Rare Musical Treats

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Britten opera, Tony & Liza, Silent movie fest

Benjamin Britten’s only comic opera, “Albert Herring,” is having its first New York performance in over 30 years at Henry Street Settlement’s Harry De Jur Playhouse, through February 18. It’s being presented by Gotham Chamber Opera, which artistic director/conductor Neil Goren founded in 2001.

Before becoming a conductor at the suggestion of Leonard Bernstein, Goren was a recital accompanist for Kathleen Battle, Thomas Hampson, Hermann Prey, and, notably, was Leontyne Price’s exclusive musical collaborator. In an interview, he glowing remembered, “It was almost like sex with her, the rapport we shared, the way we could anticipate where each other would go in the music.”

Goren is no less enthusiastic about “Albert Herring.”

“It’s a coming of age story, with town elders, young people growing into adulthood, and children. I’m so proud and happy with this production and there’s not a weak link in the cast. The children are from the Metropolitan Opera, and, for the vocally demanding Lady Billows, who runs the town, I needed a dramatic soprano who could be a real comedienne and totally command the stage. I was lucky enough to get Karen Huffstodt, who I saw at La Scala, doing Spontini’s “La Vestale.” Her career has been almost entirely in Europe. In the last few years she’s done mostly Isolde, Brunnhilde, and Elektra—the big guns.”

“For the role of Albert’s mother,” he added, “I needed a Verdi-type mezzo at the peak of her powers, someone who could sing Amneris and Azucena, because there’s high B flats, low notes and everything in between. I thought immediately of Barbara Dever, who’s been doing it at the Met and La Scala for decades. She was free, thank God, and she’s hysterically funny.”

Two of Goren’s young singers, Timothy Kuhn and Leah Wool, after being cast, were signed by New York City Opera, and Kuhn will sing “Don Giovanni” there this spring. “For Albert, around whom the opera revolves, I needed both a brilliant actor and a wonderful singer and, after hearing 40 tenors, I got Matt Morgan, who is terrific.”

Goren’s technical team is no less impressive. Actress Kathleen Chalfant, who has appeared with Gotham, recommended director David Schweizer (“White Chocolate”), who brought in Riccardo Hernandez on sets, Scott Zielinski on lights and costumer David Zinn. Goren said, “Their work is unbelievably creative and really fun, but I want people to be surprised, so I won’t say more.”

While not as “high art” as Britten, Tony Danza delivered a solid club act, “I’m Back,” at Feinstein’s at the Regency on January 31, proving his snobby cabaret naysayers and folks who love to poke fun at his ABC talk show dead wrong. Blazing with bonhomie and star confidence, he easily evoked that Vegas-y Rat Pack ethos so many youngsters sweat to emulate, and a packed house happily grooved along to his endearing Louis Prima and doo-wop medleys, snappy tap dancing, and cornet playing. The guy can definitely croon a tune, as well, and no one in the audience was more appreciative of the fact than Liza Minnelli, who visibly put on quite a performance herself.

During the act she screamed encouragement at the stage, doing high kicks in her seat. Twice she leapt to her feet, and one almost thought she was going to be brought onstage, but it was strictly Danza’s show and he genially advised, “Park it, Liza!”

Physically, there is probably not a lovelier singer in cabaret right now than Maggart and she wore the best form-fitting, film-noir draped black jersey dress I’ve seen on any club performer. “You know my sister?” she asked me. “Fiona Apple? Well, it’s hers. I had nothing to wear, and saw this in her closet and thought, ‘That’ll work!’ It’s a Vivienne Tam and, luckily, it stretches!”

The best free film deal in town is happening 2:30 pm, Wednesdays, at the Donnell Public Library, in their series, “Meet the Music Makers: Silent Film Accompanists.” Curated by New York treasure, librarian Joseph Yranski, it’s a series of comedies featuring the fiercest flappers of the day. “Mama’s Affair” (2/15) was written by Anita Loos in 1921, directed by Victor Fleming (“Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz”) and stars Constance Talmadge (1897-1973), a delicious comedienne, whose spirited portrayal as The Mountain Girl in D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” was probably the first really great American film performance. The Brooklyn-born Talmadge was the funny sister of the more dramatic Norma and also Natalie, who married Buster Keaton. She was once engaged to Irving Thalberg, and was married four times. She made a ton of money, but never made a talking picture and eventually became reclusive. When producer Leonard Sillman tried to entice her out of retirement to appear on Broadway, she replied, “Are you kidding? I couldn’t act even when I was a movie star!”

“Hold Your Breath” (February 15 and 22) dates from 1924 and features Dorothy Devore as a cub reporter, whose assignment gets crazy when a monkey steals a valuable bracelet and scales a skyscraper. At both performances, fabulous live piano accompaniment will be provided by Carolyn Swartz (February 15) and Sylvia Moscovitz (February 22).

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.