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A grand, old-fashioned vocalist who revels in her art

Marilyn Horne gives few recitals in the course of a year -- and even fewer this year, at least in the US. One of those dates was here in Boston, at the Savoy Theater, now the home of Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston.

Curiously, Miss Horne did not sell out the house. Though she is one of the finest singers of the day, she does not yet command the attention of the TV and print media as do such performers as Vladimir Horowitz and Luciano Pavarotti, who sell as much for their personable interviews that reveal "lovable" habits and/or eccentricities as for their artistry. And even more ironically, Miss Horne is in exceptional vocal estate, which is not the case for Mr. Pavarotti.

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This was clear from an earlier visit this month when she sang six arias and songs with the Boston Pops under the direction of new music director John Williams. Horne's instrument has always been one of the most distinctive mezzo's around -- a burnished, slightly nasal yet full tone, from thrilling top to the incomparably rich, chesty bottom -- almost baritonal in quality. And though the very top is no longer as effortless and true as it once was, every other part of the voice remains as vivid and as altogether thrilling as ever.

Any of the arias sung at Pops made this obvious -- be it the "Habanera" from "Carmen," or the voluptuous "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix." "Una voce poco fa" was a study in colaratura authority and vivid character projection -- clearly a worldly-wise Rosina (the singer of the aria) for a big house, rather than the more standard polite (and usually boring) soubrette innocent. And to hear that even, smooth, creamy voice launch into "When You Walk Through a Storm," is a memorable moment.

Horne the recitalist is a grand, old-fashioned vocalist, revelling in the art of great singing -- mostly of operatic arias on this occasion. The recital proved one of those sit-back-and-enjoy evenings encountered all too rarely these days.

The program consisted mostly of arias and some Richard Strauss songs. From the opening, hushed, extraordinarily quiet opening lines of Purcell's "Sweeter than Roses," to the devastatingly acerbic, virtuosic 'Non, non, non, non, non, non," from Meyerbeer's "Les Hugenots," it was a feast of glorious singing, superb dramatic projection, and sensational virtuosity.

Miss Horne's ability to spin a seamless quiet or full legato line -- as in the Strauss "Befreit" -- is just one facet of her particular gifts. Another facet is her ability to sustain dramatic tension in as prolonged a scene as the large chunk from Rossini's "Tancredi," complete with a riot of bravura moments and stunning low and high notes.

The mezzo takes a fiendish coloratura valley and makes it sound as effortless as reading out loud. And she plays against expectations, particularly in the interpolation of low notes where one expects high notes. She also is true to her bel canto roots in something as volatile as "Stride la vampa" from Verdi's "Il Trovatore," which she sang with introspective eerie quietness and restraint, more subtly yet fully capturing the haunted guilt-wracked nature of the aria than the more traditional extrovert approach usually does.

She even attempted an aria usually the province of coloratura sopanos -- "Ah, non credea mirarti" from Bellini's "La sonnambula" -- invoking the historical precedence of famed mezzo Maria Malibran, who used to sing her own transcription which Miss Horne used.

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The program closed with the aforementioned "Non, non, non, non, non, non," which proved not just a dazzling display of superior singing, but of superb control of mood (acerbic, witty, insinuating) and vocal acting. Yet, after this taxing program, Miss Horne proceeded to offer three encores, including the fiendish "Iris, hence away" from Handel's "Semele," with its a shower of virtuosics, and closing the entire evening with a seamless and aching account of "I Dream of Jeannie."

It was indeed a memorable and fun evening, particularly with the remarkable Martin Katz as her accompanist. His is one of those rare types who supports his singer with an orchestral approach to the keyboard, always attentive to his artist's needs, yet never shirking his responsibilities as a partnering musician. In all, it was a quality evening, as most evenings spent with Miss Horne tend to be. (Her Pops performance will be seen on PBS's "Evening at Pops" later this summer -- a must see.)

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