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.

Thursday, April 12, 2018


Lawson Anderson, Brittany Nickell, and Michael Fennelly

We have often written about the generous dispersal of funds by Opera Index, and the care with which the young singers are selected for awards. The excellence of last night's recital at the National Opera Center came as no surprise. Luminaries of Planet Opera gathered to hear the "stars of tomorrow"; but we call them "stars of right now". They were introduced by President Jane Shaulis.

Soprano Brittany Nickell impressed us as a graduate student at Manhattan School of Music with her large and stunning instrument. Bass-baritone Lawson Anderson burst onto our radar screen just two years ago and dazzled us with his Mozart and Wolf, Borodin and Gounod. We heard potential in his Wotan but he didn't sound quite ready.

Well, hello Wotan! What progress he has made recently, coached by Valentin Peytchinov! We haven't enjoyed a Wotan since James Morris retired the role and we are sure that Mr. Anderson has received some input from Mr. Morris.  Truth to tell, if his casting were announced today we would be first in line for tickets!

Mr. Anderson has a dark mature sound and did a fine job in "Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge", creating a mood of authority.  As he invited Fricka to join him in their new home at the end of Das Rheingold, we thought "We'd follow him anywhere". We did follow him all the way through "Wotans Abschied", observing his gorgeous German, fine phrasing, and smoky tone.  But what we admired most was his ability to create an entire panoply of moods by means of gesture and vocal coloration. 

Wotan has been out-argued by Fricka and must punish his favorite daughter Brunhilde by depriving her of immortality. He must convey anger, sorrow, love, regret, and everything in between. Personally we cannot enjoy The Ring Cycle unless we have come to care deeply for the all-too-human Wotan with all of his flaws.  Morris succeeded and so did Mr. Anderson.

We were very impressed by the orchestra! Well, it was "just" Michael Fennelly playing his own arrangements of Wagner's score on the piano but it sounded like the Full Monty!

We were glad Mr. Anderson also included a few selections from Schubert's Winterreise which we so enjoyed hearing him sing in toto just two weeks ago. He also reprised an aria from Borodin's Prince Igor--"Ni sna, ni otdyha" in enviably fluent Russian.

Mr. Anderson is magnificently versatile and gave the audience a good taste of his Mozart. He made a fine Figaro expressing his rebellion against the Count in "Se vuol ballare" from Le Nozze di Figaro, and a very seductive Don Giovanni in "La ci darem la mano". His Zerlina was Ms. Nickell.

We wrote about this compelling soprano when she was studying at Manhattan School of Music and also witnessed her performance in a Marilyn Horne master class. We love her brilliant upper register with a fine vibrato that seems to contribute overtones upon overtones. What is special is that there is no loss of power at the lower end of the register, but rather a seamless quality from top to bottom. 

We had previously heard her "Robert, toi que j'aime" from the Meyerbeer opera Robert le Diable and admired her facility with French; we were delighted to hear it again. We heard impressive Verdian inclinations in "Come in quest'ora bruna" from Simon Boccanegra. Recalling her fine performance in Conrad Susa's opera The Dangerous Liaisons, we formed the opinion that Ms. Nickell is more of an opera singer than a lieder singer, although that may come along later.

The three Duparc songs she offered last night were finely rendered with delicacy and sensitivity and a lovely pianissimo; but it seemed to be an effort to hold herself back to fit the Gallic model--like driving a Lamborghini in city traffic. Of the three chansons, we preferred "L'invitation au voyage" in which the composer had more text and more time to develop his compositional ideas with dynamic variety. And Mr. Fennelly's piano was again, a revelation.

We thought that the Strauss songs were a better fit for Ms. Nickell's sizable soprano. We heard the timely "Frühling" and "Beim Schlafengehen" with its lovely piano interludes, from Four Last Songs. We thought that sleep was used as a metaphor for death. Even better was "Wie umgibst du mich mit Frieden" from Die Liebe der Danae, an opera we have never heard.

There is one aspect of performance that we hope Ms. Nickell will work on, and that is acting.  Offstage she has a lovely warm smile but onstage there was a constant expression of distress on her face. Of course we do not know what she was thinking or feeling during the performance but we wanted more variety.

In the Duparc we wanted a more languorous interpretation and we wanted to see Zerlina's flirtatious side. We believe that holding different images in mind during the performance could only spill over to a better palette of vocal colors, something that Ms. Horne, if we remember correctly, also brought up in the master class. Now we just remembered something from Ms. Horne's wise advice which Ms. Nickell seems to have followed. She was advised to "enjoy the melisma". Listening to her Strauss, we surely did!

(c) meche kroop

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