Seraphic Fire’s program on Friday night proved a feast for vocal aficionados. One of the most heralded young tenors on the current operatic scene, a veteran mezzo-soprano and a gifted bass-baritone graced the sanctuary of All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale for performances of two deeply moving scores from the Baroque era and early 20th century.
Dashon Burton’s deep, voluminous bass was both commanding and subtle in Bach’s solo cantata, Ich habe genug (I Have Enough), a devout man’s prayer for death. Bringing compelling drama to the recitatives, Burton could also assay the nimble coloratura, his trills executed with accuracy. For all the power of his instrument, Burton displayed great sensitivity and control. In the aria Schlummert ein, he shaped the noble melodic line with sensitivity, delivered with fierce dramatic declamation in the central section and sang the final reprise in a soft, gentle manner. Burton’s varied dynamics, shading and ease of vocal production brought great poignancy to Bach’s plea for solace.
Patrick Quigley’s fluid conducting traversed the score’s shifting moods from somber darkness to the lively conclusion. The pure tone of Rick Basehore’s oboe solos stood out among fine playing by members of the Firebird Chamber Orchestra. Justin Blackwell at the organ provided strong underpinning in the recitatives.
Based on German translations of Chinese poetry, Gustav Mahler considered Das lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) to be a symphony for voices and orchestra, one originally scored for a large ensemble. Arnold Schoenberg began work on a reduced chamber version which he never finished. German composer-conductor Rainer Riehn completed the arrangement in 1980.
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All credit to Quigley for presenting this superb transformation of Mahler’s masterpiece. The spare instrumental textures allow the tenor and mezzo-soprano soloists to project clearly without competing against a large ensemble, yet Mahler’s harmonies and rhythmic patterns remain intact. The ear-catching harmonium blends wonderfully with piquant winds, and the big orchestral interlude in the mezzo’s Von der Schönbeit really brings a jolt with piercing flute and percussion lines.
Das lied requires two exceptional singers, and Quigley’s soloists were outstanding. Bryan Hymel has garnered great acclaim in recent seasons, performing in Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens at both the Met and Covent Garden. His large instrument suggests heldentenor proportions. The high vocal line of the opening song (in which more than a few tenors have come to grief) was sung fearlessly, the notes cleanly articulated. In the intimate church, Hymel’s beautiful timbre really glowed. His drinking song was ringing, the contrasting episode an outpouring of rapturous lyricism. This was world-class singing at its finest.
In a lengthy career, Susanne Mentzer has specialized in the trouser roles of Mozart and Strauss as well as forays into the bel canto of Bellini and Rossini. More recently she has sung character roles.
Mentzer’s mezzo-soprano has grown darker but it is still impressive. Her evocation of heartbreak in autumn was spun with warmth and fervor and she captured the joy and darker subtext of the song about maidens picking flowers. In the final setting’s farewell to life, Der Abschied, her voiced soared as she conveyed in supple, radiant tones the anguish and loneliness of the protagonist. Deeply emotional and expressive, Mentzer uttered the final lines almost in a whisper over the tinkling celesta.
Rising to the occasion, Quigley offered perhaps his finest orchestral conducting to date in South Florida. He managed Mahler’s rhythmic shifts adroitly and highlighted instrumental felicities while supporting his singers. Both the astringency and eloquence of Mahler’s score were well served.
Flutist Andrew Rehrig, concertmaster Tarn Travers, violist Jessica Meyer, hornist David Byrd-Marrow and Ciro Fodere at the harmonium and celesta were outstanding in extended solo passages.