Friday, February 10, 2017


The fledgling company OperaRox Productions, founded by Kim Feltkamp and Jaimie Appleton as an offshoot of the OperaRox tumblr page, produced a sold-out two-show run of G.F. Händel’s Alcina, directed by Maayan Voss de Bettancourt, at the Player’s Theater in the West Village on Friday and Sunday, February 3th and 5th.

The source material of Alcina’s libretto is Orlando Furioso, an early 16th century epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto. The list of composers that have used the poem as the basis for operas is long and includes Lully, Rameau, Caccini, Haydn, Vivaldi, Thomas and others. Händel himself has two other canonical operas using the poem’s stories (Orlando and Ariodante).

The plot of Alcina can seem convoluted on paper, though once the characters’ names, alter-egos and genders become familiar, things become clear. OperaRox offered a succinct synopsis that’s worth quoting:

            Alcina is a sorceress with her own island. Her sister, Morgana, is in a relationship with Oronte, but falls for Bradamante, who is dressed as her own brother so she can save her fiancé, Ruggiero, from Alcina’s clutches. Melisso, Ruggiero’s commanding officer, accompanies Bradamante to the island and helps Oberto find her lost father.

That’s the gist. What the synopsis leaves out is that Alcina has a pesky habit, when her temper flares, of turning former lovers and people at large into beasts and inanimate objects.

OperaRox comes to the table with a specific production mission. The company is clear about wanting to provide meaningful performance opportunities for young singers that generally haven’t sung their assigned role, create an environment that encourages experimentation, pay its cast and crew, and build general interest in opera, particularly among younger audiences. OperaRox seems to successfully hit these marks.

The opening of the production made clear that neither the director nor her actors would be sheepish about physical intimacy. In the first moments, a domineering Alcina drags on a handsy, sex-slave-like Ruggiero, the two of them necking and making out. The opening was a good preparation for the bumping and grinding, sexual massage, and other raunchy action coming later. The confidence with which the young actors dove into the sensuality was refreshing. The amount of sexuality was abundant but not gratuitous.

Morgana, played by soprano Anna Slate, radiated a contagious delight. She championed the show’s comedic elements with her insatiable but winningly naïve sexual appetite. Slate’s recitatives flowed easily and idiomatically, neither overly spoken nor sung. Her Morgana had a sympathetic core that remained throughout the character’s journey to self-knowledge. One hoped that she would escape the fate to which her foil, Alcina, seemed destined.

Tenor Eric Alexieff proved a sympathetic Oronte. Alexieff was particularly charming as the jaded, abandoned lover commiserating with Ruggiero during his Act I aria. Popping open one beer after another, he elbowed and teased Ruggiero with the tough love of an older sibling.

Mezzo-soprano Melanie Ashkar commanded her musical material as Bradamante. Ashkar sang with both an even and agile tone, handling the difficult coloratura of her arias with poise and clarity. She maintained a calm and focused presence on stage, grounding her scenes by listening and reacting intently and in the moment.

Baritone Kevin Miller portrayed a paternal, well-meaning Melisso. Perhaps too meek to convincingly play a drill sergeant, Miller’s earnestness did add to the show’s heart and fit well with the company’s overall encouraging demeanor and supportive mission.

Mezzo-soprano Chloë Schaaf played Ruggiero, the backbone of the opera, with deep commitment. Responsible for the bulk of the opera’s emotional heavy lifting, Schaaf broke down into forceful convulsions, scolded by his sergeant Melisso for having wronged his wife-to-be Morgana. Schaaf also managed a deft act of emotional subtlety in her act II aria in which Ruggiero convinces Alcina that he is in love, though under his breath mutters, not with Alcina herself. With Schaaf’s portrayal, one couldn’t help but wonder whether Ruggiero felt deeply attached to both Morgana and Alcina and was heart-broken wronging either of them.

As the title role, soprano Zen Wu bounded around the stage confidently, singing voluminously but at times unwieldly. She played an Alcina thirsty for vengeance and blinded by lust.

Ginny Weant, as the young boy Oberto, sang her final aria with momentum and dexterity.

Made up of the cover cast, the chorus sang with a well-honed, appropriately sized mezzo-forte sound. They functioned as Alcina’s semi-sedated minions, most useful as reflections of the sorceress’s state of mind during arias.

