Beloved Soprano Licia Albanese Remembered at Special Mass

On Monday, August 14th, a special Requiem Mass was held for Metropolitan Opera soprano Licia Albanese who passed away at the age of 105 on this date three years ago. She was born in Bari, Italy on July 22nd 1909 and later became a solid patriotic U.S. citizen. On August 14th, the third anniversary of her passing, a special requiem mass and luncheon hosted by devoted friends and admirers Cesare Santeramo and Dr. Robert J. Campbell was held. Mme. Albanese was remembered and lauded for her great artistry and the warmth of her friendship.

Licia Albanese as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly

The Rev. John Kamas spoke eloquently of Licia Albanese at the Mass which was held at St. Jean Baptiste Roman Catholic Church on East 76th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York City. Kosovo tenor Riad Ymeri sang “Panis Angelicus” in a sweet, clear and moving way. Baritone Mark Watson sang a thrilling “I’ll Walk with God” (Brodsky) from the film The Student Prince made famous by tenor Mario Lanza. (Lanza appeared with Licia Albanese in the film Serenade.) The organist led the singers and all to give inspired performances. The priests were all moved by this special tribute to a great singer and devout parishioner. There are many citizens from Bari in Carroll Gardens Brooklyn affiliated with Sacred Hearts-St. Stephens Church and the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Cultural Sport and Social Club. Niccolò Van Westerhout was a 19th century composer born in Bari but whose family was Flemish. Licia Albanese was well known and loved by “Barese” everywhere.

The delicious luncheon at nearby Orsay restaurant included patrons and friends of Licia Albanese: Holocaust author and pacifist Luna Kaufmann, Sachi Liebergesell, President of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, Father(Pastor) John Kamas from St. Jean Baptiste Church, tenor Cavaliere Cesare Santeramo, Dr. Robert J. Campbell, Joy Ferro vocal teacher, former Metropolitan Opera great and lead dramatic soprano Elinor Ross, legendary Met Opera mezzo Rosalind Elias and opera coach Corradina and Maurice Caporello. It was an afternoon of brilliant conversation and warm remembrance. We all had incomparable memories of Licia Albanese both as an artist (lead soprano at the Metropolitan Opera from 1940-1966) and a devoted and loving friend. I recalled my appearance with her on television in a tribute to tenor Mario Lanza on the Joe Franklin TV show and her frequent visits to the Enrico Caruso Museum in Brooklyn where Commendatore Aldo Mancusi named his mini theatre after her and publisher Michael Sisca. Judy and I remember her playing a vigorous game of bocce at her beloved patron and friend Louise Peluso’s home and gardens in Bayville, Long Island.

L-R: Mark Watson, Joy Ferro, Corradina & Maurice Caporello, Luna Kaufman, Dr. Robert J. Campbell, Father John Kamas, Cesare Santeramo, Judy Pantano, Rosalind Elias, Sachi Liebergesell, Elinor Ross, Nino Pantano. Photo by: Samantha Hsieh

We thank our much honored hosts Cavaliere Cesare Santeramo and Dr. Robert J. Campbell for their making this event so special. Cavaliere Santeramo who sang Alfredo to Licia Albanese’s  Violetta in La Traviata for the New Jersey Opera, suggested a future Verdi requiem as a “fund raiser” for Father Kamas’s beautiful St. Jean Baptiste Church where Licia Albanese worshiped and had her funeral mass.

The following day was the great feast of Ferragosto. Licia Albanese passed away on the cusp of the Virgin Mary’s ascension into heaven. I am certain Licia had an EZ pass and is now with the celestial voices.

 

 

 

The Giulio Gari Foundation Presents 2017 International Vocal Competition Award Winners

Metropolitan Opera Tenor, Giulio Gari (1909-1994)

On the afternoon of Sunday, September 24th, The Giulio Gari Foundation presented in concert the 2017 winners of the International Vocal Competition at the elegant New York Athletic Club on Central Park South.

After greetings from Stephen De Maio, Artistic Advisor and Chairman of the Board Gloria Gari, the program began. Our host of the evening was the brilliant much missed Brian Kellow who was greeted with cheers by his many admirers. Many “stars” of the operatic heavens were present. Former Metropolitan Opera legends dramatic soprano Elinor Ross and mezzo soprano Rosalind Elias, New York City Opera and NBC Opera star Elaine Malbin are always there to show support for the new generation on the ascendancy. I also chatted with charming guest Maria Natale whose radiant soprano and stunning appearance won plaudits in Portland, Maine as Violetta in La Traviata.

