The first Rosenblatt Recital of the new series saw American tenor Lawrence Brownlee performing songs and arias by Verdi, Poulenc, Moore, Mozart and Rossini. The new venue for the Rosenblatt Recital series, the Wigmore Hall, was packed, all looking forward to the big start to the new season. It was nice to see both the Wigmore Hall and the Rosenblatt regulars in attendance, with a few famous musicians in the audience as well (hello Elizabeth Llewellyn!).
The program began with four of Verdi’s Sei Romanze, the most buoyant of which, Lo spazzacamino, was a humourous tale about a chimney sweep. Brownlee’s spirited performance made this stand out from the rest of the Sei Romanze. After this Italian introduction, Brownlee treated us to some French songs by Poulenc. The beautiful melody of the song “C” sat nicely with Brownlee’s warm voice, while the touching and melancholic Bleuet created a palpable atmosphere in the hall.
Ben Moore’s four American art-songs were, for me, the highlight of the first half of the Recital. Brownlee really got under the skin of the songs, and his ability to bring in a "musical theatre" sound to his vocal production gave a sense of sincerity to the pieces which would have been lacking had they been given a wholly operatic treatment. Both “I would in that sweet bosom be” and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” had Brownlee reaching into the audience, drawing us in with his emotional performance.
The second half of the recital was dominated by Rossini, with one stunning piece of Mozart. “Un aura amorosa” from Così fan tutte was a revelation. Brownlee’s voice was perfect for the aria, his performance a vibrant, sensual outpouring of emotion. The four Rossini arias provided the fireworks for the evening. The terrifyingly athletic “Ah, dov’è il cimento” from Semiramide saw Brownlee vaulting to C5 several times; perform manifold lines of hellish coloratura; and throw in a few plunges of a 10th down to C3. How do you top that? Well you sing Umberto’s Cavatina “O fiamma soave” from La donna del lago, of course! Brownlee gave us more cascading torrents of semi- and demi-semiquavers, perfect in pitch, solid and well supported in delivery.
For me, though, the highlight of the evening was the final aria, “Terra amica, ove respire” from Zelmira. Starting on G4, and reaching C5 in the first five bars, “Terra amica” is definitely not for the ill-prepared! And with 5 D5’s, well, Brownlee can now be crowned the “King of the High D’s”! Brownlee’s encore was a beautiful rendition of the traditional spiritual Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Again, the warmth of Brownlee’s voice, so unexpected in a leggiero tenor, and his story-telling ability, shone through.
In his pre-concert interview with the Rosenblatt Team, Brownlee said that he hopes “to sing more Mozart. (Ferrando, Belmonte, Tito - perhaps a bit later).” I for one would be very happy to see this! A plea: how about taking on Mitradite? “Vado incontro” would be a pleasure to hear in the hands of such a professional, vocally athletic and engaging singer.
Juan Diego Flόrez’s fifth Rosenblatt Recital took place at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall. His program included mainstream Tenor set pieces, such as “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” “Be My Love,” and “De' miei bollenti spiriti,” as well as a series of lesser known bel canto and 20th Century Spanish material.
The first two offerings came from Bellini’s Il Pirata. The Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn, under the baton of Alessandro Vitiello, set the tenor of the evening with their energetic rendition of the Overture of the opera. Flόrez then came to the stage, greeted with rapturous applause, and regaled us with “Nel furor delle tempeste.” His clear, diamond voice launched into the aria, which called for 7 A4’s, a B4 and a D5! All this in the first aria! When approaching the D5, Flόrez had that perfect alignment of body and voice which is essential when a Tenor rises above the High C’s! His phrasing on the line “io l’amo, e peno” was particularly beautiful.
To follow Bellini, we were served Rossini! The orchestra powered through the Overture to La Scala di Seta. Special praise must go to the double basses for their expert playing of the more thunderous parts of the piece. From the same opera, Flόrez gave us “Vedrò qual sommo incanto.” The warmth of the first verse was followed by the virtuosity of the second, where Flόrez had a magnificent coloratura run, starting at Bb4 and returning right back again, and a C5 as ornamentation, both of which were handled masterfully. Verdi was also on the menu, with the Sinfonia from Luisa Miller showing off the talents of the fabulous clarinettist, and Flόrez on top form with “De' miei bollenti spiriti” from La Traviata.
After the interval we were treated to three Spanish composers. The first was from his Amadeo Vives’ zarzuela, Doña Francisquita: the famous second act aria "Por el humo se sabe." Flόrez’s dramatic, desperate outburst on the phrase “Se me entra por los ojos y a veces sueño que ya la adoro” with its alternating Ab4/G4 scoring, was very powerful. The second piece was a playful ditty called “El mismo rey del moro” from José Serrano’s La algería del batallόn. Finally we heard the Intermezzofrom Gerόnima Giménez’s La boda de Luis Alonso. The vitality with which the orchestra executed the piece was palpable, with committed, aggressive violins, and a sensational performance by the brass section.
