12 May 2009
Verdi’s Requiem in Santa Fe
Christine Brewer Commands Performance in Last Minute Appearance
Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House - a masked ball in every sense, where nothing is quite what it seems. On the surface, this new production appears quaint and undemanding. It uses painted flats, for example, pulled back and forth across, as in toy theatre. The scenes painted on them are vaguely generic, depicting neither Boston nor Stockholm, where the tale supposedly takes place. Instead, we focus on Verdi, and on theatre practices of the past. In other words, opera as the art of illusion, not an attempt to replicate reality. Take this production too literally and you'll miss the wit and intelligence behind it.
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Christine Brewer Commands Performance in Last Minute Appearance
In celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary the first week of May, the Santa Fe Symphony encountered unexpected drama in an attempt — ultimately successful — to present a festive performance of the Verdi Requiem.
First, soprano Kallen Esperian, after several days of rehearsal, came down with laryngitis and canceled Friday noon, with scheduled performances Saturday and Sunday.
Gregory W. Heltman, SFSO’s energetic founding director and manager, contacted General Director Charles MacKay at the Santa Fe Opera to see if his resources included a Verdi soprano on 24-hours’ notice. It so happened MacKay could help. He knew Christine Brewer, a veteran of many a Verdi Requiem, was at her home in suburban St. Louis recovering from a bad knee that kept her out of the Metropolitan Opera’s current Wagner’s Ring cycle. A quick telephone call, a fast favorable decision and the problem was solved. Almost.
Brewer’s plane from St. Louis Saturday morning was due at Albuquerque’s Sunport at 1:20 p.m., presumably allowing time enough to make the 60-mile drive to Santa Fe, check in the Eldorado Hotel, walk across the street to the Lensic Performing Arts Center for a few minutes of rehearsal before dressing for the 6 p.m. concert. But the plane, a victim of weather delays, did not put Brewer on the ground until 4:40, into the awaiting arms of the frantic symphony managers.
After a fast hour’s drive through the rain directly to the stage door of the Lensic in downtown Santa Fe, an intensely focused Brewer headed straight to her dressing room, unpacked her gown, accepted help with make-up, drank a liter of cool water, and was led on stage by conductor Stephen Smith, along with the three other soloists, at 6:40 pm. The audience was ready — they had been kept in place by a lecture and an award made to a venerable music educator.
Brewer looked composed and calm in a black silk gown with a colorful over-cape, and stood next to contralto Kathleen Clawson as if it were business-as-usual, which is about how it turned out, plus a little more. In January Brewer had sung, and recorded, Verdi’s great operatic requiem in England with Sir Colin Davis, and a month later repeated it with the St. Louis Symphony. She had it down cold, and her duets with Clawson were as well-honed as if she had been rehearsing all week. (“We listened to each other,” Clawson later said.) All the soloists’ ensemble work went beautifully, and the “Recordare” was radiant as the two women’s voices blended with rare elegance. Brewer’s fine-spun high tones, one of her great gifts, playing against Clawson’s mature, dark contralto provided an Aida moment, which is perhaps just what Verdi had in mind. Brewer was up to the dramatic requirements of the “Lachrymosa”, and triumphed in the “Libera me” with dramatic parlando outbursts, stunning fortes and ultimately a return to her trademark high pianissimi in the finale.
The last time SFSO essayed the Verdi Requiem was five years ago, the season of its twentieth anniversary, and at that time mezzo-soprano Clawson stood out as the predominant soloist. This year Brewer earned the honors, both for her last-minute effort to save the show, and her supremely refined and confident singing of the challenging soprano lines — pure opera, in effect, by the 19th C. Italian master of dramatic music theatre. Few sopranos I know combine Brewer’s strengths at present — exactly the qualities needed to make memorable this nameless operatic heroine. One has only to experience the “Libera me” as presented by a great dramatic singer to appreciate the generous measure of Brewer’s talent. This was Leonora or Amelia or Aida at her highest emotional pitch. Brewer’s unusually large physical size and a long-held preference for platform singing, will likely continue to keep her from performing staged Italian operatic repertory. Yet, her “Recordare” duet with the mellow Clawson left one yearning to hear these voices in Aida — a frequent point of reference for those who enjoy the Requiem.
Clawson showed a warm rather dark mezzo; if it did not project fully in the lowest register, her tone was plentiful and easy in the middle range and top. She was a worthy proponent of Verdi and partner to Brewer. The male side was a bit less impressive: Robert Bréault, whom I hear as a Britten-Vaughan Williams tenor, was a thorough professional even if his tonal qualities were not of Verdian stripe, and in the bass part Kevin Maynor was similarly earnest if lacking in thunder. Linda Rainey, who is ‘Ms. Choral Director’ of Northern New Mexico, had assembled various forces, the Santa Fe Men’s Camerata, Ken Knight, conductor, and her Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble, which along with the Symphony’s volunteer chorus comprised a group of a hundred singers that was well rehearsed by Rainey and responsive, if not of especially distinguished tonal quality.
Steven Smith, for a decade music director and conductor of SFSO, presented a good standard performance of the Verdi score. Smith has a solid background with the Eastman School and Cleveland Orchestra, and still combines duties in Cleveland with his symphonic concerts each season at Santa Fe, as well as musical direction at the Brevard Festival. We are not talking about a Toscanini fire-and-brimstone Verdi Requiem, rather an affecting and touching reading of the score, well beyond what one might expect to find in a small mountain city in the lower Rockies.
Santa Fe continues to surprise.
J. A. Van Sant © 2009