The band, led by Dmitry Glivinskiy at an electric keyboard, filled out by Katie von Braun on violin and Spencer Shen on cello, executed the concise orchestration with proficiency and understated style. Cuts to the score were judicious, though more were possible; Bradamante’s act III aria “All’alma fedel” could have mercifully been cut, as it slowed the opera’s pace in the home stretch.

 There were other weak spots in the production – a handful of out of place swear words in the supertitles garnering cheap laughs, varying levels of musical, linguistic, and vocal fluency, some clumsy staging particularly with the chorus, and hardly any set to speak of – regardless, it was a strong effort from a young cast and budding company of bright, hardworking opera devotees.

Review: Jeremy Hirsch
Photos: OperaRox Official Site

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A COMEDY OF TENORS @ The Papermill Playhouse

In 2013 Paper Mill Playhouse produced Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor with director Don Stephenson at the healm. Now, over 3 years later, Stephenson and the original cast are back for its sequel, A Comedy of Tenors. This grand reunion paired with a hilarious script filled with hijinks makes for an evening filled with hysterics.
The title immediately gives you a clue as to what’s in store- borrowing its name from Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, Ludwig’s sequel has all of the trademarks of an outrageous farce. From mistaken identities, to slamming doors, lots of sex, a little bit of opera, and of course a wedding to tie everything up, this 2-hour long show is a fast paced wild ride. Set 2 years after the events of the original, we find producer Saunders (Michael Kostroff) in a hotel room in Paris attempting to keep his opera performance together. Returning are Max (David Josefsberg) his son-in-law and aspiring opera performer, and world famous Tenor Tito (John Treacy Egan) along with his hot-headed wife Maria (Judy Blazer). Along for the ride is Tito and Maria’s daughter, aspiring actress Mimi (Jill Paice) with her boyfriend, the new opera star Carlo (Ryan Silverman), and Racón (Donna Englisch), a former fling of Tito’s. With Tito already feeling jealousy that his stardom is being outshone by bright Tenor Carlo, things escalate when he mistakenly believes his wife is having an affair with the young singer, not knowing he is actually the secret boyfriend of his beloved daughter. Shenanigans ensue, while Saunders tries to keep everyone from strangling each other and get them ready to sing for a soccer stadium full of fans.
Kostroff, Josefsberg, Egan, and Blazer all reprise their respective roles from Lend Me a Tenor, and they excel in them. Their familiarity with the characters allows for lots of nuances within the absurdity and a real sense of connection between one another. Egan particularly shines, tackling a duel role. Much like his portrayal of Franz Liebkind in Paper Mill’s recent production of The Producers, he is able to deftly navigate moments of over-the-top absurd anger and moments of pure joy and silliness; and here his voice is allowed to soar even more in the few operatic occasions featured. Egan is certainly the standout, commanding the stage for the majority of the evening. Also returning from The Producers are Kostroff and Josefsberg who had been Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom respectively. It is fun to see these two teamed up again and show off their deft comedy skills. The final returning cast member from the original Tenors is Judy Blazer as Maria, whose fierce hot-headed Italian attitude is especially delightful, and I only wish there had been even more of her throughout the show. The three new characters are all amusing, but it is Ryan Silverman as Carlo who really stands out. His voice is incredible, and he proves a skilled comedic actor as he serves as the catalyst for all the wacky goings-ons.
All of this crazy action takes place in a hotel room in Paris, with Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design setting a wonderful grand atmosphere, with luxurious adornments and a gorgeous terrace featuring the Parisian sky and a view of the Eiffel Tower. The lighting design by Stephen Terry was quite appropriately simple for the room, but its prowess was shown through the terrace. Subtly, throughout the progression of the play, the outside sky began to change color, effectively communicating the passage of time and providing an insight of urgency to the audience that time was running out for everything to come together for the fast approaching opera concert. Paper Mill favorite and returning director from Lend Me a Tenor, Stephenson navigates the ridiculous A Comedy of Tenors with skill, stretching out the wacky moments for an optimal amount of laughs, while still letting the heart of the characters come through.

With lots of slapstick, screaming, singing, scandal, and a stirring script, Paper Mill’s A Comedy of Tenors is a fun night of laughter and entertainment. If you were a fan of Ludwig’s original show and want to see how these zany characters end up, or if you’re a newcomer looking for a farce check out this uproarious comedy before it ends its limited run on Sunday, February 26.
Review By: April Sigler
Photos By: Jerry Dalia and Kevin Thomas Garcia