If you sing like an angel, with crystalline clarity in four languages;
toss off devilish fioratura, melismas, and rulades with effortless grace;
have King of Accompanists Craig Rutenberg as your partner; and perform
a rich, diverse, fascinating program flawlessly, what do you do for
In case of Vivica Genaux's brilliant San Francisco Performances recital
tonight in Herbst Theater, the bonus was a fashion show, resulting in
an unprecedented burst of applause celebrating the gown she changed
into for the second half of the concert. It was truly spectacular, a
floor-length sparkling gown of sequins and diamante, something that would
be "too much" on most anybody... but not for Genaux. The point of both
the outfit and of the concert is that this major new star of our time
can and does carry off what few artists do.
Fresh from a triumphant run of "The Italian Girl in Algiers" in the War
Memorial next door, Genaux came to Herbst to sing Haydn's great concert
aria, "Arianna a Naxos," Carl Loewe's "Frauenliebe," four songs by Pauline
Viardot, three Spanish songs by Rossini, songs by Jose Serrano, Federico
Chueca, and Geronimo Gimenez, and - for encore - "Lili's Song" from
Robert Merrill's "Carnival."
A more varied recital program you will not find, but through it all,
there was a single-minded consistency of treatment. Italian, German,
Spanish and English were all clear, conversational, unaffected (German
t's at the end of words pronounced, not spat). The theater aspect of
the music - from the stark tragedy of "Arianna" to Loewe's lyricism to
Viardot's heartbreak to the show-off bravura of the Rossini songs to the
hilarious flirting in the zarzuelas to the utter charm of the girl who
("would you believe it?") came on two buses from Mira - was realized
with nonstop authenticity and impact.
What Genaux and Rutenberg offered was an exceptional, outstanding feat
of musical communication. For others, singing "difficult music" may
be to prove that they can. In this case, technical bravura was not an
issue, but rather something taken for granted. In the faithful service
of the music, the two artists exhibited both intelligence and humility.
Sequins and all, the singer holding forth on the stage and holding the
audience in the palm of her hand acted as an interpreter of some wonderful
works, not somebody strutting her stuff.
Of the Loewe cycle, the most affecting song was "Help me, you sisters,"
engaging, intimate, Genaux's voice cradled by Rutenberg's piano magic.
"Now thou has given me" was overflowing with longing and pain, music
and text touching the heart, but Genaux and Rutenberg did not give in
to emoting or gushing for a split second. In Viardot's songs - this
Renaissance woman just coming to the fore again, after almost two centuries
- as in the entire recital, Genaux's singing did not reach out, aggress,
hit the listener over the head, but rather drew in, compelled attention.
The Spanish songs (both Rossini's and the zarzuela excerpts) presented
a near-overdose of charm, making the listener - who knows of Genaux's
exclusively Scottish-American heritage - wonder how it is possible that
somebody who looks and walks and sings so Hispanic... isn't. (Black
hair, olive skin, flashing eyes, and yet she claims no Native American
For the sake of journalistic completeness, here's the rest of the fashion
story: both the sequence gown and the first half's green crushed silk,
with an iridescent scarf, are the work of Fausto Sari of Oderzo, near
Genaux's hometown of Motta di Livenza.
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