took us back to the days when cabaret was where one took his date. 

Marilyn Maye, Martina Arroyo, Mario Cantone Anthony Laciura & Ailyn Pérez. Photo by Kevin Alvey.

 
Marilyn Maye, looking dazzling, admitted to being 89 which just defies mortality. It might have well been sweet 16, legal 21 or sizzling biological “peak” at 39. Her fulsome singing-and I mean SINGING, showed a voice of clarity and power, elegance and finesse, singing on the word and belting them out like Caruso, Ethel Merman and Babe Ruth – a home run every time!
 
For a starter, a rousing “It’s a Most Unusual Day” and a medley of the familiar and not so familiar, “It’s Spring Again” awakened one as “O Paradiso” from Meyerbeer’s “L’Africana” would – full of newfound joys of new horizons! Her youth became our adrenalin in “That’s All!” which was a blend of irony and insouciance and Artie Butler’s “Here to life ” was a rich tapestry of all that was and is yet to be. “Somewhere over the Rainbow” took us to that rainbow and was sung with all the hopes and dreams of mankind and the colors of the rainbow in her voice, so fresh and full of hope. Marilyn Maye had us all lift our glasses in a salute to life! An unforgettable moment!
 
Then to everyone’s delight, she shared the stage with the brilliant comedian whose Broadway one man show was acclaimed, as well as his television and film work. Mario Cantone sang “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” with all the enthusiasm of a tarantella at a Sicilian wedding! Mario and Marilyn sang “When You’re Smilin’ ” with real pizzazz. It’s one of my favorite “old” songs and was the theme of “The Alan Courtney” radio show (WNEW)  back in the 1940’s.
 
Mario Cantone and Marilyn Maye thrilled  us with “Life is a Cabaret”, I never want to be “Alone in my Room.” Mr. Cantone lives up to his name and is a very fine singer and in a way, a Sicilian “pop” tenor with a robust voice that is strong and clear. Bravo Mario! To hear this dynamic duo conclude “Life is a Cabaret” in full voice with such exuberance and joy was a catharsis for all. The young singers, soprano Shana Grossman, tenor Woo Young Yoon and mezzo Magda Gartner joined in. The bravos echoed through the corridors of the Essex House Hotel and literally “shook the chandeliers!”
 
It was a pleasure to meet and greet the young opera singers and the seasoned Broadway “stars.” I told an Artie Butler story, having met him (A transplanted Brooklynite) in Los Angeles.  Artie is a renowned composer (Here’s to Life) who wrote  the music for a brilliant  Broadway show several years ago called The People in the Picture. Artie told me he was in awe of no one but one day he gave a lift to an elderly man who was huffing and puffing near his home. After a few moments of silence, the man said, “you know who I am?” and Artie Butler burst out with joy and love. “I loved your show, watched it every Saturday for years!” His “lift” was Moe Howard of The Three Stooges! The other Brooklyn born stooges were Moe’s brother’s Shemp and Curly. (Larry Fine was from Philadelphia)
 

Host Stephen Mo Hanan, Opera Index Treasurer Murray Rosenthal & Maestro Eve Queler. Photo by Kevin Alvey.

We had a lovely table with our special host Murray Rosenthal, composer Philip Hagemann, soprano Elaine Malbin, Met mezzo Jane Shaulis and President of Opera Index, her spouse, Executive Director Joseph Gasperec, Vice President Janet Stovin and Maestro Eve Queler of The Opera Orchestra of New York. 

Met Baritone Mark Rucker & Sadie Rucker. Photo by Judy Pantano.

In the crowd, we chatted with acclaimed Met Verdi baritone Mark Rucker who also coaches the awardees for Prelude to Performance and his invaluable wife and accompanist Sadie who helps promote the great Martina Arroyo Foundation as well as the effervescent Norena Barbella who is the Producer of Talent, Music & Live Entertainment. Andrew Martin-Weber and Beatrice Disman are active Board Members of the Foundation also.
  

Talent Producer Noreen Barbella & reviewer Nino Pantano. Photo by Judy Pantano.

Of course legendary Met opera soprano Martina Arroyo was present, and welcomed all at the beginning of the program, the founder of the feast, looking radiant and proud and we paid special homage to this great lady and recipient of the Kennedy Center honors. We all look forward to Prelude to Performance in July at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College with Carmen and Gianni Schicchi. Both Bizet and Puccini are brilliantly served by the young and gifted nurtured awardees of the Martina Arroyo Foundation. Martina’s Dad Demetrio, was an engineer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to support his family and assist young Martina’s career and music lessons.

It was nice to chat with Maestro Stephen Phebus and his wife Linda Howes, Cavaliere Eddie Jackson, spectacular soprano Ailyn Pérez, Met Opera tenor comprimario and television star Anthony Laciura and his wife Joel. He is a fellow Sicilian also lovingly called “Ninutzu” as a child by his adoring family!
 
Judy and I honeymooned at the Essex House Hotel nearly 51 years ago! So to me, at least two events at this venue, fifty years apart will forever be enshrined in my memory bank!

 

Elysium Between Two Continents Presents The Thirtieth Annual Erwin Piscator Awards

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Review by Nino Pantano

Erwin Piscator

On the afternoon of Thursday, March 30th, Elysium Between Two Continents Presented The Thirtieth Annual Erwin Piscator Awards at the intimate and elegant Lotos Club in New York City. This program is to benefit Elysium’s International Educational Programs “Art and Education without Borders.” The Lotos Club gathering that afternoon evoked memories of a musical soiree at the Kennedy White House when President Kennedy said it was “the most illustrious gathering of intellects since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Maria Ley Piscator

Movers and shakers notwithstanding, the “big bang” theory goes back to 1985 when Gregorij H. von Leïtis instituted the Erwin Piscator (1893-1966) award honoring Erwin Piscator’s artistic and humanitarian legacy and his lasting influence on theater on both sides of the Atlantic. Piscator was convinced that “art achieves its purpose only when it contributes to the improvement of man.”
 
