Life and death, love and honor

Music: A host of performances this weekend dealt with these and other of life's complex issues.

March 19, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The weekend was filled with singers addressing vital issues of life, love and death.

Baritone Sergei Leiferkus explored profound songs in a memorable all-Russian recital Sunday night for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. In a world where fluff reigns supreme, it's reassuring to know that there are artists still willing to tackle such heady music and people still willing to listen.

Despite a lingering illness, Leiferkus displayed considerable control and stamina. His sizable, dark tones burrowed deeply into music and text alike.

Shostakovich's Suite on Verses by Michelangelo presents a slow journey toward the acceptance of mortality and, unexpectedly, an almost giddy realization that immortality can be tasted by living on in "the hearts of all loving people."

Leiferkus hit an expressive peak in Night. And as he sang of how "oppression weighs down the soul," he revealed the composer's inner voice, the disillusionment of a creative life under the Soviets.

The sparse piano part, which Shostakovich fashioned with sculptural precision, was superbly articulated by Semjon Skigin.

Things were no less arresting in Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death. Whether caressing the recurring refrain in the deadly Lullaby with eerily soothing tones or thundering out death's victories in Serenade and The Field Marshal, Leiferkus provided a lesson on incisive musicianship. An antidote to all the gloom, Mussorgsky's wacky The Puppet Show, inspired a delectable performance from baritone and accompanist alike.

Earlier on Sunday, the Handel Choir of Baltimore - technically, its "Large Chamber Chorus" - offered one of the glories of English music, Henry Purcell's opera from around 1690, Dido and Aeneas. The performance at the Church of the Redeemer benefited greatly from a sensitive group of soloists.

Debra Lawrence, as Dido, made up for some strained top notes with richly communicative phrasing. Daniel Neer's Aeneas was often exquisitely sung. Ripe, juicy tones poured from Laura Zuiderveen (Sorceress). Alison Davy (Belinda) turned strident in the upper reaches, but otherwise provided sensitive support.

The choristers lacked tonal smoothness, but phrased with sufficient elegance under the direction of guest conductor Frank Nemhauser. The orchestral ensemble provided poised and expressive support.

The chorus also sang four motets by Maurice Durufle, revealing assorted problems with intonation, articulation and vocal blend.

There was just enough time before the Handel Choir concert to catch the first act of the Baltimore Opera Company's Otello with alternate principals. Antonio Barasorda agreed to go on in the title role despite an all-too-apparent indisposition. But Caroline Whisnant was in compelling, silvery voice as Desdemona, bringing lots of subtle shadings to the love duet. (She and Barasorda appear again on Friday evening.)

Making his only appearance as Iago here was Stephen Gaertner, whose plush baritone and colorful phrasing commanded attention.

The weekend also included a lively production of Mozart's Don Giovanni by the Annapolis Opera. Friday's performance at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts had its ragged moments, but the young cast proved appealing.

The title role sometimes suggested more a frat boy than evil seducer as portrayed by Constantinos Yiannoudes, but the baritone held the center of attention neatly. Aside from a barked-out account of Finch'han dal vino, his singing had flair and fluency. Joshua Saxon's Leporello was a little underpowered, but imaginatively phrased and acted.

As Don Ottavio, Richard Crawley phrased eloquently (and, unless my ears deceived me, subtly embellished Dalla sua pace); he needs only a more refined, controlled tone. Chiara Settineri (Donna Anna) had a few pitch problems, but her vocalism was bright and potent. Julia Anne Wolf's big, fruity voice was well matched to Donna Elvira's outbursts. Heather Parker's Zerlina was sweetly sung.

Director Braxton J. Peters kept the action moving through Arne Lindquist's respectable sets (the phallic take on Seville's cityscape was amusing). Ronald J. Gretz did not always hold things together, but his conducting was alert to the score's dramatic flow.

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