Monday, March 12, 2012

Over the river and through the woods....

Yes, dear readers, your intrepid reporter has ventured across the George Washington Bridge again in search of great singing.  The work was the Verdi Requiem, the presenting group was the Monmouth Civic Chorus, the venue was the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, and the date Saturday, March 10.

Mark Shapiro
Photo credit:  unattributed
This was Artistic Director Mark Shapiro's last concert with the Monmouth Civic Chorus, ending a happy 21-year association between conductor and chorale, so it was an emotional night for many.  I don't know Mr. Shapiro, but I have never heard a word uttered against him, and I know many, many choral singers.  Clearly this group holds him in very high esteem. After Saturday night's performance one could see why. It was equally clear that they love the Verdi Requiem and thoroughly enjoyed singing it with Mr. Shapiro.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching them sing it, and enjoyed watching Mr. Shapiro.  His love for the work was also abundantly clear, and one could hear it in the detailed and subtle performance he sought to achieve with chorus and orchestra.  The chorus did nobly, and truly my only complaint with them was that they were not twice as large a group.  Mr. Verdi's magnum opus requires a chorus of several hundred to do it justice.

The solo quartet was comprised of four young and rising opera singers who were quite a joy to hear.  Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green (I'm not making this up, you know) was a 2011 National Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and is a current member of the Met's Lindermann Young Artist Program.  This article (link) about the 2011 finals, focusing on Mr. Speedo Green, appeared in the New York Times after he was accepted into the Lindermann program.  He has a polished, resonant sound that hasn't been corrupted by too much advice.  His performance on Saturday night was beautiful vocally and musically.  The "Mors stupebit" that concluded the Tuba mirum section was filled with fear of death, and many much more accomplished artists than Mr. Speedo Green have also gone astray tonally in the final measures of that section.

Tenor Noah Baetge has a beautiful, clear, ringing tenor sound.  He has an impressive list of credits, including very high roles like Fenton and Rinuccio, along with the meatier role Rodolfo and an upcoming Lensky.  One wished his voice had been better suited to the Verdi Requiem.  It requires a stentorian sound, and Mr. Baetge's sound is on the lyric side.  One does not wish to complain about his singing, however, and indeed he must be congratulated for negotiating Verdi's dramatic vocal writing skillfully without doing himself a mischief.

Mezzo-soprano Leann Sandel-Pantaleo has an impressive list of credits, a pleasing sound, and a keen musicality.  She is a fine singer, but as is the lot with mezzos, she was somewhat overpowered in memory and impact by soprano Jennifer Rowley.

Photo credit:  Markku Pilhaja
What a babe!  I wrote (link) about Miss Rowley's career-making debut at Caramoor in 2010, when she stepped in with very little notice as cover for the lead role in Mr. Donizetti's Maria di Rohan, and wowed everyone.  The Washington Post wrote of her debut, "To say that the young singer from Ohio acquitted herself well would be severe understatement. [Miss] Rowley proved fully equal to the demands of a role that requires both coloratura dexterity and dramatic power beyond the limits of a lyric soprano. She can sing with melting purity, but her voice also takes on an intriguing, dark-tinged color at times..."  For Saturday night's concert, Miss Rowley had a little more warning--two weeks for her first Verdi Requiem!  She once again acquitted herself admirably, showing all those vocal traits I'd admired before--beauty of tone throughout, evenness, feeling--and more.

I don't wish to slight the other soloists, none of whom were unequal to their roles, but the Verdi Requiem is about the soprano, an amazing vocal and dramatic feat for the woman who is equal to it.  The program notes from Saturday's concert suggest the soprano might be like a ritual sacrifice, the entire piece more sacral than sacred.  That's what one heard in Miss Rowley's singing--terror and passion.  The final movement, "Libera me", requires both nuanced, controlled singing with a pianissimo high B-flat  ("Requiem aeternam") and the almost raucous sound of desperation ("Tremens factus sum ego").  One is tempted to make earthier metaphors referring to the passion and intensity of Miss Rowley's performance.  That is what this work is--earthy, vulgar, operatic.  That is why the Requiem is often called the most operatic of all Verdi's works, perhaps more realistic and gritty than the most low-brow, kitchen-sink verismo opera.

Three of the soloists (without Mr. Speedo Green, alas) repeat their performances on April 21 at Carnegie Hall with Mr. Shapiro and the St. Cecilia Chorus.  I look forward to hearing even more from them all, and to enjoying Mr. Shapiro's performance of this great work once again.

Mr. Shapiro will deliver a lecture on the Verdi Requiem entitled "It Takes a Sacrifice a Maiden" on Sunday, March 18, at 4 p.m. at All Souls Unitarian Church (80th & Lex in NYC), and Monday April 16, at 11 a.m. at Hutton House, LIU, Brookville, NY.

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