Giorgio Koukl | 27 JUL 2023
Uniting on a single CD a sort of “the best of” for baritone is certainly an appealing idea. Using music from three centuries, singing in five different languages, and passing from opera to oratorio, from Bach to Carl Orff, can easily backfire.
But not so with the extraordinary voice of baritone Stephen Powell. He is undoubtedly a highly accomplished operatic specialist and convincing in every one of his numerous roles.
But let us examine his new ARCHETYPE album from the beginning.
The first of the thirteen tracks is, quite logically, the famous Pagliacci aria “si può?” by Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1857-1919).
While Powell already displays all his magnificent capacities, and it is challenging to underline only a few (if one must choose, probably the powerful high register and the extreme adaptability to the Italian text would be the first to mention), it is the Nashville Sinfonia, conducted by Steven White, which is, unfortunately, less convincing. This sensation continues throughout the whole disc.
Strangely enough, the single instruments are quite good, some even impressive, but the cohesion is simply not there. Only after viewing the short “making of” video does it become clear where the cause of this likely lies. Apparently, the musicians are semi-closed in acoustic boxes and seated very far from each other, a technique frequently used by non-classical ensembles but which is less than satisfactory with a symphonic orchestra, where the vibrations are meant to interact before meeting a microphone.
The second track, composed by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), is from Ariadne auf Naxos. This opera has quite a lot of nice baritone arias to display. Here, the well-known “Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen” was chosen, a short but intense aria. Once again, Mr. Powell displays some beautiful dynamics and a huge capacity for expression. He is equally perfect in his German pronunciation as he was in the first Italian sung aria.
Some French music follows: the aria “Voilà donc la terrible cité!” from opera Thaïs by Jules Massenet (1842-1912). The role of Athanael, the priest trying to convince the sinful Thais to change her life, is a demanding task for any baritone. The extreme requests for the highest notes of the baritone register, the frequent dynamic changes, and the psychological complexity of the character require a top interpreter. But even listening to major singers of the past, like Marcel Journet, Mr. Powell is in no way inferior.
The disc’s longest track is “The trumpet shall sound” from Händel’s oratorio, Messiah. Here some excellent solos of the trumpet player Jose Sibaja can be admired.
Giuseppe Verdi is a composer not to be missed in such a display. He is the only one present on two tracks, represented with selections from Rigoletto and Il Trovatore. Both scores are sung with accomplished craftsmanship.
Just to add another capability to an already long list: Mr. Powell displays his perfect Latin pronunciation in Carmina burana by Carl Orff (1895-1982). Here, a minor glitch can be observed. Likely due to an extremely fast tempo, the orchestra and the soloist are sometimes not exactly together.
The only missing element of such a powerful display would typically be a work from a living composer, so a selection from Jake Heggie’s opera Moby-Dick was chosen, a really well-made decision. Unfortunately, the booklet is not providing us with the information of whether the original orchestration was used or the reduced version made by Cristian Macelaru. Anyway, this music is powerful and absolutely suitable to the musical characteristics of Stephen Powell’s voice.
Generally speaking, every single one of the thirteen tracks is a wise choice to present all the capacities of the singer, and in this sense it is a great showcase. In fact, there is no other unifying element in this disc, and without the cathartic element of Mr. Powell this CD would have no sense.
There are other presences like Rossini, Donizetti, and others, but it is the grand finale of Johann Sebastian Bach which give us the thrilling element of big music: the aria “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” from the Matthäus-Passion—a true highlight of a totally satisfying album, something not so easy to find nowadays. ■