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, March 27, 2017


Michal Biel, Matthew Robert Swensen, and Jakub Jozef Orlinski

Of course we will be reviewing vocal music every night as usual, but let it be noted that the beauty we heard from Matthew Swensen and friends was enough to keep us fulfilled for at least the next week. We will get to the catfight later. First let us take a close look at what made tenor Matthew Swensen's graduation recital so completely fulfilling.

First of all, Mr. Swensen has a notable instrument. We are very tough on tenors who push their voices, those that shout, those that substitute volume for tone, those that throw their heads back and strangle the tone, and those that make our own throat ache.  Mr. Swensen has none of those flaws. He has a pure sweet tone that is like balm to the ear. Of course, he can express other emotions than sweetness but the tone is never disagreeable.

Secondly, Mr. Swensen is incredibly musical and phrases the text beautifully. We heard some perfect dynamic control and great artistry in the embellishments.

Thirdly, he has superb linguistic skills. We heard him in five languages. His French in Henri Duparc's "L'invitation au Voyage" was impeccable and the line was carried through in great Gallic style. His German in the Schubert lieder managed the miraculous--crisp consonants without cheating the vowels and being so completely on the breath that the line achieved an almost Italianate legato. The Italian in the Donizetti emphasized the purity of the vowels which were all connected. Even his English was understandable. We do not speak Czech but it sounded just fine.

Fourthly, he knows how to program a recital to show off his artistry and how to select a collaborative pianist (the marvelous Michal Biel) and how to bring in the right guest artist (the sensational Jakub Jozef Orlinski).

Now let's take a closer look. Henri Duparc's "L'invitation au Voyage" was sung with seductive sensuality and the mood was sustained beautifully during the interludes between verses. Phrases swelled and ebbed like the sea and the piano decrescendo at the end was so beautiful.  We realized we had been holding our breath!

Two lieder were extracted from Schubert's song cycle Die Schone Mullerin, a cycle we adore. We hope someday to hear Mr. Swensen sing the entire oeuvre based on the intense feeling with which he sang "Die liebe Farbe" and "Die bose Farbe". Mr. Biel's masterfully modulated piano underscored the hero's anguish, especially in the staccato passages.

Although we are quite familiar with Dvorak's Gypsy Songs, our familiarity extends only to the German version. It was quite ambitious for Mr. Swensen to tackle the difficult Czech language but, for us, it was a revelation to hear how precisely the music and words enjoyed simultaneous rhythm and stress. So many moods are expressed in this cycle; perhaps this is only a fantasy of gypsy life but the songs involve freedom, dancing, singing, and even the quietude of the forest. Perhaps our favorite is "Songs my mother taught me" which is tender and nostalgic. Mr. Swensen and Mr. Biel captured all the moods.

In "Una Furtiva Lagrima" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, Mr. Swensen put his own spin on Nemorino's character, a less sentimental one than we are accustomed to but an interpretation no less valid. We heard a beautifully controlled portamento and a stunning decrescendo at the end.  There was no grandstanding, just great music.

Although we will never be fans of religious music, we can still admire it when it is well performed and we have nothing but good things to say about "Comfort Ye" from Handel's Messiah. The English was clear, the fioritura well negotiated, and the dynamics well controlled.

Britten's Canticle II is a scene between the biblical characters Abraham and Isaac during which father explains to son why he will be sacrificed. The very idea makes us shudder. We saw this scene in a staged version at Chelsea Opera a few years ago and it upset us then as well.  That being said, Mr. Swensen assumed the role of Abraham with guest artist countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski assuming the role of the child. Mr. Swensen shared with the audience his childhood experience of performing this work with his own father.  "And now" he said "Mr. Orlinski will be my son".

It was very well done and we loved the sonority of the two voices together creating the voice of God. What interesting harmonies we heard!

The evening would not end without the catfight. You, dear reader, have been waiting to hear about that and we will not disappoint you. The encore comprised both singers performing Rossini's hilarious concert duet "Duetto buffo di due gatti". This was written for two sopranos and we never even considered hearing it with male voices. It was an original idea and it worked beyond one's highest expectations as the two artists hissed and clawed their way to become top dog--rather top cat. We can't decide on the winner.

(c) meche kroop

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