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Women on the Verge at Opera Manhattan: Lady Macbeth, Mrs. Rowland, and “Elle”

 

Berthe Bovy in La Voix Humaine by Jean Cocteau. Note the classical Greek peplos style of her nightgown.

Berthe Bovy in La Voix Humaine by Jean Cocteau. Note the classical Greek peplos style of her nightgown.

A special Valentine’s Day production from Opera Manhattan, Women on the Verge, is all about women unhappy in love. The centerpiece of the production will be Poulenc’s one-act monodrama for soprano, La Voix Humaine. The production also includes two monodramas by contemporary composer Thomas Pasatieri. Lady Macbeth is based on five speeches from the Shakespeare’s Scottish play, and Before Breakfast is based on the Eugene O’Neill play.

Feb. 10, 7:30 Feb. 11, 4:00 Feb.11, 7:30 Feb. 12, 7:30
Before Breakfast Jayne Skoog Meredith Buchholtz Jayne Skoog Jayne Skoog
Lady Macbeth Melinda Griswold Sofia Dimitrova Melinda Griswold Melinda Griswold
La Voix Humaine Kala Maxym Kala Maxym Roza Tulyaganova Roza Tulyaganova

All performances are at Shetler Studios, 244 W. 54th St., 12th floor, penthouse 1.

I certainly didn’t want to miss hearing two supremely talented friends—Kala Maxym and Roza Tulyaganova—sing Francis Poulenc’s challenging monodrama, La Voix humaine, last weekend, and to my delight it introduced me to a new, still small, but thoroughly admirable operatic enterprise in the city, Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre. Calling itself “a company for artists by artists,” Opera Manhattan “serves the New York metro area by producing and performing both popular and unusual operas for the theatergoing public and under-served communities. OMRT strives to empower emerging artists, encourage creative thinking, and develop business-minded artists by creating opportunities for artists to produce operas themselves,” as well as “to present New York’s best emerging professional singers by providing them with performing opportunities and guidance.” This special Valentine’s Day performance did all these fine things and more—it was a constant delight for anyone who loves opera and the art of singing. The five singers I heard on Saturday afternoon and evening showed, for the most part, dramatic skills and a refinement of vocal development far beyond what one would expect from a “young singer.” These were for the most part completely realized performances—if not entirely finished—from completely formed artists. My apologies to Melinda Griswold, whom I did not hear.

They were greatly aided by the expressive, often passionate piano accompaniments by Music Director Tristan Cano. He kept a steady pace, which did justice to the musical shape of each work, while remaining flexible enough to allow the singers full expression. He was a strong presence without dominating any of his singers. All the works were originally scored for small orchestra. Often even pianists’ most accomplished performances of reductions lack the weight of an orchestra, but Mr. Cano did a splendid job of bringing the deliberation and body of an ensemble into his playing. He seemed to be imagining the sound of the individual instruments and the ensemble as he played. This, as well as his emotional concentration and sensitivity to the singers made me often forget that I was listening to a piano. Cano has also conducted opera and trained choruses

Sofia Dimitrova

Sofia Dimitrova

The first half of the program consisted of two monodramas by Thomas Pasatieri, a skilful and versatile composer whose operas have been performed by the New York City Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, and the Seattle Opera. First, Sofia Dimitrova sang Lady Macbeth, a synthesis of five speeches from Shakespeare’s tragedy. This extended monologue is something more than an aria, because it combines Lady Macbeth’s speeches throughout the play, but something less than an opera. It directs our attention to Lady Macbeth’s internal participation in the planning, execution, and aftermath of the murder which brings her and her husband first to power and then to ruin. Pasatieri writes wonderfully for the voice, and Sofia Dimitrova, whom I heard twice, sang it with intense and characteristically Russian feeling—and Russians’ affinity for Shakespeare is no secret. Her full, plummy voice was ideally suited to the registers of Pasatieri’s writing, its expressive power, and to the role of Lady Macbeth herself. Ms. Dimitrova’s English was excellent.

