We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, April 7, 2014


Craig Rutenberg, Christine Brewer, Dominic Armstrong
Yesterday was the final George London Foundation for Singers recital of the season and a fine recital it was.  This series pairs younger artists with more senior ones, by which we mean those who have recently won an award from the Foundation with those who were given awards some time ago.  In this case, Dominic Armstrong was a 2013 winner and Christine Brewer won her award "at an early stage in her career".

Mr. Armstrong appeared and sounded nothing like a "junior partner".  He is a highly polished performer, relaxed and poised onstage in a way that allows him to serve the music.  He has a stunningly clear tenor with beautiful resonance and an enviable musicality, the kind of artist for which we have no reservations.  Apparently, the rest of the opera world thinks so too as his "dance card" is filled.

Ms. Brewer has a ginormous soprano that thrills and fills the hall with its particular texture.  What we like most about her is her comic style.  We greatly enjoyed her performance in the role of Lady Billows in Britten's Albert Herring at the Santa Fe Opera in 2010 and wrote about it (on a different website).  We have not heard her since and were delighted to hear her again yesterday.

Both artists were accompanied by the illustrious Maestro Craig Rutenberg who made an Idina Menzel-type gaffe when introducing Ms. Brewer.  She responded with gracious good humor.  And let it be said that that was the only false note in Mr. Rutenberg's performance; he played with consummate artistry and subtlety.

Mr. Armstrong opened the program with Beethoven's lengthy  "An die ferne Geliebte" which he sang in perfect German.  (Could this be Beethoven's most melodic work?)  Like a painter with a full palette, he never ran out of colors.  Longing for the beloved gave way to passion, angst and joy.  His phrasing was impeccable and, even in passages where Beethoven gives the singer the same note repeated many many times, he invested each with individuality.  And he knows when to stretch a phrase.

Some settings of Shakespeare's texts by Roger Quilter were sung with every word given its full measure.  We were very charmed by a lagniappe--a song not on the program--a setting of a Thomas Moore poem "'Tis sweet to think".

We were not as charmed by a group of sonnets by Michelangelo in which the flowery Italian text seemed to be at odds with Britten's music.  But we did notice that Mr. Armstrong's Italian was as perfect as his German.

Ms. Brewer sang three songs by Richard Strauss.  The walls themselves seemed to tremble when she sang in the upper register, although there is a somewhat harsh metallic edge at the very top.  There was a magnificent portamento in "Breit über mein Haupt", less frequently sung than "Allerseelen" and "Die Nacht" but now one of our favorites.  Ms. Brewer got the chance to exhibit a gorgeous portamento.

She did her entire performance "on the book" and we experienced that as a barrier between her and the audience.  We could understand how it was necessary for the world premiere of Douglas Cuomo's interesting piece "Sorry for Your Loss" in which the singer is trying to leave a phone message for an old lover whose mother had just died.  After a succession of embarrassing false starts which she deletes, we were convinced that an old-fashioned hand-written note was called for!  Unlike much contemporary music, we felt that the music added to the drama.

Three folksongs arranged by Benjamin Britten were given a most respectful and sincere performance by Ms. Brewer and Mr. Rutenberg.  In "The Salley Gardens" and "O, Waly, Waly" the music fulfilled the text but in "The last rose of summer" they seemed to be disjunctive.  But Mr. Rutenberg's well-articulated rolling chords were delightful to the ear.

The maestro took the opportunity to play Virgil Thomson's "Two Sentimental Tangos" which were not at all like the tangos to which one dances but were short and sweet to hear.

Ms. Brewer sang Mr. Thomson's "My Long Life" from The Mother of Us All, dating from 1946.  We reviewed the entire opera when presented this past season at the Manhattan School of Music and found that Gertrude Stein's peculiar writing style was better served with sets, costumes and staging illuminating the life of Susan B. Anthony.  The aria as a "stand alone" was a strange choice for a recital.

The final work on the program was from Britten's Gloriana--a duet between Queen Elizabeth and Essex.  We loved the drama of the scene as well as the singing.  And the lark in the text could clearly be heard in Mr. Rutenberg's piano.

As encore, the three artists joined forces for "My Hero" from Oscar Strauss' operetta The Chocolate Soldier.  The voices blended beautifully and Mr. Rutenberg's piano was appropriately tender.  It was a perfect conclusion to a most satisfying season at The Morgan Library.

© meche kroop

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