The three ages of soprano



Like all things in life, a soprano’s career has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Three recent events have dramatized the crucial markers for each of these phases — the triumphant breakthrough, the ascension to stardom, and the farewell.

Will Crutchfield planned his concert presentation of Donizetti’s “Maria di Rohan” at Caramoor as a showcase for Takesha Meshé Kizart, who had her breakthrough in Caramoor’s “La Forza del Destino” three summers ago. But, the fates were not kind and Kizart fell ill two days before the concert. Given that the piece is rarely seen in Europe and never in the US, Caramoor called on the cover, Jennifer Rowley, a member of the Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists program. With only one full rehearsal with the orchestra, Rowley sang the role of Maria in the semi-staged concert totally off book with vocal and dramatic poise. The look of frozen dread on her face was fully appropriate in conveying the constant fear of exposure that Maria di Rohan feels while entangled in the fraught love triangle of Donizetti’s late opera.

Written in 1843 for Vienna and revised for Paris, Donizetti in “Maria di Rohan” strives to break down the formal structures and conventions of early 19th century “bel canto” opera to provide a more forward-moving dramatic structure. Several innovations toward this end have been credited to Verdi, but in this piece we see Donizetti’s influence on his younger rival. Verdi must have remembered “Maria di Rohan” when he wrote “Un Ballo in Maschera,” another destructive love triangle set in a frivolous 18th century court.

Crutchfield used the more streamlined Vienna version with those Paris additions which he felt strengthened the piece musically and dramatically. Brazilian tenor Luciano Botelho made his US debut as Chalais, singing with a light Rossinian tenor that was plangent and sweet. His high notes are heady and lack body, which limited his dramatic force. Baritone Scott Bearden in the role of the jealous husband Chevreuse was more “can belto” than “bel canto,” emphasizing loud high notes over color, dynamics, and line. Mezzo Vanessa Cariddi in the trouser role of Gondi only had one scene but made the most of it, her stage presence intense and her voice tangy and incisive.

Rowley’s soprano voice has a perfect tonal blend of warm roundness and brilliant point. A large lyric with admirable agility (her current signature role is Donna Anna), her upper register can expand on a limitless supply of breath. Despite her visible terror, she had her voice under total control. One can only wonder what she can achieve under less stressful last-minute circumstances. Her future looks bright.

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has had a breakthrough year highlighted by the release of her first solo CD recital. Radvanovsky has triumphantly unveiled new roles like Tosca and will debut as Aida soon. Next season she will appear with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the Met’s HD transmission of “Il Trovatore.” She also shared the stage with Hvorostovsky in a Carnegie Hall gala concert on April 1. She sang arias from “Rusalka” and “Ernani” and scenes from “Simon Boccanegra, “Un Ballo in Maschera,” and “Eugene Onegin” with the silver-maned Siberian baritone. Hvorostovsky has clearly reworked his voice for more volume with the concurrent loss of some of the vocal velvet in the middle. It is a somewhat craggier, drier sound but the upper register now has more power and ring.

Whether it was Carnegie Hall’s warm acoustics or a newly maturing voice, Radvanovsky’s throbbing metallic sound was softened and rounded, showing a mellow dark warmth it has lacked at the Met. Many of her roles were new to New York — parts she missed out on like the youthful heroines of “Rusalka,” “Onegin,” and “Boccanegra,” and views of things to come like Amelia in “Ballo.” Singing with fearless command and keen theatrical involvement, Radvanovsky seemed to be a prima donna at her peak. Currently very much in favor with the Met management, she was presented in this gala benefit concert as a star attraction and she delivered.

Few artists have been as beloved as mezzo-soprano Frederica Von Stade, who said goodbye to her New York audience at Carnegie Hall on April 22. The program she chose was eclectic but linked by relevance to her own experiences, career and loves. Von Stade linked each song with her spoken introductions, delivered with naturalness and warmth. It was a very personal “Frauenliebe und Leben,” not of Brahms but of Rorem, Poulenc, Sondheim, Heggie, Offenbach, Copland, Mahler, and others.

Longtime collaborator Martin Katz at the piano bridged the styles and centuries with aplomb. No apologies have to be made for the 64-year-old voice — it was darker but vibrant and responsive, able to limn the long exposed lyric lines of Thomas’ “Mignon” arias and sparkle in lighter material. Von Stade had a lot to give and just this one last time to share it with her public, so the emphasis was on communication, generosity, and love. She left behind her a warm glow not brilliant but lasting.