Aspen (4): Emotional All-Student La bohème, Joyce Yang, Midori, and Sterling Chamber Music


United StatesUnited States Schnittke, Milhaud, Beethoven, Scarlatti, Debussy, Granados, Rachmaninoff, J.S. Bach, Puccini: Soloists, Joyce Yang (piano), Midori (violin), Orchestra and Chorus of Aspen Opera Theater Center, Garrett Keast (conductor), Harris Hall and Wheeler Opera House, Aspen, Colorado. 11-14.7.2016. (HS)

Chamber Music, 11 July, Harris Hall
Schnittke: Piano Quintet
Milhaud: La cheminée de roi René
Beethoven: Cello Sonata in G minor

Recital, Joyce Yang (piano), 12 July, Harris Hall
Scarlatti: Piano Sonatas in C-sharp minor, B minor, C major, D major
Debussy: Preludes from Books I and II
Granados: Quejas; Los requiembros
Rachmaninoff/Wild: Dreams; Vocalise
Rachmaninoff: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor

Recital, Midori (violin), 13 July, Harris Hall
J. S. Bach: Sonata No. 2 for Unaccompanied Violin in A minor; No. 1 in B minor; No. 3 in E major

Puccini: La bohème, 14 July, Wheeler Opera House
Soloists, orchestra and chorus of Aspen Opera Theater Center

Puccini’s La bohème is made for young, fresh voices with a youthful stage presence. Sure, some of the greatest sopranos, tenors, and baritones in the history of opera have sung the key roles. But one of the most memorable performances I have ever experienced was in 1988 at La Scala. We bought tickets months in advance. Pavarotti canceled—so did soprano Mirella Freni and conductor Carlos Kleiber.

We saw the sort of cast that one would expect in the provinces. None of them was like the missing superstars, but the music sounded so fresh, and the characters so vernacular and believable that we walked out of there on air.

Many of those memories came back, watching Aspen Opera Theater Center’s La bohème, which opened Thursday night in Wheeler Opera House. The student cast had the look and feel of real 19th-century Paris Bohemians. The two leads—soprano Tracy Hsin-Mei Chang as Mimì and tenor Rafael Moras as Rodolfo—wielded voices that could go beyond simply singing the notes to making emotional contact with them.

Their love duet in Act I and reconciliation duet in Act III tugged at the heart without sacrificing vocal acumen. Individually, Moras’ ringing tenor rose to the top, not only in his arias but in ensemble after ensemble. Chang’s soprano could be girlish one moment and richly powerful the next.

As the flamboyant Musetta, soprano Pureum Jo stole the Café Momus scene, using her star-quality face and body for humor, and to underline the character’s extravagant vocal lines.

The entire cast inhabited their roles without much artifice, even though many did not rise to the stars’ vocal level, but there was plenty of stage presence to go around. Each scene had its own fresh improvisatory feel, from the high jinks of the male Bohemians to the group fussing around Mimì as she came to her end.

Conductor Garrett Keast clearly knows his way around this score, bringing out the pulse and musical shapes with an ear for both the singers and the drama. Edward Berkeley, who heads the opera program in Aspen, directed with an eye for the telling gesture, with little wasted motion or distracting effects.

Earlier in the week, Midori offered a distinctive take on one sonata and two partitas by J.S. Bach for unaccompanied violin. She seemed determined to hew to a “historically informed” form, holding the bow higher, avoiding vibrato, generally favoring delicacy over power. The results were mixed.

In the A minor Sonata No. 2, which opened the evening, wobbly intonation underlined the lack of vibrato a bit too much at first, but the Allegro finale burst out of the gate and never slackened, to a breathless finish. The B minor Partita No. 1 took off with much more precision, and traced the dance rhythms with more spring and brighter effect. A little more judicious vibrato helped in the lovely Sarabande.

The E major Partita No. 3, with its familiar Gavotte and Bourée, made an interesting comparison with Augustin Hadelich, who played the same piece last week. Where he relished the dancelike qualities and colored his tone brilliantly, Midori kept things more buttoned-down, as if viewing the music through a more distant lens—charming, rather than dazzling.

Last Tuesday night, Joyce Yang—a regular Aspen visitor and a former student here—applied her high musical intelligence and command of form to Scarlatti, Debussy, Granados, and Rachmaninoff. From the piano, she can draw big, rich and broad passages without going over the top, as well as soft and velvety pianissimos, using the dynamics to give phrases shape and life.

Although there was little crystalline sound to staccato phrases, she drew out the line deftly in four Scarlatti miniatures and in the grander moments of some of Debussy’s Preludes, all with fine legato playing. Two Granados works—Quejas and Los requiembros—could have used more guitar-like delicacy, but they had compelling momentum.

Yang was best in Rachmaninoff, especially the powerful Piano Sonata No. 2, which can lurch from episode to episode, but she pulled it all together into a cohesive narrative. Earl Wild’s arrangements of the composer’s Dreams and the famous Vocalise brimmed with color. For an encore, she returned to Wild for his touching arrangement of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”

On Monday in Harris Hall, cellist Eric Kim and pianist Anton Nel offered a sterling Beethoven Cello Sonata in G minor that hit all the right spots, and provided a cleansing counterpoint to the 30 minutes of microtonal anger, angst and grief in Schnittke’s Piano Quintet. They played the latter well, but it was a difficult listen for both performers and listeners (as first violin Paul Kantor aptly noted). In between, an all-student wind quintet brought out all the charm of Milhaud’s faux-medieval suite from La cheminée du roi René.

Harvey Steiman

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