Opera Lecturer Lou Barrella & Chairwoman Gloria Gari. Photo by Judy Pantano

The concert began with “Nemico della patria” from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier sung by baritone Jaeman Yoon. Yoon did not just croon a tune but gave a robust erupting volcano concept of this dynamic showpiece. A little more shading and contrast would have given it the Italianate flavor it lacked.The voice itself is healthy and the strong  potential is there. A touch of salt, pepper and oregano will make it the savory mix it soon will be. Patrons Mr. and Mrs. Frank De Rosa presented the award.

A lighter Bizet was served with the duet “Au fond du temple saint” from The Pearl Fishers. Marco Cammarota, tenor and Kidon Choi, baritone were a strong blend in this pledge of friendship duet. Mr. Cammarota belted the top notes in a heroic manner and Mr. Choi sang strongly and this iconic duet went from the lyrical commonplace into the rare with the exciting tenorial trumpet and a visceral victory for true bonhomie. The award was presented by Dr. Barry Schenk and the fashionable Joyce Greenberg.

Right-Brian Kellow with 2017 Vocal Competition Winners & pianists-Johnathan Kelly & Arlene Shrut-Left. Photo by Judy Pantano

Soprano Nicolette Mavroleon sang “Depuis le jour” from Charpentier’s Louise. This aria is a glittering showpiece and from the legendary sopranos Mary Garden, Grace Moore and countless others and is a test of vocal endurance. Ms. Mavroleon sang some stunning stratospheric highs and gave a virtually flawless performance of this captivating aria. The composer Charpentier wrote a sequel to Louise called Julien. Immortal tenor Enrico Caruso courted his American wife Dorothy in his Julien costume. (1918) We look forward to hearing Ms. Mavroleon soon. She is of Greek descent like Maria Callas and generates a special magic! Her award was given by the Max Kade Foundation, Dr. Lya Friedrich Pfeifer, President.

“Non più mesta” from Rossini’s Cenerentola was sung by rising mezzo soprano Corrie Stallings. Ms. Stallings possesses a bright silvery voice with expressive and expansive plenitude of sound, dexterity and flexibility so necessary in producing coloratura flow and ease and gave an exciting and generous performance. Only a few feet from the stage was honored guest, famed iconic mezzo Joyce DiDonato who smiled at Ms. Stallings and whose eyes sparkled with loving encouragement and support. To me, this was a defining moment and a wonderful one! The award was presented by the Florence Belsky Charitable Fund, Dan Schneider Esq.

Singers Corrie Stallings, Maria Brea, with Honoree Met Opera mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato, Nicolette Mavroleon, Marco Cammarota & Kidon Choi. Photo by Judy Pantano

Back to Bizet with “Je crois entendre encore” from The Pearl Fishers sung by tenor Fanyong Du. A very early Caruso recording of this haunting aria (Circa 1904) was heard on the sound track of Woody Allen’s film Matchpoint. It has been a favorite of lyric tenors and Beniamino Gigli’s magical recording also stands out. Fanyong Du has all he ingredients to do this exotic and delicate aria justice. His tapering of the aria, his lingering on a finely spun phrase earned him the applause of the gods above and the audience below. The award was given by The Lissner Charitable Fund by the ever impeccable Karl Michaelis.

Shana & Issachah Savage, Sachi Liebergesell & Elaine Malbin. Photo by Judy Pantano

The concert ended with Maria Brea singing “Chi il bel Sogno” from the bittersweet operetta La Rondine by Giacomo Puccini. Ms. Brea possesses a strong caressing coloratura soprano that soars heavenward like a flock of white doves. Her nicely placed top voice sings with sparkling ease, fresh and youthful making us all feel the inner yearning for true love. Ms. Brea’s award was presented by the Max Kade Foundation, Dr. Lya Friedrich Pfeifer, President.

The guests of honor included special awards for mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato, soprano Angela Meade who had another engagement and was not there and rapidly rising dramatic tenor Issachah Savage. The indefatigable Brian Kellow introduced the special guests all of whom spoke with gratitude for such organizations and how many young singers got their start because of such help and support. Mr. Savage was accompanied by his petite and enchanting wife Shana. It was nice to see him singing along softly from the audience savoring every word.

The superb pianists were Arlene Shrut, whose peerless and fearless playing gives the feel of a full orchestra and Jonathan Kelly, who also becomes as one with the singers. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera)

Stephen De Maio, Marie De Maio & Karl Michaelis. Photo by Judy Pantano

Famed and in demand opera lecturer Lou Barrella did a presentation in praise of tenor Giulio Gari including Gari’s glorious singing of “Amor ti Vieta” from Fedora and his singing of “The Lord’s Prayer.” There was also a video of praise by soprano Lucia Evangelista and other luminaries of tenor Giulio Gari (1909-1994) who sang at New York City Opera (1945-53) and the Metropolitan Opera (1953-61) and was also a much respected vocal teacher. His wife, the much loved Gloria Gari carries his torch proudly with the organization that bears his honored name along with their daughter Gayle Gari Cohen and her husband Paul E. Cohen and the Board of Directors. Their son, the late deeply loved Glen Gary is always present in gallant spirit.

