Soprano Andrea Rost, whose career began in European opera houses, must have felt at home in the Warner’s lavishly appointed, gilded and crystal-chandeliered art deco interior, the stage’s ornate gold-leaf proscenium arch enclosing cranberry drapes valanced in Austrian folds. As must much of the glittering audience, who, I suspected, would be greeting Ms. Rost and her skilled accompanist Gergely Szokolay for a post-concert dinner and reception.
This being a gala concert, there were several speeches, the first from the former rector of the Liszt Ferenc Academy in Budapest, which claims, with justified pride, the Budapest-born Andrea Rost as a graduate. He also offered those having limited familiarity with Hungarian music some background on its folk-music traditions, which would become especially helpful during the second half of the program.
Rost’s first selection was a difficult, if perhaps logical one: the so-called Waltz Song, “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, the opera in which she made her debut. While Rost’s carriage and demeanor were utterly charming and never less than professional, and the high B at the end was pure, clear, and triumphant, this writer missed the delightful, storytelling-like lyricism that would permeate Rost’s Kodály songs at program’s end.
Where Rost did, almost invariably, display a facility for delightful storytelling was in the personal narrative that prefaced each song. Here, it started with the numerical nexus between the commencement of both her career and Hungary’s freedom 25 years ago, and segued into recollections of her first performance of the next aria—Susanna’s “Giunse alfin il momento (Deh vieni, non tardar)” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro—at the Wiener Staatsoper on Christmas Eve.
While it’s clearly one of her favorites—“I did this one more than the others”—on that particular evening, she had the flu. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do the piano, pianissimo…” she whispered with wide-eyed theatricality, “and the next day—I got a wonderful review. And now . . . I don’t know what to do. Maybe,” she concluded jokingly, “sickness is good for me.”
Here again, while the sounds were lovely overall—particularly the top note of the “ti vo’ la fronte incoronar,” which floated with a gentle warmth and sweetness—the character of Susanna lacked . . . character, the line not quite achieving the musical and textual coherence that, ideally, makes the song sing. Pamina’s “Ach, ich fühl’s” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte fared better, its highest notes, e.g., “der liebe Glück,” demonstrating a satisfying “ping,” ending in a delicate softness.
That said, this writer was taken a bit aback when Rost introduced it—one of the most ineffably, exquisitely heartbreaking arias in all opera—as “a little bit sad.” While her informality and good humor added much to the pleasure of the evening, here, regrettably, it broke the mood before it could be set.
The Richard Strauss / Walter Gieseking “Ständchen” for solo piano that followed was a complete change of pace, its demands more manifestly technical than emotional. Szokolay met them with seeming effortlessness, his right hand flying across the keyboard, the arpeggios achieving a shimmering delicacy and crystalline purity as the left carried the melody with conversational ease and earnestness.
Swiftly shifting technical and emotional (and genre) gears again—a leading critic once wrote an article titled, “No Wonder Strauss Was Deaf to Debussy”—Szokolay yet offered the same ease and earnestness with a piece that at one time one almost couldn’t attend a piano recital, be it at a symphony hall or a junior high, without expecting to hear. “Clair de lune,” from Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, was limpid and graceful, its final note touched and sustained, satisfyingly, with a contemplative finesse.
Rost returned, and seized the stage with an arresting rendition of Marguérite’s “Ah! Je ris,” from Gounod’s Faust, nailing the opening trill and continuing with such assurance and savoir faire, it was as if this were the show horse she’d been waiting to mount. Even her hand and eye gestures were dramatically convincing, drawing us irresistibly into the young woman’s childlike excitement as she imagines the fabulous jewels that will surround her throat and arms.
Introducing what was listed in the program as “E Susanna non vien . . .” the title of the recitative that introduces the Countess’s magnificent aria, “Dove sono” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Rost joked that she sang Susanna (the Countess’s maid) for so many years, “sometimes I get confused: which is my love?” Suddenly reflective, she continued: “It is about women, about men, about hope. Where are the beautiful moments of love? Sometimes, you ask . . .” Jerking herself out of her reverie, she laughed. “OK, I sing.” She did, and did it competently, the high A of the “Di cangiar . . .” clear and sure, with an effectively nuanced crescendo and decrescendo.
