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Monochrome Cleopatra, Lone Trio

July 24, 2007

I don't know how many Danielle de Nieses there are, but I have already heard two of them. The first was a terrific Cleopatra in a remarkable presentation of excerpts from Handel's Giulio Cesare in Calistoga's Castello di Amorosa on July 14. The second appeared a week later in an hour-long song recital, in the Napa Valley Opera House, accompanied by Royal Opera House Music Director Antonio Pappano. As the French say, Quel difference! But there was no Vive for this performance.
In the opera, Baroque as it is, de Niese was "big" — vivacious, judiciously appealing, with a large, dramatic voice, and memorable phrasing, for which she was well-praised in last week's review here. In her song recital, everything was appropriately scaled down, except for the relentlessly charming persona. Unlike the shaded and changing persona as Handel's queen, de Niese as a recitalist appeared monotonously "cute."

Danielle de Niese and Antonio Pappano

Photo by J. Henry Fair

Even with impeccable accompaniment from Pappano, a once-and-future concert pianist besides being an outstanding conductor, the programming and de Niese's unvaried delivery combined to disappoint those of us who, after the concert in the castle, had become the soprano's fans.

Fauré's Mandoline, Claire de lune, Après un reve went by in a flash, de Niese producing excellent legato, fair diction, and fine "quiet singing" to fit the small hall and Pappano's supportive accompaniment. But Verlaine's wistful, subtle poetry, with its strange, unexpected turns, received no equal measure of interpretation. Lines and phrases merged into one another. (It didn't help that in this set, and throughout the concert, applause followed each song, breaking continuity. And while texts and translations were carefully provided, the houselights were carelessly turned down, making it impossible to follow along.)

Three songs from Sir William Walton's clever Façade, to Edith Sitwell's texts, should have provided a strong contrast with the Fauré songs and the Poulenc lieder that followed. And yet, "Daphne," "Through Gilded Trellises," and the "Old Sir Faulk" fox trot sounded bizarrely French, while de Niese's mannerisms remained the same throughout the concert.

Barber's Solitary Hotel finally seemed to pull the singer out of the trap of sameness, but undistinguished diction bogged down the performance. Sleep Now and, especially, Nuvoletta seemed well beyond the soprano’s continued soubrette manners. James Joyce's text is not served by the picture and the sound of a carefully maintained smile.

After two "uneventful" songs by Bizet, the last program item, Tarantelle, showed off the beauty and range of de Niese's voice, qualities she had inexplicably held back otherwise.
A Trio Apart Playing as Three
The second half of the concert consisted of a single work, and here again bliss eluded the listener. Three outstanding musicians — violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky, cellist Nina Kotova, and pianist Orion Weiss — played up a storm in Mendelssohn's Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 49, performing well and together, yet providing three voices rather than one. Instead of driving the music forward, the three voices mostly stayed in place.

Rarely have I heard such competent playing without development, without the artists pulling the listener ahead, pointing to something — anything — on the horizon. It was music well-played, but in a static manner that didn't seem to have a goal and didn’t move the listener’s emotions. The only exception came at the end of the bravura final movement, Allegro appassionata, which jelled the way the rest of the performance didn't.

Sitkovetsky led with a strong, straightforward performance; Kotova played in a kind of synchronicity, and the 25-year-old brilliant wunderkind Weiss thundered away on the piano — each in his or her own world, playing the notes together but apparently not listening to each other, not singing in three-part harmony, not making the music all of one piece. I would dearly love to hear each of these artists separately ... wait! I already have.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].