CLASSICAL MUSIC

Cristina Nassif showed off a rich soprano at the Austrian Embassy.
Cristina Nassif showed off a rich soprano at the Austrian Embassy. (Joe Bowman - Joe Bowman)
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Monday, January 21, 2008

Cristina Nassif and Benjamin Warschawski

Actors are warned not to work with dogs or children, who will invariably upstage them. Opera singers, take note!

Soprano Cristina Nassif and tenor Benjamin Warschawski had 95 percent of the stage time at a sold-out Embassy Series recital at the Austrian Embassy on Saturday night. Both were in fine voice -- Nassif exceptionally so. Much of the program was standard stuff, including encapsulations of "La Traviata" (the "Brindisi" from Act 1, "Lunge da lei" from Act 2 and the opera's final scene) and "Carmen" (the "Habanera," "La fleur que tu m'avais jet¿e" and, again, the conclusion). Nassif's rich soprano dominated Warschawski's thinner tenor in their duets, but both performers sang with emotional fervor.

They also showed an affinity for Leh¿r. Nassif's "Vilja-Lied" from "The Merry Widow" was beautifully sung and expressively phrased. And "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from "The Land of Smiles" displayed Warschawski's voice at its most resonant and emotive.

Both singers were especially good in works less often heard. Warschawski handled Mozart's Masonic cantata "Die Maurerfreude" with fine expression and vocal control. And Nassif found unsuspected depths in "Marietta's Lied" from Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt" and "Chi il bel sogno" from Puccini's "La Rondine."

But boy soprano Noah Winston Donahue, who will be 12 next month, captured the audience's hearts, even though "Dies Bildnis" from "The Magic Flute" was not an ideal aria for his thin, pure voice. "Ombra mai fu" from Handel's "Serse" better fit his vocal and emotional range.

George Peachey was an exemplary piano accompanist throughout -- clear, supportive and unobtrusive.

-- Mark J. Estren

Countertop Quartet

Performers of early music have learned a lot over the years. They've learned that a program of short pieces needs a context to make sense. That, while the sport of singing serious polyphony may be a blast for the singer, the audience needs more than that -- some variety and, from time to time, a sense of humor. And most of all, they've learned that early music can be sung with the same dramatic and sensual intensity that makes music of all periods and persuasions so compelling.

Somehow, the Countertop Quartet (two sopranos and two countertenors -- hence "counter" "top") seems to have missed these lessons. Its program at Christ Church Parish Kensington on Friday was a joyless and formless parade -- six Renaissance motets and a Magnificat setting, four baroque pieces, a 13th-century motet and, inexplicably, a little piece by the contemporary British composer June Clark (best known as part of a duo piano team) in an Irish folk-tune idiom. No plan and nary a smile in sight.

You could tell that soprano Deborah Sternberg (who was a stand-in for one of the ensemble's regular sopranos) hadn't had a chance to absorb the group sound, but her intonations in the Palestrina "Magnificat" setting were among the high points of the evening. Naomi DeVries Pomerantz and countertenors John Bradford Bohl and Chris Dudley sang comfortably together but seemed so focused on vowel sounds that few consonants made it past the first row.

Here's hoping that the ensemble finds a personality, because its repertoire -- early music for high voices -- is worth exploring in depth.

-- Joan Reinthaler


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