Vocal Training

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Operatic song treats from Baltimore to Lincoln Center usher in springtime

One such recent occasion was the March 7 Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital of Mahler and Schumann songs by Matthias Goerne. The 30-something baritone makes a covered but gorgeous, warm sound and filters it through keenly felt and thoughfully uttered words. Unlike so many of his contemporary rivals, Goerne never contents himself with imitating Dietrech Fischer-Dieskau, even in material closely associated with that revered postwar totem of song interpretation.

Rather than maintaining the traditional stiff concert pose, Goerne tends to gyrate slowly, scanning the full audience sequentially.

I’ve been distracted before at Goerne recitals by his most unorthodox trait: he takes the loudest breaths this side of Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Anna Tomowa-Sintow, two other “air gulpers” with otherwise superb instruments. But in the close quarters of the Perelman Theater, Goerne made this work as part of his interpretative apparatus, and awed the audience not with volume but with control.

For someone largely delighted with Christoph Eschenbach’s new stewardship of the Philadelphia Orchestra, it was odd to find this sensitive musician––such a wonderful solo pianist––a somewhat disappointing accompanist; not always accurate, he often seemingly slowed what were already very slow tempi. Nonetheless, Eschenbach and Goerne clearly have great respect for one another, and the evening remained memorable.

On March 11, Eschenbach provided Goerne far surer accompaniment in Verizon Hall with the orchestra in Mahler’s “Rückert-Lieder.” The greater spaces involved drew deeper on the baritone’s ability to generate volume, and the climactic phrases of “Um Mitternacht” were not easy for him, but once again he gave ravishing, felt readings in superbly phrased arcs of fine, measured tone. The serenely distanced “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” proved a particular highlight.

I gather I was lucky to have heard Timothy Nolen, the fine singing actor who actually originated the “Sweeney Todd” production at the New York City Opera 20 years ago. Reduced to near invisibility in advertising copy, in any event Nolen was terrific, though he had to speak one or two of the very highest notes. He acted chillingly but with great comic panache when needed, and projected his words with an ideal clarity which younger singers would do well to emulate––truly an excellent job.

Old Broadway pros Judith Blazer and Walter Charles certainly earned their checks, as did the fluid-voiced Tonna Miller as Joanna. And Elaine Paige was indeed good fun as a powerfully sung Mrs. Lovett.

Baltimore Opera opened a fairly anonymous staging of “Salome” March 13. The company imports virtually all of its productions and this one, put through the paces by Bernard Uzan, has roamed the regional circuit for years. Nina Warren is one of those determined divas who only sing fiendishly difficult roles such as Senta, Turandot, and Chrysothemis. Like most such sopranos, Warren tends to make drably Malfitanesque all-purpose sounds.

But after hearing at the Metropolitan Opera Karita Mattila’s really glamorous singing at the top, but-nonexistent-below-second “Salome” six days later, I had to upwardly revise my estimation of Warren’s vocalism; she lacks Mattila’s personal timbre, sheen, or float, but she did sound all the notes and stay more or less on pitch, which counts for something in this role. Trained in ballet, she moved girlishly throughout and danced extremely well, revealing lots of jewels and a body-stockinged butt at the the end of the Tanz.

Dame Gwyneth Jones, a veteran of four decades on the stage and once a powerful Salome herself, acted a lot and managed her now fairly hollow voice well enough, summoning up power on top notes when needed. She was accompanied by the now standard issue muscle hunk cupbearer with a slave collar. Chris Merritt has changed Fach since he was last in New York and is now a succcesful exponent of high-lying character roles. His Herod was excellent in every way: completely secure, giving every word and note due value, and dramatically involved and aptly amusing.

Some Jokanaans sound better amplified from offstage, but this was not true of Jeffrey Kneebone, who displayed good top notes but less resonance than needed at the botttom. He acted capably. Except for a ghastly First Nazarene, no one else stood out one way or the other save for the Page, Anna Niedbala––here mini-skirted and plainly a girl to avoid the whiff of homosex that Wilde clearly intended––and the Slave, Patricia Rhiew. Neidbala and Rhiew are both Balimore Opera Studio mezzos who sang very well indeed. Christian Badea’s orchestra doesn’t rival the Met’s, but turned in a solid performance.

Niedbala and Rhiew, plus tenor John Zuckerman (good in Opera Brooklyn’s “Rondine”) team up May 16 for the studio’s production of Rossini’s farce “La Scala di Seta” under the gifted director Elizabeth Bachman. Baltimore offers excellent art museums, fine architecture, historic sites, and a spiffy aquarium––to say nothing of lots of good seafood. Certainly check the opera schedule if you visit. This fall promises two productions that could anchor a visit: “La Fanciulla del West”` with the old school verista Giovanna Casolla (fleetingly a Met Eboli and Tosca) in October, and November’s “I Puritani” with Elizabeth Futral and Gregory Kunde.

Francisco Casanova, looking more like the Little King every year, certainly had his fine moments as the Byronic hero Corrado––one just wishes he could learn more elegance, and to support his piano singing. Rosanna Potenza, a slim, pretty woman with an italianate but thin timbre and a very sketchy-sounding technique, was a non-starter in her opening “Non so le tetre immagini.” Doubtless she was nervous, but surely any conservatory in the city could have supplied a better Medora. Alert Covent Garden: she’d look great in a black cocktail dress.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes for Playbill, Time Out New York, and Opera News, among other venues.

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