The interesting program booklet included greetings from Dr. Kerstin Weinbach, City Councilor and Head of the Cultural Department forthe Magistrate City of Marburg, March 2017. The letter announced a newly opened cultural institution bearing the name Erwin Piscator Haus. Piscator went to school in Marburg and returned there in 1951.The new building replacing an older one proudly bears his name and continues his work.
 
After the wine and cocktail reception, the program began with soprano Jeannie Im singing “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy) music by Franz Schubert from a text by Friedrich Schiller. Ms. Im has been with Elysium since 2000 and was in the premiere performance of Ernst Krenek’s “What Price Confidence” at the Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma co-produced by Elysium. Among her many performances under the auspices of Elysium, were concerts of works by performers who were exiled or killed in World War II. Matthew Lobaugh, who is the Music Director of the New York City Wide Youth Opera, was her versatile piano accompanist. Ms. Im strolled through the tables and sang in a clear commanding soprano with joyful abandon.
Michael Müller, the Mayor of Berlin had his representative, Ms. Katja Weisbrock Donovan, who is the head of Cultural Affairs at the German Consulate in New York, bring greetings and speak of the cooperation of the two cities – Berlin and New York. She mentioned the Kellen family who were forced to flee Berlin during the era of the Nazis and the importance of Erwin Piscator and Maria Ley Piscator to the world. The New York Theatre Workshop founded by James C. Nicola a pivotal influence as well. Michael Lahr was the Program Editor and key to this joint effort and of the of the two countries under the banner of art and enlightenment. The dream turned into a reality of Gregorij H. von Leïtis and Michael Lahr.
The welcome was given by Gregorij H. von Leïtis who truly was monarch of all he surveyed. His cherubic demeanor could not disguise his tremendous commitment to evoke the theme of peace and justice through art. Mr. von Leïtis then
proudly introduced the chairperson of the luncheon committee, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, whose late beloved husband Al Hirschfeld, was the Da Vinci of caricaturists. Ms. Hirschfeld’s energetic defense of the arts and its importance to all, made one think of “The Line King” a wonderful, whimsical documentary of her late great husband.
A fascinating musical excerpt followed, colorfully sung by soprano Jeannie Im “Lied von der Tünche” (Song of Whitewash) with music by Hanns Eisler and a text by Bertolt Brecht. The music evoked the German cabaret offerings of Lotte Lenya and the school of cabaret in the style of The Threepenny Opera. Matthew Lobaugh’s facile accompaniment made the two, one.
The salad was served and now the “salad days” prevailed. Michael Lahr, the erudite and industrious Chairman of the Erwin Piscator Awards Committee spoke. As a specialist of Erwin Piscator, the founder of the political and epic theater, Lahr brilliantly curated the exhibit Erwin Piscator: Political Theater in Exile andit traveled to Bernried, New York, Catania, Salzburg and Munich. Lahr spoke of the great joy and importance of the occasion and introduced the famed playwright Tony Kushner.

Tony Kushner, Doug Wright, and Michael Lahr. Photo by Letizia Mariotti.

Mr. Kushner alluded to the dark days we have been witnessing of late  and how the arts will pave the way for better days ahead. He referred to an earlier era in Greenwich Village and elsewhere when Belafonte, Brecht and Brando championed causes and spread the word of enlightenment and creativity. They knew where they were going artistically and emotionally as did James Nicola in his early days at the studio, which has become a kind of mecca, a place “Where one can roll up in like a blanket” (Fanny). Tony Kushner spoke in staccato sentences like a prizefighter hammering away at the evils of the world and praising the good in his introduction for James C. Nicola.
 
Gregorij von Leïtis made the presentation to James Nicola,”for his enormous contributions to the American theater by producing and cultivating artists whose works inspire and challenge the public.” As Artistic Director of the New York Theater Workshop since 1988, Nicola has forged a unique community of theater artists, a group of writers, directors, designers and actors who form the core of NYTW’s artist development activities. Many plays, premiers including Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and “Homebody/Kabul” as well as Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” were performed.
 
James Nicola spoke intimately and passionately about his boyhood desire to excel in theater and his lack of concentration on other subjects. Nicola’s somewhat perturbed parents granted him the right to pursue his goals but he had to measure up academically to attain them. Nicola feels theater is “a sacred light” and that it illuminates the soul. Artists are encouraged to play their chosen destined roles. A force of nature illuminated by a “splendid torch,” a force of nature not to be denied. James Nicola is motivated by a sacred flame and that light has brightened the world.

Heather Randall (from left) with James Nicola and Louise Kerz Hirschfeld. Photograph by Letizia Mariotti.

With so much at “stake” we proceeded to enjoy our delectable choice of steak (or salmon), having feasted on brilliant words and deeds from the hearts and minds of the mighty.
 
Vartan Gregorian is the 12th President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a grant making institution and is also a past honoree of the Erwin Piscator award. He is best known for his outstanding service as President of the New York Public Library. (1981-89) His services have earned him nearly 70 honorary degrees.The brilliant Mr. Gregorian spoke eloquently on behalf of honoree Marina Kellen French. With joyful abandon and as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote “How do I love thee?” Mr. Gregorian alphabetically listed all of Marina Kellen French’s virtues practically from “A to Z” and why she is so admired. Whether it be art, music, medical, literary, educational, she is there to lend support, advice and encouragement!
 

Gregorij von Leitis with Marina Kellen French. Photo by Letizia Mariotti.

