Sumptuous Singing from Ruth Ann Swenson

United StatesUnited States Composers from Bellini to Lehár: Ruth Ann Swenson (soprano), Warren Jones (piano), Weill Hall, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, Calif. 29.9.2013 (HS)

Bellini: “Il fervido desiderio,” “Almen se non poss’io”
Verdi: “È la vita,” “La seduzione,” “Stornello”
Mozart: “Quanti mi siete intorno…Padre, germani, addio” from Idomeneo
Brahms: Three Pieces from Op. 118: Intermezzo (Allegro appassionato, ma non tanto), Intermezzo (Andante sostenuto), Ballade (Allegro energico)
Händel: “O sleep, why dost thou leave me?” and “Myself I shall adore” from Semele
Hahn: L’heure exquise
Thomas: Le Soir
Bizet: Ouvre ton coeur
Chopin: Four Mazurkas, Op. 67 (posthumous)
R. Strauss: “Allerseelen,” “Breit über mein Haupt,” “Zueignung”
Barer (arr. Richard Riccardi): “On Such a Night as This”
Berlin (arr. Richard Riccardi): “They Say It’s Wonderful”
Rodgers (arr. Richard Riccardi): “My Romance”
Gershwin (arr. Richard Riccardi): “Embraceable You”
Lehár: “Love, Live Forever”

It’s been more than five years since San Francisco Bay Area audiences have heard Ruth Ann Swenson on the opera stage, and that’s a pity. Few sopranos today have such a gorgeous mid-range, seamless legato and flawless coloratura, as she demonstrated Sunday in recital with pianist Warren Jones. A regular collaborator (and also with a long list of top-tier soloists), Jones made several recordings and played numerous recitals with her at Weill Hall. The beautiful new concert venue is in Sonoma County, California, just a few miles from Swenson’s home in Napa.)

Jones’ supportive work framed a voice with plenty of gleam and no discernible slackening of technique. He also contributed two instrumental interludes, most notably a series of increasingly delicate Chopin mazurkas, Op. 67 (posthumous).

Swenson, now 54, has been largely absent from big opera houses and major concert halls since a bout with breast cancer in 2006 and a much-publicized dust-up with the Metropolitan Opera in 2007. She had sung nearly every season at San Francisco Opera since she was an Adler Fellow in the 1980s; her last appearance there was in a 2008 Ariodante with Susan Graham in the title role. The Met, where she had counted more than 200 appearances, finally cast her as Musetta in several performances of a 2010 La Bohème. She starred often at Covent Garden, Salzburg, Geneva and other European houses.

For this recital, Swenson and Jones selected an array of music expressing the first flush of love. She began with Bellini’s long-breathed “Il fervido desidero” and ended with Lehar’s gentle “Love, Live Forever.” But the big highlights came from opera, notably two of the title character’s best moments from Händel’s Semele (a signature role of hers) and from Broadway—especially a heartfelt “They Say It’s Wonderful,” Irving Berlin’s classic and part of a collection of Broadway songs near the end of the program.

Throughout the afternoon, Swenson’s tone was rich and focused, with a natural ping that carried it to the back of the hall. She showed impressive breath control, spinning long, languid phrases with ease. Her impeccable coloratura, not the least bit aspirated, placed every note with precision while tying the most rapid runs and triplets together seamlessly. She paid careful attention to dynamics and phrasing, too. She can tell a story in music.

What was missing, however, was an ability to color the voice to convey emotional depth in more dramatic material. The tonal quality was pretty much the same whether the song was about yearning, pride or anger. The program might have been partly to blame. Most of the songs were on the slow side, which showed off a plush tone but left some of us yearning for with more energy.

We got it in the pair of Semele arias, which contrasted the soft, hypnotic legato of “O sleep, why dost thou leave me?” with the rapid-fire, ever-more-ornamented “Myself I shall adore.” She has always made that one into a jaw-dropping showpiece, and this time was no exception.

This single-mindedness of creamy sound paid big dividends in “La seduzione,” Verdi’s tale of an innocent girl duped by a cruel lover, a marvel of pure sound and long breath. A sidelong glance led to “Stornello,” the fourth song on the program and finally one in a lively tempo. There was a feistiness to it that was much needed after three slow-footed ones.

Although Swenson’s chest voice has deepened, it’s still not a dramatic soprano’s sound, and that’s what was missing from Mozart’s “Padre, germani, addio” the curtain-lifting aria from the opera Idomeneo, in which the character Ilia reveals her love for Idamante, her country’s enemy. The sound color was the same as for “La seduzione.”

That gorgeous resonance made Richard Strauss’ “Breit über mien Haupt,” a woman’s adoration of her lover’s gaze, into a moment of pure seduction. “Zueignung,” which followed, was just as lovely, but it needed more power and majesty. She acted the role perfectly, throwing her shoulders back and lifting her head, but the sound didn’t follow.

There’s something about the American songbook that fits Swenson’s approach. She naturally found the magic in songs such as Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance” and the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You.” They get just the right nuances. In slower than usual tempos, she treats them like art songs, not precious with but the sort of detailed understanding that makes them special.

That was especially evident in Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow,” which she has been singing with a winning wistfulness for 30 years. As her lone encore, it brought a tear to this reviewer’s eye.

Harvey Steiman