La Scena Musicale

Friday, 5 August 2011

Duffy and Phan: Singers with Youthful Enthusiasm and Great Promise

Soprano Kiera Duffy, tenor Nicholas Phan and pianist Roger Vignoles receiving applause at the Toronto Summer Music recital (photo: Joseph So)

by Joseph K. So

Romantic Poets
Kiera Duffy, soprano
Nicholas Phan, tenor
Roger Vignoles, piano

Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011
7:30 pm Walter Hall

Schumann: Liederkreis
Poulenc: Fiancilles pour rire
Schumann: Tanzlied; In der Nacht; Die tausend Grusse
Rossini: La serenata
Britten: Winter Words
Strauss: Brentano-Lieder

When American soprano Christine Brewer cancelled her August 4 Toronto Summer Music Festival recital in late June, it put the management of TSMF in a tough spot - how do you replace an eminent, seasoned recitalist on such short notice? We had the answer last evening. Instead of a veteran with years of experience, Toronto audiences were introduced to not one, but two young singers of great promise: soprano Kiera Duffy and tenor Nicholas Phan. Pianist Roger Vignoles has previously worked with Duffy in a recording of Strauss songs, and it was on his recommendation that TSMF extended the invitation to Duffy, together with Phan, to appear at the Summer Festival. Met in HD audience may have caught Ms. Duffy as one of the finalists in The Audition, a documentary that chronicles the 2007 Metropolitan Opera Auditions. A high soprano with a well focused sound and an excellent technique, Duffy has since gone on to a fine career in opera and concert. Nicholas Phan possesses a sweet, lyric tenor combined with an engaging stage presence. He has sung opera in such diverse venues as Glyndebourne, Glimmerglass, Frankfurt, Chicago,and the Edinburgh Festival. He's also a noted recitalist, as a number of his song recitals can be found on Youtube. These singers are new to Canadian audiences, and the intimate Walter Hall is an ideal venue for a debut recital.

The program opened with Mr. Phan singing Schumann's Liederkreis Op. 24, a cycle of nine songs set to the text of Heine. This is not the more familiar, 15-song Liederkreis Op. 39. Phan sang with exemplary enunciation of the text as well as plenty of expressive nuance. His is a beautiful compact-sized instrument, with genuine sweetness and a caressing tone quality. Perhaps it's youthful exuberance, Phan last evening tended to over-sing in the climactic moments, pushing his voice at the expense of steadiness - a few times it took on a worrisome pronounced vibrato. He needn't have tried to make a bigger sound as it carried very well in the small and acoustically lively Walter Hall. In the second half, his major contribution was Britten's Winter Words in a particularly affecting performance. It's a difficult cycle that taxes the singer and audience alike, but Phan made it come alive and sustained the audience's interest well. Perhaps because of the complicated and convoluted text, his English was hard to understand and one had to keep referring to the song text. The last song, "Before Life and After" was touching - Phan's depth of understanding of the material was impressive.

Duffy's solo contribution in the first half was Poulenc's Fiancilles pour rire. Poulenc set this cycle of six bittersweet songs to the text of his good friend Louise de Vilmorin. Duffy sang the eclectic cycle with its many changes of mood well, although her high soprano meant some of the text was lost, and overall I would have liked more warmth in her delivery. Her stage presence appeared a bit cool and reserved for these songs - it would have been nice if she had engaged the audience more. In the second half, her centerpiece was the Brentano-Lieder - this went much better. Unlike the Poulenc, the Strauss cycle is ideally suited to a high voice along the lines of a Diana Damrau, and Duffy sang it with nice, focused tone and fine technical control, with many lovely high pianissimos. The two artists collaborated in several duos - three by Schumann, and Rossini's La serenata. "Tanzlied" was nicely done; "Die tausend Grussse" sounded suitably exuberant if a touch too competitive -and loud- between the two singers! Roger Vignoles is the elder statesman here, and he offered rock solid, sympathetic support to the soloists but rightly never receded into the background. All in all, it was an auspicious Canadian debut for the two soloists, and to be sure they will be heard from again in the future.



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