Gregorij von Leïtis presented Marina Kellen French with the Erwin Piscator award “for so generously giving of her time and talent to support so many artistic, cultural and educational organizations both here in New York and in Berlin.” Ms. French spoke of the joys of giving and that it must be earned and of her two unforgettable years as a student in Berlin, the land of her parents birth. The art of philanthropy and of aiding mankind is her mission.” What good is leaving the earth with accumulated wealth but having done little or nothing to help ones’ fellow humans?” That is also the mission of Gregorij von Leïtis and Michael Lahr. That is the path chosen by Marina Kellen French. The honorary Erwin Piscator award of 2017 was in memory of Maria Ley Piscator. (1898-1999) In 2014, Ms. French was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany at the residence of the German Consul General Brita Wagener in New York City. 

In a proclamation printed in the program, Governor Andrew Cuomo praised James C. Nicola for his “creative vision to American arts and culture” and Marina Kellen French “for her generous work in perpetuating and preserving a legacy of great art in the world.” Mayor Bill de Blasio also congratulated the awardees and Elysium – between Two Continents in the program with a special proclamation.
 
Jeannie Im accompanied by Matthew Lobaugh sang a lively “Good-Bye Trouble” with music by Mischa Spoliansky and text by Frank Eyton. “I’ve put on my hat, I’ve locked up my flat; the dog’s at the vets, I’ve settled my debts” and concluding with “And if I could design a world, I shouldn’t plan a finer world.” Ev’rything in it I see as it passes Thro’ wonderful rose colored glasses. Good-bye Trouble! I’ve finished with you, Trouble!” With that special “Thank you for coming” from Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, the afternoon drew to a upbeat close as we were enjoying the desserts and sweets of the luncheon – almost redundant when one considers the real “sweets” offered by the words and deeds of the day! 
 
Judy and I were happy to speak to many of the awardees and presenters. James Nicola and I share Italian heritage. His family were Piedmontese from Northern Italy, mine were Sicilian from the South. We laughed about the “rivalry” between Sicilians and non Sicilians. Marina Kellen French is also on the Board of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. I mentioned the great tenor Enrico Caruso singing “Vecchia Zimarra” in “La Bohème”, with the Met Opera on tour in Philadelphia when the bass, Andrés de Segurola lost his voice with the audience unaware. Caruso whispered to his friend, “turn your back to the audience and I’ll sing it for you!” The mighty tenor made a recording of Colline’s famous Coat aria at the insistence of the cast and his friends in 1916 – it is marked “Tenor-Bass.”

Vartan Gregorian was affable and most gracious. He is the “Energizer battery” redux! Louise Kerz Hirschfeld spoke of her husband’s zest for life and creative output. I told her that I especially admired his caricature of the matchless tenor Enrico Caruso (A former Lotos Club honoree in 1916) and the fact that Caruso, who caricatured as a hobby, published several volumes of caricatures. It was nice to chat with Jolana Blau, Vice Chairperson, who was also chatting with Martin Dvorak, Consul General of the Czech Republic in New York, Austrian Consul General Georg Heindl and his wife Neline Koornneef Heindl and the effervescent Midge Woolsey from both WQXR and PBS and her husband economist Dr. Jerry Stolt. Last year’s honoree, President of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation Sachi Liebergesell, was present with General Counsel Brian O’ Connor Esq. and his wife Maura. The lovely intimate Lotos Club is a New York treasure and the perfect venue for this stellar occasion.

Sachi Liebergesell & Vartan Gregorian Photo by Judy Pantano

 
We wish to thank Gregorij H. von Leïtis, President and Michael Lahr, Vice President for the pursuit of a peaceful world through art and artists and for being such gracious hosts and extraordinary humanitarians. As always, their friendship is treasured. If John Kennedy appreciated Thomas Jefferson dining alone, what about his being in a room full of people – men and women who match that ideal and are gregarious and fun as well.

I conclude with a quote from George Bernard Shaw that was referred to during this event, “You see things and you say, “Why?” But I dream things that never were and say, “Why Not?” Bravo to “Elysium – Between Two Continents for daring to ask “Why not?” and for keeping the work and spirit of Erwin Piscator and his wife Maria Ley Piscator alive, ongoing and thriving!

Soprano Jeannie Im. Photo by Letizia Mariotti.

 

Sarasota Opera Presents A Magnificent Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly & wedding guests. Photo by Rod Millington

On a beautiful balmy evening on March 21st, in the fabulous city of Sarasota, Florida, the story of Cio-Cio-San, better known as Madama Butterfly, was the bait that lured opera lovers to the newly renovated and magnificent William E. Schmidt Opera Theatre. Over 1100 adoring fans watched, cheered and wept in unison, to the music of the great Italian composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). Puccini’s librettists were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The opera is based on a story by John Luther Long and a play by David Belasco. The opening night on February 17, 1904 was a fiasco. One of the main reasons was that Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton in the United States Navy, was truly the “ugly American”, had no affection for his bride, had very racist attitudes and completely lacked remorse. Puccini withdrew the work and two acts became three and he added an aria of remorse at the beginning of the last act. The revised work premiered on May 28, 1904 and as a result of the composer’s reworking and making Pinkerton more human with his touching “Addio” aria, Madama Butterfly became a mega hit and has remained so ever since. Puccini still kept working on Butterfly until 1907 when he was finally satisfied. It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with the composer in attendance, on February 11, 1907 with the incomparable tenor Enrico Caruso as Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton and the fabulous soprano Geraldine Farrar as Cio-Cio-San. On November 22, 1910, Enrico Caruso sang Pinkerton to Emmy Destinn’s Cio-Cio-San at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with the Metopera on tour.

