Vivica Genaux and Craig Rutenberg at Tannery Pond

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Vivica Genaux. Photo Christian Steiner.
Vivica Genaux. Photo Christian Steiner.

Vivica Genaux and Craig Rutenberg at Tannery Pond
Saturday, August 30, 2008, 8 pm

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Cantata: Arianna a Naxos, Hob. XXVIb:2

Carl Loewe (1796-1869)
Frauenliebe, Eine Liederkranz, Opus 60
1  Seit ich ihn gesehen
2  Er, der Herrlichste von allen
3  Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben
4  Du Ring an meinem Finger
5  Helft mir, ihr Schwestern!
6  Süsser Freund, du blickest mich verwundert an
7  An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust
8  Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz gethan
9  Traum der eig’nen Tage

Manuel García (1775-1832)
La Barque de l’amour

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)
À Granada                                        
La Veuve Andalouse
Canzonetta Spagnuola

José Serrano (1873-1941)
Cancíon de la gitana from La alegría del batallón      

Frederico Chueca (1846-1910) and and Joaquín Valverde-Durán (1846-1910)
Tango de la menegilda from La gran via

Gerónimo Giménez (!854-1923)
Zapateado from La Tempranica

Outstanding vocal performances, many of them by mezzo-sopranos, have been among the defining features of this summer’s musical life. Anne Sofie von Otter finally reached her true potential as Dido in Berlioz’ Les Troyens. The great Anna Caterina Antonacci thrilled us as Cassandra in the same opera, and a newcomer, Kate Lindsey, excelled in the small part of Ascane, going on to greater things (with the splendid baritione, Thomas Meglioranza) in John Harbison’s Symphony No. 5 and, magnificently, in Elliott Carter’s In the Distances of Sleep. Sopranos Lucy Shelton, Iwona Hossa, and, of course, Renée Fleming were equally unforgettable. But one of the most remarkable and fascinating of these took place last Saturday evening at Tannery Pond, when Vivica Genaux, accompanied by Craig Rutenberg, performed an unusual program of works little-known in the classical mainstream.

Genaux’s program was full of revelations. The best known work was an important late cantata by Haydn, which has occasionally been performed by singers of the first rank, like Dame Janet Baker, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Cecilia Bartoli. Carl Loewe’s version of the Chamisso poems set more famously by Robert Schumann as the Frauenliebe und Leben was extremely beautiful and  psychologically acute—most surely worthy of a more prominent place in the repertoire. The second half of the recital consisted of a sequence of Spanish songs, beginning with three by Manuel García, who sang the first Almaviva in The Barber of Seville, and three by Rossini himself, a speciality of Ms. Genaux, and continuing with a delightful group of zarzuela songs. While some of these are standards in Spanish zarzuela theaters, they will be unfamiliar to the profane. But you’ll not find a more compelling introduction to this repertoire, or any of the other works on the program than Ms. Genaux’s, whose artistry brings us back to the grand old times, when singers gave free rein to expression and emotion.

For Vivica Genaux, producing the melodic line, technique, phrasing, interpreting the text, and acting are all one. It seems only natural for her to address them as a unity—and all to the utmost. As with certain great singers of the past, she sings each note and each phrase with full comprehension and expression. Add to that her splendid mezzo voice with its amazing variety of color and nuance, and you are in for something quite unique.

Since her debut in 1994 as Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri, Vivica Genaux has made a speciality of Rossini and Handel and their contemporaries, including Domenico Scarlatti and Vivaldi, whose operatic works have been avidly explored in recent years, mostly in Europe. Her most sung role is Rosina in The Barber of Seville, which she has performed numerous times at the Metropolitan Opera. She has often performed with the most distinguished European Baroque groups, like Attilio Cremonese’s La Cetra, Bernard Labadie’s Les Violons du Roy, Concerto Köln, and the amazing Fabio Biondi and his Europa Galante. She made her debut at the New York City Opera last season singing dual roles, Juno and Ino, in Handel’s Semele and has frequently sung at Caramoor. Craig Rutenberg, Director of Music Administration at the Metropolitan Opera is one of the most admired accompanists  of the present day. He has worked at San Francisco, Houston, Glyndebourne, Paris and Aix-en-Provence and has collaborated with Frederica von Stade, Roberta Peters, Régine Crespin, Ben Heppner, and Christine Brewer in addition to Ms. Genaux.

Joseph Haydn composed Arianna a Naxos, an elaborate dramatic cantata in 1789-90. Salomon, when he brought the composer to London in 1791, arranged for it to be performed at a ladies’ club by a tenor, the renowned Gasparo Pacchierotti, although Haydn had orginally written it for a female voice, for obvious reasons. Daring harmonic modulations follow Ariadne’s intense shifting moods. In the keyboard accompaniment Haydn’s characteristic expressive, terse figures alternately support or echo the expressive phrases of the singer. This was a powerful introduction to Ms. Genaux’s vivid dramatic imagination and her ability to immerse herself in the emotions of her characters: operatic to the core, she created a character with each work she sang. This is a good place to characterize Mr. Rutenberg’s outstanding musicianship. His command of dynamics and expression in Haydn’s interjections enabled him to cleave to his singer’s every nuance and expressive shift without breaking up the longer line of the music and its flow. With the piano lid at its lowest setting, he kept his tone to a discreet level, but he is by no means a recessive musician. His playing was almost as vivid and expressive as his singer’s, but it never got in her way. Ms. Genaux focused her large, operatic voice on each phrase and melody, which constantly demanded hairpin turns of shading and color. Haydn’s classical, but intensely emotional treatment of a classical subject, made Genaux’s grounding in the eighteenth century absolutely clear.

From there she proceeded to Loewe’s classicizing setting of romantic poems better known in Schumann’s arch-romantic version. While Schumann burrowed into his young woman’s heart, immersing himself in her adoring emotions as if he were returning to the womb, Loewe presented a series of clearly delineated, contrasting states of mind which present a dramatic narrative. Ms. Genaux entered into each song as if it were a small, intimate scene on the stage. After each one, she extracted herself and adjusted her state of mind for the next, approaching each song afresh, and committing herself with all her heart and soul. Loewe’s keen psychological perception and her intelligent and intuitive response made a compelling case for this superb work. Loewe’s treatment is more varied and pictorial than Schumann’s. Among his nine songs (compared with Schumann’s eight), he presents a scene of the young woman preparing for her wedding with the help of her sisters. The cycle concludes many years later, with the woman’s address to her daughter, reflecting on her deep emotion in youth and the pain it caused, advising her daughter to accept it as she did, without hesitation or regret. Loewe’s approach was more conventional that Schumann’s, but it was a valid one, and his setting is robust and deeply moving, especially in Ms. Genaux’s penetrating and passionate interpretation. (Some purists may object, saying that the Lied belongs to the drawing room and that dramatic gestures should not exceed poetic declamation, but that is nonsense.) Her German was almost perfect, except perhaps for some French or Latin intonations here and there.

After the break, the fun started. Vivica Genaux turned from the Germanic world to Spain—an milieu especially close to her through her Mexican mother. She began with Floris, Silence!, and La Barque de l’amour by Manuel García, which she chose to sing in their French versions, arranged by his daughter, Pauline García-Viardot, rather than in Spanish, partly for variety, as she explained, and partly because the texts and their spirit are slightly different. García led a colorful life as a much-admired tenor, voice teacher, composer, and impresario. Both his daughters, Maria, known as La Malibran, and Pauline García-Viardot were even more famous and colorful characters. (This inspired Tannery Pond’s excellent and pleasantly eccentric program annotator, Clair W. van Ausdall, to even more than his usual eloquence.) These moody, sexy chansons were imbued with the intense Spanish character of a native composer, mediated through French for Parisian audiences. Again, Genaux created not only a unique mood for each song, but a character and a setting, which she acted out through expressive gestures, and this she continued to do throughout the rest of the evening.

Rossini’s three Spanish songs, A Granada, La Veuve Andalouse, and Canzonetta Spagnuola date from 1815 to 1823, when he functioned both as house composer and artistic director of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. Even for Rossini, the verve and spirit of these imitations of the Spanish style is astonishing, as were Genaux’s performances. Her articulation of bel canto ornamentation was sharply etched and brilliant.

From there she launched into a group of songs from Spanish zarzuela. Serrano’s Cancíon de la gitana is a vivid gypsy song, while Chueca’s and Valverde-Durán’s Tango de la menegilda is a first-person character piece about a sluttish house-maid, which Genaux brought off with terrific comic flair. In Giménez’ Zapateado from La Tempranica she brought down the curtain with an intensely rhythmic, lightning fast song about a girl who is stung by a tarantula and the effect it has on her. Ms. Genaux had all the energy, imagination, and charisma to span the full range of intense moods and colorful scene-setting these treasures demand. And yes, she has converted me. I can easily see myself seeking out these fashionable entertainments around New York City and wherever else they are performed.

Genaux, inundated with applause, gave two encores, splendid, full-blooded, and warmly felt renditions of Neapolitan songs. Her spirit in these was not too much different from her Spanish repertory, but Naples would not be Naples without its Spanish heritage.

The program and the performance were matchless in themselves, but the mere opportunity to hear one of the great operatic voices in such intimate surroundings as the Tannery, which seats only 290 people, was extraordinary. One could savor Vivica Genaux’s every nuance and gesture, not to mention the effect on her performance of this close contact with her audience.

I should perhaps also mention that Ms. Genaux is a native of Alaska, and justly proud of it. A documentary has been made about her called A Voice Out of the Cold. Over the next few months we shall be hearing other voices out of the cold—voices with chilling messages. While we ponder Alaska as the home of fundamentalists, creationists, and their like, who care less about their magnificent physical environment than the Garden of Eden and Armageddon, we can warm our hearts over Vivica Genaux’s marvellous singing.

There are other interesting things about Alaska. One website linked to the “fun” page on Vivica Genaux’s site informed me that Alaskans are the second largest per capita consumers of Spam®[*], and that at the establishment advertised on it, touting itself as the “sleaziest bar in Spenard, Alaska,” one can “order some of the world’s finest champagnes and a fine plate of Spam®.” Sadly, it appears that Mr. Whitekeys’ Fly by Night Club is closing its doors: no more spamadillas or coconut Spam®, but one can still enjoy the sound of Mr. Whitekeys and The Spamtones, as here, in “(On the cover of) Alaska Man.”[**]

[*] The aphrodisiac properties of Spam® are notorious, and it is a wonder that Alaskans can lead moral, Christian lives at all. Hawaii ranks first in Spam® consumption, hence the renowned dish Spam® à la Hawaiïenne, in which thick slices of meat are baked with Dole Pineapple Slices and the heavy syrup from the can.

[**] Click here to read note, a separate article.

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