New Amsterdam Opera 2019 Review: Hérodiade
Led By Janara Kellerman’s Nuanced Turn, NAO Makes Compelling Case For Overlooked Massenet GemBy David Salazar
The last time that New York audiences got a chance to see Massenet’s “Hérodiade” was back in 1995 when the Opera Orchestra of New York took on this grand opera.
And it’s a shame because before Friday, May 10, 2019, they were all missing out on something truly captivating and inspiring. Thanks to the New Amsterdam Opera, we got a chance to experience a work of melodic beauty and dramatic intensity.
On A Mission
For the last few seasons, the New Amsterdam Opera has made it its mission to present rare masterworks to the New York audience. A year ago it was Donizetti’s “La Favorita” with the 2017 opera being “La Forza del Destino.” While those two works often get showcases in Europe, they are rarities in New York and the United States overall.
But “Hérodiade” doesn’t get performed anywhere. One reason is undeniably its scope. Telling a “biblical” tale of John the Baptist and his rivalry with Hérodiade and Herode (as well as a love affair with Salome), this is a work that not only requires a plethora of major voices, but requires that they all be of the massive variety. Every voice in this opera is on the heavier side of the spectrum. The orchestra is also rather large (it includes a saxophone).
But it is an opera that moves at relentless pace and was perfect in a concert setting, even without subtitles. Unlike other works, with recitative passages connecting the big numbers, this opera moves from one big moment to the next rapidly.
The connective tissue was even more comprehensive thanks to the musical direction of Maestro Keith Chambers, who kept the opera flowing. It must not be overlooked how much pressure he was likely under presenting this work to most audience members for the very first time. Not only did he have to ensure a cohesive show, but he had to make it a constant discovery.
And he did just that, the orchestra summoning a wide array of colors despite Massenet’s own repetitive use of certain musical techniques. Despite a lot of tremolos in the strings at the close of musical numbers, they all sounded fresh thanks to shifts in dynamics or even speeds in certain moments. The advantage of having the orchestra on stage was that the different sections were able to come through with greater clarity, something that was particularly apparent during quiet solo moments. But Chambers also challenged his instrumentalists to push their limits in terms of volume, sometimes shrinking to a shimmering whisper or exploding with boundless energy.
Perhaps the most emblematic moment was the prelude that opens the final act. The strings were at their most delicate, slowly building with the melodic line in volume, each bit of growth adding to the passionate intensity without ever being overblown. This richness of musical line was apparent throughout the orchestra’s performance.
The musical vivacity was also carried through by many of the soloists.
Always In Character
Janara Kellerman delivered the most dramatically nuanced performance of the evening. Of all the singers, she was undeniably the one most engaged with everything around her, constantly turning toward her partners and seeking them out for interactions. Her facial expressions revealed her character’s torment or longing when she told Hérode that she loved him. There was horror when she learned that Salome was her daughter, her entire body turned towards soprano Marcy Stonikas.
And this translated into her singing as well. No phrase was taken for granted. The opera demands a ton from the mezzo, putting her very high up in terms of tessitura. You wouldn’t blame the interpreter for conserving her energy for many of the high notes, but Kellerman was fully committed at all times, ensuring that she used a full spectrum of colors to express Hérodiade’s emotional descent.
When we first see her, she is burning with contempt for Jean who has insulted her repeatedly. While she stormed out with full vocal arsenal, her delivery of the passage “J’allais ce matin” was far more impressive. She started with slender tone and continually built up a gradual crescendo that carried to the high G natural on “tremble Jézabel;” not only did the execution create tension and excitement, but it shaped the passage so as to place special emphasis on what matters most to Hérodiade – the insult.
Throughout the rest of the evening, Kellerman’s Hérodiade seemed to grow more and more aggressive, her voice edgier, but no less thrilling. She is tasked with increasing high notes and Kellerman was there to meet every single challenge head on, especially at the very end when discovering her daughter’s identity, the final “Ma fille” coarse. It was a breathtaking performance that really took the audience on a riveting journey.
Tenor Errin Duane Brooks also put in a truly mesmerizing turn as the prophet Jean. While there were a few moments where he seemed overly fixated on his score instead of his scene partners, the tenor shone vocally the entire night. His is a truly powerful dramatic tenor that has tremendous volume and stability. From his first cries of “Jézebal” at the start of the opera, it was clear that his instrument was a truly special one and he never once relented in delivering with the same level of power and precision.
But there was nothing quite like his Act four aria “Adieu donc,” where the tenor’s voice was simply sublime. Every note, every phrase grew beautifully out of the one that came before, the tenor building lines to incredible climaxes and then outdoing it on the next sequence. The aria sits quite high, with the singing quite in the upper range. High As are frequent throughout and there is even a high B flat at a moment. Brooks sang each one with increasing energy and by the time he got to very final High A, his voice soared incredibly through the hall. The audience exploded with applause for quite some time, stopping the show; it was the longest ovation of the night and the electrifying turn undeniably merited such a response.
And even after that, he still found the resources to pull through another massive duet that climaxes in a high B. As he walked offstage, the tenor was completely drenched in sweat. He had made it all look so effortlessly, but that sight was a reminder of how much work it takes to get there.
Soprano Marcy Stonikas was a powerhouse as Salome, her voice blooming in the stratosphere effortlessly throughout the night. It was exciting and explosive and the role undeniably worked in her favor. Her most compelling moment definitely came in the Act three confrontation with Hérode where her powerful vocalization emphasized her repudiation of him.
Her opening aria, “Il est doux, il est bon” hit the spot when she had to enter the high register and let those notes soar, yet it often felt like the softer middle singing was left behind. It was solid to be sure, but the building to those high note climaxes never felt as fluid or connected. This nuance might be often overlooked, but it really creates the emotional connective tissue to those climactic moments. It allows us to anticipate them and thus appreciate them all the more. Without it, the repeated high notes lose their splendor and the singing becomes one dimensional.
That’s not to say that she didn’t accomplish some more varied vocal phrasing. “Charmes des jours passées” opening piano phrases were quite beautiful, but Stonikas’ energy seemed to really rise to a different level when she was asked to hit her high B natural or even climactic high C on “Ah! Pitié!”
Baritone Jason Duika presented the most frustrating performance of the evening. He has a marvelous instrument with a large range and a strong potent and resonant sound. But his singing seemed rather general throughout, the color palette rather limited. Hérode might be the most clear-cut character in the entire opera as he is driven by his passion for Salome. But he is also a King with power and he has relationships with every single character on stage.
Duika nailed Hérode’s lusting after Salome quite well, especially during his Act two aria and his repeated utterances of “Salome,” which he took on with increasing volume and might. And he definitely hit the high Es and Fs throughout “Laisse-moi contempler ta beauté” with great power (the high Fs on “Esclave, je t’aime” were particularly exciting), but the character never seemed to be more than just non-stopped raw vocal strength.
But the other interactions never quite seemed to express any point of view about the character. The singing was sturdy, but lacking in range of color palette. His delivery of music in relation to Phanuel sounded similar to his approach when dealing with his wife. Often standing next to Kellerman’s immersive portrayal, Duika often looked disconnected. Hérode’s anger toward Jean at the end didn’t really build off of the passion he had expressed earlier for Salome. Still, there is no denying the impressive and compact nature of his instrument.
Isaiah Musik-Ayala presented a sturdy bass-baritone to the role of Phanuel, who seems to be playing both sides in this political conflict. His singing moved from gentle and tempered during his Act three aria to more bullish in his meeting with Hérode.
As Vitellius, Charles Eaton displayed a solid baritone. The sound had a rougher edge that emphasized his role as a Roman leader. He struck an imposing figure onstage that was matched by his sturdy singing.
In smaller roles, Brooklyn Snow displayed an agile soprano as the Babylonienne. She knocked off the flourishes and ornamentations in the line with relative grace. Meanwhile, Benjamin Herman exhibited a slim but pleasant timbre in his few lines as Une Voix. Jonathan Harris delivered a round timbre in his limited interventions as Le Grand-Prêtre.
The chorus was solid overall, though the men’s section seemed to struggle with a passage at the start of the final scene.
On the whole, it was an exhilarating evening with singing that could literally bring down The Center at West Park. More importantly, the New Amsterdam Opera reminded us of the vitality of its mission. While many opera companies are doing incredible work pioneering new operas to add to the repertory, the company continues to mine for operas from our past that can still play a major role in our future. With “Hérodiade,” the company has brought back a work that definitely deserves greater inspection from the world’s major houses and singers.