In performance: Christine Brewer
Brewer sings brilliantly on Fortas Chamber program
by Tom Huizenga
Few singers today can match the muscle and magnificence of soprano Christine Brewer's voice, let alone the intelligence with which she used it in recital Friday night with the pianist Craig Rutenberg at the Kennedy Center.
It took a few minutes to adjust to the scale of the voice. When Brewer let loose the feisty opening phrases of Gluck's aria "Divinités du Styx," the 500-seat Terrace Theater never seemed so tiny. With those first high, loud notes, one entertained fantasies that they could be heard clear across the Potomac.
But Brewer would be only half the singer she is if she didn't possess -- along with her lustrous, full-throated glory -- the ability to sing soft, fully supported notes with complete control.
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Occasionally, those two opposites struggled for just the right balance in the program's first half, which featured songs by Richard Strauss and Joseph Marx.
Marx's songs remain inexplicably absent from the recital stage despite their tendency to run lush and sweet - a perfect fit for Brewer's gleaming instrument and Rutenberg's transparent accompaniment. In "Serenade" she displayed a terrific vocal technique called messa di voce, in which the sound blooms massively, then fades away on a single pitch. And in "Der Bescheidene Schäfer," Brewer eagerly awaited a bashful beau with a pouty, girlish tone.
Strauss's "Befreit," on another level altogether, is a deeply moving portrait of love and letting go. It begins, "You will not weep," but by the end, that's about all one could do after Brewer expressed pain and release, ending on a long phrase colored with conflicting emotions.
The weight of the voice shifted lighter for the second half of the program, when Brewer sang a variety of little-known American songs, including attractive examples from Richard Hundley. But the highlight was Alan Louis Smith's 2002 song cycle "Vignettes: Letters From George to Evelyn," using actual letters from a World War II serviceman to his bride.
In one striking section, Brewer sang an entire telegram -- numerals, punctuation and all -- in a zombielike monotone. As she got to the sentence revealing George's death, her voice exploded on three separate words, pinched off like rounds from a rifle -- so loud the piano strings shook with reverberation.
Paul Sargent's pensive "Hickory Hill," with its pianistic impressionism, was the most memorable from a set devoted to encores sung by famous sopranos of the 1950s.
Finally, Brewer's own encores included "Review," Celius Dougherty's hilarious sendup of the kind of text you're reading now, and a breathtaking rendition of "City Called Heaven."
-- Tom Huizenga
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