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Two outstanding vocalists known in large measure for their operatic credentials joined forces with one of our region's finest pianists and accompanists, a person likewise heavily steeped in vocal music, operatic and otherwise, for what proved to be a truly exceptional evening in Smedes Parlor at St. Mary's School. The program drew a near-capacity crowd that included some distinguished singers and even more enthusiasts of the vocal art.
The artists were Kimberley Bentley, a NY-based soprano with deep Raleigh roots whose most recent Triangle opera performance was as Desdemona in Verdi's Otello, reviewed here. Tenor Wade Henderson, one of the area's most consistently reliable singers, portrayed Melot in North Carolina Opera's recent presentation of Act II of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, reviewed here. Bentley is a poised and polished artist with astonishingly good diction and engaging stage presence with which she insightfully puts across all the nuances of the texts. Henderson can be plenty animated on stage but as a recitalist manages to covey drama and emotion without histrionics. Pianist Catherine Hamner fortunately has never been absent for long from area concert platforms; she is perhaps best known as accompanist and then music director of the late-lamented (locally, at least) National Opera Company, which morphed some years ago into the UNCSA's Fletcher Opera Institute.
Bentley and Hamner got things underway with familiar and much-loved Lieder by Brahms and Strauss. Texts and translations were provided, and the lights facilitated reference to them but for many in attendance they were hardly needed, so well-known are the songs and so magnificent was the delivery of them – from both artists. The room is one of the capital's better venues, a delight, visually and acoustically, and in it, the balance was superb.
Henderson joined Bentley for the big duet from Act II of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, in which both singers were in absolutely top form. This is powerful music, rich in emotion and drama (given the fact that Amelia is the wife of another man). Excitement in the room was palpable as this substantial (10-minute) excerpt unfolded before our ears.
Three songs by Liszt, a composer too rarely heard in vocal programs, followed. There were not one but two impressive and contrasting versions of that master's setting of Goethe's "Freudvoll und leidvoll" (from Egmont, better known perhaps in Beethoven's earlier setting with orchestral accompaniment). Then came "Die Lorelei," the stunning little mini-scena relating the myth of the lovely denizen of a Rhine River rock who lured unsuspecting sailors to their deaths. (On a tour of Germany half a century ago I sailed past that river rock and lived to tell the tale.)
Henderson then came forward to deliver a gorgeous performance of the "Flower Song" from Bizet's Carmen, radiant as sung and in near-native-sounding French.
The intermission-less concert continued with a lighter concluding group, launched with William Bolcom's "Amor," which found Bentley at her most charming. (This cabaret number, from the Cabaret Songs, brought to mind the artist's generous benefit concert for CVNC some two-and-a-half years ago.)
The duet, "If I loved You," from Carousel, received a lovely performance from the two singers, full of heartfelt emotion. The solo "aria," "I Could Have Danced all Night," from My Fair Lady, was a good fit for Bentley, and it's a number even Wagnerian sopranos can do (as Birgit Nilsson demonstrated).
The program ended with Lee Hoiby's "The Serpent," a delightfully sibilant song that served as an amusing cap for this richly rewarding concert by two singers who must be at their absolute peaks, vocally-speaking, assisted throughout by a great partner at the keyboard.
There was a big ovation but no encore. Everyone must have wanted to get to that St. Mary's punchbowl!