The Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation Holiday Concert & Dinner

The Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation had its annual holiday concert and dinner on Tuesday, December 6th at the New York Athletic Club’s beautifully decorated President’s room, overlooking Central Park, in New York City. Stephen De Maio one of the original founders introduced Sachi Liebergesell who serves as President of the foundation.

Ms. Liebergesell has been President for eight years and with her late husband, the much-loved Rolf Liebergesell, has been a vital force in the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation. Special persons in the audience were singled out and presented with crystal apples: Stephen De Maio, Administrative/Artistic Director, Brian O’Connor Esq. who serves as Vice President and General Counsel and Michael Fornabaio, Treasurer. Mary Lichtman, Secretary was honorably mentioned and Midge Woolsey who could not attend was thanked for her support.

Pianist Arlene Shrut, Soprano Antonina Chehovska, Artistic Director Stephen De Maio, Mezzo Samantha Hankey Tenor Fanyong Du Photo by Judy Pantano
Pianist Arlene Shrut, Soprano Antonina Chehovska, Artistic Director Stephen De Maio, Mezzo Samantha Hankey, Tenor Fanyong Du. Photo by Judy Pantano

Arlene Shrut, who has served as accompanist to the singers for many years as well as this evening was singled out for her brilliant pianistic wizardry. It was nice to chat with her much loved spouse basso Gary Kendall.

The singers then were called and the concert began. Antonina Chehovska, sang “Si,mi chiamano Mimi” from Puccini’s La Boheme. Her soprano, strong in sound, sweet in quality with impeccable diction brought us into that garret in Paris. It revealed the essence and soul of that seamstress as she described her life in this touching aria. Ms. Chehovska beautifully tapered and shaded her soaring and poignant voice and warmed our hearts, that chilly rainy evening. It should be noted that in the place where the tenor sings the word “si” many in the audience sang Rodolfo’s word! We look forward to hearing Ms. Chehovska sing this entire coveted role.

 President Sachi Liebergesell, Reviewer Nino Pantano, Pianist Arlene Shrut. Photo by Judy Pantano

President Sachi Liebergesell, Reviewer Nino Pantano, Pianist Arlene Shrut. Photo by Judy Pantano

Samantha Hankey, mezzo, regaled us with “Non piu mesta” from Rossini’s Cenerentola with flawless coloratura, fioritura and creamy sound. Her ascents and descents were as smooth as a Christmas peppermint stick and her whimsical instincts were secure. Ms. Hankey’s lower register showed her mezzo menthol as easy as Santa sliding down a chimney! With much to do musically, Ms. Hankey was like a dog walker with a dozen dogs and she held the leash knowing how much leeway to give each one. A thrilling virtuoso performance and I am certain Rossini smiled proudly!

Tenor and former ice skater Fanyong Du sang “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s” L’elisir d’amore.” Mr. Du is the possessor of a pure, penetrating Italianate tenor voice that evoked memories of such legends as Tito Schipa and Cesare Valletti. He was truly a “love struck” Nemorino with some elegant diminuendos, an excellent cadenza and strong finale to this well loved aria. Steve De Maio mentioned that Fanyong Du studied with Arthur Levy at the Mannes School of Music.

 President Sachi Liebergesell & Treasurer Michael Fornabaio. Photo by Judy Pantano
President Sachi Liebergesell & Vice President & General Counsel Brian O’Connor. Photo by Judy Pantano

It was now time for encores. Antonina Chehovska sang a Negro spiritual “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” by MacGimsey, a capella. (No musical accompaniment) Its climbing passages were heavenly and her pure sound entered the heart as the Christ child did the spirit. Ms. Chehovska’s higher vocal outpourings were like plucking beautiful blossoms from a high-branched tree. She maintained perfect pitch throughout and it was a most touching encore.

Samantha Hankey sang Irving Berlin’s masterpiece “White Christmas” and asked the audience to join in. The introduction to this classic song was also done with the proper sense of longing and remembrance. Her vocal delivery was as warm as a perfect cup of cocoa on a cold night. A beautiful job!

