An Exceptional Tenor

October 25, 2001 - Durham, NC:

The extraordinary tenor, Rockwell Blake, gave an exceptionally satisfying recital on Thursday October 25, 2001, in Duke's Baldwin Auditorium. His appearance was co-sponsored by the Duke University Department of Music and the Triangle Opera. They are both due extreme gratitude from the hardy band of attendees who were treated to this world-class artist.

It was shameful that there were not more people in attendance. Admittedly, Blake is not as generally well-known as Jerry Hadley or Ben Heppner (two other operatic tenors soon to visit the Triangle) but within operatic circles he is revered for his total command of bel canto technique, especially in the music of Rossini. His astonishing recordings and his numerous appearances in opera houses around the world attest to his talents. He has even been decorated by the Italian and French governments with their highest arts honors (which he proudly wore on his tux lapel during the recital).

The recital at Duke was one that Blake put together after four years of studying the songs of Rossini and Liszt. His theory is that there is an ongoing link from one composer to the other. While such a statement seems almost ludicrous at first hearing, Blake made a good case for it with the selections on his program as did his cogent, humor-filled commentary before each song.

The first half, all Rossini, began with a song from the "Soirées musicales," published in 1835. This represented Rossini's earlier period of song writing (those done only a few years after he retired from writing operas in 1829). "La Gita in gondola" is a lovely evocation of the gentle rocking of a gondola which transports two lovers. The mood and emotions were marvelously evoked by Blake's soft but fully rounded tone, his clear diction and his dramatizing of the scene. It also demonstrated his signature bright, focused tone.

He was aided immensely by his accompanist, William Hicks, an assistant conductor at the Met as well as an accompanist for many other well-known opera singers. His feeling for the swaying rhythms set the standard for his valuable contributions for the rest of the evening.

The seven other songs on the first half came from the later period of Rossini's life after he began living in Paris in 1855. These later songs take on a richer, less ornamented form, a far cry from the world of the "Barber" and the Venetian showpieces. "Sorzico" and "Le dodo des enfants" are two of the many settings Rossini made of a text by Metastasio, "Mi lagnerò tacendo," a declaration of rejected love. The first, less than a minute long, is fiery and defiant, the second, a longer, yearning plea. In both, Blake made the differences plain in tone and demeanor. In "Lontananza" and "Il fanciullo smarrito," he used his considerable dramatic gifts to express a distant lover's tribute and a worried parent's joy at the return of a lost child. "Ariette à l'ancienne," another lover's lament, allowed Blake to display the control he has of his lower range.

Blake's admirable ability to build a character was put into play with two aria-like selections. In "Le sylvain," he vividly expressed the suffering of a god rejected by his beloved for his ugliness. "Roméo," an intense setting of the famous lover's reactions at finding Juliet "dead," was the evening's highlight. Blake's easy handling of the high-speed text, the quick-change emotions and the wonderful, full-out high notes solidified the impression of an artist in full control of all the elements which give life to each musical effect.

The six Liszt songs on the second half were all composed in the 1830's. Liszt actually attended some of Rossini's musical evenings and, Blake contends, was influenced by Rossini's melodic and dramatic gifts. Although Liszt's 80 songs are not a major part of his output, they can be surprisingly gentle and romantic, as evidenced by the first three selections. "S'il est un charmant gazon" is a light, fluttering ode to a bucolic existence with a lover, rendered tenderly by both singer and pianist. "Comment, disaient-ils" has a quiet humor with it depiction of two lovers alternating in conversation, he in great agitation, she in calming platitudes. Blake gave the two enough distinction to make them amusing without resorting to parody or excess. In Liszt's best-known song, "Oh, quand je dors," Blake employed an enchanting mezza voce for the dreamy text, keeping his concentration, even through an unfortunate interruption from a campus wireless communication suddenly broadcast on the auditorium speakers. Hicks was remarkable in his playing of the little-used (read more difficult) original accompaniment with its mesmerizing thick chords and close harmonies.

The last three songs were part of short song cycle based on texts from Schiller's "Wilhelm Tell." These were more like the Liszt of the later piano pieces with heavier accompaniment and grander structure. These required Blake to call upon reserves of volume and expansiveness not needed in the earlier part of the program. Especially in the first song, "Der Fischerknabe," the outpouring of voluminous, big tone was surprising and impressive. The other two, "Der Hirt" and "Der Alpenjäger" were more turgid and bombastic, pushing Blake to his limits. These grandiose works had showy flights of pianism but were not as satisfying as vocal pieces.

The enthusiasm of the audience was rewarded by four (!) encores, the difficulty and energy of which would have been challenging even for a regular program. Blake obviously enjoyed presenting these to the audience, identifying them as his standard audition pieces. The infamous nine high C's of "Ah! mes amis" from Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment" held no terrors for Blake, nor did the long-breathed lines of "Il mio tesoro" from Mozart's "Don Giovanni." The pure, simple lines of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" and the rapid ornamentation of the fiendish "Where 'ere you walk" from Handel's "Semele" gave final proof of Blake's consummate artistry and talent.

One would be hard-pressed to find anything problematic. Yes, there is the sometimes inappropriate "smile" that Blake uses to set his and pitch and focus, and there are sometimes odd "wrigglings" he uses to force out the volume and note separations. He can be overly theatrical in delivering the text and too fervent in punching the high notes. But these are mere nitpickings against the warmth, charm and enthusiasm Blake brings to bear in his confident musicality and unique technical control.

Those who missed this recital can catch him in full operatic mode in "The Barber of Seville" being staged by the newly-formed Asheville Lyric Opera on November 9 and 10 (see our calendar for details).