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The Yellow Rose: La Favorite at Caramoor

As an audience member, it’s very easy to see an opera, especially one performed in concert, enjoy it, and think, “Why isn’t this piece done more?” Often, there are some clear reasons why. Sometimes it’s staging difficulties with what an opera calls for. Sometimes it’s a part that poses specific casting problems. Donizetti’s La Favorite, though, poses none of these issues, and the performance last Saturday night at the Caramoor Festival under Will Crutchfield’s direction made a strong case for why it’s time for this opera to reclaim its place in today’s bel canto repertoire.

Caramoor’s “Yellow Rose”, Clemintine Margaine Photo by Gabe Palacio

La Favorite opened in Paris in 1840 with a libretto in French by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaez. While it has been commonplace to perform the opera in its Italian translation as “La Favorita”, Bel Canto at Caramoor opted to use the original French text. The opera details the love triangle between Alphonse XI, the King of Spain, Fernand, a monk, and Leonor, the King’s mistress. The music is charming and expressive, and the drama is motile but for the unsurprisingly ridiculous final scene. Despite the opera’s playing like a soap opera, the nature of the story leaves room for many different directorial interpretations(something Monica Lewinsky-esque immediately comes to mind) and could potentially be levied into a moving exploration of sexual exploitation and the subsequent shame and stigma attached.

Bel Canto at Caramoor has been in place at the Caramoor Festival since 1997. Under the direction of maestro Will Crutchfield, the program has consistently offered music of the highest quality with singers to match. Caramoor’s bucolic gardens nearby Spainsh Courtyard, and Renaissance furnishings in the Rosen House conjured medieval Spain and the Alcazar, perfect for an opera set in Spain.

The biggest revelation of this performance wasn’t Donizetti’s taught, potential-filled opera, though. It was French mezzo Cleméntine Margaine. In the title role, Margaine made her Caramoor and New York debut with aplomb. Her voice, rich, agile, and, at times, smoldering, filled the Venetian Theater, and her dignified stage presence hinted at a deeper confidence that enriched the character of Leonor in this semi-staged production. Most impressive, though, was her command of the text. While I’m not familiar with her work in other languages, her idiomatic interpretation of the French text went beyond what is considered necessary to a Francophone singer. Each word was sculpted into a phrase that delivered equal parts musicality and meaning. It was a masterful and layered performance of a complex role. The world has found a wonderful Leonor.

Santiago Ballerini Photo by Gabe Palacio

She was well matched in her Fernand. Argentinean tenor Santiago Ballerini lended a voice of bel canto brilliance to the part of Leonor’s paramour. Despite his effortful, near-strained high notes and seeming discomfort with some of the libretto’s French, Ballerini delivered an expressive, italianate performance.

Stephen Powell, a frequent Caramoor performer, brought an authoritative voice and brooding nature to the sinister role of Alphonse, though Powell is even better served in roles that demonstrate the entire breadth of his talent, from fury to sensitivity. Daniel Mobbs, another Caramoor mainstay who seems to improve with every performance, was a brutal Balthazar with a deep, dark bass-baritone to match. Isabella Gaudĺ was an appropriately cheerful Inès and SungWook Kim delivered his usual solid singing as Don Gaspar.
Caramoor’s next opera is on July 25th when Dialogues des Carmelites takes the stage(and the guillotine). More information about it can be found here.

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Sister Act: Dialogues des Carmélites arrives at the Caramoor Festival

Photo by Gabe Palacio

When people ask me what opera is, my short, go-to answer is usually “a play where the dialogue is sung”. In Dialogues des Carmélites, Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera about a convent of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution, that definition holds true. Their story of faith and martyrdom comes to life at Caramoor on July 25th as the second installment of 2015’s Bel Canto at Caramoor series. Conducted by Will Crutchfield with a cast that includes names like Deborah Polaski, Hei Kyung Hong, and Jennifer Larmore, the dramatic impact of this opera is augmented by Victoria Crutchfield‘s staging and virtuosic playing by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

The two most basic components of any opera are the music and the libretto. For many operas, through, one is usually stronger than the other. Dialogues is a rarity for its strength in both categories. It combines the taut drama and compelling characterizations necessary to any good play with gorgeous and evocative music. “Poulenc found the way to spin music straight through the threads of this drama almost like a background soundtrack,” says conductor and Director of Opera at Caramoor, Will Crutchfield, “It leads us through serious, thorny questions of faith and human suffering through sensuous music and hair-raising drama.”

