My Caruso by Aldo Mancusi & David Mercaldo, PhD

A book review by Nino Pantano

Commendatore Aldo Mancusi who is the founder and curator of the Enrico Caruso Museum in Brooklyn has added his book with the assistance of author and Vice President of the museum, David Mercaldo, PhD. Many have profiled the great tenor since his tragic and untimely death at age 48, in Naples, Italy on August 2, 1921. The book is dedicated to the memory of Michael Sisca, who with his father Marziale Sisca, provided so much memorabilia to the Enrico Caruso Museum. Marziale’s brother, Alessandro Sisca wrote the lyrics to “Core ‘ngrato” (“Ungrateful Heart”) using the name Riccardo Cordiferro. Enrico Caruso, a splendid caricaturist, drew caricatures free for “La Follia di New York” as a favor to his friend Marziale Sisca, the Editor and his son Michael Sisca.

The book contains many caricatures drawn by Enrico Caruso and many personal conversations held with Michael that are first hand memories of Caruso the man. Pictures of busts, death masks, letters, records, phonograph horns, jewelry, ties, Caruso’s black and white shoes, documents, silverware, canes, phonographs, cylinders, recordings, an opera piano and a movie theatre that shows his silent film My Cousin. (1918)

Aldo Mancusi in his museum

Michael Sisca, while a teenager, was present at Caruso’s last recording session in September 1920 and told me that the greatest of tenors, who just returned from a month long tour of Cuba and the United States, had the beginning of his final illness that day, in the form of a cold. His great recording of “Rachel, quand du seigneur” from La Juive, was sung under duress and one could hear Caruso breathing heavily near the golden finale. Sisca, a charming man, always spoke of his friend Caruso and remembers being in bed since it was nighttime during one of his father’s soirees. Enrico Caruso was there, Puccini, Toscanini and a total of thirteen distinguished guests. Caruso insisted they get Michael from bed to join them because thirteen was bad luck. So young Michael Sisca sat with Puccini, Caruso and Toscanini at that unforgettable dinner.

Enrico Caruso, Ada Giachetti & wife Dorothy Benjamin

Members of the Caruso family from his first “wife” Ada Giachetti (Mistress) and his American bride Dorothy Park Benjamin, have visited the museum as well as Eric Murray, Gloria’s son and Caruso’s grandson and his charming wife Lynne. Eric, a wonderful gentleman, is a board member of the museum.

Lynne & Eric Murray & Aldo & Lisa Mancuso. Photo by Judy Pantano

Aldo describes how he first became acquainted with the tenor through his father Evaristo who collected his recordings and his mother Marietta who possessed a lovely soprano voice. There is an original caricature of Caruso’s father Marcellino, donated by Andrew Farkas who wrote the book, “Enrico Caruso, My Father and My Family” with Enrico Caruso Jr. Mr. Farkas tells the story of Pierre V. R. Key, Caruso’s friend and biographer who saw Caruso weeping backstage after singing Canio in Pagliacci. The great tenor said, “Caruso is a damn fool. He feels too much!” There are pictures of the Enrico Caruso postage stamp. I met Enrico Caruso Jr. (1904-1987) at the Postage Stamp ceremony in the late 1980’s at The Metropolitan Opera House. We attended with friends the late Cuban-American baritone and Caruso aficionado Alfredo and his wife Audrey Villoldo. Enrico Caruso Jr. age 82 died a few weeks later (April 9, 1987) He too, was a lovely man – R.I.P!

Caruso Stamp – 1987

On pages 86 and 87 are the richest and most poignant gift. It is the last photo taken of Caruso on July 19, 1921 in Sorrento, Italy where he went after partially recovering from his illness. (Lifting his robe and showing his still painful wounds in a photo for Dr. Antonio Stella in New York) A piece of scenery fell on him at the Metropolitan Opera during a performance of Samson on December 3, 1920. He had pains on his side but the house doctor, Dr. Horowitz said it was merely intercostal (between two ribs) neuralgia and taped him up. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in Elisir D’amore on December 11th, 1920, Enrico Caruso began bleeding from his throat and the audience begged him to stop. He collapsed backstage and Met Manager Gatti-Casazza said he had an apparition that this was the end. Surprisingly, Caruso sang three times more in great pain, at the Met that month.

