Although schoolchildren may think of Labor Day as the end of a blissful summer, New York opera fans know that it is a harbinger of the new season. We can look forward to no less than four repertory companies, each of which opens in the month of September. I began my pilgrimage on Saturday evening at the Dicapo Opera Theatre for a night of highlights titled Death by Aria.
It speaks volumes about the commitment of this small company that they began their season by featuring their resident artists. These are the young men and women of the chorus who cover the roles throughout the season and join the company primarily as a learning experience.
Dicapo is what we used to call an old-fashioned Italian house. Anna Noggle's performance of "Der Hoelle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" from the "Magic Flute," which, parenthetically, stood head and shoulders above the one that I heard at the Metropolitan last season, was the only aria in German. There were over 30 numbers on the evening's program, and thus I should mention that the following listings do not imply that the other artists did not perform admirably. To attempt to stem the tide of potential emails from relatives and coaches, I am only mentioning what I consider standout performances.
Robin Flynn was movingly poignant in "Must the Winter Come So Soon" from Samuel Barber's "Vanessa" and Elisabeth Rosenberg was lump-in-the-throat good as Mimi in "Donde lieta usci" from "La Boheme." Monique Pelletier exhibited one of the most professional voices of the evening in an impressively burnished "Que fais-tu blanche tourterelle" from Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" and Manami Hattori was a perky and campanilian Juliet in her rendition of "Je veux vivre" from the same work.
Of the men, Gary Ramsey dazzled with a rapturous version of "Warm as the Autumn Light" from Douglas Moore's "The Ballad of Baby Doe" and Juan Felix intoned in classic tenor style "De miei bollenti spiriti" from Verdi's "La Traviata." But the best male offering was unquestionably the "Una furtiva lagrima" of Robert Hughes, which slipped off pitch for one moment but overall was sensitively sung and subtly shaded.
Stephanie Rodousakis did more than just beautifully pull off Carmen's "Seguidilla," complete with provocative in-character choreography. Her sense of phrasing was especially impressive and her ability to make one individual note come to life with sophisticated changes was superb.
One effort deserves special praise for its transcendence of the variety show format. Yuki Otsuka-Lowe simply took over the evening with a remarkable realization of the letter scene from Jules Massenet's "Werther." We were no longer in a basement in the East 70s enjoying a parade of acolytes and aspirants. We were with an electrically dramatic and full-voiced Charlotte at her most disarmingly intimate. The scene was fashioned with a highly developed sense of vocal balance and painted with an instrument of refined quality. This woman will not be a member of the chorus for very long.
During the season itself, Dicapo presents staged operas accompanied by a small orchestra. For this evening, music director Katherine Olsen performed yeoman service at the piano. Gee, if the chorus members sound this good, imagine what the principals must be like!
Four days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I made a pilgrimage to the spot which most powerfully encapsulates my view of Lower Manhattan. The Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklyn, just across the East River, affords the best look at the southern tip of the island and includes in its vista of the harbor an unusual angle on the Statue of Liberty. This has been for years my place of orientation largely because of the presence of Bargemusic, a unique concert venue afloat on the water and designed to allow the glorious skyline to be the constantly changing backdrop of its chamber music stage.
The fullest experience occurs in the summer when the sunset, in its various shades of red, gives way slowly to the patterns of lights radiating from the skyscrapers, providing an added aesthetic dimension that is the envy of other, higher budget halls. But on Saturday, September 15, 2001, the landing was transformed for this frequent visitor. A few candles and flowers adorned the fence as I stared at what was not there.
Now, five years on, Bargemusic, and America, are still going strong and a capacity crowd enjoyed a delightful evening of musical rarities that were, each in their own way, oddly familiar. Although the Grand Dame of contemporary music, pianist Ursula Oppens, might have been more comfortable presenting the 100 Metronomes of Gyorgy Ligeti, she instead this night performed two pieces that Mozart wrote for a hybrid mechanical instrument known as the musical clock. In four hand arrangements in tandem with pedagogue extraordinaire Jerome Lowenthal, Ms. Oppens offered the Adagio and Allegro in F Minor and the more bombastic Allegro and Andante, K. 606, a fantasy that appeared to hold several seeds of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, including the steely-fingered music box section. This was Mozart as we have seldom heard this birthday year, strident and big-gestured, martial and slightly maniacal.
The only piece on the program that was famous on its own merits was Wolfgang's Sonata in F Major, K. 533, which concludes with the Rondo previously published as K. 494. Ms. Oppens traversed this landscape alone, producing a sparkling version notable for its infectious élan. Perhaps not every note was always struck in its exact center, but the underlying sense of spirit made up for an occasional touch of fudginess.
After intermission, a radical shifting of gears led to a quartet of Richard Wagner piano pieces none of which were written by the composer himself. Franz Liszt was one of his most ardent exponents, and Mr. Lowenthal began this half of the program with the Spinning Song from "The Flying Dutchman," a marvelously filigreed bagatelle that ominously introduces the main motive of destiny interwoven in the fabric of the original women's chorus (nobody does Fate with a capital "F" like Wagner).
Everyone's attention is riveted by the powerful main theme of the Prelude to Act Three of Lohengrin in its orchestral version, but when the music is reduced to the keyboard, the right hand, which is tasked to perform everything but this memorable melody, comes through as extremely busy. Mr. Lowenthal was superb in this rendition, reprising the clangorous chords even after a sweet realization of the Wedding March. This Lisztian take is a real finger-breaker and this accomplished pianist pulled it off quite impressively.
Finally, two take-offs on Wagner ended the show. Gabriel Faure loved the "ring" operas, but couldn't resist parodying them in a piece titled Souvenirs de Bayreuth, conceived with the assistance of a musical hall arranger named Andre Messager. In this four-hand version, our two scholars let down their hair and really dug into these marches and can-cans based on some of the most poignant music in the literature.
And if this wasn't rare enough for you, the duo also presented the parody of the parody, a very clever piece by Emmanuel Chabrier christened Souvenirs de Munich, hoisting Tristan on the same petard. Turning the Liebestod into the bouncy air of a boulevardier was just the type of sacrilegious act that can make a true Wagnerian convulse with laughter; Anna Russell meets Victor Borge. All of us in that little jewel of a floating room, and, it seemed, especially the two pianists, were enjoying themselves immensely. And isn't that ultimately the sweetest way to stick it to Al Qaeda?