Scott Barnes, Issachah Savage, Fred Cohn, & Brian Kellow. Photo by Judy Pantano

The reception and dinner afterwards afforded us the opportunity to “meet and greet” so many friends and fellow music lovers. From Opera Index, MetOpera mezzo Jane Shaulis and Joe Gasperec, Murray Rosenthal, Philip Hagemann, and Janet Stovin; opera coach and writer Scott Barnes, Sachi Liebergesell from the Liebergesell Foundation, opera manager Ken Benson, conductor Jan Wnek and tenor Keith Johnson. At our table were Michael Fornabaio from The Gerda Lissner Foundation, Maestro Eve Queler from the Opera Orchestra of New York, Robert Lombardo esteemed vocal coach, and banker financiers Joseph Sedillo and John Lawrence. We saw the ever vibrant civic leader and patron Betty Cooper Wallerstein, effervescent basso Gary Kendall, Bill Ronayne from The Mario Lanza Society located in Brooklyn and poet, Cav. Edward Jackson, Ph.D was his ebullient self. Stephen De Maio stopped by to greet our table and said that he was very surprised about three sections of praise he received in the wonderful program booklet. Mr. De Maio deserves every bit of praise for his extraordinary efforts on behalf of young singers as President of the Gerda Lissner Foundation and his work on so many others. It was nice to see Steve’s charming sister Marie De Maio, an iconic New Jersey educator for over 50 years, energetic secretary and facto tum Cornelia Beigel of the Gerda Lissner Foundation, joyful soprano Barbara Ann Testa and magnetic legendary soprano Diana Soviero, whose sublime Suor Angelica at the Met Opera still surges in my minds eye and heart. At the end of the presentation, Board member Donald Levine gave an impassioned plea for all to work together to strengthen opportunities for young singers in the opera world.

This was truly “an affair to remember.” Thank you Gloria Gari for your indestructible spirit! Judy and I are always proud to be your representatives from Brooklyn. The love you give comes back many fold. Bravo to The Giulio Gari Foundation.

 

 

 

Marcella Sembrich Museum Gala Tribute to Caruso

The Marcella Sembrich Museum on the banks of Lake George.

Marcella Sembrich (1858-1935) was a great Polish soprano of the past whose life and career are legend. Mme. Sembrich was Gilda to Enrico Caruso’s Duke of Mantua in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto at his debut in November 1903 at the Metropolitan Opera. They also recorded the Rigoletto Quartet and the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor. Caruso, a skilled caricaturist, made several caricatures of his friend Marcella and they are in his book of caricatures. Mme. Sembrich bought a pink stucco cottage on the banks of Lake George, NY which became her studio where she taught voice until her passing in 1935. It has since become a museum, shrine and cultural oasis when it is open from June through mid September.

This season was an active one and was concluded with a gala honoring the immortal tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) on Saturday, September 2nd. His star has never faded and continues to shine almost a century since his untimely death of a lung abscess at age 48 in his native Naples on August 2, 1921.

Inside the Marcella Sembrich Museum

Richard Wargo, curator and music director, introduced host Barrymore Laurence Scherer, tenor Daniel Montenegro and pianist Michael Clement. Wargo then went to the old wind up phonograph and played Enrico Caruso singing “La Donna e mobile” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. After Caruso’s golden voice negotiated the brilliant cadenza and finale, our tenor of the evening, Daniel Montenegro appeared, accompanied by Michael Clement and sang “La Donna e mobile.” Montenegro possesses a fine lyric tenor that is flexible, with a pleasing tone and theatrical flair. He sang the cadenza and hit the final note with ease and whetted the appetite for the remainder of the program. The intimate living room setting for the performance seats close to one hundred guests and has a Victor console and a baby grand piano.


Nino Pantano, Michael Clement, Richard Wargo,
Barrymore L. Scherer & Daniel Montenegro.
Photo by Judy Pantano

Barrymore Laurence Scherer spoke eloquently of his boyhood, his parents and how the voice of Enrico Caruso played such a large part in all their lives. Scherer especially remembers Caruso’s great recording of “Rachel quand du Seigneur” from Jacques Halevy’s La Juive which was the great tenor’s final performance at the Metropolitan Opera (Met Opera) on December 24, 1920. Mr. Scherer mentioned that while Enrico Caruso was not a matinee idol in looks, he possessed a round kindly face, a pug nose and a smile of comet wattage and his glorious voice was in the right body – He was simply CARUSO!

The operatic portion continued with “Una furtiva lagrima” from Gaetano Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore which was sung with lyricism and elan. Montenegro mentioned that Caruso suffered a throat hemorrhage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on December 11th 1920 while singing in Elisir d’amore. Caruso did sing three times more at the Met in great pain afterwards but it signaled the beginning of the end.