Aldo & Lisa Mancusi & Italian Caruso Family

On December 24th, 1920 Caruso sang Eleazar in La Juive. The photographer Mishkin impulsively took his picture backstage and that was Caruso’s last photo at the Met. That night, Caruso went to his apartment for Christmas supper and began screaming in pain. He was heard many floors below. The doctors operated on him several times, removing a rib, probing deep areas of infection and a lifesaving transfusion. After the transfusion Caruso asked, “Am I still Italian?” Straw was added to the streets below his apartment so that sounds of horse or car traffic would be silenced. Fifty pounds lighter Caruso, his bride Dorothy and baby Gloria sailed for Italy on The President Wilson on May 28, 1921 from Pier 7 in Brooklyn. He waved to the cheering crowds telling them he would come back “and sing, sing and sing!!!” This film footage still exists. Caruso spent a happy two months at the beautiful Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria in Sorrento, Italy. Friends took him on an exhausting tour of Pompeii and his late mother’s old doctor probed his wounds, possibly causing a relapse. Caruso sent a touching letter to Dr. Stella, who he remembered from New York telling him that he still had persistent pain in his side. He opened his robe for a photo of his wounds and sent them to Dr. Stella in America. Dr. Stella received the letter and photo the day after Caruso died. Caruso died on August 2, 1921 in the Hotel Vesuvio on the way to Naples for an operation. There is a caricature of Dr. Stella drawn by Caruso and a copy of his $15,850 dollar bill for the operation which was “shaved” of $850 at Caruso’s request donated to the Enrico Caruso Museum by Michael Sisca.

Enrico Caruso, Wife Dorothy & Daughter Gloria – May 28,1921
Leaving America for Naples, Italy Aboard the Woodrow Wilson
Brooklyn’s Pier 7

Aldo Mancusi received a copy of the letter and the photo, unexpectedly from a member of Dr. Stella’s family. They are mentioned in the book and it was very sad indeed. Penicillin, not yet discovered, would have saved him. But like Abraham Lincoln, Caruso died in his prime, no decline in his magnificent voice (Despite his heavy smoking of Egyptian cigarettes) and remains unsurpassed.

A few years ago in May 2011, Aldo Mancusi got a phone call from 92-year-old Dorothy Alleva from Brooklyn, NY telling Aldo that Enrico Caruso and his wife Dorothy were her godparents. Her parents, Ernesto and Micalina Alleva, owned a restaurant in Manhattan called Villa Manfredi. Caruso and Dorothy loved the restaurant and seeing that Micalina was pregnant said, “If it’s a girl and you name her Dorothy we will become her godparents – well, that is what happened. The baptism papers and photographs show it all. Even the beautiful dress that Dorothy Caruso purchased can be found at the Caruso Museum. Caruso was loved and that is only one small example of his kindness, generosity and largess.

Aldo’s museum, now thirty-five years old, evolved over time and when a tenant left, Aldo was able to use even more space and to give lectures. Artist Marguerite Celesia created a beautiful “sign in” book with Caruso as the Duke in Rigoletto on the front cover. I remember WQXR Opera radio host George Jellinek signing in. Aldo’s wonderful wife Lisa always supported and accompanied Mancusi to many Caruso areas in Naples where they befriended one and all. Many musical and political figures have attended the museum and Aldo Mancusi, like the great Caruso, is a “Commendatore” of the Italian Government. In 1997, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani helped Aldo celebrate Enrico Caruso Day at Merkin Hall in New York City where a proclamation was given. Great grandson Riccardo Caruso sang a Caruso favorite “M’appari” from Martha by Frederich Von Flotow.

Consul General Natalia Quintavalle,
Commendatore Aldo & Lisa Mancusi
Photo by Anton Evangelista

MetOpera tenor, Marcello Giordani, visited as did both Caruso families. Former Brooklyn Borough President, the ebullient Marty Markowitz listened to Caruso’s “Over There” at the museum with the former Italian Consul General Natalia Quintavalle.

The Sisca-Albanese Mini-Theatre at
The Enrico Caruso Museum

New York City Opera bass and Brooklynite neighbor the late Don Yule and his wife artist Jaye Adams visited the old phonographs and recordings and found them  to be a great source of fascination. The mini-theatre is named after Michael Sisca and Met Opera soprano Licia Albanese. (1909-2014) Licia Albanese also contributed her Madama Butterfly costume and other items from the Metropolitan Opera. Chairs and old Met Opera wall panelings were gifts from the late board members Enrico Aloi and Joseph Puglisi. They were fans and friends of the late soprano Rosa Ponselle who was a Caruso protege. There is a lovely photo taken by my wife Judy of Mme. Albanese at age 104 joyfully laughing to see her friends Aldo and Lisa Mancusi. A few decades before, the effervescent cable television opera host Lina del Tinto and husband Harry Demarsky introduced Aldo and Lisa to Judy and me and it was a wonderful moment.

Aldo Mancusi, Soprano Licia Albanese & Riccardo Caruso

Board member and opera lecturer Lou Barrella and his wife Kathleen, volunteered their talents and efforts for the museum; Giuseppe Sarcona and Maria Valenti helped to translate into Italian, Mancusi’s daughters Kim Collins and Cindy Borriello are valued board members and Anthony Mancino, artist and illustrator from The Readers Digest with his beloved wife Grace who is now with Caruso in Paradise.

