31 December 2014

BEST ARTISTS OF 2014: Sarah Connolly, Ann Hallenberg, Heidi Melton, Michael Fabiano, Steven LaBrie, and David Pershall

YEAR IN REVIEW: The Best Artists of 2014

Whether one’s involvement in the Performing Arts is as an active participant, an observer, or, as in my case, a complex combination of both rôles, it is impossible to overlook the fact that great voices are not always possessed by great people. For so many singers, particularly those in the early years of major careers, the world’s stages collectively constitute a sadly hostile work environment. The camaraderies that existed among singers of previous generations, even those who competed for assignments in the same repertories, are now sparser, and the increasing emphasis on how singers look rather than how they sound has intensified the stress of making a career in opera. Unfortunately, tragically even, this lessens the appeal of opera both for those who perform it and for those who listen. I have been disheartened on a number of occasions by discovering that some of the voices I most admire belong to people with loathsome personalities. Nonetheless, I passionately reject the notion that there are no great voices among us today, and I rejoice in the fact that there are still among the rarefied ranks of those who make their artistic homes in the world’s opera houses genuinely kind people who take their craft very seriously and themselves somewhat less so. The six ladies and gentlemen selected as the Voix des Arts Best Artists of 2014 are singers who not only care deeply about their artistry but also infuse their work with palpable affection for music itself and commitment to the audiences who assemble to hear them. Individually, these six people are all artists of uncompromising preparedness and integrity: collectively, they are, in short, the finest essence of the present and future of opera.

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BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly [Photo by Peter Warren]BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly [Photo by Peter Warren]

In February 2010, I had the pleasure of attending a performance of the beautiful Elijah Moshinsky production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Metropolitan Opera [reviewed here]. It was an auspicious occasion: in addition to being a Saturday matinée broadcast performance in which all participants were expected to give of their best, it was a then-rare appearance in the United States by soprano Nina Stemme. It was indeed a superb performance in which Ms. Stemme sang excellently, but the portrayal that remains engraved in my memory in finely-etched detail is the Komponist of British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. This Komponist’s dedication to his craft was all-consuming, and his blossoming, touchingly desperate passion for Zerbinetta was more vividly but movingly, serenely conveyed than in any performance known to me, even those featuring the greatest Komponists of the past—Seefried, Jurinac, Stratas, Troyanos, and Żylis-Gara. Four years later, Händel’s Theodora—one of the composer’s most inspired scores—brought Ms. Connolly to Chapel Hill, where she sang the title heroine’s friend and confidante Irene with an unerring command of Händel’s style [reviewed here]. Many of today’s singers are undone by the requisite versatility of their repertories; not Ms. Connolly, who can limn the delicate vocal lines of an arioso by Monteverdi as impeccably as she can soar above the orchestra in Brangäne’s Watch or ​plumb the depths of a Mahler Lied or Symphony.​ Her singing of the Angel in the Chandos recording of Sir Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, as well as the accompanying performance of Sea Pictures [reviewed here], confirms that her exquisite vocalism is but one component of her compelling artistry. The most powerful weapon in her arsenal is the humanity that her performances exude, transforming her into a vessel for communication of the sentiments with which composers of all eras imbued their scores directly to the hearts and minds of Twenty-First-Century listeners. Whether one hears her as Nerone, Sesto, Fricka, or Octavian, one never hears Sarah Connolly’s ‘takes’ on these characters: one hears them as Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner, and Strauss and their librettists imagined them.


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BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg [Photo by Nancy Glor]BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg [Photo by Nancy Glor]

Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg is a singers’ singer in the best sense. Were she not the guardian of one of the greatest voices in the world, she would still be one of the most special artists on the international scene. I have never encountered a fellow musician who has accompanied or shared the stage with her who does not adore Ms. Hallenberg as both a lady and an artist. In the eyes of her colleagues, she has perfected the art of living graciously on and off the stage. Beyond her personal warmth and kindness, however, there is that voice—that gorgeous timbre allied to technical prowess that defies belief in the explosive pyrotechnics of music ranging from the castrato repertory of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries to the force-of-nature coloratura of Rossini. As Ottavia in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, she takes her leave of Rome with the crushing despondency of a woman for whom the Eternal City represents security, happiness, and life itself. In the title rôle of Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans, she is a seductress to whom any hero might lose his head. As Teseo in Händel’s Arianna in Creta, she is a diverting hero who woos with bravura machismo. As Isabella in Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, she never relinquishes her grasp on her own fate. In sacred repertory, she is the rare singer who imparts the nuances of text without artifice. Rather than fabricating idiosyncratic concepts of the rôles that she sings and then adapting the music to conform with her creations, Ms. Hallenberg picks up a score, absorbs every note into her psyche, translates every word into emotions, and pours from her throat and her soul streams of tone that seem newly-minted even if the music was composed three hundred years ago. Nothing that she does is dryly academic, but her trills and gruppetti are the stuff of textbooks. It was as Händel’s Agrippina that I first heard Ms. Hallenberg, and so natural was her execution of even the composer’s most demanding passages that she might have been composing them herself as the performance progressed. Nevertheless, it was one of the most pin-point accurate performances of Händel that I have heard. Ms. Hallenberg is the kind of artist—the rarest kind, that is—whose performances are unforgettable in ways that can hardly be imagined. With most singers, one remembers either the details or the overall impression, what was there or what was not there. When hearing Ms. Hallenberg, every aspect of her performance captures the imagination. Years after an evening in her company, one might hear a fragment of a melody, a series of roulades, or a line of text and think, ‘Ah, yes, I remember how Ann Hallenberg sang that.’


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BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Soprano Heidi Melton [Photo by Simon Pauly, courtesy of CAMI]BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Soprano Heidi Melton [Photo by Simon Pauly, courtesy of CAMI]

So unexpected is the emergence of a legitimate Wagnerian today that, when it occurs, the marvel invites skepticism. How often are one’s first experiences with young singers disappointing because the voices one hears do not live up to the hype that precedes them? Having heard her first as the Foreign Princess in Dvořák’s Rusalka [reviewed here] and then as Isolde in Act Two of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde [reviewed here], both with North Carolina Opera in Raleigh, I no longer doubt the veracity of this phenomenon: soprano Heidi Melton is better than the best things that have been said about her. North Carolina Opera’s Rusalka was presented in semi-staged form, the Tristan und Isolde in concert, but Ms. Melton commanded the stage with the assurance of a veteran Broadway thespian. The haughtiness of her Foreign Princess leapt off the stage like a starved lion released from its cage, and it tormented her poor Rusalka mercilessly. Still, it was the ferocity of a threatened, vulnerable woman, and her sadness as she accepted that her Prince was lost to her was uncommonly sympathetic. Her Isolde, too, was a girl drowning in a sea of circumstances beyond her control. Upon the crests of the drama, her comet-like voice shone with penetrating brightness. The pair of top Cs in Isolde’s great love duet with Tristan streaked through the theatre with the gleam of shooting stars, and she achieved the force required by the music—Dvořák’s and Wagner’s—without pushing her natural instrument. When her Sieglinde in Die Walküre is heard soon in Toronto, Canadian ears will be greeted by the beguiling, entrancing sounds of a true dramatic voice. When she hurls out ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ into the Four Seasons Centre, she will be singing of Brünnhilde [aptly, as her Brünnhilde will be 2013’s Voix des Arts Best Artist, Christine Goerke], but the audience must be forgiven for hearing those words and assuming that Wagner presciently wrote them in description of Heidi Melton’s voice.


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BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Tenor Michael Fabiano [Photo by Arielle Doneson]BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Tenor Michael Fabiano [Photo by Arielle Doneson]

​The recipient of both the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and the 2014 Beverly Sills Artist Award, tenor ​Michael Fabiano—the first artist to earn both awards in a single year—needs no introduction. His 2010 début at the Metropolitan Opera as Raffaele in Verdi's Stiffelio heralded the arrival of a young artist who seemed to possess every quality needed to be one of the finest singers of his generation, not the least of which is a strong, Italianate voice​​ touched by ​rays of sweetness and sunshine. His Cassio in Otello in 2012 was the personification of youthful romanticism, and his lovesick, genuinely funny Alfred was rightly the ‘hit’ of the production of Johann Strauß II's Die Fledermaus that opened on New Year's Eve 2013. Just three weeks ago, on 10 December 2014, Mr. Fabiano sang his first MET performance of Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, and by the conclusion of ‘Che gelida manina’ it was apparent that a star had become a supernova. In astronomy, a supernova is expected to burn itself out relatively quickly: in the case of Mr. Fabiano, the brilliant conflagration seems destined to continue for years to come. When I heard him as the title swashbuckler in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Verdi’s Il corsaro in March 2014 [reviewed here], his fire was burning resplendently. It consumed Glyndebourne’s production of La traviata, in which it was his Alfredo rather than Violetta who set the East Sussex air ablaze. His return to Glyndebourne in 2015 to sing the title rôle in Donizetti’s Poliuto is already the talk of Britain, and his poetic but ruggedly masculine account of Gounod’s Faust in Amsterdam ignited expectations for his forthcoming appearances in Faust in Sydney and Paris. Elegant in bel canto and heart-stopping in Verdi and Puccini, riotous in comedy and devastating in tragedy, he is an operatic Renaissance man. It is impossible to devise praise for Mr. Fabiano that has not already been granted him—far more eloquently—elsewhere, but he is an artist and a gentleman who inspires the invention of new ways to extol his gifts.