Pasatieri’s setting of Eugene O’Neill’s 1916 monodrama, Before Breakfast, is an accomplished adaptation of a tough American play to operatic verismo by means of a libretto by Frank Corsaro. There can be no doubt that this process softened the original, making the protagonist, Charlotte, as Mrs. Rowland is called in the opera, more sympathetic than O’Neill’s thoroughly shrewish creation, from a time in his life when he was strongly under the influence of Strindbergian misogyny and sharing Louise Bryant—most uncomfortably—with John Reed. O’Neill played Alfred himself, neither visible nor audible except for the falling of his arm as he dies—a detail not included in the opera, at least as performed here. Although the central character on stage is a woman, O’Neill’s invention is thoroughly androcentric in the spirit of the other male writers of that generation, Hemingway, Faulkner, et. al. The maleness of their culture is not easy for most people to accept or even to understand today (I think of my youngest son’s high school English teacher and her locked closet full of copies of The Sun Also Rises.), and this, besides making O’Neill’s early, “minor” play something of a period piece, informs Corsaro and Pasatieri’s treatment, as well as the Opera Manhattan interpretations, which put the miserable wife front and center. Stage Director Sarah Fraser gave her singers plenty of room to develop their own points of view on the work.

Meredith Buchholtz

Meredith Buchholtz

Meredith Buchholtz, who sang the role in the afternoon, made Charlotte fully a woman who has loved an errant man and has suffered for it. She brought her conflicting love and resentment into the foreground, enhanced by her ample, sensuous voice, with its prominent vibrato. Ms. Buchholtz is an imaginative, intensely feeling actress, and her portrayal of the miserable woman was entirely absorbing and believable. Her final wild moments were deeply chilling. As a singer, she shapes her lines most expressively and very beautifully. She is still at a very early stage of her career, and her voice is not quite fully formed. Between her vibrato and the excitement of her vivid performance, her pitches were occasionally a little vague or slightly off, but in her continuing work with her teacher, she will surely improve that and further develop the most characteristic qualities of her voice. And with her voice, musicality, and vivid acting, Meredith Buchholtz should develop into a vital presence in opera and musical theater.

Jayne Skoog, who took over the role in the evening, was more of the virago O’Neill created. She assumed the pinched face and bristling shrewishness described in the first performance of the play. Her interpretation and her bright soprano set an edge to her Charlotte Rowland. Still, she respected the agrodolce with which Mr. Pasatieri has sauced the text, and she carried his affecting melodic lines with attractive phrasing and an fine appreciation of the writing. Her dramatic treatment was more conventional than Buchholtz’s, occasionally lapsing into the familiar stage gestures of the scolding, exasperated housewife, but her performance was really none the worse for it.

Jayne Skoog

Jayne Skoog

La Voix humaine, the centerpiece of the evening, is altogether a more substantial and sophisticated work, and Francis Poulenc’s opera is a more even match for its original, adapted by Jean Cocteau himself. Unfortunately both Cocteau and Poulenc seem to be somewhat in eclipse these days, at least in America, and this rich exercise in theater and recitative—and yes, theatricality—has not been performed in New York since 1993, according to Opera Manhattan’s program. Cocteau wrote the play in 1930 for a specific actress, Berthe Bovy, responding to her wish to have full scope for her talents, but other actresses, including Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman, have taken up the role with great success. Likewise, Poulenc wrote his opera for Denise Duval, who made an authoritative recording of it, which hasn’t stopped considerable number of sopranos from making it their own, including Galina Vishnevskaya, Gwyneth Jones, Felicity Lott, Catherine Malfitano, Julia Migenes, Jessye Norman, Magda Olivero, Renata Scotto, Anja Silja, Elisabeth Söderström, and Audra McDonald. Even if it hasn’t been performed locally in almost twenty years, this is challenging company for a young soprano, some preserved in recordings. Nonetheless, both Roza Tulyaganova and Kala Maxym succeeded brilliantly in making a case for this psychologically trenchant and musically extravagant hour-long recitative, and have shown that they are fully capable of taking a place beside its best proponents. Having said that I should point out that both singers regard their Opera Manhattan performances as works in progress, which they sang from the score, not from memory. Ms. Maxym, dressed in a nightgown and overcoat performed it in semi-staged form, and Ms. Tulyaganova, wearing an evening gown, sang it as concert opera. This is a clear sign of the radical differences in their interpretations, both equally compelling, which made this double performance such a fascinating and rewarding experience. After her performances, Kala Maxym said most vehemently that La Voix humaine should only be performed fully staged, and Roza Tulyaganova said that she found it fully satisfying as concert opera—that everything that mattered was in the music.

