|Tadeusz Domanowski, Edyta Kulczak, and Disellla Lárusdóttir|
The Kosciuszko Foundation on East 65th St. has been a fixture on the New York cultural scene since 1925 and was named for the Polish hero who helped the United States of America during the Revolutionary War. Its mission is to promote closer ties between our two nations by means of educational, scientific, and cultural exchange. It is the latter mission that has brought us to their beautiful historic brownstone on a number of occasions.
It is a fine idea to promote Polish culture in the USA. Most Americans, when asked about Poland's contributions to our culture, would barely know what to say except for Chopin, whose prodigious piano output must be on everyone's short list of brilliant composers for the piano.
The Foundation awards up to $1 million yearly to students and scholars, scientists and professionals, but above all--artists.
Last night, we joined in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Poland's achievement of independence. Before that time, Poland had been divided up like a pie with Russia dominating the Eastern portion, and Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire occupying the remainder. The Polish language was outlawed and Chopin, among many other artists, fled to France where he flourished as a composer. The minor mode of his songs (and yes, many of his piano works strike us as songs without words) reflect the sadness one feels when exiled from one's homeland.
Chopin did write songs with words as well and that brings us to the raison d'être for last night's thrilling recital; it was an hommage to Marcella Sembrich, a famous opera singer of bygone days about whom we knew next to nothing. The fascinating story involves her rise from poverty to wealth, fame, and philanthropy. She was friends with Caruso and the great composers of the 19th c. and impressed Puccini with her performance of the role of Mimi. She starred at the Metropolitan Opera for 25 years.
Guest speaker Richard Wargo, the Artistic Director of the Marcella Sembrich Museum in upstate New York recounted interesting facts about her life, as did Ewa Zadworna, Director of Cultural Affairs at the foundation. The anecdote that captured our imagination is that Alexander II of Russia invited her to the Winter Palace to sing her signature song--Chopin's "Życzenie"("The Maiden's Wish")--in Polish! This was during the period when Polish was outlawed!
And now we come to the entertainment portion of the evening in which two great artists of the voice performed a most satisfying recital which ended with an encore of this very song, Ms. Sembrich's favorite, and now our favorite as well. This "maiden's wish" is that Chopin's songs appear regularly on recital programs!
It is always a thrill to get up close and personal with international opera stars and the gorgeous room at the Kosciuszko Foundation is the perfect "stage", what with fine wood panelling, heavy velvet curtains, and a portrait of the dashing Kosciuszko. We felt transported to another time and place.
Icelandic Soprano Disella Lárusdóttir and mezzo-soprano Edyta Kulczak were perfect choices for this special evening and entertained a most attentive audience with operatic selections that seemed to have been arranged sequentially from Baroque to Romantic. They wisely scaled their voices to the intimacy of the room. Their accompanist Tadeusz Domanowski served them well with sensitive piano support, never calling attention to himself.
Ms. Kulczak opened the program with two Händel arias, In "Se bramate" from Serse, Ms. Kulczak's richly burnished instrument carried us on a wave of melody. With astute variations of dynamics and tempi, she demonstrated great expressivity of both voice and gesture. We enjoyed the accuracy of her fioritura.
In contrast, Händel's "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Rinaldo offered opportunities for a lovely long legato line. The repeated verse was given several variations of ornamentation.
Ms. Lárusdóttir followed with Susanna's final aria from Mozart's Nozze di Figaro, sung in lovely Italian, meaning that the double consonants were never shortchanged, as they often are, by American singers. There was a lovely warmth to the performance and she soared to some stunning high notes at the end and employed an affecting change of color when Mozart made the brief switch to the minor mode.
The two women joined voices several times during the evening and dazzled us with their harmony. It was unusual to hear Countess Almaviva sung by a mezzo but we loved the way it provided distinction between her dignity and Susanna's carefree attitude in "Sull'aria" from Nozze di Figaro.
They also offered "Ah guarda sorella" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in which they made use of the portraits on the walls. The vocal lines were delicately embroidered. We only wish the two lovelies had ditched the music stand. We felt the same way about "The Flower Duet" from Leo Délibes' Lakme. They sounded great but readers will remember how we feel about music stands! It was so lovely that the audience demanded to hear it again as an encore.
Miss Lárusdóttir gave a lovely account of Adina's aria "Prendi per me sei libero" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore, showing her coloratura stuff with brilliant vocal fireworks. In "Je suis encore" from Massenet's Manon, she sang in fine French and totally convinced us as an innocent provincial girl on her first trip away from home, unguarded in her emotional expression. This interpretation served to heighten sympathy for the character and would make Manon's unhappy fate all the more tragic.
Ms. Kulczak got her chance with Donizetti as well and dazzled us with "Fia dunque vero" from La Favorita. What a brilliant aria! The arpeggi in the piano effectively support the melodic vocal line. The fiery cabaletta offered the opportunity for Ms.Kulczak to show her bright upper register where the resonance was outstanding.
Another aspect of this artist was revealed in the seductive coloration she lent to Saint Saëns' "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" from Samson et Dalila. The French was parfait and the downward scales seemed like a swoon.
French works very well for her, as heard in "Les tringles des sistres tintaient" from Bizet's Carmen. Mr. Domanowski's piano captured all the excitement and her "sister in song" joined in for some spirited dancing. It was a fine way to end the program.
But there were more delights to come--the aforementioned song by Chopin, the repeat of the "Flower Song" and "Belle nuit" from Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffman. Two lovely voices intertwined is a recipe for magic!
We left with a renewed appreciation for Polish history and culture and a desire to hear more Chopin songs. Are any singers listening?
(c) meche kroop