Tonight at Koerner Hall, Sondra Radvanovsky offered a self-portrait in her recital as part of Toronto Summer Music Festival. It’s not just a huge coup for TSM & Artistic Director Douglas McNabney, the highest profile artist to appear there this summer, but also the most impressive concert I’ve heard so far this year, both for its musical values and the warmth generated in the hall.
Radvanovsky showed different sides of herself, winning a roomful of new friends. Music & drama aside, she is a hugely likeable figure without the pretentiousness that sometimes goes with recital singing. At times she was having so much fun, we could have been watching a comedienne.
Hmm i wonder if she will try a comic role..?
But this self-portrait showed someone happily settling into her Canadian home, to an audience ready to eat up any and every reference to that relationship. It was a love-fest.
And we saw so many different sides to her, all displays of vulnerability & honesty. She is:
- A singer known for Verdi: and so she began with three songs by Verdi
- A woman with a Czech / Russian background: and so she sang Rachmaninoff in Russian
- A woman who has been living in Canada for awhile now, and is obviously settling into her role: and so to “honour Canada”, as she put it, she sang a French set (Duparc, followed by a Massenet aria)
- A woman who is also American-born with strong ties to that culture: and so she sang three Copland hymns
…and there was quite a bit more besides.
We were all very relaxed, laughing all the way through. In the Verdi song set, Radvanovsky alluded to the tunes that composers may re-use, and lo and behold, there she was singing something that sounded a whole lot like “Tacea la notte placida” from il trovatore, except we were hearing the song “in solitaria stanza.” Attired in a different gown for each half of the concert –the second a dazzling green De La Renta—with diva hair & makeup, this was a very different look than what we’d seen in either Aida or Roberto Devereux, her two big roles in Toronto with the Canadian Opera Company. She alluded to her Dora award for Elisabetta, but so humbly, so sweetly, you’d never know that she’s a big star.
The humility of the headline, though, is taken from the last item in the first half, namely “Io son l’umile ancella”, an aria from Adriana Lecouvreur. This was one of several items that she sang quite distinctively, making the usual whisper soft ending much more poignant & dramatic than usual. As preface to this self-reflexive piece about art & service, she reminded us of the current dramas unfolding in the opera world (without mentioning specific companies going under or the labour battles unfolding at the Met this week), not taking sides but simply offering herself as a servant of the music. The humble servant opened the tear-ducts of many eyes at that moment.
Just as Radvanovsky has several guises, several contexts, indeed, she has more than one sound. The tones we heard in the opening “Ah Perfido”, were like an effortless warm-up in an aria that usually taxes the chords of lesser mortals. The Verdi songs were a more relaxed kind of singing, especially the third –“Stornello”—with body language & hand gestures like something out of an Italian sex-comedy (she would have been Sophia Loren opposite Marcello Mastroianni).
The Rachmaninoff? Here I felt she was truly in her element, the singing unified and organic in a way that opera can never be, because one wasn’t aware of registers or vocal gears shifting; no, her colours seemed to originate right in the language, especially the dark colours we sometimes heard. While she’s known for her top, the bottom & middle in these moody pieces were solid and soulful.
And speaking of Rachmaninoff –that keyboard master—I should mention Radvanovsky’s partner onstage, namely pianist Anthony Manoli. His interpretive voice was every bit as distinctive as the singer he supported, often powerful and sometimes a safety-net, solid & reliable, everything a singer could want.
The other side Radvanovsky showed us was something I didn’t anticipate, but one that this church musician found especially winning. The three Copland hymns were a very transparent display of emotion that makes more sense with the help of google. I googled “Radvanovsky father died” and found an interview from 2011 , that says
“Before each performance she says a prayer and talks to her father, Robert, whom she found dead of a heart attack when she was 17.”
The first two of the three Copland hymns were sung by the adult virtuoso. Tears tears tears, after each. She spoke of her father (without mentioning where he is, but i think we all knew), and then pulled it all together for the third, which I swear she sang as though she were a child singing in her church choir. This was no virtuoso showing off here, no fancy high notes, just the loyal singing of someone who could have been anyone in their church congregation, at one with the music & the hymn’s meaning.
To close we were back with Verdi, as she wished us peace, at a time when the drums of war are beating on many sides. She sang “pace pace mio dio” from an opera she has yet to sing in a production, namely La Forza del Destino, floating the high note in the slow part before effortlessly tossing off the dramatic note on “maledizione” that closes the aria. I understood the first encore almost as a cover, as Radvanovsky sang “oh mio babbino caro” with a sauciness –brandishing the obligatory flower bouquet—that belies the usual humility of the piece, reminding me a bit of Bette Midler singing “beast of burden”. Was she again talking to her dad? Perhaps, but easily floating the high note, after a full evening of singing. And the boisterous “I could have danced all night” –complete with more pianistic pyrotechnics from Manoli—brought us home.
Speaking of home, that’s what this is for Radvanovsky, namely Toronto. We are so lucky that she’s here.
I can’t wait to see & hear her again.