|Alan Darling, Amber Wagner, and Reginald Smith, Jr.|
Another excellent George London Foundation recital was heard yesterday at The Morgan Library; it is customary to bring together two award winners, one more senior than the other. Soprano Amber Wagner won a major award in 2010 and baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. did so in 2015, and also in 2014, if we are not mistaken (not 2016 as in the program notes). When such talented artists win awards from multiple foundations, it is easy to get confused!
In any event, Ms. Wagner's artistry has won her a major singing career and the contributions made by the George London Foundation have been instrumental. Similarly, Mr. Smith's star is on the rise and we will hear much more of him in the future.
We assume that singers in recital choose works that they love and/or works that bring out the best of their particular talents. Ms. Wagner chose wisely in opening the program with four songs by Richard Strauss. Her rich creamy sound is just right for Strauss and the entire hall was vibrating with her abundant overtones. It is a thrilling sound and she poured plenty of passion into the expansive "Zueignung", bringing things down a notch for the gentle and expressive "Morgen!" At "stumm", we realized we were having a breath-holding moment. "Beim Schlafengehen" brought out her artistry in the vocalise passages, and "Cacile" took us back to a place of passionate devotion.
So why did we feel so uninvolved in "Du bist der Lenz" from Richard Wagner's Die Walkure? This is our favorite scene in the entire Ring Cycle and we wanted so much to feel the thrill of recognition and the wonder of connection with a soulmate. We thought perhaps there was insufficient forward momentum. Undeniably the instrument is a thrilling one and plenty large enough to sail over an orchestra. We will hope that her characterization of Sieglinde will develop over time.
Mr. Smith has a powerful baritone that we have written about several times. We loved his Verdi and his interpretation of The Emperor Jones overcame our disinterest in American music. We were hoping he would sing that yesterday but he did not. As a matter of fact, we did not think his programming was the most successful at showing his artistry.
Yes, it is Sunday, but if we were interested in a sermon we would have gone to church. Carlisle Floyd's settings of grim verses from the bible seemed ponderous. Four of them were four too many. Taking into account the spirituals offered as encores, it was just too much religion for our taste, although we are sure there were many in the audience who found the works moving.
Tackling a quartet of chansons by Ernest Chausson was a brave move for an artist with such a powerful instrument and we found his voice colored with surprising tenderness. He produced some sensitive dynamics and fine French diction. Still, should an artist attempt what lighter voices can achieve so well, when few have the powerful voice necessary for Verdi and Wagner?
In "Nemico della Patria" from Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier, he applied his powerful instrument to great effect, limning a world gone mad, a situation which seems particularly relevant today. He varied the colors along with the dynamics to express incredulity and disillusionment. "A old fable that gladly the public still swallows". Indeed! We loved his Italianate phrasing and wanted to hear more of his operatic side. And we did!
In a scene from Verdi's Aida, he and Ms. Wagner excelled. He knew the role well and conveyed all of the paternal manipulation that Amonasro needs to convince the ambivalent Aida to betray Radames and save her people. In spite of the use of the loathed music stand, Ms. Wagner filled her role with drama and used her voice to its best advantage.
Her program also included a trio of Barber songs marked by excellent English diction. "Nocturne" was quite expressive and permitted some mystery from Alan Darling's piano. He has been Ms. Wagner's coach for the past ten years.
As encores we heard Ms. Wagner sing "His Eye is on the Sparrow", sung with great feeling. Mr. Smith sang "He'll Bring it to Pass" and the pair joined forces for some lovely harmony in an unusual arrangement of "This Little Light of Mine".
(c) meche kroop