 President Sachi Liebergesell & Treasurer Michael Fornabaio. Photo by Judy Pantano

President Sachi Liebergesell & Treasurer
Michael Fornabaio. Photo by Judy Pantano

The final musical outpouring was “O Holy Night” by Adolphe Adam and was sung by Fanyong Du. Du’s radiant tenor was gentle, caressing and lyrically perfect. The first verse was sung in English and the second in Italian. The final verse was again in English with an impassioned Bjoerling like “O Night Divine” near the end that was thrilling. This was the perfect end to the concert and truly made us reflect on the beauty of the season and the beauty of Du’s voice. Recommended listening is Enrico Caruso’s stentorian recording of “O Holy Night” made in 1916 available on YouTube and sung in French.

Steve De Maio, who also is President of the Gerda Lissner Foundation, was singled out for his creating the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation with the immortal soprano Licia Albanese (1909-1914) and served as the first President. He said that helping young and talented singers “succeed and move on is the most important thing.”

The pumpkin filled ravioli was superb, the rack of lamb succulent, the chocolate mousse cake was truly a diet breaker. At our table were Denise and Angelo Vivolo, whose popular restaurant “Vivolo’s” is in Manhattan but was a Bensonhurst fixture in Brooklyn for many years. Angelo is the President of the Columbus Citizens Foundation and wife Denise was a professional dancer. Alfred and Christine Palladino are also from the Columbus Citizens Foundation which is the location of the Albanese-Puccini Foundation. Alfred, a former football hero, is a board member. Christine attended Lincoln High School in Brooklyn with my wife Judy. Kudos to Michael Fornabaio treasurer and Father John Kamas, from St. Jean Baptiste Church, longtime supporter who gave the heartfelt benediction before dinner.

Reviewer Nino Pantano & Opera Coach Scott Barnes. Photo by Judy Pantano
Reviewer Nino Pantano & Opera Coach Scott Barnes. Photo by Judy Pantano

It was so nice to see the vibrant Cornelia Beigel, Secretary of the Gerda Lissner Foundation, Karl Michaelis patron, Marjan and Jane Kiepura as always a sparkling duo. Marjan is a Chopin specialist and the son of Polish tenor Jan Kiepura and soubrette soprano The Merry Widow Marta Eggerth. The ebullient Brian O’Connor, Vice President and General Counsel, patron presenter the vivacious Betty Cooper Wallerstein, the ever young Maestro Eve Queler from Opera Orchestra of New York, opera agent Robert Lombardo, the ever chic Joyce Greenberg, competition assistant for several foundations, opera coach and writer Scott Barnes wearing a blinking Christmas tree button in his lapel almost rivaling the one at Rockefeller Center, all involved in the quest of assisting young talent find its place in the operatic firmament.

Judy and I were pleasantly surprised to have been mentioned by Sachi Liebergesell for our contributions and coverage of the singers and events in The Brooklyn Eagle. It is a labor of love to praise the efforts of so many talented young people and to help spread the word.

It was nice to see Vincent Fiorentino from the Board of Directors and all who aided the noble efforts of the Albanese-Puccini Foundation throughout the years. We stand with Sachi Liebergesell, Stephen De Maio and all who are present in spirit or smiling down from the heavens. Ms. Liebergesell stated that the present Board of Directors is the best ever!

That was the mission of the wonderful Licia Albanese (1909-2014) and her husband, the late Joseph Gimma Sr. whose spirits were so deeply felt this evening. Sachi Liebergesell who currently sits in the “chair of the mighty” has reigned so wisely. As we approach 2017, we pray that the generosity and loving care of the members, patrons, and supporters will allow us to go forward with the confidence that these young awardees will keep opera thriving and fulfill that beautiful, still thriving distant dream of 42 years ago!

Buon Natale, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!



Regina Opera’s 47th Season Presents an Exciting Don Giovanni

On the afternoon of Saturday, November 19th, Regina Opera began its 47th season with an exciting presentation of Mozart’s masterpiece “Don Giovanni”. Regina Opera is located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) on Sixth Avenue between 59th and 60th Streets.