With Lehár’s “Dein is mein ganzes Herz” and Brodzsky’s “Be My Love” Flόrez reminded us why the tenor voice has such beautiful melodies composed for it. The emotional delivery of the Lehár was infectious, and much credit should be given to the orchestra for judging correctly the level of sentimentality required. His delivery of “Be My Love” brought a tear to the eyes of a few of the audience members sitting around me. A few people around me were singing it to themselves as we waited for the final aria on the program.
Flόrez introduced the next piece, “Allegro io son” from Donizetti’s Rita, telling us that it was about a man who had lost his wife. Though it was no great loss as he didn’t want her anyway! There were several octave leaps up to B4, plus an octave jump up to C5. The high notes were effortless, amazingly so given the arias he had performed thus far. Flόrez’s humour shone through as he sang his “Tra la la la la”lines. It earned him whistles from the arena. A wave of foot-stomping went through the crowd as we waited to see what encores we would be getting.
Flόrez’s signature piece, “Ah, mes amis” from La fille du regiment was the first encore. The nine C5’s penetrating the Hall like a laser, on pitch and cutting straight through the orchestra. Next up, we had “La donna è mobile,” from Rigoletto. Flόrez's tempo slower than usual, showing off his astounding breath control and beautiful legato singing. He crowned the aria with a magnificent C5. The last piece,Granada, was a perfect ending. Flόrez created a wonderful texture to the phrases, and the Morish triplets at the end sent shivers down my spine.
The concert was an overwhelming success for Flόrez, and for Ian Rosenblatt’s Recital Series.
Tonight’s Rosenblatt Recital saw Baritone Lucio Gallo perform songs and arias by composer Sir Paolo Tosti. Gallo has performed in many of the major opera houses in the world, in roles such as Don Pizarro, Falstaff, Don Giovanni, and Iago, which Gallo believes to be “one of the most interesting roles written for a baritone.” It was, however, at the recent performance of Puccini’s Il Trittico that I first became aware of Gallo’s talents.
Gallo is no stranger to the Rosenblatt Recitals series as he performed there in June 2009. Then, he presented a range of composers, including Mozart, Verdi and Tosti. This time, Gallo will be showcasing Tosti’s arias and songs. Gallo had this to say about the program:
"I have always liked the music of Tosti but in the past I always made a point of singing music by several composers in my recitals, apart from lieder cycles of course. Then after my Rosenblatt recital in 2009, I had a long talk with Ian Rosenblatt about doing another recital and when he expressed his passion for Tosti, I suggested doing an entire concert of his music."
Tosti had an interesting and varied career. After showing early promise as a student teacher, Tosti fell ill, and had to leave his post as student teacher. When Tosti moved to Rome, his fortunes changed. Giovanni Sgambati, who became his patron, introduced him to the future Queen of Italy, who appointed him as her singing professor. Tosti moved to England in 1875, where he became singing master to the royal family, and later became a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. He became a British Citizen in 1906, and was knighted by King Edward VII in 1908. He died in Rome in 1916.
One of the problems with presenting a recital with only one composer represented is that the style and emotional content can become repetitive. With Gallo and Tosti, this was most definitely not the case. Gallo’s dramatic and engaging style perfectly complemented Tosti’s expressive songs. Tosti’s works display both a full knowledge of the emotional spectrum and an excellent understanding of the vocal instrument.
The recital began with the Due piccolo notturni, of which the second, “O falce di luna calante”, was the most engaging. Gallo’s voice opened wonderfully on the high phrase “non canto, non grido”, while fading away to almost nothing on the final “chiarore qua giù”.
This was followed by the Tre Romanze, three songs with words by Rocco Emanuele Pagliara. Gallo’sforte optional G4 on the final “fugge l’amore!” contrasted wonderfully with the ppp C3’s on the final phrase. The most powerful song in this set was the beautiful Malia which, with a range of just one octave, showcased Gallo’s superb acting skills.
Due Melodie francesi can next, and contained an absolute gem of a song: “Ninon”. The duplet quavers which appeared thought the 6/8 piece gave it a pensive, introspective feel, while the understated piano accompaniment added to the atmosphere of the song. The passage “Ouvrez-vous, jeunes fleurs…si vous avez aimé” was powerfully sung by Gallo, while the following phrase, “Et vous aurez vecu…” was performed with haunting tenderness.
The Due Romanza which followed featured the Melodic “Non t’amo più”, was originally dedicated to Gladys, Countess of Lonsdale. Again, Gallo’s ability to produce an almost falsetto-like piano made for a heartrending ending. His ability to play with the words brought the text to life, allowing his audience to grasp fully the meaning of the text.
The last two arias in the first half were both in English. The first, “Ask me no more”, was full of passion and emotion, with Gallo giving full reign to his voice. The second, “Forever and Forever”, was one of the “hit songs of the Victorian era”, and one can see why. Beautifully melodious, the words of the song are taken from a poem by Baroness Currie (Violet Fane). Gallo’s animated performance gave vent to the frustration and yearning of the lyrics.
