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.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


Ken Noda, Gerald Martin Moore, Javier Camarena, Eugene Villanueva, Mario Chang, Valeriya Polunina, Michelle Bradley, J'Nai Bridges and Warren Jones

Whether we call it "Marilyn Horne's Birthday Week" or "The Marilyn Horne Legacy" or "The Song Continues 2017" it still adds up to be the exciting week in January when we get to celebrate the art of the song recital  Last night's "Marilyn Horne Song Celebration" at Zankel Hall (of Carnegie Hall) delivered the goods, bringing together four rising stars in the vocal firmament and superstar tenor Javier Camarena. The programming was superb and the audience was highly appreciative.

Several of the singers and collaborative pianists are well known to us and have been reviewed multiple times. Readers will recall how exciting it is for us to watch their growth over the half dozen years we have been writing. Among these singers, and standing out in our memory for having delivered a performance of perfection, is mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges whose constant appearances at award recitals stands as testament to her talent.

Ms. Bridges has always had a flair for French with consummate skills at diction, phrasing, and the creation of long lyrical lines. Dressed in a slinky turquoise gown that made her look like a mermaid, her voice was as seductive as that of the Loreley of German fame, the one whose compelling voice lured sailors to their doom.  But in this case, the luring was toward acoustic delights. Her interpretation of Claude Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis was right on point. She captured the innocence of the young girl in "La flute de Pan", the developing sensuality of the young woman in "La chevelure" and the disillusionment of a mature woman whose love has gone sour in "Le tombeau des naiades".

Warren Jones' delicate touch served to add to the spellbinding performance, no less excellent in Ernest Chausson's melancholic song of regret "Le temps des lilas" and in two songs by Georges Bizet. We loved the long arching phrases of "Chanson d'Avril" and the "Orientalist" fantasy of "Adieux de l'hotesse arabe" who cannot seem to keep her young European lover. There are endless colors in Ms. Bridges' vocal palette.

Variety of vocal colors seemed to be exactly what was missing in the otherwise fine performance of Richard Strauss' Vier Letzte Lieder by the powerful soprano Michelle Bradley, about whom we have also written before. This is a grand and glowing instrument with great promise and one that will take some time to get under firm control. The composer's swan song comprised the four last songs he wrote that were put together by his publishers. They are autumnal in quality and begged for more variety and gesture. Valeriya Polunina's accompaniment served her well with notable inclusions of the song of larks.

Warren Jones' piano contributed similarly to the performance of baritone Eugene Villanueva, whose talents are new to us. After hearing a set of Brahms songs and a set of Hugo Wolf songs, we have concluded that this fine young singer is far more interesting when he has a character to portray. And Wolf gives the singer plenty of characters! In "Der Rattenfanger", he gave the character a seductiveness of menace, not like Schubert's jolly ratcatcher!  Mr. Villanueva really got into the role and showed a great deal of personality.

A different sort of personality was called for in "Abschied" in which Morike's text describes an unwelcome visit from a critic whom the poet kicks down the stairs with great relish. Mr. Villanueva clearly enjoyed singing these characters and we enjoyed his performance. We would propose that the next time he sings Brahms' lovely "Von ewiger Liebe",  he might put himself into the mind of the cautious young man and the passionately committed young woman. We longed to hear the two voices colored differently. We enjoyed his voice most when he sang pianissimo.

Tenor Mario Chang is another singer we have been enjoying for several years; we were pleased that he chose several Spanish songs. Joaquin Turina's early 20th c. cycle Poema en forma de canciones begins with a selection for piano entitled "Dedicatoria" in which collaborative pianist Ken Noda established an Iberian flavor for the songs that followed, all expressing various ironies of love.

Mr. Chang has some beautiful technique at the ready and we heard a delicate decrescendo in "Nunca olvida". Similar to our critique of Mr. Villanueva, we longed to hear a different color for the woman who expresses her anxieties in "Los dos miedos".  The man narrating should sound different than the woman he is describing.

We heard another notable decrescendo in Tosti's "Ideale", a good choice for Mr. Chang. And we have heard him sing Miguel Sandoval's "Sin tu amor" before and consider it Mr. Chang's signature piece. There were a few times in his performance that he was pushing at the top of his register.  He does not always do this and when he does we wish he would lighten up. He has the notes  and higher doesn't always mean louder.

Such pushing was not heard in tenor Javier Camarena's performance of Liszt's Tre sonetti di Petrarca! So many fine singers have come out of Mexico and he is one of them. His guest appearance with collaborative pianist Gerald Martin Moore was pure pleasure. He has a gorgeous instrument and colors to spare--enough actually for the singers on the program who were deficient in that regard.

His delivery provided all the variety of dynamics one would wish for; he can achieve maximum volume without shouting or pushing his voice. One doesn't often here such an exquisite messa di voce. The depth of his feeling is operatic and we loved it. We are still hearing that long downward sigh in "Benedetto sia'l giorno" and a finely floated high note in "I' vidi in terra angelici costumi".

It was an altogether fine note and a fitting capstone for a week of celebration. Too bad we have to wait another year for a similar celebration.

Lovers of song will find other recitals in other venues--we recommend Steven Blier's New York Festival of Song for a different kind of song recital, and Joy in Singing for yet another. Watch the calendar at Opera America for more.

(c) meche kroop

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