The magnificent Sarasota Opera program booklet opened with greetings by Board Chairman and patron David H. Chaifetz and a message of the unity opera brings by artistic Director Victor DeRenzi. The Executive Director, Richard Russell wrote of the opening of the Steinwachs Artist Residences for Sarasota Opera, a 30 unit complex that will house 70 artists not far from the Opera House. (Steinwachs Family Foundation)

The excited crowd hushed as Maestro Victor DeRenzi and orchestra began the first act. Joanna Parisi was Cio-Cio-San. Her entrance aria “Ancora un passo” evolved from backstage until she came into view and her sumptuous soprano had a real cutting edge. In “Ieri con salita”, Butterfly reveals that she has embraced Pinkerton’s religion. In “Un po’ di vero c’è” … Oh quant occhi fisi”, her love duet with Pinkerton, Ms. Parisi went from strength to strength showing an inner fire in her vocal and physical intensity, yet a vulnerability that tweaked at the heart.

Marriage of Lt.B.F. Pinkerton & Butterfly. Photo by Rod Millington

In Act Two, Pinkerton has been gone for three years and Suzuki, Butterfly’s servant doubts he will return, but Butterfly knows that one fine day he will return. The iconic aria “Un bel dì” was sung softly and accelerated into a tour de force of defiance. Ms. Parisi’s upper register, always true to the beat, never grandstanding, packs a wallop and like Cio-Cio-San’s spirit, cannot be contained. When Sharpless (U.S. Consul to Nagasaki), tries to read Butterfly Pinkerton’s letter “Ora a noi” she simply cannot tolerate the thought of his not returning. In “Sai cos’ ebbe cuore”, she tells Sharpless that she would rather die than resume her life as a geisha. The emotional intensity of her output plus Ms. Parisi’s bolts of vocal gold, moved the audience profoundly. The blossom duet “Tutti i fior” with Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant, was etched in our hearts with the two gathering up flowers and scattering them throughout the house awaiting Pinkerton’s return.

As night falls, we hear the Humming chorus and the dimming images of Butterfly, Suzuki and her son Sorrow looking out of their screen/window for Pinkerton’s ship, the Abraham Lincoln. Butterfly’s suicide aria “Con onor muore…Tu, tu piccol iddio was sung with enormous grief and resolution, coupled with defiance and determination. Butterfly’s death is unseen behind a screen as the crashing chords concluded the drama. Like the vintage poster, Butterfly (at least in this production) DOES see Pinkerton running towards her before she dies. Joanna Parisi is a name to watch – Brava!

Lt. Pinkerton (Antonio Corianò) & Butterfly (Joanna Parisi). Photo by Rod Millington

Aside from a stunning Butterfly, there were other memorable riches in this performance. The handsome Italian tenor from Parma, Italy, Antonio Corianò sang the part of Pinkerton. It is very rare to find a good looking tenor, who can act and has a golden quality to his voice. In “Amore o grillo”, sung with Sharpless, Corianò showed his main vocal strengths, a wonderful darkish middle voice and a soaring top voice. His voice was an easy blend with Sharpless and rang out thrillingly in the uppermost reaches, especially in the climaxes to the melody of the Star Spangled Banner. In the love duet, he matched his Butterfly note for note with clear enunciation, strong and ardent phrasing and although one felt he could, he avoided the top “C” and sang the alternate ending. His final “Addio fiorito assil” was sung with all the remorse (and more) that Puccini desired. Once again, Corianò’s voice was like a volcano of tenorial splendor. Corianò’s sobbing after calling Butterfly’s name off stage was more like the finale of La bohème. Pinkerton’s holding the lifeless body of Butterfly and caressing her was the tragic comeuppance for his earlier flippancy. Antonio Corianò, obviously a new audience favorite, was cheered for his vocal gifts and artistry and mock “booed” for his vivid portrayal of this almost heartless character.

Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant was tenderly portrayed by Laurel Semerdjian whose warm ingratiating mezzo made the flower duet something special and for giving new life to her phrase “Povero Butterfly”. One could really sympathize with her conflict in trying to protect Butterfly from her misconceptions. In the end, the sand castle came down with a tsunami Suzuki could not prevent.

Lt. Pinkerton (Antonio Corianò) & Butterfly (Joanna Parisi). Photo by Rod Millington

Sharpless, the American Consul in Nagasaki was in the able and dignified hands of Cèsar A. Mèndez Silvagnoli whose somewhat bland bearing was overcome by a stronger showing of emotion of Act Two. His utterance “Diavolo Pinkerton” however, was almost an afterthought.

Tenor Sean Christensen was an excellent Goro, a marriage broker and was amusing and quicksilver with a plangent and pleasing voice.

Suchan Kim was a most sympathetic Prince Yamadori and his expressive baritone made his portrayal a memorable one.

The part of the Uncle Bonze, was acted and sung with exceptional fierceness by Young Bok Kim. Uncle Bonze ruins Butterfly’s wedding day by his denunciations of her leaving the faith of their ancestors to embrace Pinkerton’s. Kim’s boorish behavior and beguiling basso made quite an impression.

Baritone Matthew Ciuffitelli (apprentice artist) was the Official Registrar, bass Hans Tashjian was the Imperial Commissioner and baritone Jumbo Zhou was Yakusidé. Kate Pinkerton (Pinkerton’s American wife) was played with appropriate dignity by apprentice artist contralto Rachelle Moss, mezzo Molly Burke as Cio-Cio-San’s mother, Nicole Woodworth mezzo as Cio-Cio-San’s Aunt and Jennifer Dryer soprano as Cio-Cio-San’s cousin – all colorful and efficient! Sorrow, Butterfly and Pinkerton’s child was adorably played by Quinn Krug with acceptance and grace. The image of a blindfolded Sorrow clutching the American flag, with his mother’s body nearby, haunts the mind. Cio-Cio-San realizes that Kate Pinkerton and Pinkerton have come to take Sorrow. There was no other course than suicide, like her father, rather than live with dishonor.