We returned from the interval to hear the highlight of the program: the Quattro Canzoni d’Amaranta. The second of the four songs, “L’alba sepàra dalla luce l’ombra”, was a real rollercoaster, with a very fierce ending. The interpolated A4 at the end of the song was perfectly held, with a full, rich tone. The last in the set, “Che dici, o parola del Saggio?”, was wonderfully animated, intense performance. The phrase “L’amante che ha no me Domani”, was particularly moving.
The next two songs were from the Canzoni-stornelli. The first,“La Serenata”, was light with touches of humour, especially in the rather suggestive “Ah! La” phrases. The wonderful pianissimo ending was perfectly placed and supported. In the second song, “L’ultima Conzone”, Gallo once more opened his voice to the full, with a long held interpolated high note on the phrase “Nina, rammenta”, and again displayed his vocal security combined with his emotive delivery.
The final three songs were from the Tre Canzoni napoletane. The second of these, “Comme va?”, was the most vibrant: a dynamic piece with plenty of drama, which Gallo provides so effortlessly. The final song, “Marechiare”, is a true Neapolitan song. Gallo really feels the piece, playing with the words, giving each gesture and movement a meaning.
As an encore, Gallo performed three pieces. The first was a marvellous rendition of the Catalogue Aria from Don Giovanni. The second was a scene from Il Tabarro, which Gallo managed to imbue with as much, if not more, passion than when on stage at the Royal Opera House a few weeks ago which I attended. After getting a standing ovation for the Il Tabarro scene, Gallo came back to sing the dreamyMoon River, which seemed to be a favourite of Mr Rosenblatt himself.
The next Rosenblatt Recital will be on Thursday 24th November, featuring the Tenor Fabio Armiliato.
The latest singer to perform as part of the acclaimed Rosenblatt Recitals series was bass-baritone Vuyani Mlinde. The South African won a full scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music on 2004, and has been going from strength to strength ever since. He has performed roles such as Leporello and Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte, and Seneca inL'incoronazione di Poppea. A full biography can be found here.
The recital commenced with three Mozart arias. The first, "Se vuol ballare" from Le Nozze di Figaro, was a nice, gentle way to start the evening, leading smoothly to the next offering: "Madamina il catalogo è questo" from Don Giovanni. The last Mozart piece, the concert aria "Così dunque tradisci", was the most impressive in this first section, with Mlinde keeping an even tone throughout the piece, which ranged from D2 to F4. Mozart's calling card in his virtuoso arias is the ascending one and a half octave leap, this time from B2 to F4, which Mlinde navigated with ease.
While the Mozart was performed admirably, it was with the Tchaikovsky that Mlinde really came alive. The passion of the Russian composer's work more suited the strong, powerful quality of Mlinde's voice. The second piece, "Gospod’ moj, esli gresen ja", starts with a phrase marked "a piena voce molto espr.", and this was exactly how Mlinde interpreted it. The first phrase, rising and falling like a wave, was imbued with fierce emotion. Towards the end of the aria, his F4 was so full and rounded, he sounded more like a full baritone than a bass-baritone, while the resonance on his unaccompanied F2 was strong, rich and dark.
The next piece was the first of three Verdi opera arias, and for me was the highlight of the evening. Mlinde himself states that Verdi is his "favourite composer", and his performance of Banquo's aria from Macbeth shows just how fully he connects with that composers work. The ominous tone of Mlinde's voice is perfect in first phrases, where Banquo tells his son about the murder of Duncan. At the conclusion of the aria, Mlinde's fortissimo E4 on the phrase "e di terror" rang out through the hall. There was more Verdi to come after the interval, as Mlinde sang Silva's aria from Ernani.
There series of three songs by different composers which followed allowed Mlinde to explore a more intimate emotional connection with the audience. Respighi's "Nebbie" was composed during a period of depression, and the music reflects this quality with a repetitious chord rhythm, and long, dark phrases in the vocal line. Mlinde's rich, sombre voice was a perfect vehicle for the melancholic song. The last piece in this set was Gastaldon's "Musica Prohibita". Mlinde was at his most ardent in this last song, as his interpretation of this Neapolitan ballad encompassed both the longing for love, and the seductive qualities of the young, passionate lover.
The final aria on the program, "Mentre gonfiarsi l'anima", was again from Verdi, this time from his operaAttila. Mlinde was full of awe and terror in the first half of the aria, his interpretation of the phrase "Di flagellar...il suol!" was particularly moving. The second half of the aria saw Attila back to his normal self, full of fire and rage. Mlinde powered through the lines, ending on a spectacular F4. His encore was the drinking song Im tiefen Keller, performed in English with a translation by John Oxenford. After showcasing his excellent high register, this song focused on his beautiful lower register, with some excellent tone displayed below the stave. It also gave us a chance to enjoy his wonderful sense of humour!
Vuyani Mlinde will be performing Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with the London Symphony Orchestra on tour, and also, in November 2011, the role of Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte for Opera Oviedo.
