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Renée Rapier Captivates in Festival Opera’s “Nuit d’Espagne” Recital

January 14, 2020

Festival Opera

Sunday’s recital, “Nuit d’Espagne,” featuring mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier and pianist Robert Mollicone, was the first in a series of three vocal recitals sponsored by Festival Opera, held in the intimate setting of the music room at the Piedmont Center for the Arts. As the title implies, the theme was Spanish music — primarily Spanish music interpreted by composers from other nations.

In the late Romantic period, the term “Spain” in a title became something of an empty vessel (or, as literary critics call it, a “floating signifier”) to be filled with one’s own preoccupations and fantasies about serenades and seductions. The most famous example must be Carmen, with its distinctly French take on Iberian passion. So of course, the recital included Bizet’s marvelously dramatic habanera, “Lamour est un oiseau rebelle” (Love is a rebellious bird), which Rapier delivered with flair and sparkle. The whole tragic story of Carmen’s fate will lead off Festival Opera’s summer season July 10 and 12 at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center, with Rapier in the title role.

Sunday’s concerts began with a set of Spanish songs by Dmitri Shostakovich, written after hearing Spanish Civil War refugees busking on Moscow streets. The texts are in Russian and the songs have an unmistakably Russian darkness lurking behind their simple Spanish folk tunes. That inherent melancholy seemed perfectly suited to Rapier’s rich lower register; she brought out their intensity with total conviction and perfect control of the dark Russian vowels. The entire recital was sung from memory.

In the second set, songs by French composers (including the Bizet aria), Rapier showed impressive dramatic flexibility, moving from Carmen’s arch warning about love to a more conventionally “Spanish” serenade by Jules Massenet, a powerful vocalise-étude “in the form of a habenera” by Maurice Ravel, and ending with an ironic theater-piece by Albert Roussel about an annoying and clueless troubadour who clearly isn’t going to win the girl he’s singing to.

Pianist Mollicone — well known to Bay Area concert-goers and active at San Francisco Opera — collaborated with Rapier throughout the afternoon with gusto and nuance.

After an intermission (and costume change for Rapier), we heard two examples of Gioachino Rossini’s Italian take on Spain: a dramatic stand-alone bolero (“L’invito”) and Rosina’s wonderful aria, “Una voce poco fa” (A voice a little while ago) from The Barber of Seville. In the latter, Rapier nailed the rapid descending melismas, though she seemed less at ease with the delicate coloratura grace notes.

At the end of the afternoon, Rapier and Mollicone turned to actual Spanish music, Manuel de Falla’s well-known Seven Popular Spanish Songs. De Falla’s brilliant keyboard writing made a strong accompaniment to these little gems, with their swiftly varying moods. While the quieter songs — such as the plangent “Asturiana,” the sad “Jota,” and the tender lullaby, “Nana” — were a shade less intimate than they could have been, the more flamboyant outcries, especially the closing number, “Polo,” were delivered with a powerful dramatic flair. Rapier brought the recital to a haunting conclusion with her powerful renditions of the Lorca-esque tragedy implicit in this tiny song: “Ay! I keep a ... (Ay!) I keep a ... (Ay!) I keep a sorrow in my breast. Wretched be love, wretched (Ay!), and he who gave me to understand it! Ay!”

A welcome encore followed — William Bolcom’s cabaret song “Amor.” I’m not sure that a song that references butter-pecan ice cream has much to do with Spain, but that hardly seemed to matter; it felt quite as seductive and sassy as Carmen — and much less tragic at the end of a delightful Sunday afternoon. 

Nicholas Jones, Professor Emeritus at Oberlin College, is a teacher and lecturer in the Bay Area. He sings and plays recorder, violin, and viola da gamba in a number of early music groups, is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America, and serves on the board of Early Music America.