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Singers - assuming they're worthy of the name, of course - are the most fortunate artists, 'cause they never need to worry about hauling their instrument around with them (as harpists or bassists or cellists or tubists must do) or about messing with reeds or mutes or sticks or what-have-you. They don't have probs with airport security personnel (unless they are too large for, say, a small commuter plane and are thus invited to shift seats, move to the opposite side, etc.). Time can mess 'em up, but this happens to all of us. And their work is more susceptible to the flu and colds than the work of, say, critics....
Some singers are "natural" vocalists, while others have instruments of the "manufactured" kind. The first time we heard Risa Poniros, whose family has long been a strong presence in Raleigh, we realized that hers is a wonderful and natural voice, a gift, and that her greatest challenge might be to make sure no one persuades her to do something harmful to the voice - that, in other words, no klutz of a teacher wrecks that great natural instrument. Poniros' voice appealed immediately to this writer, years ago, because it was so fresh and natural, and because her delivery - of whatever she happened to sing - was so direct and simple and from the heart. In this regard, too, she's among a small and elite group of artists - locally, including Penelope Jensen and Florence Peacock - with exceptional communications skills, skills that may be even more important, in the overall scheme of things, than sheer vocal quality.
Now Poniros is working on an advanced degree, and for that degree she is obliged to give one of those "survey" programs, consisting of a bit of this and a bit of that, intended to demonstrate her mastery of various styles. She presented her big program at Meredith, in the inordinately bright Carswell Recital Hall, on November 24. Her opening group was accompanied by an instrumental (string) ensemble. The rest of the evening involved pianist Julie Flinchum. There was a printed program and a supplemental set of translations and notes. (Actually, there were some texts and some translations....)
The music encompassed works by Mozart and Ravel and masters of German Lied and Menotti and Hundley and Thomas and - for the opener - Finzi. The ground thus covered included pieces both sacred and profane from the opera and the parlor and the concert hall.
Poniros' is not a large voice, but it filled the SRO hall and then some, and it was (is) large enough to have benefited from the support that would have come from having the piano lid on the short stick, at least, instead of muffled by being closed all night, which was the case. Flinchum didn't overpedal, however, and most of the attendees seemed thrilled -; for most of the program.
Since 'twas partly a scholarly exercise (although this aspect didn't intrude on the public), one expected great detail in the program, including all the academic trappings usually found on such occasions - dates of the specific works, opus or other catalog numbers, texts along with translations of the "foreign" pieces, and the latter laid out with care so as to avoid noisy page-turns during the singing. For the most part, these things were lacking. Not all the poets were credited, and a well-known one's name was misspelled.
Mozart was represented by an aria written for a 1789 performance of Cimarosa's I due baroni (libretto by Palomba). "Alma grande, e nobil core," K.578, was originally scored for pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns, plus strings. The person responsible for the edition given was not credited. There was a bit of an edge to the voice when pressed to high volume in the upper register, during this theatrical aria. Poniros is not a dramatic soprano and should resist efforts to turn her into one.
Given her Greek heritage, Poniros' performances of Ravel's Cinq mélodies populaires greques had a lot going for them. Ravel used translations by Calvocoressi when he set these five songs in 1904-6 (at least three more are lost). Poniros reverted to the original Greek words, sang them absolutely from the heart with great intimacy and directness, and in turn won the hearts of her audience from the very first phrase.
Her Lieder were projected almost as well, in precise and idiomatic German. Schumann's "Widmung," Op. 25/1, and "In der Fremde," Op. 39/1, Schubert's familiar "Gretchen am Spinnrade," D.118, and Strauss' early "Zueignung," Op. 10/1 (to a poem by H. von Gilm) made a very attractive group, and Poniros did all she could to maintain a sense of continuity among the songs, in the face of her enthusiastic audience.
The singer peaked again during the powerful aria, "To this we've come," from Menotti's The Consul. This is more indebted to Broadway (where it was officially premiered) than to grand opera houses, and the setting and the text, too, seemed to suit Poniros admirably. Her closing songs, by Richard Hundley and Richard Pearson Thomas, were representative of the lighter programs this fine artist has presented in previous seasons.
The concert began with Finzi's Dies Natalis, Op. 8 (1926 & 1938-9), accompanied by a small string ensemble (9 violins, 2 violas, cello & bass) dubbed the Meredith College String Orchestra and conducted (and presumably prepared and trained) by Jack Roller. It was surely the sorriest string ensemble I have ever heard at any college or university, including beginning children's groups - these folks seemed incapable of playing more than two or three measures together or in tune. Poniros struggled valiantly to put a positive face on this for the 28 minutes it took (it seemed like 28 hours ). No one fled, but if the string bunch had been scheduled for anything else, I would have been history at 8:32 p.m.... Poniros absolutely cannot risk having this gang play for her committee, or she will be laughed out of the hall.