Aldo Mancusi and board member, Vice President and author, David Mercaldo, PhD have created a mini-masterpiece in this beautifully written and crafted publication. Linda Mercaldo, like Lisa Mancusi gave their talented spouses the freedom of time to create this wonderful tribute to Enrico Caruso and we thank them for that! The book is almost 100 pages of memories, stories, photos, hopes and dreams, colors, caricatures. His over 200 recordings from “Celeste Aida” and “Pagliacci” to “O sole mio” and “Core ‘ngrato” with their message of loves joy and sadness bring out humanity to its fullest and make us all uplifted to a heavenly realm.

Enrico Caruso singing “Over There” at the Police Games, Sheepshead Bay Racetrack in Brooklyn on Labor Day 1918

Enrico Caruso, from Naples, Italy, conquered the world with “Vesti la Giubba,” the first million selling record. Caruso was held as an idol and example for the millions of Italian immigrants who were made proud by the voice of gold that emerged from the old phonograph horn to give them pride and hope. Not only the opera “swells” at the Metropolitan Opera where he sang over 600 performances in the house from 1903 until 1920, loved the man and the voice, but Caruso loved people of all backgrounds. The man on the street heard his big-hearted message of humanity through song through the Victor Record Company and his many personal kindnesses. Enrico Caruso sang over 20 performances at Brooklyn Academy of Music with the Met on tour and also sang at the police games and a Liberty Loan Rally at Sheepshead Bay Racetrack in Brooklyn on Labor Day 1918. Aldo Mancusi holds forth the banner that gave light to the world. The great sorrow remains that Enrico Caruso did not live long enough to enjoy his wife Dorothy and daughter Gloria. In the book, Aldo Mancusi takes Enrico Caruso on a tour of his museum and knows that he would be pleased.

Enrico Caruso convalescing on the balcony in Sorrento, Italy, July 5, 1921 one month before his death

The book is available through The Enrico Caruso Museum of America and you can email Commendatore Aldo Mancusi at [email protected]. Phone-718-368-3993. The seventy-five dollar price is a truly worthwhile investment! It is like a carriage ride to an exciting past, a past that still lives through the resounding voice of the great Enrico Caruso. This “foot in the past” surely gives hope for the future. Visit the museum by appointment only at 1942 East 19th Street in Brooklyn and see for yourself!






Elysium Between Two Continents Celebrates Its 31st Annual Erwin Piscator Award

Erwin Piscator House in Marburg, Germany

At the prestigious Lotos Club in New York City, Elysium between two Continents celebrated its 31st Annual Erwin Piscator Award. The luncheon on Thursday, April 5th honored J. T. Rogers, Broadway and political playwright and Jolana Blau, longtime Elysium supporter and its Vice President for her immense humanitarian efforts on behalf of arts and culture.

In the excellent program booklet, designed and edited by Michael Lahr, there is a message of greeting by The Lord Mayor of the University Town of Marburg, Germany where a house was opened in 2016 called the Erwin Piscator House entirely dedicated to culture. In Marburg, Erwin Piscator spent his formulative school years and after his return from exile in the United States. In 1951, he directed 4 plays with record attendance.” On behalf of the community of Marburg, I congratulate the honorary Piscator award recipient, the philanthropist Jolana Blau and this year’s Piscator award recipient, J.T. Rogers on this worthy distinction.” The booklet also had Best Wishes from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also sent a note of congratulations to J.T. Rogers and Jolana Blau.

Playwright/poet/ theatre director Bertolt Brecht said of his partner Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), “Piscator is the greatest theatre man of all time. He will leave a legacy which we should use.”

Maria Ley Piscator in front of the house dedicated to her husband

According to Erwin Piscator, “art only achieves its purpose when it contributes to the improvement of man” and “the purpose of theatre should not only be to teach us about the creative process, but to teach us of human relations, human behavior and capacities. It is to this task consciously and unconsciously, suggestively and descriptively, that the theatre is best suited.”

Images of Erwin Piscator

Gregorij H. von Leïtis, Founder and President of the Erwin Piscator Award and Michael Lahr, Chairman, work to benefit Elysium’s International Educational Programs in conjunction with The Lahr von Leïtis Academy and Archive that promotes “Art and Education without Borders.” These programs follow Erwin Piscator’s humanitarian goals to educate the next generation. Their light takes us out of a dark place. “Hate is a failure of Imagination” is a recurrent theme of Elysium and Gregorij von Leïtis and Michael Lahr have toured many countries to spread the word. They are like two brilliant planets that are a vital part of the positive success of our solar system.

The welcome followed by Gregorij H. von Leïtis, who truly relished seeing this beautiful afternoon develop with enlightenment like some wonderful garden of rare flowers.

Alexis Rodda opened the program with “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy) by Franz Schubert, with a text by Friedrich Schiller. Ms. Rodda’s splendid soprano soared and flooded the room with joyful abandon. Her excellent piano accompanist was Dan Franklin Smith.

From left: Heather Randall, Cesare L. Santeramo, Luna Kaufman & Mark Watson. Photo by Letizia Mariotti

Chairperson Heather Randall welcomed the audience. Her late great husband was actor Tony Randall, an opera lover, whose wonderful praiseworthy comments on America’s great baritone Leonard Warren were in author Mary Jane Phillips Matz’s extraordinary biography of the great Verdi baritone from the Bronx. Warren’s brilliant career ended with his sudden death onstage during a performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino at the Metropolitan Opera in March 1960. Tony Randall had a long, vibrant acting career including “The Odd Couple” and was a master actor, especially in light comedy, equally deserving of the praise he gave to others. Ms. Randall’s brief comments were much appreciated by her many friends and admirers.”

“Schiffahrt” with music by Egon Lustgarten transferred us to a salon, matching the treasures of the Lotos Club. Lush voiced Alexis Rodda and her fleet fingered accompanist Dan Franklin Smith, evoked a past era, perhaps of cognac and a good cigar (Or a pastry with a dollop of whipped cream and a cappuccino).

Among the guests were representatives of several illustrious consulates stationed in New York: Miroslav Rames, Consul General of the Czech Republic, Jens Janik, Deputy Consul General of Germany, Julius Pranevicius, Consul General of Lithuania and Karel Smekal, Deputy Consul General of the Czech Republic. Lya Friedrich Pfeifer, Vice Chairperson and President of the Max Kade Foundation has been a wonderful supporter of Elysium between two continents as well as Mrs. E.L. Doctorow, whose brilliant late husband wrote Ragtime & Louise Kerz Hirschfeld Cullman, whose late husband was the illustrious illustrator/caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, whose works are all over Sardi’s Restaurant on Broadway in the theatre district and many other venues.

From left: Judy Pantano, Cesare L. Santeramo, Nino Pantano, Helen Doctorow, Edna Greenwich & Dwight Owsley. Photo by Letizia Mariotti

The elegant Michael Lahr made the introduction of André Bishop, Artistic Director of Lincoln Center Theatre, who was to make the award to famed playwright J.T. Rogers. Since Bartlett Scher, the international director of theatre and opera could not attend, Mr. Bishop happily filled in with an inspiring tribute to J.T. Rogers. Rogers gave a brief but truly touching response to an award that represents a lifetime of observing and creating plays such as the award winning Oslo at Lincoln Center and then Broadway and London that not only moved people, but in the right direction. His works have been staged throughout the United States and other venues and Rogers has received many acknowledgments of his work. Gregorij H. von Leïtis also spoke eloquently of the importance of such performances as Oslo and Blood and Gifts, which are in the tradition of Erwin Piscator. Judy and I chatted briefly with J.T. Rogers and he was the epitome of bonhomie and effervescence.

André Bishop, Gregorij von Leïtis & J. T. Rogers. Photo by Letizia Mariotti

Michael Lahr then introduced distinguished Chev. Cesare L. Santeramo, who along with his lifetime partner Dr. Robert Campbell, have been at the fore of generosity of spirit and time and are lionized by all who know them. Cesare Santeramo introduced the awardee, Jolana Blau. Mr. Santeramo was a tenor of renown with the New Jersey State Opera and active with the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation. He also held a high position with Western Electric. His versatile career also included the Board of Opera Index, Let there be hope and Polish Assistance of New York. His is a vital and vibrant presence a past winner of the Piscator award, ever chic and ever head over heels with life, music and helping those in need.

Jolana Blau, a concentration camp survivor, who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, was liberated in 1945.”It is so important to remember – therefore I am grateful for the work that Elysium is doing. The younger generation, through Elysium’s programs must learn the lessons from history.” Jolana Blau was awarded the Honorary Erwin Piscator Award in memory of Maria Ley Piscator – Erwin Piscator’s wife. After the Prague Spring in 1968, Jolana Blau and her daughter Simona, emigrated via Austria to the United States in 1972. Jolana married Vojtech Blau an antique rug and tapestry dealer whose company supplied rugs and tapestries worldwide and also to the White house. After Vojtech’s death in 2000, Simona Blau managed the company privately. Vojtech himself was also in a concentration camp. The labyrinth paths and twists of fate are written in the sands of time. It was a pleasure to meet Jolana Blau’s charming and appreciative two daughters, daughter- in-law and family. Kathryn Hausman, accompanied by two friends, presented Ms. Blau with a lovely floral bouquet.

