Christine Brewer's Enthralling Night
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Christine Brewer may be the most powerful dramatic soprano currently striding the world's concert stages. Her voice is almost a force of nature -- more like a beautifully controlled tornado than anything else -- and it's no wonder she's been making a name for herself as a full-blooded and huge-voiced Wagnerian.
But there's more to Brewer than rafter-rattling, as she showed on Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. In a program that ranged from passion-crazed Strauss to ultra-civilized Britten, Brewer proved that her voice is indeed a thing of wonder -- uniquely and ravishingly colored, with a huge range and rock-steady evenness. More interesting, though, was the naturalness and spontaneity Brewer brought to her interpretations; the power came not just from the magnificent voice but from the brain behind it.
Accompanied with fine sensitivity by pianist Craig Rutenberg, Brewer opened the program with Wagner's much-loved "Wesendonck-Lieder." It was a good choice; she seemed to inhabit the five songs more than just sing them, exploring their bold heroics and tender depths with an effortless, intimate grace. Her sense of phrasing and pacing are acute, and every detail was clearly etched -- yet nothing felt contrived or calibrated for effect.
The slightly unhinged erotic tension of Richard Strauss's "Gesange des Orients" made for more daunting fare. Rarely performed, the five songs push singers to their limits, and the demands in the high register made even Brewer sound almost strained at times. Turbulent, sensual and feverishly intense, the songs are not for the faint of heart -- and Brewer unleashed them with a passion that nearly tore the ears off everyone in the room.
The tone lightened considerably in the second half of the program, when Brewer (having symbolically changed from a formal black velvet gown into more casual attire) sang John Carter's 1964 Cantata. Based on four traditional spirituals, the work breaks no new ground, but the settings are sophisticated, flavorful and restrained, and the vocal lines soar unimpeded -- as they should. Brewer soared with them; her ethereal account of "Sometimes I Feel (Like a Motherless Child)" was especially moving.
Five settings of songs from the British Isles closed the program. All were warmly sung and benefited from Brewer's unaffected approach. Benjamin Britten's arrangement of "The Salley Gardens" especially stood out for its subtlety and delicacy of feeling. Called back onstage by a rapturous audience, Brewer and Rutenberg performed no fewer than five encores, including "Mira" (from Bob Merrill's "Carnival") and Harold Arlen's "I Had Myself a True Love."