Above: baritone Donnie Ray Albert
Wednesday October 19th, 2016 = The American Symphony Orchestra presenting concert settings of operas by Ernst Krenek and Richard Strauss in their season-opening program. The timely theme of dictatorships and the eternally evasive concept of peace hung in the air at Carnegie Hall, where appreciative music lovers had gathered, skipping a pointless presidential 'debate' in favor of hearing some rarely-performed works.
Ernst Krenek's Der Diktator was completed in August 1926. You can read a synopsis of the opera and find background material here, since I'm going to concentrate on the evening's presentation.
Leon Botstein and his intrepid players gave a fine rendering of the very palatable score. The performance was dominated by Donnie Ray Albert as the Dictator. A stalwart force in the realms of opera and concert since 1976, Mr. Albert is now 66 years of age, and boasts a voice that has retained its power, along with interpretive skills that are truly impressive. Whether in bold declamation or in the music's more lyrical passages, Mr. Albert gave a masterful performance. Another impressive voice was that of Karen Chia-Ling Ho as Maria: displaying a large, spinto sound and hall-filling top notes, the soprano also invested her singing with dramatic urgency. Ilana Davidson, a petite woman with a baby-dollish timbre, piped up boldly as Charlotte, and Mark Duffin was able to combine the power of a helden- and the verbal edge of a character-tenor. Portraying an officer blinded by poison gas while in the Dictator's service, Mr. Duffin wore sunglasses and managed, for all his gritty vocal power, to create a moving figure.
Richard Strauss's Friedenstag (Peace Day) was premiered at Munich in 1938, with Adolf Hitler among the audience. Set during the Thirty Years War, the story is unfolds in a city under siege; after many twists and turns of plot, the wife of the city's Commandant intercedes with the head of the besieging force and brings about a reconciliation. With music includes many reminders of DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN, FRIEDENSTAG is a good experience for an old Strauss-lover like me; however, it is somewhat weakened by an endless series of "finales", as though Strauss did not know when to stop.
Continuing his highly successful evening, Donnie Ray Albert made a grand impression as the Commandant with his generous singing and imposing stature. I had very much been anticipating hearing Tamara Wilson as Maria, the Commandant's wife, but when we arrived at Carnegie Hall, we found that she had canceled and was being replaced by Kirsten Chambers. A program-insert bio lists Ms. Chambers as the cover for both Isolde and Salome at The Met this season. Blonde, and clad in a bright red gown, the soprano unsparingly hurled herself into the demanding music of Maria, showing a voice of considerable thrust. If one top note was just shy of the mark, overall she managed well in a fiendish role, and saved the evening.
Bass Ricardo Lugo (above), as the opposing general, made a vibrant impression with his imposing voice and intrinsic sense of the drama. He was an excellent foil for Mr. Albert, and, between these two powerhouse voices, they kept our focus on the work keenly secured. Mr. Duffin, amplifying the forceful impression he had made in the Krenek, was back as the Burgomaster: one of his upper notes was sustained for an incredibly long time...I really don't know how he did it!
FRIEDENSTAG has a number of small roles in which savvy interpreters are able to make their mark. I especially liked the clear sweetness of Scott Joiner's tenor as a Piedontese soldier (he sang in Italian) and Carsten Wittmoser's sturdy vocalism as a Musketeer. Tenor Doug Jones and baritone Steven Eddy (in a dual role) seized their chances and did very well, with baritones Steven Moore, Daniel Collins, and Benjamin Cohen contributing strongly.
In small vignettes, a number of chorus members stepped forward from time to time. One of these had a special meaning for me: Rachel Rosales, as a Woman of the People, is a soprano I heard lo! these many seasons ago as an exquisite Leila in LES PECHEURS DES PERLES at New York City Opera. I have seen her name listed among choral rosters before, and was feeling nostalgic when she intoned her brief, dramatic solo, a solo which made me think of Strauss's writing for Die Amme in FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN. In the finale tonight (the final finale), Ms. Rosales and other chorus sopranos sent some high notes sailing into the hall.
The Participating Artists: