The Three Mezzos
Alice Tully Hall
Franz Schubert: 10 Lieder
Johannes Brahms: 5 Lieder
Robert Schumann: 5 Lieder
Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo-soprano)
Friedrich Haider (piano)
After years of study and practical experience, many operatic stars turn to the art of lieder singing as a way to expand and perhaps lengthen their careers. The two styles of singing are very different and the transition is difficult to make. The very young Bulgarian mezzo Vesselina Kasarova is currently trying to bridge the gap between these two art forms but is nowhere near ready to attempt such a sea change in her artistic temperament. Although she possesses a fine mezzo voice which is uncommonly burnished in the lower range, her operatic training has totally absorbed her to the point where she seemed positively uncomfortable before the large crowd at Alice Tully Hall this afternoon. To further complicate matters, her heavy instrument is unsuitable for the lighter songs of Schubert and yet she (or her handlers) chose to not only open with these ditties of springtime but to generously interlace the entire first half of her recital with them. The result was a dark cumbersome voice not able to get out of its own way during the wonderfully nimble Schubertian passages and the overriding emotion among the lightly applauding crowd seemed to be that of pity. Ms. Kasarova's voice also tends to flatten in the mid-range and so many of these songs, really meant for a light soprano, were not only awkward but distinctly out of tune. Her Auf dem Wasser zu singen flowed about as smoothly as a polluted Eastern European industrial stream.
There were intimations of power in some of the songs, particularly the heavier Im Abendrot and so I was hopeful during intermission that things would improve. Actually Ms. Kasarova made a nice recovery in the second half, emoting more like an operatic up-and-comer during the poignant Brahms Meerfahrt and Von ewiger Liebe and seemingly to overcome the clumsiness of the first half. Her pianist is her resident conductor and it seems that it is he who picks not only her repertoire but also guides her career twists and turns. His pianism mirrored her singing, awkward in the Schubert with much too heavy of a hand but generally satisfactory in the more solemn Brahms and Schumann sets. Ms. Kasarova even seemed to try and act a little with her face during this heavier section, although I am not sure as to whether or not she simply has a nervous tic which can be mistaken for empathetic eye movement. She seemed to be a different person entirely during the Schumann, actually reaching some decent heights of emotion in the famous Rueckertlied Widmung, her rich voice perfect for this strongly aromatic bouquet.
The audience (clearly an opera crowd) was a little more enthusiastic after the second half and encouraged Ms. Kasarova somewhat timidly to perform an encore. Out came yet another musical personality who sang triumphantly an aria from La Clemenza di Tito. Here the voice was marvelous, the gestures perfect, the intonation flawless, the emotion affecting. Who was this young girl who could sing like a true professional? Surely not the same ingenue who stumbled her way through the actual program? Finally it dawned on me. We at Alice Tully were dupes in a giant experiment. I suppose that one has to start somewhere, but Lincoln Center hardly seems the place to tinker with a totally new singing style, especially when one is not at all confident in its result. Ms. Kasarova has recently released her first CD of lieder (it was on sale in the lobby) and this event was apparently all a marketing strategy. I for one was not pleased with being a guinea pig for her manager's attempt to broaden her commercial potential. One audience member upon leaving was overheard saying to his friend "…perhaps she wanted to prove to herself that she could do it." Maybe so, but did we all need to be there?
Frederick L. Kirshnit