The sopranos who spearheaded the twentieth century's bel
canto revival included Callas, Sutherland, Sills, Caballé.
Although primarily renowned for "dramatic coloratura"
roles - the Fach more precisely termed soprano drammatica
d'agilità - these singers regularly appeared in mainstream
roles as well. Their tenor partners, however, seem not to have
commanded the same adaptability.
The Spaniard Alfredo Kraus probably came closest on the
international level: noted for a secure if reedy high Rubini
extension, he exploited it sparingly. He was as likely to sing
Rodolfo as Almaviva and generally eschewed unfamiliar territory,
but preserved his voice over a long and celebrated career. Early
on, Luciano Pavarotti's juicier instrument could well have made
a home in Donizetti; but I suspect the tension underlying his
vocal production would eventually have taken its toll, even
if a move into heavier roles and arena concerts had not. The
specialist "Rossini tenors" emergent in the 1980s
- Chris Merritt, William Matteuzzi, Rockwell Blake - negotiated
the extreme top in a pumped-up version of Kraus's forward, reedy
resonance. They rarely ventured into more central repertoire
- although I believe Merritt was once announced for a Trovatore!
Currently, Antonio Siragusa follows this lineage.
All this is to offer a context in which to consider Barry
Banks, whose well-chosen, varied program attempts to bridge
the repertoire divide. I am only familiar with him from Chandos's
"Opera in English" series - to which this recital
belongs - but his biography lists appearances at major houses
throughout the U.S., as well as in Britain and on the Continent.
He's sung a fair amount of Rossini as well as Rimsky-Korsakov's
Astrologer, indicating (one hopes) a reliable extension into
the leggiero top. His "standard" roles - Tamino,
Nemorino, and Edgardo among them - suggest a reasonable midrange
presence as well.
Based on this album, Banks's voice has a clear, open timbre
and placement, standing him in good stead for a program that
includes seven Rossini scenes. The singer's frontal, somewhat
nasal approach to the passaggio avoids overweighting
the voice and affords him flexibility in the fioriture,
but occasionally renders the midrange tremulous, robbing it
of some of its clarity and ring. On the other hand, Banks negotiates
bright-toned excursions into the Rubini range without sounding
fierce or overdriven - not an easy feat.
Interpretatively, Banks doesn't get much beyond projecting
the appropriate mood for each aria, but that's more than sufficient
for the Rossini selections, which are, after all, primarily
about singing - solution of the technical problems in
a musical way will take care of most of the "interpretation."
In the Stabat Mater aria, the return to the original
key sounds clunky and uncertain, with the singer waiting momentarily
for the orchestra's audible prompt. And the fioriture
in the Ermione cabaletta sound careful, missing incisiveness.
At the other extreme, the Thieving Magpie cabaletta goes
with the sort of thrilling, proclamatory energy familiar from
Ramiro's big aria in Cinderella. Armida's brief,
virile trio for tenors is a novelty: the baritonal lead voice
is clearly Bruce Ford's, balanced well by Banks and Dennis O'Neill
in their successive entries.
The non-Rossini material is similarly well-considered.
A relatively simple passage like the Don Pasquale recitative
finds Banks singing note-by-note, rather than phrasing it in
full arcs. But then, venturing far from conventional leggiero
territory, he and soprano Janice Watson are perfectly attuned
to the easy charm of the Our Friend Fritz duet, opening
into full-throated climaxes within a bel canto framework
- I'm inclined to call it the best thing on the album.
In this otherwise resolutely conservative program, the
Rake's Progress aria sticks out like a cornstalk in a
rosebush, Stravinsky's purported obeisance to Italian models
notwithstanding. Once past the infirm, nebulous starting pitches
- if you don't already know they're a B and two Cs, you still
won't now - Banks's immediate, "verbal" delivery of
the English text puts the piece across nicely.
Oh, yes, the English translations. They work rather well,
actually - better than you'd expect from reading them ("only
one teardrop" for "una furtiva lagrima,"
for example). And none of the sung texts sets the wrong tone;
compare the Chandos Ernani with its improbably highfalutin'
brigands. Save in the Mozart, which for some reason gets mushy,
Banks's enunciation is exemplary - I rarely consulted the booklet.
David Parry conducts with sensitive understanding throughout.
Both orchestras play well, with the LPO's principal horn and
trumpet sounding poised and eloquent in their solo turns. Sonically,
the characteristic Chandos resonance mostly falls pleasantly
on the ear - the larger-than-life woodwind sound is especially
attractive in the Stravinsky. The cushiony ambience, however,
blunts the edge of the instrumental textures in the Inflammatus
- whoops, in Through her soul - and the bass can be boomy.
Banks is suitably forward of the orchestra, except in the Pasquale
serenade, drawn from the recording of the complete opera, where
he begins "offstage."