“Amore o grillo” from Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was sung with the proper bravura. “La Fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen  was sung with admirable restraint and a pianissimo high at the finale that was both tender and caressing.

Piano accompanist Michael Clement from Skidmore College and the College of Saint Rose played the Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana with all due passion and white hot inspiration.

Our erudite host Barrymore Laurence Scherer who is the opera and fine arts critic for The Wall Street Journal and the author of several books on opera, was able to speak volumes in a few short memorable phrases. What could be a better way to describe Caruso as he did than “the strength and beauty of his matchless voice?”

The concert continued with rising tenor Daniel Montenegro singing Neapolitan songs, many of which were immortalized by Enrico Caruso’s Victor recordings. Like Milton Berle who made television, it was Enrico Caruso who made over 240 recordings by use of the phonograph. The phonograph improved in quality to accommodate the demands of the public who clamored for his recordings. The first million seller was “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci in 1907.

Barrymore Scherer & Daniel Montenegro with
signed letter by Enrico Caruso. Photo by Judy Pantano

I first heard Daniel Montenegro in La Hija de Dr. Rappiccini (Rappiccini’s Daughter), an opera by Daniel Catán at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I praised him highly in my review in The Brooklyn Eagle.

Montenegro sang “La danza” by Gioachino Rossini and caught the tarantula spider dizzying madness ending with a sustained high note.

“Santa Lucia” by Theodoro Cottrau followed with just a hint of melancholy as Caruso did. Caruso was booed in his native Naples early in his career by a jealous claque and he never sang there again. He exclaimed he would only “go to Naples to eat spaghetti.” He always sang of Naples “Addio mia bella Napoli” and went there to die.

“Tu ca nun chiagne” by Ernesto de Curtis was sung by Montenegro, with true Italianate flair and plumbed the emotional depth and despair with a vocal frisson that was very exciting. Then we heard Core ‘ngrato written for Caruso by Salvatore Cardillo and was sung with intensity, longing and beauty of tone.

A virtuoso piano solo by Michael Clement with Rigoletto Concert-Paraphrase, Giuseppe Verdi/Franz Liszt was exciting. I thought of Vladimir Horowitz as the notes and melodies danced together and his fingers flew like winged chariots to fulfill the dynamic pulse of Liszt emulating Verdi in this virtuoso showpiece!

“L’ultima canzone” by Paolo Tosti followed, and was a favorite of Caruso contemporary-tenor Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1969) and romantic basso Ezio Pinza.(1892-1957) Montenegro sang it with generous tone, passion and pianissimo shading  combined.

Accordionist Tom Persinos. Photo by Judy Pantano

“Ideale” also by Tosti was sung with profound melancholy with a brilliant high note at the end à la Caruso. Caruso recorded a “Non t’amo piu” early in his career, (1902) written by Luigi Denza, but the one offered by Daniel Montenegro was by Tosti and has become a great favorite of tenors. Montenegro captured every bit of the gripping emotional intensity of this beguiling song in the true Italian way.

Next was the charming song “A vuccella” which Montenegro described as “the lady love having lips like a posy that simply have to be kissed.” It was the Caruso hit of 1919.

The final number by Stanislao Gastaldon was “Musica proibita” whose haunting melody was so beautifully articulated by Daniel Montenegro right up to the exciting finale.

The sold out audience insisted on an encore and the result was “O sole mio” sung not with Carusian melancholy but with Pavarottian joy with some wonderful trills more suited to Montenegro’s vocal terrain. Montenegro’s encore, true to his Latin roots was “Ay, Ay, Ay” (Osmán Pérez Freire) which was sung with brio, charm and some beautiful pianissimi.” His final outpouring was “Princesita” (José Padilla) which was sung with infectious charm. Montenegro loves to sing and shares that joy with his audience.

Barrymore Scherer made some closing remarks and concluded his lecture quoting a poem. The poem was written by me in 1963 and was printed in the Brooklyn section of The Daily News in 1971. The poem recalled the 42nd anniversary of Caruso’s death with a recorded 2 hour memorial tribute to Caruso in New York’s Bryant Park! Barrymore Laurence Scherer read the poem with great eloquence and feeling and introduced my wife Judy and myself. I was surprised, proud and humbled by the reading, the mention and the applause!

The reception before and after the gala was under a tent outdoors on the glittering shores of Lake George. The versatile fleet fingered accordionist Tom Persinos from Boston played many Italian favorites. The delicious finger food, one of which was a meatball with sauce on a toothpick with spaghetti swirled on top was new to me. It was provided by caterer Susan Minucci, owner of The Inn on Gore Mountain in North Creek, NY. It was a joy to “meet and greet” so many opera aficionados and wonderful people midst pastries and cannolis including the artists and enchanting Michelle Scherer, wife of Barrymore.

