Against competing iconography it takes performers of great charisma to keep listeners’ attention; it was the signal achievement of Polish bass Pawel Izdebski (and two other singers) with pianist Yelena Beriyeva to do this in the sumptuous main hall of Somerville’s Museum of Modern Renaissance where Commonwealth Lyric Theater presented a recital of songs and arias on Saturday. The exterior of this building is astounding, and the interior’s ubiquitous murals are no less so, all the work of wife and husband Yekaterina Sorokina and Nicholas Shaplyko, émigrés from Moscow. The program stated, “their life and their art, which they create together, is full of dynamic and symbolism, emotional like turbulent mountain river and artistically explosive like bottle of champagne.”
Polish bass Pawel Izdebski, a strikingly large man, has performed/covered all the bass roles in Wagner’s Ring cycle under Zubin Mehta, and it was a foregone conclusion that he would have an extremely powerful voice. Yet his song repertoire was well chosen to show his range and ability to be intimate as well as stentorian. The evening opened with a set of Franz Schubert lieder, mostly of operatic power and drama. Izdebski infused the title character of Erlkönig with honeyed malevolence, though he might have better differentiated the other characters; also, by starting quite dramatically the performers left little room for our dread to build up. Still, the climax was genuinely terrifying, due in equal measure to Beriyeva’s mastery of the notoriously torturous piano part. Der Doppelgänger had a more satisfying dramatic arc and an equally chilling climax.
Soprano Patrice Tiedemann, and Beriyeva next offered three early songs of Claude Debussy—rather odd choices for this singer. Virtually all of Debussy’s early songs were written for the voice of Mme. Marie Vasnier, a very light, high soprano. Tiedemann’s sizable instrument would have been far better suited to such later songs as the Proses lyriques. Her creamy legato was enjoyable, but some of her French vowels were incorrect—to the point of sounding like different words in Nuit d’étoiles. Beriyeva, regrettably, often subscribed here to an outdated mode of accompanying French mélodies, a wispy, insubstantial tone that doesn’t support the singer; also, she misread an important harmony, robbing us of the wonderfully inscrutable penultimate chord (“we to the grave”) of Beau soir.
Izdebski then sang three songs in his native Polish by Miecysław Karłowycz (1876-1909), the composer/conductor who is considered the primary figure in Polish music between Frédéric Chopin and Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). Karłowycz had the misfortune to die at age 32 in an avalanche while skiing. He deeply admired Tchaikovsky, and his music is richly Romantic, conservative for its time. Izdebski and. Beriyeva made My Sorrowful Soul a portrait of loss and despair, building to a shattering peak before dying away. The artists gave the beautiful music of The Moon Rests in the Sea’s Splendor a more measured, bittersweet sorrow, though the ending was again bereft of hope. The deceased narrator of Do Not Cry Over Me perhaps intends initially to assuage the intense sorrow of his surviving beloved, but cannot. The title phrase is heard four times over the course of the song, and Izdebski and Beriyeva skillfully conveyed the gradual giving way to grief.
A veteran of the Metropolitan Opera stage, tenor Adam Klein, then sang Szymanowski’s By a Little Lake, a simple tale of a little maiden gathering blackberries, approached by a young man on horseback who beseeches her to be his one and only, but she refuses him twice, fearing future betrayal. The composer constructed something of a small opera scene with the man’s passionate coaxing and the maiden’s equally passionate rebuffs. Klein was fully up to the song’s vocal demands and successfully differentiated the two characters while Beriyeva dealt well with Szymanowski’s complex harmonies.
Izdebski returned with three Tchaikovsky songs, In the Midst of the Noisy Ball, No Answer, No Word, No Greeting, and Don Juan’s Serenade. The last is a showpiece for both singer and pianist. Tchaikovsky’s original key, though on the high side, is accessible to basses who no doubt crave the chance to be (however briefly) Don Giovanni instead of Il Commendatore. Izdebski made the most of his opportunity, offering heroic deeds alongside serenades, pouring on all his masculine charm to seduce his latest would-be conquest, Nisetta. Beriyeva admirably underlined the Don’s cacoëthes with the relentless piano part.
Izdebski, Klein, and soprano Olga Lisovskaya then gave us the Sarastro-Tamino-Pamina trio from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This was appropriately filled with tension and angst as Tamino must say farewell to his beloved Pamina to begin his trials, but she doesn’t fully understand and questions the depth of his love for her. Izdebski made a paternal Sarastro, caring but disciplined, while Lisovskaya and Klein plainly yearned to be together just a little longer.
The second half began with the second scene from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre (the second of the Ring tetralogy) in which Hunding and Sieglinde offer shelter to Siegmund—at this point known as Wehwalt (“woeful”). Izdebski, Tiedemann, and Klein expertly generated dramatic tension with their voices and, particularly, the looks they gave each other: Hunding suspicious of a possible attraction between Sieglinde and Siegmund/Wehwalt; Sieglinde becoming ever more conscious of this attraction; and Siegmund’s and Hunding’s gradual discovery that they are mortal enemies. This was a peculiar choice for a recital, though. Despite the musicians’ vivid performances, the scene was essentially plot exposition with a very large amount of text to get through; those not fluent in German were compelled to continually alternate their gaze between the printed translations and the singers.
Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) is considered the father of the Polish national opera. Skoluba’s aria from Moniuszko’s The Haunted Manor is a bedtime ghost story Skoluba (Izdebski) tells Maciej to frighten him out of his wits. This aria demands a genuine basso profundo, and Izdebski’s lowest notes were vague of pitch perhaps due to fatigue late in the program. However, he was a skilled scary storyteller who yet did not miss the opportunity to inject some sly humor into the proceedings: twice he asks Maciej (Klein) if he is afraid, and upon being answered in the negative, he responds, “Take a bit of tobacco!”
Two works of Giuseppe Verdi followed. Fiesco’s aria, Il lacerato spirito, from Simon Boccanegra, something akin to a mad scene. Fiesco is so beside himself with grief after his daughter’s death that he berates the Virgin Mary for standing by, doing nothing to save her. Quite quickly, though, he comes to his senses, repenting and asking forgiveness. Izdebski impressed here, convincingly making the transitions from wild grief to outrage to repentance and supplication. The quintet from Un ballo in maschera comes in Act III when the storyline is heating up: Amelia (Tiedemann), wife of Renato (Klein), is in love with Count Riccardo. Renato plots with Samuel and Tom (Izdebski and bass-baritone Alexander Prokhorov) to murder the Count. Oscar (Lisovskaya in a pants role) arrives with an invitation to the Count’s ball. The conspirators are gleeful at their opportunity; Amelia is deeply fearful; and Oscar gets the showiest music. All have their moments of display, but Oscar steals the show as Lisovskaya threw caution to the wind, navigating the coloratura impressively.
The Verdi quintet would seem to be the logical finale of the program, with all the evening’s performers displaying their musical and dramatic expertise. However, there was a final duet with Tiedemann and Izdebski, perhaps to give us something in English: The Prayer by David Foster, Carole Bayer Sager, Alberto Testa, and Tony Renis. It is effectively written for the two voices and was well sung and played, but this pop/classical fusion struck a strange note in the context of classical songs and opera excerpts. Overall, though, this was a very enjoyable evening, mixing standard repertoire with the unfamiliar and affording the uncommon opportunity to hear Pawel Izdebski in song repertoire. I must also commend pianist Yelena Beriyeva who adapted smoothly to many different styles of song and opera and fully mastered a large quantity of difficult music.