LoftOpera is just one, though perhaps the liveliest, of many homegrown opera troupes in Brooklyn. I’ve never been ashamed to cross the East River for a fix.
Thus I have fond memories of Cavalli’s L’Erismena and Donizetti’s Il Furioso dell’ isola di San Domingo back in the day, not to mention Lorraine Hunt as Medée and Nicholas Tamagna as Ulrico [sic] (in Ballo in Maschera). And then LoftOpera blindsided me with Lucrezia Borgia in Bushwick (Bushwick!) last winter—and it was so good—well, I’m not ashamed to say, who knew? (La Cieca did, but I did not.)
While we are grinding our teeth for the full 15-16 LoftOpera season to begin (The Rape of Lucretia arrives in December, Tosca in March, Cosi fan tutte, Le Comte Ory and Mahagonny somewhere down the road), the spunky little company has been tracking down terrific young singers. You know: loud ones, with technical polish and no little sense of theatricality. They also found an artistically ravaged venue to display their art.
Their “Summer Session” appeared Friday and Saturday nights at a cavernous loft in outer Bushwick, with unfinished, corrugated ceilings, garage doors, battered pavements, beer and wine bars, and four display stages amidst the benches. There was just a grand piano this time, instead of the remarkably able orchestra one heard at Lucrezia, but Sean Kelly played it very nicely.
The Muse, enormous as it was and as far from civilization (cemeteries—Googlemaps tells me the neighborhood is half cemeteries), was filled by a paying public, and there were standees at the back. The audience ran to quite a mix for ages and duds, dress-up and non-dress-up. Maybe they yearned for real singing without microphones as prelude to a night of louder decibels. If so, they may have had problems. The guys performing were pretty darn loud.
The theme was scenes from Verdi: Traviata, Trovatore, Aida, Luisa Miller. Yours truly would have preferred more obscure Verdi repertory, but they did some clever things: Less familiar scenes from familiar scores. There were four singers, S, A, T, B where B equals baritone, as it should in a Verdi concert. These were paired with happy eccentricity: The soprano sang duets with the baritone, the mezzo had the tenor to herself for once (recriminations both times, but such is the lot of the Verdi mezzo).
There were surtitles, I’m told, but I couldn’t see them from my seat, which only enhanced my pleasure: I focused on the singers, all of them acting up a storm. The audience seemed spellbound, whether they knew the pieces or not. Staging was minimal but well devised: From their four separate platforms, the singers descended (as though to seek our support) and joined each other for intimate moments, then fled when relationships went south. It was cute.
The opening number was the great Traviata Garden Duet, from Germont’s entrance to his first departure. Joshua Jeremiah has a grainy sound, sexy in the main, a bit strained on top. The top became easier as he grew more comfortable—a factor he made use of to imply his social unease with a courtesan he gradually comes to respect. He unleashed real force in his later scene, the Act IV confrontation from Trovatore, when, without losing his lithe, dark quality, he expressed rage, lust, ecstasy.
Suzanne Vinnick was his Violetta and Leonora. She is a pretty young woman with a pretty voice that showed a slight beat and some “pitchiness” at Violetta’s first expressions of outrage. That soon faded and we could bask in an attractive lyric soprano that retained its color and was never shrill for her outcries or her sorrows. (I thought of Moffo.)
One wished she would continue after Germont’s departure, but you need a clarinet for that scene. Her Leonora, too, expressed her desperation without losing quality. The ornamental conclusion of the Trovatore duet gave neither singer any trouble. (I always compare this duet to my 78 of Emma Eames and Emilio de Gogorza; at LoftOpera, it was not that fast, but no one ever is.)
Between those scenes, we had Karolina Pilou and Dominick Rodriguez, a well-matched pair of discordant lovers, in the duet of Federica and Rodolfo from Luisa Miller, an opera too rarely heard in these parts. Rodriguez has the high register to express the ardent dreams of this manic Schiller firebrand, and his dilemma, his pleas for understanding, were of a more subdued hue entirely. He sounded game for Act II. Bring it!
Pilou is a big woman with a voice of near-contralto grandeur, though high notes do not unsettle her. The instrument is deep but subtle, full of curious pastel colors that she wielded cleverly to imply her yearning for Rodrigo’s love and her rage when he speaks of another woman. She did not drown him out, either—mind you, Rodriguez might take some singing over—though one suspects she could blast the house down if she cared to. (Ortrud, anyone?)
Their second selection was the confrontation that opens Act IV of Aida, and you know I was muttering—everyone was muttering—“Finish it. Just sing the whole scene. We’ll sing the priests.” But they concluded with Radames’ exit to be waterboarded.
Rodriguez was far more hysterical on this brief occasion than he had been when trying to appease Duchess Federica. He sang with real ping, implying anguish and loss of reason while never losing control of his technique. Pilou, in contrast, was entirely controlled, a true Amneris sound, wonderful serene dark phrases and a very slow build to indicate the furies beneath. This scene (with what follows) demonstrates why the opera should be named Amneris, and a great Amneris can easily steal the show.
Pilou understood—all four singers understood—the personality of the characters they were playing, the text, the nuances, the way a melody should be shaped to the mercurial changes of active debate. These confrontational situations are one of the things that made Verdi a game-changer after the more interior melody of bel canto, and are a quality I take home from LoftOpera performances.
The finale was “Libiamo” done as a quartet, and with very little encouragement, I’m sure we’d all have joined in, whether we knew the words or not. Beer was served, which suited the décor if not the champagne of the vocalism on display.
Photos by Allison Stock.