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25.9.12

Nathan Gunn Celebrity Recital

An opera star recital can be a wonderful thing, which is why Plácido Domingo established the Washington National Opera's Celebrity Series. One can present a first-tier singer, whom the company could probably never engage for a full production, and it brings in revenue with a minimum expenditure. It really only works when the singer is of the caliber to drive ticket sales -- in the last two seasons, Angela Gheorghiu, Bryn Terfel, and especially Juan Diego Flórez have fit that bill -- and when the music on the program is associated with the singer's best achievements. On neither account, really, did Sunday's Celebrity Recital by baritone Nathan Gunn succeed. We did not expect it to, which is why it did not appear among either our picks for the year or for the month of September, and the sparse audience -- padded with some listeners who did not behave like opera regulars -- showed that plenty of people agreed with our assessment. Having half of the selections consist of Broadway music by Sondheim and Loewe, I note with some sense of Schadenfreude, did not bring in the huge crowds of people wanting to hear opera singers sing music theater.

Gunn has been resting on his laurels for some time: his last solo performance to reach these ears, at Shriver Hall in 2008, fell just as flat as this uneven recital did. The voice, once mellifluous, sounded faded and gritty at times, and other than in the comic pieces, which obviously engaged him much more, he sang without much charm. The operatic roles he chose to feature seemed beyond his voice: Figaro's high notes in selections from The Barber of Seville at the edge of control and strained, the French in music from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers mostly incomprehensible (his Italian was better), and the toast aria from Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet a little skittish rhythmically and not uproarious in tone. More and more, Broadway musicals are taking over Gunn's schedule, including Francesca Zambello's Camelot at Glimmerglass next summer. He would not be the first singer to make that transition -- Ezio Pinza and Todd Duncan are a couple examples -- but it makes him far less interesting a performer for my money.


Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Verve and versatility at Washington National Opera’s concert series (Washington Post, September 25)
Gunn was outshone by his recital partner, tenor William Burden, who floated above Gunn in the famous duet "Au fond du temple saint" from The Pearl Fishers and showed up his French and his emotional connection to the audience in "Ah, lève-toi, soleil" from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (the only piece to elicit much cheering from the audience up to that point). Soprano Emily Albrink, who had an admirable WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist outing as Sophie in last spring's Werther, did not sound quite as comfortable in this recital. A lack of breath support at the end of long lines dragged her intonation flat, but the top of her voice sounded just as effervescent and she was a charming Zerlina in "Là ci darem la mano" and Susanna in "Crudel, perchè fin'ora." Conductor Ted Sperling was obviously more comfortable in the music theater selections, but he kept himself largely out of the way in the overtures from Barber of Seville and Marriage of Figaro, pieces the WNO Orchestra could probably play in their sleep.

The lack of supertitles limited the audience's reactions to the funnier moments in the foreign-language pieces. It was good, however, to remember that this was how opera was before supertitles: either you understood the language or you relied on the singer's expressions and gestures to understand. This drew attention to Gunn's often emotion-less demeanor -- here there was no supertitle machine to deliver the punchline. The biggest laughs of the evening came from unplanned accidents, as when Gunn nimbly incorporated a loud audience sneeze into his performance of "Largo al factotum." The lighting system in the Kennedy Center Opera House went haywire before and during Gunn's performance of Goundod's Queen Mab aria, cycling through all of its color specials and spotlights, caused by a computer malfunction we were told by departing director of artistic operations Christina Scheppelmann (perhaps it was Queen Mab up to her usual tricks). After stopping mid-aria at the first incident, Gunn and the orchestra bravely soldiered on when it happened a second time, with some players using their mobile phones to light their standmates' music.

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