Those serious and thorny questions are addressed throughout the course of the opera in a libretto by Poulenc fashioned after a play by Georges Bernanos. The story focuses on Blanche de la Force, a mousy society girl who enters a Carmelite convent to “escape” from the outside world where the French Revolution threatens her family’s status. Life inside the convent proves to be no less taxing, with a distinct group of nuns who, though they differ in many ways, are united by their strong faith and sense of community. In one of the most moving final scenes in all of opera, the nuns march to the guillotine, voices raised in a final hymn, to die for their religion.

Don’t let that grim ending deter you from Poulenc’s expressive opera, though. Dialogues offers something for everyone, especially those who might be attending their first opera. “Exactly because of its theatrical qualities, I think this is an ideal piece, maybe the ideal piece, for someone who isn’t yet accustomed to the ways and means of traditional opera,” says Maestro Crutchfield. Additionally, Poulenc’s distinctive musical language is a point of interest for seasoned opera lovers while falling easily on the ears of new ones. “Poulenc preferred to find his novelties in the language of pop music or the parts of Classical music that were still inventing new ways to relate complex combinations of notes to simple ones. He found himself able to say a great variety of things through that style,” the Maestro adds.

Dialogues des Carmélites represents an exciting new time in the history of Bel Canto at Caramoor. It’s a departure from the typical bel canto opera of the mid-18th century, but fans of the beautiful voices and grand musical passages typical of the style need not fear. “This is a 20th-century opera for bel canto voices,” Maestro Crutchfield reassures. “It has to have beautiful, radiant voices to match the sounds of the orchestra. When you watch those brave innocents singing the praises of God while they walk to the guillotine, you’ve lived a slice of their life with them, you know what got them to that moment – there is nothing in theater more powerful than that.”

Dialogues des Carmélites will be performed on July 25th at the Caramoor Festival. Tickets are available here and more information is available here.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am employed by Caramoor during this summer’s Festival Season. More information about Caramoor can be found here.

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The Light in the Piazza: New Productions of Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci at the Met

You can read my review of the Met’s new productions of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera here on the Huffington Post.


Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci run through May 8th at the Metropolitan Opera. Tickets are available here.

Photo: Metropolitan Opera/ Cory Weaver

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“OperaRox Presents” Announces Launch and Performance Dates

April 6, 2015- New York- OperaRox Presents, a new startup opera company headed by Kimberly Feltkamp and Jaimie Appleton, announces its launch and dates for an inaugural production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” on at the National Opera Center August Aug. 21 (7pm) & Aug. 23 (2pm), 2015.

Kimberly Feltkamp and Jaimie Appleton, two young opera singers based in New York, have announced the launch of their new opera company, OperaRox Presents, aimed at providing opportunities for young singers to learn and perform important roles in a safe and encouraging environment. Propelled by a philosophy of “making your own opportunities” and shock about the limited performance resources offered to graduate and post-graduate level opera singers, Feltkamp and Appleton have additionally announced plans to perform Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the National Opera Center in New York City on August 21st and 7:00 PM and August 23 at 2:00 PM.

OperaRox Presents extends the online community of young opera fans that Feltkamp has built through Live Stream shows, Twitter discussion, and in-person meetups at the Metropolitan Opera onto the stage as a creative opportunity for young artists. The group has achieved notoriety within the international opera community and Feltkamp hopes that OperaRox Presents “can be a small part of [the future of opera].”

