Washingtonians enjoyed a happy reunion this past Sunday with David Daniels, a lucky substitution for the originally scheduled Alexander Tsymbalyuk on the Vocal Arts DC calendar. Daniels isn’t exactly a regular on DC stages—he last graced the opera house in 2008 opposite Placido Domingo in Handel’s Tamerlano (a rare Baroque foray for WNO)—but contributing to Ruth Bader Ginsburg lore will get you everywhere with this crowd.
Sunday’s program, with longtime collaborator Martin Katz, offered a look at Daniels’ versatility in material beyond his usual stage fare, as well as a chance to appreciate his voice in a transitional moment for the singer (though repeated throat clearing suggested he may have also been a tad indisposed). Despite having lost some of its honeyed ping of yore, that plush upper register still has the power to overwhelm the senses, though things become less secure when he descends the staff, introducing the occasional sour pitch and off-color vowel. Yet Daniels took these challenges in stride in an afternoon of committed music-making.
Beethoven’s “Adelaide,” served as a warm-up track (also Matthew Polenzani’s choice for a lead-off in his recital here last January), and while there was certainly some warming to do, Daniels supplied a range of thoughtful details that kept things engaging (see also the version of “Adelaide” included on his extraordinary 1999 disc with Katz, Serenade, which has been giving Hamilton a run for its money on my Spotify the past few weeks).
With Adelaide’s lover/stalker successfully dispatched, Daniels settled comfortably into a set of songs by Reynaldo Hahn. Silvery sound pealed forth on the bittersweet “A Chloris” and dreamy “Paysage,” warmed by colorful Mediterranean details from Katz, though an effortful “Quand je fus pris au pavillion” found itself at odds with the lightness of the butterfly and fire imagery in the text. At times throughout these selections, Daniels enlisted an inordinate amount of power for climaxes, which, while sonically satisfying, tended to interrupt the gentle lilt of the songs.
Purcell, perhaps the one composer on the program to have actually written for the countertenor voice, closed the first half. Here Daniels had the chance to display his special facility with English song; bookend selections “Music for a While” and “Sweeter then Roses” exemplified what beautifully sung English can be, with Daniels spinning gorgeous long lined phrases skipping neatly over the text. In between we got an exuberant rendition of “I’ll Sail Upon the Dog Star,” also found on the Serenade disc.
Songs of Brahms opening the second half were engaging enough, though none seemed to play to Daniels’ strengths; the low-lying “Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen” in particular felt adrift intonation-wise. The two final cuts were surefire winners, though: a legitimately charming take on the goofy “Mein Madel hat einen Rosenmund,” and a deeply felt reading of “O wusst ich doch,” a weary lament for lost childhood.
At long last, the duo indulged the audience with a bit of red meat, presenting “Dove sei,” from Rodelinda, the aria which has been doggedly bringing Met audiences into the countertenor fold since Daniels’ celebrated turn in Stephen Wadsorth’s 2004 production. Easily captivating the crowd from the first notes of Bertarido’s furious lament, Daniels’ turn to the intimate sighs of the aria brought the room to hushed attention.
The obligatory closing set of American songs, here a series of arrangements by Stephen Krohn, was largely effective, especially the soaring spiritual “On the Other Shore,” and the darkly humorous final selection, “The Farmer’s Curst Wife.” Daniels granted two encores—a slightly harried Poulenc’s “La Belle Jeunesse,” and a sweetly comforting account of Alec Wilder’s “Blackberry Winter.”
Katz was a vibrant presence at the piano throughout the afternoon, ensuring the keyboard contribution never faded into the background, and confident in driving momentum where needed.
Photo: Simon Pauly