Donna Anna (Christina Rohm) and Don Ottavio (Christopher Nelson) Photo by Sabrina Palladino
Donna Anna (Christina Rohm) and Don Ottavio (Christopher Nelson). Photo by Sabrina Palladino.

“Don Giovanni” had its premiere in Prague in 1787. It was labeled “Un drama giocosa” as a comedy with drama. The libretto was by the brilliant librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) who was also a friend of Giacomo Casanova. Da Ponte migrated to America and opened the first opera house on Leonard Street in lower Manhattan. Ironically both Da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) were buried in unmarked graves.

The coveted role of Don Giovanni is every bass baritone’s dream. The Metropolitan Opera’s legendary bassos Ezio Pinza and Cesare Siepi were the definitive interpreters of this great role. I was blessed to have heard them both.

At Regina Opera’s performance and as the lights dimmed, Maestro Gregory Ortega began with the ominous overture which sets the mood. Don Giovanni, a nobleman was portrayed by Nathan Matticks. Matticks has excellent stage presence and a rich versatile baritone with a cutting edge that soars. He sang “La ci darem la mano” with the young bride, Zerlina, with beguiling lyricism. His vocal outpourings in the champagne aria “Fin ch’han dal vino” were brilliantly sung as he was getting dressed. His haunting laugh at the end of the aria as he was running offstage for a new conquest was right on the mark! Matticks’ caressing singing of “Deh vieni a la finestra” melted the heartstrings. His oft times cruel interplay with his loyal servant Leporello was indicative of his basic nature. Mae West’s “Beulah, peel me a grape” has been replaced with “Leporello, peel me a banana” as the Don devours a banana with dinner. Don Giovanni’s scene with the Commendatore was bone chilling. The Don’s cynicism, cunning, and amorality were shocking as was his cavalier defiance of the stone guest. His descent into hell with ear piercing screams is forever deposited in the memory banks of all who witnessed it. A brilliant performance!

Don Giovanni (Nathan Matticks) tries to seduce Zerlina (Hannah Stone) Photo by George Showerer
Don Giovanni (Nathan Matticks) tries to seduce Zerlina (Hannah Stone). Photo by George Schowerer.

Luis Alvarado played the role of Leporello. His singing of the catalogue aria “Madamina, il catalogo e questo” was amusing, especially his master’s 1003 conquests in Spain! He is the possessor of a rich sounding, somewhat understated basso-buffo. Alvarado sang casually and did not exaggerate, but I thought he could have balanced his pleasing voice with a bit more comedic acting. Alvarado’s voice though plangent, does not have the carrying power that the role calls for and more forceful frustrations and fears would have enriched his interpretation. To his credit, he did get many cheers at the opera’s end.

Christina Rohm was Donna Anna, a noblewoman whose father was murdered in a duel by Don Giovanni as the latter was attempting to seduce her. Her singing with Leporello “Notte e giorno faticar – Non sperar, se non m’uccidi” showed her lustrous soprano. Ms. Rohm’s special magic shined in “Crudele, non mi dir,” her passionate versatile showpiece in the second act which was sung with remarkable coloratura precision, power and panache!

Don Giovanni (center, in white) surrounded by villagers. Photo by George Showerer.
Don Giovanni (center, in white) surrounded by villagers. Photo by George Schowerer.

Don Ottavio is somewhat of a wimpish role and he is so bland and ordinary next to the colorful rapacious Don. But he is sturdy, dependable and sincere as opposed to the Don Giovanni’s rascality. Christopher Nelson was an excellent Don Ottavio. He is constantly outraged by Don Giovanni’s insolence!  Mr. Nelson sang brilliantly. His singing of “Il mio tesoro” with its vocal coloratura twists and turns was sung with ease and bravado. His tenor has a beautiful sound and was a joy to hear.

Donna Elvira, a lady of Burgos, is like a gnat in Don Giovanni’s eye. She simply refuses to accept the fact that she was seduced and abandoned by him.  Yet her indignation melts whenever she sees him by stealth and catches him seducing someone. Zhanna Alkhazova was a perfect Donna Elvira: defiant, pouting, yielding, forgiving, accepting like a jealous weak-kneed shrew. She is the possessor of a sultry, rich soprano with power to spare.“Ah! fuggi il traditor!” and her singing of “Mi tradi” was golden age in its perfection.