Performances of “Le Nozze di Figaro” will take place at Opera America’s National Opera Center at 330 7th Avenue, New York City. The production will feature Jaimie Appleton as Countess Almaviva, Michael Hoffman as Count Almaviva, Devony Smith as Susanna, Michael Maliakel as Figaro, Kimberly Feltkamp as Cherubino, Maayan Voss de Bettancourt as Marcellina, Jonathan Caro as Bartolo, and Felicia Zangari as Barbarina. The production of Mozart’s famous opera about two servants who manage to outwit their master will be by up-and-coming director, Amber Treadway. An accompanist is yet to be announced. More information about all of the artists can be found here. The production depends on crowd-sourced money that is being raised here.

More information about OperaRox Presents and the upcoming presentation of “The Marriage of Figaro” can be found online at www.operarox.weebly.com and on Twitter through searching “#OperaRoxFigaro”. Public relations by Harry Rose (operateenblog@gmail.com). Please send all inquiries to operateenblog@gmail.com.



Flambé: Massenet’s “Manon” at the Metropolitan Opera

Remarking about how his impending Manon Lescaut would compare to his contemporary Jules Massenet’s Manon, a successful setting of Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel of the same name, Giacomo Puccini said, “Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.” Saturday night’s thrilling performance of Massenet’s most popular opera, Manon, may have proved the great composer’s idea about Massenet’s capabilities wrong.

Profitons bien de la jeunesse...

Profitons bien de la jeunesse…

The opera’s score, a personal favorite, features gorgeous music for the orchestra and singers and has remained a staple of the operatic canon since its premiere in 1884. In a piquant revival of the Met production that first starred Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala in 2012, Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo illuminated Laurent Pelly’s drab staging with vocal intensity and dramatic fervor. It’s not like they were given much to work with, though. The production is full of useless stage business with running, jumping, and singin’-in-the-rain hand-holding. Chantal Thomas’ brutally unattractive and cheap-looking sets make some scenes of the opera look like the wheelchair entrances to any municipal building, while others do nothing to hint at any aspect of the many actual locations called for in the libretto. Joël Adam’s lights bring out the worst in the shirt-cardboard walls and fail to evoke the environment that undergoes such a dramatic arc over the course of the performance. Fortunately, Laurent Pelly makes up for some of the artistic misgivings with gorgeous gowns for Manon and serviceable suits and dresses for the rest. Lionel Hoche’s choreography is really lovely, though there’s not much space to execute it in.

And the money kept rolling in from every side...

And the money kept rolling in from every side…

The most important part of this production, however, is that it lets Diana Damrau play. The German-born diva is a giggly, sparkly, firecracker onstage and throws herself into the role with all of its silly choreography. Her Manon is deeply introspective and insecure with every word given weight, meaning, and motivation. For a character that becomes so easy to roll our eyes at by the end, Manon is given layer upon layer of complexity by Ms. Damrau. Alluring(and stunningly beautiful as a brunette), but attention-starved, jovial, but shallow, Damrau’s Manon is much more emotionally substantial even than Netrebko’s, who banked on vocal and physical glamour in 2012. It was a compelling dramatic arc and Damrau succeeded in taking the audience on the journey with her. Fortunately, the vocal goods didn’t lack, either. Despite suffering from a cold through the entire run, Damrau sunk her silvery soprano voice completely into the demanding role. Her stratospheric high notes shimmered and her consistent dips into chest voice were thrilling. Every one of Manon’s strophic arias was deeply felt and expressed in perfect French, including a positively captivating “Je Suis Encor Tout Etourdie”. In Damrau, we have more than a coloratura canary. Let’s put her to even better use. ( I suggest Tatyana in Eugene Onegin.)

As her paramour, Vittorio Grigolo brought his big, sweet, distinctive voice to the role of the Chevalier des Grieux. The two bring out the best in each other and, despite Damrau’s being 43 and Grigolo’s being 38, are completely believable as teenagers. The Italian tenor sings, even French music, in a very Italianate style with many of his arias arriving at a huge climax, but he shapes the phrases in a sensitive way and dispatched his arias, in particular “Ah! Fuyez Douce Image” with aplomb.



