Amore Opera Presents A Thrilling Un Ballo in Maschera

On the evening of Saturday, June 1st, the Amore Opera presented a thrilling Un Ballo in Maschera at the famed Riverside Church in New York City. Un Ballo in Maschera premiered at the Teatro Apollo in Rome, Italy on February 17, 1859. The music was composed by Giuseppe Verdi and libretto by Antonio Somma, based on Eugène Scribe’s libretto for Auber’s Gustave III. The censors in Italy objected to having a royal assassination and Verdi had the setting changed from Sweden to Boston, Massachusetts and King Gustave of Sweden became the Governor of Massachusetts. Both versions are given.

The Riverside theater is intimate and everything is up close and comfortable and the spirit of Anthony and Sally Amato is ever present. Anthony contributed costumes and sets from their home at the Amato Opera in the Bowery many years ago.

The lights dimmed and conductor Douglas Martin lifted his baton. The overture was beautifully played and the peak moments were thrilling. Musically, the overture ended and the action begins at the King’s Palace in Stockholm, Sweden in 1792. The assassination was historic  and the masked ball where it took place made for great theatre!

Center in black José Heredia as Riccardo, King; just left is Robert Garner as Renato, his secretary & best friend, & right in green trousers is Merrin Lazyan, Riccardo’s Page Oscar.  Photo by Jay Gould

Riccardo, the King of Sweden, is in love with Amelia, wife of his best friend Renato and his secretary. They all go to Ulrica the fortune teller, who tells Riccardo that he will be killed by the next man to shake his hand. Ironically it is Renato. They all laugh off the witch’s assumptions. To rid Amelia of her feelings of love for Riccardo, Ulrica recommends a special herb gathered at midnight by the gallows outside of town. Amelia is first interrupted by Riccardo, who declares his love for her and then by Renato. Renato tells Riccardo that there is a conspiracy to kill him. Renato discovers the veiled woman he has agreed to escort to safety is his own wife. He then decides to join the conspirators. At a masked ball, Oscar the page reveals his master’s identity to Renato who stabs Riccardo. Riccardo dies declaring Amelia’s innocence and forgiving his enemies as the crowd hails his noble spirit.

Ulrica (Sarah Knott) the witch at her cauldron muttering prophecies.  Photo by Jay Gould

Verdi’s music for Ballo is sophisticated and French Opera Comique with Falstaffian precursors and some real heel kicking can-can type music. Beautiful arias, duets and ensembles bursting with emotion and melody make for a splendid musical  feast.

Tenor José Heredia sang Riccardo (Based on Gustave III) This enchanting tenor from Santo Domingo was in excellent voice and bearing for this performance. Heredia has grown as an artist and his rhapsodic tenor has beauty, ease and upward promise. Bursts of glory prevailed with intelligent pacing and refined legato. His elegant singing of “Amici miei, soldati” and “La rivedrò nell’estaci” were well noted with effortless and powerful ascents.

Ulrica (Sarah Knott) the witch at her cauldron muttering incantations in front of a group of women.  Photo by Jay Gould

At Ulrica’s witches den, Riccardo sings “Di’ tu se fedele,” then laughs and starts the Quintet “È scherzo od è follia.” His combining rapid singing mixed with laughter was admirable.  Enrico Caruso, the magnificent tenor, made a recording of this on April 3, 1914 with other arias from Il Ballo – give it a google. Riccardo and Amelia were truly united in their captivating love duet “Non sai tu che se l’anima mia” with swirling heavenly music ending in a rhapsodic high C.

José Heredia as Riccardo & Elizabeth Perryman as Amelia, wife of Renato.  Photo by Jay Gould

In Act 3 Scene 2, Riccardo resolves to renounce his love and sings, “Ma se m’è forza perderti.” Heredia’s voice was beautifully secure and his middle register was a launching pad for some truly pristine notes. I have heard the great Carlo Bergonzi in this role as well as Luciano Pavarotti but José Heredia makes for a trio of great Riccardo’s. The squillo in his tone, the way he rides his voice to the upper chambers and the pleasing, plangent quality of his vocal palette, puts him is a position of rapid forward momentum toward international acclaim.

L-R Robert Garner as Renato, José Heredia as Riccardo & veiled Amelia, Elizabeth Perryman as wife of Renato.  Photo by Jay Gould

Amelia, wife of Renato, is in love with Riccardo and was sung by Elizabeth Perryman who possessed a bright powerful soprano. Her singing of “Ecco l’orrido campo” was of good strong caliber as was “Ma dall’ arido stele divulsa.” Her impassioned outbursts in her love duet with Riccardo, “Non sai tu che se lanima mia” were quite striking. Ms. Perryman sang “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” with abundant tone  and emotional fervor This aria really brings out the soul and torment of Amelia as she begs to see her son one more time. It is one of Verdi’s most compelling arias and she used her vocal gifts with clarity and precision. Ms. Perryman made this reviewer a merryman with her truly outstanding performance.