Marcella Sembrich and Enrico Caruso must have joined us on “cloud 9” because that’s where we were! We will inform Commendatore Aldo Mancusi of the Enrico Caruso Museum about this wonderful tribute. Hopefully we will have Richard Wargo come to Brooklyn, sample some good Polish food at Teresa’s on Montague Street. Then a visit to The Enrico Caruso Museum near Sheepshead Bay where Caruso sang on Labor Day for 125,000 people on August 31,1918 at the Sheepshead Bay racetrack as part of the police games. Caruso was made an honorary Police Captain at the ceremonies. A few days earlier Enrico Caruso sang at the convention hall in Saratoga.

To stroll the spacious grounds of the Sembrich after a visit to the house and museum and sit on one of the benches and “lookout” points, watching the ducks, boaters and revelers is like being in paradise.

We wish to thank Richard Wargo, our gallant and gracious host and “founder of the feast” for his flowers for Judy at the train station and his planning the “surprise” reading of my poem. Richard Wargo and staff, Beth Barton-Navitsky and Michelle San Antonio are to be commended for their efforts on behalf of making treasures from the past still so vital for today. We shall never forget the Enrico Caruso evening at The Sembrich. We also thank Barrymore Laurence Scherer, Daniel Montenegro, Michael Clement and Tom Persinos for their talent, skills, devotion and love for recalling the memory of the one and only “King of Tenors” – Enrico Caruso!

 

The Martina Arroyo Foundation Presents Potent Puccini with Suor Angelica & Gianni Schicchi

Family reading the will
Photo by Jen Joyce Davis/JJ Davis Studio

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 9th at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, the 600 plus audience was treated to two gems from Giacomo Puccini’s Il Trittico. Suor Angelica provided the tears and Gianni Schicchi the laughter. Il Trittico premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on December 14, 1918 to mixed acclaim but Gianni Schicchi was highly praised. Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica have come up from behind and have also earned praise as the masterpieces they are.

Acclaimed Metropolitan Opera (Met) tenor Richard Leech lauded the vision, talent and passion of the young singers and the importance of those who help support the Martina Arroyo Foundation. The young awardees are given an intensive six weeks of training and voice and stagecraft lessons as well as a stipend. They are then presented in opera, fully costumed with orchestra and fully staged before an audience at the Danny Kaye/Sylvia Fine Kaye Playhouse (Named after the immortal Brooklyn comedian and humanitarian and his lyricist/composer wife) as part of Prelude to Performance of the Martina Arroyo Foundation. Mr. Leech quoted from Molière, “Of all the voices known to man, opera is the most expensive.” Maestro  Willie Anthony Waters lifted his baton as conductor and the magic began, with the simple setting of a fountain, a statue of the Virgin Mary, a flower garden and the nuns. Artful in its simplicity, the nuns evoked innocence and devotion. The story takes place in the convent courtyard in Italy in the late 1600’s.

The whispering among the nuns said that Suor Angelica had come from a wealthy family and was sent to the convent seven years ago. She became the pharmacist and her herbs and potent potables were of value to her fellow sisters at the convent. A visitor arrives and word spreads that the visitor was a lady in a royal coach with a family crest. The Mother Superior sends for Suor Angelica and tells her that her Aunt, the Princess, wants to speak to her. Angelica and La Zia Principessa are given time and privacy in the Virgin’s chapel. The Aunt wants Suor Angelica to sign over her share of the property because Angelica’s youngest sister Anna Viola is getting married. Suor Angelica then asks how her young son (born out of wedlock) is. Zia tells her that he died of a fever two years earlier. Angelica screams and falls in a faint. Zia Principessa turns her back and prays. Angelica is bereft, signs the deed and Zia leaves.

Angelica mixes a poison potion for herself and drinks it but regretting her suicide prays for forgiveness. The Virgin statue glows, the stars in the heavens shine brightly, as Angelica’s child appears and welcomes her to heaven.

Michelle Johnson was Suor Angelica. Ms. Johnson’s acting was stretched to the limits but was never overdone. Her emotions were imploding and exploding yet with a sense of humility that touched the heart and tear ducts. Ms. Johnson’s exquisite singing of “Senza Mamma” had the true essence of an Italian soprano with generous volume and a  heartrending outpouring of glorious sound. Ms. Johnson hit the final note “Amore” in a  mezza voce and held it until it became a golden thread to paradise. Suor Angelica’s child (Akari Wientzen) walking towards her with arms outstretched in her final moments was indelible. The composer Puccini, whose sister was a nun, would have savored this moment, and I am certain he applauded from his domain in heaven.The touching libretto was by Giovacchino Forzano.

