The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice extends to many styles of vocal music, but it’s run by opera singers and tends to revolve around operatic forms. Given that most of classical opera is European and is performed in languages other than English, I was curious to see how the festival would handle this year’s theme of American music.
The evening performances showed how versatile the operatic voice can be, drawing out subtlety and passion from American English in popular tunes, art songs, and musical comedy, as well as pure opera. The music may not have been as familiar to classical fans as the selections of previous years, but the audience response was enthusiastic, as always.
An assortment of American genres opened the festival in “Voices of Distinction,” beginning with pianist and festival co-founder Justin Kolb’s presentation of a thrilling “Rhapsody in Blue,” backed by the Festival of the Voice orchestra under the dynamic baton of conductor David Wroe. As the sky darkened and a nearly full moon rose over the bandshell, 86-year-old songstress Sheila Jordan delivered a seasoned, relaxed, and gorgeous series of standards, accompanied by Jack DeJohnette on piano. Better known as one of the best drummers in jazz, DeJohnette showed deft and sensitivity on the keys. In the middle of the set, Jordan, who had just discovered that DeJohnette, like herself, has Seneca ancestors, sang a stunning Iroquois chant.
They were followed by American Idol finalist Elise Testone, performing original soul/pop tunes in the expansive voice that drives her rising career. Emily Drennan, now touring in Mamma Mia!, joined the Phoenicia and Woodstock Community Choirs and the festival orchestra for towering renditions of “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions,” with vivid help from local guitarist Ralph Legnini. His daughter, Lucia, 17, reprised a duet with Drennan from a previous Voicefest — a song from Wicked — with poise and a clear, ringing voice.
Opera stars came out for the two last numbers, as festival executive director Maria Todaro’s father, Jose Todaro, belted a Mario Lanza song, “Because,” and her mother, Maria Helena De Oliveira, gave a deeply moving rendition of “When You Walk Through the Night,” the choirs soaring behind them.
On the second night, Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music brought classically trained voices into the Broadway musical, producing a superb show with a surprise revelation to many of us who hadn’t seen it before — that it’s the source of Judy Collins’ 1975 hit “Send in the Clowns.” The song was performed by opera star and 1981 Miss America Susan Powell, who brought dramatic depth to her character’s tragic miscalculations about life and love. Ron Raines, known for his work on TV, Broadway, and opera, sang opposite Powell with authority, his strong voice filling the role of an adulterous lawyer, even as his nuanced performance made the character sympathetic.
It was a treat to see Christopher, Brittany, and Libby Sokolowsky, siblings who are part of a Hudson Valley opera family, together onstage in supporting roles. They share an arresting stage presence and spectacular voices that will no doubt continue to develop. Soprano Sarah Heltzel excelled as an acid-tongued countess, providing comedy and vocal brilliance. Despite the lack of a set, aside from red folding chairs, lively direction by Marc Astafan made for an engaging show.
The renowned Frederica von Stade, headliner for a recital of songs by American composers, unfortunately had to cancel. Sublime lyrics featured poetry by Walt Whitman, Stanley Kunitz, Langston Hughes, and A. E. Housman. Soprano Lauren Flanigan, a veteran of the Metropolitan and New York City Operas, was winning, with her heartfelt introductions to complex songs by Thomas Pasatieri, delivered with clarity and power.
Bass Bradley Smoak performed two obscure American ballads in his warm, round tones, then gave the most poignant rendition of “Shenandoah” I’ve ever heard. He was joined by Maria Todaro in a rollicking duet composed by Robert Cucinotta. She also applied her robust, expressive mezzo to two Peter Schickele pieces. A last-minute addition to the line-up, Keith Phares, was entertaining with works by Jake Heggie and several short gems by Charles Ives, as katydids creaked in the background, one of the joys of outdoor performance.
Of Mice and Men, with the tragic inevitability of its ending, is a perfect subject for opera, but the relentlessly atonal score by Carlisle Floyd was not to my taste. No doubt contemporary music connoisseurs were able to appreciate it, but the first act dragged, both lacking in melody and short on dramatic action. A plethora of unsympathetic characters, aside from the two leads, didn’t help. However, Michael R. Hendrick was touching as the mentally impaired Lenny, and Malcolm MacKenzie gave a superb portrayal of George, his harried caretaker and companion, while Nancy Allen Lundy sang beautifully as Curley’s slatternly wife.
I confess that I left at the intermission, partly due to festival burnout, and I was told that the audience who remained gave the heartrending finale a standing ovation. Other programs I missed, including Gian Carlo Menotti’s short opera The Medium and the Inuit throat-singing sisters, were reported to be splendid. I’m sure the festival closer, the barbershop chorus Voices of Gotham, was magnificent, as they dazzled two years back.
Overall, it was intriguing to watch the festival find its way through an all-American repertoire that mixed crowd-pleasing spectacle with challenging music. Next year’s theme will be Shakespeare, with Verdi’s Otello as the featured opera and Celtic music among the other performances — surely a festival to look forward to.