Washington National Opera Presents: An Evening with Ailyn Pérez

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Amore! Amour! Amor! The eagerly anticipated concert by the couple memorably dubbed by a leading British newspaper “the Jay-Z and Beyoncé of opera,” tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez, promised to offer them all to a primed Washington audience poised to revel with them in many of the classical repertoire’s most moving songs of love and loss. That the performance itself would exemplify the realities and possibilities at the heart and core of such stories is something no one could have anticipated. And that no one who was there is likely to forget.

Ailyn Perez. Photo by  Molina Visuals.
Ailyn Perez. Photo by Molina Visuals.

“Oh, qual pallor!” That those would be the first words of the first number quickly turned out to be almost prescient: while Pérez as Verdi’s Violetta gazed in quiet distress into an imaginary mirror, Costello was striving valiantly to overcome the “bug” he’d caught on a plane. Turning to Pérez as he approached Alfredo’s signature, soaring “Di quell’ amor!” he conferred with her sotto voce, smiled at the audience, said “Just a moment,” walked over with her to accompanist Danielle Orlando—more quick consultation—and exited with them.

In a few minutes we were apprised that the concert would indeed go on—for those wishing to stay—as a solo performance. And Pérez, resplendent in a floor-length, salmon-pink décolleté gown, its train alluringly lined in flaming red-orange, offered a concert that arguably made any who may have been unsure about remaining, very glad they did.

The adjusted program, which offered Pérez the opportunity to augment the scheduled solo works with alternately (or at once) thrillingly difficult and warmly familiar crowd pleasers, also introduced the audience to songs that may be less familiar to them but clearly have a special place in Pérez’s heart.

The first were three songs by 20th-century Spanish composer Fernando Obradors. “Al Amor” was delightfully saucy. It was followed by “Del cabello más sutil,” its melodies caressed by Pérez with tender, lyrical legatos, its crescendos swelling, then descending into sensual hums, half-hums, swallows and glottal stops. It stood in sharp contrast to “El vito,” a vibrant Andalusian folk song that riffs on women, their desires, and how both are perceived by themselves and the male-dominated world. Orlando shone, hammering the keys with intensity and precision, displaying a powerful grasp of the musical language; Pérez, surprisingly, less so.

The lapse was brief: she recouped a thousandfold with “Je suis encore tout étourdie,” from Jules Massenet’s Manon, introducing it with a charming personal anecdote—the first of many—and sailing into and away with it, vocally and character-assured. Expansive, with sustained top notes ranging from the joyfully ringing to the spine-tinglingly floating, the latter not in the least disturbed by her terpsichorean swerves and dips, Pérez’s rendition was summed up with two words in this writer’s notes: NAILED IT. The audience ate it up.

Three songs by Reynaldo Hahn followed. “À Chloris” and “Le rossignol des lilas” were spontaneous and natural, conversational and intuitive, while “Le printemps” was most striking for Pérez’s gloriously triumphant delivery of its ending high note.

Which was excellent preparation for “Je veux vivre,” the famed “Juliet’s Waltz” from Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, beloved by audiences (and sopranos who can conquer its dynamic leaps and daunting tessitura). Here Pérez positively reveled in the top notes, tossing off fortissimos like championship Frisbees. The only small flaw I could find was an imprecision in the first lightning-speedily descending scale; as before, she recouped magnificently the next time around, when she nailed the second, which rippled like silk.

The second half of the program saw a change in costume: from sunny to silvery. In keeping with its brightness, Pérez told us that “Mia madre aveva una povera ancella” (The Willow Song”; “Ave Maria”) from Verdi’s Otello would be sung as a tribute to her husband (who has played Cassio), watching backstage, because “Desdemona is also waiting for her husband.” As the implications slowly sank in, and knowing, rueful laughter coursed through the audience, Pérez observed with wry wonder: “Hey, I am a comedian!”

Now at ease, hearing the first notes of the opening recitative, which, after all, leads into one of the un-funniest arias in all opera (ridi, pagliaccio?) was something of a wake-up call. It was also disconcerting but thought-provoking to hear Pérez offer an interpretation that differed not only from the more commonly heard ones that impart to the air a mournful delicacy, but also from her own of years past. Heavy, flat-lined and dark, tenebrous and vibrato-free, it effectively portrayed a Desdemona who has lost all hope. The concluding, heart-tearing “Ah! Emilia, Emilia, addio, / Emilia, addio!” began with a gratifyingly electrifying shriek, following Verdi’s masterfully, deceptively lulling silence; but the final notes, repeating the cry no less intensely, but in lower voice and in a lower range, to this listener’s ears lacked the terrified realization of a woman seeing her death that Pérez has suggested before.

Manuel de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas recalled the Obradors selections from the first half of the program, hitting comparable emotional registers in just over twice the number of songs. There was coarse humor and rough scolding in “El paño moruno,” “Seguidilla murciana” and “Canción,” and conversationally idiomatic, free-flowing through-line in “Jota.” There was the thoughtful delicacy of “Asturiana” and the exquisite, almost palpable gentleness and nurturing warmth of “Nana” (for which Pérez lovingly crossed her arms across her breast as if embracing a beloved baby). And there was the demonically demanding “Polo” (for which Orlando crossed her hands across the keyboard for brutally, relentlessly hammering, finger-breakingly bravura staccati).

Swiftly switching gears once more, Pérez and Orlando took us next to Giacomo Puccini’s fragile embroiderer, and “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” from La bohème. But no: love them as she may, and doomed as she may be, this is no delicate flower. Unlike most, Perez’s Mimì tells Rodolfo who she is with a full, rich tone. No shyness or hesitation here, no soaring joy or sweetness. This Mimì knows who she is, and likes who she is. (It would be interesting to see Pérez in the role, to see if and how it alters the dynamic of the story.)

Pérez pretty much knocked “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” from Puccini’s La rondine out of the park, the top notes providing a clarion, passionate purity of tone, a musical delineation of youthful, irrepressible desire.

Though Pérez had been singing quite a bit more than she’d planned—when she was to have been performing in concert (literally) with her husband—she graciously responded to the continuing applause and cheers with two encores: one a favorite, the other made famous by Jane Powell in a 1948 film. For “Summertime,” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Pérez assumed a sly smile, deliberately kicked off her four-inch silver high heels, and proceeded to draw every drop of cream from the cherished song, oozing and sliding, feeling the summer’s heat, and—topping it all off—descending into lazy but well-earned languor with an impeccable, pin-point glissando.

Nacio Herb Brown’s “Love Is Where Your Find It” may seem, at first glance, an odd choice to end a classical recital. At second glance—and first hearing—any song that drives a singer in multiple musical circles, that recalls every crazy ride you’ve ever been on in an amusement park, and that ends in a blood-curdling, hair-standing, full-throated, get-out-my-pitch-pipe-was-that-really-F-above-high-C? Well, let’s just say: it’s beyond Beyoncé. And if anybody’s keeping score: beginning with loss, and ending with love, is a musical “score” that’s well worth keeping.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

Washington National Opera: An Evening with Ailyn Pérez was performed September 10, 2014 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts- 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets to future performances, check their performance calendar.

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Ailyn Perez’s website.