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Sondra Radvanovsky recital or the triple queen of diminuendo takes London by giggle (Cadogan Hall, 16 March 2017)

It’s hard to believe this was Radvanovsky’s debut as recitalist in London, but I think there are two types of American singers: some who become household names there but rarely visit these shores/Europe and some who seem comfortable on both sides (those are the ones with Mozart/Strauss/Baroque in their rep and Radvanovsky seems to miss this).

Sondra Radvanovsky soprano
Anthony Manoli piano

VivaldiSposa son disprezzata from BajazetBelliniPer pietà, bell’idol mio; La Ricordanza; Ma rendi pur contento – she actually quizzed us about which one of his own arias Bellini ripped off in La Ricordanza 😉 do you know?StraussAllerseelen; Befreit; Morgen!; Heimliche Aufforderung

I don’t even know how well the event was advertised because I only learned about it via the Barbican newsletter last week, right around the time one of my shifts was moved from Thursday to Sunday. A time comes in an opera lover’s life when one doesn’t go to a show just because they worship a performer. Sometimes one goes because someone considered an important contemporary voice should be experienced live.

I’ve not been a fan and this performance did not make me one. But there’s no denying Radvanovsky’s qualities, regardless of what one wants in a performer. For fans though, this must’ve been one of those nights memory would return to often.

To begin with, she appeared very excited to be here. Enthusiasm always helps. Then there was the curiosity of American singers. There is something specific about their modus operandi, different from how the Europeans do it. The Europeans would mostly just toss together a bunch of songs/arias that show off their qualities, mix in their personal pizzaz – which quite often means throwing caution to the wind – and call it a day.

The Americans curate their shows – carefully. Everything has an explaination and is in place with the specific intent of winning the audience over. Hell, she even plugged her upcoming Met Norma! – though considering her encores, Casta diva was conspicuously absent. I can’t say it bothered me (it’s her space to entertain, and she was entertaining1) but this is not something I’ve ever heard from European singers. We also learned she will be debuting Andrea Chenier in Barcelona, so the places between songs functioned like chirpy tweeter moments.

This chattiness is another American thing. When speaking and walking about she constantly reminded me of Joyce DiDonato. I don’t know if they are friends, but I could easily imagine them have long convos over coffee (“… that time in Prague when-“, “Oh, but let me tell you what happened in Madrid! It was the weirdest thing!” etc.).

It is one of those weird things. Radvanovsky is one of those singers who is built, looks and sounds like a tragedian when singing but speaks like a soubrette (in content as well). After the dark or very covered sound (it’s one of her peculiarities so she probably doesn’t do it on purpose) during the songs/arias she just chimes in with a giggle.

When presenting the Vivaldi aria she made a face best represented by this ascii art:

¯_(ツ)_/¯

(she said: I just like it! which could be a candid moment of pure music joy or hey Baroque fans, don’t judge! – because the way she and Manoli attacked it was with a Liszt-type feel; possibly both – but it was not the gesture of a tragedian). Again, I didn’t mind it, but it was quite different than most of my previous recital experiences.

As I mentioned in the title, diminuendo – the woman knows how to tackle this (as well as crescendo, but one could argue that’s easier). Her technique seemed simply fabulous to me. From that angle this was a performance to take voice students to: watch and learn, this is the kind of solidity you need to aim for and you’re going to have a long and fruitful career. Her control of dynamics and projection was wonderful through the night and her flights to the top of her voice illuminating (metaphorically and literally). The voice has a very alluring opacity at the bottom – let’s say indigo, like her second dress of the night – and an interesting rock solid brightness without ping at the top but the middle (I’d guess right around the area where mezzos tend to have the passaggio) was occasionally marred by cloud.

On the other hand, I can’t tell you that I connected much on an emotional level, this side of the Barber set and Vissi d’arte. It might be due to a difference in personality or just that I constantly sensed her position herself for best technical results rather than letting go enough for my liking. Even when she let rip (often, especially after the interval) – something the size of her voice easily allows for – it seemed strangely contained.

The audience responded very warmly to her coaxing, though, even when I thought she was going a bit far with the please like me attitude. American singers are not shy about their ambitions. But, come on, you’re Radvanovsky, not a beginner, of course people will like you if you drop by. Now, like she said she would like to, she could start with some Strauss – perhaps Ariadne? – and call again.

INTERVAL

LisztS’il est un charmant gazon; Enfant, si j‘étais roi; Oh! Quand je dorsBarberHermit Songs – At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory; St Ita’s Vision; The Crucifixion; The Monk and His Cat; The Desire for HermitageGiordanoLa mamma morta from Andrea Chénier

The surprise of the night was the Barber set. I felt it was the best suited to her voice, like she had reached her true home – and made me love it in the process.

Seeing as Barber wrote it for Leontyne Price (check them both out here), she talked a bit about fangirling Price. Apparently she decided to pursue an opera career after listening to Price sing Verdi. I can’t blame her, I think Price does the phattest maledizione there is (but the whole thing is worth it):

Yes. That last note was held exactly as long as it should’ve been. Even if it’s an old recording, you can tell how well her voice holds against the orchestra.

So whilst Radvanovky isn’t the second coming of Price, she does inhabit a similar vocal space.

ENCORE:

Song to the Moon Rusalka
I could’ve danced all night My Fair Lady – and she could’ve!
Io son l’umile ancella… Adriana Lecouvreur
Vissi d’arte Tosca

4 encores after all that – Americans and their work ethic 😉 There’s never enough Adriana Lecouvreur in the recitals I attend, so I was right happy, but to be fair Vissi d’arte turned out to be surprisingly moving2. Perhaps because it was the last piece she dropped a bit of that control – and it was a good thing. What we learned tonight? Going out of your comfort zone can be surprisingly rewarding.


  1. I’d just finished a set of night shifts the morning before the performance and was afraid I’d doze off but I was far from it. Good job, SR! 
  2. Nice combo, two arias about living for art – prefaced by her comment that the world right now needs more music and less… all that stupid crap (she didn’t put it like that). 
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