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Bryan Hymel [Photo by Dario Acosta]
02 Mar 2016

Heroique flashes at Wigmore Hall

Bryan Hymel, Irene Roberts & Julius Drake at Rosenblatt Recitals

Heroique flashes at Wigmore Hall

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Bryan Hymel [Photo by Dario Acosta]


Last night's Rosenblatt Recital (25 February 2016) at theWigmore Hall was shared by the American tenor Bryan Hymel (known for his performances as Aeneas in Berlioz' Les Troyens at Covent Garden and his disc Heroique of French 19th century heroic opera arias), and the young American mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts (who will be singing the title role in Bizet's Carmen with San Francisco Opera and Deutsche Oper Berlin this year). The two singers were accompanied in a programme of RVW, Wagner, Gounod, Mascagni, Berlioz and Bizet by pianist Julius Drake. The programme opened with Bryan Hymel singing RVW's Four Hymns for Tenor, when he and Drake were joined by viola player Krzysztof Chorzelski , then Irene Roberts sang four of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder. Bryan Hymel then gave us Ah! leve-toi, soleil! from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and Mamma, quel vino e generoso from Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, with two excerpts from Bizet's Carmen to conclude the programme.

One of the fascinating things about Rosenblatt Recitals is the way the series places opera singers in a concert context, and showcases their repertoire choices when moving away from operatic drama. Bryan Hymel's choice of RVW's Four Hymns for Tenor was an intriguing choice indeed. The work is an early one, written in 1911 shortly after the Five Mystical Songs and partaking of the same aura of mystical rapture. We are used to hearing the work sung by classic English lyric tenor voices but Hymel has shown that his voice has the refreshingly old-fashion combination of narrow-focus power with remarkable flexibility. For all the big bright sound in at the opening, Hymel was able to bring his tone down and give us moments of lower key intimacy. This was quite a big boned performance, and Hymel was finely matched by viola player Krzysztof Chorzelski and pianist Julius Drake. However Hymel's performance seemed a little constrained and score-bound (it was the only work of the evening where he sang from the score), and it perhaps was not the ideal work to open the programme. For all the inward quality which he brought to it, the performance did rather miss the sense of mysticism that these songs need. However Hymel did give the music a very intense presence.

Irene_Roberts_2.pngIrene Roberts [Photo by Kristin Hoebermann]

Next, Irene Roberts sang four of Wagner's Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (Wesendonck Lieder); she missed off Im Treibhaus, one of the two songs which Wagner labelled 'Studie zu Tristan und Isolde' (studies for Tristan and Isolde). The five songs should probably not be regarded as a song cycle, Wagner wrote them over the period of a year (1857-1858) and the present order of the songs was only fixed by the publishers, Schott, in 1862. However it was a shame that we missed the perfumed Tristan-esque exoticism of Im Treibhaus, and thankfully we were treated to it as an encore at the end of the recital.

Irene Roberts has a big, bold, dark-hued mezzo-soprano voice and is already singing Kundry in Parsifal and you suspect that other large dramatic mezzo-soprano roles will come into her repertoire. At this stage in her career though, she seemed to need something of a guiding hand from a director, as her performance of the Wagner songs was impressive and finely correct without really exploring the spark of erotic romantic languor. You felt that Roberts needed to relax somewhat and revel a little more in the wonderfully rich sound she was making. Instead this was a performance which impressed rather than seduced. Der Engel was beautifully done but too literal, and needed to be a bit steamier. Stehe still! was intense and vibrant, though Roberts sound occasionally verged on the wild. You sensed that with the right direction she could be a really exciting performer and in Schmerzen she brought a lovely dark tone to bear. For the opening of Träume Julius Drake gave us an object lesson in how to bring out the Tristan-esque subtlety of this music, playing with flexibility and seductiveness, with great care of the space between the notes. Roberts performance however, though intense and inward, was a bit too soberly serious.

Bryan Hymel opened the second half with Romeo's Ah! leve-toi, soleil from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. Romeo is nowadays a role sung mainly by tenor with voices of a more lyric cast, but in the 19th century the great Polish tenor Jean de Reske used to perform Romeo and Tristan in the same season. Hymel sang without music and seemed far more relaxed, and at ease than in the first half, and this showed in his performance. He demonstrated that it is perfectly possible, bringing his flexible yet big bright sound to bear on Gounod's music and showing us how the lyricism of the aria can be combined with a thrilling sound, concluding with a fabulous top note.

He followed this with more conventional dramatic tenor repertoire, Mamma, quel vino e generoso, Turiddu's emotional leave-taking from his mother in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana. In a vibrantly upfront performance of classic Italian verismo repertoire we notice the relative narrow focus of Hymel's voice compared to more recent Italian tenors. But this also meant that the performance had a lovely intensity and flexibility, combined with a strong sense of character and superb tone quality.

Irene Roberts sang Marguerite's D'amour l'ardente flammme from Berlioz's La damnation de Faust. Roberts showed a fine sense of control in a powerfully intense performance. Her French was nicely correct but she didn't really make enough of the words and in the more passionate moments her diction slipped. Overall I really wanted a little more sense of risk and a suppleness in her account of the role.

Finally we had two extracts from Bizet's Carmen. First Bryan Hymel sang La fleur que to m'avais jetee from Act Two, in which he demonstrated how ideal he is in this type of repertoire. Singing with finely expressive French and allowing the language to colour his tone in a way that most Italian-trained singers do not. He combined power and suppleness in ideal proportions. This and the Gounod made me wish that Hymel's repertoire choices for the recital had perhaps focussed on this area more.

Finally Hymel and Roberts gave us the whole of the final scene from Carmen. Granted we missed the off-stage chorus somewhat, but Julius Drake's piano went a long way to supplying that element of the drama. In this scene the dark intensity of Roberts voice really came into its own, and that strong, sober intensity made Carmen's 'Non, je ne t'aime plus!' really count. And she was finely contrasted with Hymel's wonderfully ardent and brightly intense Don Jose. I have to confess that I had been hoping for something a little more unusual in the recital, but this scene demonstrated a fine sense of style combined with powerful drama.

Finding an encore to follow that scene was inevitably difficult so Irene Roberts sang Im Treibhaus from Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder which Julius Drake segued straight into Bryan Hymel singing Nessun dorma from Puccini's Turandot.

Robert Hugill

Programme and performers:

Vaughan Williams, Wagner, Gounod, Berlioz, Bizet

Bryan Hymel, tenor; Irene Roberts, mezzo-soprano; Krzysztof Chorzelski, viola; Julius Drake, piano. Rosenblatt Recitals at the Wigmore Hall, 25 February 2016.

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