Regina Opera Presents a Stirring Il Trovatore

Saturday afternoon on May 11th became one to remember always with the first of four Il Trovatore’s held at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Auditorium in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Il Trovatore premiered in Rome, Italy in 1853. The libretto is by Salvatore Cammarano and is one of three masterpieces composed by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) in that time period – the other two were La Traviata and Rigoletto. Il Trovatore is set in 15th century Spain during a civil war between the provinces after a play by Antonio García Gutiérrez.

Ferrando (Adam Cioffari, center) tells the soldiers about Azucena’s mother’s horrific death. Photo by Marianna Coleman

Conductor Gregory Ortega stepped to the podium and the opera began. A few vibrant, heavy chords and the curtain rose with Ferrando (Captain of the Guard) telling the story of the Gypsy (“Udite, udite”) to his rapt and horrified men.  Adam Cioffari had a powerful and vibrant basso voice that, coupled with precision and dramatic flair, made for a very strong opening to the opera. Immortal basso Ezio Pinza (1892-1957) made a recording of this and it was like a storytellers passage to those who heard it. Cioffari continues a great tradition.

The young lovers Leonora (Alexis Cregger, left) and Troubador, Manrico (Christopher Trapani, right). Photo by Hannah Stampleman

Count di Luna and Manrico are sworn enemies and both are in love with Leonora, the Queen’s lady in waiting. Manrico’s “Mother” is Azucena. In a rage over her own Mother’s death at the stake for witchcraft, ordered by the prior Count di Luna, Azucena kidnapped the Count di Luna’s baby.  However, crazed, Azucena threw her own baby into the fire instead of the royal baby, and raised Manrico as her own. Manrico is the troubador who serenades Leonora and arouses the jealous fury of the current Count di Luna. Di Luna’s singing of “Il trovator – io fremo” (The Troubador – I am trembling!)  

Azucena (Lara Tillotson, far left) describes the horrific scene in which she avenges her mother’s death by throwing the previous Count’s baby into a fire. Photo by Steven Pisano

Manrico, the Troubador, was rising tenor Christopher Trapani.  Mr. Trapani has a voice that is even in quality, gathers more freedom in the upper registers and is compelling in the middle and lower registers. His rhapsodic singing of “Ah! si ben mio”  in Act Three Scene Two revealed a first class tenor at his best with finely sung melody: thrilling, passionate, lyrical passages, superb legato, and an impassioned finale. Some trills added to the refined outpouring, one of the best in memory. This was followed by  “Di quella pira” which was sung with fury, fire and brimstone culminating with two superbly hit and held high C’s. “Non son tuo figlio” with Azucena in Verdian harmony. I was fortunate to see and hear magnificent tenor Franco Corelli as a superb and dashing Manrico, soprano Zinka Milanov as a marvelous Leonora, and the brilliant Leonard Warren as Count di Luna. I recall Fedora Barbieri as Azucena and Fiorenza Cossotto in some other performance. The Regina Opera performance was very satisfying on every level. Great singers of the past echoed in their superb voices.  

Leonora (left) & her attendant Ines (Aida Carducci). Photo by Steven Pisano

Leonora, the Queen’s lady-in-waiting was sung by  soprano Alexis Cregger. Her performance as Leonora was like a time capsule transferring me to the old Met in its golden age. Ms. Cregger sings with beauty of tone sudden optional high notes that thrill and a flowing legato that makes one float in ecstasy. Her superb singing of  “Tacea la notte placida” and its cabaletta evoked Met divas Zinka Milanov and Montserrat Caballé in its soaring and lyrical outbursts (Act One Scene Two) and her stunningly beautiful Act Four aria “D’amor sull’ali rosee” ravished the ear of the listener. Her ascending notes and floating “highs” plus her interpolated highs were like extra scoops of ice cream for a sweet deprived opera kid.  Ms. Cregger’s duet with di Luna, “Mira, di acerbe lagrime” and “Vivrà! contende il giubilo”, was thrilling. Her “Miserere” duet with Manrico as a group of monks marched by was heavenly. As a youth, I listened to immortal tenor Enrico Caruso and Mme. Frances Alda sing “Miserere” on an old 78 recording. Caruso sang Il Trovatore at the MetOpera in 1906 and his recording of “Di quella pira” is a sensation as is his “Ah! si ben mio”.  Ms. Creggar’s death scene was beautifully done, evoking great sympathy. Alexis Cregger has shown the world her beautiful Leonora – she is a blessing.

