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Review: Over-the-top beauty begs for more bite

The Associated Press, Thursday, December 6, 2012, 12:58pm (PST)

NEW YORK (AP) — Is there such a thing as too much beauty — as a criticism?

On Wednesday at Carnegie Hall, some of America's most talented young singers — including soprano Angela Meade and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton — delivered vocal splendor with technical fireworks in Vincenzo Bellini's "Beatrice di Tenda."

They followed in the musical footsteps of the late Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, who wowed a Carnegie audience in the same 19th-century Italian opera in 1961.

Meade and Barton produced a stream of thrilling, seductive sounds. And they drew a standing ovation from an audience that included top agents, publicists and casting directors in the music business.

But sheer beauty may not be the whole point when it comes to musical drama.

This story of tormented love, involving four besotted people — and as many unrequited passions — demands harder dramatic edges and more emotional bite. After all, a nobleman drops his wife for another woman and together they manage to engineer the execution of the betrayed spouse — totally innocent — on grounds of adultery. Another man in love with the wife is used to entrap her.

This love quadrangle requires a bigger palette of vocal colors than Meade's consistently rich, huge and controlled voice offers as the rejected wife. No doubt, she's quite capable of variety, as demonstrated in the softest high notes, floated with breathtaking purity, contrasted with virtuosic passages pouring out easily across several octaves.

It may not be fair to compare this rising star to the late Maria Callas, one of the all-time greats. But the point is that Callas, despite a technically flawed voice, won a fanatical following with her indelible ability to draw more than beauty from her voice.

Her vocal chords seemed to pierce souls with raw, sometimes uncontrolled, sound. She is credited with reviving many so-called "bel canto" (beautiful singing) roles, including the powerhouse female characters created by Bellini. Among them is the lead in "Norma," a Callas role that Meade has made her own.

The soprano's full-throttle voice is exhilarating. And her rise to stardom at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere is well deserved; she's won more than 50 vocal competitions.

Barton is her match with her even more sumptuous, burnished mezzo.

Baritone Nicholas Pallesen and tenor Michael Spyres, the two male leads, were no less accomplished. Spyres' honey-tinged voice embraced both virile power and barely audible tenderness, and Pallesen's baritone was a pillar of warmth.

More than two hours of truly "bel canto" was accompanied by the American Symphony Orchestra under James Bagwell, with the Collegiate Chorale providing a grounding, but vivid, commentary to the over-the-top action.

"Beatrice di Tenda" was written in 1833 by a Sicilian composer in his early 30s, a rarely heard work that was performed in an unstaged concert version Wednesday, as it was in 1961 with Sutherland and Horne. It's a font of glorious melodies propelled by lilting rhythms that keeps pulling the ear into musical pleasure.

The original score is more than three hours long. For this performance, it was tightened to just over two hours, which occasionally resulted in jarring transitions while highlighting intense moments, with minimal dramatic release.

A recent Broadway production of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" was similarly cut. And while both works retained their composers' genius, something went missing — like some "down" time.

Wednesday's Bellini was like walking through miles and miles of vocal roses.

One just wished for a few more down-to-earth emotional weeds in-between.

At the end, a listener longs to feel, as W.B. Yeats wrote of another tragically inspiring human drama, that "a terrible beauty is born."

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