Clap good and hard from home

Portland Opera ends livestream recital series with Isiguen and Bakari

In November 2020, Portland Opera premiered its “Live From the Hampton Opera Center,” a series of free, virtual recitals featuring artists who call the PNW home. Read the ArtsWatch review of the first two–featuring Camille Sherman and Damien Geter–right here. The recitals are archived for one month following their premieres; be sure to catch the last one before it disappears this week.

Martin Bakari wastes no time in his introductions. The moment the show is live the tenor lists the program’s composers and invites the audience to “clap good and hard from home.” Clearing his throat, he jumps into a lovely rendition of “Un’aura amorosa” from Cosí fan tutte. After a clipped piano arpeggio from Portland Opera’s chorus master and assistant conductor, Nicholas Fox, Bakari sings with Mozartian lightness. On the return to the opening phrase, the camera stays close on Bakari’s face. His eyes are closed, yet he communicates a love-sick emotion just as effectively. As the song ends, Bakari takes a deep breath in – a “breath of love” – then lets it all out. You want to sigh with him.

As befits a tenor, the primary theme in Bakari’s recital – the last installment in Portland Opera’s 2020 series – is love. More love songs follow with a selection of George Gershwin tunes. The first, “Love is Here to Stay,” is fantastic – the tenor climbs high on that final “our love is here” and nails it. Moving from Mozart to Gershwin, Bakari shows off a whole different side of his voice. There’s a looseness to his performance that’s fun to watch in “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and especially in “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess, an opera Bakari says he’s performed over a hundred times. Judging from his performance, Bakari’s estimation might be modest. In a fun twist, Fox fills in as the chorus (he also sings!) and Bakari’s movements onstage are acrobatic. You can tell the performers are having a blast. The chat feed is blowing up with celebratory emojis.

After a brief rest stage left (with no audible applause the breaks are a little awkward), Bakari returns with a set of French songs by Gabriel Fauré and Reynaldo Hahn. The subject, Bakari tells us, is “love, of course.” My favorite is Hahn’s “L’Huere exquise”–it doesn’t last the “hour” the title promises, but the song is still an exquisite couple minutes. When Bakari jumps the octave on “O bien aimée” it’s impossible not to swoon a little. Fauré’s “Adieu” is equally affecting, Bakari’s gaze serenely focused on the final farewell. We see that Bakari is not only a beautiful singer: he is also a deft actor.

Next is the Poema en forma de canciones by Spanish composer Joaquin Turina. After the cycle’s opening piano solo, Bakari returns to the stage for “Nunca olvida,” singing somberly of remembrance. Meanwhile, in the live YouTube chat one patron announces a donation made to Portland Opera “in honor of Martin”–when it comes to virtual performances it’s easier to throw money than roses. Bakari finishes the set with an energized performance of “Las locas por amor,” addressing the goddess Venus. Ever the crazed lover, he ends on a high A – arms extended, chest out, and beaming.

Bakari follows the canciones with songs from Spiritual Sketches, a set of African-American spirituals arranged by genre-hopping musician Damien Sneed. Bakari assures the audience that, although the songs are quite high – Sneed created the arrangement for the agile-voiced tenor Lawrence Brownlee – they are still quite beautiful. But such a preface is unnecessary, as Bakari navigates his higher register with ease. In “There is a Balm in Gilead,” Bakari’s blend of head and chest voice is stunning. Fox plays a lovely interlude, and like a balm Bakari joins him “to heal a sin-sick soul.” Later, during “Deep River,” Bakari shows the full might of his voice when he sings, “I want to cross over into campground, Deep River, Lord.” I agree with one viewer’s comments, who said Bakari’s voice strikes the remarkable balance of peaceful and powerful.

The last piece, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” is the kind of song that brings a congregation to its feet. He ends with a high “Every” and holds out a final “I will pray.” As Bakari bows, the microphone picks up the sound of Bakari catching his breath. Although Bakari makes the music sound easy in performance, the live stream allows us to glean his effort in the bows.

The final number is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and Bakari opts for the original lyrics, which he says are more “melancholy” than those commonly in use. Anyone who’s heard Judy Garland’s version knows to keep a box of tissues on hand (Garland initially protested the lyrics, saying they were too depressing). Bakari certainly does the song justice: the lights turn red and green, his crescendo on “somehow” brings tears, then there is the heart wrenching (and all-too-relevant) refrain:

Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow.

***

VANESSA ISIGUEN’S RECITAL – broadcast December 9th – is bookended with opera canon staples, with new delights embedded throughout. With pianist Fox, the soprano performs an eclectic offering of songs, starting with a splash singing Franz Lehar’s “Mein Lippen, sie Küssen so Heiß” from Giuditta. Isiguen’s rich soprano voice fits the song wonderfully. I especially enjoyed hearing her little slides on “lippen,” and the way she lands the high notes at the end of the song with ease and sensitivity. It’s an impressive way to kick things off.

After a sip of water, Isiguen introduces herself and Fox, then provides context for the next set. Canciones clásicas españolas by Catalan composer Fernando Obradors is a lively collection of seven twentieth-century songs set to Spanish Renaissance poems. According to Isiguen, the songs are “the epitome of the Spanish style,” citing the “percussive and dancelike” piano. As a point of connection to the cycle, Isiguen notes that her surname is also of Catalan origin.

The first song, “La mi sola, Laureola,” employs what Isiguen describes as “an old Spanish songwriting technique” in which the song’s text corresponds to solfege syllables. When Isiguen sings “La mi sola” (“mine alone”) she is also intoning the pitches of la, mi, so, and la as an ascending melody. Isiguen sings this first acapella, then the piano echoes the opening phrase as a mini-fugue in the song’s closing measures.

Altogether the seven-song cycle runs about twenty minutes. The lullaby “Con Amores, la mi madre” is a standout. A daughter sings of her mother’s love, which gives “respite from pain” so she may “fall asleep with love.” On this last line, Isiguen floats a high note as the piano falls chromatically into a resolution. “Del Cabello más sutil” follows with a series of glimmering arpeggios. Isiguen’s legato forms the bedrock and the lyrics evoke Rapunzel when she sings of making a chain from “subtle hair.” The final piece, “Chiquitita La Novia,” starts like a flamenco song, with Isiguen singing unaccompanied runs. We hear her lower registers on the “Chi” of “Chiquitita,” which she sings wonderfully and without vibrato. The cycle ends with more high notes and a lot of pounding in the piano. Isiguen raises her right hand triumphantly in the air – it’s delightful.

Jumping forward in time, Isiguen sings a beautiful rendition of “Come, My Tan-Faced Children” by contemporary composer Melissa Dunphy. The song premiered last year at Walt Whitman’s bicentennial and the lyrics come from his poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Isiguen tells us that Whitman originally wrote “Pioneers!” as a plea to white pioneers to fight in the Civil War. “Dunphy has recontexualized the piece by removing the first line ‘Pioneers! O Pioneers!’ from each stanza,” says Isiguen, “Which completely changes the meaning.” Dunphy also intends the song, a call to arms against racial injustice, to be performed by a woman of color. Whitman’s poetry is effective, allowing a range of emotions with lines like “get your weapons ready” and “I am rapt with love for all.” The closing line is stirring, as Isiguen issues a final beckon – both to the audience and the characters imagined in the poem.

Next is an intermezzo, as Fox rises from the piano and begins a mini-lecture about “Notturno” by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. Fox describes Respighi as a one-hit wonder composer – famous for his Pines of Rome tone poem – who has a varied oeuvre. The “Notturno,” one of Respighi’s Six Pieces for Piano, is a beautiful little piece and contains one refrain that is prime material for a low-fi remix.

Isiguen returns to the stage as the lights shift from blue to purple, and she pulls out all the stops for three epic Sergei Rachmaninoff songs: “How Fair the Spot,” “Dreams,” and “Spring Waters.” In the first song her delivery of “and you my dream” is a waterfall of sound. In “Dreams,” following a beautiful digression in the piano, Isiguen dreams of “two immense wings as light as the shadows of midnight.” Her voice, too, could be described as such. The last song is an apt finale, with Isiguen singing full throttle and Fox banging away at the piano. “Spring is coming, spring is coming,” she sings.The recital ends with a fun surprise when Isiguen introduces the wonderful tenor Anthony Kalil, who also happens to be her husband. They proceed to sing a warm rendition of “O soave fanciulla” from La Bohème, a festive ending to a superb recital.

Keep clapping from home with Portland Opera’s next recital series, featuring the resident artists of the 2020-21 season. The first recital—soprano Lynnesha Crump, tenor David Morgans Sanchez, pianist Joseph Williams—premieres at 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 28th. More info can be found here.

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