We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, March 6, 2017

APPLE OF OUR EYE (and ear)

Ken Noda, Sarah Mesko, and Paul Appleby

What gives us the greatest pleasure in life is witnessing the growth of young artists. We have thrilled to the performances of tenor Paul Appleby since we started writing--no, even before--from Juilliard to leading roles on the stages of the world's greatest opera houses. We have been there when he was showered with awards from all the leading foundations. And yesterday he appeared as the "senior" member of a duo at the George London Foundation recital series, having been awarded a half dozen years ago. His rapid ascent can be attributed to his impressive expressive qualities and commitment to whatever he sings.  Besides all that, he has a tonal quality that goes straight to the heart.

The final piece on yesterday's program at The Morgan Library (a very special series for those of us who adore the human voice) was a duet with the "junior" member of the team mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko, who was honored by the foundation just two years ago. The duet was the final scene from Georges Bizet's Carmen, a scene which has always seemed to go on a bit too long for our taste causing us to inwardly mutter "Stab her already".  But not yesterday!  The performance was so intense that we had to restrain ourselves from leaping onstage to prevent Don Jose from stabbing Carmen.

This frightening reality was created without set or costumes. We have never seen/heard it performed better. When Don Jose cradled the dying Carmen in his arms we could not hold back the tears. Ms. Mesko has experience with the role and Mr. Appleby absolutely must add this to his already substantial repertoire. Don Jose is a complex character and Mr. Appleby's artistry captured all of it. Interestingly, the two artists appeared together at the Santa Fe Opera a few years back in Offenbach's La Grand Duchesse de Gerolstein, which we reviewed so enthusiastically.

With that bedazzlement out of the way, let us consider the remainder of the program. Ms. Mesko's voice has the quality of liquid caramel and felt so totally perfect for Brahms whose "Die Mainacht" was the standout of her first set. Accompanied by the fine violist Andrew Gonzalez, she also gave a beautiful interpretation of Brahms' Zwei Gesange, op.91. The artist filled "Gestillte Sehnsucht" with restless longing. "Geistliches Wiegenlied" is a lullaby to the Christ child that we have often heard. Mr. Gonzalez' line echoed the vocal line and the repetition of the phrase "stillet die Wipfel" will not quit our ear.

We might add that Ms. Mesko's German diction was superb and she filled Hugo Wolf's "Der Mond hat eine schwere Klag erhoben" with wonder. She also accomplished a rare feat by singing English with superb enunciation. As far as the French, we found Gabriel Faure's "Clair de lune" to be wanting more fluidity of line to bring out the sensuality achieved by Ken Noda's superb accompaniment.  We even had the curious thought that the English song preceding the "Clair de Lune" had set her up for a choppier delivery.

We liked the way Ms. Mesko addressed the audience and told about her choices. She related how Hector Berlioz added something to Virgil's account of Dido's death when he wrote the libretto for Les Troyens. When she sang "Ah! Je vais mourir" we got Dido's anger at the abandoning Aeneas...followed by Berlioz' addition of an adagio section in which she expresses her gratitude for the good things in her life. In this part, we heard the longer legato line that we wanted to hear in the earlier "Clair de lune".

Mr. Appleby, so passionately convincing in opera, revealed a different side of his artistry in a set of songs by Britten. He is a thinking man's artist and can only be admired for choosing material that resonates with him. That it doesn't resonate with us does not take away anything. His attention to text is impressive and he mines every song for meaning. When we read the title of the song cycle On This Island, all we could think about was Mr. Appleby's thrilling performance at the Met in Enchanted Island! But this set of songs, settings of text by W.H.Auden, although they did not enchant us, held our interest.

We enjoyed the embellishments in "Let the florid music praise!" and the Brecht/Weill flavor of "Now the leaves are falling fast". The dirge-like "Nocturne" appealed to us because the text rhymed and scanned. But the most affecting was the sardonic and bitter "As it is, plenty" which Mr. Appleby invested with great dramatic import.

We cannot say that the set of Poulenc songs held our attention. Tel jour, telle nuit was set to text by Paul Eluard which struck us as surreal and not worthy of setting.

We would have been happy to have left the recital all shook up by the Carmen but the generous artists supplied encores. Ms. Mesko gave a delightful delivery of "Everybody Says Don't" from Sondheim's 1864 Broadway show Anyone Can Whistle. The show did not do well but the song is a winner.

Mr. Appleby's encore was Ned Rorem's paean to "The Lordly Hudson". Well performed as one would expect, but we would prefer to see the river through the eyes of a painter of the Hudson River School!

The talented pair closed the program with Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Dirge for Fidele" also known as "Fear no more the heat o' the sun", text from Shakespeare's Cymbeline. The overlapping voices and peaceful harmonies were perfect.

But the most perfect performance of all was that of collaborative pianist Ken Noda who is as supportive of the artist as he is brilliant on the keys.

(c) meche kroop

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