Leonora escaping advances by Count Di Luna. Photo by Steven Pisano

Count di Luna was robustly and brilliantly sung by baritone Nathan Matticks. His sublime singing of “Il balen del suo sorriso” was perhaps the opposite of the great Leonard Warren’s heavenly lyrical outpourings; but Matticks’ di Luna was more inherently evil, and the great love that is the melody of this aria was more obsessive. Mr. Matticks dark Iago-like passion, was bordering on dangerous. A truly exciting di Luna. When Manrico is beheaded and Azucena tells him he just killed his own  brother, Count di Luna says in horror “E vivo encore”- (and still I live) the last line of this opera.

Azucena Avenged.  Photo by Steven Pisano

Azucena, a gypsy was sung by Lara Michole Tillotson.  Her mezzo-soprano had tremendous beauty and some stunning upper register notes that made us all heaven bound with burnished lows that made us see the dark past she endured. “Stride la vampa!” was magnificently sung, and her cries of “Figlio Mio” were emotionally shattering. Her final duet with Manrico, “Ai nostri monti” was pure and full of longing. Her laughter after singing that her Mother is now avenged was like a female Mephisto.

Manrico, the troubador,  Christopher Trapani finds Leonora (Alexis Cregger,) who has taken poison rather than marry Count Di Luna.   Photo by Steven Pisano 

Leonora’s attendant Ines, was sung by Aida Carducci, who evoked the proper concern and sympathy for her lady. Her warm soprano was indicative of good potential, and she was really a solid and vital  singer.
Chance Polic was an able and dependable Lieutenant to Manrico. His strong tenor was impressive.      

Count di Luna (Nathan Matticks,) finds Leonora (Alexis Cregger,) dead from poison. Photo by Cameron Smith

Baritone Rick Agster as an old Gypsy sang with finesse and flair and tenor Andrew Watt made his mark as a messenger.

The Chorus sang with warm friendly and spirited tone and it was so nice to see outstanding chorister Cathy Greco among the gypsies.

Conductor Maestro Gregory Ortega got excellent results from the 33 splendid musicians in the Regina Orchestra. The gypsy song of the Anvil Chorus  aroused the audience with its iconic familiarity. Azucena’s themes were heightened by the horror ever lurking in the music. Kudos to chimes player, percussionist Miguel Tepale, and to Concertmaster Christopher Joyal.  Bravi to all the musicians and Maestro Ortega for this glorious music of Giuseppe Verdi.

Linda Lehr, the Stage director and Set designer, gave Il Trovatore’s great characters room to maneuver, threaten, fight, love and die with clear focus. The “Miserere” was so impressive visually and vocally, that the image is retained in my mind. The fight scenes were right out of some MGM spectacular.

Rob Aronowitz was the superb fight choreographer and the outstanding duel and armor scenes stood out with their muscle flexing swordplay. Ms. Lehr almost brought the late British actor Basil Rathbone back for some Robin Hood villainous swordplay. I once saw Basil Rathbone hailing a cab as part of the crowd of opera goers, in front of the Metropolitan Opera with his deep unforgettable voice calling “Taxi, Taxi.”

The costumes by Marcia C. Kresge were perfection. Leonora’s gowns were magical and Count Di Luna’s outfits regal. The gypsies were colorful and Manrico heroic. Kudos to Make-up and Wig Artist Saori Morris.

So nice to see Regina Opera’s President Francine Garber-Cohen; Executive Vice President Linda Cantoni; Treasurer Joseph Delfausse; Elena Jannicelli-Sandella, Vice President;  and Box Office volunteer Marlene Ventimiglia, who keep us all comfortable and seated. Our group went to Casa Vieja Restaurant nearby for a lovely and lively Mexican dinner. Sunset Park is ablaze with hope and promise!

