|Jennifer Rivera and Kenneth Merrill|
Last night Salon/Sanctuary Concerts took a step into the 19th c. further than they usually do and it was a welcome step. To the many Facebook friends who wished us a musical birthday, we would like to tell them that indeed we did enjoy a very musical birthday, thanks to Jessica Gould's astute programming, Jennifer Rivera's thrilling singing, and Kenneth Merrill's warmly responsive accompanying on the piano. The promised fortepiano was injured and replaced by a modern piano without any loss of musical value.
The program comprised music that Gioachino Rossini wrote in his later years in Paris after he retired from writing all those exciting operas we so love to hear. It is clear to singers and audience alike that he retained all the excitement of rhythm and melody that infuse his operas. The songs offer the same opportunity for dramatic expression as do the operas and require only the right singer to give the impression that one is hearing a very condensed version of a scene in an opera.
Take, for example, La Regata Veneziana, of which we never tire. In Venetian dialect, Rossini gives the singer plenty to work with. The singer "Anzoleta" gets to adopt three discrete moods, encouraging her lover Momolo, expressing the tension of the gondola race, and finally rewarding Momolo with her affection. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera rose to the occasion and filled the venue with color and excitement.
Her superb instrument and technique (influenced by Marilyn Horne and Frederica von Stade) is more legato than that of most bel canto artists. Her diction sacrificed not a single word on the altar of musicality. Variety in dynamics and tempi contributed to the sense of drama.
A compelling performance of "Mi lagnerò tacendo" was fascinating in that Rossini set the work four times--for soprano, mezzo, contralto, and finally a version to be sung on one note. Ms. Rivera showed strength in the lower register when called for and brilliance on top where necessary. In fact, her voice is remarkably centered throughout the entire range.
To our surprise, the setting we enjoyed the most was the last one because there was such variety of color in both Ms. Rivera's singing and Mr. Merrill's piano that the one note kept sounding different! The text by Pietro Metastasio has been set by Mozart, Handel, Righini, and Hasse, among others.
Ms. Rivera was able to show her stuff in French in a set of three songs. Every word was enunciated clearly and the French line was sustained beautifully. "L'Orpheline du Tyrol" permitted the artist to yodel, making large skips sound easy. "La chanson du bebé" represents Rossini at his naughtiest as the child does everything he can to get the attention of his parents. What a hoot! Ms. Rivera squeezed every drop of humor from the song.
We were thrilled to see a set of songs by Pauline Viardot on the program. She was a singer herself and really knew how to write for the voice. Clearly Rossini was a big influence on her. "Madrid" had all the lilting rhythms and melodic riffs associated with Spanish music while "Havanaise" was imbued with Latin rhythms, alternating with highly embellished verses. "Hai luli" was the lament of a forlorn lover.
There might have been an audience riot had Ms. Rivera not performed an encore of her signature aria--"Una voce poco fa" from Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was in this aria that the rich mezzo quality of her voice was most evident. The fioriture passages were unique and original, creating abundant fireworks. We heard something for which we need to invent a word; let's call it a "tripletrill"; we have never heard the like.
Mr. Merrill's accompanying skills are legendary and it was easy to see why he is chosen by so many fine singers. He was always right there supporting but never overshadowing or overwhelming.
We remember Ms. Rivera well from her Juilliard days and from New York City Opera. We have enjoyed her astute essays in The Huffington Post. It was a real treat to hear her up close and personal. Should NYCO be revived we are sure to hear more of her right here in New York.
© meche kroop