The next season of Rosenblatt Recitalists can be seen here.
Please also check out this video about Mlinde and his music.
The latest Rosenblatt Recitalist, Italian mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi, is something of a revelation. At 26 years old, the lively young woman from Naples exhibited a level of artistry well in maturity of her years. She studied at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Rome, and has performed major roles such as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Zurich, and Angelina in La Cenerentola. Malfi has an ebullient personality, making eye contact with her audience, and she performs with an honesty that is truly endearing. She shows the depth of her emotional involvement with her vocation in a recent interview with the Rosenblatt Recitals team, as part of their “In conversation with…” series:
“I will never forget the excitement that accompanied me throughout all the acts [of my debut in La Cenerentola] and I will never forget the many uncontrolled tears that came from my eyes as soon as I had sung my last note… although the orchestra still had a coda to play!”
Malfi’s appearance at St Johns, Smith Square was her “first ever recital”. It was interesting to see what themes would be present, and how she would express her background and personality through the recital program. The balance between aria and song was excellently conceived, and used to emphasise the contrasting and complimentary modes of expression available in each genre. Malfi emphasised her Neapolitan roots, through the use of both composers native to Naples, such as Gasparo Spontini, and music with Neapolitan themes, such as “Uocchie de suonno” (Dark eyes).
One other interesting feature of the concert was that many of the composers had also trained, or performed, as singers. This was true of Vincenzo Righini, Pasquale Mario Costa, and Malibran and Viadot themselves. By using works composed by singers, Malfi was able to showcase music which had been created with real understanding of the singing mechanism. She also focused on the arias performed by the diva Maria Malibran, and her sister Pauline Viadot.
La Malibran, as she was known, was a young, feisty diva who wowed the musical establishment at the time with her amazing musicality, and her phenomenal range, which comfortably fell between G3 and E6, (though she had been known to sing down to a D3!). To associate oneself with such a figure (as did Cecila Bartoli, for instance, in her album Maria) is a brave and confident thing. Malfi, like Bartoli, was more than up for the challenge!
The opening three pieces were songs from Dodici Ariette (Op. 7), by Vincenzo Righini who, like J. A. Hasse before him, had trained as a tenor before becoming a composer. He took over from Antonio Salieri as court kapellmeister in Vienna for a short time, before being appointed to the Royal Prussian court in 1793. The opening line of the first piece, “Vorrei di te fidarmi”, had Malfi producing a sound richer and more voluminous than many had been expecting. The most engaging of the three songs was the third, "Mi lagnerò tacendo", which was slightly darker than the other two, and was best suited to her voice.
Next on the menu was a song from the Neapolitan composer Gasparo Spontini, who apparently had altercations with Felix Mendelssohn while working for Frederick William III of Prussia in Berlin. Malfi sang "Ben mio ricordati", a song which suited her strong, emotive voice. Her treatment of the melody on the lines "Io se pur amano le fredde ceneri nell'urne ancora t'adorerò" (And if the cold ashes can love you in the urn I will still adore you) was particularly haunting.
One of Malfi’s future engagements will be the Role of Annio in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, at the Teatro Real in Madrid. Here she sings an aria attributed to Sesto (originally performed by the castrato Domenico Bedini). In the Adagio section of “Parto, parto ma tu ben mio”,Malfi’s Sesto was full of longing and adoration for his beloved Vitella. There were some lovely touches, like the carefully emphasised discordant leading note on the word “piace”, and the change from flowing melody to staunch declamation on the phrase “Quel che vorrai faro”.
In the Allegro the combination of power and agility made for an electric performance. Her speed and accuracy on the rising triplets up to the Bb were impressive, as was her delivery of the surprise drops into the chest such as the drop from F5 on the word “Beltà” to the D4 on the word “donaste”. The subsequent syncopated rise back to the F5 was glorious, as was the finale, which was typical, joyous Mozart.
Another composer not originally intended for musical greatness was Nicola Vaccai, whose parents intended for him to study law. He instead chose music, and left a legacy of 18 operas, of which Giulietta e Romeo was the greatest. The opera premiered in Milan in 1825, and had its London premier at King’s Theatre in 1832. The role of Romeo was written for Contralto Adele Cesari, who sang the role en travesti. The scene chosen by Malfi, “È questo il loco... Ah, se tu dormi, svegliati”, was made famous by Maria Malibran when she inserted this scene into Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi during her performance. This then became a trend which continued until 1897.
“È questo il loco... Ah, se tu dormi, svegliati” was one of the highlights of the evening, requiring the singer to express several conflicting emotions. The opening was tender, yet fearful. Malfi kept the suspense building until the terrible cry of “Giulietta”, where Romeo believes his beloved is dead. The aria “Ah, se tu dormi, svegliati”, is a masterpiece of musical phrasing, charting Romeo’s oscillation between reality and madness. The most touching moment was Malfi’s almost ecstatic singing on the phrase “Amor si condurrà” followed by the heartrending realisation of “Ma tu non odi”.Malfi coped well with the low tessitura, and exhibited a maturity of musicality that was most impressive.
