Carole Farley/John Constable, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The American soprano Carole Farley must have been spectacularly endowed in vocal power and visual allure to make her debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera in the vastly demanding title role of Berg's Lulu at only 19.

The American soprano Carole Farley must have been spectacularly endowed in vocal power and visual allure to make her debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera in the vastly demanding title role of Berg's Lulu at only 19. She remains a glamorous presence to this day, having gone on to garner a string of prizes for her recordings and, evidently, to win the hearts of a bevy of noted American song composers.

But it would be idle to pretend that the voice itself is anything like it was. Maybe this Wigmore recital, entitled Songs of the Americas, found her on an off night. But her sassy delivery of some of the more American populist numbers, plus a few touching phrases in her Latin-American choices, barely compensated for the under-supported, off-pitch and edgy-toned singing elsewhere. One had the sense of a considerable artist whose vocal equipment would no longer quite deliver what she wanted.

She was perhaps unwise to begin with two long and shapeless Walt Whitman settings, accompanied by their begetter Lowell Liebermann (b 1961), a fluent, increasingly successful post-Samuel Barber romantic of no discernable individuality whatsoever. Things looked up a bit in some of the shorter, punchier songs of Ned Rorem (b 1923), though, alas, that legendary figure was prevented by illness from accompanying them himself.

After the interval, we did, however, have the pleasing sight of William Bolcom (b 1938), doyen of ragtime and traditional American popular song, advancing to the piano to accompany a group of his own items. Of these, an implacably cumulative treatment of May Swenson's "Night Practice" proved most striking.

Farley's remaining choices were of Spanish settings by the Argentine romantic Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000), sensitively accompanied by that refined and expressive guitarist Fabio Zanon; and by the popular Cuban pianist and film composer Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963).

Here, John Constable, who had stepped in to accompany the Rorem songs and whose calm expertise has sustained so many London recitals over the decades, proved to harbour a quite unexpected affinity for the sensual harmonies and decadent habanera rhythms that haunted so many of Lecuona's melodies - almost persuading us to forget Farley's difficulties. The audience responded warmly, discs were signed, funds raised for musical good causes, and so on. But?

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