Zerlina, a peasant girl, was saucily sung and acted by Hannah Stone whose lyric soprano sparkled in duet with Don Giovanni and her naive but sweet spouse Masetto. Her lovely singing of “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” and “Vedrai carino” were piquant and charming. Her duet “La ci darem la mano” with Don Giovanni was a highlight.

Don Giovanni (Nathan Matticks, seated) is interrupted during dinner by Donna Elvira (Zhanna Alkhazova, right) Photo by George Schowerer
Don Giovanni (Nathan Matticks, seated) is interrupted during dinner by Donna Elvira (Zhanna Alkhazova, right). Photo by George Schowerer.

Masetto, Zerlina’s betrothed, was poignantly portrayed by Jonathan Hare, whose warm charming baritone made him the subject of affection and sympathy rather than ridicule. He was ever the befuddled, simple peasant.

Il Commendatore, Anna’s father was eerily and brilliantly portrayed by basso Antoine Hodge. His singing of “Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m’invitasti” as a statue from his grave, was seeking vengeance. The scene of Don Giovanni’s steadfast defiance, leads to demons that drag him screaming, unrepentant, towards the flames of hell. Hodge’s magnificent cavernous, basso echoing his revenge, will haunt the memory for a long time.

The opera ends happily with the quintet of Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Leporello, Zerlina and Masetto singing triumphantly. Don Ottavio agrees to marry Dona Anna; Donna Elvira will retire toa convent, Zerlina and Masetto will go home to eat and Leporello will head to the tavern to find a new Master. The morale?” He who lives wickedly – will die wickedly!”

The ensemble were all excellent, both the demons in black and red and all the cast characters. Melissa Guardiola Bijur played Donna Anna’s Duenna. All provided great support. It was so nice to see veteran chorister, the perky sweet voiced Cathy Greco on “double duty” selling refreshments during the intermission.

The 3 Maskers - Donna Anna ( Christina Rohm, left) Don Ottavio (Christopher Nelson, center) Donna Elvia (Zhanna Alkhazova, right) Photo by Sabrina Palladino Photo by Sabrina Palladino
The 3 Maskers – Donna Anna ( Christina Rohm, left), Don Ottavio (Christopher Nelson, center), Donna Elvia (Zhanna Alkhazova, right). Photo by Sabrina Palladino. Photo by Sabrina Palladino

Maestro and principal conductor Gregory Ortega led Regina’s 34 splendid musicians in a performance that was captivating and truly evoked the era of the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. From the start, the orchestra played as one. From the minuet to the full powered scenes with the Commendatore, the mood was set!

Kudos to Timothy Moody on the keyboard for the serenade and parlando passages.

The magnificent costumes were by Marcia Kresge.the excellent make up both subtle and scary was by Milan Rakic. The stage director, set design and dueling sword fight choreography were by Linda Lehr. The stage was filled with many picture portraits of women dominated by the human body design of Leonardo Da Vinci in the center. Various tree branches and floral benches were used to create a stage always vibrant and colorful.

Don Giovanni (Nathan Matticks, right) is held by the Commendatore's statue (Antoine Hodge) refusing to repent for his sins. Photo by George Showerer.
Don Giovanni (Nathan Matticks, right) is held by the Commendatore’s statue (Antoine Hodge) refusing to repent for his sins. Photo by George Schowerer.

The Commendatore scene was unforgettable in its frightening power. The demons, the flames, the minuets, food and crowd scenes were a marvel of the brilliance of stage director Linda Lehr’s magic touch! Tyler Learned’s lighting brought to the fore the demise of Don Giovanni. The super titles were by Linda Cantoni and were a revelation to newcomers. Wayne Olsen’s set graphics were eye catching. This was a brilliant afternoon and evening of opera at its best. A truly vocally gripping and visually stunning “Don Giovanni!

The Regina Opera owes much to producer Francine Garber. We look forward to this 47th season of serving Brooklyn and opera lovers everywhere.