This is the last opera of the Regina Opera’s 49th season. We look forward to the glorious 50th upcoming season.

Gracie Square Hospital’s 60th Anniversary Celebration

On the evening of Thursday, May 2nd, Gracie Square Hospital’s held its 60th Anniversary Celebration at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. The hospital is located on the Upper East Side and was founded by Cynthia, Richard and Lawrence of the Zirinsky family in 1959. 

Left to right: Philip J. Wilner, MD, Bill Zirinsky, Susan Zirinsky,  John Zirinsky, David A. Wyman, MPA Gracie Square Hospital’s 60th Anniversary Celebration. Photo by Eve Vagg

David A. Wyman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Gracie Square Hospital, spoke at the reception and he mentioned that since 1959 the Hospital’s main focus is to be patient centered to alleviate behavioral health issues and give peace of mind towards recovery. That is the enduring legacy of the Zirinsky family, who made a donation of one million dollars to the institution.

Dr. Steven J. Corwin, President and Chief Executive Officer of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, lauded the great contributions of the Zirinsky family for four generations, and discussed the importance of treating mental health. One out of five Americans are touched by mental health disorders.

A video presentation showing the holistic approach of compassionate health care the patients receive and the tremendous humanitarian assistance of the Zirinsky family was well received.

Susan Zirinsky, President and Senior Executive Producer of CBS News spoke of her mother, Cynthia Zirinsky, who because of illness could not attend. She said, “she is my hero, Mother we salute you. We are in awe of you and your belief that where medical skills and warm hearted care bring peace of mind.”

The closing remarks were spoken by Dr. Philip J. Wilner, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of New York-Presbyterian Hospital Westchester Division and Chairman of the Board and Gracie Square Hospital.

How mental illness and its painful interruptions to a productive life were made vivid by the reading of a letter to David Wyman. The letter described the daughter of co-founder Lawrence Zirinsky – a fun-loving girl who was lively but dealt with sporadic issues of bipolar depression.  Founder Lawrence Zirinsky’s sons, John Zirinsky and Bill Zirinsky were also honored for the philanthropic support and were the proud recipients of “Champions” awards.  

Richard Fung, Marcelo & Alexei Remizov, Cesare Santeramo & honoree Dr. Robert J. Campbell.   Photo by Judy Pantano

Two other awardees were present. Lorinda P. de Roulet who has been on the Board of Trustees of Gracie Square Hospital since 1992, and a former President of the New York Mets from 1975 through 1980. She was the first woman to direct the day-to-day operations of a Major League Baseball franchise. Lorinda is the catalyst for creating a culture of philanthropy. She donated towards the Gracie Hospital’s Patient Rooftop Garden October 4, 2018 which opened with much fanfare and pride. Lorinda founded the Patrina Foundation, which supports education and social services for women.

Sachi Liebergesell, Dr. Robert Campbell, Cesare Santeramo & Jolana Blau. Photo by Judy Pantano

Robert Campbell M.D. KCSJ was Chief Medical Director of Gracie Square Hospital from 1977 through 2006. He is an advocate, educator, writer, spokesperson and scholar. Both he and his life partner since 1968, noted tenor and entrepreneur Sir Cesare Santeramo, were involved at Gracie Square as trusted advisers and faithful contributors, from 1953 through 2004. Dr. Campbell edited Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary known as the “Bible” of the mental health field. Dr. Campbell is a pioneer in Psychiatry and created newfound opportunities to improve the lives of those treated. We were happy to be in his presence for this award.

