On August 8th, we were treated to singing of transcendent beauty from tenor Paul Groves, with superb accompaniment by pianist Joseph Illick, in deeply felt and well-conceived interpretations of songs by Henri Duparc, Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Benjamin Britten's wonderful and imaginative arrangements of British Isles folksongs. The recital was part of the Santa Fe Festival of Song, a project of Performance Santa Fe (the organization formerly known as the Santa Fe Concert Association) in which singers who are in town to perform at the Opera give art song recitals. Groves is Florestan in Santa Fe's Fidelio this year, and after hearing him in this recital, I'm eagerly anticipating his performance in that role.
Groves' voice is sweet and clear, but very powerful when he wants it to be, without losing any clarity or getting ragged at volume. His control over breath, and dynamic range are amazing and deployed to great interpretive effect. I don't believe that there is a single ideal way of interpreting most songs (though of course some songs may support a more limited range of workable approaches than others)...but I will say that Groves' performances of almost all of these songs were sheer perfection---while one could imagine a different approach being equally successful if equally well-executed, I mostly couldn't imagine anyone singing these songs better than Groves did here. He used the full range of vocal expression available to one with a top-of-the-line trained operatic voice. While a more subdued approach, with climaxes not quite as operatic in their intensity, could work equally well in many of these songs, and indeed provide a perfect opportunity for superb artistry by those who don't quite have the unbelievable volume and projection required for major-stage opera, I am not one who takes the view that operatic intensity should be banished from art-song interpretation. Groves' performance here was an illustration of how perfect and appropriate an approach informed by operatic experience, and empowered by an operatic technique and voice, can be in the art song.
The concert began with Duparc. I thought the first song, Le manoir de Rosemonde, came off as perhaps a tad too intense and vocally operatic an interpretation, though flawlessly sung. This might have been in part a matter of gauging the room sound; the Santa Fe United Methodist Church sanctuary is of modest size, with a relatively live and reflective acoustic. What followed ranged from superb to sublime. Extase was languorous and hypnotic, Soupir serene and heartfelt, Phidylé an entrancing mélange of rapture and whatever the right word is to express a slightly wistful, mildly sensual, very french kind of elegant wallowing in wistful nostalgia.
Following this, a definite change of pace with five Benjamin Britten settings of British folksongs. A substantial musical contribution from Britten here, with sometimes humorous, often very pretty and always very original settings that enhance, rather than working at cross-purposes to, the feeling and folk flavor of these songs. The Brisk Young Widow had verve and humour. In Sally in Our Alley, Groves did a superb job of putting across a broadly humorous, multi-verse narrative, with an unexpectedly poignant turn in the end. As pointed and effective an artistic meditation on class division as you will find anywhere, while avoiding dourness and simultaneously celebrating the joy of life. Early One Morning was quiet and poignant, beautifully shaped by Groves, while in The Lincolnshire Poacher and Ca' the Yowes Groves used the more robust side of his voice to great effect in an earthier vein. At the reception following the concert, Groves remarked these Britten folksong settings are actually the most difficult to sing of the works on the program, because of their choppier, less legato line if I understood correctly. (Speculating, this may in part be a peculiarity of singing in English, at least compared to the more vowel-centered nature of French and even Russian (and of course Italian and even German, although neither of these two languages were used in this program)). Of course, that comparison may be more likely to apply once one has put in the hours and years of work necessary to do long lines with the rock-solid breath support and control, and imperturbable legato where necessary, required by the French and Russian-language works on the program.
Next up was a group of four Victor Hugo poems set by Franz Liszt, ranging through a wide range of moods and emotions, from the flirtatious humor of Comment, disaient-ils, to the over-the-top protestations of love in Enfant, si j'etais roi, to the long-lined, sensual love poetry of Oh! quand je dors (another case where the adjective "sublime" applies to Groves' rendering). Very colorful, sometimes dramatic, settings of these poems. Excellent music that I did not know before this recital, and that I was very glad to be made aware of, especially in interpretations of this caliber.
The recital concluded with three songs of Sergei Rachmaninoff. In the Silence of the Night (Fet), How Fair this Spot (Galin), and Oh Never Sing to Me Again (Pushkin). Again perfectly sung, with focused and specific portrayal of emotion, startling in their beauty and impact.
For the encore, Groves brought out baritone Kostas Smoriginas for an unexpected treat---the duet "Au Fond du Temple Saint" from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. They took it perhaps a tad faster than I think optimal, but did a fabulous job---Groves' vocal control, and ability to do high, soft, and sweet as well as powerful and passionate was a key here, as was Smoriginas' incredibly deep, full, and powerful baritone, depth and darkness balanced by plenty of high-in-the-mask, projecting resonance that did not shade at all into brittleness. Smoriginas is Escamillo in Santa Fe's Carmen this season; I will not hear Carmen until its last performance, but based on this duet, Smoriginas has just the voice this role needs, and should be amazing in it. In many recordings I have of this aria, the baritone recedes a bit into the mix compared with the tenor (who is a bit more the star of this aria)---so it was great to hear the baritone part so clearly in this classic romance-meets-bromance potboiler. When the tenor and baritone united in singing the melody in sync partway through, the effect was thrilling.
At the reception I overheard Mr. Groves thanking the organizers for the opportunity to give a recital while in Santa Fe, and lamenting that while opera singers love to do recitals, there are not as many opportunities for them as there were even as recently as the 1990s, when he could do lengthy recital tours in Europe and elsewhere. Listen up, agents, impresarios, and program committees because some of us are on the lookout for the kind of intense and transporting experience of aesthetic perfection one gets from hearing a singer of the caliber of Paul Groves up close in recital.