New York City is definitely the place to be if you want to hear lots of fantastic opera and art song singers in unusual settings. That was my experience this weekend, when I attended the Brooklyn Art Song Society’s program at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn, and Venture Opera’s presentation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Brooklyn Art Song Society is a project of its musical director and chief pianist, Michael Brofman, who is a very accomplished pianist and collaborator with singers. One of the series he is presenting this season is Britannica, a survey of English art song ranging from the Baroque era to modern days. On Friday afternoon, November 6, he presented the second program in the series: Britannica II: In Memoriam: Songs of the Great War. The “Great War” from the British perspective is World War I, whose centennial we are in the midst of marking (1914-1918). The war stimulated many British poets to produce meditations on war and death, and many British composers set them to music, including some who served in the conflict (and among whom we have important losses to mourn). The 20th century vogue of adapting the typical melodies and harmonies of English folk song into art songs was at its height at the time most of these songs were written, resulting in music that is both accessible (certainly by comparison to what the leading-edge composer of Europe were producing) and achingly beautiful.
This program presented three very talented young singers: baritones Jarett Ott and John Moore, and tenor Dominic Armstrong. Mr. Brofman was the pianist for Ott and Armstrong, while Miori Sugiyama collaborated with John Moore. The first half was all-baritone, the second half was given over to Armstrong & Brofman for a rare performance of both books of settings by George Butterworth of verses from A. E. Housman’s collection titled “A Shropshire Lad.” Butterworth served in a combat unit and died at the front, a tragic loss to music. Moore sang Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cycle “The House of Life,” setting verses of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, a poet who long predated the Great War, but the tie-in here is Vaughan Williams’ service driving an ambulance at the front and the themes of these poems which complement the overall theme for the concert. Ott sang a variety of songs: two by Ivor Gurney, one by Gerald Finzi, and a rarity by William Dennis Browne, another composer lost in military service during the Great War.
All three singers made a deep impression on me. Although still at the outset of their careers, they have already accumulated a wealth of experience, including opera at major houses, soloing with major orchestras, and highly regarded recital series. To get to hear them in the small space of the Old Stone House, which felt almost like a private salon event, was an extraordinary privilege. Unfortunately the next concert in this series presents a scheduling conflict for me, so I will have to miss the third in the series on December 3, which will present Armstrong and Sidney Outlaw singing works by Finzi and Vaughan Williams at the Brooklyn Historical Society. This is urgently recommended for those who love English song or want to make its acquaintance.
It would be hard to top the musical experience I had Friday night, but then Sunday night brought Venture Opera’s first presentation of its inaugural season, Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Angel Orensanz Center on Norfolk Street in Manhattan’s lower east side. This building was constructed as a synagogue at a time when the neighborhood was solidly packed with Jewish immigrants a century ago. After the neighborhood had changed drastically and the congregation diminished to a point of not being able to sustain the building, it was deconsecrated and turned into an arts center. Some of the original iconography remains, but the space has been well adapted to support theatrical and musical events.
This Don Giovanni, conducted by Ryan McAdams (with a competent chamber orchestra assembled for the purpose from NYC’s extraordinary pool of freelance musicians), and imaginatively directed by Edwin Cahill, was absolutely, completely thrilling. The excellent young cast included Philip Cutlip as Don Giovanni, Eric Downs as Leporello, Christian Zaremba as Il Commendatore, Amy Shoremount-Obra as Donna Anna, Yujoong Kim as Don Ottavio, Marquita Raley as Donna Elvira, Matthew Patrick Morris as Masetto, Cecelia Hall as Zerlina, and a fine collection of supporting players and choristers. The space doesn’t lend itself to a traditional opera production. Instead of an orchestra pit, the instrumentalists were assembled in a space under the side balcony to the left of the stage, such that Mr. McAdams could be seen by both the orchestra and the singers, although coordination was challenging and not always infallible. There is a raised area in front, but no proscenium, but the entire space of the synagogue was enlisted in the production, with a fair amount of the singing taking place in the center aisle and the balconies being pressed into use as well. No sets, as such, with everything being accomplished through movement, costumes, makeup and lighting. The performance was in Italian with English projected titles on a screen suspended above the staging area.
What was thrilling about this performance? First, McAdams provided vigorous leadership, tempos on the bright side for the most part, the action ever moving forward without any loss of momentum. Second, the staging involved the audience in the drama at every moment, the action taking place amidst us much of the time. Third, the fine acoustics of the old synagogue sanctuary made it possible to hear all the singers without any amplification at all times, with the placement of the orchestra off to the side providing sound that was clear and well balanced but sufficiently restrained by McAdams so that the singers could all be heard.
But, perhaps most importantly, all of the singers were magnificent. Cutlip captured the rogue in Don Juan from the first moment. Downs as Leporello was positively Satanic, giving an energetic performance that dominated the scenes in which he appeared, but without inappropriately tipping the balance between the characters. Shoremount-Obra and Marquita Raley as the two Donnas were commanding and fully in charge of Mozart’s vocal pyrotechnics. Young Morris and Hall won everybody’s hearts as the young couple whose wedding is screwed up by Don Juan’s machinations. Zaremba was the Commendatore to the life – and his return as the Stone Guest in the final scenes was spine-chilling.
This was the second of three performances, the last to take place on Tuesday, November 10. It appeared that Sunday’s performance was sold out. Such is the hunger for good opera in New York. I would estimate the audience capacity of the space at around 250. If tickets remain for the last performance, they should be snatched up quickly. Venture Opera has a minimalist website at this point, and future plans are still in formative stages. They make bold to announce Bizet’s Carmen for February presentation, but neither the participants nor the venue are revealed yet, and tickets are not available to purchase. I hope to be there. This kind of immediate and involving opera is a rare treat, and NY’s music-lovers should hasten to support it.