Phillips, Kaiser raise Longy’s roof in duo recital

May 3, 2013 at 10:19 am

By David Wright

Susanna Phillips

Two rising stars of the Metropolitan Opera brought their stadium-sized voices to an intimate concert room in Cambridge Wednesday night, with generally pleasing results.

Soprano Susanna Phillips and tenor Joseph Kaiser were presented by Celebrity Series of Boston as part of its Debut Series of concerts in the 280-seat Pickman Hall at the Longy School of Music of Bard College.

The program of songs and arias by French composers—plus Mozart, setting a French text—began somewhat awkwardly amid vocal problems, but by the second half the necessary adjustments had been made and the two singers’ powerful voices and winning personalities carried the day.

Phillips seemed to be reining in her voice for the first two songs, Mozart’s Dans un bois solitaire et sombre and Martini’s Plaisirs d’amour, and the result was a weakly supported tone, unstable in both vibrato and pitch.  The songs’ evocation of love’s regrets was regrettably out of focus.

On the other hand, Grétry’s satirical aria “Certaine coucou” from Le jugement de Midas, depicting a singing contest for birds judged by an ass, closed Phillips’s first group on a humorous note.  The singer, herself the winner of many singing competitions, could be judged guilty of hamming it up a bit in this performance, but that had a liberating effect on her vocal production.

Kaiser introduced himself with four songs by Henri Duparc, a composer known for his small but exquisitely polished output of mélodies.  The first and last of these, Le manoir de Rosamonde and Le Galop, were songs of passion and action well suited to the singer’s fierce, heroic delivery.

If Kaiser’s trumpet-like top notes were a bit overbearing for the other two songs, in lower dynamics he modulated his tone and sang expressively, sounding simultaneously chaste and sensuous (a very Duparc combination) in Chanson triste and probing the grief and yearning of Phydilé.

One looked forward to hearing these two voices joined in duet, but that didn’t happen in Messiaen’s La Mort du nombre (The Death of the Number) for two singers, violin, and piano.  For much of this mystical piece, Kaiser sang solo as a tormented soul longing for unattainable, divine perfection, with brief responses from Phillips as a calm, angelic voice.  Phillips closed the piece on an ecstatic crescendo, a promise of spiritual joys to come, when “this weight of numbers will be dead.”

Violinist Andrew Eng was a modest partner to the singers, sweetly intoning folksong-like melodies amid Messiaen’s wide-ranging modern harmonies.  Pianist Myra Huang turned Messiaen’s complex writing for her instrument into fluid and scintillating textures.

To detail Huang’s contribution to each item on the program would double the length of this review.  Presently the Head of Music for the New York City Opera, she seems to “get” singers as few pianists do.

“Accompanist” hardly seems an adequate word to describe her role Wednesday night.  For each piece, she created an environment that reinforced what the singer was trying to put across.  Her playing was clear and purposeful, yet non-percussive, so as to mesh easily with the singer’s tone.

Always willing to engage a singer in dialogue or to emphasize a point, Huang was a full partner all evening, without ever hogging attention.  This program, while sparse in vocal duets, turned out to be rich in duets between singer and pianist.

Joseph Kaiser

The concert’s second half began with Gary Dunning, president of Celebrity Series, coming onstage to announce that one of the singers was “under the weather”—not Phillips, who had sung tentatively in her solo group, but the heroic and expressive Kaiser.  (One can only imagine what the tenor sounds like when he’s fit.)

The program was adjusted slightly to spare Kaiser’s voice for the grand finale, the parting-at-morning scene from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.  The tenor took his scheduled turn in “Si vous croyez que je vais dire” from Messager’s Fortunio, sounding quite healthy as he brought the noble, dignified aria to a splendid fortissimo climax.  However, he later omitted the passionate aria “Ah, fuyez” from Massenet’s Manon.

For her part, Phillips sounded quite revived vocally in Debussy’s Apparition.  There was a firm center to her tone, and a solid foundation to her malleable phrasing and superb control of dynamics.  She successfully negotiated Debussy’s spooky effects, including impossibly high pianissimo notes that seemed to come out of nowhere, while weaving the surrealistic mood of the Mallarmé poem.

Though no longer preceded by a Massenet aria as planned, the Meditation from that composer’s Thaïs, performed by violinist Eng and pianist Huang, served its purpose of giving the singers a breather.  Eng played with a nice sense of the famous melody’s ebb and flow, if with somewhat thin tone (especially compared to the powerful singers).  Huang turned simple rising arpeggios into an eloquent statement.

Phillips announced that, since the program now had plenty of slow numbers, she and Huang would substitute Juliet’s aria at the ball (“Je veux vivre”) for her later aria in the family tomb (“Amour ranime mon courage”).   Singer and pianist tossed off the coloratura waltz-aria with panache and dramatic timing, as if they’d been practicing it for weeks.  (Maybe they had it ready as an encore.)

Parting was sweet sorrow indeed as the two singers finally sang at the same time in the dawn scene of Roméo.  The performance was semi-staged, and barely semi at that, with enough close-up gazing and caressing during the piano prelude to make the recital audience squirm a little.

Despite the smallness of the hall and the proximity of the audience, the singers elected to go all-out vocally and dramatically in this final number, to the general delight.  The lovers’ “stay or go” torment was sung and acted to the hilt, ending in roof-raising high notes and a passionate clinch.

Was it a bit much for a recital of Mozart and Duparc?  Phillips, grinning and fanning herself during the bows, seemed to acknowledge as much.  But it didn’t sound as though anybody minded.

Satisfied with great success on a problematic night, the performers sent the audience on its way without encores.

The next presentation of the Celebrity Series of Boston will be the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, 8 p.m. Friday at Jordan Hall.  celebrityseries.org(617) 482-6661.

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