There was a time when no singer with any reputation would conceive of ignoring the recital stage in the course of a musical season. Now, in these high-intensity days of five-digit fees and the short-but-splashy career syndrome the singing world is increasingly falling prey to, recitals tend to be a thing of the past.
However, some singers still actually likem giving recitals. And they can reach audiences in cities where they are not singing at the opera house, or where there are no such houses for them to sing in.
Mirella Freni and Elly Ameling are both sopranos. But the difference ends there. The former has had a long, prosperous career in the opera houses of the world. The latter has, for the most part, limited her appearances to the recital and oratorio stage. Freni is definitely an opera singer giving recitals. Ameling has perfected the art of lieder singing and shares that expertise with her audiences.
Both women gave recitals over the past weekend: Freni in Avery Fisher Hall, Ameling in Alice Tully Hall, both under the umbrella of Great Performers at Lincoln Center.
Mirella Freni has not sung at the Metropolitan Opera for several seasons now. Her public was out in force to give her a very warm reception at her first appearance, and justifiably so. She is the sort of artist that one quite simply loves. Since here last Met appearances, she has been singing much heavier repertoire in Europe, including the dramatic Verdi roles of Elisabetta in "Don Carlo" and Aida. As one might suspect, a toll has been taken on the basic instrument -- the top is not quite so melting, the gained power tends to put an edge on the voice that, now and then, becomes rather too steely.
Yet, the confidence and the assurance, the evenness from top to bottom (which , while not strong, is always secure) and the ability to make everything sound so pretty, so effortless, remain in that lovely composite that is the Freni touch.
Her program was well put together -- mostly songs by either operator or non-Germanic composers, ones that stress the lyric over the purely interpretive. Of her Rossini, Verdi, and even Duparc, and Faure one could hardly imagine hearing the songs more effortlessly produced, more naturally projected. Her operatic selections included "Dove Sono" from Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," which proved something of a warm-up, "Tu che le vanita" from "Don Carlo" eloquently put forth, and "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's "Louise," sung on a bold, large rapturous scale. Her timbre proved ideal inthe Faure and Duparc songs. And she even attacked three Rachmaninoff songs with commitment and thrilling presence.
Of the three encoures granted to appease the tumultuously acclaiming audience , her "Adriana Lecouvreur" Act 1 aria was the most memorable, "Convien partir" -- why did she sing this French aria in Italian? -- with its message of the sadness of parting, the most appropriate. Ameling, too, closed her quintet of encores with a haunting Scottish ballad "Think of Me," which also touched on parting and separation.
Whereas Freni is rare among Italian sopranos in her mastery of many foreign languages, Ameling is true to a recitalist's duties to know authentically more than just German. Her English is quite good, her French is nigh impeccable, her Spanish, international, lacking perhaps in inflection but clear of diction.
Needless to say, her program touched all the above-mentioned tongues, opening with Schumann's "Liederkreis," and three Mendelssohn songs, followed (after the intermission) by a Poulenc cycle ("La courte paille"), three sumptuous Chausson songs, and a closing Spanish section of Granados, Gustavino, and Turina songs.
Those who know Miss Ameling by her considerable quantity of impressive and important lieder records know the voice to be small but of uncommon purity and the interpretive approach to be inward, searching, yet unfussy. She makes her points through phrasing, the pliancy of a line, and shading of the voice rather than on a more subdivided word- for-word basis.
In the "Liederkreis," where each song is in such contrast to its predecessor, she offered a wide spectrum of vocal color to enlighten a phrase, to create a mood.
And always there is a sense of the emotional undercurrents of a song, which, Ameling captures from the very beginning, nurturing just the right hint of it throughout.
To talk of what is more or less successful in an Ameling program is to quibble in the highest degree, but still, the Chausson proved the most persuasive part of the concert. For the music fits this voice ideally, her French is so startlingly idiomatic, and she captures that underlying sensuousness in the music with such a deft delicacy.
There are some signs of discomfort in the upper reaches of her soprano that one does not hear on the records, and it is hoped this is but a passing thing. For there is no finer recitalist today than Miss Ameling, nor one more communicative or more musical.
She was handsomely abetted by Dalton Badwin, who is virtually without peer today. He views the keyboard as a wide coloristic communicative instrument, one that now blends with, now contrasts with, the vocal line. he is an equal collaborator, sensitive to his artist's needs, supportive, yet individual. John Wustman, Freni's accompanist, too often stood in the background musically, satisfied to keep up with his singer and get the notes out with as little fanfare as possible. He also sounded under-practiced here and there, which is certainly not up to his usual standards.