Lovers of the lower register flocked to Jordan Hall on Friday for a winter warmer with baritone Thomas Hampson and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. The Celebrity Series concert, cheekily titled “No Tenors Allowed,” reprised some of the familiar repertoire a younger Hampson once performed with the fondly missed Samuel Ramey—the “Restate” confrontation from Verdi’s Don Carlo, “Suoni la tromba” from Bellini’s I Puritani, and the pitter-patter “Cheti, cheti immantinente … Aspetta, aspetta, cara sposina” of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale as the unannounced encore. Add to that a couple of crowd-pleasers each from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni at the beginning, and a whole second half of popular show tunes by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, and the like. How could one not be charmed? Members of the audience swayed and sang along.
It therefore seems churlish to pronounce that this feel-good confection amounted to an evening of entertainment, not art, and even as entertainment, it could have been much more artfully executed.
Some prefer to savor the inky imperial stout of Bryn Terfel, the ruddy amber ale of Hermann Prey, the silken infinitely-unfolding single-malt scotch tones of José van Dam (Islay) or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Highland), the molten midnight chocolate of Nicolai Ghiaurov, or the perfectly calibrated double-shot macchiato of Tito Gobbi. Hampson and Pisaroni served a cup of warm cocoa with cheery little marshmallows afloat on the top, a bit of graininess in the texture, and a residue of excess sugar towards the bottom. Many in the audience lapped it right up, with gusto. Who am I to play curmudgeon when a hall full of elders with decades more concert experience voiced their rapturous approbation? And who am I to begrudge anyone’s delectation of what may simply be not quite to my taste? Deep in this winter of discontent, whatever warmth one may draw upon for sustenance should be welcome.
Sweet and cute and cozy, the program presented nothing particularly challenging to the performers or the audience. Both Hampson and Pisaroni cut dapper figures on stage, with easy charm and nimble movement. Both commanded excellent enunciation and volume to carry Jordan Hall’s warm acoustic. The music itself, however, often came across as perfunctory, as merely a succession of pretty notes without real drama. Hampson’s deliciously snarling “ridere” as Count Almaviva imagines his opponents laughing at him in “Hai già vinta la causa” stood out in contrast with the lack of urgency elsewhere. Perhaps a conductor or coach could have helped. Hampson and Pisaroni both possess laudable dramatic instinct and stage presence, but let’s not forget that great singers can mold their lines from merriment to menace without a single external motion.
The other nagging incongruity arose—as Susanna likes to remind Marcellina so (in)delicately—from a problem of age. Pisaroni, Hampson’s son-in-law in real life, possesses the lower voice, and thus by operatic logic occupies the more elderly, authoritative roles—uncle Giorgio in I Puritani and, more problematically, Filippo II in Don Carlo.
Biological age in and of itself should not limit roles. René Pape inaugurated his reign as the supreme Kings Marke and Filippo II of his generation when he was often much younger than his respective Tristans and Carlos. At the moment, Pisaroni’s suppleness seems a far cry from the cavernous depths of many a definitive Filippo, but with more heft and a fuller palette of shadings between phobia, fury, and frustration, he might yet age into the sad shell of the loveless king. Hampson, however, arguably never quite the right Rodrigo even in his prime, has now passed the point where attempts at youthful revolutionary ardor should resign the field.
Even in the lighter fare of the second half, Hampson’s upper notes strained in accentuated contrast with the daintiness of his dance step. Nonetheless, the languorously crooned “Roses of Picardy” demonstrated how he can still seduce with that tender upwards curling into the hint of a hum that once shimmered through much of his best singing.
Playful gaiety between Hampson and Pisaroni peaked in the final scheduled piece, Irving Berlin’s ever-winning “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).” The “anything you can sing, I can sing higher” stanza elicited a knowing chuckle from the crowd (though I cringed because Hampson was clearly struggling on that front) that soon crescendoed to a roar of appreciation when tenor Brian Jagde stood up in the audience to one-up the both of them.
Pianist Kevin Murphy provided steady, albeit occasionally mushy, accompaniment through the evening. His solo turn with the Pagliacci Intermezzo proffered the kind of pause, pacing, and variegated coloration that could have been more prominent elsewhere in the program.