Switching from what may be Mozart’s most elegant and melancholy female role to what is undoubtedly his most iconic “pants” role (whose wearer wants to get into every pretty girl’s), Rost told us this was a real treat for her: “I never sang this onstage.” Singing the Countess, “I was always so jealous of the mezzo, because she got such wonderful applause.” Amusingly describing the range of the page’s untamed (and as yet unexplored) adolescent urges, she ended with a triumphant, “And now: I will sing it.”
Unfortunately, the theatricality we might have been led to expect by her words did not fully materialize. While Rost’s gestures generally illustrated the wide range of emotions and reactions Cherubino frantically describes, a few were missed: most notably, in “E in un momento torno a gelar” (And in a moment I’m freezing again), where a quick shiver would have done the trick. She recouped a bit at the end, though, with an entertaining and exaggeratedly wide-eyed “Donne, vedete, s’io l’ho nel cor” (Ladies, see if it’s in my heart).
The second part of the program brought an equally eclectic selection of songs and piano works, if not more so. It began with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Lilacs” (No. 5 from Twelve Songs, Op. 21), a gently rippling piece, visually and almost fragrantly evocative in Szokolay’s capable hands. It continued with Rost in similar mode, and with a song that, by coincidence or design, also evoked flowers: here, those of Mimì, in Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, a song that is “sometimes in the shadow of the great tenor aria [‘Che gelida manina’],” she told us. “But I like it, because it’s like a painting. Hopefully,” she added, “I can show you some of those colors now.”
In an achievement as vocally and interpretatively persuasive as the “Ah! Je ris” of the first half of the program, here Rost was both lyrical and idiomatic, and nearly masterly In particular, the climactic note of the telling phrase, “Chi parlano d’amor, di primavera” (which speak of love, of springtime) floated with clarity and sweetness, buoyed by a richly “covered” sound throughout a thrillingly, almost impossibly extended crescendo-decrescendo.(Not easy to do at any time, much less on an “ee” vowel.)
Rost nearly repeated the achievement with the final note—here, a high B-flat—of Liù’s signature aria, “Signore, ascolta!” (Hear me, sir!), almost, but not quite squeezing it for all its beauty (Its being a step and a half higher might have made the difference.)
Joking that he wanted “to get out of this despairing mood,” Szokolay came onstage to play Béla Bartók’s “Első Román Tánc Op. 8a,” (Romanian Dance), which nicely filled the bill. Continuing with composers of the performers’ homeland, Rost introduced the first of the three songs that—save for the encore—would take us to the end of the program. As their titles unfortunately were not translated, Rost’s always enjoyable preambles became invaluable.
The first, “A Csitári hegyek alatt,” has special meaning for the soprano: it was the one that sold the woman who would become her first vocal teacher, and who at first told the determined 14-year-old to “come back in four to five years.” Asking if she could sing just this one song, and receiving reluctant approval, the teenager let it fly, and heard a different tune: “Come back in September!”
Tender, reflective, once more in warm and informal storytelling mode, Rost was truly in her element. The top notes soared effortlessly, naturally, the syncopated rhythms and melancholy minors very much like the folk songs that inspired them. The second song, “Kocsi szekér,” was saucy; the third, “Ne búsuljon senki menyecskéje,” quick, light, sharp, and droll.
In the final song listed on the program, Puccini’s “Un bel dì vedremo,” from Madama Butterfly, Rost captured the trusting, almost ecstatically hopeful mood of the young Cio-Cio San; the encore, the popular “O mio babbino caro,” from his Gianni Schicchi, brought the audience to its feet for a second time.
All in all, a concert well worth celebrating for those whose cars, taxis and limos would take them to the event that surely followed, offering well-earned plaudits and gratuláloks to the soloists.
Andrea Rost, Soprano: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Independent Hungary Gala Concert was performed on May 29, 2014 at The Warner Theatre-513 13th Street, NW. in Washington, DC. For future events at The Warner Theater, go to their website.