When a singer stands alone on stage . . .
What makes a voice recital good? And what makes a good recitalist?
I gave this some thought after Elly Ameling presented another of her predictably enchanting programs last Sunday afternoon here. Oddly enough, it was her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Undoubtedly for that reason it was her most relaxing program to date - a list of 17 composers, with one to three well-known songs from each, constituting a minisurvey of the finest song composers' finest efforts. There were no novelties, no ''surprises,'' as she noted in her charming printed introduction to the concert.
The afternoon, subtitled ''A Festive Program,'' included songs by Mozart, John Weldon, Schubert, Wolf, Brahms, Schumann, Strauss, Faure, Debussy, Poulenc, Chausson, Duparc, Rodrigo, Carlos Guasavino, Satie, Hahn, Schonberg. In this day of novelty-above-all, a program of familiar things was daring. It was also great fun.
The cliche has it that variety is the spice of life. True, it can be the secret ingredient that keeps an audience awake during a recital. It has often been the crucial lure to ensure a full house if the artist's name is not sufficiently known. Nonetheless, variety has been a soporific as well. I remember a program by Dame Janet Baker a few years back that was varied, full of the unusual and utterly unfamiliar, and yet a dry and, sad to say, dull evening. But that was a rare exception for Miss Baker.
What then does make for a good recital program? It obviously has to have some balance, and within groups, proportion (unless, of course, the singer is doing a major song cycle composed to be sung consecutively). Generally, single songs should fit together in some sort of perceptible sequence. A group needs to contemplate a mood, and either sustain it or offset it with various contrasts. Then the singer must find the right sequence for the selections chosen.
Even in something as wide-ranging as Miss Ameling's program, the progression and balance within sections was logical and served to offset the particular strengths of the individual song.
A more traditional program was presented by Dame Janet Baker in Carnegie about five weeks ago. Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Gounod were the composers in question, with a superior mix of the familiar (Schubert's ''An Sylvia'' sung in the English words Shakespeare penned for ''Two Gentlemen of Verona'') to the four seldom-heard Gounod selections.
Elisabeth Soderstrom went the other direction entirely when she offered the first in the ''Great Performers at Lincoln Center'' series entitled ''The Art of Song Series.'' Sibelius, Grieg, Benedict, Thrane, Tchaikovsky, Grechaninoff, and Rachmaninoff were the composers, and she found songs rarely, if ever, heard on these shores. But again, she knows the repertoire. She knows the audience (sophisticated, musically aware) and could easily prove that remarkable songs exist in other than the German-French tradition.
On the other hand, Katia Ricciarelli made no pretenses in her recital. She let it be known that as an Italian opera singer, she should not be expected to delve into the hidden meanings of songs in languages she does not know very well. So we got Vivaldi, Bononcini, Rossini, Donizetti, Faure, Liszt, and Rodrigo songs and arias.
This raises, at least tangentially, the issue of how many good-to-great recitalists we have today. With records, there seems to be less of a hunger to hear great singers in non-opera performances--witness the pitifully small house that was on hand for Teresa Berganza's memorable Carnegie Hall recital earlier this season. More and more singers sing in opera around the country, around the world. Lieder as an art form has lost considerable ground, unless it be in the ''hands'' of a Fischer-Dieskau, a Janet Baker, an Elly Ameling.
Miss Soderstrom filled Tully Hall, and Miss Ameling did the same to Carnegie. Janet Baker always sells out Carnegie. All three women are mistresses of the interior mood. Miss Ameling's is the prettiest voice of the three. Miss Baker's timbre is unique, beguiling, and she is not afraid of letting it go white, hooty , and ugly for effect. Miss Soderstrom, too, has a distinctive timbre that she uses to splendid effect, though she tires a bit these days. All three can traverse the moods from dread and gloom to carefree comedy with ease. Miss Ameling and Miss Soderstrom talk to their audiences. All three radiate a joy at being able to share their unique gifts.
Miss Ricciarelli is reticent on stage, almost apologetic. Her singing lacked the sort of finesse and control one expects from a singer of her credentials. Her program had little imagination and was strikingly short on content musical. Her fans, gathered in the not-very-full expanses of Carnegie, tried now and then to muster up enthusiasm. But for the standard opera singer to do a nonstandard but not particularly imaginative program, and not ''sell'' it the way, say, Luciano Pavarotti does, seems to serve no purpose at all.
If this be the future of the song recital - and there appears to be far too few young singers really interested in keeping the art form alive--there is little hope at all for the future of lieder in America.
Lucine Amara's high standards
Lucine Amara was in the news several years back for her unprecedented suit against the Metropolitan Opera for discrimination on the basis of age. She won, and the Met has had to give her at least one performance a year for three years. She returned after the litigation last season, as Amelia in ''Un Ballo in Maschera.'' This year, she sang Leonora in ''Il Trovatore.''
Miss Amara was a fixture at the Met until her troubles began both as a scheduled performer and as a so-called cover artist. She never let them down, rather they let her down. And since all these problems began, the standards at that house have slipped while Miss Amara's have not. The voice has gained in solidity and power, and her lower, or chest voice, has taken on a luster and potency one only suspected were there.
This past Saturday Miss Amara set higher standards in this role than any of her recent predecessors. She was thrown into a cast that one used to call provincial.
The Manrico, Carlo Bini, offered wildly emotive acting and his singular, erratic vocal delivery. Viorica Cortez brought a certain misplaced visual glamour to the witchlike Azucena, but also breathy tones and uninvolved acting rounding out her performance. Richard J. Clark revealed a badly handled voice and a highly faulty memory as di Luna.