Rinuccio & Lauretta Photo by Jen Joyce Davis/JJ Davis Studio

La Zia Principessa was stunningly sung by Leah Marie de Gruyl whose dark penetrating mezzo and stone cold persona left a chill in the room. La Zia had the righteous might of the old testament but none of the mercy of the new! She could not forgive nor forget Suor Angelica’s transgression and the family disgrace. Once she turned to comfort but recoiled, she was incapable of doing so.

Melanie Ashkar had the proper balance of sternness and compassion as La Maestra delle Novizia. Her flexible  warm mezzo soprano was a perfect barometer for her character and assigned duties.

Molly Burke, Jenna Buck, Renée Richardson, Crystal Glen, Nicole Rowe, Yulan Piao, Amy Guarino, Wan Zhao, Hilary Hei Lee Law and Maria Zollo rounded out the ensemble and sang and acted with heavenly perfection. Their singing with the chorus of “Regina Verginum, Salve Maria” was truly the beacon to heaven’s door.

The second portion of the evening was the brilliant comedy Gianni Schicchi with a libretto also by Giovacchino Forzano. The story takes place in Florence, Italy in the year 1299.

In the middle of their mourning the death of their wealthy relative, Buoso Donati, his greedy relatives hear gossip suggesting that he has left all of his possessions to the monks of the order of Saint Reparata. Rinuccio suggests that they hire Gianni Schicchi, despised newcomer to Florence who knows the law, be chosen to help them get the money. Rinuccio is in love with Lauretta, Schicchi’s daughter. Rinuccio sings “Fiorenza come un albero fiorito.” Spencer Hamlin’s brilliant tenor rang out on the top notes ending with the name of “Gianni Schicchi” with fervor!

Donati family with Gianni Schicchi in white
Photo by Jen Joyce Davis/JJ Davis Studio

The wily Schicchi pretends to be the still dying Buoso. Before playing his role, he tells the family that to lie with wills means getting your hand chopped off and banishment from Florence. “Primo un divertimento” was robustly sung.” Schicchi indeed gives some property to family members but he leaves the main home, mules and grounds to himself waving his sleeveless hand at them whenever they protested. It ends with the greedy family leaving after attacking the house and the young lovers happily singing a love duet “Lauretta mia, staremo sempre qui” with the city of Florence in full view. Hamlin’s vibrant tenor and Ms. Whiteway’s lovely soprano soared ecstatically. Schicchi then addresses the audience that even if he goes to hell (As Dante placed him) that it was worth it!

Joshua DeVane was an excellent Gianni Schicchi and he used his warm vibrant baritone and expressive acting to the fullest. He truly relished the part!

Lauretta was in the pretty and perky package of Anna Adrian Whiteway and her singing of the iconic “O mio babbino caro” was enchanting. Ms. Whiteway’s charming soprano has a pungent fullness that made all eyes and ears, hers!

Suor Angelica with nuns
Photo by Jen Joyce Davis/JJ Davis Studio

Steven Mo Hanan was the dead Buoso and was remarkably funny with his Buster Keaton deadpan schtick!

The versatile Leah Marie de Gruyl was hilarious as Zita. Ms. de Gruyl’s amber dark mezzo has all the colors of the rainbow replete with a pot of gold!

Vincent Grana was excellent as Simone, oldest relative and the former Mayor of Fucecchio. His plangent bass-baritone and comedic gestures were truly evocative of the Italian theatre.

All of the “grieving” greedy relatives were sung and acted with aplomb including Melanie Ashkcar as La Ciesca, Nicholas LaGesse as Marco, Nicole Rowe as Nella, Hao Hu as Gherardo, Frida Werner as Gerardino, Karl Buttermann as Betto, while dual roles were played by Ben Reisinger as Spinellooccio and Notaio and Charles Carter as Pinellino and Guccio.

Suor Angelica with Zia Principessa
Photo by Jen Joyce Davis/JJ Davis Studio

Maestro Willie Anthony Waters conducted the 30 splendid orchestra musicians in a performance that was perfection from the ascending majesty of Suor Angelica to the brassy, brilliant and modernistic insouciance of Gianni Schicchi. The versatile  chorus rose to heavenly heights in Suor Angelica and captivated throughout and in Gianni Schicchi as well.

Ian Campbell’s stage direction was perfect from the calm of the convent to the merry mayhem of Gianni Schicchi!

Charles Caine’s costumes were comforting in the convent and colorful in Gianni Schicchi and brilliantly brought out two aspects of life in Italy centuries ago.

Steven Horak’s wig and make up were colorful, garish when needed and versatile. Even the dead had lustre!

Plaudits to Joshua Rose, set and lighting designer. The glowing Virgin statue still glows in memory!

