Gabriele Fontana and Peter Weber

The lieder recital by soprano Gabriele Fontana and baritone Peter Weber launched the music series at the Austrian Embassy Thursday, setting Olympian standards for the area's concert season. Both singers, who are members of the Vienna State Opera, have brilliant careers on Europe's leading opera stages.

For their American debut, the Austrian singers (husband and wife) alternately soloed or teamed up for those amorous dialogues of German art songs. Particularly in the first set of Richard Strauss lieder, it was clear that Fontana's ravishing soprano deserves global recognition. She employs the operatic power and spaciousness of her voice to support the song's intimate scope, capturing the poetic ambiance of a single phrase or even a single word. She alters vocal color to match key changes or injects as much resonance into a consonant as into a vowel.

Weber displayed his sense of overwhelming drama first in a familiar group of Schubert lieder, pairing the fine tuning of an individual phrase with authority and a sense of the awesome that grips "Ganymed," for example.

Pianist Ronald Schneider's intelligent and knowing piano accompaniment was another key to the successful evening.

--Cecelia Porter

Ernesto Farago and Tonia Tecce

Violinist Ernesto Farago's cursory reconnoiterings of pieces by Pergolesi, Szymanowski, Schumann and Poulenc at the French Embassy Thursday night were painfully lifeless. His relentlessly flat tone held the music literally in constant decline, melody remained imprisoned within the bar lines, and dynamic levels alternated sluggishly between a bit louder and a bit softer. The curious result was that composers separated by time and temperament--Poulenc and Schumann, Pergolesi and Szymanowski--sang in one color, a flat industrial gray. Pianist Martha Blakely accompanied primly and anonymously, as though she were reluctant to enter her partner's bleak terrain.

Things improved when soprano Tonia Tecce took the stage for love songs by Poulenc ("Les chemins de l'amour") and Alfred Bachelet ("Chere nuit"), delivered in a small but pleasing voice that toughened somewhat under pressure but remained affecting. Composer Marcel Farago (Ernesto's brother) contributed a premiere of his "Le Cri du Prince des Sots (The Cry of the Prince of Fools)," sung by the George Mason University Chamber Singers (a chorus of about 40) under conductor Stanley Engebretson, with violin accompaniment by Ernesto and vocal interpolations by Tecce. The music is playful fluff couched in yesteryear's harmonies, which the choir navigated tentatively and without much rhythmic authority.

--Ronald Broun