Review: Soprano Ailyn Pérez at The Barns at Wolf Trap

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There’s no business like show business, but does that include opera? If in a few years people finally agree that opera is genuinely another form of musical theater, it may be because of the current career rocketship of American soprano Ailyn Pérez.

Never mind her recent run as the star of the Metropolitan Opera’s uber-popular production of La Bohème. Six days after the show’s closing (don’t worry, the Met’s La Bohème will be back next season, and every season after that), Ms. Pérez was in Washington for a celebratory return to the Wolf Trap Opera Company, where she basically interned a little over a decade ago.

Ailyn Pérez. Photo by Rebecca Fay.

In a sparkling solo recital at The Barns with WTO Senior Director Kim Pensinger Witman on the piano, Ms. Pérez displayed her completely natural showbiz instincts paired up with a rich, rose-colored and notably ample-for-a-soprano lower and middle voice range that masterfully blooms on the way up.

The evening was billed as entirely Spanish and French music with no Italian opera or songs in English in store, although Ms. Pérez and Ms. Witman had some surprises waiting. But no musical moment exceeded in importance the fun audience Q&A session that is a regular feature of WTO’s annual recital with a “graduate who’s made it.”

The payoff came when the evening’s genial host, musical man-about-town Rich Kleinfeldt, reading off submitted audience question cards, asked Ms. Pérez what she felt was different about singing a staged opera versus performing a solo recital. She thought a couple of seconds, and then answered that what’s really important is how the two situations are exactly the same.

Ms. Pérez explained that opera scenes can last 10 or even 20 minutes with plenty of time to explore a character’s emotions, but in this recital she was singing entirely suites of short songs with an immediate demand to communicate what the character is feeling. So being in character on stage has to be transferred directly to the recital stage without compromise. Ms. Pérez made this shift from song to song, completely inhabiting the character in question at every moment, with no deadly “indicating” of the character’s feelings than can still be seen on the opera stage.

Her answer was so good that I’ll even forgive Mr. Kleinfeldt for butchering Ms. Pérez’s last name as “puh-REZZ” rather than “PEH-ress,” especially because he got the important part right – her first name. It’s a bit of a cross-cultural inside joke, as Ms. Pérez is Mexican-American and A-I-L-Y-N is a pure invention that, read phonetically in Spanish, sounds exactly like the name “Eileen.” So from here on when you see “Ailyn,” think “Eileen” and you’ve got it!

Vocally, one of Ailyn Pérez’s skills that helps bring this off is an ability to place a soft volume or pianissimo anywhere she wants within a single note or phrase. She can put it at the beginning of the note (pretty standard in preparation for getting louder), at the end (quite a trick especially on high soprano notes that surely are easier to “belt”), and incredibly right in the middle (creating an expressive sound valley in the middle of a note or passage). This was in evidence in abundance in a suite called Canciones Clásicas Españolas (“Classic Spanish Songs”) by Fernando Obradors. At one point in one of these songs, Del cabello más sutil (“Of the softest hair”), she repeatedly goosed up and down a set of notes and words all on a single breath.

Ailyn Pérez. Photo by Dietmar Scholz.

Ms. Pérez brought more of a big overall flair to Manuel de Falla’s similar-named but rather different suite, Siete Canciones Populares Españolas or “Seven Spanish Folk Songs” from 1914. I particularly loved the vocal storytelling in a song called “Jota” which begins with the Spanish equivalent of “They say we don’t love each other because they never see us talking” – milking the same sly approach to romantic love that Rodgers and Hammerstein would later employ in Oklahoma! (“People Will Say We’re in Love”) and Carousel (“If I Loved You”).

It would be easy to say that Ailyn Pérez should readily be able to pull this off because Spanish is one of her native languages – except that she clearly transitioned her sung Spanish to the Castilian accent of Spain rather than a native Latin American pronunciation. For that matter, people in the know say that Ms. Pérez’s superb diction in French makes it sound native as well. In fact, a highlight of the evening was a set of three substantial French songs from Gabriel Fauré’s suite called Poème d’un jour, featured in her 2013 album of the same name.

This gorgeous set of songs entitled Rencontre (“Encounter”), Toujours (“Always”), and Adieu (“Goodbye”), is by turns slyly sensuous, modestly argumentative, and hesitantly regretful. In Rencontre she showed a pure soprano in long, lyrical lines with hills and valleys of dynamics above Ms. Witman’s flowing piano. Toujours has fast, demanding lyrics mostly in the upper range, and Ms. Perez brought a bigger vibrato at the end of lines that certainly got across such lyrics that translate from the French as “Do not hope that my soul will tear itself from bitter sorrow, and shed its passion as springtime sheds its flowers.”

In the gentle Adieu she oscillated between major and minor, and her skill at note placement with leading tones hugging up against their target fifths and octaves created wonderful overtones along with an even vibrato that would be equally pleasing on the Broadway or opera stage. Another set of French songs by Reynaldo Hahn, and a suite of five Spanish songs with real Iberian flavor by Joaquín Turina, rounded out the program.

It was in two encores that Ailyn Pérez came back to English (equally native to her as is Spanish – in fact her spoken English bears clear traces of her Chicago upbringing) and her global triumphs in Italian opera. First came “Children Will Listen” from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Then followed Addio senza rancor (or “Goodbye without resentment” in one possible translation) from Act 3 of La Bohème.

It’s worth noting for this theater-oriented website that if you’re very familiar with Jonathan Larson’s Rent, it really does deepen the show’s meaning if you eventually also see its model La Bohème from 1896, exactly a century before. No doubt Ailyn Pérez brought to her Washington audience the Act 3 aria of her character of Mimì because this song really does showcase her ability to float dynamics and vibratos all across the spectrum, and she’s won special recognition from often crusty and cynical opera critics for this part of her performances in La Bohème. The Wolf Trap audience knew it, and gave her a rapturous response.

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

Soprano Ailyn Pérez with Pianist Kim Pensinger Witman performed on Friday, January 20, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. at The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For a listing of Ailyn Pérez’s upcoming opera performances and concerts worldwide, see her performance schedule. For upcoming events at The Barns at Wolf Trap, see their event schedule.

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David Rohde
David Rohde is a pianist, conductor, vocal teacher, music arranger, and arts writer. David has worked extensively in musical theater in Washington and around the mid-Atlantic region. He’s been music director and conductor for shows ranging from the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ 2016 production of Oklahoma! in Fredericksburg to pop/rock musicals like Evita, Next to Normal and Blood Brothers in the D.C. suburbs. His other journeys around the musical genres have included performing a piano recital series at the National Lutheran Home, accompanying singers in repertoire from bel canto opera to contemporary Broadway, and fronting a band one night in Rockville for the late Joan Rivers. David is a 2-time recipient and 8-time nominee for the WATCH Award for Outstanding Music Direction, and he loves watching the actors and musicians he’s worked with “make it” when they pursue regional and national performing arts careers.