Blessings on Opera Manhattan for giving us this opportunity…and I’ll offer a bit of advice. The next time you can hear two different performances of a major role on the same day, don’t miss the chance!

Kala Maxym

Kala Maxym

Kala Maxym approached the work with her luxuriant, mezzo-like voice, which she has cultivated in the most exquisite way. It was a joy in itself, simply to bask in the sound. Founded on a resonant, richly saturated base, which is consistently present from bottom to top, her voice shimmers with rapidly passing highlights, suggesting a shot fabric of deep blue or purple. The consistency and hue of Maxym’s voice are especially suited to French opera and song in general, and I can easily see her making a speciality of them. Her diction was very clear and easy to understand, even in the more emotive passages. In fact she intelligently used Cocteau’s theatrical diction (“declamatory,” one might say, but that would bring in the aesthetic of the rhetorical tradition in theater, which enjoyed its last, self-conscious gasp in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.) to temper the melodic outpouring her voice could easily provide, if the broken style of Poulenc’s recitative and Ms. Maxym’s good taste allowed it. In La Voix humaine, with all its large jumps, pauses, and broken phrases, Ms. Maxym’s voice and her flowing treatment of phrasing helped hold the music together, achieving a satisfying balance between the equally powerful musical and dramatic aspects of the work.

Roza Tulyaganova

Roza Tulyaganova

Roza Tulyaganova has been blessed—and has meticulously cultivated—a splendid lyric soprano with a glowing, handsomely nuanced head voice and a rich, tawny lower register. These are distinct but similar, and complimentary in the most beautiful way. She knows how to play them off each other for purely sensual variety, as well as for dramatic expression. Rather than integrate the jumps and angularities in her character’s line, she stressed them, and she used the contrasts to convey the woman’s extreme anguish of mind, as she attempted to keep her departing lover on the other end of the highly undependable telephone line. As the woman became more agitated and confused, Tulyaganova brought out the explosive rush of sharp French consonants for expression, meanwhile maintaining the splendid golden timbre of her upper range. This fidelity to good production together with the passionate expressiveness of her phrasing and use of language brought the listener deeply into Poulenc’s solitary drama and his character’s internal pain. We are aware that “elle” is the descendant of Donna Elvira and Elettra, but her psychological situation is entirely of the twentieth century. A woman in a Paris apartment might use her telephone to call almost anyone, but her isolation is more absolute than on the streets of an anonymous Spanish town centuries ago. In Ms. Tulyaganova’s interpretation our absorption in the voice and the music brought this alienation to a deeply felt, existential level.

Introducing two young singers who can obviously go far to a neglected work of extraordinary quality and introducing both them and the opera to New York audiences is precisely within Opera Manhattan’s mission, and they have accomplished it brilliantly. The only truly regrettable aspect of the events was the level of extraneous noise, above all the show tunes and cabaret music that carried over from one of the other Shetler studios. This noise pollution was by no means subtle. By the evening performance the parallel activity had pretty much ceased in the other studios, but such conditions are in themselves unacceptable. The Shetler organization should not rent out studios unless they are sound-proof. On the other hand, for this listener at any rate, the actual disturbance was less severe than it might have been, because the performances were so strong and absorbing. The Sofia Dimitrova, Buchholtz, and Kala Maxym deserve special praise for their ability to hold us rapt under very difficult circumstances.

Opera Manhattan have a benefit coming up at Symphony Space on Monday. Don’t miss it, and give generously, so that they can afford a dedicated hall for their future performances. I have heard that one of these, this spring, is likely to be La Voix humaine in a completely finished staged performance. And let’s add an orchestra to that wish list.

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L'Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides' Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.