Dr. Jose Vito, Alexei Remizov, Maestro Eve Queler, Laura Scheuer, Joan Rosasco & Luna Kaufman (seated). Photo by Judy Pantano

We thank Cesare Santeramo, formerly a tenor of renown, our gracious host for allowing us this inside view that’s “On the side of the Angels,” a number sung in the musical Fiorello. A bit of Jeopardy type trivia, Fiorello La Guardia was the first New York City Mayor to occupy Gracie Mansion. (1942)  

The reception was as one would want in so splendid a setting. We were with our esteemed and dapper host tenor Cesare Santeramo and his other guests: pioneer conductor Eve Queler (Opera Orchestra of New York), Holocaust survivors Luna Kaufman, author and Jolana Blau, from Elysium-between two continents, Sachi Liebergesell, formerly President of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, noted baritone Mark Watson, fellow opera lovers Marcelo and Alexei Remizov, Dr. Jose Vito and Richard Fung. We also spotted Edna Greenwich and Dwight Owsley from OperaExposures among the revelers.

Edna Greenwich, Dwight Owsley & Judy Pantano

The delicious risotto with mushrooms and washed down with Italian sparkling water or Procesco added to the festive and joyful mood. It was nice to speak with so many proud Zirinsky’s. My wife Judy, had a nice chat with Susan Zirinsky, daughter of founder Cynthia Zirinsky. Susan is also President and Senior Executive Producer of CBS News where Judy’s father, Joseph Zigman, was Associate Producer on the CBS News with Walter Cronkrite. Susan checked it all out online and was fascinated with the history and we all took a selfie.

Judy Pantano, Susan Zirinsky & Nino Pantano
(A selfie taken by Susan Zirinsky)

The evening ended with some rain outside. What I expected to be a golden coach was an Access-A-Ride taxi-but deep inside we felt it was a ball, with lovely people and a great four generation family of Gracie Square Hospital that gives love and care to those in need.

Opera Index Spring Lunch

On Sunday, April 28, the weather was gloomy with intermittent periods of rain, but there was only bright sunshine in the Grand Salon of the JW Marriott Essex House that afternoon. The reason, Opera Index is honoring a very special couple, who never seem to not smile, – Brooklyn’s Judy and Nino Pantano. Nino has been covering Opera Index events for several years in articles printed in newspapers such as “The Italian Voice,” “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle/Brooklyn Discovery” and on “Opera L”, an online place for opera reviews and comments.  We then print the reviews in our “Opera Scene” newsletter with our photographer Judy’s pictures.

Caricature of Judy & Nino Pantano

The afternoon started with a spirited reception at noon with many familiar faces from the opera world. Photos and chats among family and friends was the highlight. We then moved into the Grand Salon for a delicious lunch. The program began with President Jane Shaulis greeting the guests and thanking all for their ongoing support.  In 2018, Opera Index gave a total of $55,000 to sixteen young singers. She introduced us to past Opera Index winner, mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn. Ms. Vaughn won her award in 1989 followed by her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1990 in Porgy and Bess. Her career has taken her to the major opera houses of the world and she was seen this season at the Metropolitan Opera in Dialogues of the Carmélites. She spoke how important the award was to her and how good that Opera Index has continued to help young singers.  

Joseph Gasperec & Jane Shaulis  
Photo by Judy Pantano

Then came the recital from three 2018 winners. Soprano Liv Redpath opened the recital with a shimmering “Salut de France” from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment. This was followed by bass Alex Rosen giving us a rich “La vendetta” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. The formal recital ended with soprano Claire de Monteil singing a silken “Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s Rusalka.  But there was more.  Claire then sang Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” in her native French.  The phrasing was gorgeous bringing out the meaning of the song – life as seen through rose-colored glasses. Having just seen Lady Gaga sing it in the movie A Star is Born, this surpassed that in beauty and artistry, a real musical treat. Then Alex sang Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” with a gentle rendering bringing out the words.  A rich and beautifully sung recital. We wish you all successful careers.

