It was only when Paul Appleby got to the first French set in the second half of his Celebrity Series debut recital with pianist Ken Noda at Longy on Thursday that we began to understand the fuss currently rampant over the young Metropolitan Opera tenor. His earlier renditions of German songs and an aria left us wondering. Art songs needn’t be artsy. Conversational asides and precious sotto voce floaters can make up part of the compleat lieder singer’s arsenal, but such effects should not predominate. Absent direct, full-voiced naturalness, the repertoire passes without leaving an impression beyond the niceties of vocal production. Furthermore, Appleby’s German was strangely accented, and I never expected to say of a singer that his consonants were too guttural for Pickman Hall.
Depending on one’s perspective, Appleby was very lucky, or unlucky, to appear in the company of the estimable Ken Noda, who delivered free expression with pellucid luminance, especially in the Liederkreis Opus 24 of Robert Schumann and four of the Eichendorf-lieder by Hugo Wolf. Directing our eager attention to piano parts that have much interest, Noda contributed outgoing drama and interpretative polish which sometimes overshadowed (not overpowered) the singer, but I didn’t mind at all.
Appleby described his nicely mixed four-language recital as “songs I love that speak to each other.” After tossing off Lachner’s Fishermädchen, sounding a bit congested (and why this version rather than Schubert’s setting of the Heine poem?), he launched into Schumann’s 24-minute Opus 24 Liederkreis. And yes, he portrayed (rather than embodied) a goodly range of emotions: conversational, confiding, unhinged, pleading, resigned, though within a restricted range. Sounding a bit over-calculated, seeming not entirely comfortable, he projected but a few flashes of manly operatic full cry.
In the Eichendorff songs, Noda once again supplied both larger varieties of coloration and intensity than his partner, from whom we generally wanted more swagger. It was not until the final song, “In der Fremde III (Wolken wälderwärts gegangen),” or maybe in the emphatic, almost exploded “Auf dem höchsten Berg,” from “Heimweh,” that he began to grab us with accumulating intensity.
Appleby’s cautious approach to this repertoire seemed strangely at odds with his professed admiration for what he sang. And the fact that he provided the translations for much of the program also implied deeper than usual understanding. (An aside: the Celebrity Series should assist singers in retaining rapport by providing layouts which avoid page turns during individual songs. The programs for Fischer-Dieskau recitals invariably carried bold admonitions about page-turning etiquette.)
But beginning with “Oh wie ängstlich” from Die Entfürung aus dem Serail, a more theatrical artist emerged. While this aria constitutes no dramatic highpoint of the opera, and is more wet recitative than full lyrical outpouring, it glimmered with warm and ingratiating tones. And then, Appleby came into his own in three songs form Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, with Noda receding into an accompanist’s role. Those who pleaded with Berlioz to orchestrate this set were right—the piano parts are boring. Appleby seemed more relaxed in French and put “Vilanelle” across the footlights with a fine blooming rapture. If he whimpered a bit much in “Au cimetière,” the wind was certainly at his back and his sails unfurled for “L’île inconnue.”
And then Lalo’s “Vainement, ma bien-aime” from Le Roi d’Ys rang out with faultless tenorial ardency. Suddenly we understood why he might be considered the inheritor of at least the hem of Gedda’s mantle. Fully warmed up and in spectacular voice, Appleby raged as the “storm-tossed” Lenski, with money notes from top to bottom. Tchaikovsky’s “Kuda, kuda vy udalilis” from Eugene Onegin provided another perfect platform for his art.
For the final set, the tenor drew three songs from Villa-Lobos’s extensive canon that appealed to him for their support of “diversity and equality.” The texts of first two, which reflected on love and nature, could have passed as Heine’s, but the third, “Samba Clássico,” could have come only from South America, with a detour through Guthrie country. As one who can’t tell a samba from a tango, I nevertheless got that carnival spirit and strangely outgoing melancholia, which Noda underlined in fine offbeats and his partner tossed to us as the parade sauntered by.
Britten’s setting of “O Waly, Waly” (The Water Is Wide), with its weirdly effective harmonies, constituted the single encore. Having told his stories and shared his art, Paul Appleby, in spite of his bland business suit, left a pleasing impression of the courtly lyric troubadour in doublet and hose.