Sharpless (César Méndez Silvagnoli) & Suzuki (Laurel Semerdjian). Photo by Rod Millington

Maestro Victor DeRenzi, whose nearly three decade record breaking triumphant Verdi festival ended recently, proved himself a master of Puccini as well. The Sarasota Opera Orchestra and the Maestro played as one. The violins in the love duet were heavenly and the pounding of the tympani in the death scene was indelible. The inter-act prelude was Wagnerian in scope and a tornado of this tragic tale swirling in brilliant harmony. The concluding discordant note further compounds the tragedy that has just been told.

Maestro Victor DeRenzi fully deserves the accolades and his title of Cavaliere dell’ordine della Stella d’Italia (Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy) recently bestowed on him by the Italian Government.

Stage Director John Basil gave us rhapsodic love scenes with solid movement and flowing action.The death scene was vivid and Butterfly’s crawling towards Sorrow had great impact!

Scenic Designer David P. Gordon gave us color with brilliance and copious Japanoiserie. The sets with screen door house, mountains, trees and changing blossoms was like being in Nagasaki, no “updates” here! Puccini rustically and royally served. No wonder the SRO audience applauded the sets so enthusiastically!

Butterfly (Joanna Parisi) & son Sorrow (Quinn Krug). Photo by Rod Millington

Costume Director Evan Ayotte gave us costume glory to cherish with many colorful kimono’s, parasols and fans.

Costume Coordinator Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s hand surely has the magic touch with special attention to detail. The costumes, flowers in the hair and bowing in unison were evidence that “little things mean a lot”- especially as part of operatic spectacle.

Ken Yunker’s lighting concepts were especially cherished in the love duet when the pinkish hues became purplish as dusk approached and then out came the galaxy of stars.

Hair and make up by Joanne Middleton Weaver were never garish or stereotypical but were colorful and dazzling.

Butterfly preparing for death scene. Photo by Rod Millington

The Choral Master Roger L. Bingaman deserves kudos for the delicacy and nuance of the chorus especially in the “Humming” chorus that concludes Act Two.

The subtitles by Victor DeRenzi were helpful and concise. Such lines as Butterfly’s “At 15, I am already old”, struck a chord!

Judy and I wish to thank the staff of the Sarasota Opera for their many courtesies and kindnesses. Especially fellow Brooklynites, who were born or resided in Brooklyn, Richard Russell, Executive Director, Samuel Lowry, Director of Audience Development and a Happy Birthday to Sam’s Mom Becky Lowry, who is really 39 but turns 70 soon. Also our neighbor, Greg Trupiano, longtime Director of Artistic Administration; see you on the 61 bus, Greg!

Sharpless hugging Sorrow & Pinkerton embracing a lifeless Butterfly. Photo by Rod Millington

Nice to see the name of Francesca MacBeth in Stage Management. She is the vivacious daughter of New York born  Maestro Victor DeRenzi and New York City Opera singer and acclaimed Stage Director Stephanie Sundine.

The sparkling and wonderful city of Sarasota, Florida has great climate, great culture and a treasure chest of wonderful memories from the Sarasota Opera on Pineapple Avenue and Verdi Square!

 

 

Regina Opera Presents Puccini’s Tosca

Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca premiered on January 14, 1900 at the Costanzi Theatre in Rome. The critics were puzzled and one of them called it a “shabby little shocker”.  As Bogart said to Bergman in the W.W. II film Casablanca  “In this troubled world the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans”. That cannot be said of Tosca. The story of actress Floria Tosca, her revolutionary lover Mario Cavaradossi and the evil, hypocritical, lustful Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia will endure as long as opera exists!


Scarpia looking at Cavaradossi’s painting of Mary Magdalene. Photo by Sabrina Palladino

The Regina Opera presented this masterpiece on Saturday March 4th for a run of four performances over two weekends with two alternating casts. It should be noted that on March 4, 1913, Tosca was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (The Metropolitan Opera on tour) with the peerless tenor Enrico Caruso as Cavaradossi, soprano Olive Fremstad as Tosca and baritone Antonio Scotti as Scarpia, with the great Arturo Toscanini conducting.

Needless to say, those opera legends surely would have been pleased to witness Tosca as presented by The Regina Opera in their 47th season, now at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Academy of Brooklyn theater (OLPH) in Sunset Park.

The lights dimmed and principal conductor, the gifted Maestro Gregory Ortega started the striking opening chords which instantly set the mood for the performance to come. Tosca, is based on a play by Michel Sardou, which was a vehicle for actress Sarah Bernhardt. The aging immortal Giuseppe Verdi wished he could have set it to music but Giacomo Puccini did! And this, his fifth opera, was one for the history books!

The Sacristan & Te Deum Chorus with Scarpia. Photo by George Showerer

In the opera world, some performances are preceded by opera” buzz.” For the performance attended by this writer, it was about the tenor, José Heredia, who played the role of Mario Carvaradossi, a painter. Mr. Heredia’s singing of “Recondita armonia” was sung with sweetness and ringing power. This was a “full lyric” voice with a Pavarottian shimmer, sparkle and a very secure foundation. His jealousy duet with Tosca was done with humor and elan and a beautiful arched and cavernous upper register.

In Act Two, Cavaradossi (Heredia’s) defiance of Scarpia and his lackeys was strong and his cries of “Vittoria, vittoria!,” at the news that the Napoleonic forces had won a victory, rang through the theatre. In the final act his exquisite singing of “E lucevan le stelle” was opera magic. His spinning the notes, polishing the silverware so to speak, was of the highest order. The tragic lamentation of his final phrase won the hearts of the audience. No “grandstanding” – just singing “on the word” and articulating it with sweetness and fervor.

