Pape strikes a lighter tone in Met recital
It’s peculiar to walk into the Metropolitan Opera’s massive auditorium and see nothing on the stage but a piano. For the past several years, the Met has made an effort to revive the practice of presenting solo recitals at the house, bringing in the company’s leading dramatic singers for one-night-only performances of art song. The cavernous auditorium is less than ideal for such intimate repertoire, but at a time when vocal recitals seem particularly rare and lieder singers lack A-list star appeal, the Met’s annual recital is a welcome gesture.
It is peculiar, too, to hear René Pape in this repertoire. One of the most powerful voices on the operatic stage, his is not a quintessential lieder instrument, and towards the beginning of his recital on Sunday he struggled to bring his sound down to the level of the music. As he continued, however, and came to repertoire more suited to his voice, he showed that even without the dramatic trappings of the theater, he is a formidable artistic force.
Oddly, the German bass seemed least connected to repertoire of his compatriot Beethoven in the Six Songs after Gellert. Pape’s spacious low notes and the rich ringing of his upper register were evident, but he may not have been quite warmed up—once or twice an entrance was out of tune, and there was a hardness to his singing in most of these songs.
“Busslied” (“Song of penance”) highlighted this set, passionate but earnest throughout, its emotional ups and downs sensitively reflected in Pape’s rolling phrases. At the piano, Camillo Radicke mostly delivered simple, straightforward playing in the Beethoven songs, though flowing lines had a tendency to sound swollen.
There was more color to Pape’s interpretations of Dvořák’s ten Biblical Songs, as well as more crackle in his tone. The first song, “Oblak a mrákota jest vůkol Něho” (“Darkness and clouds are round about Him”), showed greater dynamic fluctuation, just in the first line, than anything in the Beethoven. Radicke, too, was significantly more engaged, his touch carrying a soft glow.
The deliberate pace of “Slyš, ó Bože, volání mé” (“Hear my prayer, O Lord”) allowed Pape to open up his full velvet tone, and “Pozdvihuji očí svých k horám” (“I will lift up my eyes”) showed off his commanding top. Still, most of these songs are slow-moving, pieces that contrast ruminative landscapes with peaks of full-throated passion. Ably sung though they were, they offered little contrast to the Beethoven set and left the listener craving a little variety.
The recital’s second half came as a breath of fresh air, starting with Three Shakespeare Songs set by Roger Quilter. In Twelfth Night’s quiet, pining “Come away, Death” Pape showed a completely different tone from what we heard in the first half—or, for that matter, from what we usually hear from him in the theater—revealing a sound far lighter in hue, as though taking off a heavy overcoat. He brought supple phrasing and potent yearning to the song, spinning perfect silk with his voice.
From the same play, “O Mistress mine” was bright and plucky, full of easy sentiment. As You Like It’s “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” is a less effective setting, jerking around uncomfortably, but Pape gave it a richly colored performance nonetheless.
Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death allowed Pape to break into the dramatic element that had been conspicuously absent earlier in the program. “Kolybelnaya” (“Lullaby”) was brimming with energy, never settled even in its hushed moments. For this cycle Pape returned to his familiar viscous sound, covering the lyrics with a warm blanket.
“Serenada,” another deceptively titled song, portrays Death singing at the window of a sleeping maiden, and Pape’s characterization was frightening. His secure, malleable tone betrayed no apparent menace—his amorous passion, smoothly navigating a text rife with violent undertones, was disturbing in its obsessive desire.
More overt malevolence came through in “Trepak,” which finds a weary, drunken traveller in the final throes of death. Radicke gleefully needled on the keyboard while Pape stretched his phrases into snarls.
The final song, “Polkovodets” (“The Field Marshal”), saw the bass at his most imposing as he painted a grim picture of a battlefield. His closing lines, portraying Death as a field commander who triumphs over all, filled the auditorium with his booming voice and towering presence. Here, as in all of his repertoire on Sunday, Pape was an image of composure, making no superfluous motions, and communicating everything with his voice and phrasing alone.
Returning to his native language for two encores, Pape delivered a breathtaking, aching rendition of Richard Strauss’s “Zueignung,” followed by a tender and intimate reading of Schumann’s “Kinderwacht.” He closed with a crowd-pleaser: a smooth “If Ever I Should Leave You” from Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot.