|Michelle Bradley and Michael Gaertner
As part of Opera America's Emerging Artist Recital Series, Marilyn Horne Song Competition Winners of 2014 presented a recital at the National Opera Center. Ms. Horne and the Music Academy of the West foster young artists with high potential and soprano Michelle Bradley and collaborative pianist Michael Gaertner certainly demonstrated high potential last night. This was the final stop on a tour that these two artists were awarded along with cash prizes.
Ms. Bradley's voice somehow made us think of a sunflower--a sturdy stem with a huge bloom on the top. She is one of those singers employing an economy of gesture with much of her expressiveness showing mainly in her face. The most remarkable thing about her recital was her perfect English diction. We grow weary of complaining about otherwise fine singers whose English leaves us wondering what in the world they were singing about. Not so here!
Toward the end of the recital, this talented duo performed a cycle previously unknown to us--Five Songs of Laurence Hope. This is a pseudonym for Adela Florence Nicolson whose text was set by H.T. Burleigh. The poetry was exotic and interesting and Mr. Burleigh's music quite lovely. The voice and piano were equally fine and we particularly noted the exoticism in the piano. Mr. Gaertner is a fine collaborative artist--the kind that breathes with the singer, attentive and supportive. His presence is however suitably authoritative. He commands the piano.
The sincerity of the spirituals which followed--"Give Me Jesus" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands"-- was unmistakable and clearly the audience was touched by Ms. Bradley's communicative skills. Even more astonishing was her comfort while sitting at the piano accompanying herself in a work she wrote entitled "Trust".
Ms.Bradley has an ample voice, perhaps heading into the dramatic soprano fach. How well she negotiated the highs and lows of "Vissi d'Arte" from Puccini's Tosca. And how we wished for some dynamic variety!
This was true to a lesser extent in the difficult concert aria with which she began the program--Beethoven's "Ah! Perfido", which we had just heard Sunday. The woman singing the aria has been dumped by her lover and she is alternatively furious, imploring and pitiable. We heard a nice blend of chest and head voice on the low notes and an impressive flight of scales at the end. But we longed for more variety of color and dynamics. We are sure this will develop in time.
A set of French songs followed and we didn't find them to be the best choice for the singer at this stage of her development. For one thing, the diction was wanting and so was the phrasing and Gallic style. Clearly the songs were learned phonetically. In Fauré's "Notre amour", she lightened up somewhat to good advantage but variety of color in the description of love by Armand Silvestre begged for some distinction between "chose légère", "chose charmante", "chose sacrée", "chose infinie", and "chose éternelle". A singer could have a field day coloring each verse!
Mr. Gaertner's piano was particularly fine in the arpeggios of Bachelet's "Chère nuit".
We found similar flaws of diction and phrasing in a set of Strauss songs. As many American singers do, Ms. Bradley cannot pronounce the "ch" sound. We didn't hear it at all or we heard something like "ish". This could easily be corrected.
We did like the way she became more gentle in "Freundliche Vision" allowing some more expressiveness to come into the voice and we liked the change of color in "Cäcilie" when the middle verse of Heinrich Hart's text describes the dread of lonely nights. So what we are looking for is not out of her reach.
Hers is a large instrument and perhaps it will take considerable training to bring it under dynamic control and to produce more colors. We think it will be worth the work or we would not have coaxed ourselves into identifying the shortcomings.
(c) meche kroop