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BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Baritone Steven LaBrie [Photo by Devon Cass]BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Baritone Steven LaBrie [Photo by Devon Cass]

​It is not often that the Schaunard in a performance of Puccini’s La bohème commandeers an observer’s imagination in a way that heightens rather distracting from the bittersweet interactions between Mimì and Rodolfo, but it is not often that an artist sings Schaunard as well as baritone Steven LaBrie sang the part at Washington National Opera in November 2014 [reviewed here]. This was not only singing, though: Mr. LaBrie was Schaunard—happy-go-lucky but deadly serious, boisterous yet barely able to contain his sorrow. I have seen a number of performances of La bohème and in them some very fine singers in the rôle of Schaunard, but no singer drew me into Schaunard’s unique world as viscerally—or as movingly—as Mr. LaBrie managed to do. In 2013, his portrayal of Don Alvaro in Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims at Wolf Trap revealed a flair for comedy that served him well in WNO’s La bohème, but even in the most frolicsome stage business there is a tender heart that pulses unmistakably in his work. His singing of Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin in Jessica Lang Dance’s The Wanderer at Brooklyn Academy of Music conveyed more facets of Schubert’s music and Wilhelm Müller’s poetry than many singers disclose in a lifetime’s experience with the cycle. In March 2015, Mr. LaBrie returns to his native Dallas for La bohème with The Dallas Opera. The designation of ‘an artist to watch’ has become clichéd, but it is difficult to imagine looking away from a singer as mesmerizing as Steven LaBrie. By all means, watch him: a Schaunard who can expose the ethos of La bohème with the simplest of gestures and uncomplicated tonal beauty has the operatic world at his feet.


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BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Baritone David Pershall [Photo by Arthur Cohen]BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Baritone David Pershall [Photo by Arthur Cohen]

Those who lament the current state of Verdi baritone singing are certain to not yet have heard American baritone David Pershall. I made the acquaintance of his splendid voice with his surprisingly vibrant Manfredo in Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re [reviewed here], a Polskie Radio recording of a 2013 concert performance in Warsaw. From his first note, it was evident that this young man was not just a bar-raising Manfredo but, even more excitingly, one with the potential to rain down with biblical grandeur upon the drought in idiomatic Italian baritone singing. His Conte di Luna in Sarasota Opera’s Il trovatore was an early port of call in a journey through Verdi’s baritone rôles that is poised to restore to the Italian repertory the stylishness that has been been in danger of extinction since the glory days of Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes, and Giorgio Zancanaro. Like several of his most eminent predecessors in Verdi repertory, Mr. Pershall has built his technique upon a solid mastery of bel canto. In Opera Orchestra of New York’s June 2014 concert performance of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, he achieved with his singing of the Duke of Nottingham the extraordinary feat of holding his own opposite the legendary Mariella Devia on sparkling form. His Belcore in L’elisir d’amore at the Wiener Staatsoper exposed the informedly finicky Viennese to singing of a quality all too unfamiliar in the rôle: it was a start to a season that finds him singing Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Sebastian in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, in addition to covering several of the greatest baritone rôles in the Verdi and Wagner repertories. The 2015 – 2016 Season will take him to the Metropolitan Opera for La bohème and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda: where he will take audiences with his awe-inspiring singing in the years ahead is one of the most spectacular questions in opera. Ringing in a new year should be an occasion for remembering the best of the past and reveling in hope for the future. This is precisely the spirit that David Pershall’s singing evokes. Auld acquaintance should never be forgot, but the singing of artists like Sarah Connolly, Ann Hallenberg, Heidi Melton, Michael Fabiano, Steven LaBrie, and David Pershall brings such joy and anticipation of yet-to-be-discovered wonders to mind.