From left: Gregorij von Leïtis, Jolana Blau & Cesare L. Santeramo. Photo by Letizia Mariotti

Soprano Alexis Rodda sang “Spiel auf Deiner Geige” by Robert Stolz with joyful abandon and dance “Here on the banks of the blue Danube, here in the beautiful Hungarian land, one sings other songs while drinking Tokay” (text by Alfred Grünwald/Ludwig Herzer and translation by Michael Lahr) and brilliantly accompanied by Dan Franklin Smith. Ms. Rodda was a vocal symbol of the strength and resilience of her songs. They spoke for the winners past and present who, despite obstacles beyond belief, have emerged with messages of freedom of expression and universal love.

Legendary Opera Soprano Elinor Ross & Michael Lahr. Photo by Letizia Mariotti

The names Gregorij H. von Leïtis and Michael Lahr are exalted and they are revered during their lifetimes. They are a force for the good. I leave with a quote from Gregorij H. von Leïtis, “I thank each of our honorees for the Erwin Piscator and Maria Ley Piscator awards, our guests, at the 31st Erwin Piscator award luncheon, our supporters friends and colleagues who join us on our way to create a world of creative and educational exchange and mutual friendship between the people of the United States and the world.” The award winners are immersed in their life’s work but hearing the praise will keep them aware that there are those who applaud, care and are motivated to do the right thing.

As we finished our delicious luncheon and went out into the chill of an uncertain April, we know that, thanks to Elysium – between two continents, Spring will come and the warmth of enlightenment will give us peace, joy and creativity in a milder, more gentle and giving world.






Sarasota Opera Presents Bellini’s Norma

The Sarasota Opera presented a thrilling first performance of Norma by Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) who created this masterpiece with librettist Felice Romani. The opera is both tuneful and full of conflict and truly different in a new and revolutionary way. The combination of chorus, aria and cabaletta, a fast aria after the lyrical passages that brings the passage to a dramatic trilling and thrilling usually with a high note finale. Norma had an abundance of melodic sweep made for what was seemingly a fiasco but became a much loved “must see” hit in the opera world preceding Verdi but with strong hints of a new direction for opera. Norma had its world premiere at La Scala in Milan, Italy on December 26th, 1831. Bellini’s early death was tragic indeed, but like Mozart or Brooklyn’s George Gershwin, what he accomplished in his short life was eternal.

My first Norma was at The Metropolitan Opera, (MetOpera) circa 1956 with Mario Del Monaco and Maria Callas. Callas was vocally unsteady, but visually captivating even then, but Del Monaco as Pollione revealed a voice of heroic mettle and Herculean thrust.

The Winter Festival of 2018 at the beautiful William E. Schmidt Opera Theatre at the Sarasota Opera on the afternoon of Saturday, March 17th, was indeed special by its first airing of this incredible work. Maestro Victor DeRenzi, looking as elegant as his photo on Verdi Place in the impressive souvenir program and an imposing sculpted bust of him in the theatre, raised his baton and the world stood still. The final words in his program message were, “We work hard to create a performance and we love what we do! We want you to enjoy it and to love it as much as we do.”

After the spirited overture, we see a stage evolve into brilliant color. Suddenly, we were in Gaul during the Roman occupation. It was like coming out of cataract surgery and seeing the world with colors you forgot existed. Cameron Schutza, truly as Pollione, looked the warrior in his colorful costume. Mr. Schutza has a very fine tenor with metallic grace and sang heroically.

Cameron Schutza as Pollione (left) & Thomas Massey as Flavio. Photo by Rod Millington.

Mr. Schutza whose tenor was of more modest means than the stentorian Del Monaco had a fine reliable instrument that gave warrior resonance to his arias and certainly heroic flair to “Svanir le voci” which was very well done. His lyrical passages were also present enough to evoke sympathy for his character. Some of Bellini’s “choppy” war like passages were like Betty Davis “a bumpy ride” before a triumphant take off. “Me protege, me defende.” Mr. Schutza was indeed a force as Pollione and one I shall remember. I still can’t understand why he strays unto fiery death with Norma and becomes a prosciutto Pollione when he played with two women so casually earlier. But that’s opera! Pollione fathered two children with Norma and then became lover to her best friend Adalgisa and he is a detested Roman also. George Costanza was accused of “double dipping” in Seinfeld but Pollione is even worse!

Oroveso, Norma’s father, the Chief Druid, was in the presence of Young Bok Kim. Mr. Kim has a moderate sized lyrical basso with an amazing quality of emotion in it. His expressive eyes and face were part of an ensemble of humanity. His opening aria “Ite sul colle o Druidi!” showed how much Mr. Kim is able to get from his vocal arsenal. His final scene with Norma,”O in te, ritorna” was like a rainbow of turmoil from anger to acceptance. A truly impressive and passionate performance.

Oroveso Chief Druid (Young Bok Kim – left in blue). Photo by Rod Millington.

Norma the Druidess, was Joanna Parisi. This was her first performance of this brilliant opera. I have heard Callas, Caballe, Milanov, Sutherland and Jane Eaglen in this unique role and I rate Ms. Parisi very high both vocally and dramatically. Ms. Parisi was a wonderful Butterfly with the Sarasota Opera last season, so I know she has the “goods.” Her Norma seemed to have, as it should, a dual personality both in voice and as a person. She would suddenly go up and come down to a Hades like low or go up and touch the hem of the gods “non so, diversi, affetti”. One thing prevailed, love, and deepened her humanity. Her decision to be the “guilty” one and join Pollione in the fire but making certain that her children are raised by Oroveso was that of a woman and a mother.

Joanna Parisi, Druidess (center in green) as Norma. Photo by Rod Millington.

Casta Diva, quite possibly the most beautiful music ever written, was sung divinely. When the chorus joined in, as Norma, under the light of the moon, delivers sacred mistletoe and flowers, one is transformed to another world until Bellini, through Norma, sets you down. Norma’s (Joanna Parisi) confrontational scenes with Adalgisa were angry, then compassionate and their scenes together were quite exciting. Legendary soprano and Norma, Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981) made a famous recording of “Mira O Norma” with mezzo Marion Telva in 1927 (as well as her own glorious Casta Diva) and captured the vitality and melody of this soprano-mezzo duet and triumphed!

Jennifer Black, Cameron Schutza & Joanna Parisi. Photo by Rod Millington.

Adalgisa was portrayed by Jennifer Black. Ms. Black has a truly radiant soprano voice and I did not hear any dark tones overshadowing the bright freer ones. She sang beautifully, with passion and was particularly-engaging in the Mira-Norma duet. She and Ms. Parisi  were outstanding in their long scenes together, “Salva mi, dal mio cor” with plenty of the coloratura, fioritura, and vocal variations of the day sung to illuminating perfection in the Bellinian style. Verdi admired Bellini, who set the musical world in a firmer more cohesive direction.

Norma (Joanna Parisi) with children. Photo by Rod Millington.

A personal aside, the Sarasota audiences are wonderful and knowledgeable, but why did Casta Diva not get the deserved ovation – or Mira o Norma? I don’t think audiences in general  are that aware of Bellinian music and they should be exposed more to it so they can properly applaud, and cry “Brava, Bravo, Bravi!”

Nicole Woodward (Studio artist) was a noticeable Clothilde, Norma’s confidant. Her rich mezzo was ear worthy and savored.

Thomas Massey (Studio artist) was Pollione’s friend Flavio and revealed a strong tenor and good stage presence.

Norma’s children were both excellent and brave enough – no wonder they happily survived her tantrum.

Adalgisa (Jennifer Black) & Norma (Joanna Parisi). Photo by Rod Millington.

Music director and Maestro Victor DeRenzi gave Bellini a truly brilliant reading from the overture to the incredible finale. The excellent musicians are much appreciated for their treasured efforts. Kudos also to Mark Freiman, Stage director for his easy to follow, brilliant and thoroughly digestible and memorable episodes on stage.

Oroveso Chief Druid (Young Bok Kim) center in white & Norma (Joanna Parisi) & Pollione (Cameron Schutza) on right. Photo by Rod Millington.

Scenic designer Michael Schweilkhardt for the brightness of his designs and the clarity of purpose-easy on the eye dazzling as a spectacle.

Costume designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s triumphant ware for Pollione and outstanding costumes for Norma as a leader and as a woman.

Ken Yunker’s lighting design was both vibrant and at the finale full of impact and flame.

Hair and make up were by Brittany Rappise-subtle and striking but never overdone.

The chorus excelled under Roger L. Bingaman. The Casta Diva and “Guerra, Guerra” episodes were quite thrilling.

The subtitles by Victor DeRenzi are helpful and informative. (by Words and music)

I always think of Norma when dining in a fine Italian (Sicilian) restaurant. Order Pasta Norma, it was Bellini’s favorite dish. Pasta, tomato sauce, eggplant slices topped both with ricotta insalata cheese. It represents Mount Etna and like Norma – it is a masterpiece! (Albeit a culinary one)

Executive Director Richard Russell who once  resided in Brooklyn wrote in the beautiful program article featuring “Opera can transform our souls.” We chatted with our neighbor Greg Trupiano, longtime Director of Artistic Administration. Ready for a nearby ice cream at “The Farmacy” in Brooklyn, Greg? We missed Sam Lowry, former Park Slope resident who heads Audience Development and thank him for his assistance. It was nice to chat with opera lover, August Ventura and his charming vibrant mother Romola and their friends from Brooklyn. Ventura was showing excerpts from his forthcoming Verdi film and the opera Luisa Miller at the opera house that week.