Amelia begging husband Renato to let her see their son.  Photo by Jay Gould

Renato, Riccardo’s secretary and best friend, was in the vocal treasure box of Robert Garner. Mr. Garner possessed a lyric baritone that can take one out of the commonplace and into the rare with its warmth and seductive beauty. In Act One he sings “Alla vita che l’arride” in a strong encompassing tone, warning Riccardo of a conspiracy. Mr. Garner does not possess a voice of leonine strength but it has ample sound, excellent breath control, strong legato and warmth to kill. His heartfelt singing of “Eri tu” wiped away the rage for the moment and exposed the vulnerable bleeding heart. When I was 13 and surprisingly a baritone, my voice teacher neighbor and mentor Bertha Lang, made me listen to a beautiful recording of the great American Opera and film baritone Lawrence Tibbett. (1896-1960) “Eri tu” was often sung in concert by Tibbett but he never sang it in the complete opera. Mr. Garner captured the rage, hurt and love of Renato and got an ovation.  

At the Masked Ball with Oscar the Page (Merrin Lazyan) in green trousers.  Photo by Jay Gould

Riccardo’s Page Oscar, a trouser role, was sung by clarion voiced coloratura soprano Merrin Lazyan. Her singing of “Volta la terrea” in the first act warmed the heart and thrilled the pulse with its versatility and quality. Her superb and lively singing of “Saper Vorreste” in the last act was super. I googled the legendary soprano Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940) whose marvelous gravity defying coloratura excesses were unrivaled. Google her 1909 and 1911 versions. Ms. Lazyan really sparkled in this role. The late great Francis Robinson, Metropolitan Opera press manager and Caruso biographer, once said he  would have loved to see the very rotund Tetrazzini as Oscar with her enormous girth and her legs wrapped in delicate ribbons. Ah, opera legends! Ms. Lazyan was also a fine actress and she gave bite, might and was so right as Oscar.

Riccardo after being stabbed at the Masked Ball.  Photo by Jay Gould

Ulrica the fortune teller, was played by Sarah Knott who was very striking in appearance and was truly witch like. She was more witch than bitch and her warnings fell on deaf ears. Her large bubbling cauldron led her to singing “Re dell’ abisso affrettati ” which was ominous and all hallows eve like and genuinely scary. Ms. Knott’s deep lows were subterranean as if conjuring the ghost of all things evil. Her final “Silencio!” came from the bowels of the earth as well as the vowels necessary to project. The effect is sheer magic. The legendary Marion Anderson (1897-1993) broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera near the end of her illustrious career by singing Ulrica in Un Il Ballo un Maschera. (With Richard Tucker and Leonard Warren) in 1955. She opened the door for such greats as Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo and others.

Riccardo dying at the hands of Renato, his best friend with Oscar the page behind him.  Photo by Jay Gould

The smaller roles were well portrayed and sung by bassos Nicholas Hay as Samuel and Gennady Vysotsky as Tom, conspirators and enemies of Riccardo. Their “Ha, ha, ha” arias were sung with relish. Jonathan Fox Powers, was Silvano a sailor and former New York City Opera tenor Roger Ohlsen was the Head Judge and skilled  baritone Thomas Geib was Amelia’s butler.

Robert Garner, Elizabeth Perryman & José Heredia
Photo by Judy Pantano

Douglas Martin, conductor and music director, brought the music to volcanic climaxes and heel kicking sensuality. The musicians worked hard and very skillfully to bring out the richness and drama of this score. The melodic output was opera comique and opera drama. Kudos to Jeffrey Kautz on tympani, so vital to the climaxes and our friend Scott Jackson Wiley on the horn. Scott is also a well known conductor, master of Spanish guitar and a Renaissance man.

Susan Morton, chorus master, brought the superb chorus to glory absolute with its full throated singing of “Cor si grande e generoso” before “Addio per sempre” in the last act. I recall the Roger Shaw Chorale in the recorded 1954 Un Ballo by the iconic and magnificent conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) with the NBC Symphony with famed tenor Jan Peerce, soprano Herva Nelli and great Brooklyn baritone Robert Merrill. The Roger Shaw Chorale brought tears to the eyes with the full voiced angelic sound as did Susan Morton and choristers at the Amore opera.