Malfi reprised the role of Romeo in the next aria, this time from the great Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Many of its arias had been taken from his previous opera, Zaria, which had been a failure. Bellini said: "Zaira, hissed at Parma, was avenged by I Capuleti". In the introductory recitative, Malfi asked us all to listen “poichè verace favella io parlo d’amistade e pace” (because I bring you a true message of friendship and peace). She then launched into the first part of the aria, “Se Romeo t’uccise un figlio”.
Malfi sang the opening lines gracefully and passionately: in true Bellini style. Malfi carried the full bodied richness from the top to the bottom of the phrases, while her descent down to G3 on the phrase “e piange ancor” was powerful and bold: no“bottoming-out” here! Both of the ascents to G5 on the twice repeated phrase “e un altro figlio troverai” were fiery and bold. Malfi exuded martial energy in the second half of the aria, “La remenda ultrice spada”. The drops into the chest register were truly frightening, and the high B5’s were solid and thrilling. This was a perfect way to end the first half of the concert.
Malfi’s first song of the second half was “Più non t’amo” by Luigi Caraccilo which warmed her up for the beautiful “Non è ver!” by Tito Mattei. Mattei was a prodigy, who gave his first concert at the age of 5, and was made a professor at the age of eleven. He was the King of Italy’s pianist, Conductor at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, and he even received a gold medal from the Pope! The song “Non è ver!”was perfectly chosen to showcase Malfi’s creamy and luxurious middle register. With a gentle touch, Malfi took some of the weight from her voice, giving an intimate performance which was a hit with the audience. The highlight was the ardent sound in the rising phrase “Ma mentisti, indegno, appien”,followed by the cry of “Non fu il cor”, where Malfi exploded into full voice.
As the applause died away I looked up towards the high window of the church of St John’s, Smith Square, and saw the burnt-red evening light. It was a perfect vision to introduce the next song: “Sogno” (Dream) by Francesco Paolo Tosti. Tosti, a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, received a knighthood from King Edward VII. Malfi was enchanting, singing with a darkened tone. The most beautiful part of the song was the last two lines “Chiusi gli occhi, ti stesi le braccia, ma sognavo e il bel sogno svanì”. Particularly powerful was the exclamation on the words “ti stesi le braccia”. It was a lovely piece, and one which I hope she records.
Pasquale Mario Costa, another tenor-composer, was the next offering from Malfi. He was a singer, composer, and poet who enjoyed adding folk images to his songs. The song performed by Malfi was called “Napulitanata” or “Uocchie de suonno” (Dark Eyes). The melody screamed “Neapolitan”, and I was interested to see if Malfi would emphasise her native dialect: she did! The performance was amazing – all strutting, posturing, and big emotions, and her Rubato on the phrase “de ‘sta faccella janca ánema site” was perfectly executed. The whole piece left me with a vision of a night-time soirée, filled with laughing, dancing and glasses of chilled Limoncello.
The next three pieces were written by the Garcia sisters, Pauline and Maria. Maria, of course, would later be known as Maria Malibran, the famous mezzo. She made her debut in London at the tender age of 17, singing the aria “Nacqui all’affanno” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Sadly, she died after a riding accident in London, aged only 28 years old. Her sister, Pauline, was also a mezzo of great renown. She had much success, but decided to concentrate on teaching and her love of composition. Both of the Garcia sisters composed songs which they themselves performed.
The two songs by La Malibran were perfect vehicles for Malfi’s feisty and playful character, but it was the song by the younger sister, Pauline, that was truly captivating. The beautiful “Haï luli” was the only non-Italian piece in the recital. The gentle piano introduction, like the patter of raindrops, leads to the opening line of this romantic lament: “Je suis triste, je m’inquiète”. Malfi’s tender singing on the phrase “Haï luli” was soft yet expressive, and full of pathos. In the third verse, Malfi vents her jealous rage in the phrase “Si jamais il deviant volage…Le village n’a qu’a bruler, et moi-même avec le village!”, and ardently ascends to the G5 on the final “Haï luli”.Then, tenderly and sorrowfully, she asks: “A quoi bon vivre sans ami?”
After that, we all needed cheering up! So Malfi decided to let off the fireworks with the magnificent “Nacqui all’affanno... Non più mesta” from La Cenerentola. One of Rossini’s best loved operas, La Cenerentola still pulls the crowds into opera houses around the world. Written in three weeks, when the composer was only 25 years old, the opera contains some of the most exciting music in the whole of the Rossini repertoire. Some of this is recognisable to those acquainted with other Rossini works. In fact, “Non più mesta” was originally written for a tenor in the opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia. (You can read about the tenor version of this aria in my article on leggiero tenor Bogdan Mihai.) In La Cenerentola, the aria was first performed by the famous coloratura contralto, Geltrude Righetti.