The audience stood up as one and cheered to the rafters for both operas and both casts bathed in the glow of the ovations for the final bow. Opera lovers who witnessed these superb performances did better than if they flew to Milan to the opera house at La Scala. New York City and the Kaye Playhouse was the place to be for opera at its finest. No “updates,” “no nonsense,” (nunsense) – just wonderful  opera as the composer intended it to be.

It was nice to see friends from the Martina Arroyo Foundation, Met Verdi baritone and Administrative Director Mark Rucker and his wife and accompanist Sadie, Publicity, and Norena Barbella, Development Consultant, as well as many friends from Opera Index, The Gerda Lissner Foundation and others. There was a special memorial page for the much loved and invaluable recently deceased coach and accompanist Joan Krueger.

Suor Angelica with apparition of child & Statue of Madonna & child. Photo by Jen Joyce Davis/JJ Davis Studio

It was a joy to witness two incomparable performances of Puccini at his best in Prelude to Performance. The indomitable spirit of our guiding light, Martina Arroyo prevails. She is our everything and to witness this type of thrilling performance by these future stars nurtured by the Martina Arroyo Foundation makes us all ennobled and elevates humankind with the beauty and the art of opera! A “toast” to Martina Arroyo and all involved in Prelude to Performance. Here’s to Prelude to Performance 2018!

We look forward to the Martina Arroyo Gala at the J.W. Marriott Essex House on Monday, November 13th when Met opera’s great basso James Morris and promising soprano Ailyn Perez and Broadway legends, Chita Rivera and Tommy Tune will be honored!

Church of the Transfiguration Presents Modern Masterpieces An Arnold Schwartz Memorial Concert

Dr. Claudia Dumschat leading the Church Choir. Photo by Tatyana Pantano.

On the evening of Friday, June 9th at the Church of the Transfiguration (also known as The Little Church Around the Corner) on 29th Street in New York City, there was a performance of Modern Masterpieces, a memorial concert to Arnold Schwartz (1905-1979), patron and benefactor. Schwartz was born in Brooklyn and together with his wife Marie were acclaimed for their generous donations to the arts. The magnificent church organ was donated by his wife and named in his memory.

Dr. Claudia Dumschat, organist and music director of the Church of the transfiguration, planned a most ambitious and enlightening program for this concert, which included the Transfiguration Choir of Men and Boys, Girls Choir and Camerata plus the excellent Transfiguration Instrumental Ensemble, consisting of Joy Plaisted on the harp, James Kennerley at the organ and Jared Soldiviero on the timpani. The great conductor composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) worked with the Transfiguration Boys Choir in 1961. At that time, the choir sang and traveled extensively with some of the musical giants of that era.

Opening remarks were made by the newly appointed and youthful Rev. Father John David van Dooren. Father van Dooren, a man who cherishes the importance of music and culture in our lives, cordially welcomed one and all to this musical celebration. The program opened with “Rejoice in the Lamb” by British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) is based on the poem “Jubilate Agno” by Christopher Smart, who was a mad poet often institutionalized. This poem is about cat and mouse. “My Cat Jeoffry” – a precursor to “Cats”? The libretto rejoices in the beauty of his cat Jeoffry and his female mouse and all of creation. “Rejoice in the lamb” was sung by Enlun Yin soprano, Joe Redd alto, Ben Thomas tenor and Alan Henriquez baritone, accompanied by the Transfiguration Choir of Men and Boys, and made for a delightful treat to Britten’s haunting, unique and flowing output.

Soloist Luciano Pantano. Photo by Tatyana Pantano.

Three Ave Maria settings followed. Everyone is familiar with Ave Maria by Franz Schubert or the Bach-Gounod transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski, but there are many others. Enrico Caruso recorded an Ave Maria by Percy Kahn in 1913 with Mischa Elman on the violin. Giuseppe Verdi composed a beautiful Ave Maria for Desdemona in his late masterpiece “Otello” (1887).

Vladimir Vavilov, using notes supposedly from Giulio Caccini (1551-1616), wrote an Ave Maria in 1970 of poignant tranquility. Composer Bill Heigen, who sang with the Choir years ago, wrote an Ave Maria. The Transfiguration Girls Choir sang this with great reverence. The soft singing made one look at the beautiful grotto in the church devoted to Mary. Heigen dedicated this piece to the choir. The Ave Maria by Franz Beibl rounded out this trio, sung “a capella” by the gentlemen of the choir in a robust, solemn and praiseworthy manner, evoking the a capella group “All The Kings Men”. Ms.Claudia Dumschat led these ascending prayers with a steady hand. The harp of Joy Plaisted made the earthbound audience become heaven bound and on the side of the angels.

