|Eric Sedgwick and Robert E. Lee at the National Opera Center|
We do not know Mr. Lee well enough to enquire about his name but there must be an interesting story there. Likewise, it would be interesting to learn how this artist manages to sing so evenly throughout a wide range, seamlessly combining his counter-tenor head voice with significant chest voice at the bottom.
Opinions are divided on whether the vocal production of a counter-tenor can be called falsetto or whether its origin is in the size of the vocal chords. We will leave such discussion to the physiologists and focus on Mr. Lee's excellent artistry.
Acknowledging that we enjoyed an evening of song, sung predominantly in our least favorite language, we are compelled to understand the reasons. To begin, the program was very well chosen, with plenty of old favorites and some unexpected delights--all marked by melodiousness and accessibility.
Furthermore, Mr. Lee's English diction is so perfect that we understood every word. This is not a quality that we take for granted. Often when we hear singers in English, we have wished for a printed text or titles. Last night we had the printed text and didn't need it.
Mr. Lee's sweet tone is arresting and unique; he employs his instrument with fine technique--the phrasing always lovely and the vocal colors varied. Still more variety was provided by excellent control of dynamics and a high degree of expressivity. Mr. Lee seems to inhabit the material and to share his feelings for the text with the audience.
Yet another plus was the sensitive accompaniment of pianist Eric Sedgwick whom we enjoyed most in "Del Cabello Mas Sutil" by Fernando Obradors, one of our favorite Spanish songs and one of only two on the program. The gentle arpeggios and Mr. Lee's voice somehow brought tears to our eyes. The other Spanish song, Joaquin Turina's "Cantares" gave the pair an opportunity for increased intensity, building to a striking climax.
Almost all music written for this fach comes from the Baroque period or the 20th c. . A set of Handel songs comprised the sweet "Yet Can I Hear That Dulcet Lay", the powerful "Destructive War", the devotional "O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless", and the lively joyful "Up the Dreadful Steep Ascending".
It is unlikely that we will hear the entire operas from which these arias come (The Choice of Hercules, Belshazzar, Saul, and Jephtha, respectively) but it was a treat to hear the arias. The melismatic decorations of the vocal line were marvelously handled.
The next set comprised a trio of songs by the 17th c. English composer Henry Purcell. Our favorite was "Music for a While". We have heard this splendid song countless times but Mr. Lee made it his own with a beautiful decrescendo at the end. "Sweeter than Roses", also familiar, was given freshness with a dramatic change of color in the phrase "Then shot like fire all o'er". Exciting stuff!
Roger Quilter made use of a Percy Bysshe Shelley verse for his "Music, When Soft Voices Die" and Aaron Copland availed himself of an Emily Dickinson poem for "Heart, we will forget him". Both composers thereby made excellent choices, which contemporary composers rarely do. A set of songs by Cleveland composer H. Leslie Adams included the beautiful "For you there is no song" with text by Edna St. Vincent Millay, another fine choice.
A final set introduced us to some mid-20th c. music from the world of cabaret and Broadway. British team Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley were famous for writing musicals in the 1960's --The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd and Stop the World I Want to Get Off, among others; many were imported to the USA from Great Britain. We heard "You and I" and "Pure Imagination".
Michele Brourman turned her back on her music education (a music department that discouraged melody) and partnered with her friend Karen Gottlieb to write cabaret songs. We'd like to hear more music like this, especially when sung by someone as talented as Mr. Lee who did just fine with the low tessitura of "My Favorite Year".
As an encore, Mr. Lee performed Apollo's aria from the prologue (Terpsicor) to the Handel Opera Il Pastor Fido, a role he performed recently at the Amherst Early Music Festival. We wished we had been there!
(c) meche kroop