|Binna Han and Siman Chung|
We have entered the golden age of the countertenor. We have heard two excellent members of this fach sing the "Refugee's aria" from Jonathan Dove's Flight (one of the very few contemporary operas we enjoyed) and both Jakub Jozef Orlinski and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen were superb in the role. We profoundly regret missing Mr. Chung's performance of this role with Mannes Opera but, judging by last night's recital at the National Opera Center, we are sure he was superb.
The recital was part of Opera America's Emerging Artist Recital Series and presented Mr. Chung as the Opera Index 2015 Arthur E. Walters Memorial Award Winner. Opera Index is a nonprofit volunteer organization whose mission it is to advocate for opera and support young artists. They have been holding competitions for over 30 years, the winners of which look like a "Who's Who" of the opera world.
Mr. Chung's recital flew by in a brief 60 minutes but gave the packed house a solid opportunity to assess his prodigious artistry. We enjoyed him the most when he played to his strengths and his strengths lay most securely in the repertory written for his fach. Well, actually, the roles we speak of were written for castrati and it is very fortunate that that barbaric practice is long gone!
But the role of Farnace in Mozart's Mitridate, re di Ponto was written for alto castrato and Mr. Chung's performance was just fine and marked by superb control of dynamics and a seamless production of sound that transitioned well to the low notes.
Even better was his performance of two Handel arias. The first, "Dove sei, amato bene" from Rodelinda is an aria of longing, and was written for the character Bertarido, originally sung by a soprano castrato. We loved the embellishments in the ritornello, the sensitive decrescendo and the ear-tickling trill.
Countertenors are often asked to sing angry arias (think "Furibondo spira il vento") and Mr. Chung's performance of "Crude furie degli orridi abissi" from Handel's Serse was also written for soprano castrato but is today most often performed by mezzo-sopranos. We enjoyed the vocal pyrotechnics.
Similarly, music by Henry Purcell was finely sung. Purcell wrote music for John Dryden's play Oedipus and his "Music for a while" rivals Schubert's "An die Musik" as a paean to what we think of as the highest art form. Mr. Chung exhibited a lovely vibrato and interesting overtones.
Purcell's 1692 masque The Fairy Queen provided two wonderful songs perfect for Mr. Chung's many talents. Our personal favorite was "If music be the food of love". The elaborate embellishments were thrilling and we were happy to hear sufficient variety in the repetitions. Happily, his English was perfectly enunciated and we were not obliged to look at the titles, although it is always nice to have them just in case.
In an entirely different vein, Mr. Chung offered three songs by Ernest Chausson, bringing us into an entirely different century. His French was flawless and, again we understood every word. We have never heard these songs sung by a countertenor and they sounded lovely. Our favorite was the very sad "Le temps des lilas" from Poeme de l'amour et de la mer. His tone was exquisite, the colors impressive, and the depth of feeling quite moving.
From Sept Melodies, Op.2 we heard "Le colibri" and "Les papillons". His tone suited the delicacy of the language and music. Mr. Chung's superlative collaborative pianist was Binna Han and she captured the fluttering of wings in the piano part.
A pair of songs by Roger Quilter were well sung but the writing, in our opinion, lacks the poetry of Chausson's writing.
There was also a trio of songs by Brahms which did not thrill us, and we do love our Brahms. It is only our opinion but we think Mr. Chung sounds infinitely better in songs written with a certain voice type in mind. Additionally, his German was not nearly as accomplished as his French. For every crisp consonant there was one that was glossed over. His encore, Strauss' "Zueignung" was given plenty of passion and better enunciation but it just wasn't up to the excellence of the rest of the recital.
We first became acquainted with this fach in a student production at Manhattan School of Music starring Anthony Roth Costanzo in Lukas Foss' Griffelkin. That must have been 8 or 9 years ago and we have loved the sound ever since. And now we have so many fine countertenors. This gives us the opportunity to appreciate music that has lain dormant for centuries; additionally it gives stimulus to contemporary composers (although we may not appreciate the latter as much). As Jane Marsh said in her master class a couple days ago "If you lay the tracks the train will come".
(c) meche kroop