"This year, I will make a lot of money," was tenor John Aler's greeting to 1985. The 300th anniversary of the births of Bach and Handel, like that of Rameau two years ago, is a rare opportunity for a rare voice. Aler is a tenore leggiero, a voice much used in the Baroque repertoire and in the work of Mozart, Rossini and other bel canto composers. He is Mozart's Don Ottavio, Rossini's Count Almaviva, the Evangelist in Bach's St. Matthew Passion and the first voice heard in Handel's "Messiah." Most recently, in Washington, he has been Elvino in "La Sonnambula." There are never enough good voices of this kind to go around, and with all the Bach and Handel planned for this season the scarcity will be more acute than ever.
This is Aler's season at the Kennedy Center. The Baltimore native (who switched from drama studies to music while he was at Catholic University and began his singing career in Washington) seems to be spending most of his time in Europe lately: "Don Giovanni" at the Vienna State Opera, "Idomeneo" at Glyndebourne in England and recording sessions in England, France and Holland. But he managed to fit in 13 performances with the Washington Opera, and he will be back twice next month. He will sing four performances of Schubert's Mass in E-flat with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the National Symphony, and Bach's Magnificat with Neville Marriner conducting the Minnesota Orchestra. In March, his accompanists at the Kennedy Center will be James Conlon and the Rotterdam Philharmonic in Liszt's "Faust" Symphony.
Meanwhile, as Washington spends a month without Aler's special kind of light, graceful, superbly styled and articulated tenor singing, his fans can console themselves with the growing stack of his records. Recent additions to the list include Orff's "Carmina Burana," Handel's "Messiah," Rameau's "Les Bore'ades" and Liszt's "Faust" Symphony. He is not the only or even the principal attraction in any of these recordings, but in all he makes a distinctive contribution of high artistic quality. Recorded but not yet released are his performances in Offenbach's "La Belle He'le ne" and Berlioz's Requiem. Still in the planning stage is his performance in Gluck's "Iphige'nie en Tauride."
The basic emphasis is correct in this rather miscellaneous list of titles: Baroque music that requires a light voice, a strong upper range and lots of agility for florid singing. That's what Aler has. His voice moves happily and gracefully through those little lines above the treble staff where most tenors start to strain and stumble.
Curiously, Aler's discography does not yet have any Mozart or Rossini, two composers he sings frequently in live performance and the most popular in his basic repertoire. "If I only sang those two composers for the rest of my life," he says, "I'd be happy and have lots to do." We may expect the record companies to take care of that eventually. Meanwhile, here are some of Aler's current recordings.
* Rameau: "Les Bore'ades." Jennifer Smith, Anne-Marie Rodde, Philip Langridge, John Aler, Jean-Philippe Lafont. Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner, conductor (Erato STU 715343, three LPs). This is a first recording and, both as documentation and in its artistic value, one of the most important we have in the still-neglected field of French Baroque opera (another, issued recently, is Charpentier's "Mede'e" on Harmonia Mundi 1139.41 -- three LPs with libretto). The time for ideal recordings of this genre has only begun to arrive; with its emphasis on spectacular stage effects and its frequent dance numbers (both lavishly used in "Les Bore'ades"), French Baroque opera has a special need of video recording. Meanwhile, even without a libretto, this splendidly engineered sound recording gives a vivid impression of Rameau's last opera and the last significant French Baroque opera.
Rameau died in 1764 while "Les Bore'ades" was in rehearsal. Its premiere was immediately canceled, and it did not have a complete performance until more than two centuries later. Revived chiefly through the efforts of Gardiner, who conducts a superbly styled performance, it turns out to be an imaginative, beautifully crafted work, more straightforward in its plot than was the norm at that time. Particularly striking are some passages of instrumental description, inspired by the fact that Boreas, the god of winds, is one of the principal characters. Aler's performance and that of soprano Jennifer Smith are the most striking in a generally strong cast.
* Handel: "Messiah." Judith Blegen, Katherine Ciesinski, John Aler, John Cheek; Musica Sacra conducted by Richard Westenburg (RCA ARC3-4352, three LPs; ARE3-4352, three cassettes). Aler's singing and that of mezzo-soprano Ciesinski (who has also done distinguished work with the Washington Opera) are two of the strongest elements in this carefully thought out and generally excellent interpretation of Handel's greatest hit. Particularly commendable is their care in the articulation of appropriate Baroque vocal ornaments. The chorus is appropriately small and nimble.
* Orff: "Carmina Burana." Barbara Hendricks, John Aler, Hakan Hagegard; London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Eduardo Mata (RCA ARC1-4550; cassette ARE1-4550). Mata has selected a first-class group of soloists for this vigorous, colorful interpretation of Orff's rambunctious music, and the chorus and orchestra rank with the world's best. Aler has only one number to perform, "Olim lacus colueram," and he sings it beautifully -- perhaps too beautifully. Orff deliberately chose an uncomfortably high vocal range for this song (the lament of a roast swan about to be served up for dinner), but Aler's voice sounds right at home up there in the stratosphere.
* Liszt: "A Faust Symphony"; Two Episodes from Lenau's "Faust." John Aler, tenor; Bratislava Men's Chorus; Rotterdam Philharmonic, James Conlon (Erato 751582, two LPs). The "Faust" Symphony will be the highlight of an all-Liszt program Conlon and the Rotterdam Philharmonic will give here in March. It is a brilliant work, consisting of portraits of the three principal characters in Goethe's epic -- Gretchen, Faust and Mephistopheles -- and it provides a thorough workout for a virtuoso orchestra and conductor. Conlon and the Rotterdam Philharmonic perform impressively in the symphony and the Two Episodes (which include the popular "Mephisto" Waltz). Aler and the chorus appear briefly at the end of the symphony to sing the tribute to the "eternal feminine" that closes Goethe's work. It is exquisitely sung.