“Nacqui all’affanno”, is a mix of accompanied recitative and arioso. Malfi easily navigates the wide range required in this section, exuding power in the lower register while keeping the notes above the stave solid, full and without flare or shrieking. The transition between the upper and middle registers is silky smooth, while Malfi booms magnificently as she smashes into the basement notes. There was absolutely no slur in the rapid coloratura of the phrase “come un baleno rapido”, which was performed with skill and confidence.
In the aria “Non più mesta”, the opening staccato notes were like pin-drops, and pitch-perfect. The machine-gun coloratura of the four-semiquaver-per-syllable section was stylish and energetic, without losing tonal or vocal integrity, and her control during the runs from A5 to G3 was astonishing. It was nice to hear the G3 ring out, rather than disappear into breathiness. At the final cadence, Malfi’s magnificent B5 rang out across the hall.
After so much applause that Malfi herself was taken aback, she held up her hands for quiet, and proceeded to give us the first of her two encores. In the first, Malfi opted for comedy, with the aria “La ra la” from Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio. The final offering from Serena Malfi can only be described as exceptional. The aria was “Vedrò con mio diletto”from the opera Il Giustino by Vivaldi. Premiering in Rome in 1724, Vivaldi used music from around 20 of his earlier pieces, and one can even hear bits of “Spring” from the Four Seasons in the first act. Interestingly, as the opera was performed in Rome, the company had to abide by the Papal decree that no women could perform on stage. Thus, all of the female roles were performed by castrati en travesti.
Malfi’s interpretation of this aria was pure magic. The interplay between her and pianist Angelo Michele Errico was perfect: two people performing with one mind. Malfi reached into the heart of the piece, and found the soul that Vivaldi had created all those years ago. The key to performing this piece is threefold: legato, breath control, and intelligent dynamics. The accompaniment in this aria is syncopated staccato, giving the singer sole responsibility for carrying melodic line. This means that a strong sense of legato, of smoothness, must characterise the performance of this aria.
Cecilia Bartoli talked often about the phenomenal breath control of the castrati (The aria was originally sung by the castrato John Ossi who created the role of Anastasio, the Emperor of Byzantium in the opera), and it is this ability to sing through to the end of the passage which makes all the difference in the performance. Combined with a mastery over the art of dynamics, the third major requisite, the singer can produce an almost mesmeric effect which gives an esoteric, almost mystical quality to the aria, and it was this mystical quality which Malfi was able to produce. So masterfully did she weave her enchantment that even the hustle and bustle in the street outside seemed to disappear. As Malfi sang through the 5-bar line “il core del mio cor”, she allowed the volume to ebb and flow like a tide, gently rocking the dynamic backwards and forwards.
The F minor ‘B’section was very touching, particularly the pianissimo “sospireò penando”phrase which floated effortlessly above the piano accompaniment. In the Da Capo, Malfi was restrained and subtle, which was exactly the right choice. The volume was reduced, and the phrasing just that little bit gentler. When Malfi finished, there was a moment of silence, before people started to breathe again. Then: the applause. It was well deserved: Malfi’s rendition of this aria was the best I have ever heard. It was also the aria on everybody’s lips as we left the hall.
It was a pleasure to listen to this amazing singer: Malibran herself would have joined in the applause.
Serena Malfi’s Future engagements include Zerlina in Don Giovanni at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, and Annio in La Clemenza di Tito at the Teatro Royal in Madrid. The next Rosenblatt Recitalist will be Vuyani Mlinde, the South African Bass-Baritone, on 28th June at 7:30pm.
Having "discovered" the Rosenblatt Recital Series while writing my article on Leggiero Tenor Bogdan Mihai, I decided to attend one of their concerts. The Series of concerts are held in the church of St. John's, Smith Square, in London. The April concert was given by Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, and pianist Simon Lepper.
I was interested to learn that Llewellyn’s musical journey has taken her far from the normal route. After her early years of musical training, Llewellyn moved away from the music scene after a bout of illness which affected her voice. She decided to shelve her musical ambitions and embark upon a different career. Even though she “didn’t know one end of a computer from another”, Llewellyn “ended up working for an IT company training sales to sales business people.” Her next move was into the Travel Industry. After one of her colleagues lost his father, and inherited the MD-ship of a Travel Company, Llewellyn was invited to become part of the firm: “He [Llewellyn’s colleague] wanted to explore, or develop further, [the] concert tour side of the business [and] he wanted real musicians to help him do that.” Five years later, Llewellyn was leading a team of research specialists “that wrote special interest tours for long-hall, English Speaking markets coming to the UK and Europe.”
So, how did she start singing again? She moved to a part of South London where she did not know anybody, and decided that she would “get involved in the amateur music scene” in order to get to know people. She joined “an amateur Chamber Music group, which...gave a concert once a month, and an amateur Operatic Club which gave ether a concert, or scenes from operas in concert...twice or three times a year.”. One of the music directors at the Operatic Club, said after one of the concerts: “Liz, I’ve got to ask: What are you doing here? Because you really ought to be taking this a lot more seriously than you are.” About a year later, Llewellyn met an operatic conductor with whom she had a consultation, and he agreed that she should be taking her singing further. He put her in touch with the Great Soprano Lillian Watson, one of the best Blonde’s of all time, who became her singing teacher in October 2007, and with whom she still works.
