ISO Classical Series Program No. 16
Hilbert Circle Theatre
Angela Brown performed with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra last weekend.
Indianapolis' own native soprano and Metropolitan Opera starring ingénue Angela Brown made a triumphal return to her old haunts last weekend with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. A disappointingly small Circle Theatre audience was enthralled with an ample demonstration of Brown's very ample voice, with which she easily showcased a variety of styles. To witness a hometown talent make the big time, then return (Brown intends to make Indy her home once again), has possibly been the highlight of this classical season.
Brown joined 31-year-old Canadian guest conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin in an operatic-leaning program, opening with the Overture to Wagner's Tannhäuser (1845). The French horns took front and center, beginning the overture with the very lovely and familiar "Pilgrims' Chorus," which builds to a climax and is then "interrupted" with material from the opera-opening "Venusberg" scene. This includes Tannhäuser's "Song to Venus," given twice, then - following a short climactic bridge - the "Pilgrims' Chorus" returns and triumphs at the end. Nézet-Séguin collected his forces into a cohesive group, giving the overture a solid, substantial reading worthy of the orchestra's best efforts.
Brown then made her first appearance with the aria "Dich teure Halle" ("Oh, Hall of Song"), from Tannhäuser's second act. She sang the role of Elizabeth, the pure, chaste love of Tannhäuser's earthly existence - as distinct from the carnal love he has for Venus in his other-worldly domain.
Then came the well-known "Triumphal March" from Act 2 of Verdi's Aida (1871), which included the "grand ballet" music; indeed most of the opera's pageantry scene was heard in this all-orchestral excerpt. Rebecca Price Arrensen showed her excellent piccolo skills in the ballet music, and Nézet-Séguin once again proved himself with his players.
With Brown reappearing for "Ritorna vincitor" from Aida's Act 1 and "O Patria Mia" from the Nile scene of Act 3, we had one of our few chances to hear the mature - which is to say the "great" - Verdi from the Circle stage.
Nézet-Séguin began the second half with Tchaikovsky's ever-popular Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy. Once again, from the opening Friar Laurence sequences, through the Capulet-Montegue clashes, to the immortal love music, the conductor and orchestra gave us all the nuances - including an extremely wide dynamic range - Tchaikovsky incorporated for his 1880 revision. Sometime it might be an interesting diversion to play the composer's original 1869 version, which contains a completely different opening, as well as a fugal section and a funeral march near the end - neither of which we're used to hearing.
Brown once again returned to deliver the beautifully lyric "Summertime," followed by the dramatically wistful "My Man's Gone Now," both from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Nézet-Séguin concluded his all-orchestral ISO debut in this style with Gershwin's sassy, raucous, rumba-filled Cuban Overture - betokening, for better or worse, a Cuba that no longer exists.
What can one say about Brown's singing: her vocalizing, her dramatic, powerful delivery at the highest of registers with a voice quality that never changes? Whether we hear Wagner, Verdi, Gershwin or whomever, we hear a commitment to style, to emotion perfectly suitable to the moment. As Aida the slave girl, her devotion to her Ethiopian heritage was palpable in "My Native Land, ne'er more shall I behold," not to mention the aria's extreme technical challenges, past which Brown sailed as though it was second nature.
My only caveat was that I found her vibrato excessively wide, such that I was hearing, on a sustained line, a whole-step variation in her pitch, especially in her high registers.
Brown concluded the concert with two spirituals: first, "Lord, how come me here?" sung without accompaniment and ending with the sadly repeated refrain, "I wish I never was born." She then had the players join her for the very contrasting "Ride on King Jesus." We left with smiles on our faces.