23 Oct 2011

Renata Pokupić, Wigmore Hall

In this appealing lunchtime recital programme, Croatian soprano Renata Pokupić demonstrated a rich, varied tonal palette and strong communicative skills as she spanned one hundred years of European song.

Ranging far from the coloratura repertoire with which she has primarily made her name in the opera house, Pokupić was perhaps more comfortable with the impassioned folk sentiments of Dvořák’s Cigánské melodie (Gypsy Songs) and the flamboyance of Weill’s songs from Marie Galante than with the poised control of Schubert’s late lieder or the expressive nuances of Enescu’s settings of Clément Marot; but, supported by the typically accomplished accompaniments of Roger Vignoles, she presented an engaging sequence of song to a receptive audience.

The opening four Schubert songs, all composed during the last two or three years of the composer’s death in 1828, reveal the extraordinary diversity that Schubert achieved within the small form. Drawn and translated by Edward von Bauemfeld from Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, ‘An Silvia’ is a sweet serenade to the eponymous protagonist. Adopting a tender, reflective tone Popukić revealed flashes of glimmering brightness, as the narrator remarked nature’s adoration of Silvia’s powers – “the wide fields praise her” and “Her gentle child-like charm refreshes”. Unfortunately, ‘Im Abendrot’ (‘Sunset glow’) and ‘Die Junge Nonne’ (‘The young nun’) were marred by some insecure intonation and melodic uncertainty; Popukić particularly struggled to control sustained pitches and confined melodic contours. Moreover, though the larger dramatic canvas of the final song suited the mezzo soprano’s temperament, a fittingly vigorous outburst as the nun rejoices in her transfiguring love for her God – “The loving bride awaits the bridegroom,/purified by testing fire -/ wedded to eternal love” – revealed plenty of power and fire, but also some unpleasant pushing of the voice at the expressive climax.

Roger Vignoles is a master of the judicious accompaniment, creating consistent, understated textures from which significant bass figures, telling melodic motifs and pointed expressive gestures sleekly arise to effortlessly assert themselves and then surreptitiously fade, always in expressive service of the text or diplomatically responding to the singer’s needs. This was most powerfully evident in the Schubert songs. Thus, the gentle ‘strumming’ of ‘An Silvia’ was momentarily enlivened by melodic echoes of, and dialogue with, the voice, all the while underpinned by the springing dotted rhythms of the leaping bass. And, appreciative of the way these ‘miniature’ forms can contain significant emotional depths and range, and alert to the overall structure and drama, he expertly controlled the rubato and brief but affective alternation of major and minor tonalities in the penultimate stanza of ‘Im Frühling’, restoring the settled ambience at the close. Sweeping, arpeggiated chords radiated the warm, golden gleam of the glowing sun in ‘Im Abendrot’, then gave way to the ‘raging storm’ – conveyed by an energised, oscillating bass, trembling beneath clanging treble cloister bells – in ‘Die junge Nonne’.

A more centred vocal line, amid adventurous harmonic progressions, was achieved in the ardent ‘Estrene à Anne’ (‘A gift for Anne’), which began the sequence of five songs from the Romanian George Enescu’s Sept Chanson de Clément Marot. Popukić effectively negotiated the rather archaic French texts and demonstrated much feeling for textual meaning and nuance, particularly in ‘Languir me fais’ (‘You make me pine’), where Vignoles’ elegant piano introduction adeptly established the reflective mood. She enjoyed the wit of ‘Aux damoyselles paresseuses d’escrit à leurs amys’ (‘To young ladies too lazy to write to their friends’), pianist and singer crafting an adroitly calculated, insouciant reading. Popukić’s delightfully rich lower register was much in evidence in ‘Changeons propos, c’est trop chanté d’amours’ (‘Let’s change the subject, enough of lauding love’), an unsentimental drinking song which galloped and then collapsed in a inebriated conclusion in praise of liquor and its celebrants, Bacchus and Silenus, who: “drank standing bolt upright;/ then he would dance,/ and bruise himself/ his nose was as red as a cherry;/ Many are those descended from his race.”

The second half of the recital found Popukić in her more natural element, whether embodying the bohemian personae of Dvořák’s folk songs, which tell of the joys and hardships of gypsy life, or enjoying the cabaret lilt of Weill’s songs for Jacques Déval’s play, Marie Galante. Popukić proved herself capable of shaping and controlling wide-ranging melodic arcs and leaping between registers, and of communicating extremes and contrasts of emotion, in the Cigánské melodie. An intense gravity characterised ‘My song resounds with love to me again’, as the narrator experiences both joy and loss, “when I am glad that, freed from misery/ my brother dies”; and deep melancholy underpinned ‘And the wood’s silent all around’, despite the warm major harmonies. Similarly, the arching melodic phrases of ‘Songs my mother taught me’, beautifully fashioned by Popukić with lustrous tone and enriched by the piano’s decorative ornamental motifs and propelling syncopations, presented a poignant blend of contradictory sentiments. A wilder more festive mood was created in the following two dances, ‘The strings are tuned, my lad’, and ‘Wide sleeves and loose trousers’, as Popukić at last fully relaxed, relishing the nonchalant fluctuations of pace and the unrestrained celebrations of freedom and music.

In Weill’s tango-inspired ‘Youkali’, Popukić unleashed a sultry low register and suave lyricism, saving a dulcet floating colour for the closing phrase as the narrator reflects that, whatever tedium we must endure in life, the human soul seeks escape, “oblivion everywhere”: “to find the mystery,/ where our dreams are buried/ in some Youkali.” The melodramatic grotesquery of ‘Le grand Lustucru’ (‘The Great Bogeyman’) and the extravagant dramatic sentiments of ‘J’attends un navire’ (‘I wait for a ship’) allowed Popukić to indulge her theatrical instincts, bringing the recital to an energetic and highly entertaining conclusion.

Claire Seymour


Franz Schubert: ‘An Silvia’ D891; ‘Im Frühling’ D882; ‘Im Abendrot’ D799; ‘Die junge Nonne’ D828.

George Enescu: Songs from Sept chanson de Clément Marot Op.15

Antonín Dvořák: Cigánské melodie (Gypsy Songs) Op.55

Kurt Weill: Songs from Marie Galante