It’s hard to fathom why the bass-baritone Gidon Saks isn’t a superstar in the world of opera. He’s a brilliant artist. He’s a stage animal. He’s naturally theatrical. At his recital Wednesday night, courtesy of Vocal Arts D.C., he showed a mind-boggling range of styles, from full-bore operatic plumminess (in his opening Handel set) to idiomatic mastery of American musical genres (in a set of four songs by John Musto). He also has good looks, charisma and a rich voice that can buffet you with gravelly thunder but that he can also scale down to a wistful thread.
Actually, though, you can fathom why some administrators may shy away. He is a risk-taker onstage. He goes for broke. His sound isn’t always polished, much less poised: He bares everything, sometimes more than he has to, and sometimes runs roughshod as a result.
This is exciting music-making, but it can also lead to spectacular train wrecks. Sitting in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, I imagined opera administrators hearing various blemishes in the sound and ticking him off their lists or just seeing this unpredictable, forceful, uneven and sometimes flamboyant presence wearing a black velvet jacket with a cummerbund and a kind of pantaloon, and thinking it would be far too difficult to deal with. God forbid we should have temperament in the opera house.
So Saks, although he has a considerable international career (including a memorable portrayal of Hagen in the Washington National Opera’s “Goetterdaemmerung” in 2009), was not one of the more recognizable names on Vocal Arts D.C.’s roster this year. It’s safe to say, however, that no one who was there Wednesday will forget him, whether or not they enjoyed it. And most, to judge by the applause, enjoyed it very much.
Saks demonstrated his best and worst moments in a single phrase of the aria “Va tacito,” from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” that descended to the profound depths of his voice and then rose to a top note that nearly cracked under the pressure. This is an easy technical problem to fix; it only cropped up because of the way Saks was flinging himself into the music. At other points in the program, he showed that he can easily handle the upper register, but it’s at that point that smug administrators, and some critics, might unfairly write him off.
The program was exhilaratingly unfamiliar and further notable for the fact that, while it took Saks through two languages, three dialects and a host of styles, it was sung almost entirely in English (the exception being Ibert’s French-language “Don Quichotte” songs). The dialects were Saks’s native South African accent, given a British roundness in the Handel excerpts; Scots in three Robert Burns poems in a powerful account of Shostakovich’s “Six Songs to Lyrics by English Poets”; and the American idiom he assumed, flawlessly, in Musto’s slender, wry, four-song, jazz-tinged cycle “Shadow of the Blues.”
You could also count as another accent the anodyne and correct English with which he offered Gerald Finzi’s five Shakespeare songs in the cycle “Let us garlands bring.” In each case, his use of language reflected the music perfectly — something easier to hear when most of the songs are in a language the audience can understand.
His program ended with a set of pretty but unmemorable popular songs of the early 20th century, described as “Victorian Parlor Songs.” But he returned to full bore for the encores, both by Stephen Sondheim (“Good thing going” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” and “Losing My Mind” from “Follies”), which he approached as if no classical purist had ever told him that Broadway musicals are a “lesser” genre. “Losing My Mind” became an intense operatic scena without violating the spirit of the song.
Roger Vignoles, the pianist, seemed to be picking up some of Saks’s energy, both in interpreting the music and in occasional moments of carelessness — dropped notes here and there — in the service of dramatic expression.