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Teddy Tahu Rhodes: Beauty Skin Deep

available at Amazon
Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Vagabond, Sharolyn Kimmorley
(2005, ABC Classics, oop)

Online score:
Beethoven, An die ferne geliebte, op. 98
To close out its 2008-09 season Vocal Arts Society presented New Zealand-born baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Tuesday night. Narrating in a charming accent, Rhodes eventually described the program as centered on the theme of travel and exploration, which was mostly true. While the theme of geographic exploration was indeed part of many of the songs included, there was little off the well-trodden path in terms of the song repertory. The program was identical to the baritone's earlier recital disc Vagabond, but with Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte substituted for a Britten set and a few other changes.

The Beethoven, a set of linked songs usually considered the first integrated song cycle, provided the only foreign language of the program. Rhodes sang in generally passable German, with a few odd vowels, especially diphthongs (which are treacherous enough in many languages to give away the non-native speaker). In recent stage appearances at the Met and Santa Fe Opera, Rhodes has sounded to my ears mostly like an instinctual singer, especially in terms of his sense of rhythm, which at times here also seemed unsure. Fortunately, he had one of the most skilled vocal accompanists in the business, Craig Rutenberg, at the piano, compensating almost imperceptibly for fluctuations or quirks of tempo. In the Beethoven and throughout the evening, Rhodes sang with a velvety tone, an instrument that is smoothly connected and equally resonant in all registers, if occasionally nasal in production.

What was lacking was much characterization, vocal or dramatic, changes in tone or presence that helped tell the story of the songs. Rhodes moves easily on the stage in operatic roles but seemed at a loss to bring songs to life without directed stage movement. It is a truth that hardly needs repeating: a gifted opera singer is not necessarily going to make a gifted song recitalist. Rhodes got by in this recital by relying on his considerable charm, winning the audience over with a wink of the eye and not much more. As the narrator of the Alois Jeitteles poems set by Beethoven puts it, in many ways Rhodes sang "from a full heart / with no display of art."

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Rough Rhodes, but Travels Are Still Beautiful (Washington Post, May 14)
While there was not much to appreciate below the surface of this performance, there was beautiful singing in many English-language songs. Rhodes took a "man's man" approach to the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson in the Ralph Vaughan Williams set Songs of Travel, opening the cycle in the persona of a sullen, angry loner. Two sets of Shakespeare songs prompted Rhodes to make an impromptu remark about the profundity of the Shakespeare sonnets, although these songs by Roger Quilter and the vastly superior Gerald Finzi are settings of the song lyrics from the plays, not of sonnets. If no one ever sang these saccharine, over-obvious Quilter songs again, that would be fine with me. Fortunately, Finzi was much more inventive in his set, Let Us Garlands Bring, seeming to use Renaissance lute songs and other historical music as a model for its thoroughly modern, melismatic, sometimes multi-metric style. All vocal accompanists, including myself, have had to play the Vaughan Williams and Quilter songs far too often, for countless undergraduate performances -- the challenging and interesting piano parts of the Finzi set are much more rewarding to play, and Rutenberg stole the show with them in the second half of the program.

In Santa Fe Rhodes was so believable as Billy Budd, Britten's naive and honest-simple sailor, and here he was most successful in simple songs one could imagine Billy singing, like the chantey Sea Fever, set by John Ireland to the poetry of John Masefield. The same was true of Sean O'Boyle's medley of Australian folk songs, which concluded with a sly, jazzed-up arrangement of Waltzing Matilda. As a nod to his recent move to New York -- where he now resides with his American wife, the mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard -- Rhodes chose as an encore an embarrassingly schmaltzy performance of Gene Scheer’s American Anthem ("America, I gave my best to you").

The Vocal Arts Society's 2009-10 season will feature several recitals not to be missed, including Anne Schwanewilms (January 30), Gerald Finley (March 17), Patricia Racette (April 9), and Anthony Dean Griffey (May 5).

1 comment:

Greg Capaldini said...

I take it he kept his shirt on for this program. : )