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 29, 2017


Martin Neron, Chad Kranak, Jose Pietri-Coimbre, Abigail Wright, Elizabeth Smith, and Nicholas Hay

Last night at the National Opera Center we attended a Winter Recital of Songs and Romances with a friend new to art song.  However, he is an expert on languages and phonology. We withheld our opinion on the recital to hear his opinions and was surprised to learn that they matched the notes with which we filled our program. We will get to that further on in our review.

We enjoyed hearing a couple singers we have enjoyed and reviewed before and we enjoyed hearing some new ones. Familiar to us is mezzo-soprano Abigail Wright who adds luster to whatever she sings. Her full rich instrument is beautifully employed in both French and in German. We understood every word.

We never realized the irony in Brahms' "Wie Melodien zieht es mir" which describes the way a melody can lose its spirit when attached to lyrics. Significantly, Brahms' melody lost nothing! We have been hearing it in our head all night, including the lovely lyrics. Also in German we heard Schonberg's "Galathea", an unusual song which we have come to appreciate more and more.

In fine French, Ms. Wright performed Debussy's "Beau Soir" and "Romance" and the satisfying "Je te veux" with its sweet straightforward sentiment, in waltz time no less.  Delicieux!

Baritone Jose Pietri-Coimbre is also known to us from some fine operatic performances. This is the first time we have heard him sing art songs and have a rather strong opinion. My guest thought his
performance of Schubert's "Ganymed" was the finest performance of the evening; we asked what impressed him and it was the same feature that impressed us. The singer immersed himself in the song and took us on an uplifting journey through the delights of nature.

We also enjoyed him in Reynaldo Hahn's "Fetes galantes" in which he painted an aural portrait reminding us of a Fragonard painting.  So why did "Fumee" by the same Venezuelan composer leave us cold? Perhaps we just don't care for the song. (We just listened to a recording by the fabulous Anna Caterina Antonacci and didn't like it any more.)

However we got the same rather flat feeling when Mr. Pietri-Coimbri sang Gustav Mahler's "Urlicht", a song we adore. Perhaps the singer just wasn't feelin' it! That being said, his German was excellent and he exhibited a lovely pianissimo. As haunting as Mr. Neron's piano sounded, perhaps a full orchestra is necessary for the full emotional effect of this incredible song.

New to us was soprano Elizabeth Smith, of whom we are now a fan. Not only is the voice a lovely affecting one, but her stage presence is way beyond average. To our delight, she introduced each song by reading the text in English, and reading it with a depth of understanding that carried over into her singing. When a singer connects so deeply with the text and conveys it to the members of the audience, we are getting "the full Monty" of a song recital.

She was impressive in three gems by Gabriel Faure--"Clair de lune", the invitational "Mai" and the wistful "Apres un reve". Her French line was long and lovely and even without compromising the emotional content.

We enjoyed her even more in a pair of selections by the Sicilian composer Stefano Donaudy, who, like the Venezuelan Reynaldo Hahn, composed at the turn of the 20th c. She performed his most famous song "Vaghissima sembianza" and "Sento nel cor", filled with justifiable passion. We are pleased to relate that her Italian is luscious.

Also new to us was bass Nicholas Hay who closed the program with a delightful animated performance of Steven Mark Kohn's 2006 "Senator's Stump Speech", a text actually delivered by a former state representative from Tennessee, one Noah "Soggy" Sweat. It is a masterpiece of political double-speak in which the speaker's opinions can be slanted to please different groups. We cannot recall a thing about the melody or the singing, only that it was fun and a great way to end the program. Mr. Hay's adoption of a Southern accent made it even better.

It gave us a different look at Mr. Hay who was pretty inert in Oley Speaks' "Sylvia", another work from the turn of the 20th c. He is a singer who does best with humor.  Of the two Russian songs he performed, he was far better in Modest Moussorgsky's funny song about the flea than he was in a beautiful but serious Tchaikovsky song about nature.

Tenor Chad Kranak chose to sing Winter Words, Benjamin Britten's mid-20th c. setting of poetry by Thomas Hardy. We are great fans of Hardy's novels and we might even like the poetry if someone had read it to us. However, the poetry did not ask to be set and seemed to be tortured into place to fit the music. The vocal line was so boring that we found ourselves focusing on the evocative piano writing, which was so well played by the excellent collaborative pianist Martin Neron.

This is where we bring in the opinion of our philologist friend who spontaneously reported that the music was more or less doing rhythmic battle with the words. This confirms our frequently asserted opinion that English is extremely difficult to set and should be left to people like Stephen Sondheim or Arthur Sullivan or some of America's composers of operetta and Broadway musicals.  Our friend, who is fluent in English but not a native speaker, studies the rhythm and flow of language and was able to pick up the same issue that impairs our ability to enjoy English art song. We no longer feel the need to apologize for our prejudice. Only rarely have we heard a song that transcends the limitations of our native tongue!

As far as Mr. Kranak's performance, he did not strike us as a natural story-teller. Enunciation was rarely clear enough to get the full impact of the descriptive text. The most comprehensible songs were "The little old table" and "At the railway station, Upway" and even they lost a considerable number of words. Although Mr. Kranak is considered to be "an avid performer of Britten", we would like to hear him sing in a different language before commenting on his vocal skills.

(c) meche kroop

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