Another night when Palm Beach Opera beats the virus with an outdoor song recital. This time the venue was the spacious veranda of the well-groomed National Croquet Center.
Twelve singers, six each from the Benenson Young Artist and Apprentice Artist programs, were accompanied by the distinguished pianist Ksenia Leletkina, whose doctorate is from the Eastman School of Music and who is currently on the staff of Palm Beach Opera. The songs — Lieder — were organized into six groups: Germany and Austria; France; England; Italy; Russia and Spain/Argentina.
Before I review the young singers, let me here make a plea for more lieder recitals. Frequent in Europe, America has yet to catch up with this charming art form.
Invariably, great opera singers, as well as the not-so-great, lengthen their careers in Europe by taking to lieder once the pressures of the opera house become too demanding. They hire small halls where their vocal cords meet the audible test, so their public gets a more intimate view of their artistry. An infinitely rewarding experience with a new closeness, and friendships between artist and audience spring up.
Most 19th-century composers, aware of this need, wrote scads of song cycles for these singers — greats like Hugo Wolf, Schubert, Brahms, Mendelssohn, et al. My plea is for today’s young singers to continue this tradition in the United States.
Reviewing the singers in no particular order I must emphasize the conditions were not those of a concert hall. Also, the hum of traffic from nearby main roads at times interfered with delivery and the ability to be heard distinctly.
Soprano Patricia Westley, of Santa Barbara, Calif., with experience in the famous Merola program of San Francisco Opera, sang Richard Strauss’s “Ständchen” and “Pierrot Dandy” of the Austrian composer Joseph Marx (1882-1964) to Leletkina’s brilliant accompaniment. Westley’s silken sounds lofted through the air with delicate precision in her first song and full-throated, dramatic feeling in the second.
Jenny Anne Flory of Dayton, Va., a mezzo-soprano with experience at Charlottesville Opera gave a light rendering of Schubert’s “Die Forelle,” and in Brahms’s “Von ewiger Liebe” let loose with lovely rounded tones of such a rich quality that I was transported into thinking Flory would one day make a great “Angel” in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.
Baritone Kyle White from Berkley, Mich., was next. With training at Kentucky Opera he sang Duparc’s “L’invitation au voyage” and Ravel’s “Chanson à boire.” He gave his best in both songs and with especial deep feeling in the Spanish-influenced Ravel piece. The composer’s mother was a citizen of the Basque country.
Mezzo Megan Callahan of Seattle, educated at Boston’s Conservatory, sang Debussy’s “Il pleure dans mon coeur” and “Voyage à Paris” by Poulenc. The beauty of her voice came through in the way she draws out her notes to a breathless ending, leaving the audience hanging on her every note.
Tenor Steven Ricks of Chandler, Ariz., with training in the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, sang two English songs: Roger Quilter’s “Love’s Philosophy” and Vaughan Williams’s “Linden Lea.” He seemed to chew his words, resulting in poor diction, but his bright tenor will get him some of the lighter, amusing Mozart roles. In each of the three times he sang the words “Linden Lea,” in the Vaughan Williams song, they came across as Lin-DON Lea, an annoying affectation. Take care with your vowel sounds, Mr. Ricks.
Bass-baritone Christopher Humbert Jr. of Akron, Ohio, was most impressive. Also trained at Boston Conservatory, he sang Gerald Finzi’s “Cymbeline’’ beautifully. It’s a difficult work, but Humbert glided over the Shakespearean words with ease, demonstrating his musicality. His second song was Michael Head’s “Money O!,” which showcased his magnificent voice and the splendidly sweet, pure last high note at its end, which men of his bass range rarely reach.
Mezzo SarahAnn Duffy of Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., and Bard College sang two songs from the Italian repertory, Rossini’s “Anzoleta avanti la regata” and Respighi’s lovely ‘’Notte.’’ Duffy’s charming voice has great potential once she learns how to throw it forward. Her fine lilting expression was delightful to hear.
Enter Tenor Moisés Salazar from Santa Ana, Calif., trained at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. He sang Verdi’s “Stornello” and Tosti’s “L’ultima canzone” to great acclaim. His powerful Italianate sound, somewhat reminiscent of the late Pavarotti, thrilled the audience. His personality filled the veranda and his quieter moments were captivating.
Soprano Emily Helenbrook from Alexander, N.Y., trained at the Boston Symphony’s summer home in the forested green Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, the Tanglewood Music Center. Helenbrook sang two Russian songs, Rachmaninov’s “It is beautiful here” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The rose and the nightingale.” How well she floated her many high notes, with such ease and grace, and in Russian yet. She is a true lyrico spinto with roles in as many Donizetti and Bellini operas she cares to conquer.
The delightful Korean baritone, Heeseung Chae, of Seoul, with training at Boston University, also sang two Russian pieces, “The fire of longing burns in my blood,” by Glinka and “Whether day reigns,” by Tchaikovsky. Chae’s voice can be strong and soft within seconds. He has a very polished sound, clear, clean top and rounded head tones without any rough edges. He held his composure for the duration of Tchaikovsky’s very long piano coda, played beautifully by Leletkina. Chae is a great find.
Songs from Spain and Argentina drew the Liederabend to a close. Tenor Juan Hernández from San Juan, Puerto Rico, who trained at the Conservatorio de Musica there, sang “Bonita rama de sauce” by the Argentine composer Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000) and “Del cabello mas sutíl” from the pen of Spain’s Fernando Obradors. He sang the first song with abandon, rolling his dramatic r’s with gusto. His lyrical tenor was beautiful and his singing forceful at the end.
Last, soprano Shannon Jennings appeared. Surely she is the next Renée Fleming. Her captivating plummy rounded sounds were thrilling. Her two were Ginastera’s “Cancion al arbol del olvido” and “Las locas por amor” of Joaquín Turina. Both were beautifully sung with tonal purity and superb technique. Jennings’s singing will stay with me for a long time to come.
It was a fitting end to a well-constructed and thoughtfully devised liederabend. Kudos to all. And save me a seat for the coming indoor season.