La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Dramatic Tenor Issachah Savage Makes Sensational Debut in COC Die Walkure

American Issachah Savage Triumphant as Siegmund in the COC Die Walkure

Joseph So

American tenor Issachah Savage (Photo: Kristen Hoeberman)

Among classical singers, tenors are considered a special breed - pace sopranos and everyone else! The famous Australian prima donna Frances Alda (1879 - 1952) even titled her 1937 memoir Men, Women and Tenors.  And when that tenor is beautiful and of a size and power suitable for the Wagnerian repertoire, it makes one sit up and take notice. Compared to the baritone which is closest to the male speaking voice, the tenor represents a high wire act, reaching up to high C and beyond in full voice. Anytime a promising tenor emerges on the operatic firmament, it's cause for celebration. Due to the illness of American tenor Clifton Forbis, the regularly scheduled Siegmund in the current COC revival of Die Walkure, he was replaced by his cover, fellow American Issachah Savage in the third performance of the run, on Saturday February 7th.

A native of Philadelphia, Mr. Savage studied voice performance at Morgan State University and Catholic University of America. He has been singularly successful in winning competitions, among them the 2012 Marcello Giordani International Competition and the Seattle International Wagner Competition last year. A few sound clips on Youtube and on the artist's website reveal a voice of beauty and clarion power. So when it was announced at noon Saturday that he would be singing, it really piqued my interest. The first voice in the opera belongs to Siegmund, and right away I was impressed by his warm, hall-filling, rich sound, accurate of pitch and used with a surfeit of musicality.  Undoubtedly there were some nervous tension, but he hid it well.  He grew in confidence as the performance continued, and the voice sounded splendid in the Four Seasons Centre. At his final curtain call, the roar of approval from the house was among the most impressive I've heard in my 43 years of attending COC performances. 

This performance clearly demonstrated that Savage's tenor is ideal as Siegmund. He managed the unusually low tessitura well. When the vocal line rises, his tenor is in its glory. Unlike many Wagnerian tenors who are basically pushed-up baritones, Savage is a genuine tenor, with a bright, forwardly placed sound, one that defines the term Jugendlich dramatischer Tenor. The gleaming yet warm sound is lovely, and it has the heft for the dramatic outbursts like the "Walse, walse" passage. If I were to quibble, he has the tendency to avoid the |e| vowel, replacing it with the |o| vowel. He changed it to the |o| in the second Walse, a note that's up a semi-tone and sits in a tenor's passaggio. He also modified it in the word Walsung (Blut) at the end of the Act. Singers do this to protect the voice above the stave, but it sounds more Italian than German. Perhaps this explain his affinity to the Italian repertoire, having sung Radames to great success in Houston. It's clear that this Siegmund was an extremely promising start, and it is going to take some time and more experience for him to grow into this role. 

Interestingly, I noticed that everyone sang particularly well, more comfortable and freer onstage, perhaps with opening night jitters out of the way, or perhaps with the excitement of an unscheduled debut of a colleague. Heidi Melton's gorgeous middle voice sounded great as Sieglinde. Dmitry Ivashchenko's dark hued bass was almost too beautiful for the role of Hunding, but he managed to summon up the requisite malice. Christine Goerke once again nailed her B's and C's in Hojotoho, and there was great depth and nuance in her acting, particularly in the long Abschied with Johan Reuter, their interaction really touched the heart.  The orchestra under Johannes Debus outdid itself; whatever balance issues on opening night was absent here. It was one of the most satisfying performances at the COC in recent memory. 

After the performance, Neil Crory and I went backstage to greet the debuting Mr, Savage. I found him to be very congenial, articulate, unassuming, aware of his huge talent yet remaining humble and modest. With his marvelous voice, intelligence and musicality, I dare say he will go far. I hope the COC will bring him back - after all tenor voices of this calibre don't grow on trees! I look forward to hearing him again in the future.  

Issachah Savage in a post-performance glow (Photo: Joseph So)

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