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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Opera Review: Don't Lose Your Head

New Amsterdam Opera performs Massenet's Hérodiade.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The concert performance of Hérodiade (with mezzo Janara Kellerman in blue
in the title role) by New Amsterdam Opera on Friday night. Photo by the author.
Jules Massenet's 1881 opera Hérodiade return to the stage in New York on Friday night after an absence of 26 years. The work was staged in a concert version by the New Amsterdam Opera, Keith Chambers' small but ambitious project that offers concert performances of repertory that terrifies some larger companies. Here, Mr. Chambers and his forces were in the Center at West Park, a landmarked Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side in the middle of a lengthy restoration project. The performance was umbrella'd under the ongoing New York Opera Fest, a two month coalition of smaller opera companies in and around New York.

Hérodiade tells a slightly different version of the events leading up to the death of John the Baptist, and its drama has a different feel and flavor to it than the more familiar Salome by Richard Strauss. (The Strauss opera did not premiere until 1905.) The French opera's four acts (Mr. Chambers opted for the revised version of the work) are firmly in the post-Wagnerian style, laced with "Oriental" exoticisms in the manner of Saint-Saëns. Hérodiade is the title character but the opera's plot is driven by the princess Salome and her love (not lust) for Jean le Baptiste. (Massenet sourced his text from a novella by Gustave Flaubert.)

Janara Kellerman sang the title role with a mezzo-soprano big enough to make even the staunchest believer quake in his boots. She caught the emotional delicacy behind the queen's bluster, a sense of profound doubt in the face of her husband's sleazy infidelity and her own sense of the terrible (metaphorical) skeletons hidden in her closet. The character has a little bit of Dalila and a little bit of Carmen, and Massenet's music brings her to vivid life.

Salome (Marcy Stonikas) is a sweeter, purer figure here. This is not the depraved child of the later Richard Strauss opera but a young woman who is genuinely interested in the teachings of John the Baptist. In some ways she is a model for that other great Massenet heroine Thaïs. The opera's violent end, in which Herodiade allows Jean to be executed and Salome then takes her own life were a little confusing in the concert setting, but this soprano used her powerful instrument to exciting and unsubtle effect.

Tenor Errin Brooks brought a huge, stentorian voice to the part of Jean, singing with bright, ringing heldentenor power. The enigmatic nature of this holy man was emphasized by a lack of titles at the performance, and Mr. Brooks did little to convey any emotion beyond a sort of beatific grace. His arias and ensemble singing made for the most exciting parts of the evening. The only regret is that (like the Strauss opera) Jean dies offstage, depriving this impressive artist of a proper death scene.

Bass Isaiah Musik-Ayala supplied a deep and orotund instrument to the role of Phanuel, the one man in Judea who knows that Salome is in fact Hérodiade's daughter. Jason Duika played Hérode as a haunted figure (the role is a baritone here) who spends most of the opera (again, it's hard to figure out the textual nuances without surtitles or a libretto) complaining about not being able to sleep. Baritone Charles Eaton played the Roman general Vitellius, whose function in this opera seems to be to fill out and support in ensembles.

Mr. Chambers supported his singers with a reduced orchestra, which was better for the smallish church but continually ran the risk of being run over by the rampant soloists. A chorus, wedged uncomfortably into the small recessional space at the top of the altar, did their best to provide Massenet's hot-house writing with color and nuance. Two of the singers also took key solo parts, one delivering the Jewish prayer that was added to bring color to this most interesting opera.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats