United States Various, Marianne Cornetti (mezzo soprano) and James Lesniak (piano): Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, Carnegie, Pennsylvania, 1.11.2015. (RP)
Wagner: “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser
Verdi: “Strida la vampa” from Il Trovatore
Mascagni: “Voi lo sapete” from Cavalleria Rusticana
Wagner: “Entweihte Götter” from Lohengrin
Saint-Saëns: “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson
Verdi: “Condotta ell’era in ceppi” from Il Trovatore
Gounod: “Ô ma lyre immortelle” from Sapho
Copland: “Long Time Ago,” “Simple Gifts,” “I Bought Me a Cat,” “At the River,” and “Ching-a-Ring Chaw” from Old American Songs
Porter: “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” from Kiss Me Kate
Bock: “Mr. Wonderful” from Mr. Wonderful
Gershwin: “I Got Rhythm” from Girl Crazy
Kern: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Showboat
Rodgers: “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” from South Pacific
Lerner: “I Could Have Danced all Night” from My Fair Lady
My father loved the old joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”, answering “Practice! Practice!” in the same breath. It was not the fabled hall on 57th Street in Manhattan that Marianne Cornetti returned to after 10 years, but the one in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, also built and endowed by Andrew Carnegie, the Pittsburgh industrialist and philanthropist. Carnegie, PA is a small borough a few miles outside of Pittsburgh. Once a gritty industrial town, it has seen some rough times and suffered severe flood damage in 2004 from Hurricane Ivan, but it’s experiencing a renaissance. The Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall had also fallen on hard times and was slated for demolition over a decade ago, but was spared from the wrecking ball, just as its New York City counterpart was in the 1960s. Odd, isn’t it, that the first instinct is to tear down these grand old halls? Miraculously, they are sometimes saved by the efforts of a few dreamers.
Cornetti opened the recital with “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser in tribute to the hall. A true dramatic mezzo soprano, Cornetti has an easy, thrilling upper extension to her voice, and gave a vibrant, ringing account of this Wagner favorite. She is an opera singer and makes no bones about it, devoting the first half of the recital entirely to arias. “Strida la vampa” and “Condotta ell’era in ceppi” from Il Trovatore and “Entweihte Götter” from Lohengrin are among Cornetti’s calling cards in opera houses around the world. (She just returned from a triumphant run of Ortruds in São Paulo, Brazil). All were beautifully sung, but the two highlights were “Voi lo sapete” from Cavalleria Rusticana and the seldom heard, but oft recorded, “Ô ma lyre immortelle” from Gounod’s Sapho.
Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana is also a role that Cornetti has performed on stage. Her sincere, intense rendition of Santuzza’s lament, where she sings of her lover’s promises and ultimate faithlessness, was full of tender emotion and passion, with ringing high As and rich, gutsy low notes. Sapho’s lament ends more tragically, as the poet jumps off a cliff and drowns in the sea after being jilted by her lover. Cornetti lavished gorgeous tone and exquisite phrasing on Gounod’s long, beautiful, haunting phrases, once again not stinting on the low notes and delivering a thrilling climax to the aria.
The second half of the recital was as all-American as it gets, and afforded Cornetti the opportunity to let down her hair and have some fun, much to the audience’s delight. Aaron Copland’s “I Got Me a Cat” and “Ching-a-Ring Chaw” vividly demonstrated Cornetti’s comedic gifts. She can make barnyard animal sounds and spit out tongue-twisting lyrics with the best of them. “Simple Gifts” was truly that. Cornetti opted for stoic in both “Long Time Ago” and “At the River,” although a touch of warmth would have been welcome. After the drama and passion of the opera arias, it was impressive how Cornetti could scale down her majestic mezzo to such a silvery, slender thread for these songs.
After a short pause, Cornetti steamed on stage with “Another Op’nin, Another Show” from Kiss Me Kate. She, like many current American singers, got to opera via musicals. Unlike some, she sings them with her voice, rather than in a scaled-down, crossover version of it, more in keeping with what many of those composers and lyricists had in mind in that pre-amplified age ̶ just look at the original casts. Her enthusiasm for the genre was obvious. “Can’t Help Lov’in Dat Man” from Showboat was just lovely, but then again Julie had as much luck with men as did Santuzza and Sapho. Cornetti’s innate stoicism fits so well with such noble women, whether they be of the classical, verismo or Broadway type.
She had two able assistants contributing to the recital’s success. In the human form, it was James Lesniak, who was excellent at the piano. With full deference to the great British accompanist Gerald Moore, he wasn’t too loud. In fact, the lid of the piano could have been raised a peg. Whether it be the swirling romanticism of Gounod, Copland’s sophisticated simplicity, or the razzle-dazzle of a Broadway show tune, Lesniak was Cornetti’s equal musically and dramatically. The other was the hall itself. The acoustics are amazing, enriching Cornetti’s luxurious sound beyond compare.
This was more than a recital however, as Cornetti acknowledged those who had first noticed her nascent talent, fostered it, and supported her on the path from a small Western Pennsylvania town to the world’s great opera stages. She offered one encore, and it too was a thank you, this time dedicated to Maggie Forbes, the executive director of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall. Forbes was one of the driving forces behind the battle to resurrect the institution. Fittingly, it was “To Dream the Impossible Dream.”