"Was it wonderful?" someone wanted to know of last night's 3 1/2-hour singing feast in tribute to former opera star George London. Well, it was vocal gluttony, and some things came off better than others. But, yes, it was wonderful.
There has never been anything like it before here. Maybe only an artist with the kind of loyalty to his colleagues for which London was noted could bring so many of them together in a fund-raiser. They came to the Kennedy Center out of sheer concern for his welfare in the desperate illness that has stilled him for the last four years.
A team of 17 that ranges from the phenomenal lung power of the veteran Dame Joan Sutherland to the extraordinarily suave lyricism of the younger Richard Stilwell can't really fall flat, either individually or together. And nobody did last night.
Then, who was best? Well, I'm not going out on that limb. But, of course, there is a competitive dimension to this kind of event. And it might be relevant that the only singers the audience called back three times instead of two were soprano Sutherland, after "Oh beau pays de la Touraine," from Meyerbeer's "Les Huguentos," and tenor Nicolai Gedda, after Lenski's aria from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." And the enthusiasm wasn't just because the two were the popular favorites. One doubts that even given their ages, anyone else can sing either work as well.
There were a number of the problems that conventionally afflict star galas -- a predilection for fireworks over lyricism from singers who want to make quick strikes, raggedness from people who have jet lag from arriving too late, the occasional slurpy sentiment and a taste for cozying up to the audience with popular favorites. All this happened last night. But the finest moments proved often to be the happy exceptions to these rules.
The women singers had the biggest names and were the drawing cards for the high-paying sellout audience. But, as it turned out, it was the men who outscored, mostly on pure musicianship. And at least four were simply superb.
There was, of course, Gedda. He has been at the very top for more than 30 years. His musicianship and versatility are unmatched. His diction is so fine, as is his command of languages, that perhaps only George London came close among that generation. But as London's wife Nora granted, "Even George did not quite match Nicky on this." And his voice is fraying so slowly that he may not have to quit until his 70s.
The piano accompanist was Mstislav Rostropovich. One of the evening's touching moments came when both men stopped and bowed to a portrait of George London as they left the stage. They both must have known that London would have found their performance enchanting.
Another grand moment came with the surprise appearance of tenor James King, who was not on the program and flew in on short notice from Buenos Aires "just out of loyalty to George," according to emcee Beverly Sills. He sang the rarely heard and noble Prayer from Wagner's "Rienzi." And say what you may about the perils of jet lag, anybody who can sing Wagner with the nobility of phrase, evenness of line and sonority that was King's last night can fly in from the moon if he still sings that way.
Then there was what looked like the odd-man-out on the program, Richard Stilwell, with three low-key, delicate and very subtle Ravel songs among all this big artillery. These songs were specialties of London's. The range was utterly even, the sound rich, the diction a model and the stage presence powerful. Stilwell, who lives here, should have regular recitals at the Kennedy Center.
Though his voice is higher and lighter, Stilwell came closer than anyone else to sounding like George London, except for George London himself. He, of course, is almost totally confined to his home. But the evening opened and closed with him. At the beginning his recording of that poignant Rodgers & Hammerstein song for Emile de Becque, "This Nearly Was Mine," from South Pacific, was played. The dark, sonorous sound, with its wide range of timbre, was haunting, and the poignant message of personal loss brought tears to many eyes.
At the end, there was a television tape of London as Boris Godunov, "his mightiest role," as Sills noted. London hasn't sung since 1967, and for those who don't remember, here was reminder that no one has come along who really can take his place.
Of the great ladies of the evening, it was Sutherland and Carol Neblett who were at their finest. One may not much care for the aria Sutherland sang, and one may fret about some stylistic mannerisms, but nobody else could even approach her authority. Neblett, a younger follower whom London helped much, sang an aria in which she has been preeminent from the beginning of her career, "L'altra notte," from Boito's "Mefistofele." Last night she sounded almost like Tebaldi in the role. What more could you ask?
Leonie Rysanek, whose operatic partnership with London is legendary, was not always at her most accurate in "Dich teure Halle" from "Tannha user," but precision was never her strength; she has depended instead on presence, warmth and musicality, and all were there last night. As she left the stage she reached up toward the portrait and said, "Thank you, George."
Horne's normally perfect vocalizing was strained, but even then, there's only one really great bel canto mezzo, and she's it. Last night she sang "Eccomi al fine . . . Ah quel giorno" from Rossini's "Semiramide." She had some tonal problems with the legato sections but the coloratura passages were sensational. Near the end she returned with a simple lyrical rendering of "Danny Boy" that brought tears to many eyes once again.
Piano accompaniment was used throughout, and most of the time it was fine, particularly when Julius Rudel was playing. But there were at least two arias that didn't work without orchestra -- The Composer's Aria from Strauss' "Ariadne" (with Tatiana Troyanos) and "Pace, pace mio Dio" from Verdi's "La Forza del Destino" (with Shirley Verrett).
And there were additional fine performances by Rockwell Blake, James McCracken, Evelyn Lear, Thomas Stewart, Ruth Welting, Catherine Malfitano and Justino Diaz.
The evening was recorded for release on RCA and filmed for a June showing on PBS.
One final note: Beverly Sills has gotten lots of prizes in her life, but someday someone should reward her for her inimitable facility in stringing together these galas with a grace and wit that seems to elude everybody else. She's one of a kind.