Vivica Genaux and Daniel Okulitch in Recital

Gilder Lehrman Hall at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York City
The George London Foundation Recital Series presents
Vivica Genaux  Mezzo-soprano
Daniel Okulitch Bass-baritone
Craig Rutenberg Piano
Program order to be announced
Songs on Text from “Lamento” by Théophile Gautier (Ms. Genaux)
Fauré :“Chanson du pêcheur,” Op. 4, No. 1
Belioz: “Sur les lagunes” from Les nuits d’eté
Viardot: “Lamento”,  “Madrid”, “Berceuse cosaque”,“L’Ausencia”
From Zarzuelas (Ms. Genaux)
Serrano: “Cancion de la gitana” from La alegria del batallón
Chueca: “Tango de la menegilda” from La gran via
Giménez: “Zapateado” from La Tempranica
Songs on the Yeats poem “Cloths of Heaven” by DUNHILL, ELWYN-EDWARDS, ROVEN, and EVANS
(Mr. Okulitch)
Songs of Sleep (Mr. Okulitch)
Gurney: “Sleep”
Liebermann: “Good Night”, “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep”, A Variation on “To Say To Go To Sleep”
Sviridov “The Virgin in the City” from Petersburg: A Vocal Poem (Mr. Okulitch)
Rachmaninoff: Aleko’s Cavatina from Aleko
Duet to be announced (Ms. Genaux & Mr. Okulitch)
December 9, 2012
Established by the Canadian bass-baritone some 14 years before his death, the George London Foundation for Singers provides financial assistance to young artists, and also presents a handful of recitals in New York each season. In recent years, these recitals have been given in an intimate performing space at the Morgan Library & Museum, a true gem too often overlooked by visitors. For the performance on 9 December, the Foundation presented two artists who can boast notable credits in Italy (and elsewhere), the Alaskan mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who maintains a home in Italy, and the Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, whom La Scala audiences will remember from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Peter Grimes, as well as Lehár’s La vedova allegra. In this joint recital, accompanied by Craig Rutenberg, the singers alternated in programs of wide-ranging repertoire that didn’t overlap at all chronologically, stylistically, or thematically. Nevertheless, both singers approach their work with a kindred intelligence and clarity of expression that made this a unified, satisfying afternoon — made altogether delightful during two duets at the end.
Genaux has earned a global reputation for her interpretations of Rossini and of Baroque music, but recently she has been branching out, notably with her first performances of Carmen, in Rouen earlier this season. Many of the selections she offered in this recital (as well as her sleeveless, lace-trimmed gown) suggested a nod to Bizet’s Gypsy heroine, though Genaux never sang a note of that score. At the start, a trio of songs by Rossini spoke of Spain, as did two of three numbers by Pauline Viardot, and a winning collection of zarzuela numbers that revealed her playful wit (something that Baroque repertoire seldom allows her). Even the duet that closed the formal program was “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, set in Carmen’s own Seville.
However, most of this material dates back much earlier than Carmen in Genaux’s repertoire, and the works of Rossini and Viardot have special significance for her. (It might be said that, just as Genaux has championed Viardot’s music, so Rossini’s better-known music has championed Genaux.) The mezzo-soprano told this critic that she has not sung this kind of recital in five years: she is in such demand to perform Baroque concerts with period ensembles (to say nothing of complete operas both fully staged and in concert) that the opportunity simply hasn’t arisen. By relying on material that is both familiar and meaningful to her, she was able quickly to communicate with her audience on the most direct and personal level.
Her voice remains an instrument of distinctly sensual pleasure: warm, vibrant, often startling in its combination of agility and hearty weight. Her program on this occasion placed far less emphasis on the vocal pyrotechnics that have given such a boost to her performances of Baroque music (as well as the title of her acclaimed CD), and in some respects her more lyrical singing is even more assured and expressive than her flamboyant coloratura.
Without being ungentlemanly, one must observe that Okulitch is closer to the start of his career than is Genaux to the start of hers. Already, however, the young Canadian has developed a reputation for contemporary music, and he has taken the leads in two high-profile world premieres: Willy Wonka in Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket and Seth Brundle in Howard Shore’s The Fly. (For the latter, Okulitch garnered worldwide attention during a well-publicized nude scene; in the press, his American colleagues now teasingly refer to nude scenes not as a “Full Monty” but as a “Full Okulitch.” He remains a good sport about the whole business.) In 2014, Okulitch will add to this list, playing Ennis, the Heath Ledger role, in the world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain at Madrid’s Teatro Real.
For this recital, Okulitch stayed resolutely within the 20th and 21st centuries. For his first set, he offered three settings of Yeats’ poem “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” by Dilys Elwyn-Edwards (1918–2012), Thomas F. Dunhill (1877–1946), and Glen Roven (still very active, and the producer of Okulitch’s CD), whose more astringent composition provided a healthy contrast to the work of his predecessors. Okulitch also opened the second half of the program with a series of songs about sleep by another living composer, Lowell Liebermann (born 1961), rounded out with a decidedly backward-looking 20th-century “Sleep” by Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), inspired by the Elizabethans. With excellent Russian diction, Okulitch also performed “The Virgin and the City,” a melancholy song to a text by Alexander Alexandrovich Blok, composed by Georgy Vasilyevich Sviridov (1915–98); and Rachmaninoff’s “Cavatina of Aleko,” picking up on the Gypsy theme of Genaux’s songs.
In English as in Russian, Okulitch is an excellent representative of the virtues of North American recitalists, most especially in the entirely conversational ease he brings to song and the subtlety of his psychological readings of the texts; no matter whether the drama is internalized or externalized, it is never fussy, always sincere. Each of these songs provided a worthy vehicle for his approach, and even when singing of passion at forte, it seemed Okulitch was speaking directly to the listener.
Craig Rutenberg, head of music administration at the Metropolitan and one of the United States’ most sought-after accompanists, nimbly embraced the various stylistic demands of the vocal soloists — and excelled himself with the Mozart and with the bis, “You’re Just in Love” from Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam. It’s a comic duet in which both parties sing at each other rather than with each other, to entirely different vocal lines that interweave ingeniously: one character “hear[s] music and there’s no one there,” while the other advises not to worry, “You’re just in love.” These roles were sung originally on Broadway by Russell Nype and Ethel Merman, respectively, but here Genaux and Okulitch switched, with Genaux taking the showier vocal line and Okulitch reassuring her steadily, while Rutenberg’s sprightly playing kept the whole thing moving along.
Although both singers have enjoyed noteworthy engagements with the area’s leading opera companies (Genaux with both the Metropolitan and the New York City Opera, Okulitch with New York City Opera) and at Carnegie Hall, their local appearances are relatively infrequent. The London Foundation series offered a distinguished, intimate setting for a welcome reunion with these remarkable artists. Photo by Shawn Ehlers