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, March 16, 2023


Mary Beth Nelson and Francesco Barfoed

It isn't every day that we get to hear two talented mezzo-sopranos on the same program and to observe how very different two artists from the same fach can be--as different as yin and yang or as fire and ice Both were dazzling in different ways. Both shared a highly engaging manner and the ability to make the audience feel welcome and involved.

Each chose her own program comprising material that was meaningful to herself. We found our own self wishing that they had not announced their respective themes, inasmuch as it was the way each chose to interpret the material and perhaps not the way we in the audience might understand it. It reminded us of the "Director's Notes" in a playbill announcing what the director was trying to say. Readers have heard me before opining that a work of art should speak for itself.

Several singers were nominated by their respective voice teachers at Juilliard to audition and then these two were selected by a panel of judges to participate in last night's Vocal Arts Honors Recital at Merkin Hall. This annual recital has always been a highlight of the vocal scene.

The first half of the program was performed by Mary Beth Nelson and Collaborative Pianist Francesco Barfoed. The first set was a setting of Three Poems of Christina Rossetti, a Victorian poet who came from an artistic family, including a famous Pre-Raphaelite painter.

We found the contemporary settings by David Conte to be more interesting in the piano part than the vocal part. Ms. Nelson's approach was elegant, sophisticated, and spare of gesture, as appropriate to the content of the text, which was largely about death. In our opinion, the text didn't ask for music and stands alone as poetry, enjoyable if you love poetry. It felt to us as if Ms. Nelson's gorgeous instrument (which we have very much enjoyed on prior occasions, when she sang Rossini and Strauss) was searching for a melody that wasn't there. Nonetheless, we enjoyed some personal touches such as the ritardando on the closing "think it long" of "Rest" and the emphasis on the recurrence of the phrase "calling me" in "A Hope Carol". The expressive lower register fell lightly on the ear--quite a change from the coloratura that we have admired on prior occasions.

We also enjoyed Mr. Barfoed's playing of the sometimes dense score, especially the extended postlude of "Echo".

The second set comprised three lieder by Schubert that were completely unfamiliar to us. We must have heard them ten years ago when Lachlan Glen produced a year long and exhaustive survey of Schubert's 600 plus lieder. We would love to tell you that we were thrilled to discover "new" Schubert lieder but in all honesty, we cannot. We did not hear the melodic invention nor feel the rhythmic thrust that enthralls.

"Verklärung" is a setting of Alexander Pope's "Transfiguration" translated into German by Johann Gottfried Herder--still more on the theme of death. The piano part was powerful with alternating lyrical parts. The variety of pacing and dynamics held one's interest and it was a story that Ms. Nelson relished telling.

Similarly, the setting of Franz von Bruchmann's "Schwestergrüss" gave Ms. Nelson a story to tell, a ghost story! Schubert wrote it with phrases occurring in ever ascending registers and Ms. Nelson gave this device full measure to build the drama. We also liked the insistent piano in the lower register.

Christoph Kuffner's "Glaube, Hoffnung, und Liebe" seemed to occupy more familiar territory, offering an interesting alternation of major and minor mode. We loved the way Schubert ended the lied with a firm resolution in the piano. 

We were left admiring Ms. Nelson's vocal gifts and the will to take the audience to unfamiliar places. Yet, the selections were not our taste and we were left wanting an encore of "Non piu mesto" or "Una voce poco fa".

Maggie Renée and Jinhee Park

The second half of the program took us to more familiar territory by means of two song cycles of which we are most fond. The Spanish language is as "singable" as Italian and 20th c. Spanish composers stuck to their Iberian melodies and rhythms without being seduced by serialism and other non-musical movements. Maggie Renée whilst not of Hispanic origin, exhibited a real feel for the various Iberian colors of Manuel de Falla's Siete Canciones populares EspañolasThe piano of Jinhee Park matched Ms. Renée mood for mood whilst sustaining the varied Iberian rhythms

The emotions are all over the map from the irony of "El paño Moruno" to the hidden text of "Seguidilla Murciana" and the acute pain of "Asturiana" and "Cancion", the angry desperation of  "Polo" and the tenderness of "Nana". This gives the singer an opportunity to demonstrate a wide range of colors and at that, Ms. Renée succeeded admirably, even if we didn't quite see the cycle as the outpouring of a single mother.

Similarly, we didn't quite latch on to her interpretation of Mussorgsky's Songs From the Nursery. We hear evidence of a nanny and a mother and possibly siblings but the failure to mention a father in the text does not signify to us that the child is fatherless. It may be better to allow the members of the audience to interpret the songs as they wish.

The performance was, in spite of this easily disregarded sharing of the singer's vision, quite powerful. Ms. Renée is not a small person and yet her dramatic ability gave the impression of a willfull child of about four or five years of age with all the concomitant charm and naughtiness. This little one fibs and blames his misbehavior on everyone else. Even if one didn't understand a word of Russian, every nuance was made clear.

This may be the only time in our reviewing life that we witnessed a singer bring a teddy bear onstage and sing sitting on the floor. Her mobile facial expressions and extravagant gestures made the performance totally convincing, captivating, and diametrically opposed to the "park and bark" school.  There are those who think a singer in recital should achieve stillness of body and accomplish everything with the voice. We are not of that school. We left the concert smiling along with the rest of the audience.

© meche kroop

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