If its great opera that you want to see
Come to beautiful Sarasota – like Judy and me!
Whether it be comedy or catastrophe,
They will shine like magic with Victor DeRenzi and his splendid company!

A Thrilling Performance of Madama Butterfly at the Regina Opera

On the afternoon of Saturday, March 10th, Brooklyn’s Regina Opera, located in Sunset Park, and in its 48th season, presented a thrilling performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. As soon as the house lights dimmed, we were suddenly in Nagasaki, Japan in 1904. Goro, a marriage broker, shows off a new house to American naval officer Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton who has just leased it for his upcoming marriage to Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) the geisha.

The translations for the wall hangings in each act are: Act One “Joy and Love,” Act Two “Sorrow and Hope” and Act Three “Horror and Death.” Three ladies in black represent Bunraku puppets and called Kuroko, are supposedly invisible to the audience and do everything from filling and serving a cup of tea, to handing Cio-Cio-San the knife that kills her.

The stage was ablaze with action, color and mayhem. There were colorful umbrellas and brilliant costumes and we become acquainted with the characters. The composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) and his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa witnessed an opening night fiasco on February 17, 1904 when the audience rioted. Puccini re-wrote Pinkerton’s part giving him an aria of “Remorse” (Addio fiorito asil), and making him a much more sympathetic character. Even today some audiences boo him because of his callous indifference to his young geisha bride, who converted to Christianity and could never accept the notion of his not returning to her.

Puccini kept working on Madama Butterfly and came to America to oversee its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House on February 7, 1907 with the immortal tenor Enrico Caruso as Pinkerton (1873-1921) and American soprano Geraldine Farrar as Cio-Cio-San. Both Caruso and Emmy Destinn sang Butterfly in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on November 22, 1910 with the Met on tour. Caruso and Farrar also recorded excerpts from the opera that are available today on CD.

Madama Butterfly (Megan Nielson) with wedding party. Photo by James Burger

The beginning of the first act shows Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy singing with U.S. Consul Sharpless “Amore o grillo dir non saprei” with toasts to Pinkerton on his wedding, with the horns playing the Star Spangled Banner. Kevin Rockover as Sharpless was afraid that Pinkerton was too frivolous towards the marriage and that his 15 year old bride might be taking it too seriously. Mr. Rockover sang with a truly fine manly baritone with warmth, prescience and diplomacy.

The Marriage broker Goro (Tai Collins, center in yellow). Photo by James Burger

Jerett Gieseler revealed a splendid American tenor (Eugene Conley’s name pops up) who also looked the part. His ringing tones in the National Anthem portions were quite exciting and I found it hard to believe that Gieseler was a baritone until recently. The great heldentenor and MGM film star Lauritz Melchior was a baritone for 6 years and a world famous tenor afterwards (1890-1973). Mr. Gieseler sang eloquently throughout with abundance of solid, easy ascents. His handling the very end of the love duet (Ah! Quanti occhi fisi) was fine; he sang with relative ease and held the final C with passion and ecstasy. In the third act, his remorseful “Addio fiorito asil” was quite touching although one never really believes it – especially when compared to the composers first version. Jerett Gieseler was a very credible Pinkerton with a very promising tenor career to come.

Marriage of Madama Butterfly (Megan Nielson) & Pinkerton (Jerett Gieseler). Photo by James Burger

Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), a geisha, was portrayed by soprano Megan Nielson. Her entrance aria “Ancora un passo” was sung with a lovely, stylish and youthful abandon as she and the wedding guests walked over the bridge with colorful umbrellas creating an image for the memory. In “Ieri son salita,” Cio-Cio-San reveals that she has embraced Pinkerton’s religion. All the while her voice denotes innocence, not using the “baby tones” of many past Italian Butterfly’s. Is her image to Pinkerton, she queries, of a butterfly pinned to the wall by her captor? The Bonze, her uncle appears suddenly and denounces Butterfly for abandoning the religion of her ancestors. Kofi Hayford used his impressive basso to make his point and abruptly left the ceremony with family members.

Kofi Hayford on the bridge as The Bonze – Butterfly’s Uncle Denouncing her for giving up her religion. Photo by James Burger

In “Bimba dagli occhi,” the famous love duet, Butterfly blended beautifully with Pinkerton and was swept away with his passion. They are finally united in love. Ms. Nielson’s voice was passionate and powerful and bright as a blossom.

Pinkerton & Butterfly’s wedding night (Bunraku puppets in black). Photo by James Burger

In Act 2, Pinkerton has been gone for three years and Suzuki, Butterfly’s servant, portrayed by Hannah Kramer, doubts he will return. Cio-Cio-San (Megan Nielson) then sings the iconic aria “Un Bel Di” Butterfly with the hope that the sweeter the voice, the heavier the despair. Her voice retained its sweetness until the finale, when, in a tsunami of passion, she ascended the higher notes of the finale and received an ovation.

