Jane Eaglen Recital – 16 March

Ma rendi pur contento
Dolente immagine
Vaga luna, che inargenti
Per pieta bell’idol mio
Frauenliebe und –leben
La regata veneziana
Hermit Songs
Je te veux
La Diva de l’Empire

Jane Eaglen (soprano) &
Philip Thomas (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 16 March, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Are we right to be suspicious of singers who move out of their Fach or are they the best judges of the capacity of their voices? Should we applaud enterprise in a singer’s career development or worry about their possible recklessness and its damage to their reputation?

Jane Eaglen’s recital programme raised these questions in advance. Surely the Wagnerian-sized voice would be fishing in too shallow waters by taking on the gentle melodies of Bellini and the ironic miniatures of Satie?

Miss Eaglen has given few recitals with piano; one, at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, was coolly received and one wonders at her motives in taking a detour from her work as a dramatic soprano, where she is much in demand and is likely to remain so, given the perennial shortage of soprano voices big enough to satisfy the demands of Wagner’s Ring and Tristan und Isolde. Was she trying to prove something to herself, to her admirers, to the critics?

Another disconcerting aspect of Sunday’s concert was the mixed-bag nature of the repertoire: lightweight early-19th-century Italian songs, three of Rossini’s “sins of old age” and French fin de siècle minimalism framing two authentic Art Song cycles. This concert structure seemed like a throwback to the old days before themed programmes became virtually de rigeur in the recital room. Despite my doubts, I approached Miss Eaglen’s recital, held before a sparse audience at the unlikely time of 3 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, quite prepared to be surprised.

She warmed up with four familiar Bellini songs. In Ma rendi pur contento she worked hard to sculpt a line and produced a consistently agreeable sound in the middle voice, compromised by raw tone in the upper octave climax, a fault repeated in the snatched top notes of Per pieta, bell’idol mio. Dolente immagine brought the first signs of a feature, which was to recur throughout the recital, a tendency to flatten on the passage, notes. In Vaga luna there was little magic in the interpretation and only pianist Philip Thomas languished, as the love song demands.

Frauenliebe und -leben was much more engaging, requiring the singer to impersonate a character directly. Miss Eaglen was very convincing in the extrovert, vigorous songs, though she did not always unite them with the contemplative ones. In Er der herrlichste von allein the dotted arpeggios were crisply delivered throughout. In the passage beginning “Nur die Würdigste von allein” she impressed with her control of varied dynamics and her ability to sustain the momentum of the phrases through to the reprise of the main melodic figure. In the following song the ecstatic tone was maintained throughout and in Helft mir, ihr Schwestern one sensed that an affinity with Brünnhilde bustling her Valkyrie siblings had illuminated her interpretation of the song. The technical test of the exposed D in the sixth song’s opening word “Süsser (Freund)” was successfully passed, while Miss Eaglen’s baleful chest register was ideally suited to the desolation of the final song. Mr Thomas excelled throughout in the expressive postludes in which this cycle abounds.

After the interval the soloist’s change of gown seemed to coincide with a loosening of the tight grip she had so far held on her emotions, as the first of Rossini’s three Regata Veneziana songs revealed a playful, minx-like character. Unfortunately, in the second the musical line lost out to a tendency to bark the indignant words and the repeated downward scales of the last song were rather too obviously preoccupying the singer for her imagination to be released. One was frustratingly reminded of the way Cecilia Bartoli brings life, daring and wit into these songs.

Miss Eaglen suffered odious comparisons with another distinguished singer in Samuel Barber’s ten Hermit Songs. These were created and first recorded by Leontyne Price nearly 50 years ago, with the composer as accompanist. There were odd moments in Miss Eaglen’s performance, such as the twinkle that came into her eye at the end of ’Church Bell at Night’ and the sincere affection which pervaded ’The Monk and his Cat’, which remain in the memory but how bland was the interpretation of ’Saint Ita’s Vision’ and how Anglo-Saxon and straight-laced ’The Heavenly Banquet’, where Price realised that the former should be imbued with the lightness and innocence of a child’s Bible story and the latter with the elation of a spiritual. This collection of poems by mediaeval monks, adapted by modern poets, represents the sincere, sometimes mischievous reactions of individuals and Barber’s settings bristle with the character of each writer. Bravo to Miss Eaglen for presenting them to the public and giving them a chance of the wider circulation they deserve.

The concert ended with three of Erik Satie’s cabaret songs, two waltzes and the sensual La Diva de l’Empire. The pianist got closer to the required style here again; Miss Eaglen’s recessed tone prevented the projection of the all-important words, let alone the relishing of them, which the best performances undertake. Throughout the concert a music stand had been an aide-mémoire to the singer and in these songs it seemed to serve as a more necessary prop than elsewhere. A generally slinky attitude was not enough to convince me that she had really absorbed the individuality of each song.

Miss Eaglen rewarded her supporters with two encores from her operatic repertoire: Elisabeth’s entrance aria from Tannhäuser was confidently delivered, while ’Vissi d’arte’ (Tosca) finally saw the reins released, though I have heard many singers perform the softening descent from the high B flat more tidily.

The recital was an interesting experiment by Jane Eaglen, which only partially came off. It might be too severe to say that it confirms the merit of the saying “Cobbler, stick to your last”; perhaps it was more indicative of the advantages of “Horses for Courses”.

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