Let’s Hope the Dallas Opera’s New Art Song Series Is Here to Stay

If the folks who put together this song recital with Ian Bostridge can follow up with other concerts of this quality, this is a project well worth pursuing.

Last Saturday, the Dallas Opera took a side-road from its main function as a presenter of opulent stage productions at Winspear Opera House by presenting British tenor Ian Bostridge with pianist Wenwen Du in a recital of art song across the street at Dallas City Performance Hall. Touted as the opening event on a new “Robert E. and Jean Ann Titus Art Song Recital Series,” the Bostridge-Du recital is so far the only event announced on the series. But, if the folks who put this together can follow up with other concerts of this quality, this is a project well worth pursuing.

What the nearly full house at the Dallas City Performance Hall witnessed was one of the finest tenors of our time in a beautifully organized and well-thought program that, in barely two hours, managed to epitomize the art song and its potential not only as a dramatic but intellectual genre. Bostridge and Du devoted the first half of the evening to what might be referred to as Part I of Schubert’s monumental Winterreise (“Winter Journey”) cycle—the twelve songs with texts by Wilhelm Müller Schubert set early in 1827, before he became aware of a second group of poems which he added to produce the complete 24-song version of Wintereisse later that year. A complete performance of the 24-song set takes up an entire evening on its on; so, by presenting only Part I, Bostridge not only created the opportunity to experience the original version of Schubert’s concept, but also gave a unique historical and psychological context for the early- and mid-twentieth-century songs of Charles Ives, Benjamin Britten, Noel Coward, and Cole Porter featured after intermission.

Bostridge had previously made a searing impression as tenor soloist for Britten’s War Requiem with the Dallas Symphony in November 2012. For this recital, he once again demonstrated a remarkable combination of vocal quality and dramatic presence. His voice is beautiful yet absolutely distinctive and recognizable as Bostridge. Always generally light in quality, he switches easily and quickly from a straight, vibrato-free tone reminiscent of an English choirboy or countertenor to a full, rich vibrato, with many gradations between. One thing he almost never does is grip the piano and stare forward, in traditional vocal recital delivery style. Rather, he constantly shifts his weight, changes his posture, turns his gaze from side to side, and emotes with facial expression as fluid as Jim Carrey. (I suspect that every person in the audience must have felt, as I did, that he was at times looking right at me.)

Schubert’s cycle, a lyric expression of alienation and despair represented by the plight of a rejected lover and symbolized by a desolate winter landscape, became, in Bostridge’s interpretation, a gradually intensifying slide into psychosis and hopelessness—in short, a psychological mono-drama, or, perhaps, mono-opera. Pianist Du’s insightful collaboration reminded that, after all, Schubert’s greatest piano writing—not to belittle his masterpieces for solo piano—is in his song accompaniments.

It was not surprising that Schubert’s darkness cast an obvious shadow on Bostridge’s rendition of Britten’s frankly Schubertian Winter Words cycle (with texts by Thomas Hardy). What was intriguing were the reverberations of Wintereisse in songs by Ives, Porter, and Coward. The echo of Schubert elevated the almost mawkish sentimentality of Ives’ “Rather Sad” into a devastating and sorrowful portrait, and likewise pointed out an oft-overlooked depth in Porter’s “Everytime We Say Goodbye” and Coward’s “Twentieth-Century Blues” and “The Party’s Over Now.”

Bostridge and Du encored with Schubert’s “Die Forelle” and Britten’s suave arrangement of the folksong known in America as “The Water is Wide,” bringing an end to what will hopefully be the first of many more events of this sort.

Photo: Ian Bostridge (By David Thompson – via)