Sharpless surprisingly visits Butterfly and tries to read her a letter from Pinkerton “Ora a noi” but she simply shuts down and refuses to accept even the thought that Pinkerton will not return. In “Sai cos’ebbe cuore,” she would rather die than go back to being a geisha. She shows Sharpless her and Pinkerton’s child, “Sorrow”

Left- Suzuki (Hannah Kramer) & Butterfly (Megan Nielson) with child Sorrow (Sabrina Seweryn). Photo by James Burger

Sharpless was correct when he sang the words “Diavolo Pinkerton” just as Suzuki was when she sang “Povero Butterfly.” Sharpless seemed angry when Pinkerton was excited about marrying Cio-Cio-San who admittedly is only 15. (An old 15) as she stated.

The famed “Flower duet” followed with Butterfly and Suzuki preparing for Pinkerton’s ship as it enters the harbor. As they sing the “Flower duet” and fill the house with blossoms, with “Sorrow” seated nearby, the vocal blend was heavenly. Ms. Nielson’s soaring soprano and Ms. Kramer’s luscious mezzo took us all to the land of milk and plenty from an emotional land of silk and empty. The gorgeous sounds of the Regina Opera chorus made that moment a sacred one.

Scattering blossoms are Suzuki (Hannah Kramer) & Butterfly (Megan Nielson) with Bunraku’s preparing for Pinkerton’s arrival. Photo by James Burger

The final scene has a lovely interlude. Alexandra Felipe, was the dream Bonze, Susannah Booth was the colorful dream dragon and Yoko Yamashita as the beautiful and graceful dream Butterfly.

Dream sequence with Bunraku. Photo by James Burger

Maestro Gregory Ortega and the Regina Opera Orchestra took us on an incredible journey! There was a large transparent American flag and so many dazzling dreamlike images.

The last act has Pinkerton returning with his American wife, Kate, sung by Mary Gwynne Langston, who have come to Japan to adopt “Sorrow”. Pinkerton and Sharpless sing a dirge-like melody, haunting and sad. Butterfly meets Kate briefly and then rushes inside to be with Sorrow.

Meeting of Butterfly (Megan Nielson) & Kate (Mary Gwynne Langston), with Sharpless (Kevin Rockover). Photo by James Burger

Pinkerton sings his “Addio fiorito asil” with tenderness and thrilling high notes, and runs off. Butterfly blindfolds Sorrow and quotes her late father’s suicide note.”Better to die with honor than live with dishonor.” The Bunraki give her the knife and wrap her in red – the deed is done, with the red banners shimmering as Pinkerton runs toward the dead Butterfly calling her name. A huge discord note with the Death theme ends the opera, which was followed by an ovation from the emotional and deeply moved audience.

Death of Butterfly – Pinkerton (Jerett Gieseler), Sharpless (Kevin Rockover) with Sorrow (Sabrina Seweryn) & Bunraku. Photo by James Burger

The other characters who deserve very honorable mention: Tai Collins was a robust voiced tenor and dynamic animated Goro; Prince Yamadori, a suitor, was in the patient, versatile, and comical hands of dark voiced Grant Mech; Kate Pinkerton, Mary Gwynne Langston, was touching in her brief but imposing role; Thomas Geib was an able Imperial Commissioner, with Davis Tillistrand as the Registrar, and adorable Sabrina Seweryn as “Sorrow”. Special plaudits to the Kuroko: Wendy Chu (Dream Pinkerton), Alexandra Felipe (Dream Bonze) and Susanna Booth (Dream Dragon).

Saori Morris’ make up and wig design was fabulous! Credit goes to Jahn Visone, an excellent make-up artist, and Yoko Yamashita a wonderful – Japanese movement consultant. It was so nice to see the lovely and familiar faces of Cathy Greco and Shelley Barkan from the ensemble, among the Choristers and actresses who are such a vital part of the scene.

Maestro and Music Director Gregory Ortega led the Regina Orchestra of nearly 40 superb musicians who gave us a Butterfly to remember always. The late beloved founder of the Regina Opera, Marie Cantoni, I am certain would say from her heavenly perch, “Wow, that’s quite a show!”

Kudos to President and Producer Fran Garber-Cohen, Linda Cantoni (who provided the supertitles), and Principal Stage Director Linda Lehr, who brought us a magnificent and brilliant slice of life from the past that still breaks the heart and thrills the soul, in a new and special way. Compliments go to Marcia Kresge’s magnificent and beautiful costumes, and to Regina’s Vice President Elena Jannicelli-Sandella, whose publicity helped to fill the theater. Many a person emailed me saying it was one of the very best Madama Butterfly’s ever – unforgettable and vibrant! Bravo Regina Opera! Here’s to their first Aida in May.