Ailyn Pèrez is a soprano on the rise. She’s decked out in prestigious awards from the Richard Tucker foundation, the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, George London Foundation, Domingo’s Operalia Competition, etc. She’s got an impressive pedigree with Indiana University and AVA on her resume and even an extra splash of glamour for being married to another relative operatic newbie, tenor Stephen Costello, who looks like the lead singer in a 90s boyband. She’s young, she’s beautiful and the great operatic stages of the world are at her beck.
Why then is her debut solo album Poème d’un jour so bland? The songs (with two generously tossed in arias from Massenet’s Manon) are about as accessible as a song recital could hope to be with hits from Hahn, Obradors, Turina, Faure, and de Falla. and most are less than three minutes. The poetry is pretty easy to comprehend. No head-scratching stream of consciousness Poulenc songs. Almost all are simple love songs.
But if there’s one thing watching Kiri te Kanawa sing Maria in West Side Story and Pavarotti sing “My Way” has taught us it’s that is simplicity is often a damn hard thing to pull off for opera singers. Recording a recital of 27 Spanish and French art songs requires a level of emotional honesty not readily available in many youngish singers who haven’t had time to find their artistic voice. You can’t just make with the canary for 67 minutes and get away with a CD that can pass for more than background music at a cocktail party.
Though, to be fair, as far as canaries go, one could certainly do worse. There are several characteristics of Pèrez’s singing that I immediately associate with Anna Netrebko, but while the Russian soprano du jour certainly has fans on parterre, La Weaves is unfortunately not one of them. To be sure they both have intrinsically beautiful instruments, but to my taste their tone colors are marred by an artificial darkness that eliminates any semblance of idiomatic diction and removes all sense of immediacy from the words.
But as a Renée Fleming fan, I can certainly forgive singing without the textual clarity of a dramatic recitation if I can hear the intention of the words in the sound, but this left Perez even more starved than I was for an clear [e] vowel. There is scarcely any soul to her singing: this may as well have been a well-sung student recital. Iain Burnside is no great asset to her on this disc either. Besides a superfluous recording of him playing Turina’s Dedicatoria for solo piano, there are audible issues of pacing and a lack of freedom in the phrasing between the voice and piano throughout the disc.
Susan Graham and Roger Vignoles managed to scrape so much music out Hahn selections on their legendary 1998 album, finding in each of these songs a whole world of depth and beauty. Their tenderness and dynamic variation is sorely missing from Pèrez’s uninspired and rushed readings.
Listen to Pèrez’s unnecessarily hurried “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” and follow it with Graham’s masterful rendition and hear for yourselves the elasticity of phrasing and the way the latter caresses each word. Listen to the way Vignoles lets Graham stretch that top A-flat just so before she settles in with utter contentment to ruminate on the possibility of her verses having wings.
In the short three song Faure set of the disc’s title, Pèrez offers mushy vowels, no story telling, and little sense that she knows what she’s singing about. The Spanish sets little fared better, and I continually found myself YouTubing other singers in the songs to see if I was just imagining this inexplicable absence of compelling artistry. For example, in the lovely Obradors “Con amores, la mia madre” (with love to my mother) the piano A natural at the end on the word “dormi” (sleep) seems like an afterthought. There seems to be no prior thought on the ecstasy of this love that’s tingling in her heart. Listen to Joyce DiDonato‘s exquisitely colored and luxuriously phrased version if you think I’m just being nit-picky.
Also, the exaggerated “richness” in Pèrez’s middle register dulls the mood and coloratura in the Turina songs. In “Cantares” her overly darkened middle keeps keeps her from executing the melismas cleanly and her top notes sound forced. Listen to a reading by Victoria de los Angeles for a lesson in flexibility, elegance and mezza voce.
By the time I got to the De Falla set I was just wondering why she chose so much Latin repertoire when she doesn’t seem to identify with it at all, despite her Hispanic heritage. The sassy little turns so indicative of this style are often smeared and executed too slowly. She has no Latin fire.
There was good and bad in the Manon arias which were taken from live recitals with the same pianist. The gavotte is best track on the disc as it seems to suit her personality. She must enjoy sashaying about showing the boys about France what she’s got because there was genuine fun in this one, complete with some glittering top pianissimos.
However, the recitative from “Adieu” lacked urgency, and sustained high notes occasionally have a hint of unsteadiness suggesting she’s slightly oversinging. But this piece was still more interesting than many of the boring art song renditions on the disc.
As a recording by a new singer, it certainly isn’t scandalous, but she doesn’t fare particularly well when put against many of the long list of singers who have left indelible marks in this repertoire. Ms. Perez was onto something when she selected a disc of accessible art songs, but she should have challenged her listeners more and herself a little less.
Few divas possess the requisite huge personality, imagination and sense of style needed to bring off over two dozen songs as popular in the classical canon as these without getting in over her head. She should have done less music and she should have done it better.