Stage Director Nathan Hull & Guest Connie Chen
Photo by Judy Pantano

Nathan Hull’s stage direction was like a great work of architecture; everyone in place with ease, visible and vivid. The wigs by Mary Rice were wondrous.The ingenious  Richard Cerullo from the original Amato Opera was in charge of the scenic design which was regal and ornate but absolutely accurate. The costumes were majestic, courtesy of Anthony Amato’s largesse and Robin Porter Van Sise. Plaudits to Duane Pagano, Lighting Director and Scenic Painter and Elias Cruz whose murals are captivating. The masks at the masquerade were colorful and eye catching, thanks to Allegra Durante’s mask design. The bravos and cheers were part of the era of good feeling inspired by such a grand opera evening.  

All of the artists received ovations from the wildly  appreciative audience. Our friend, financial adviser and opera lover Connie Chen who joined us, will be spending some time in Europe visiting opera in legendary places. To quote her, “But what could I see that is better than the Amore Opera right here and now?”

Tamie Laurance, José Heredia, Nino Pantano, Connie Chen & Judy Pantano

We congratulated vocal coach Tamie Laurance on the splendid performance of her student/protégé tenor José Heredia. We felt that we were present at the creation.

Here’s to the  next season and bravo to Nathan Hull and all at the amazing Amore opera and of course, Viva Verdi!

New York OperaFest Honors Ira Siff

New York OperaFest 2019 Festival Preview Concert honoring Ira Siff was presented on the evening of Monday, April 29th at the National Opera Center located at 330 Seventh Avenue in New York City. Vincent Covatto, Senior Manager, Organizational Membership, introduced the program for the evening.

I was exhausted from our being honored the day before by Opera Index and all the activities therein with fans, friends and family. It was also my first day of therapy for a back ailment. I was kvetching and schlepping, whining and complaining ( 4 percent Jewish DNA ) when we sat in our seats. A few hours later I was yacking and munching on goodies like an adrenalin filled teenager. Such is the power of opera, such is the brilliance of Ira Siff.   

Vincent Covatto, Senior Manager, Organizational Membership
Photo by Heather Bobeck

The first selection was “Udiste? Come albeggi” from Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi. Alexis Cregger’s impressive soprano with Nathan Matticks’s vibrant baritone, made for a dynamic duo. Count Di Luna and his wannabe-lust for Leonora was dramatically demonstrated in this exciting duet. Ms. Cregger has a voluptuous sound with some gorgeous highs and exciting depth to her voice. Mr. Matticks captured Di Luna’s great love with its insistent manly sound and compelling high notes. We recently saw a brilliant Il Trovatore with the Regina Opera featuring these two special singers in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. The vocal hors d’oeuvres was so tantalizing we had to go for the whole meal. Dmitry Glivinsky was the exciting pianist from the Regina Opera.

Soprano Alexis Cregger & Baritone Nathan Matticks
Photo by Heather Bobeck

Next was an Excerpt from Patience and Sarah (Wende Persons/Paula Kimper featuring Katherine Robinson soprano; Markos Simopoulos baritone; Katarina Wilson, mezzo soprano; and Giordana Fiori, pianist. This mood inducing work was a good source for drama and vocal seduction. Katherine Robinson had a lustrous soprano with flexibility and strength, Mr. Simoupolos a manly thrust with sparkle and Katarina Wilson, a sensual mezzo soprano that blended with her vocal physicality. Giordana Fiori who is from Rome, Italy, was ablaze in her red outfit and played piano with intensity and grace. The Hunter Opera Theater had some stellar performers to show us.

Interlude” from The Impossible She by Daniel Thomas Davis featured baritone Robert Maril and Christopher Wilson on the piano. This fine excerpt was adroitly sung by Robert Maril whose haunting voice surely must be blessed by the late great Brooklyn baritone of Metropolitan Opera fame, Robert Merrill. Christopher Wilson’s pianistic versatility matched this introspective piece which, while not exactly Iago’s credo from Verdi’s Otello, nonetheless had a power all its own. This was from RHYMES WITH OPERA.

Bass Nathan Baer. Photo by Heather Bobeck

Excerpt from The Constitution, A Secular Oratorio by Benjamin Yarmolinsky, was with Nathan Baer, bass and Dmitry Glivinsky on piano. Mr. Baer has a mood provoking, expressive bass with impressive undertones like a rumble of thunder. His Grant Wood countenance sets the mood for this piece, which is retained because of its loneliness and conversational oomph ah like a Lincoln photo. This by Brooklyn’s brilliant Vertical Player Repertory who dazzled the world with its production of Puccini’s IL Tabarro on a barge on the Red Hook pier several years ago.

