Having responded affirmatively to an invitation from Lynne Hayden-Findlay, the treasurer of Chelsea Opera, to attend their December 6 program and write a review, I am herewith holding up my side of the bargain, having attended last night and greatly enjoyed “More Songs for My Brother.” The brother of the title is the late Nicholas S. Priore, a central New York lawyer and avid participant as singer and actor in musical/theatrical performances, who died tragically young in his 40s. The sister who was the main presenter of this program is mezzo-soprano Leonarda Priore, who was assisted by boy treble Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg, pianist Bill Doherty, and the Chelsea Opera String Quartet (violinists Marc Uys and Bruno Pena, violist Jen Herman, and cellist Troy Chang).
I had attended one previous Chelsea Opera program last season and thought the group a bit amateurish, so I was not sure what I was in for last night, and a glance at the program did not build confidence. The first half was a hodge-podge of classical and not so classical music, structured around a rare performance of Ottorino Respighi’s “Il Tramonto,” an extended song for mezzo-soprano and string quartet in a late romantic idiom on a flowery Italian text adapted from poetry by Shelley. The second half comprised ten songs by Broadway musical composers, some written for Broadway shows, others for movies.
My fears about an “amateur night” were quickly assuaged by the first number, Carl Stommen’s adaptation of a “Southern folk song” titled “To the Sky,” presented as a duet by Priore and Wenzelberg. These are two excellent singers, well worth hearing. Ms. Priore has a rich, sweet mezzo-soprano voice, and she knows how to control it and “put over” a song. Young Mr. Wenzelberg, who I heard last year in NY City Opera’s production of Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” playing young Miles, is quite precocious, my only concern in his case being that there are audible signs of an end to his career as a treble, since he had some difficulty sustaining some of the high notes which may signal that his youthful treble voice will soon be compromised by puberty. But both singers, sometimes in solos and sometimes in duets throughout the evening, gave terrific performances, rhythmically alive, with excellent intonation and diction, at a high professional standard. Wenzelberg sailed through “Rejoice Greatly” from Handel’s Messiah with great confidence, again only betrayed briefly by difficulty in sustaining some high notes.
Pianist Bill Doherty provided expert keyboard collaboration, playing in everything except the Respighi and a string quartet arrangement of the “Love Theme” by Ennio Morricone from his film score “Cinema Paradiso”, which was an apt prelude to the Respighi, being an obvious descendant from the same musical tradition. The Chelsea Opera String Quartet provided an intensely moving performance of the Morricone piece, and collaborated beautifully with Priore in the Respighi.
In the final number, “Bosom Buddies” from Jerry Herman’s “Mame,” Priore was joined by Ms. Hayden-Findlay, a “retired” soprano, for some light-hearted joshing of each other that provided a super closing to a wonderfully entertaining evening. Other composers represented on the program included Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bob Kindred, Alfred G. Robyn, Jule Styne, Alan Menken, David Friedman, Stephen Schwartz, and Irving Berlin.
The program was presented at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church on W. 69 Street. The small, neatly maintained sanctuary has clear acoustics, perfect for this kind of program, and will also be the setting for Chelsea Opera’s next two programs.
On a final note: I hope that Wenzelberg’s voice settles well into a good singing range as he navigates adolescence, because he exhibits great musical gifts. He clearly has a good ear, an ability to sing in tune (not to be assumed with singers!), and great instincts for interpretation. I’d love to hear him in some of the repertory I’ve enjoyed by the current crop of active counter-tenors, such as Jaroussky, Daniels, Kowalski, Cencic, but unless his voice stays in a counter-tenor register, that is unlikely. Perhaps he will turn out a few years from now to be a fine high tenor (or maybe even a baritone — who knows what will happen?). But I hope he is not lost to song. For now, his treble is a pleasure to hear.
Mr. Wenzelberg is the first recipient of the Nicholas S. Priore New Possibilities Fund, which is helping to underwrite his work on an opera! He is composer and librettist of “The Sleeping Beauty,” which will receive a “work in progress” performance of selections from Chelsea Opera on January 17. Chelsea Opera has also scheduled a recital of songs by contemporary American composers Anne Phillips, Tom Cipullo and Ben Moore for March 14, and performances of Aaron Copland’s rarely performed opera, “The Tender Land,” on June 13 & 14. I recall with pleasure NYC Opera’s presentation of the Copland many years ago. Perhaps not strong enough to be a repertory piece, it is nonetheless worth hearing from time to time, and has a fine score in Copland’s Americana style. I certainly look forward to it. The Copland performances will take place at St. Peter’s Church in Chelsea.