New York. – On October 20th, 2013 the Hellenic Orthodox Community of Astoria on the occasion of the Feast Day of their patron Saint and commemorating their 86th year anniversary presented their annual admission-free Opera and Ballet Concert in collaboration with the Hellenic Music Foundation. As usual the Petros Patrides Hall was packed with the loyal and enthusiastic audience from the community as well as from Manhattan and the tri-state area that enjoyed a grand evening of music featuring an eclectic selection of Opera, Oratorio, Ballet, Operetta and Orchestral music.
The music forces this year included (in no particular order): 18 talented and experienced opera singers who perform nationwide, at the MET and in Europe, joined by members of the New York Festival Singers plus members of the Queensborough Community College Chorus and 12 of their young dancers. The full 65-member symphonic orchestra of the Hellenic Music Foundation complemented by a large extra section of woodwinds and brass was conducted by Maestro Yannis Xylas. Mr. Xylas was an attentive partner for the vocal soloists in all the operatic excerpts, his tempos, though pushing the orchestra to its limits felt ideally driven for the dancers and singers alike, and indeed the orchestra sounded gorgeous and assured under his baton.
The year 2013 marks the bicentenary from the birth of two giants of Opera, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner and it was only natural that this year’s concert it would prominently feature their music. The concert started off appropriately with the chorus singing the Introductory Chorus from Nabucco’ (“Gli arredi festivi…”) followed by the Trio and Act I Finale from Bellini’s opera Norma sung by Greek –American Soprano Alexandra Loutsion as Norma, Mezzo Soprano Karolina Pilou as Adalgisa and Tenor Anthony Daino as Pollione.
The next excerpt was the Finale of Act I from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner, an opera widely acknowledged as one of the peaks of the operatic repertory, and profoundly influential among Western classical composers. As Tristan we were lucky to have the vocally robust performance and assured stage presence of Metropolitan Opera Tenor Adam Klein. His Isolde was Tami Swartz who was also the stage director for this excerpt. Their voices blended well together and though her voice is not one of a dramatic soprano she sailed effortlessly through the part. Mezzo Soprano Abby Powel delivered a solid performance in her short but difficult and lying rather high tessitura as Brangäne; the same can be said about Baritone Nathan Bahny in his short appearance as Kurwenal.
Then the Dance Majors of the Queensborough Community College danced to the tuneful Intermezzo from the operetta “Tausand und eine Nacht” (Thousand and one nights) by Johan Strauss II, choreographed by Emily Berry. The music was luscious and evocative and the orchestral sound (with a short contribution from the choir) swelled and ebbed reaching a rousing climax at the end and then subduing as in a dream.
The first part of the program closed with the extended Finale of Act I from the Opera “La donna del lago” (The Lady of the Lake) by Gioacchino Rossini. The opera – one of the most lyrical of Rossini’s Operas which will actually have its Metropolitan Opera Premiere in the 2014-2015 season – is based on the French translation of The Lady of the Lake, a narrative poem written in 1810 by Sir Walter Scott, whose work continued to popularize the image of the romantic highlands. It was the first of the Italian operas to be based on Scott’s romantic works, and it was “deeply influential in the development of Italian romantic opera”. Tenor Anthony Daino in his short solo as Rodrigo showcased his easy top and Mezzo Abby Powel her versatility in the role of Malcom, having just previously sang Brangäne in the Tristan excerpt. Soprano Alexandra Loutsion was Elena and Bass Waundell Saavedra sang the role of her father Duglas. Soprano Flora Kyrou as Albina sang with charm her melodious solo which was introduced by the two harps and the basses in the choir; Doug McDonnell was Serrano. This is an opera that requires a sizeable offstage brass and woodwind band and the one assembled for the concert provided the necessary support and underlying martial rhythms for the opening and the concluding ensemble.
