Idomeneo – Quando avran mai fine … Padre, germani, addio
La Bohème – Quando m’en vo
La Rondine – Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta
Es muss ein Wunderbares sein; Die Lorelei; Enfant, si j’étais roi
Roméo et Juliette – Je veux vivre
I Hate Music – Jupiter has seven moons; I hate music; I’m a person too
Peter Pan – Dream with me
Darkling I listen
Street Scene – What good would the moon be
Kismet – And this is my beloved
Nicole Cabell (soprano) & Simon Lepper (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: 21 February, 2007
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
The latest concert in the invaluable series sponsored by Ian Rosenblatt brought the London recital debut of Nicole Cabell. She was the winner of the 2005 BBC “Cardiff Singer of the World” competition, one of the most decisive and widely-approved recipients of that crown (or rather the fine piece of glassware which is its equivalent) in the twelve events which have so far been held.
She came to St John’s, then, as an exception to the established pattern of Rosenblatt’s recruits, who generally comprise either promising young discoveries thrown up by his scouting network or (more occasionally) well-known operatic artists not previously heard in recital in London. Expectations were high. If there was a hint of a marketing motive for both the singer and the BBC behind the appearance of the svelte, beautifully be-gowned Cabell in the presence of the Corporation’s cameras, that can be forgiven.
The programme was multi-cultural. A Mozart opera seria aria, two Puccini pieces, three Liszt art-songs and a French grand opera display aria in the first half, followed by a twentieth-century American agenda after the interval. There was particular anticipation of the operatic selections, as Cabell has had stage experience of Musetta, Ilia and Juliette, the last two as recently as December 2006 at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin.
Classical austerity came first, in the opening number from “Idomeneo”. My first impression was of somewhat cloudy enunciation of the text in the long, dynamic recitative, though this was offset by the detailed and eloquent physical expression of Ilia’s warring emotions. Conventional operatic gestures were absent, replaced by understated but striking movements, like the repeated and frustrated motions of an animal trapped in a cage, while the eyes were used as expressive vehicles. The sideway glances fearing the approach of the loved and loathed Idamante will linger long in the memory. The drooping definition of the feminine endings of many phrases spoke eloquently of the character’s despair. In the aria, the accompaniment cried out for an orchestra, with so much of the effect of this piece being due to the dark instrumentation. Pianist Simon Lepper was to get his chance later in the recital. But to return to the singer: one noted that not much was made of the florid passages, which had been a prominent feature of her programme in the 2005 competition; nor was this apparently a large voice.
Next came unbridled Italian passion … or so we might have expected. Musetta’s ‘Waltz Song’ is normally delivered flamboyantly, the soprano dominating the scene, even amidst a stage-cast of dozens, if not scores. Cabell chose a novel approach: while Musetta might preen herself proudly in the traditional way, her words were delivered intimately to her mate, only acquiring a degree of venom in the final lines. Magda’s familiar aria was also notable for restraint; the top As, B flat and C did not thrill in themselves, though the consistent projection of the worldy-wise character’s nonchalance was admirable. There was a slight crack in the voice on the last note.
The Liszt group was the highlight of the first half. It began quite straightforwardly with ‘Es muss ein Wunderbares sein’, whose ending was intoned in a delightful hush. So we reached ‘Die Lorelei’ and it was Simon Lepper on whom I found myself concentrating, with the vocal line becoming a backdrop to his virtuosity. After the harmonically ambiguous opening, from which he drew all its aching ‘Tristan’ affinities, he launched the great rolling phrases of the central section with symphonic weight before shifting into the pulsating chords with which Liszt has painted the river’s treacherous currents. The balance between singer and pianist was restored to parity in the final Liszt song, Ms Cabell allowed her final phrase “pour un baiser de toi” to float exquisitely into the air.
It was quite surprising to find the singer deploying her more crowd-pleasing vocal skills not in the romantic operatic repertoire (the Gounod display-piece had less than the expected full-blooded climax) but in music by American composers, native or immigrant, with Broadway connections. The three songs from Leonard Bernstein’s “I Hate Music” cycle may be written from the perspective of a child but the most forceful high notes of the evening came at the end of ‘I’m a person too’. All three provided opportunities, endearingly and amusingly taken, for Cabell to enter into the persona of the child: her resentment at being disregarded in the last-mentioned song and her proud self-assertion in ‘I hate music’ were once again conveyed through an exceptional command of body-language.
The great protean American composer was also represented by a song surprisingly cut from his 1950 musical “Peter Pan”. The lush romantic idiom, with its sensual suspensions, made a fine pivotal point in the recital’s second half. It was followed by what a colleague remarked was a unusual and gratifying phenomenon: a setting by a modern composer of Keats (stanza 6 from his “Ode to a Nightingale”). Lepper had another outstanding opportunity here to display the power and impact he could conjure from his instrument. The witty William Bolcom song, with its disconnected rhythms and echo effects, was greeted with that little chuckle running round the auditorium which signals successful communication.
(I have sadly to report that at this point in the evening it was necessary to delay the concert because of the illness of a member of the audience. An ambulance was quickly summoned.)
Resuming, unfazed, Cabell paid a late-evening visit to Broadway and seemed thoroughly at home there. She let herself go in strong climaxes to both the “Street Scene” and “Kismet” songs.
There was time for two encores: ‘Summertime’ (from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and ‘O mio babbino caro’ (form Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”, in both of which Cabell stripped away the sophistication which she had otherwise been applying all evening, performing them wholly straight, with a touching, naïve sincerity This made them an ideal complement to the published programme; a thoroughly rewarding evening. Nicole Cabell is already much more than just a voice.