Portland Opera recital review: Love, dementia and arson

Alexander Elliott

Portland Opera Resident Artist Alexander Elliott

by KATIE TAYLOR

With the resurgence in interest in live storytelling and cabaret, art song deserves a second (or first) listen — not just from music lovers but from anybody who likes a good yarn. From the sometimes tasteless humor of Mozart (“Lick me in the ass”) to Schubert’s harrowing account of a feverish child pursued through the woods by the Erl King (the singer performs the terrified voice of the child, the reassuring voice of his clueless father and the deeply creepy voice of the pursuing monster), few art forms draw an audience through such a varied artistic landscape in such a short time.

The program Portland Opera resident artist Alexander Elliott put together for his recent, well-attended debut recital at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium, for example, ranged from dark humor to a delightfully morbid romanticism. The diverse sampler of songs by Maurice Ravel, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Stefano Donaudy, Paul Bowles, Samuel Barber and Tom Cipullo spanned the 20th century.

Elliott’s recital was the second in this year’s Resident Artist Recital Series, which gives young performers a challenging solo turn outside their mainstage responsibilities and allows the Portland Opera audience to get to know them better by giving them each a chance to fly their own colors.

The concert’s first half, all in foreign languages, proved demanding for both Elliott and his accompanist, Portland Opera Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master Nicholas Fox. The second, all in English, gave the singer more room to relax but kept the screws on the pianist.

Elliott’s warm baritone displayed a lot of resonance in the middle. He sounded like a French baritone – someone I would like to hear singing Massenet. Yet his opening French set, Maurice Ravel’s “Don Quichotte a Dulcinée,” was probably my least favorite part of the program. The set comprises three serenades by Cervantes’ elderly anti-hero to a vulgar tart he insists on addressing as if she were a saint. Though not technically demanding, they require the kind of expressive vocal subtlety it takes most singers years to learn. I’d like to hear Elliott try them again when he’s got a little more grey in his beard.

Elliott came into his own with the third song in the set, the Drinking Song, whose hotter dynamic and rollicking delivery allowed him to fully unfurl his voice — the first time we really heard it at its best.

Elliott did a nice job with music by now-forgotten early 20th century hitmaker Stefano Donaudy, letting his songs have their brash Italian head. Donaudy was popularized by Enrico Caruso, who knew what he was about — these songs, with their showy dramatic leaps and vigorous melodies sound tailor-made for a tenor, which makes them a thrilling way to hear the baritone voice, often relegated to less fiery material. Elliott’s tendency to back away from the top notes, however, sometimes kept the songs from cutting loose quite as completely as they needed to.

The Paul Bowles set (yes, that Paul Bowles, who was a rising New York composer in the 1940s before heading for North Africa and literary fame) “Blue Mountain Ballads,” featured stomping folk lyrics by Tennessee Williams and disconcertingly mismatched jazzy musical settings. The lyrics were fabulous, the jazzy settings less so. Operatic delivery of jazz or folk tunes almost always sounds stiff and labored, but Elliott relaxed a little on the last in the set, “Sugar in the Cane,” and reeled out a saucy delivery that buoyed the song along.

Fox played some difficult scores with impressive precision and brio. His star turn at the piano came in Barber’s Three Songs, Opus 10. While better known today for his unavoidable Adagio, Barber, an accomplished baritone himself, was also America’s leading art song composer. These songs are ferociously difficult for pianists to play and Fox made it sound easy. Still young, Fox is a piano veteran, having played his own compositions at the California State University-Northridge New Music Festival when he was still in high school. Fox joined Portland Opera as assistant conductor and chorus master in September after a stretch as assistant chorus master and later chorus master for New York City Opera.

I enjoyed the interplay between Fox and Elliott on Cipullo’s 2000 setting of poems by former US poet laureate Billy Collins deliciously titled “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun In the House.” Like Donaudy, the award-winning New York-based contemporary composer is actually best known for his art songs, a little reminiscent of Dadaist composer Erik Satie’s.

Elliott was extremely charming, beguiling and in his element on these. This was the only set of the evening where I heard him use a broader vocal palette, making sounds that were always well produced vocally but (as specified in the score) not always perfectly pretty. I loved it. I would have liked to hear him take equal risks with his more “serious” material.

“Flames” in particular was just about as perfect as it could be. The queasy half-sung, half-spoken description of a demented and disheveled Smokey Bear, striding purposefully into the woods with a can of gasoline, was pure delight.

Elliott really shone in the songs by Korngold, a composer most familiar for his Romantic old Hollywood film scores. In the first number, however, as in the previous sets, that glorious middle voice got cautious on the bottom and thinned out a little on top. He was almost getting us there, but not quite. Then he hit us with the second one. Whammo! There was the top, and it was stunning! The German, nice and chewy, was Elliott’s strongest language and the communication between singer and pianist also excelled here. With the exception of the Cipullo songs later in the program, Elliott also seemed more engaged emotionally, vocally and linguistically with these last two Korngold songs than with anything else on the program. His delivery was alternately powerful and meltingly gorgeous, and at the end of the last song, finally, a really exquisite, effortlessly soft high note. These songs offered an intriguing hint at what we might hear from this singer a few years down the road.

The Korngold songs in particular demonstrate the invaluable role song recitals play in artist development, providing a straightforward way to try out material that you’re not sure is a fit for you, and to discover the things that, sometimes unexpectedly, are. And for listeners, a recital fills up your cafeteria tray with things you didn’t ask for and leaves you to decide which ones you want to eat again.

Elliott made his Portland Opera debut at the Big Night Concert in September and will sing Man with a Shoe Sample Kit in “Postcard From Morocco” and Samuel in “The Pirates of Penzance” this season. He will also understudy the role of Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor.

Portland Opera Resident Artists’ recital series continues at Whitsell Auditorium on February 4 with mezzo soprano Melissa Fajardo. The concerts are free (donations welcome; visit the series web page to reserve seats) and a great introduction to an unusual and highly entertaining art form.

Katie Taylor is a Portland opera singer, director and librettist. An alumna of San Francisco Opera Center, she is the former general director for Opera Theater Oregon, where her writing and directing credits included “Baywatch/Das Rheingold,” “Out of Eden”(a mid-century melodrama based on Massenet’s “Werther”) and “Dick’s In Space.

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