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Chopin And Bel Canto At The Getty

July 20, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

It was a magical echt -California night. The symmetrical Roman courtyard of the Getty Museum, wafted by gentle winds from the sea, glowed for a while in the last rays of twilight. Then the peristyle took in the stars.

Some 250 lucky patrons listened to some ethereal music Saturday among the noble columns, manicured greenery, and venerable statues that flank the delicate central pool.

Graceful strains of Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini, Liszt and, most important, Chopin permeated the stately garden with remarkable presence and clarity, thanks to an unobtrusive acoustical canopy designed by the redoubtable Paul Veneklasen.

Under the canopy, Charles Rosen and a couple of talented young singers tried to demonstrate the historical link between ornate bel-canto opera and dreamy, ultra-romantic pianism.

It was a wonderful idea. Too bad it didn't work.

In an oddly focused pre-concert lecture, Robert Winter, the ubiquitous series director, reminded the audience that Chopin was profoundly influenced by the manners and mannerisms of the Italian opera of his day. No problem there.

But, with a musicologist bearing Rosen's lofty credentials on the premises, one wondered why Winter had to do the talking. More irksome, when the music-making began, one had to wonder why so many stylistic contradictions were permitted to cloud the basic premise.

At the outset, Rosen cast himself as elegant, self-effacing accompanist for some salon music. Cynthia Westphal Johnson's sweet and light soprano joined Rickie Weiner Gole's somewhat foggy mezzo-soprano in a group of charming little duets.

So far, so innocent. So far so pretty.

Then Johnson attempted two extraordinarily cruel, grandiose arias, "Casta Diva" from "Norma" and the mad scene from "I Puritani." She sang correctly, lyrically, with pure tone and a timid semblance of emotion.

Despite the inherent scholarly pretentions, however, she mustered no ornamentation, no cabalettas, no flights of fioriture, no cadenzas, no dramatic bravura. Under the circumstances, the connection with Chopin became obscure.

Ending the first half of the program with an anachronistic anticlimax, Gole returned to sing "Moja pieszcotka," a nostalgic, modest song by Chopin himself. Although she sang it pleasantly, she ignored both the original Polish text and the reasonable alternative of comprehensible English, opting instead for a German translation.

Matters improved drastically after intermission. Rosen returned alone to play Liszt's transcription of the same song plus Chopin's D-flat Nocturne, Opus 27; the F-sharp Barcarolle, Opus 60; and, for the ultimate climax, the B-minor Sonata, Opus 58.

Here, at last, the music came alive. Here we experienced the cantabile urgency, the exquisite shadings, the sensuous rubatos, the expressive embellishments, the rhythmic flexibility, the melodic expansion and, yes, the unabashed drama that had overpowered Chopin during his nights at the opera.

Rosen played with equal parts passion and refinement. In the process, he mustered a few clinkers worthy of middle-period Rubinstein, but it mattered not a whit.

The style was enlightened, and the spirit was willing.

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