The final duet “O dolci mani” was a true heavenly blend, their voices bouncing off the walls with ardor and hope. Cavaradossi died well. My question is, did Mario Cavaradossi know that this “mock” execution was really going to be his death? He did not trust Scarpia.

Tosca – Megan Nielson & Scarpia – Peter Hakjoon Kim. Photo by Sabrina Palladino

The Tosca of the evening was soprano Megan Nielson. I was impressed with her YouTube offerings, but seeing and hearing her in person was vital and indelible. Her singing in the jealousy duet with her lover Cavaradossi was exceptional. Her combination of coyness and flare ups were adroitly handled and there were sudden vocal bursts of pure, almost Wagnerian gold. Tosca’s emergence from intimidated to defiant was gradual:  she simply “could not and would not take it anymore!”  When all seemed lost, her prayerful singing often on her knees of the famed aria “Vissi d’arte” was beautifully done. The top note “Signore” preceding the “Così” was ravishing. Tosca’s seeing and seizing the knife and her stabbing of Scarpia who was imploding with lust, giving him a bloody sampling of “Tosca’s kiss.” Her telling him to choke on his own blood as he begged for help was riveting. Tosca’s removal of the “safe conduct” papers for Cavaradossi was eerily heart pounding. Placing the candles on each side of Scarpia’s dead body and dropping the crucifix on his chest with the snare drum roll in the background, was gripping. Ms. Nielson’s dramatic utterance of “E avanti a lui, tremava tutta Roma” was snarled with sarcasm and dark sounding chest voice. Her red cape slithering as she left to find her Mario was another fine example of operatic gesture.

In the final act, Tosca’s relating the entire affair with some powerful notes led to their duet “O dolci mani”. Ms. Nielson’s blending and soaring tones were matched by her tenor José Heredia as they “shook the rafters” of the theatre. His death, her shock followed by her leap and singing of meeting Scarpia before God was unforgettable. (“O Scarpia, avanti a Dio”)

Cavaradossi – José Heredia & Tosca – Megan Nielson. Photo by Sabrina Palladino

The role of Scarpia was in the hands and voice of Peter Hakjoon Kim. The role of the evil, lustful chief of Police Baron Scarpia suited him like a glove. His strong flexible baritone allowed him to put fear in the hearts of the beholders. His entrance in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle while the children and Sacristan were frolicking was worthy of the great actor Charles Laughton.  His “Un tal baccano in chiesa” knocked you right out of your seat. His seeing Tosca, still smarting of jealousy, set his innards on fire. The religious procession that follows has Scarpia singing of his passion and lust for Tosca, vowing as he crosses himself that he would renounce God to posses Tosca. Kim’s singing reached dazzling heights as he stretches the vocal envelope to soar to the heavens from his hellish feelings. In the second act at the Palazzo Farnese, Scarpia is in full command. He demands the whereabouts of political prisoner Angelotti and has Cavaradossi tortured. Cavaradossi’s screams are unbearable to Tosca who relents.

Scarpia’s singing of “Ha più forte sapore” and “Gia…Mi dicon venal” explains his desires to cruelly conquer, lust without love, possession and dominance, filling oneself with wine and women. His battles with Tosca and the images of his sadism and cruelty and his ultimate demise at her hand made for great theater! Mr. Kim’s voice had a wonderful thrust to it and he can raise the decimal levels very well or sing lugubriously softly when needed. Bravo for Kim!  A Scarpia we loved to hate. His “comeuppance” at her hand was most satisfactory.

Angelotti, a political prisoner, was ably played by Luis Alvarado. His basso was smooth and pleasing but a bit more desperation would have rounded out his character.

John Schenkel portrayed the Sacristan with great Italianate flair, his buffo baritone tones vividly portrayed comedy and drama, joy and fear, religiosity and mischief.

Scarpia & Tosca. Photo by Sabrina Palladino

Spoletta, Scarpia’s agent, lackey and factotum was played with spidery assurance by Reuven Aristigueta Senger. Senger’s insinuating tenor and total compliance made him a Goebbel’s to Scarpia’s Hitler. Even Scarpia’s slapping him was accepted with a sense of joy that he would soon redeem himself. He was Igor to Dr. Frankenstein. When it is discovered that Scarpia has been killed and Tosca in flight jumps to her death, Spoletta does the sign of the cross. For whom? Himself? Tosca? Scarpia? The world as he knew it? The versatile Senger also played the part of the Judge.

Rick Agster was an efficient, cool Sciarrone. His plangent bass served as comfort food for the corrupt Baron Scarpia who needed efficient cruelty from his lackeys like roses need rain.

Jonathan R. Green was both the jailer and Roberti. His sonorous baritone calling of Mario Cavaradossi’s name before the execution helped create the somber mood.

Nomi Barkan was the off stage Shepard boy who sings a mournful song to the tone poem interlude at the start of the final act. Her alto voice was like a gentle breeze midst the bells and dawn.

Principal conductor Gregory Ortega kept the 33 splendid musicians of the Regina Orchestra at white hot inspiration. Scarpia’s entrance music in the first act was heart pounding and the fortissimo finale thrilled.

