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A Wagnerian evening without the Wagner

Soprano Christine Brewer's big, luscious voice pours out in an

October 02, 2009|Richard S. Ginell

Local Wagnerians who didn't get enough of "Siegfried" blasting away downtown could have journeyed to the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday night for another jolt from a massive voice.

Christine Brewer, who might be this generation's leading answer to the question of where have all the true Wagnerian sopranos gone, was in town giving a song recital. If short-term memory fails, she was the Isolde in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's two successful runs of "The Tristan Project" -- and she has become the heldensoprano of choice for numerous other international ventures. There was no Wagner this time, but no matter; she delivered the goods, at times molto fortissimo.

Now, singers with high-voltage vocal equipment are no strangers to the intimate song recital format; at one time, that was the only way opera-starved Los Angeles could hear the mighty Birgit Nilsson, for example. Yet that sets up another issue: whether such power can be too much.

Brewer chose the short first half of her program carefully -- Berg's pre-atonal bursts of sometimes Debussy-tinged romanticism, Seven Early Songs, and three Richard Strauss lieder, almost all of which are better known in their orchestrated versions. Completely warmed up from the outset, Brewer's big, luscious voice came pouring out in the Berg, with shattering, penetrating high notes, maintaining a flood of sound even in places where Berg asks the singer to keep it down. She continued that way in full Straussian glory -- and it was pretty thrilling, if a bit lacerating at such close range.

The second half -- in English -- found Brewer applying a more controlled approach to dynamic levels. Her vernacular instincts were an asset in an oddball Britten cycle called Cabaret Songs, an early collaboration with W.H. Auden that veered wildly between American pop, satire and the most downcast funeral meditation you may ever hear. She also did well with John Carter's adaptations of spirituals into a cantata.

Well aware of her position on the historical timeline, Brewer raided the back files of such ample-voiced predecessors as Helen Traubel, Eleanor Steber, Eileen Farrell and Kirsten Flagstad for some encore pieces that have been long forgotten. With sentiments dangling on their proverbial sleeves, most of them deserve their obscurity, but Brewer sang them with the commitment and taste that she would lavish upon a masterpiece.

Craig Rutenberg was the sturdy accompanist -- and the stoic target of Brewer's good-natured teasing.


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