Tenor Paul Appleby hits rough territory in Vocal Arts D.C.’s season finale

May 17, 2011

What a song recitalist sings can be just as important as how it is sung. A case in point was the final recital of the Vocal Arts D.C. season Monday night, which reunited tenor Paul Appleby with pianist and song programming guru Steven Blier. Appleby, familiar to local audiences from his apprenticeship at the Wolf Trap Opera Company, performed a program in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater that showcased his sweet, ringing voice and his showmanship, for better or worse.

Appleby attacked a set of mostly forgettable Italian serenades by Verdi, Mascagni and Pedrotti, with a well-studied sound that became almost a parody of its own stereotypes, all ardent, sobbing tone and scooped attacks. For most of this varied program, he applied the heroic side of his voice, which could command considerable power, with judicious care.

In the second set, though, four intriguing songs by Alexander Zemlinsky sent Appleby’s voice into unpleasant territory; he misjudged the musical style, simply hurling as much sound at them as he could in a way that was more hollering than lyrical.

He was at his best in more evocative music, especially a set of French songs by Albert Roussel, featuring a dulcet, almost crooning head voice that he used to great effect in “Jazz dans la nuit,” over the echoes of an outdoor jazz band in Blier’s piano part. Much of the second half, which included sultry, vibrantly colored Argentinian and Brazilian songs and jazzy American popular songs by Gershwin and others, was familiar from last year’s New York Festival of Song program at Wolf Trap, which featured Appleby.

At the end, Appleby proudly plunged past the nadir of self-indulgent encores with eye-rolling renditions of songs by Bruce Springsteen (a tongue-in-cheek “Fire”) and Paul Simon (a more sincere and smarmy “American Tune”). It had to have been a Vocal Arts first.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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