22 January 2015

Interview: Jennifer Rivera on Rossini’s Sins

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera.

After Gioachino Rossini completed William Tell, in 1829, he never wrote another opera — thus crushing for all eternity the dreams of millions of mezzo-sopranos, for whom he’d created so many gratifying roles, but no more. “Retiring” to Paris until his death in 1868, the composer pursued his interests in good food and good company, bestowing his name on dishes that pleased him and reigning benevolently over much of Parisian society. And yet he was still a man who’d written 39 operas in 18 years. Music had seemed to bubble up from him irresistibly, like a natural spring of Champagne, and even in retirement, his source did not run dry. Little bits of musical invention kept slipping out: Les Pêchés de Vieillesse, he called them, “The Sins of Old Age,” occasional pieces to be played or sung primarily for the amusement of his friends.

Now Jennifer Rivera, one of the brightest mezzos of her generation, is turning to the Pêchés for a recital on Saturday, January 24, at the Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium, under the aegis of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts. This is a no-fooling, not-to-be-missed opportunity to hear a young artist whose Rossini singing has been praised by none other than Marilyn Horne: in one of my first conversations with that great lady, she bragged about Rivera and urged me to hear her whenever I could. It’s as if Abraham Lincoln told me whom to vote for. You just don’t argue with that.

“Picking some of Rossini’s French music was a must,” Rivera says, given the aims of the Salon/Sanctuary series and even the auditorium itself, which may look more like a ballroom than a Second Empire salon, but which is close enough in spirit to give audience members the sense that they’re hearing the music in the environment for which it was created.

Rossini, as the Parisians saw him.

Long before Rossini retired, Stendhal used the word “delightful” to describe his music, and the word applies to the Pêchés, as well. “These songs certainly don’t sound like they come from someone who has given up their craft,” Rivera says, answering a few questions by e-mail. “I guess what delights me about them is how full of character the ones I have chosen are, and what incredible contrast in style they demonstrate. Rossini is obviously a master at creating vocal drama — that is, he is able to create a sense of drama within the context of the vocal line, whether through acrobatics or beauty of melody. I know that well from his operatic writing, but it’s exactly the same type of very clear characterization in his song writing.”

A prodigiously early bloomer (as was Rossini himself), Rivera began singing leading roles with New York City Opera while she was still a student at Juilliard; I have particularly fond memories of her work in Hansel and Gretel and Chabrier’s L’Etoile. Among her other successes with NYCO was Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, also the vehicle for her debut with the Berliner Staatsoper. “I really first discovered Rossini when I was in high school, which is when I first started singing ‘Una voce poco fa’ and getting to know parts of Rosina (if you can believe it),” she says. Around the same time, she heard Marilyn Horne as Isabella in “Italian Girl in Algiers” at San Francisco Opera (“a very formative experience”) and, on video, Frederica von Stade as Angelica in Cenerentola. By now, Rivera has sung Rosina and Angelica many times, and she’s eager to sing Isabella, the first chance she gets. She looks exceptionally, almost disturbingly good in trouser roles, at which Rossini excelled, and so I’d like to hear her tackle a few of those, too.

Who’s a pretty boy, then?
As Nerone in Handel’s Agrippina.

Rivera first sang Rosina at the Juilliard Opera Center. Kenneth Merrill coached her and conducted that production, and “since that was my first leading Rossini lady, I really learned to sing that style of music from him,” she says. On Saturday night, Merrill will accompany her on piano, after a mishap waylaid the pianoforte he originally intended to use — “but I’m sure Ken will have just the right tough that will make the music feel in period on whatever instrument he is given. …We have never performed a recital together before now, so it is extremely fitting that we would be performing Rossini!”

In addition to Merrill, another of Rivera’s Rossinian mentors is Marilyn Horne, with whom she studied at the Music Academy of the West. I asked Rivera what Horne can teach the next generation. “I would say the biggest thing young singers can learn from listening to Marilyn’s recordings is about style,” she says. “She had a tremendous penchant for the clearest and most definitive version of bel canto style. A lot of Rossini singing today is of the ‘ha-ha’ ilk — that is, to put a small aspiration between each note for clarity. But Marilyn’s style was to retain the speed and clarity of the coloratura, yet in a true legato where there was no break between the notes.”

As Rosina in Central City, 2013.
Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

“While this other style can certainly be very exciting,” Rivera continues, “I think Marilyn truly embodies the basic nature of bel canto singing by always keeping the line, and by having an extraordinarily even sound from top to bottom. It’s the healthiest way to sing, and that’s a great lesson for any young singer. There will never be another person who possesses anything quite like Marilyn’s iconic sound, but the technical ease and style with which she dispatched all music, and particularly bel canto, is an ongoing master class to all who hear it.”

Saturday’s program will also feature songs by Pauline Viardot, who (like most of her family, including her sister, the legendary Maria Malibran) sang Rossini’s operas in her time and presided over a Parisian salon of her own. “As a composer, she was clearly very influenced by Rossini (and you can tell especially in her florid writing),” Rivera says, “but she also had her own voice. And it’s a treat to sing music composed by lyric mezzo by someone who possessed that exact voice type herself. I can’t imagine I’ll have another occasion to write that sentence.”

Oh, don’t ask why: Rivera as Weill’s Bessie.
Photo by Richard Termine,
courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera.

I last saw Rivera in Gotham Chamber Opera’s Baden-Baden 1927, a re-imagining of the quadruple-bill of one-acts that included Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel. As Weill’s whiskey-bar-seeking Bessie and as the cunning Nurse in Toch’s Princess and the Pea, Rivera once again proved herself an extraordinarily expressive artist, with a rich, supple, immensely appealing instrument, at once dark and lustrous. In repertoire that ranges from Handel to Jorge Martín, from Early Music to half an hour ago, Rivera represents the kind of versatile, intellectually curious, artistically adventurous American singer I admire so much. She’s also a fine writer whose essays for the Huffington Post are acclaimed and passed along by other young singers, confirming her status as a leading voice of her generation in one more way. And she takes her writing as seriously as her music, doing actual reporting and interviews to get the latest on the attempts to revive New York City Opera, for example. (Professional journalists aren’t covering the story nearly as well.) Since NYCO’s demise, her New York appearances have been all-too rare — one more reason to rush to hear her on Saturday.

Salon/Sanctuary Concerts present
Rossini in Paris

Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano
Kenneth Merrill, piano
Saturday, January 24, 8:00
Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium
417 East 61st Street, New York
For more information, click here.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Bill,I wish you would consider collecting your reviews and essays in some ebooks. It's important history you are writing.

Since NYCO’s demise

Three words to cause a gut check every time. The brains knows, yet it's still a shock

...many lights are going out; thanks for keeping a lamp lit