Fort Worth — Now and then one sees a promo and wonders if the singer is as engaging in real life as the glamorous photo portrays. With worldwide acclaimed soprano Jennifer Rowley, her promo pics certainly reflect evocative expressions and telling eyes. As I listened to her opening piece, a standard mainstream aria in the Jan. 27 concert presented by Fort Worth Opera, I found her dynamic performance coupled with her incredible voice, to far exceed my expectations. She acted with not only her exquisite voice but her whole being. As Rowley sang through the well-known “Io son l’umille ancella” from Francesco Cilea’s verismo opera Adriana Lecouvreur, her connection to the stream of emotions was constant and mesmerizing. In this ultraromantic piece, Rowley was supremely adept at portraying the character Adriana, who modestly points out that she is just the humble interpreter of the creative genius.
Throughout her one-hour program, Rowley was enticing as she sang and took us on a journey through all the stages of love. She was accompanied on the piano by maestro, Joe Illick, Fort Worth Opera’s music director since 2002. Illick played and stroked the Steinway with vigorous yet highly sensitive artistic vitality. His intense Liebestod piano paraphrase from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by Franz Liszt was stunningly luscious.
The space in which all this took place was the newly renovated Amon Carter Museum of American Art; the audience of perhaps 100 people was surrounded by solid, creamy, limestone walls. The museum ceilings were very high, of course, and the lively room reverberated with Rowley’s powerful and dynamic soprano. She wore a lovely royal blue gown that suited her well. At a reception, I chatted with her briefly and discussed what it was like to sing surrounded by limestone that bounced the sound around vigorously. The personable Rowley mentioned how a singer must always still utilize overtones no matter how much the room reverberates. She certainly took her voice to the rafters and back. Nonetheless, I found her articulation delightfully clean and understandable in “Zueignung” by Richard Strauss. Although the room’s reverberation could have drowned out any singer’s text clarity, Rowley’s technique and crisp consonants didn’t allow the German words to be lost amongst the reverb. In “Träume” by Richard Wagner, her subtle eye movements and rich tones conveyed the introspective and melancholic German mindset of a deep love.
Often in the world of opera one runs across singers who are overly focused on technique and “seeming” drama rather than authentic emotions. Rowley has found a way to balance and weave it all together; she never lost emotional connection throughout her concert, and this is rather an achievement as she took us through such a large variety of musical styles in only 60 minutes’ time.
In the final selections Rowley was joined by her spouse, baritone and speech pathologist, Raymond Diaz. They performed Giuseppe Verdi selections: “A tal colpo è nulla il pianto”; “Morrò, ma prima in grazia”; and “Eri tu” from Un ballo in maschera. Their final duet was “Mira, di acerbe lagrime” from Il Trovatore. Rowley and Diaz sang with obvious vocal connection even though they humorously pointed out in their introduction that a soprano and baritone are rarely written roles in which they enjoy mutual and satisfying love. Although the characters Diaz sang weren’t particularly likeable, his strong baritone and forceful presentation were effective and captivating. He potently portrayed characters the audience often loves to hate. In effect, the more they hate you, the better job you’ve done.
The audience would have none of the two stopping with Verdi’s version of poisoned love and demanded an encore. The two gladly granted a bit of Rodgers and Hammerstein fun with the satisfying “If I Loved You” from Carousel. Of course, in this famous amorous duet, love isn’t totally acknowledged as the prominent “if” is featured. However, as Rowley and Diaz finally adoringly stared into each other’s eyes the audience seemed sufficiently romantically satiated and quickly rose for a standing ovation.