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La Voce Piu Bella

First Baptist Church of Washington
10/11/2009 -  One time only
Henry Purcell: When I am laid in earth (Dido and Aeneas) – If music be the food of love
Hector Berlioz: Villanelle (Les Nuits d’Été)
Henri Duparc: Phidylé – Extase
Frédéric Chopin: Waltz in c sharp minor, op. 64, no. 2
Richard Strauss: Allerseelen, op. 27, no. 4 – Morgen, op. 10, no. 8
Giuseppe Verdi: Pace, pace, mio Dio (La Forza del Destino)
Samuel Barber: Saint Ita’s Vision (Hermit Songs, op. 29)
Aaron Copland: Simple Gifts
Francesco Cila: Io son l’umile Ancella (Adriana Lecouvreur)
Three Negro Spirituals: This Little Light of Mine – Swing Low Sweet Chariot – Guide My Feet
George Gershwin: Prelude (Allegro ritmato e deciso) – Prelude (Andante con moto e poco rubato) – My Man’s Gone Now (Porgy and Bess)

Alessandra Marc (soprano), David Chapman (piano)

A. Marc (© John McManus)

As I have often mentioned in my columns, Washington, D.C. is a city of many concert venues. In addition to the grand concert halls like the Kennedy Center, there are many distinguished series given in embassies, museums, galleries, universities, cathedrals, and churches. And so it was this past Sunday afternoon that I found myself at the historic First Baptist Church (attended by Jimmy Carter during his presidency) to hear a most satisfying and often thrilling recital by soprano Alessandra Marc.

Many critics and colleagues alike have professed Alessandra Marc to possess La Voce Piu Bella (the world’s most beautiful voice). MET Carmen and Dalilah, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, stated the very same thing just several weeks ago; proclaiming this bias as the reason she asked Alessandra to be the soloist at her recent wedding in Washington National Cathedral. Those attending that wedding heard Ms. Marc sing the Bach Gounod Ave! Maria. A local critic found her delivery of this haunting sacred song comparable only to Rosa Ponselle’s rendition. During Sunday’s recital she repeatedly gave evidence of this extraordinary sound.

She opened the concert with an opulent rendition of “Dido’s Lament” from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. It called to mind the great Kirsten Flagstad in its pathos, grandeur, and vocal splendor. During the French set that followed, there was so much perfume emanating from the stage, that it had the effect of someone spraying a bottle of Chanel No. 9 into the audience. It was intoxicating! Capturing the style of French art song is often elusive. The sung pronunciation is even more so. Ms. Marc was triumphant in both regards and delivered the poetry inherent in both the music and the text to its fullest.

The music of Richard Strauss is a repertoire Alessandra Marc was born to sing. She is justly famous internationally as Ariadne, Elektra, Salomé, Chrysothemis, and the Dyer’s Wife. What a revelation it was to hear her scale her voice down from these enormous Strauss operatic roles for an intimate delivery of Allerseelen, and to float the top pianissimi of Morgen. She of course opened her voice to full volume in Verdi’s great aria Pace, pace, mio Dio. This was as thrilling a rendition as one could possibly hear. It easily ranked with the Hallmarks set by Ponselle, Milanov, Tebaldi, Callas, and Price. The sound is still ringing in my ears. She made a magnificent swell on the high B flat of the famous phrase “in van la pace,” and the final outbursts of “Maledizione!” were indeed “hair raising.” The only thing one could have possibly done afterwards was to break for an intermission, and so we did.

The second half of the program opened with songs by Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. Barber’s Saint Ita’s Vision is a rarity, and Copland’s Simple Gifts is based on a famous Shaker tune of which there are several popular variants.
She sang them with childlike simplicity and fervor. Returning as a Diva she sang a splendid version of “Io son l’umile ancella.” It was luscious in tone, and as it recalled the heyday of Renata Tebaldi as Adriana Lecouvreur it also pointed out the deplorably raucous interpretation of Maria Guleghina in the MET’s revival of last season.

Ms. Marc concluded the program with three Negro spirituals and a movingly dramatic delivery of “My man’s gone now” from Porgy and Bess. She was completely idiomatic in her singing of the spirituals and of the Gershwin aria. This caused me to ponder the fact that Music is an international language. It knows no national boundaries, ethnicities, or race. In today’s world of “Political Correctness” we are often limited to believing that spirituals in general, and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in particular are the sole properties of Black artists. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, and it was truly revealing, as well as refreshing, to listen to her personal identification with this music.

Ms. Marc returned with an encore of “Amazing Grace” in an amazing arrangement written especially for her by the noted Washington choirmaster and organist Lawrence P. Schreiber, who personally accompanied her at the Steinway. The arrangement boasted interesting variations on the main theme and incorporated several modulations that took her to a stunning and sustained High C, that rang the rafters of the church and left the cheering audience screaming for more. She obliged with Puccini’s “Vissi d’Arte, “ which she sang with poignancy and burnished tone. It was a thrilling conclusion to a wonderful recital.

Mr. David Chapman accompanied Miss Marc at the piano. He played all of the notes and was with her at every moment. His playing, however, was extremely dry and brittle, and was marked by a strange intellectual coldness and absence of emotion. There was no color or variation of style to his playing whatever. The music of Richard Strauss was delivered in same manner as he played Henry Purcell. The Duparc songs and Chopin waltz were completely devoid of perfume. This may have been due in part to the piano.
It was a brand new Steinway grand. It had not been broken in and the keyboard action was very stiff. Still, considering the high drama and level of emotion conveyed by Alessandra Marc, it is all the more perplexing that Mr. Chapman did not burn with any of the fire she radiated.

Micaele Sparacino



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