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Schwabacher Soloists Are Ready for Prime Time

April 9, 2018

Schwabacher Debut Recital Series

It was an almost all-American night April 4 at the Taube Atrium Theatre, when the San

Francisco Opera Center rang down the 2018 Schwabacher Recital Series with the final program of the season. With the exception of a Mahler interlude, the four singers on the bill devoted themselves to a main course of Leonard Bernstein in his centennial year, with side dishes of Aaron Copland and Charles Ives.

What often comes across most strongly in these recitals by the company’s Adler Fellows is the sense of professionalism and poise by young artists about to take the next big steps in their careers. And so it was on this Wednesday night, with soprano Natalie Image, mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, tenor Amitai Pati, and bass-baritone Christian Pursell registering distinct and engaging musical personalities. They did it in a crisp 80 minutes.

Some of the selections worked better than others at showcasing the singers’ gifts. Image, for example, seemed stiff and her voice sounded a little stretched and grainy in the evening-opener of Bernstein’s dauntingly pompous Psalm 148. Soon enough, in a Spanish-language number from that composer’s Songfest, the soprano unleashed a brightly ringing tone, impudent flash, and a beguiling Latin-inflected sway in “A Julia de Burgos.”

Dixon’s lower range was tested in two Bernstein settings of Rilke love songs, while her sultry command of the upper reaches gave “When my soul touches yours ... ” an intimate amorous charge. Later on, her attentive and focused reading of Copland’s “I’ve heard an organ talk sometimes” winnowed out every implication in the song’s eight Emily Dickinson lines. Dixon made the most of the swerving comic narrative that Dinah, the unhappy wife sings in Trouble in Tahiti’s “What a Movie!” It made one of the big sustained splashes of the night, as Dixon surfed a musical tide from modal scales to a rhumba, a military march, and a tango.

Pati’s silky tenor floated through the ardent repetitions of the beloved’s name in “Maria,” from West Side Story, without seeming fully engaged in the matter. He gave “I Go On,” from Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz’s MASS, a touching reverence, his crystalline diction fading away to pianissimo praises at the end.

Pursell had his lyrics cued up on an iPad for much of the night, a distracting if understandable crutch when it came to Vachel Lindsay’s long-lined poem “General Booth Enters Into Heaven,” in a dramatic Ives setting. Against the dissonant thunder of the opening piano chords, sounded with stormy authority by the evening’s excellent accompanist, Kevin Murphy, the bass-baritone gave the hymn tune (“Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?”) a lyrical fervor. The brawny-voiced Pursell even poked a little fun at his iPad, wielding it like a selfie mirror in Tahiti’s “There’s a Law.”

With the exception of Dixon’s shapely account of “Rhine Legend,” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the Mahler selections were interpretively undercooked. German somehow seemed beside the point among all the American song lyrics.

Addition became multiplication when Image and Dixon teamed up on “We Are Women,” from Bernstein’s masterly Candide. Lofting high notes and tossing off coloratura chuckles, they turned this sexy soufflé into a substantial comic meal. Their come-hither moves and goggle-eyed takes added the perfect measure of ham to the dish. Four text-heavy trifles from Bernstein’s La Bonne Cuisine proved to be less satisfying fare.

In the end, all four Adlers were onstage together for the quietly ravishing “Make Our Garden Grow,” the sanctifying assertion of real life that brings the picaresque whirl of Candide down to solid, nourishing ground. It was a fitting close to the Schwabacher season — a moving reminder that opera, for all its solo pyrotechnics, is always a productive joining of musical and theatrical forces.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.