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Christine Brewer, the Last Rose of Summer

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Wagner, Wesendonck-Lieder / Britten, Cabaret Songs, C. Brewer, R. Vignoles (live at Wigmore Hall)
At the end of my week at Santa Fe Opera was the first of a series of song recitals, presented by the company at the Lensic Center in downtown Santa Fe. Heard on Sunday afternoon, this concert featured soprano Christine Brewer, who was marking the birth anniversaries of Richard Wagner (200) and Benjamin Britten (100). She did this with a program that was close to the first Brewer recital reviewed at Ionarts, in 2005 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. This time around, her accompanist was Joseph Illick, Artistic Director of the Santa Fe Concert Association and Music Director of Fort Worth Opera.

Representing Wagner were the Wesendonck-Lieder, inspired by and dedicated to Mathilde Wesendonck, the infatuation that put an end to Wagner's first marriage. Brewer gave the first song a luscious legato smoothness, able to open up the powerful side of her voice to fill the hall quite amply without overpowering the listener. There was at times a raspy burr at the top, minimal but there, but when the explosions of the second and fourth songs are, well, that explosive, it thrills the ear. The third song, Im Treibhaus, with its mysterious, rocking motif in the piano, was enigmatic and heated, the German diction clear and simple, as if recited poetry. Illick supported his partner ably at the piano, with transparency and solidity as needed. He rounded out the Wagner half with two of Liszt's arrangements of Wagner opera excerpts, introducing them with charming and insightful explanations. Some of the more virtuosic passages of the "Spinning Song" from The Flying Dutchman stretched Illick's technique just a bit, but the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde was sensitively rendered. As soon as he played it, however, one regretted that Brewer had not programmed the actual "Liebestod."

Other Reviews:

John Stege, Cycling the Romantics (Santa Fe Reporter, August 6)
To celebrate Britten, Brewer sang the wry, wistful Cabaret Songs, set to the compact, incisive poetry of W. H. Auden (shuffled from Britten's ordering). Brewer takes these songs with just the right mixture of fun -- what a wolf whistle in Calypso, and such great diva histrionics in the opera section of Johnny -- and seriousness, the latter especially in the tearful howl at the end of Funeral Blues. Britten's achievement in his settings of English folk songs, four of which closed this recital, was to take the elegant beauty of these tunes, some of which are better known now as sacred hymns, and set them in innovative harmonizations that do not detract from them. Brewer and Illick achieved just the right air of simplicity in this performance, with a wistful sense of these sad texts -- The Last Rose of Summer reminding me that summer is indeed almost over (sob!) -- subtly undermined with modern irony in the piano, especially in O Waly Waly. As if in answer to my prayer from the first half, the first encore was a heart-rending performance of the "Liebestod," which was followed by another Christine Brewer standard, sung by another simple Midwestern girl, "Mira" from the musical Carnival.

The 2014 season at the Santa Fe Opera will feature only one real chestnut, Carmen (title role sung by Daniela Mack in July by Ana María Martínez in August, after Anna Caterina Antonacci sadly canceled), paired with the also not uncommon Don Pasquale, by Donizetti (in a new production by the Laurent Pelly team). We most look forward to Stravinsky's Le Rossignol, which will be paired with Mozart's The Impresario; the company debut of Beethoven's Fidelio; and the chance to hear the American premiere of Huang Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. It will be the first season under the leadership of new chief conductor Harry Bicket, last reviewed at Santa Fe in Radamisto, who will (happily) be conducting the production of Fidelio.

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