Russel Braun brought a pleasant, dry voice to the part of Manon’s cousin Lescaut. He delivered a droll charm in his third act “Rosalinde” arioso and played well with Damrau onstage. Dwayne Croft was a nicely voiced De Bretigny, and Nicholas Testé brought a big, beautiful timbre to the small but crucial role of Des Grieux Père. The trio of Mireille Asselin, Cecelia Hall, and Maya Lahyani brought varied voices and great comic timing to Pousette, Javotte, and Rosette, members of the entourage lead by the fantastic singing-actor Christophe Mortagne in tip-top shape as Guillot de Morfontaine.

While there may not be as many Francophone singers in French music onstage at the Met  as one would like these days, the French style is thriving in the pit where maestros like Louis Langrée and Emmanuel Villaume, Saturday’s conductor, are drawing out beautiful, carefully sculpted, and sensitive phrases from the top-form Met orchestra. While hardly a showpiece for the ensemble, the Met chorus was superb.

Manon demonstrated the Met’s complete and total capability to produce music of the best quality on a regular basis, even in a routine revival. With the standard repertoire warhorses getting a more uniformly positive treatment this past season, this bodes well for the future of opera at the Met.

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera


Sight but no Vision:”Iolanta” and “Bluebeard’s Castle” at the Met

Double bills are a common phenomenon in the opera world. The most famous two are the pairing of Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci and the best pairings of operas offer either a stark contrast between the pieces-highlighting what makes each piece different and worthy of viewing in a new light- or complement each other, showing that two works by different composers have similarities through themes or musical styles. The Met’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” paired with Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” didn’t do either, and the result was an evening as inert as the snow that blanketed Lincoln Center.


Beczala and Netrebko in “Iolanta”- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

The first offering of the pairing that saw its final performance last night was “Iolanta”, Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale about a blind princess protected from the world. First performed at the Mariinsky in 1892(Paired with Tchaikovsky’s most famous ballet, The Nutcracker), this was the work’s first presentation at the Metropolitan Opera. The music is classic-but extremely predictable-Tchaikovsky and contains some moments of beautiful music punctuated by longer, less-busy sections.

The mostly successful production, transplanted from Europe by Polish director Mariusz Treliński, moves the action to an austere hunting lodge in the woods instead of the colorful garden the piece implies. It begins with a projection(by Bartek Macias and a high point of both productions) of a deer being symbolically pursued and Treliński’s production does pose questions to the audience throughout the evening, in addition to those posed by the libretto like “What is color?”. By setting the piece in such an uncolorful place juxtaposed with Iolanta’s newly awakened desire for sight, it made me think that is ignorance sometimes acceptable? Is it better not bother seeing what we don’t know or to want to expand our horizons? Also, what makes a disability? Are there points where Iolanta’s emotional faculties are unimpeded by her lack of sight? Certainly. And this adds another layer or dimension to the piece. Unfortunately, this didn’t translate into the uncreative blocking and didn’t suffice to fill points where the dramaturgy sagged. Boris Kudlička’s sets for “Iolanta” were uninteresting-a square room with a bed, a table, and some chairs- but they got the job done. Mark Heinz’s lights were fantastic and created a variety of different tones on the basic unit set and Marek Adamski’s costumes were nothing special.

Vocally, the performance was quite taut. In the title role, Anna Netrebko returned to a part that has served her career well. That said, with the darkening of her vocal color of late, Iolanta may no longer be the best fit for her voice. Netrebko lightened her voice most of the evening with the results sounding good but lacking in her typical massive volume. This was a different singer than the one that let fly as Lady Macbeth a short time ago and the better parts of the performance were those when she sang in her trademark voice- dark, silky, and thrilling. Still, she’s a consummate performer. She threw herself into the role and complemented each of her colleagues in their individual scenes in addition to using Modest Tchaikovsky’s text to create a clearer understanding of the character.

Netrebko in "Iolanta"- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Netrebko in “Iolanta”- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

As her Prince Vaudemont, Piotr Beczala brought his signature illuminating voice and high comfort level onstage. His aria was phrased beautifully including a seamless shift into falsetto for the final phrase. It was a joy to watch him interact with Netrebko and spoke to the high merits of both singers to watch them perform together, especially in their rapturous duet.

Alexei Tanovitski was by far the weakest link of the cast. His gravelly bass sounds like it’s coming off the rails. He lacked charisma onstage and his weak acting and idiomatic gestures failed to create a real complex character outside of his normal blocking. He looked and sounded amateurish surrounded by such a talented cast.

Aleksei Markov’s brilliant baritone shined as Robert and Elchin Azizov was a convincing enough Moorish Doctor with a well-spun aria. Mzia Nioradze as Marta provided the typical weathered, matronly sound that’s become so common to women singing mother-figures in Russian operas, and Matt Boehler was her strong-voiced husband, Bertrand. Katherine Whyte and Cassandra Zoe Velasco complemented each other as a well sung and feisty pair of maids. Pavel Smelkov drew beautiful and sensitive sounds from the top-form Met orchestra, but often lacked the momentum to keep the piece moving forward. The Met chorus was in beautiful voice, further proving that this chorus and orchestra can perform just about everything.

Next was Bartok’s 1918 “Bluebeard’s Castle”, performed for the first time at the Met in its original Hungarian. The score is interesting and momentous. It unravels like a string on a spool with dramatic intensity building at each turn. Unfortunately, not much beyond the orchestral merits of the piece showed through. Much of Treliński’s production didn’t read well from my Family Circle seat. The libretto, by Bela Balasz, is extremely explicit. At the opening of the third door, for example, Judith exclaims, “All your precious gems are blood-stained! Your brightest jewel is blood-stained!” Not only were there no doors, there were no jewels and no blood. Treliński communicated the interactions between a twisted man and his naïve wife, but the stage action of the piece clashed completely with the libretto. Boris Kudlička’s sets required long change times during which the action was moved to an elevator that, while an innovative idea at first, was exhausting when done for longer times accompanied by a projection of an elevator descending through a shaft and the sets, frankly, looked cheap and shook when the singers made impact with them. Lights, once again by Mark Heinz, were superb, as were the numerous projections.

"Bluebeard's Castle"- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

“Bluebeard’s Castle”- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Mikhail Petrenko was a vocally adequate Bluebeard, declaiming the lines with half-interest the entire time. Not particularly menacing or dominating, there was no allure to his Bluebeard, making the story seem simply unfeasible instead of making Judith seem like a rational person driven by desires and a perverse fascination with her new husband and his home. It was a Bluebeard only a mother could love.

There are a lot of things one can say about the Judith, Najda Michael. Her voice is not beautiful. In fact, it’s nowhere near. She lacks a clear dramatic temperament and doesn’t have much sense of how to use phrasing and text to build a character. She is, however, a fearless stage animal. She subscribed to the intense stage movement and choreography of theproduction, even running over the compound that composed the glass that Bluebeard shattered on the ground several times with bare feet. It looked like it hurt. She cut a glamorous figure in Marek Adamski’s costumes and looked like she gave it her all within her limitations, leading me to think that not all is lost for Nadja Michael.

Michael and Petrenko in "Bluebeard's Castle"- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Michael and Petrenko in “Bluebeard’s Castle”- Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Smelkov gave a restrained reading of the piece with the orchestra, once again, demonstrating exemplary playing.

In respect to any of my hopes for a revival of these productions, I can only echo Iolanta: How can I long for what I cannot understand?

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Desperate Housewife: Lady Macbeth of Mtensk at the Metropolitan Opera

Last night, the Metropolitan Opera brought back its 1994 production of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk for the first time in nearly 15 years. You can read my review about it here, on Parterre. Enjoy!

Lady Macbeth of Mtensk

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera


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