Bass-baritone Donald Hartmann, faculty recitalist at UNCG on 22 September 2020, as Il sagrestano in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791), HUGO WOLF (1860 – 1903), ANGE FLÉGIER (1846 – 1927), POLDOWSKI (1879 – 1932), CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), HENRY MANCINI (1924 – 1994), KURT WEILL (1900 – 1950), HAROLD ARLEN (1905 – 1986), and JEROME KERN (1885 – 1945): Faculty Recital — Donald Hartmann, bass-baritone; Robert Wells, baritone; Alexander Ezerman, cello; Nancy Davis, piano [Tew Recital Hall, University of North Carolina at Greensboro College of Visual and Performing Arts, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Tuesday, 22 September 2020]
In the course of 2020, few words and conceits have become more loathsome to artists than ‘new normal,’ ‘challenging times,’ and ‘altered realities.’ A year upended by efforts to contain a global pandemic indeed constitutes a challenging time in which realities are altered and semblances of normalcy are attainable only in novel ways. Throughout history, Art and artists have endured calamities both natural and human, changed but undefeated by cataclysms of disaster and disease, but the catastrophic effects of COVID-19 on the Arts community continue to redefine and reshape artists’ rôles in society. More than at any time since the most turbulent days of World War Two, artists’ oft-repeated mantra is now a rallying cry: the show must go on!
With an engagingly eclectic recital by bass-baritone Donald Hartmann, the show went on—or, more accurately, resumed—at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with tenacity and exuberance that reminded the socially-distanced audience in a week during which the cancellation of the entirety of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2020 – 2021 Season was confirmed that, though muted by the necessity of battling a pernicious virus, Song cannot be silenced. Alongside pianist Nancy Davis, whose performance was at once thrillingly virtuosic and enchantingly intimate, Hartmann reawakened the too-long-dormant performance space with vocalism of extraordinary immediacy. Listeners familiar with Hartmann’s artistry, whether experienced in the opera house or the recital hall, are accustomed to vibrant, impeccably musical characterizations, but his singing in this recital exuded not only thorough preparedness but also an abiding, deeply affecting sense of an artist’s fundamental need to perform. Voices are meant to be heard, and this was a recital in which far more than notes and words were voiced.
Beginning the performance with a selection that honored both his affinity for the stage and his passion for song, Hartmann enlisted cellist Alexander Ezerman for the grueling contest between strings and vocal cords in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s concert aria ‘Per questa bella mano’ (K. 612). Composed during the final year of Mozart’s life, the unusual scoring of ‘Per questa bella mano,’ originally conceived for bass voice, orchestra, and double bass obbligato, has inspired conjecture that the piece was intended for insertion into performances of a forgotten comic opera, in which it would have been sung by Franz Xaver Gerl, the bass who, four months after Mozart documented his completion of ‘Per questa bella mano’ in May 1791, created the rôle of Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte. Ezerman’s bravura playing matched Hartmann’s flexible vocalism note for note and trill for trill, but the romantic delicacy of the text was never obscured by the vocal and instrumental pyrotechnics. Unperturbed by the fearsome intervals, Hartmann heroically maintained intonational accuracy throughout the compass of the music.
Settings of Walter Heinrich Robert-Tornow’s translations of texts by the eponymous Renaissance artist, Hugo Wolf’s Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Michelangelo were written in March 1897, when, though aged only thirty-seven, the composer was already suffering from the mental and physiological maladies that would end his life in 1903. Grimly fatalistic in their examinations of man’s progressive physical and emotional disintegration, these Lieder are often compared to Schubert’s Winterreise, Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, and Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder. In Hartmann’s performance, the dark sentiments of the first of the three songs, ‘Wohl denk’ ich oft an mein vergang’nes Leben,’ seemed to emerge from the narrator’s psyche in medias res, like a contentious discourse upon which the listener was intruding. Articulated with a native speaker’s fluency, the German text was inherently melodious, not least in the Lied’s final phrases, interpreted by Hartmann and Davis with cathartic resignation.
Wolf esteemed the second of the Michelangelo-Lieder, ‘Alles endet, was entstehet,’ as the finest of his more than two hundred songs, of which these were the last that he wrote, but this was an assessment that he also applied to a number of its brethren. ‘Alles endet, was entstehet’ is unquestionably a superbly-crafted song in which voice and piano interact in a disquieting dialogue about the transcience of humanity. In this selection and in fleeting moments in the songs that followed, there were occasional lapses in the precision of Davis’s playing in the most animated passages, but the reliable responsiveness of her collaboration expertly supported Hartmann’s phrasing. He voiced the lines ‘und nun sind wir leblos hier, sind nur Erde, wir ihr sehet’ with directness that was almost accusatory: in truth, he seemed to ask, does anyone see?
Reminiscent in spirit of Strauss’s ‘Im Abendrot,’ ‘Fühlt meine Seele das ersehnte Licht’ can be regarded as Wolf’s valedictory explication of what Dylan Thomas termed ‘the dying of the light.’ Articulating the text with special attention to the aural finality of the consonants, Hartmann presented the Lied as the culmination of an unmistakably personal journey, his singing of ‘Ich weiß es nicht’ imparting the frustration of an artist who has found the answers to too many of life’s questions to be elusive. The vocal demands of Wolf’s music were resiliently met, but it was Hartmann’s musical storytelling that was most riveting.