A series of successes followed: she was awarded a second scholarship from the Peter Mores foundation in 2008; she completed the ENO Opera Works training programme in March 2009; in the same year she joined Glyndebourne Festival Opera as a chorus member in their productions of Rusalka, Falstaff and L’elisir d’amore; she created the role of Ludovina in the premiere of the Festival’s new opera The Yellow Sofa with the Britten Sinfonia; and in October 2009, she won the inaugural Voice of Black Opera Competition, including the Sir Willard White Award. In 2010 she made her ENO debut with a critically acclaimed performance in the role of Mimi from Puccini’s La bohème.
But now, enough of the past: back to the present and her Rosenblatt Recital. Her opening gambit consisted of two very different leading ladies from two very different Handel operas: Alcina and Rodelinda. "Ma quando tornerai" from the opera Alcina, is a fast and furious aria, as the Sorceress Alcina rages at her lost lover: "When you return, your feet in fetters, look only for harshness and cruelty from me." Llewellyn showed her gift for characterisation by exploring fully the different psychological states in the raging “A” section and the melancholic “B” section, where Alcina yearns for her lost love to beg her for mercy.
Llewellyn’s second Handel offering was the heartbreaking "Se'il mio duol" from Rodelinda. Here Rodelinda, attempting to rescue her husband from his prison cell, discovers the cell to be empty, and her husband’s bloodstained cloak on the floor. Believing him to be dead, she sings this lament. He is, however, still alive, and has escaped unknown to her. The aria shares one or two musical motifs with that other great lament by a woman for her thought-to-be-dead-but-not lover, "Se Pietà di me non senti" from Giulio Cesare. One of these, the extended ornament on the phrase "mio cor?" in the eighth bar of the Da Capo of "Se'il mio duol", was particularly moving in Llewellyn’s hands. Llewellyn’s phrasing, breath control and uniformity of colour and tone made this a very moving aria. The role of Rodelinda seemed very much suited to her.
Even more impressive was her only Mozart piece, the recitative and aria "Susanna non vien!...Dove sono" from Le Nozze di Figaro. Her solid grasp of the text allowed her to act out the recitative brilliantly, particularly her playfulness in the first half of the recitative. Llewellyn's lush Lyric Soprano dealt easily with the aria, moving beautifully through the fluidic rising and falling of the phrases. Her three A5's towards the end of the piece were solid and perfectly centred: an excellent climax to the aria. I look forward to Llewellyn performing the role of the Contessa in Le Nozze di Figaro for Opera Holland Park in this year. I also hope that, in the future, Llewellyn decides to sing the role of Pamina from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, and in particular the aria "Ach, ich fühl's".
Next up on the program was a song cycle, composed by English composer William Walton (29/03/1902 – 08/03/1983), called A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table. Originally performed by Soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Pianist Gerald Moore at the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths on 18/07/1962, the cycle is set to texts by Blake, Thomas Jordan, Charles Morris, Wordsworth, and two anonymous eighteenth century poets. It was composed for the City of London Festival. In the July of 1970, Dame Janet Baker also performed the song cycle for a recital at Mansion House, with a specially arranged orchestral accompaniment, conducted by George Malcolm. The version performed by Llewellyn was the original 1962 version for voice and piano.
I have to say that this kind of music is not to my usual taste. However, Llewellyn's animated and involved presentation made the pieces very enjoyable, and was in fact one of the best parts of the evening’s performance. Two of my friends who were also at the recital, and who find this music more accessible than I do, commented extremely positively on her performance. Her ability to play on the nuances of the language made the cycle all the more entertaining. Thanks to Llewellyn’s performance, I shall explore Walton’s compositions further.
My two favourites in the cycle of six songs were "Glide Gently" and "Rhyme". The languid phrases of "Glide Gently" perfectly evoke the evening view of the river at Richmond, where Wordsworth wrote the poem used in the text (though not, perhaps, by Richmond Bridge, where evening revellers sit on the banks enjoying a drink or six). Llewellyn's rich voice created the perfect amount of "body" for the song. "Rhyme", on the other hand, is a very upbeat number, set to the words of the Nursery Rhyme "Oranges and Lemons". Llewellyn's diction was exceptionally clean, and I'm glad she pronounced half-penny as "ha'penny", as any good Londoner should! No mention was made of the "chopper to chop off your head" though.
After the interval came the five Lieder by Richard Strauss: my favourite part of the recital. The first was Ständchen, the second part of his Six Lieder, Op. 17. A beautiful piece, with sextet semi-quaver runs on the piano mimicking the sound of bird-song and tinkling fairy-bells; this Serenade cannot but bring a smile to ones face. Llewellyn's well supported pianissimo and sure placement brought a lightness to the main body of the Lied, contrasting with the darker, huskier sound produced in the minor section. Her A#5 was well supported and projected, and the overall result was extremely pleasing.
The next two Lied are both from Op. 21. The first, "All' mien Gedanken", is light-hearted, and flutters here and there before focusing finally on the object of desire. The second, "Du meines Herzens Krönelein", is more introspective, yet still light. Llewellyn's ability to move from full voice to the most gentle of touches really enlivens these two Lieder, giving them a substance they might otherwise have lacked.
"Nachtgang" or Night stroll, Op. 29, has, for me, one of the most moving lines in Strauss' Lieder: "Und du erscheinst mir wie eine Heilige, mild, mild und gross und seelenubervoll, heilig und rein wie die liebe Sonne". The music for this phrase, in the middle of the Lied, is particularly beautiful. It is a pensive, slightly melancholic remembrance of a transcendental moment, culminating at the G5 on the word "rein" (pure), and it calls for emotional honesty and expression. Llewellyn's moving performance of this piece gave me even more pleasure than her undoubted skill in the more technically demanding pieces, and was the most moving performance of the evening.
As if that wasn't enough, Llewellyn chose to end the Strauss-fest with the gorgeous "Allerseelen" (All soul's day) from Op. 10. Everyone who has lost someone close can relate to the phrase "ein Tag im Jahr ist ja den Toten frei. Komm an mein Herz, dass ich dich wieder habe" (one day in the year the dead are free. Come close to my heart, so that I can have you again). The phrase starts on Eb5, drops and rises to F5, drops again and rises to a held G5, then drops again and rises to the climax of the phrase on Ab5. The sincerity of feeling in Llewellyn's treatment of this line was extremely moving, as was her delivery throughout the Lied, and the sound on the G5 and Ab5 was even more powerful than in the operatic arias of the first section.
After the Walton and Strauss, Llewellyn moved back to arias, starting with her ENO debut calling card from Puccini's La bohème: "Mi chiamano Mimi". The aria, one of Puccini's most beautiful, is a mix of playful conversation and an intense outpouring of hope and rapturous remembrance. The most beautiful line, "ma quando vien li sgelo, Il primo sole e mio! Il primo bacio dell'aprile e mio!" (but when the thaw comes, the first sun is mine! The first kiss of April is mine!) is, for me, the highlight of the aria. Lewellyn's voice swelled lusciously into the draw-out lines marked “con grande espansione”, and “con espressione intense”, while ebbing tenderly at the end of the phrase. Again, Llewellyn's control of the voice above the stave on the A5's was superb.
Her gentle, girl-like intonation of the final recitative-like phrase beautifully contrasted with the power exhibited earlier. It is not difficult to see why Opera Magazine described her voice as "a beautiful full-toned instrument" when reviewing her ENO Mimi. Interestingly, the scene in the opera just prior to this aria was almost completely recreated (with more up-to-date references) in the musical Rent (based on La bohème), as the duet "Light My Candle".
The penultimate aria, "Come in quest'ora bruna" from Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, was excellently performed, with Llewellyn's head register soaring up to the top of the range. To end, Llewellyn chose the fabulous "Jewel song" from Gounod's Faust. The lightness of the aria contrasted perfectly with the previous piece, and ended the concert on a high note (literally, with a B5!). The playfulness and exuberance with which Llewellyn infused the performance made this a perfect piece with which to end the concert. The coloratura in this period clearly suiting her vocal style. The climax on the B5 was spot on: powerful and ringing. It brought the house down, and earned her repeated curtain calls.
As an encore, Llewellyn sang the beautiful “Sweet Chance”, by English composer Michael Head (28/01/1900 – 24/08/1976). Llewellyn said, when introducing the song, that it spoke of “where [she was] now” in her life and with her music. It beautifully and tenderly sung, with a very deep understanding of the text, and an excellent delivery. It was almost, for me, as moving at the Strauss Leider. (The full text of the song is at the end of the article.)
I’m extremely pleased that I came to this recital. Llewellyn has a wonderful voice, and it is not often that one gets to see someone so early in their career with so much maturity and understanding. With her voice in the expert hands of Lillian Watson; with a willingness to get inside her characters and to both vocally and psychologically explore them; and with such a beautiful stage presence I am sure that Elizabeth Llewellyn will be a big name in the future.
A list of Elizabeth Llewellyn’s forthcoming projects can be found on her website.
The next Rosenblatt Recitalist will be Mezzo-Soprano Serena Malfi, on 11th May 2011.
Text for “Sweet Chance”
Sweet Chance, that led my steps abroad,
Beyond the town, where wild flow'rs grow --
A rainbow and a cuckoo, Lord,
How rich and great the times are now!
Know all ye sheep
And cows, that keep
On staring that I stand so long
In grass that's wet from heavy rain --
A rainbow, and a cuckoo's song
May never come together again,
May never come
This side the tomb.
A rainbow, and a cuckoo's song
May never come together again...