The programme for a recital can be rather like a box of chocolates. Is one going to be presented with the familiar tub of Celebrations, where one knows exactly what one will be getting - the tried and tested flavours? Or will it be something a little unusual – chilli flavours and wacky spices? In the case of this evening's recital with the tenor Bryan Hymel and the mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts, it was the latter (the odd juxtaposition here being Vaughan Williams and Wagner). Both are to be commended for the construction of an original and thought-provoking programme that spanned the forms of human love from religious to filial and culminating in the obsessive.
Hymel has now achieved global recognition and his voice is indisputably in its prime. Its key signature, generally on display throughout the concert, is a weightiness in the higher register. Many tenors ‘ping’, but with Hymel, there was a clear heft behind his high notes that made them thrillingly rich. These were at their best in Mascagni's aria "Mamma, quel vino è generoso", the only Italian piece in the programme. A tendency towards an Italianate sob (reminiscent of José Carreras at his best) lent his voice an appropriate level of pathos that elevated his singing to a higher level. I was left a little underwhelmed by Hymel's account of Vaughan William's Four Hymns for Tenor. These hymns, drawn from four 17th-century poems and accompanied by piano and viola were first performed in 1920 and are full of Christian and spiritual mystery. Hymel is known for his work in French grand opera and I am not sure that he is suited to the style of these little English gems. He too seemed uncertain; this was the only point in the proceedings where he used sheet music and he was far too reliant on it to give his best. Even with it, there were still mistakes with the text ('thy' for 'that') which showed his unfamiliarity with the works. In his French opera selection from Berlioz and Bizet, we returned to safer territory and he relaxed, displaying a vibrato that was sensitive to the libretto and a natural drama.
I was very impressed with Irene Roberts' singing. Beginning with four of the Wesendonck Lieder, Roberts delivered a sensational performance, displaying an easy high register and an ease and familiarity with the poems that translated into a nuanced and pathos-laden account. To bring a significance to every word is easier said than sung. There is a curious quality about her voice that creates a deep intimacy between performer and audience; one is removed from the concert hall and into quasi-Isolde's bedroom, or Juliet’s chamber, becoming a fly on the wall in Roberts' joy or torment. It was quite sensational. Roberts moved from the dramatic high romance of Wagner to the simple virginal love of Juliet and her stage presence was very similar – heartfelt. The transformation from this into Carmen in the finale of Bizet's masterpiece was quite a feat, transforming Roberts into a beast that roamed across the platform and tossing high notes off effortlessly, completely inhabiting the role. Again, attention to the text was a key part of her performance, allowing her to offer us a palette of vocal colour.
Julius Drake was a sensitive accompanist, completely aware of the needs of the singer, but almost virtuosic in his own right. One never mourned the absence of a full orchestra at any point in the programme. Krzysztof Chorzelski, playing viola in the Vaughan Williams, showed fine control and a fulsome richness.
Two obvious pieces were given in encore, “Im Treibhaus”, the fifth of the Wesendonck Lieder, which re-emphasised Roberts’ potential as a future Isolde, and that every-popular aria “Nessun Dorma”, which Hymel delivered at full throttle with a superbly controlled climax. A predictable, but fine way to conclude another fine recital in the ever-thrilling Rosenblatt recital.
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