Mahler without singing 

When you have a great soprano scheduled to appear in a program with Mario Venzago and his Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra that includes a Mahler symphony, you just assume she will be singing in the Mahler. Evidently that’s what The Indianapolis Star assumed in last Friday’s “Go” section. Young, up-and-coming Nicole Cabell was announced in the paper’s preview as singing several opera arias plus the “vocal parts” of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor (1902), which it stated as being “significant.”

Trouble is, there are no singing parts in the Mahler Fifth; the hour-and-10-minute behemoth is entirely instrumental. Among his 10 symphonies (some more “behemothic” than others), Mahler added voices — to varying degrees — only in his Second, Third, Fourth and Eighth. Cabell would have been made to order for the Fourth, whose final movement Mahler beautifully adapted for soprano and orchestra from one of his Wunderhorn songs.

And that is precisely why this 18th of the 20 ISO classical programs comprising this season somewhat disappointed. Cabell did indeed sing three arias from operas by Charles Gounod, Gustave Charpentier and Gaetano Donizetti during the program’s first half. But that wasn’t enough — for me or for the audience. If Venzago had programmed the Mahler Fourth, Cabell would have returned after three instrumental movements and rounded out the program with another aspect of her superb vocalizing; she would have defined and encased the program.

Why? Because Cabell simply has one of the best soprano voices to visit these environs. She established that prominence when she first appeared here with conductor laureate Raymond Leppard in his 2005 ISO “Classical Christmas” program. Rich, beautifully modulated, yet nicely constrained within that optimum pitch-vibrato range, this native Californian’s vocal delivery seems to look toward that great Met soprano diva, Renée Fleming. And, at age 29, having won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2005, Cabell surely seems destined either to follow in Fleming’s footsteps or to create equally prominent ones of her own.

Cabell began her pre-intermission recital with “Je veux vivre dans ce rêve” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette (1867). She followed with the frankly erotic aria “Depuis le jour où je me suis donnée” from the third act of Charpentier’s Louise (1900). Venzago then offered a change of pace with the famed orchestral Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s short favorite, Cavalleria Rusticana. And Cabell returned once more to sing “Quel guardo il cavaliere/So anch’io la virtù magica,” an aria pair appearing early in Donizetti’s late written comedy Don Pasquale (1843). She brought sufficient finesse to these diverse selections that the standing audience clamored for more — but didn’t get any.

The best I can say about the Mahler Fifth is that Venzago gave us an amazing performance of it; its five movements within three parts showed him and his huge orchestra at their collective best. From the opening funeral march to the chaotic second movement to the titanic Scherzo, Mahler unleashes forces that might easily get out of control. But Venzago kept them at their pristine bay. Then, through the wonderfully famous Adagietto, written only for strings and harp as a love letter to Mahler’s bride, to the joyous, boisterous, fugal Finale, Venzago had a place for every instrument and held every instrument in its place. The result was another standing ovation.

Still, I wanted Cabell to close the program.

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Tom Aldridge

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