Friday, April 7, 2017

Carmen in Central PA: Kate Aldrich recital

Kate Aldrich giving a recital at a small college 3 miles from where I now live struck me as a miracle of the universe, an event against the laws of natural scheduling, a visitation which I was undisposed to question. I regret to say that, despite the recital's advertisement in symphony playbills and elsewhere, the residents of greater Harrisburg did not turn out in force. Aldrich, however, gave a generous and richly varied program, and engaged the small audience with great warmth. Not having heard Aldrich since her 2010 Met Carmen, I was pleased to get a sense both of the bel canto works she's been recently exploring, and the French romanticism into which, it seems, she is moving. And in one thing the provinces could give the audiences of New York an education: not once was there applause before the end of a set, nor did a single cell phone make itself heard. [Note: this recital took place on February 4th (sic!) and being unusually under academic deadlines, I neglected to give it its finishing touches till now. Gentle Readers, I beg your indulgence.]

I had expected Aldrich's program to be structured around scenes from some of the operatic roles that are--or will be--central to her repertoire. It turned out, however, to consist largely of atmospheric late romantic art song from Chausson, Berlioz, and Richard Strauss. Throughout, she was ably partnered by Stuart Malina, trading the conductor's podium for the pianist's bench. Peculiarly, the original texts were not given in the program notes; Aldrich supplied the deficiency not only with expressive expressive and intelligible text in all four languages of the recital, but with brief commentaries on them between sets.

Opening with Chausson's "Chanson perpétuelle" seemed a daring move to me. Aldrich's reading of it was dark, driven more by the speaker's unbearable melancholy than by the memory of sensual delights past. I was struck by her effective use of gesture to create parallels between the kiss of the lover "près des cheveux" and the future in which the speaker will abandon herself to the whims of the stream, "dans mes cheveux défaits." To my surprise, Aldrich performed the four Strauss lieder on the program ("Zueignung," "Allerseelen," "Befreit," and "Morgen,") as moments in a single narrative... or, as she wryly called them, "the death set." I shamelessly love these songs, and was impressed by Aldrich's clarity of diction and assured phrasing. I did feel, however, that some of the potential nuances in each lied were lost in making them points on an emotional arc.

The last piece given before the interval was the triumphant "Riedi al soglio" from Rossini's Zelmira. In this and the other operatic material of the second half, I felt Aldrich seemed more confident, as well as more successful, in creating vocal and dramatic unity. Carmen's "Habañera" was given with a theatrical and dynamic range that made the audience sit up and take notice, rather because of the vivid immediacy of the performance than because of the familiarity of the music, which marked the extent of Aldrich's achievement. Berlioz' "La Mort d'Ophélie" was given with beautifully sustained phrasing and intense emotionality. I was impressed by Aldrich's varying the vocal color of the lament's wordless portions, giving them poignancy and nuance. Berlioz was followed, inconsequently, with "Trouble in Tahiti," a piece wildly different in tone, but one of the most successful of the night, I thought. Aldrich's use of gesture supported Bernstein's text as a razor-sharp, pitch-perfect send-up of the racist and heterosexist clichés of postwar Hollywood. The closing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" paled in comparison, I thought, though the audience was clearly gratified by its inclusion. For all the beauties of the selected art song, it was in the pieces composed for the stage that Aldrich proved the most compelling, whether as frustrated housewife or opera's most iconic bohémienne

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