Monday, May 6, 2013

Two vocal stars on the rise

Soprano Susanna Phillips
I first heard the soprano Susanna Phillips (at left) four years ago at Boston Lyric Opera, as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. And I knew immediately I was listening to a star in the making; I raved over "a vocal bloom that would be ravishing in any role," and hoped that Donna Anna would become "a staple of her career."

So I was glad to learn that Ms. Phillips is singing Donna Anna at the Met in New York these days, and is now, indeed, on the cusp of a major career.  Which made me more eager than ever to hear her again, up close and personal, in a double bill with rising tenor Joseph Kaiser (below right) in last week's latest from the Celebrity Series "Debut" season in Pickman Hall at Longy.

It's wonderful, of course, to hear glorious young talents in such an intimate setting - although frankly, Phillips and Kaiser didn't always realize, I think, how large their voices seemed in this particular room.  Indeed, sometimes their vocal prowess felt overpowering; it all but wrestled you to the floor. This made it all the more surprising to  learn that Kaiser was battling the effects of a cold (although this may have accounted for a few strained top notes early on); he bowed out of a demanding solo in the second half in order to save himself for a climactic duet with Phillips from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (the favored language of the evening was French - it even included a rare French text setting by Mozart).  But this proved only one small glitch in a generally ravishing program.

For her part, Phillips was in superb voice, and seemed to know it (she all but glowed in a ripe, elaborately ruched raspberry gown). Which may be why she missed the dark tone of the opening Mozart song, Dans un bois solitaire et sombre - a strange tale of love's pain re-awakened, which in Phillips' rendition was anything but sombre.  She was on firmer comic ground with Grétry's Certain Coucou, an amusingly acid sketch of a donkey judging a singing contest.

Tenor Joseph Kaiser
Kaiser, looking a bit self-conscious, then essayed a suite of songs by DuParc - and acquitted himself well despite his cold, I thought; only a few top notes were a bit thin, and the young tenor (whose rich sound probably stems from having started out as a baritone) seemed to have plenty of power, and fluently shifted from the heroics of Le manoir de Rosamonde and Le Galop to the limpid heartbreak of Chanson triste and especially Phydilé.  The singers' respective timbres did feel like an exquisite match, but in their first duet, Messiaen's intriguing La mort du nombre, Kaiser generally dominated, while Phillips mostly contributed mystical phrases from some otherworldly presence.

High points from the second half of the program included an expert rendition of Debussy's Apparition by Phillips, and a lovely rendering of Massenet's "Meditation" from Thaïs, played with light but expressive precision by violinist Andrew Eng and pianist Myra Huang (who was an exemplary accompanist throughout the concert). This interlude gave Kaiser some breathing (or sneezing?) room; and Phillips returned with a surprise, announcing that as the evening had so many slow numbers (true enough), she had decided to perform Juliette's first, dancing aria from the Gounod ("Je veux vivre") rather than her final number (from the tomb).  It proved a wonderful choice, for perhaps no other aria of the evening showcased Phillips' almost bubbling virtuosity quite so well.

The two finally faced off fully in "Romeo! qu'as-tu donc?" (the famous lark scene) from the Gounod - and Kaiser's rest seemed to have paid off, for his performance was ferocious, while Phillips likewise fell into paroxysms of vocal passion, tossing off piercing high notes at will.  Again, this was a bit much for a hall not much larger than your living room - but it gave one a sense of the powerful operatic engines that had been revving all evening long within the confines of art song.  Perhaps to spare Kaiser further stress, there were no encores - we had to content ourselves with the lingering memory of two young talents seen on the brink of stardom.

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