Thursday, March 24, 2011


Christine Brewer, last noted for her much lamented disappearance from the last Schenk Ring cycles in 2009, and last heard doing some paint removal at Lyric Opera in their 2007 Frau Ohne Schattens, presented an extraordinary recital with Craig Rutenberg at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater Wednesday.
This was really a highlight of the year, I think, so apologies in advance for any unpalatable fawning. The sheer splendor and depth of her voice, which, impressive from the back of the opera house, is exhilarating at close range, makes this a rather different experience than your regular thoughtful, tasteful recital. Brewer's pleasures are maybe just a bit passe: she delivers great art to be sure, but a key vehicle for that is the sheer visceral thrill of her generous instrument.
The program was an interesting mix of American songs. I loved the first selection, Gian Carlo Menotti's Canti Della Lontananza, though the interpretations did not always seem as polished as selections later in the program and there was some finding of footing during the first pieces. Rutenberg's playing was especially distinguished in the lovely piano part here, and by the final two songs Brewer had arrived in force. The other cycle in the first half was a knockout. The work, by a contemporary composer, Alan Smith, uses texts from the love letters of a soldier killed in World War II, and Brewer delivered a chilling and deeply moving performance. One moment that will not soon be forgotten: the text of the final song is a transcription of the telegram that announced the soldier's death to his wife--the sound that Brewer unleashed on "Secretary of War" is something very few singers are capable of, I think.
The second half had some trouble competing with the wrenching drama of the first, with more of a grab bag program. Rutenberg offered a nice selection of the piano music of Virgil Thompson as a segue to the final aria from Thompson's "Mother of us All", of which Brewer offered a towering, account. Then some Ives songs, by turns sublime (Shall we Gather at the River) and nutty (the Operahouse song).
The program closed with selections from a new Brewer CD, a tribute to encore numbers favored by divas past, i.e. Flagstad, Traubel, Farrell, etc. Some of these were a bit slight, but all fairly hard not to like. The bluesy Harold Arlen number, "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe" was perhaps the highlight, demonstrating Brewer's substantial abilities in theater/non-classical/etc songs. This kind of thing is so hard to do in a way that would ever convince a reasonable person they wouldn't rather be hearing a theater voice do it. Given all the firepower at her disposal, Brewer would be about the last singer I'd imagine successful in this material, but she pulls it off through some skillfull modulation of her sound and deep instincts about how to properly communicate these songs. This was confirmed in her second encore, a charming and remarkably unaffected rendition of "Mira" from the musical Carnival. The other encore was Ives' arrangement of "In the Mornin'."
Update: Midgette nicely captures what a pleasant and relaxed affair the whole thing was here.
More update: BTW, not sure where Midgette was going with her last graf quibble about this being a "not altogether stirring" evening in the review above. An inconsistent presentation, I'll grant you, but if this doesn't qualify as stirring for a vocal recital I'm not sure what does.
Downey has no reservations about what's up, and includes a ton of great links and context for the interesting selections on the program...

No comments: