WASHINGTON, April 10, 2014 – Rising young opera stars Paul Appleby and Joshua Hopkins appeared in a special recital at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater this Sunday past, offering an eclectic vocal program ranging from Beethoven and Mozart to American composer Paul Bowles’ “Blue Mountain Ballads.”
The artists were expertly accompanied by pianist and conductor Natalia Katyukova.
Mr. Appleby and Mr. Hopkins are already in town rehearsing for WNO’s upcoming performances in the company’s visually arresting new production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute.”
Sunday’s recital was exceptionally well planned and tremendously entertaining as it encompassed a wide expanse of vocal music that has an appeal well beyond the preferences of opera aficionados.
The recital also highlighted something that, if not always evident, is becoming increasingly so: namely, that almost any music in the vocal repertoire, when sung by exceptional, operatically-trained soloists, is superior by an order of magnitude over the inferior, electronically enhanced, over-hyped and over-amped product that the average American listener is being sold today.
We learned this in last year’s magnificent WNO production of “Showboat,” complete with real singers and a full orchestra instead of the usual (and much cheaper) 12-piece ensemble plus electronic keyboards we’re fed today by traveling roadshows. And Sunday’s recital simply served to drive the point home.
Mr. Appleby opened the recital with a performance of Beethoven’s infrequently-heard but touching and deeply Romantic art song “Adelaide,” Op. 46, based on a poem by Friedrich von Matthisson. A quiet, personal lyric, something we generally don’t expect from this dramatic composer, each verse concludes with the name of the poet’s—or perhaps the composer’s—lost love, sung expressively each time but with a different emotional nuance.
“Adelaide” was a charming way to open this vocal recital. But programmatically speaking, it was also a setup. After the song concluded, Mr. Appleby introduced himself to the audience, informally wandering into a few details about his early career when, unexpectedly, he was rudely interrupted by some more-than-familiar strains erupting from the top rows of the steeply-raked Terrace seating.
It was none other than that familiar, cocksure “Barber of Seville,” aka Rossini’s Figaro, the working-class hero of that eternally popular opera, as impersonated by Mr. Appleby’s recital teammate, Joshua Hopkins. Swaggering down the auditorium stairs and onto the stage, Mr. Hopkins continued with a boisterous, marvelously funny rendition of Figaro’s signature Act I party-piece solo, “Largo al factotum,” which today might be translated something like, “Make way for the coolest dude in Seville.”
It’s perhaps the most popular solo in existence for operatic baritones, who rarely get the kind of star space in a given opera that tenors do, and Mr. Hopkins performed it exceptionally well, bringing delighted expressions of acclaim from the audience. Mr. Hopkins’ oddly dramatic entry also ignited the light but amusing comic motif of the evening, the observation by Mr. Appleby, the tenor, that Mr. Hopkins’ flair for the melodramatic is typical for the average baritone—when, of course, everyone in the audience knows that it’s the average tenor who typically behaves like a divo.
Light banter aside, this personable pair did come to sing and did so all evening with remarkable poise, flair, and expressiveness. After the opening combat round, the singers settled in, alternating songs of contrasting mood and emotion.
Mr. Appleby began with the beloved aria “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz!” (“My whole heart is yours!”) from Franz Lehár’s operetta “Das Land des Lächelns” (“The Land of Smiles”), first presented in 1923 but substantially revised in 1929. This passionate music is enough to melt the hardest of hearts, and Mr. Appleby no doubt succeeded in doing just that in his fine, dramatic performance.
He was followed by Mr. Hopkins who took things in a decidedly different and more contemporary direction, singing four “Blue Mountain Ballads” with text from Tennessee Williams and music by American writer-composer Paul Bowles (1910-1999) whose strange, unique career seems to have rendered him relatively unknown in his native U.S.
Born in New York, Bowles was something of a literary and musical prodigy, although his opportunities were limited by an oppressive father. That said, his literary talents blossomed, particularly after his brief enrollment at the University of Virginia and his later association with Gertrude Stein. He eventually became acquainted with Aaron Copland and studied music and composition with him on a piecemeal basis, eventually settling, pretty much for life, in Morocco.