Tami Laurance with José Heredia & Samantha DiCapio. Photo by Judy Pantano

Special praise to the Barkan family. Diana Barkan on the violin, Dimitri Barkan on the oboe and their children Nomi Barkan age 9 and Shelley Barkan age 16 sharing the role of the Shepherd boy, and Vladimir Kozlov, violist, the children’s grandfather. Congratulations to the new concertmaster Christopher Joyal, Richard Paratley on the flute and Alex Negruta on clarinet. The period costumes (Circa 1800) by Marcia Kresge were marvelous.  Scarpia’s powdered wig and elegant attire, Tosca’s red brocade gown, Cavaradossi’s bloodstained apparel, and the soldiers’ uniforms were all evocative and striking.

Andrea Calabrese’s make up was subtle and never garish. The supertitles by Linda Cantoni were very helpful.

Tyler Learned was the Technical Director and again demonstrated mastery of his craft. The talented Wayne Olsen did the striking graphics.

The sets were traditional with the blue and white Madonna statue, the stark crucifix, Cavaradossi’s lovely portrait (by Richard Paratley) of the Marchesa Attavanti as Mary Magdalene and the Palazzo Farnese with its unseen torture chambers, luxury and splendor.

The “Te Deum” had the priests, altar boys, and nuns flooding the stage with fervor and color. During the intermission we also saw veteran chorus singer, the delightful Cathy Greco serving cookies and coffee in her nun’s garb! Kudos to the Chorus especially in the almost surreal “Te Deum” in Act One.

The final act with its grim prison walls and jail cell evoked the tragic conclusion like  poison hor doeuvres before the last meal. These were all by the hand and mind of Linda Lehr who was the brilliant stage director as well. The stage was never cluttered and the action flowed beautifully. The “Te Deum” scene and Tosca’s  leap from a side panel are enshrined in memory! The realistic canon shot and gunshot sounds were remarkably clear and life like! This was a Tosca to cherish in every way!

We chatted with the Cavaradossi, José Heredia and his proud mother and his sponsor and vocal coach Tamie Laurance, also with soprano Samantha DiCapio, innovative composer Julian de la Chica and soprano Rachel Hippert known for their Brooklyn loft Bed-Stuy soirees.

Then it was off to nearby Casa Vieja restaurant where we dined with our friends and fellow opera lovers. Lourdes and staff made us feel at home with their delicious Mexican food.

The Regina Opera will present Donizetti’s delightful comedy L’Elisir d’amore in May. Thanks to Francine Garber-Cohen producer, President of Regina Opera and Maestro Alex Guzman, Vice President and all who preserve the great art of opera at its best for both old and young at Brooklyn’s unique Regina Opera!

 

 

 

Elysium-between Two Continents Presents Stefan Zweig & Frédéric Chopin “Suffering and Longing in Exile” A Musical-Literary Collage

In its brochure, The Austrian Cultural Forum New York is described as “the main cultural embassy of the Republic of Austria in New York and the United States. Christine Moser, director of the ACFNY, is dedicated to showcase Austrian art, music, film, theater and literature, presenting “as much from our cultural past as necessary and as much contemporary art as possible.”

Stefan Zweig

Their architectural landmark building in Midtown Manhattan is located around the corner from MoMA. The ACFNY’s facilities house a multi-level gallery space, a theater and its own library. They host more than 100 free events annually and the ACFNY is one of the most important places to experience Austrian art, culture and tradition for an American audience.

On the evening of Thursday, February 16th, Elysium-between Two Continents presented Stefan Zweig and Frédéric Chopin in A Musical-Literary Collage entitled “Suffering and Longing in Exile.” It was under the patronage of Dr. h. c. Charlotte Knobloch, President of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria. The musical selections were provided by the brilliant Chopin expert Marjan Kiepura and the literary passages were presented in German by the eloquent Gregorij H. von Leïtis with visual translations projected on screen.

Frédéric Chopin

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) were two sublimely gifted human beings who were exiled from their birthplaces and as “wandering troubadours,” desperately sought to preserve the best of what they lost through writing and composing. Chopin left Poland at age 20 with the failure of the” November uprising” and died in Paris age 39 of tuberculosis. Stefan Zweig was relatively successful and content until the age of 52 when Austrian Jews led a secure rewarding life with theatre, culture, strong family ties and bourgeoisie respectability. With the rise of Hitler and Nazian/Fascism, the veneer of contentment was shattered with hatred and anti-semitism exploding. Zweig who sought a world based on pacifism fled to London, then the United States and finally Brazil. Zweig took his own life 75 years ago in Brazil on February 22, 1942. The relative peace in Brazil could not stifle his sense of loss for the “Old Vienna” of his youth, just as Chopin never forgot his beloved Poland with an outpouring of mazurkas and polonaise peasant themed pieces, recalling golden and vibrant memories of the peaceful Poland of his youth.

Gregorij H. von Leïtis & Michael Lahr. Photo by Judy Pantano

Deputy Director Christian Ebner made introductory remarks and presentation explanations were made by Michael Lahr. Mr. Lahr is the Executive Director of the Lahr von Leïtis Academy and Archive, Chairman of the Erwin Piscator Award Society and member of the Advisory Board Nietzsche Forum in Munich. Also as the Program Director of Elysium-between Two Continents, he has discovered numerous works by artists who had to flee their country under the Nazi regime. For the first time, many of these compositions were performed in concerts in the United States and Europe.

Christian Ebner, Gregorij H. von Leïtis, Michael Lahr & Marjan Kiepura. Photo by Judy Pantano

The program began with Chopin specialist and pianist Marjan Kiepura who proudly told the audience of his Polish roots from his father Jan Kiepura, the internationally acclaimed tenor from the Metropolitan Opera. Marjan Kiepura, born in Paris, lives with his wife, the vibrant Jane Knox Kiepura, who greatly assists him in his endeavors as lecturer and researcher, in New York City and Littleton, New Hampshire. Kiepura’s new Chopin CD Images of a Homeland has become an Internet YouTube favorite.