The second half of the program transported us in another dimension with the violent and terrifying opening of the “Dies irae” (Day of Wrath) section of the Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi, one of the most well-known, performed and recorded pieces of sacred music. It began with a heaven-storming orchestral and choral eruption. In the next section the Tuba Mirum the trumpets of the Apocalypse sounded from up in the balcony – an inescapable call to judgment creating a stirring stereophonic effect combined with the orchestra (house left) and the chorus (house right). At the climax of the piece the curtain opened to reveal the four soloists; a short but chilling bass solo (Mors stupebit) was delivered by Waundell Saavedra. The almost oppressive atmosphere of the Rex tremendae created a sense of unworthiness before the King of Tremendous Majesty; the rest of the soloists, Tenor Adam Klein and Mezzo Karolina Pilou joined in for the quartet “Salva me…”. Their voices matched well and all of them delivered a powerful but also poignant performance against the full orchestra and chorus as the tempo kept pressing inexorably, while Soprano Alexandra Loutsion ascended effortlessly to the high-C which was the culmination of the ensemble.
Then came a light-hearted piece by the same composer, Automn – which concludes the lengthy Ballet sequence “the Four Seasons” from the 3rd Act of the opera ‘I vespri siciliani’ (Sicilian Vespers) – with five talented dancers from the Queensborough Community College, again choreographed by Emily Berry. The concluding section of the piece reached an exciting speed and the woodwinds and strings of the orchestra coped very well with the technical demands of the piece. Then Tenor Adam Klein and Mezzo Soprano Abbie Powell sang the short but very melodic duet from Boris Gudunov by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky reaching an exciting conclusion with brass, timpani the men’s chorus and harps glissandi.
The next dance number was the famous Hungarian Dance No. 1 by Johannes Brahms featuring ten talented young dancers. This led to the final segment of the program which was devoted to one of the most famous operettas of all times, the Merry Widow by Franz Lehar, painstakingly staged and choreographed by talented stage director Phytos Stratis and assistant director Polina Panagiotou. The first number was the ‘Wie die Weiber…” Septet delivered in front of the curtain by the seven men who sing and dance and wonder at how difficult it is to figure out women. Doug McDonnell was Danilo and Nathan Bahny sang Baron Zeta flanked by Demetris Bonaros, Rishi Rane, Kurt Alakulppi and Rashard Daleston. During the reprise of their final section the curtain opened to reveal the stage of the Petros Patrides Hall having been transformed into a cabaret, the famous Maxim. After a short dance number it was the turn of the women’s ensemble, the Grisetten of the cabaret led by the assured presence of Mezzo Soprano Courtney Bray as Valencienne who gave a vocally seductive performance. The charming singing and dancing Grisettes were – in no particular order – Elisa Nikoloulias, Anastasia Gere, Hillary Schranze, Stella Papatheodorou, Flora Kyrou and Polina Panagiotou.
After the bows music, taken from the rarely heard Overture to the Merry Widow and where all participants had a chance to get their well-deserved applause by the enthusiastic public the concert concluded with the Halleluja from Händel’s Messiah – in an expanded and robust orchestration by Mr. Xylas (combining elements of Mozart’s and Goossen’s reworking of it).
The Greek and Greek-American singers who participated in the concert were Alexandra Loutsion, Demetris Bonaros, Elisa Nikoloulias Karolina Pilou, Stella Papatheodorou, Flora Kirou, Polina Panagiotou and Anastasia Rege while in the orchestra Marina Frangoulis was the leader of the 2nd Violins section and Styliani Tartsinis alternated between the flute, clarinet and saxophone according to the needs of the pieces.
A short speech by Nikos Andriotis – the man to whose inspiration we owe this unique annual concerts – was delivered at the end of the concert thanking the anonymous sponsors who made this concert possible, the musicians and singers who participated and the Honorable Consul General of Cyprus Mrs. Koula Sophianou who has supported and attended every Opera concert since 2010; special mention was made to the conductor Mr. Xylas whose tireless effort, talent and dedication was the creative force behind this substantial and impressive musical evening of this magnitude.