Dallas — There was a time when the great singers gave recital tours across the country at almost every whistle stop. In the pre- recording/TV/Radio era, this was the way that the general population could hear these legendary voices. They were almost always opera singers because these were the only names that people recognized (and were thus more sellable). Recitals by art song specialists were almost always local singers that rarely toured.
Enter Sarah Titus, who established the Robert E. and Jean Ann Titus Art Song Recital Series through The Dallas Opera. This grows out of a family tradition of a love of art songs and the series brings a greet variety of singers. Some are more known for song recitals and dabble in opera (Ian Bostridge immediately comes to mind) and the opposite, opera singers who occasionally sing recitals.
The recent concert, held at Moody Performance Hall on Jan. 27, featured the latter. Namely, one of today’s the leading Wagnerian tenors: Simon O'Neill from New Zealand. Since art songs require an evenly matched duo, O’Neill fortunately brought the sensitive collaborative pianist Terence Dennis with him.
Considering his helden repertoire, it was not a surprise that the recital contained music by German composers, both songs and selections from operas. What was fascinating was subtle change in his vocal production between them.
The first half was all songs. He opened with Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte,” one of the foundations of the art song repertoire. He followed that with more Beethoven and from his operatic pen. He sang "Gott! Welch dunkel hier," from an early version of what became his only opera, Fidelio;
He ended the first half with a varied set of four beautiful songs by Richard Strauss. He included a little-known aria, “Falke, du wiedergefundener” from one of Strauss’ lesser known operas, Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow).
He opened the second half with one last art song: Robert Schumann’s virtuosic “Widmung,” a song from his cycle Myrthen, which is frequently heard in Franz Liszt’s showy arrangement for solo piano.
The remainder of the program was all Richard Wagner. From Götterdämmerung, he sang "Brünnhilde! Heilige Braut." A piano reduction of Siegfried’s “Trauermarsch” followed. Although Pianist Terence Dennis did an admirable job, Wagner’s operatic music, extravagantly written for a large orchestra, does not translate well to the piano.
O’Neill also sang “Winterstüme" from Wagner's Die Walküre (he sang the role of Siegmund in the performance of the entire opera with the Dallas Symphony last spring). In keeping with the art song format, O’Neill added some songs from Wagner’s Wiesendonck Lieder.
Vocally, O’Neill sounded slightly different in the art songs and the operatic selections. In opera, he sounded more like a baritone and in the songs he sounded more like a tenor. He sings with a relatively high larynx, lowering it for the arias. But he is a true heldentenor without a hint of the Italianate high notes such as those in Puccini and Verdi (with the possible exception of Otello.) Such a voice is indeed a rarity and it was a distinct pleasure to hear him in a relative small venue as opposed to large opera houses.