|Kenneth Merrill, Rebecca Ringle, and William Ferguson
At recitals, our sense of hearing is the one we rely upon for engagement. Last night at the opening offering of the Salon/Sanctuary season, we had a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. The 1890 Playel instrument from Klavierhaus looked as beautiful as it sounded, its tone soft and gentle, perfectly suited for the French program.
Not only that but the handsome tenor William Ferguson and the stunningly glamorous mezzo Rebecca Ringle were also a feast for the eyes. One is not supposed to care what a singer looks like but--sorry, not sorry--we love beauty in all its forms.
And now, to the program! Founder and Artistic Director Jessica Gould, generally committed to early music, widened her scope to present an evening of 19th c. French music entitled On the Margins of the Opèra Comique--not serious chansons but light-hearted music suitable for the salon or cabaret.
The music on the program was composed by three Jewish composers whose oeuvre was purportedly dismissed due to anti-semitism. To our ears, there was nothing dismissable about the charming songs we heard.
Ms. Ringle has a true mezzo sound, unlike many singers who claim that fach. It has a distinctive timbre that filled the auditorium of the Abigail Adams Smith House. Ms. Ringle's French is flawless and her phrasing high in musicality.
Our favorite performance of the evening was the encore! We just heard "Ah quel diner", from Jacques Offenbach's La Perichole, a few reviews back. We loved it then and we loved it last night. Just as actors love a good death scene, singers seem to enjoy a drinking song, or, in this case, a drunken song. Ms. Ringle appeared to be having the time of her life and the joy was absolutely infectious.
She is best when she can show her personality and the three Fontaine fables set by Offenbach delighted us no end. In "Le berger et la mer", the moral seemed to be to stick with what you do well and not gamble on a tempting future.
In "La cigale et la fourmi", a stingy and judgmental ant gives a moral lecture to the carefree but destitute cicada who sang all summer long. The song ends with a remarkable trill. Kenneth Merrill's piano captured all the sounds of nature.
The moral of "Le rat de ville et le rat des champs" seemed to be that a simple meal eaten in peace is better than a fancy one eaten in fear.
Mr. Merrill's piano was noticeably wonderful in many of the songs. We could hear the village bell's sonority in Giacomo Meyerbeer's "Ma barque légère", the nightingale in Fromental Halévy's "Les heures du soir", and the wind in the same composer's "Le follet". No doubt the special sound of the Playel contributed to the effect.
Only two songs on the program were familiar to us and that was because of the text. Meyerbeer set the Heinrich Heine poem and called it "Komm", the only song on the program not in French. Franz Schubert named it "Das Fischermädchen" and composed it as part of his cycle Schwanengesang. It is one of our favorite Schubert songs but now it is one of our favorite Meyerbeer songs.
The other familiar text was that of Théophile Gauthier "Dites, la jeune belle" set by Offenbach as "Barcarolle". We know it as "L'isle inconnue" from Hector Berlioz'cycle Les nuits d'été.
There seems to be quite a bit of metaphor going on in this epoch in which the sea represents both the delights and fears of love. We heard this in "Komm" and again in another Meyerbeer song "Ma barque légère".
For the Halévy duet "Est-ce-une peine? Est-ce un plaisir?" Ms. Ringle was joined by tenor William Ferguson whose sweet sound took the upper line while Ms. Ringle's mezzo took the lower one. We tried in vain to recall duets between tenor and mezzo and hope that readers will add some suggestions to the comment section below.
Even Mozart did not write one for Dorabella and Ferrando in Cosi fan Tutte! It is actually quite a wonderful combination and the two artists harmonized with great beauty. The work is written with complicated overlapping voices, requiring the use of the score, not a desirable circumstance in our book! But the sound was thrilling.
There are probably many more songs like these that the public doesn't get to hear and we thank Ms. Gould for bringing them to our attention and we thank Ms. Ringle for her magnificent performance and for her highly instructive program notes.
(c) meche kroop