The second part of the program began with soprano Sara Paar accompanied on the piano by Anabelinda de Castro in a series of Leonard Bernstein songs entitled “I Hate Music!”. In “My Name is Barbara,” a little girl seeks recognition despite her young age, saucily and defiantly sung in a strong soubrette soprano. “Jupiter Has Seven Moons,” “I Hate Music” and “I’m a Person Too” are some of the sprightly tunes that evoked the insouciance of “I Feel Pretty” from Bernstein’s masterpiece West Side Story. Ms. Paar, will be without peer in such roles as Nannetta in Verdi’s Falstaff and other roles in the lyric repertory. Ms. Paar is both beguiling and enchanting! Anabelinda de Castro was her sprightly and dexterous accompanist.

Rev. Father John David Van Dooren, Nino Pantano & Dr. Claudia Dumschat. Photo by Judy Pantano.

Joe Redd, alto, sang “A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s “Mass” which was written to honor the slain President John F. Kennedy, whose birth centenary we celebrate this year. Mr. Redd has a warm amber quality to his flexible voice and he negotiated the vocal terrain smoothly.

In early December 1963, Leonard Bernstein received a letter from the Very Reverend Walter H. Hussey, Dean of the Cathedral in Chichester in Sussex, England requesting a composition for the Cathedral’s 1965 music festival involving the setting of Psalm Two, answering the question “why do the nations rage?” From the time of Chichester Psalms sold out world premiere at Philharmonic Hall in New York City on July 15th, 1965, it was apparent that Bernstein had created a magically unique blend of biblical Hebrew verse and Christian choral tradition – a musical depiction of the composer’s hope for brotherhood and peace. From “Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord” to “The Lord is My Shepard,” this piece, both jazzy and traditional, has old-fashioned sweetness and more than a touch of brashness.

Chichester Psalms is more akin to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana than to Verdi’s Requiem, yet like a pigeon and a dinosaur, they are part of the evolution of musical sound. The singers were Luciano Pantano treble, Christina Kay soprano, Tessoro Estrella soprano, Joe Redd alto, Ben Thomas tenor and Alan Henriquez baritone. All of them worked so hard to make it look easy. My grandson Luciano Pantano used his boy treble fearlessly and his voice rang out loud and clear in his solo as he sang in Hebrew in Chichester Psalms – Movement 11 (Psalm 23 and 2:1-4). We are very proud of him and his sister Leeza, who sings in the Girls Choir and is also a treble.

Sara Paar, Nikolay Klitsenko, Nino Pantano,
Dr. Claudia Dumschat & Lubov Klitsenko.
Photo by Judy Pantano.

Dr. Claudia Dumschat was truly the Maestro Supreme, conjuring up all the power and majesty of this great work. The superb organist James Kennerley made his instrument sing and soar! I thought of the great Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) playing his organ in the jungles of Lambaréné in Gabon, Africa on his mission to humanity. Joy Plaisted on the heavenly harp brought back memories of our mutual friend, the late beloved harp master Dulcie Barlow.

Chichester Psalms is a work of gentle fierceness and a plea for peace. It combines the old testament of righteousness and the new, of mercy. Leonard Bernstein is buried not far from our home in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. It is said that when Bernstein’s funeral procession arrived for the burial, the working crews in the streets of Brooklyn applauded in tribute. The large audience also applauded this work from Leonard Bernstein.

The reception afterwards in the courtyard ensured us of good conversation, food and libation. We were happy to “meet and greet” Dr. Claudia Dumschat, Rev. Father John David van Dooren, who expressed his enthusiasm for such evenings as this, Stage Director (Amahl) Richard Olson, the singers, musicians and all. Our son Marcello, his wife Tatyana, her parents from Omsk, Russia, Nikolay and Lubov Klitsenko were all there to listen and reap praise. Nikolay is a bayan (Russian accordion) master, Lubov, a choral director at their school in Russia, and their daughter Tatyana was also a chorus conductor. Our son Marcello plays the drums, my wife Judy sang in school choirs and I was “The Boy Caruso of Brooklyn”- is it any wonder there’s a song in our hearts?

On the grave of the great English American Maestro Leopold Stokowski, a Bach expert and pioneer of American music (1882-1977) (Fantasia), is the inscription “Music is the Voice of the All.” Some thought this might have been a misprint but Maestro Stokowski, whose long career began at St. Bartholomew Church in 1905 as an organist and choirmaster in New York, is correct. It was something he would have thought universal and proper.

We all applaud Maestro Dr. Claudia Dumschat, music director and organist, for this special splendid evening on a warm, balmy June night and thank her for reminding us so magnificently that “music IS the voice of the all”!

 

Paley Center Presents Elaine Malbin as Suor Angelica with NBC Opera

Soprano Elaine Malbin with daughter Amy &
Grand daughter Savannah 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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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!

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

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.

Soprano Elaine Malbin, with Janet Stovin & Murray Rosenthal from Opera Index. 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!

 

 

 

 

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!