Hartmann demonstrated his mastery of French chansons with accounts of three varied pieces, to each of which he brought clear diction and interpretive nuances inspired by the words. First published in 1881, Ange Flégier’s poème pittoresque pour voix et piano ‘Le cor’ utilizes a text by Alfred de Vigny, to which the composer responded with imagination and wry humor. The vocal assurance of Hartmann’s traversal of ‘Le cor’ was allied with his own humor, accentuating the cleverness with which Flégier employed dramatic changes of tempo and mood to create a compelling dramatic trajectory. Here and in all of the French songs, the bass-baritone’s careful handling of language, epitomized by his confident shaping of nasalized vowels, was complemented by Davis’s sensitive pianism, her playing alternating gossamer lyricism with hall-filling power in accordance with the words.
The prevalence of Paul Verlaine’s ‘L‘heure exquise’ in the French chanson repertoire rivals that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s work in German Lieder, but the setting of Verlaine’s familiar text by the Belgian composer Poldowski (née Régine Wieniawski) is a pinnacle both amongst her own contributions to the genre and in French Art Song as a whole. Hartmann’s innate theatricality was especially beneficial in this music, not least in the unaffected manner in which he spurred the listener’s anticipation of the final, ecstatic statement of ‘l’heure exquise.’ The rhythmic elasticity of Davis’s playing closely paralleled her colleague’s singing of the vocal line, enhancing the rhapsodic atmosphere conjured by Hartmann’s traversal of the song.
Its popularity with audiences continuing into the Twenty-First Century, Camille Saint-Saëns’s 1874 tone poem Danse macabre overshadows the 1872 chanson with words by Henri Cazalis via which the raucous tune was first heard. Setting a reasonable tempo that avoided the careening disasters into which some performances quickly dissolve, Davis drew the din of rattling bones from the Steinway, providing Hartmann with the musical threads with which to weave a gothic tale worthy of Edgar Allan Poe. The mercurial brilliance and chromatic litheness of its principal and secondary subjects belie the song’s difficulties for both vocalist and pianist, and the performance that it received in this recital gave an impression of authentically French insouciance, exemplified by the near-sadistic glee of Hartmann’s declamation of ‘Et vive la mort et l’égalité!’ in the song’s exultant coda.
Hartmann was joined in a diverting jaunt through music from Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale by baritone and fellow UNCG Voice faculty member Robert Wells, who offered a suave, suggestive account of Dottore Malatesta’s Act One romanza ‘Bella siccome un angelo.’ Hartmann replied with his first public performance of Pasquale’s Act One cavatina ‘Ah! un foco insolito mi sento addosso,’ justifiably cited by the bass-baritone as two of the most demanding minutes in opera buffa and sung with the comedic panache and musical bravado that make his Rossini portrayals so memorable. As they addressed one another in the number’s rollicking stretta, Donaldo and Roberto—e Nancy!—then demonstrated their considerable gifts for musical camaraderie in an electrifying account of Pasquale’s and Malatesta’s Act Three duet ‘Cheti, cheti, immantinente.’ Impressive in their respective navigations of the infamous patter, Hartmann and Wells excelled in unison, celebrating their jovial partnership with an ebullient top F.
For the final segment of the recital, Hartmann traded the opera singer’s tuxedo for the Broadway crooner’s dinner jacket in performances of musical theater and cinema standards. A cornerstone of Audrey Hepburn’s critically-acclaimed performance in Blake Edwards’s 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s was her performance of Henry Mancini’s and Johnny Mercer’s Academy Award-winning song ‘Moon River.’ Further popularized a few months after the film’s release by Andy Williams’s recording, the piece as performed by Hartmann and Davis might have been a forgotten aria by Puccini. Wholly rejecting opera-singer-singing-standards pomposity, the bass-baritone brought to the song his own incarnation of the simplicity that ennobled Hepburn’s performance.
Sung by Charles Coburn in the 1944 cinematic adaptation of Kurt Weill’s and Maxwell Anderson’s musical Knickerbocker Holiday, ‘September Song’ was later recorded by artists as diverse as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Burl Ives, Willie Nelson, and Lou Reed. As in his performance of ‘Moon River,’ Hartmann’s concentration on the ways in which the melodic line elucidates the sentiments of the words yielded a touchingly bittersweet reading of the song, the well-rehearsed interplay between voice and piano propelling expressive spontaneity. Guileless earnestness was also the foundation upon which Hartmann’s voicing of Harold Arlen’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz was constructed. Singing with aptly iridescent tonal beauty, he transformed the familiar melody and words into a unnervingly timely quest for delivery from today’s crushing tribulations.
‘Ol’ Man River’ from Jerome Kern’s Show Boat was the song most associated by listeners throughout the world with bass-baritone Paul Robeson, a principled man of action whose meticulously-honed artistry was deployed in the battle for Civil Rights. Forty-four years after Robeson’s death in 1976, the war against oppression and dehumanization of the underprivileged still rages. Though he is a very different artist, working in a vastly different time, Hartmann’s performance of ‘Ol’ Man River’ lacked none of the visionary force of Robeson’s recordings of the song. In the last minutes of an evening of bold singing, the song’s tessitura, as daunting as that of Mozart’s ‘Per questa bella mano,’ tested Hartmann, but his resources remained equal to the music. The obvious symbolism of his interpretation was haunting: represented by her mighty river, it is America herself who, in a time in which the essence of her democracy is imperiled, must know something but says nothing.
By ending the recital with the stirring spiritual ‘Let Us Break Bread Together,’ Hartmann honored the legacies of Robeson and Marian Anderson, who frequently included the piece in their recitals. The song’s pleas for unity and humility soared in his impassioned singing, and the heartfelt ‘Amen’ with which the audience reacted to the song echoed the overwhelming expressive potency of Hartmann’s performance. Musically stimulating and emotionally uplifting, this recital affirmed that, whether in times of security or strife, voices like Donald Hartmann’s truly must be heard.