News Column

Pasa Reviews -- Both sides now: Opera stars break out of character

August 15, 2014

By James M. Keller, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Aug. 15--Performance Santa Fe's Festival of Song series (?July 31 and Aug. 8),

St. John's United Methodist Church

Performance Santa Fe has found a winning formula in its Festival of Song series, a sequence of afternoon performances, presented in partnership with Santa Fe Opera, in which singers starring at the Opera are invited to show off a different side of their artistry through an hour or so of art songs. This year the series set up shop in St. John's United Methodist Church, having been displaced from its former digs at the Scottish Rite Center due to that organization's changing circumstances. St. John's is a serviceable location, if less genially enveloping than the Scottish Rite Center. Its acoustics can prove blurry, such that (at least from my perspective in the church's balcony) a good deal of the copious spoken commentary proved incomprehensible.

The opening recital (on July 31) featured mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack and tenor Alek Shrader, a charismatic, young, married couple whom opera audiences had heard, respectively, in the title role in Carmen and as Ernesto in Don Pasquale. Shrader is a remarkable singer, unusually well equipped for the sustained lyricism and elaborate coloratura demands of Rossini and Donizetti. He achieves his highest notes by shoehorning them into a tight funnel of resonance that allows him to pop them out with pinpoint accuracy. The distinctive sound that attaches to this was abundantly on display in the high-lying part of Ernesto, but the recital allowed him to center his voice a bit lower, where it took on a velvety richness. He offered three FaurÉ songs and then another three by Falla (his rarely heard Trois mÉlodies). The intense focus of his tone can suggest a nasal quality (although he certainly does not "sing through his nose") that served him well in French texts, as did his taut vibrato. His readings seemed more about vocalism than about poetic interpretation, but as far as they went they were technically unimpeachable.

Mack's voice displays less lusciousness than we may expect from a mezzo-soprano. Indeed, the quality of her tone seems to situate her in that betwixt-and-between area that spans the domains of both soprano and mezzo-soprano without reaching the extremes of either. She rendered Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis with accuracy if not sensuality; but in Falla's Siete canciones populares espaÑolas, she did convey winning tenderness in the lullaby "Nana" and endowed the concluding song, "Polo," with a measure of passion. Notwithstanding the pleasures the singers provided in their solo numbers, they came into their own particularly in their performance of Rossini's duet "Les amants de SÉville" and even more in their encore, from the same composer's opera La Cenerentola, which played to the agile vocal strengths of both.

Although Paul Groves also began his career as a lyric tenor, he has moved in a more dramatic direction, which is why he is singing Florestan in the Opera's production of Fidelio. In his recital on Aug. 8, his voice sometimes took on a baritonal quality, a character that was reinforced by occasional huskiness. He seemed not always comfortably settled into his tone, "relocating" his sound as he worked through long-spanning phrases, of which there were many in his opening set of five Duparc songs. A similarly flexible approach to tone production informed the ensuing group of Britten folk-song settings, although he did seem more firmly grounded for the concluding item in the set, "Ca' the Yowes," a Scots dialect song set to a poem by Robert Burns.

As Groves is now moving into operatic roles by Wagner, it was perhaps doubly appropriate that he should give over some of his recital to the songs of Wagner's father-in-law, Franz Liszt. He sang four of them, all to texts by Victor Hugo, with no pauses between. Particularly thrilling was his interpretation of "Enfant, si j'Étais roi," which he let loose at far fuller throttle than one is accustomed to hearing. So did Joseph Illick, the artistic director of Performance Santa Fe, who took obvious relish in accompanying songs by this master pianist -- and by another who followed directly, Rachmaninoff. Again, the church's acoustics could be pesky, and, from the perspective of my seat, the piano lid might better have been half-lowered at least for these two sets. Perhaps the finest moment in the afternoon came with Rachmaninoff's song "How Fair This Spot." Here Groves maintained beautiful, invigorating tone over extended phrases without adjusting it, to deeply satisfying effect. Like Mack and Shrader, Groves is really an opera singer rather than a lieder singer at heart, and he seemed very happy to leap into opera for his encore. He surprised the audience by inviting a friend to join him in this: the bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas, this summer's Escamillo in Carmen. On this afternoon, they essayed the famous duet "Au fond du temple saint" from a different Bizet opera, Les pÊcheurs de perles. Even when bellowed, it remains an impressively lovely piece, one that reminds us how tragic and unfair it was that its composer should have died at the age of 37 without having achieved a single operatic success.


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