|A Tale of Two Divas - Part II|
Ruth Ann Swenson, the Long Island, NY-born lyric coloratura, made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1991 as Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni (which in the future may be thought of as the banner year of the last quarter of the 20th century, as it also was the year Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt and Susan Graham made their first appearances in the house). A few years later, she made a spectacular impression on Met audiences and critics as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto, and I saw her sing the role. While the house erupted in sustained bravos following her "Caro nome," I sat there shaking my head, wondering how it was possible to hear a practically perfect vocal performance that left me completely unmoved. Ms. Swenson sent wave after wave of gorgeously constructed tone into the vast reaches of this impossibly huge auditorium. But heavens, it was as dull as dishwater.
Since then she has sung Zerbinetta (from Ariadne auf Naxos, and too high for her), Liù (Turandot), Elvira (I Puritani), Adina (L'Elisir d'Amore), and Lucia (...di Lammermoor). Somehow I managed to miss only one of these assumptions (Liù), but the others were all disappointments. This past December, I encountered her Lucia for the first time. Criticized for its lack of dramatic focus last season when the production was new, Swenson presented scenes in which she stood frozen, mindlessly spinning out endless streams of pearly tone. This Lucy simply didn't have a clue. The one role in which I found her to be wonderful was, oddly enough, Susanna in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. It was a reminder that Swenson was once a gifted lyric soprano before she metamorphosed into a coloratura. As Susanna, she was sexy, smart, wily, and adorable--and quite rightly, the center of the performance. I was quite touched and her singing was scintillating. I've often thought that as a coloratura, she has vocally miscast herself.
One of the great pleasures of listening to a great coloratura soprano is the sense of daring inherent in this voice type. The very nature of this kind of singing is virtuosity. Audiences have been dazzled by coloraturas from Henriette Sontag and Jenny Lind to Luisa Tetrazzini and Nellie Melba, and more closely in our own age, to Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills. We are awash these days in pretty voices that can sail through roulades and scales, leap octaves, and nail you to your seat with their high E flats. Natalie Dessay, the French soprano, Korean Sumi Jo, and the indestructible Czech, Edita Gruberova, are today's outstanding examples of this vocal species. Ruth Ann Swenson should be qualifying as the first-rate American in this group.
Ruth Ann's fourth solo recital on EMI features arias and scenes from Puccini's Turandot, Verdi's La Traviata and Rigoletto, and Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore--all roles she's sung on stage. What grabbed my attention was new repertoire on this CD--"Ave Maria" from Verdi's Otello, "In quelle trine morbide," from Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and "Mi chiamano Mimi," from Puccini's La Bohème.
I wish I could be enthusiastic about her work here, but again, I'm scratching my head. Why is Ms. Swenson such a cautious singer? The pearly tone is as lustrous as ever, and she's got the range. She even managed some very good trills (an inconsistency in her vocal arsenal). Her buttery legato is a lesson to any aspiring singer. Top notes ring out brilliantly. But the tempi she sets for each aria are deathly slow (a failing in lots of vocal recitals these days). I kept encouraging her to get the lead out. Where is there a sense of daring? In Violetta's great cabaletta, "Sempre libera," Swenson sings as though she would die if she picked up the pace! The repeated "gior, gior," never hints at the feverish recklessness that Violetta is experiencing as she contemplates her lust for living--daring the specter of death. This Violetta has no courage. In contrast such lyric sopranos with far less flexible voices such as Caballe and Albanese, sound rash in comparison.
Joan Sutherland was often accused of being a dull singer. But listen to either her complete first recording of Violetta (on London, and at a budget price), or her "Sempre libera," on her "The Art of the Prima Donna." collection. Dame Joan's singing could be opaque in diction, and dramatically generic, but never her sense of daring. Or for those who can't stand comparisons to the "good old days," try Angela Gheorghiu in her fine Covent Garden performance with Sir Georg Solti. The lovely Romanian soprano knows just how this piece should hold an audience, and she does so in the grand tradition.
In arias from Otello, La Bohème and Manon Lescaut, Ms. Swenson's rich middle and lower registers provide aural pleasure. But what in the world is she singing about? Certainly not Desdemona's sad final prayer. I'll bet her introduction to Rodolfo put the poor poet to sleep. Would she gain any more insight if she had performed these works on stage? I doubt it.
Most disappointing are the items from her regular roles--Adina (La Sonnambula) and Gilda. Her delivery of such signature tunes as "Prendi per me sei libero," and "Caro nome," have calcified into routine dullness. And where is the thrill of Amina's jubilant "Ah! non giunge?"
Lovers of good singing and Ms. Swenson in particular, will probably enjoy the beautiful sounds she makes. But I was put off by the tin-whistle pianissimi (her high soft singing has never satisfied me, and I can't quite put my finger on why. It sounds--well--unsupported). This is a pity, as the basic vocal material here is outstanding. This is a big voice, unusually so for this voice type.
It would be unfair to Julius Rudel to criticize the veteran conductor's work here. I'm sure he's simply following his diva's lead. Perhaps a stronger-willed conductor might have insisted on more, and in thinking about her work in the opera house, on television galas, and on these recitals, I note the absence, for the most part, of first-rate conductors. I'm told she is far more effective in French operatic roles. I'm still waiting to be convinced.
Ruth Ann Swenson's CD cover photo is gorgeous. The voice is gorgeous. The music is gorgeous. Now if only someone would come along and wake her up. Come on, Ruth Ann. Take some risks!
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