There’s a song Deanna Durbin once sang that seemed particularly apt tonight as one of the encores coming after Sondra Radvanovsky’s recital at Koerner Hall with Anthony Manoli piano.
I can see the lights of home
Shining brightly o’er the foam,
Beckon to me while I roam
Away from lights of home.
I can see somebody there,
Loving eyes and silver hair,
I can see her kneel in prayer
Beneath the lights of home.
In that little old sleepy town,
Nothing happens when the sun goes down,
Not a thing but moonbeams run around,
In a starry dome.
Turn the hands of time for me,
Let me live my memory,
Once again I long to be
Beneath the lights of home
Whether or not there was anyone in the audience with silver hair, the song sums up the experience for me, of a big star who ventures abroad, and then comes back to her quieter resting place between engagements. The Greater Toronto Area is now her home. Sondra was completely in her element from the beginning, seeming very much at ease at Koerner Hall, and apparently here in Toronto.
As an intelligent artist seeking to create meaning in her recitals rather than arbitrarily picking songs or arias to sing, there’s a logic to this program, a new one that was given its first outing in the recital tonight.
- Vivaldi: “Sposa son disprezzata”
- Three Bellini songs
- Four Richard Strauss songs
- Three Liszt songs
- Six Barber songs
- Giordano: “La Mamma Morta”
I don’t know the logic for the opening aria other than its excellence, a great beginning. The Bellini songs connect us to a composer Sondra sings –Norma at least—and with whom she seems very comfortable. The Strauss songs, we were told, were a first venture into such rep (other than a performance of the “Four Last Songs”) at the instigation of Manoli her collaborator, although one wonders if this signals a new direction vocally (a Chrysothemis or a Marschallin in her future?). After intermission we heard three songs in French that Sondra would associate with Canada –a country where some people speak French—followed by a set of songs by Samuel Barber to honour her American roots. There’s a deeper link, we were told –and you must understand how relaxed Sondra felt to tell such a story—as she described her first meeting with Leontyne Price, the woman for whom these songs were written, even as she calmly took up the mantle as Price’s successor. The closing aria raised the stakes for the four encores to follow, namely The Song to the Moon from Rusalka, the aforementioned Deanna Durbin song, “Pace, pace mio Dio” from La Forza del Destino and finally “Oh mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi.
I am sketching the basic facts, rather than reviewing an event that’s one of the highlights of my year. I am reminded of Sondra’s recital for Toronto Summer Music in August 2014, that seems to be an earlier stage in this burgeoning love affair with her local fans, evidently settling in for awhile here in Southern Ontario. At that time we had a similar structure, including a part of the concert alluding to her father, who died in 2011.
The emotions on this occasion were at times every bit as transparent. The reason the song I mention above epitomizes the event is because Koerner Hall seemed transformed into a colossal living room. Sondra was as vulnerable with us as if she knew each of us personally. And yet it was still a performance, her deportment and vocalism carefully matched to the material. The Vivaldi aria included remarkable elaborations in the da capo, in a piece I wish I knew better. The Bellini songs were given a flamboyant reading. In short order, the audience began to applaud after every song, and why not after all?
Richard Strauss supposedly represents a new direction for Sondra (who took these songs on “at gunpoint” Manoli quipped), and I think it was evident, as she began the first song (“Allerseelen”) quite carefully, compared to the remainder of the program. It may be that the songs are still new to her, that she’s still finding her way –as she admitted she has been swamped with a huge workload and so apologized that she had not memorized the songs—but it was only in that first one that there was anything seemingly tentative. I’m not sure that there’s any real difference in Strauss’s writing or if it’s a perception (and therefore in the singer’s head), but the last three Strauss songs showed off her instrument gloriously, particularly when she floated notes using her upper register, something she does better than anyone in the world. Her pianissimos are magical, whether in German, French, Italian or English. There is something fresh in her approach that put me in mind of Placido Domingo, thinking of the sense of an adventurous crossover, as when he first sang Wagner, the wisdom of someone versed in another style trying something different. I believe that’s because Sondra is singing this without reference to how anyone else does it.
The Liszt songs that followed intermission – in her second and even more revealing gown—were for me one of the highlights of the evening. I couldn’t help noticing a kind of connection to bel canto, recalling that theorists have observed Chopin’s admiration & emulation of bel canto arias. Here too we were mostly in the presence of accompaniments staying mostly on the same harmony (although the second, “Enfant, si j’etais roi” included challenging octave passages Manoli executed impressively) allowing vocalization resembling cadenzas flying up and down the singer’s range. Sondra’s body language at this point was stunningly relaxed, her face wearing a smile for much of this delightful set.
The arias in the last part of the program & encores took us to another version of Sondra’s voice. This is a bright artist who knows how to act & sing, meaning that every time she undertakes one of these arias, she has the wherewithal to make something slightly different of it. I recall that last year, her encores also included the Forza & Schicchi arias, done quite differently from tonight, even as I have to admit they were glorious on both occasions. For the Andrea Chenier aria “la mamma morta” I couldn’t help thinking that suddenly Sondra was sounding like Maria Callas: as she sometimes does. But meaning no disrespect, she’s got everything Callas had and more. The high notes in all the arias were big, precisely on pitch, and athletic. I believe the evening’s singing warms her up for the fireworks at the end (and i put that in the present tense because this is the first time through this program, one that hopefully will set up many encores all over the world).
I’m glad Sondra seems to be so comfortable here at ”home”. I hope that wherever she may wander, she always finds her way back.