Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Do You Like Bass?

January 16, 2011

Rene Pape Photo: Lenny's Studio

Well, if the bass in question is René Pape, the answer is yes, very much. He’s one of the world’s leading basses in a rather broad repertoire of roles and he was in town on Saturday for a recital hosted by Los Angeles Opera. (You should check out his web site complete with downloadable wallpapers and ring tones.) It was the first of three recitals the company will host this season featuring some of the hottest dawgs in all opera including Dimitri Hvorostovsky on Feb 10 and the L.A. debut of the tenor of the moment Jonas Kaufmann on Mar 15. But Saturday started out on the lower end of the vocal range with an all-German program performed by Pape alongside his accompanist, Brian Zeger. And, while I heard some grouching about this serious offering from others, I for one was excited about it, considering that to date, virtually all of my exposure to Pape has been in roles outside of his native German tongue, including Philip II, Gounod’s Méphistophélès, and most recently Boris Godunov. So, an evening of Schubert, Schumann, and Hugo Wolf sounded to me like just what the doctor ordered – a serious, if familiar, German Lied recital.

It went quite well. The fact of the matter is that Pape has an amazing voice. It’s a clean and warm sound and the sheer beauty of it was inescapable even in the program’s less winning moments. Things did start out a little rocky with selections from Schubert’s Schwanengesang. Pape dove into the material in an assertive business-like fashion that almost missed the musicality of the songs. He seemed uncoordinated with Zeger and overly brusque. But, as he entered into Hugo Wolf’s Michelangelo Lieder, things began to chill out a little bit and gel, despite the continued insistence by some audience members to fill every silent gap between songs with unnecessary and distracting applause. The first half concluded with seven more Schubert songs that were very pleasing to the ear.

After the intermission was Schumann’s familiar Dichterliebe, which finally got the attention and respect it deserved from a more attentive audience. Pape was often superb here, managing ample heartbreak and drama. Although Pape is a competent actor, he can be overly rigid at times as well. He struggled more with the ironic comical moments of some of these songs, missing the wry smiles that lie in their texts. But, despite his lack of a personable demeanor, it’s impossible to deny the beauty of his voice. He closed the evening with two encores, Strauss, and in perhaps one of the only somewhat sly jokes, “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific. The song has become a requisite for virtually all bass-baritone vocalists everywhere in recent years, and Pape’s reliance on printed lyrics for the first time during the evening seemed to be its own wry comment on the omnipresence of the tune, though it was sung with skill all the while.Overall, it was a lovely visit and while Pape has yet to grace us in L.A. with a performance of a complete role, it was still a treat to hear him in recital.


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