The first selection was Prelude Op. 28 No. 15 in D-Flat Major, “Raindrop” which was played tenderly and nimbly, flooding the room with melody, taking us all through Chopin’s music towards the light of freedom. George Sand, Chopin’s lover at the time, called it “Raindrop” because it reminded her of the storms in Valdemossa in Mallorca, Spain.

Nino Pantano, Tomoko Mazur, Marjan Kiepura
& Anna Schumann. Photo by Judy Pantano

This was followed by the Mazurka in A-minor, Op. 68 No. 2. The Polish peasant dances in the 60 plus Mazurkas Chopin composed in exile, represented the idealized and free Poland he was forced to leave. Mr. Kiepura’s fingers adroitly floated over the keys a combination of insouciance and Polish brio!

The Artistic Director and narrator, Gregorij H. von Leïtis recently received the Medal for Science and Art from the President of the Republic of Austria and has been acclaimed for his interpretation of Erwin Piscator’s concept of socially relevant theatre that he founded in 1983. In 1995, Gregorij H. von Leïtis and Michael Lahr founded The Lahr von Leïtis Academy and Archive. In that association with Elysium-between Two Continents, their goal is “Art and Education without Borders” which “fosters artistic and academic dialogue, creative and educational exchange and mutual friendship between the United States and Europe”.

Mr. von Leïtis, in a clear, resonant and impassioned voice read in German from Stefan Zweig’s works which were translated on a screen on stage. Zweig’s words are very relevant today and his flatly refusing to acquiesce towards the Fascist state were stated with a will of steel. I thought of the Italian film “The Garden of the Finzi-Contini’s” where the Italian Jews tried to maintain their charmed and enlightened life as the dark shadows of Fascism made their world more obsolete until the death trains arrived. I also heard echoes of young Anne Frank’s writing “despite everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”

Marjan Kiepura, Nino Pantano & Steve Ross. Photo by Judy Pantano

Stefan Zweig bemoans the treatment of the natives that Columbus discovered in his journeys. He felt that the “lust for gold” replaced the humanitarian treatment that should have been shown. Zweig laments “Only the misfortune of exile can provide the in depth understanding and the overview into the realities of the world.”

Marjan Kiepura returned with the Waltz in A flat Major Op. 69, No. 1 “L’Adieu”, played with the perfect balance of soul and sweetness. Chopin was enamored of Maria Wodzinska in Poland and later after their meeting in Dresden, his feelings were much deeper and Chopin asked for her hand in marriage. Maria’s parents felt a composer’s income was too uncertain. On their parting, Chopin handed her this music which Maria Wodzinska later named “L’Adieu.”

As a tribute to his Hungarian born mother, the great operetta soubrette soprano Marta Eggerth (1912-2013), Kiepura played a composition by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. Romanian Folk Dance No. 3 “Der Stampfer” with its modernistic chords, it still retained the folklore vitality of its subject and was played with charisma and aplomb by Marjan Kiepura.

The final selection was Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor Op. 17 No. 4 which was like the Studebaker of its day. (A car made circa 1947 that was at least 50 years ahead of its time). According to Mr. Kiepura, this mazurka is actually written like music composed a hundred years later, dissonant and chromatic, it proved to be a revelation. Perhaps it is safe to speculate that this piece, with its clashing of chords and dissonance, was both rage against the destruction of freedom in his homeland or the birth pangs of a future “new order”. Marjan described this unique piece with vivid authority mixed with wonder. Kiepura’s masterful playing evoked Scriabin in its inner combustion. This piece truly represents its message of the tormented refugee!

Both Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura were famous film and opera/operetta stars in Europe and found a haven in the United States. Both had some Jewish ancestry. Jan Kiepura was a lead tenor at the Metropolitan Opera and Marta Eggerth was in Hollywood films and Broadway. They later toured the world in Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow.

Marjan Kiepura & Jane Knox Kiepura & Nino Pantano. Photo by Judy Pantano

Mr. von Leïtis returned to the stage for the final reading. He captured the very essence of Stefan Zweig. The fall of Austria dismayed Zweig and even though he found relative freedom and comfort in Brazil, it was too late in his own life to change. He and his wife ended their journey that fateful day seventy-five years ago. Had they remained in exile three more years, they would have witnessed a new dawn. Mr. von Leïtis brought to life the soul of Stefan Zweig by his expressive cadences and mellifluous tones. He was the messenger of the truth and the dying of the light during those unspeakable times. Stefan Zweig describes the tensions he experienced in a letter to journalist Joseph Roth: “We must make ‘in spite of’ the leitmotif of our life, we must know human beings and must love them nonetheless”.

With these brilliant essays on the life and death of Stefan Zweig intertwined with Chopin’s music, the evening came to a close. There was long lasting applause and cheers for Marjan Kiepura and Gregorij H. von Leïtis.

In the audience and at the wine reception afterwards, we met acclaimed (Cole Porter) cabaret pianist, the effervescent and ever chic Steve Ross, cruise ship pianist Stacy Ward MacAdams looking resplendent is his Florentine cape and the vibrant Tomoko Mazur, wife of the late great New York Philharmonic conductor Kurt Mazur. It was also nice to greet rising chanteuse Anna Schumann who is preparing a show on screen legend Marlene Dietrich.

Special thanks to Christine Moser, Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, Deputy Director Christian Ebner and their entire team. We will long remember the eloquent readings by Gregorij H. von Leïtis and the pianistic brilliance of Marjan Kiepura. It was a truly splendid evening, both gratifying and moving. In a strong sense in our complex world of today, Stefan Zweig and Frédéric Chopin still live on and inspire. They make us all, with the invaluable assistance of their disciples Gregorij H. von Leïtis and Marjan Kiepura, seek out our better angels.