Pianist Dmitry Glivinsky.  Photo by Heather Bobeck

Parle-moi de ma mère” from La Tragedie de Carmen was by Meilhac/Bizet. Matthew Pearce, tenor; Lara Secord Haid, soprano; with Jiannan Cheng, on piano of City Lyric Opera. Mr. Pearce has a caressing tenor that is balanced and nuanced. Ms. Haid, a lyrical pure sound of great beauty with angelic high notes that linger in one’s psyche. Her kissing Don José touched one deeply. Their vocal blend was evocative of the greats in the past. His lovely softening of the voice at the end was of golden age quality. Ms. Haid’s love for Don José was present in her outstanding purity of tone. Enrico Caruso and Frances Alda made a recording of this that one can google on the Internet and The Carmen film by Cecil B. DeMille 1915 featured the great Met soprano Geraldine Farrar that deserves viewing. When Farrar came back to the Met after her film, she roughed Enrico Caruso up and punched a chorus girl. Caruso threatened to never sing with her again but they made up. Huge tenor James McCracken was a surprisingly physical Don Jose and used much pianissimo in his “Flower song.” City Lyric Opera deserves high praise for this tantalizing excerpt and wonderful singers.

Honoree Ira Siff & Peter Szep, Conductor Executive Producer of Indie Opera Podcast
Photo by Heather Bobeck

A brief film of Ira Siff as Mme. Vera Galupe-Borszkh singing Vissi D’arte from Tosca and Ho jo to ho! from Die Walküre was hilarious and breathtaking. I told friends later that the three hands I kissed of great divas was Mary Garden, lecturing on her autobiography at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1951, Maria Jeritza at 90 plus at a Carnegie Hall Richard Tucker gala and Ira Siff as Mme. Vera Galupe-Borszkh at the National Arts Club after a hilarious Azucena excerpt from Il Trovatore.

Ira Siff gave a witty speech about his wanting to be in opera and the reactions of his mother and father. He did very well and his mother bragged to her friends in Florida poolside when he got good reviews on Mme. Vera Galupe-Borszkh. The New York Opera Awards service award was based on his indelible impact as a performer, commentator, director, teacher and Artistic Director of La Gran Scena.

L-R-Giordana Fiori, pianist; Noby Ishida, conductor; Katherine Robinson, Markos Simopoulos, Katarina Wilson. Photo by Heather Bobeck

The concert then resumed with “In peace I have found my image” from Owen Wingrave (Piper/Britten) Robert Balonek, baritone James Landau, piano, of the little Opera theatre of ny gave a powerful piece, almost a soliloquy. Mr. Balonek was Falstaffian in his delivery and versatility and gave us a non brittle Britten that was introspective with a touch of irony. We saw Owen Wingrave and our grandson Luciano was one of four choristers from The Little Church Around the Corner who appeared in this production featuring the gifted Mr. Balonek.

The program ended with an excerpt from After Stonewall with Devony Smith, soprano and Michael Barret on piano from the New York Festival of Song. Ms. Smith sang with conviction, defiance and compassion. Her soprano more steely than Puccinian, her goal not tears, but strength and going forward. Michael Barret was her accommodating and gracious accompanist. From the New York Festival of Song.

Joseph Burke was the effervescent stage manager and we met Vincent Covatto from the Executive Committee in the elevator.

At the sumptuous reception afterwards it was nice to chat with Ira’s partner Hans-Pieter Heijnis whose cabaret act has been so beautifully received. The Flying Dutchman (No Wagner) was brilliantly funny and a new version is set to overtake us soon. Hans-Peter made a wonderful video for Ira’s mother Jean on the occasion of her 100th birthday in 2011. He sang a superb version of “For You Alone,” which was out in 1911 and also was iconic tenor Enrico Caruso’s first recording in English.

A wonderful surprise was to see Francine Garber with her Regina Opera shirt, from the Regina Opera in Brooklyn, soon to be celebrating its 50th year of opera. Nice to see multi-talented and vibrant Judith Barnes from The Vertical Player Repertory in Brooklyn there also. Anna Tonna, a now internationally acclaimed mezzo soprano suddenly popped up into view. Anna has been doing successful Malibran and Rossini concerts in Spain and will sing at the idyllic Marcella Sembrich Museum in Bolton Landing in Lake George this summer. In attendance also was Scott Barnes, the renowned stage director and acting coach and tenor Neil Eddinger from the much missed New York City Opera. We enjoyed speaking to the singers and pianists and to the great man himself, Ira Siff.

Honoree Ira Siff. Photo by Heather Bobeck