Nobuko Amimiya and Cassie Chang
Only on rare occasion do we get to witness the Lincoln Center debut of one of our favorite young singers. The excitement of the occasion was matched by the artistry we witnessed in a recital of operatic arias that we wish had been longer in duration. Ms. Chang's promise has been noted by the Bradley Family Foundation whose support underwrote the concert and by legendary voice teacher, Bulgarian bass-baritone Valentin Peytchinov of Vocal Production NYC.
Mr. Peytchinov himself was on hand for a post-concert discussion of the makings of an opera singer. He pointed out the uniqueness of the profession. In any other profession, you get a degree and then you earn a living by practicing that particular profession. In the world of opera singing, very few graduates actually succeed. It seems to us that success comes partly from artistry, partly from persistence and determination, and partly from a lucky break.
Ms. Chang is a hard worker, having learned last night's repertory in a relatively brief period of time, in contrast with the arias we have heard her sing before, which have fit like a second skin. Although there were one or two that she will grow into, several of them were not only close to perfection but also astonishingly beautiful and moving.
Take for example Cio Cio San's hopeful but delusional aria from Puccini's Madama Butterfly--"Un bel di", which most opera lovers are so familiar with that they might have been surprised, as we were, to find tears springing to our eyes as if hearing it for the first time. This is not the time or place for a discussion of identity politics and casting choices, but in all honesty, an Asian face contributed something to our belief that we were witnessing a Japanese girl barely out of adolescence experiencing her first love. All the technical accuracy disappeared behind the illusion created by Ms. Chang and we were deeply moved.
There were no such accidents of physiognomy to help Ms. Chang in the similarly moving "Salce salce...Ave Maria" sung by the doomed Desdemona in the final act of Verdi's Othello. Our heroine is facing an unjust death at the hands of her woefully deceived and jealous husband. The colors of Ms. Chang's voice varied according to the complex emotions Desdemona was feeling as she said her prayers in this emotionally draining and technically challenging scene. The terror peeped out from the plaintive blanket of sound. Verdi gave Desdemona some repeated words, giving the artist an opportunity to build intensity and vary color. We must say we found it spellbinding.
Opening the program was "Crudele? Ah no mio bene...Non mi dir ", a beautiful aria Mozart gave to Donna Anna in his masterpiece Don Giovanni, a fine example of legato writing with some stunning upper register challenges and some fioritura worthy of a bel canto composer which surely must have inspired their more consistently florid vocal line.
This aria was followed by an aria from a bel canto master. In Anna Bolena, Donizetti gave his doomed heroine (another doomed heroine!) a gorgeous scene as she faces death in "Piangete voi...Al dolce guidami". The queen, a victim of the King's fickleness, is distracted almost to the point of madness as she remembers happier moments. Here, Ms. Chang created a sympathetic character going through a succession of moods, something which is particularly suited to the bel canto treatment. We loved her facility with the scale passages and arpeggi.
Doomed women of the 20th c. do not get such gorgeous music lavished upon them. We cannot say we were swept away my "Marie's Lullaby" from Alban Berg's Wozzeck but that has more to do with our failure to appreciate such despairing "modern" music than the artistry of the singer. About all we were able to appreciate was her adequate German which we appreciated more in the light hearted "Mein Elemer" from Richard Strauss' comedy of manners Arabella. Although written in the 20th c. we find Strauss' music more pleasing than Berg's and the story more gratifying. Arabella has many suitors which she will eventually overthrow for Mandryka, and Elemer is one of them. Ms. Chang successfully captured Arabella's flirtatious nature.
To completely round out the demonstration of Ms. Chang's linguistic facility we had the obligatory French aria, "Il est doux, il est bon" from Massenet's Hérodiade in which Salome's innocence shone forth. We enjoyed the magnificently expansive top note. As a matter of fact, throughout the recital we were impressed with Ms. Chang' instrument which filled the Bruno Walter theater with overtones, having just the right amount of vibrato.
The token English aria was Ellen Orford's "Embroidery Aria" from Britten's Peter Grimes, and it is here that we felt let down because the English was not sufficiently crisp to be understood. (Frankly, we find the English language to be nearly unsingable unless the text is by W.S. Gilbert or Stephen Sondheim.) Indeed our companion didn't even realize it was English!
However, the encore was a very personal aria in which Ms. Chang's youthful excitement about coming to New York to study voice was set by Iranian composer Pouria Khadem. Perhaps because the register was lower, every word was clear and the performance left us with joyful feelings.
Upon reflection, we had a great time mentally curating a program comprising doomed heroines. We believe that Ms. Chang could handle them all!
© meche kroop