Pianist Keith Chambers, Claire de Monteil, Liv Redpath, Alex Rosen, & Jane Shaulis 

Photo by Judy Pantano

The honorees were introduced by their longtime friend, music educator and conductor Lou Barrella. He reminisced about his over thirty years relationship with them. Judy mentioned that she and Nino were shocked and honored to be considered by Opera Index for this special recognition and wondered who would write the review if Nino was on stage, but all was settled. Judy introduced their family: son Marcello, his wife Tatyana, grandson Luciano and granddaughter Leeza; and son James and grandson James junior (Jimmy) and Tatyana’s musical parents from Omsk, Siberia, Liubov and Nikolay Klitsenko. In her notes, Judy was to mention that Nino always has a wonderful way with words and she is proud that he has achieved acknowledgement in the opera world that he loves. It is exciting that all of the opera organizations work so had to promote the upcoming singers of the future. From the Three Kings in Amahl and the Night Visitors who expressed their gratitude to Amahl and his Mother for staying the night, Nino and I say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you kindly.”

Standing-Vito & Rosa Pietanza, Seated-Kathleen & Lou Barrella, Bill Goodhue, and Aldo Mancusi. Photo by Judy Pantano

After thanking the Opera Index family, Judy turned the podium over to Nino. Nino said he was thrilled to be the honoree with my wife Judy and felt like Harry Truman when he suddenly became President of the United States in 1945. Truman said he felt that “the moon, stars, and all the planets fell on him.”  When Truman’s daughter Margaret aspired to an operatic career, a critic gave her a bad very bad review. Truman said that he (the critic) had better wear iron underwear because if they ever met in an elevator, the critic would not forget Truman’s kick below the belt. Nino noted his prodigious beginning as a singer by winning on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and then being wooed by Paul Whiteman, who was known as the “King of Jazz”. For Nino, was it to be opera or popular music? But at age 13 and no real guidance like the support of foundations today, Nino gave it up for a “normal life” and eventually became a public school teacher. At age 39, he began his second career as a writer and lecturer and now Nino says he is content to let his fingers do the singing in support of young up and coming singers.

Judy & MaryAnn Pantano, Nikolay & Liubov Klitsenko, 
James, Nino, Leeza, Luciano, Marcello, Tatyana & Jimmy Pantano

A mention from Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka”, indicating that getting to “Ithaka” was not the main purpose in life but to enjoy the journey along the way.  Incidentally, Nino accidentally said “Attica,” which is an upstate prison, so we all had a good laugh. After expressing his appreciation to many in the opera world, Nino ended his speech with a quote from American poet Robert Frost – “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Martina Arroyo & Nino Pantano. Photo by Judy Pantano
Rosalind Elias, Anthony Laciura, Midge Woolsey, Judy Pantano & Joel Laciura
Mark Watson, Elaine Malbin, & Philip Hagemann. Photo by Judy Pantano

Thank you Judy and Nino for all you have done for Opera Index and opera. No article can be complete without a listing of the many special attendees from the opera world. From the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera were sopranos Martina Arroyo, Rosalind Elias, who was just honored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, Elaine Malbin, and Elinor Ross and tenor Anthony Laciura. From the world of opera were Maestro Eve Queler, foundation president Gloria Gari, the Martina Arroyo Foundation, Career Bridges founders David and Barbara Bender, Karl Michaelis and Michael Fornabaio from the Gerda Lissner Foundation, opera managers Ken Benson and Robert Lombardo, founder of the Enrico Caruso Museum Commendatore Aldo Mancusi, and composer Philip Hagemann. Long time Metropolitan Opera standee Lois Kirschenbaum also came to celebrate.

Christine Palladino, Karl Michaelis, Maestro Eve Queler, Michael Fornabaio & Alfred Palladino. Photo by Judy Pantano
Jane Shaulis, Murray Rosenthal, Philip Hagemann, James & Nino Pantano   
Photo by Judy Pantano
Nino Pantano, Marjan Kiepura, Anthony Laciura, & Dr. Anthony Abbate   
Photo by Midge Woolsey

After dessert, we had a surprise entertainment from Tatyana Pantano and her parents Liubov and Nikolay Klitsenko. They all sang two Russian folk songs with Nikolay on the bayan (accordion), a wonderful cap for this afternoon. All had such an enjoyable time that conversations went on for another hour. It was a very special event with great singing and very special honorees.

Liubov, Tatyana & Nikolay. Photo by Judy Pantano