Known for most of his life as a writer, journalist and novelist, Bowles nonetheless found time to compose a body of uniquely American art songs, applying classical and modernist techniques to jazzy and country-style idioms. Long neglected, these unusual, highly inventive and entertaining songs have been increasingly finding their way into the repertoire of younger American vocalists, adding a unique flavor to any vocal recital and winning the surprised admiration of audiences unfamiliar with them.
Mr. Hopkins expressed Bowles’ music and attitude to perfection in his interpretation of the composer’s song cycle. The central character(s) in the first three songs is a loner who is generally resigned to staying that way as a result of enduring life.
But the sprightly finale shifts the mood to an amusing, running analogy, with the soloist imagining he’s still becoming an individual, expressed in lines like: “I’m potatoes not yet mashed, / I’m a check that ain’t been cashed. This finale, “Sugar in the Cane,” brought these selections to a close, and Mr. Hopkins’ loose, authentic performance almost certainly created more potential if posthumous fans for Mr. Bowles’ curiously different compositions.
Mr. Appleby briefly returned with a charmingly styled folk song as adapted by the interesting British composer Frank Bridge, one of Benjamin Britten’s teachers, but a fine composer in his own right though he is little known on this side of the Atlantic by most.
Bridge’s exuberant “Love Went A-Riding” was again a contemporary change of pace, but also set itself up in contrast to the scheming of Don Juan himself, aka Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” as Mr. Hopkins returned to deliver the famous serenade from Mozart’s most dramatic opera. To assist in setting the mood, Mr. Hopkins invited a lady volunteer from the audience up on the stage to serve as the object of the Don’s current amorous intentions, an amusing touch that served to keep this recital up close and personal for those in attendance.
The recital’s first half ended with opera’s best buddy-duet ever, the sweepingly dramatic “Au fond du temple saint” (roughly, “In the vestibule of the holy temple”) from Bizet’s “Les pêcheurs de perles” (“The Pearl Fishers”). In this duet, friends Nadir and Zurga celebrate their undying friendship, proclaiming that nothing can ever lead it astray, including their mutual admiration of a chaste temple priestess.
Of course, that pledge doesn’t end up lasting very long. But we still have this stirring affirmation of undying friendship and loyalty that remains a recital favorite today whenever a tenor and baritone are appearing together. Together, Mr. Appleby and Mr. Hopkins delivered a deeply affecting performance.
Mr. Hopkins opened the program’s second half with a finely nuanced performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s gentle art song whose translated English title is “On Wings of Song.”
This was followed by a pair of songs from Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore,” a popular comic opera performed here by WNO just last month. Mr. Appleby led off with Nemorino’s plaintive aria “Una furtive lagrima” (“A secret tear”), and was then joined by Mr. Hopkins with both delivering the amusing scene in which Nemorino signs up to serve in the army unit of his enemy, Sgt. Belcore.
The signing bonus will provide Nemorino with just enough money to thwart Belcore (he thinks) by allowing our hero to buy another bottle of Dr. Dulcamera’s magic love elixir (actually cheap wine) that will enable him to marry the girl they both profess to love. It’s one of this charming opera’s more amusing scenes, and both soloists played off one another quite well.
The duet also helped set up the baritone half of another famous baritone-tenor duo, this one involving the hero (Tamino) and his comical sidekick (Papageno), the male leads in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” which, not surprisingly, will be WNO’s final opera presentation of its regular season in May.
If Mr. Hopkins’ performance here offers any evidence of how he’ll handle his character of Papageno in this upcoming production, WNO fans should be in for a good time. (Tamino, of course, will be sung by Mr. Appleby.)
The recital concluded with a beautiful, Irish-style a cappella version of “Danny Boy” sung by Mr. Appleby, and three popular Broadway numbers: “On the Street Where You Live” (from Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady”), sung by Mr. Appleby; the boisterous “Me!” from Menken and Ashman’s more recent “Beauty and the Beast”), sung by Mr. Hopkins; and a concluding, humorous duet, “Agony,” from Stephen Sondheim’s quirky and popular “Into the Woods.”
This finale brought a standing ovation, requiring an encore from both singers who readily complied by singing the amusing reprise of “Agony.”
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