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"From Darkness to Light," a recital in benefit of the Asheville Lyric Opera, was presented in St. James Church featuring Kristen Yarborough, soprano, and Vance Reese, piano. The theme fits right in with the quirkily noire series of themes that has been the fashion here for months. Supporting the arts was once the obligation of princes; may our current princes rise to their responsibility so that wonderful performers like Reese and Yarborough don't have to go around holding bake-sale type events, singing to audiences of 40 or 45 people, to support the arts.
(I am going to begin this review with a bit of reverse ego, by confessing that it was my cell phone that rang during Miss Yarborough's first aria. It is undoubtedly Madame Fate's ironic punishment for the hard words I laid on cell phone users in my last review for CVNC. I know better, and I apologize to everyone.)
For this totally secular recital, the chancel furniture of St. James had been pushed to the rear and the piano, played by Vance Reese, and Kristen Yarborough, in a dramatic black dress all covered in glitter, presented a starkly different picture than the usual Sunday morning one of a scrum of clergy and acolytes in Vatican II style fancy dress.
Reese, properly precise, sartorially quiet, and retiring, made his presence felt through his superb playing. Yarborough, in addition to being a fine singer, adds huge poise and stage presence. Her presence is devoid of mannerisms and she seems relaxed and at home in the harsh light of solo performance.
Carlisle Floyd's opera Susannah, a tower of Southern Appalachian gothic erected upon apocryphal Old Testament sexism and violence, contains some very lovely music, especially the aria "Ain't it a pretty night?" Between Yarborough's lush voice and the lush acoustics of St. James, I couldn't understand a word she said, but her marvelous acting was poignant and very effective.
From Francis Poulenc's Fiançailles pour rire, Yarborough sang II. "Dans l'herbe," V. "Violon," and IV, "Fleurs." I think Poulenc's music is largely tuneless, but that did not hinder Yarborough from making it into beautiful singing.
Next was "Quella vita a me funesta," from Donizetti's Maria Stuarda. Here was a piece of dark and powerful vocalization based on Elizabeth I's misery at her determination to kill her sister. The program translation appeared to have been done by a machine or someone in a third world call center. The aria was too quavery for one so young and with such control. Here was the first display of Yarborough's impressive upper range, beautiful like fireworks, sparkling like crystal, and sharp as a razor. Brava!
Ordinarily, about this place in the program, there's an interlude to allow the soloist to rest her voice or have a beer or whatever, while the poor drone of an accompanist hammers out some throwaway piece. Happily, that was not the case tonight, as Vance Reese is himself a performer of note. I have not yet forgotten his fine work with Julie Daugherty in January 2005. Tonight the interlude was as fine as the rest of the evening; Reese gave us Mendelssohn's "Lied ohne Worte," Op. 67, No. 2. The performance was spirited, the song a seamless keyboard vocalization.
Upon Yarborough's return she sang Richard Strauss's Vier Lieder, Op. 27, from 1894, continuing the high standard she had set earlier. Next came Verdi's "Éstrano … ah, fors' è lui" and "Sempre libera" from La Traviata. This included more high range singing, beautifully and precisely performed.
A strange poignant finale was "You'll never walk alone," from Richard Rodgers's Carousel. Yarborough sang this quietly and in perhaps her lowest register, with an unforced simplicity that touched even a hardened old reviewer. As performed, this was quite a short piece, and left me eager for a repeat.