|Brandon Bergeron, Mikaela Bennett, and Andrew O'Donnell (photo by Sharna Striar)
This will be the ninth time we have reviewed Ms. Bennett and have never heard a "false note". We have thrilled to her singing "N'est-ce plus ma main" from Massenet's Manon; we have been bowled over by her "O, mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi (both at Classic Lyric Arts galas); we have heard her sing Adam's "O Holy Night" at Steven Blier's Christmas show; we have heard her in countless cabarets and liederabend. If there's anything Ms. Bennett cannot sing, we would be very surprised.
Last night's recital gave us a taste of everything. The first half of the program leaned toward the classical end of the spectrum. In 1893 Paris was treated to a not to terribly tragic operatic version of the story which, in Puccini's hands, became Madama Butterfly. The work by Andre Messager was called Madame Chrysantheme and we have never seen it or heard of it being produced. Ms. Bennett sang a gorgeous aria entitled "Le jour sous le soleil beni". She sang it with sensitive dynamics and a soaring upper register.
From Handel's Agrippina, we heard "Vaghe perle, eletti fiori", Poppea's remarkable expression of remarkable vanity. There was an abundance of coloratura fireworks, a gorgeous trill, and some crisp triplets echoed by Chris Reynold's highly accomplished piano.
Next we heard "Do you know him?" from Andre Previn's cycle Honey and Rue, with text by Toni Morrison. It was a bluesy song and began and ended with humming. It was performed a capella and had a delicious portamento at the end.
But for us, the highlight of the evening was Schubert's 1828 "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen", for which Ms. Bennett and Mr. Reynolds were joined by clarinetist Andrew O'Donnell, who helped us to realize just how like the voice, how vocal is that instrument.
The work is in three sections, more a chamber music piece than a lied. The first part is strophic and cheerful, making demands on the singer to negotiate huge leaps, the better to imitate yodeling. The role of the clarinet is to show the shepherd's voice echoing through the valley.
His loneliness is expressed in the sorrowful minor-key second section. He is suffering from sehnsucht for his beloved. In the third section, the coming of Spring produces great joy in a major key. Ms. Bennett's coloratura skills came in handy for the jauntily rising scale passages and an ear-tickling trill.
The second half of the program leaned toward the popular-classic side of the spectrum. From Jerome Kern's Showboat, we heard "Bill", accompanied by pianist Jeb Patton and bassist David Wong. Ms. Bennett has certainly mastered the jazz idiom and knows how much to bend a note. Just the word "thrill" was sung with so much feeling behind it--and not the same way twice!
From Jule Styne's Funny Girl, we heard "People" in a way that made us forget any other singer's rendition. Ms. Bennett made emotional sense of the lyrics and the instrumental solos were memorable.
From Harold Arlen's Cotton Club Parade--24th Edition, we heard "Ill Wind" which opened with a brilliant bass solo. It felt like an intimate conversation between Mr. Wong and Ms. Bennett.
Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You" achieved a similar intimacy with a meditative feeling coming from Mr. Wong's bass and Mr. Patton's piano.
There were two pieces on the program that worked musically but disappointed because the sound of a five-piece band drowned out Ms. Bennett's words that we really wanted to hear. We don't believe it was her English diction because we had understood her just fine in the other pieces.
The band comprised Mr. Wong's bass, Bela Quines' viola, Meghan Todt's violin, Brandon Bergeron's (muted) trumpet, and Mr. O'Donnell's clarinet. They sounded just fine in Michael John Lachiusa's "Way Back to Paradise" from Marie Christine. We understood little of the words but enough to arouse our curiosity. We looked it up online; it was a 1999 musical with a very compelling story.
"First You Dream" from John Kander's Steel Pier, which closed the program, was a little clearer but not clear enough. The arrangements of both pieces were by Jack Gulielmetti.
We have no idea which path Ms. Bennett will take in the future, but she is sure-footed and should achieve whatever goal she sets her heart upon. Such versatility is rare.
(c) meche kroop