Paul Groves, Joseph Illick at Santa Fe Festival of Song: Duparc, Britten, Liszt, Rachmaninoff

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.



Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles: at Santa Fe 2012 and on record (Alain Vanzo's Nadir should not be missed)

This summer's Santa Fe Opera performance was the first time I've really listened to Bizet's first opera, Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers).  It was a good performance, and perhaps I'll review it more fully sometime; the male leads, singing Nadir and Zurga, were good but not extraordinary, the female lead, Nicole Cabell singing Leila, had a more distinctive and powerful voice, with some clear ringing tone but also at times a bit too much vibrato and/or distortion, and possibly an overall sound more suited, to my ears, for bel canto Italian opera than a more legato french style.  The opera has some beautiful choral sections, and in the Santa Fe performance I especially liked some of the duet work between Nadir and Leila in the middle and later sections.  I also enjoyed the act I interaction between Nadir and Zurga, but I didn't quite realize, from the Santa Fe performance, that this is probably the high point of the opera and probably, in terms of just beautiful melody and singing, one of the high points of opera.

Listening to the first act, on Angel LPs (Angel 3603, stereo) with Pierre Dervaux conducting the chorus and orchestra of the Opéra Comique (Paris) and Janine Micheau as love-interest and priestess Leila, Nicolai Gedda as Nadir, Ernest Blanc as Zurga (rivals for Leila's love) and Jacques Mars as the bad-guy priest Nourabad, was a thoroughly satisfying musical experience.  Some of the music might be thought a bit simple in its appeal, but none of it is boring, and there are plenty of superb high points.  Gedda, who was a go-to tenor for recordings for several decades in the middle of the last century because of his reliability, willingness to deal with studio requirements such as multiple takes and such, and ability to project a role even in the studio, does an excellent job, with a relatively clear and neutral vocal quality.  Baritone Ernest Blanc is a wonderful foil for Gedda, especially in the outstanding duet "Au fond du temple saint", with a very characterful voice that has a mellow, almost walnut-brown tone.  The voices contrast nicely, but also work beautifully together in the unison passages. The Angel LP sound is good except toward the end of a side, where there is either a lot of inner-groove distortion, or perhaps my copy is just worn.  I'm looking forward to a careful listen to the rest of this performance. Here's the Nadir-Zurga duet "Au fond du Temple Saint" from this recording:

However, what really turned me on to quality of the first-act music for Nadir and Zurga was the performances of French tenor Alain Vanzo.  He has an amazing, very clear voice, sounding higher than most tenors when singing the same notes, but not quite like a countertenor.  No one can touch him in this role.  So here is a selection of his performances of the two great highlights of the first act: the duet "Au fond du temple saint", and Nadir's solo aria "Je crois entendre encore".  This is some of the most beautiful singing ever.

 Au Fond du Temple Saint:

Live in Amsterdam, 1963, with Belgian baritone Juri Jorlis as Zurga. Probably my favorite. Joris also has an exceptionally clear-toned voice that goes well with Vanzo's, and sings well; it's not just Vanzo's solo work that is outstanding here, Joris is too, and the two together are stunning, for instance beginning at 1'30 in the video.

The above performance is available on a 2 CD set on the Verona label. Jean Fornet conducts the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra at the Concertgebouw, Erna Spoorenberg is Leila.

It's also interesting to hear a younger Vanzo, in 1959 with Robert Massard as Zurga. His voice sounds slightly tauter, the overall tone a bit more brilliantly operatic but perhaps less supple, and the tempo may be a bit faster.

Also from 1959, a very different performance with Gabriel Bacquier as Zurga. A much slower tempo, a softer-edged tone from Vanzo, a more relaxed interpretation overall. At least as presented on Youtube, the sound quality is better than in the two preceding clips, but I think there is a genuine difference in Vanzo's tone here, probably influenced by the slow tempo. Bacquier is a more standard, dark-toned baritone, and his delivery is more emphatically "operatic" at times. Still very much worth hearing. This clip also contains a lot of excellent music leading up to the aria; a highlight is the melodic passage for Nadir as he starts to be carried away by memories of Leila ("Son regard...") from 1'20 through 1'40. The musical and melodic quality here is as high as in any great aria. The passage begins with an old (but perhaps not so old in Bizet's time) trick, the singer singing the words of the phrase while repeating the same musical note, with the harmony changing underneath. (Puccini's "E lucevan le stelle" for Cavaradossi in Tosca starts the same way.) Here we just get one harmonic change with the same note kept in the melody; at the next harmonic change the singer rises by a minor third, and we are into an unmistakably nineteenth-century French melody, probably in some minor mode, reminiscent of antique times and exotic lands seen through a golden haze of memory. (You know the vein; it runs through art (Delacroix) and literature (Baudelaire), and certainly through French music all the way up to Debussy and Ravel, Reynaldo Hahn, etc...) This is magic, Bizet's genius at work; the transitions into and out of it are also superbly fact, the whole passage in this clip, before what is considered the duet proper begins with "Au fond..." at 2'20, shows Bizet's genius in handling dialogue in music, seamlessly mixing declamatory, recitative-like parts with melodic passages. At 1'50, Zurga is drawn into the reverie...the foreboding in his chromatic descending line (echoed at times in his lines in the duet proper, and presaged in some way by some chromatic ascending lines earlier) is not exactly the most subtle or original thing, but works perfectly as part of Bizet's mix.

Je crois entendre encore

This solo aria "Je crois entendre encore" is another contender for the musical high point of the opera. I'm unsure of the source of this clip, but it's a good one.

I'm also not sure where and when this next clip is from. In the preceding version, and in most or all of the other performances I've heard, the aria ends with Nadir's final "Charmant souvenir" echoed by the oboe. Where the singer rises a fourth (to the A above middle C) on "Charmant", the oboe rises a minor sixth, and also rises at the end to the cadence. In this version Vanzo sings the oboe's line, the minor sixth on "Charmant" taking him (incidentally) to what is called a "high C" for tenor, and it is breathaking:

The oboe line is probably what Bizet wrote, and perhaps sets up the transition to what follows better than singing the cadence, but it's also possible that it was set for the oboe because it was too high for the tenor in the relevant performance. Possibly the above clip is from a concert performance of the aria, where there is no need for a transition; the sung cadence is certainly effective.

Finally, from the 1963 Amsterdam performance again: