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Vox clamantis: An Evening with Huang Ruo 2022.IV.22

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

A decade's worth of Huang's operas illuminated by unflinchingly committed singers Tiang, Zhang, Nelsen, Lodato, Gibbs, Vuong

Lincoln Center’s American Songbook

An Evening with Huang Ruo

Stanley Kaplan Playhouse

2022.IV.22 (also livestreamed)

Excerpts from operas by Huang Ruo composed and premiered 2011–2022:

1. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen

2. An American Soldier

3. Bound

4. M. Butterfly

5. Rift

in order of vocal appearance:

Fang-Tao Jiang, soprano (1, 2, 3)

Tianchi Zhang, tenor (1, 2)

Nina Yoshida Nelsen, mezzosoprano (1, 3, 5)

Joseph Lodato, baritone (3, 4, 5)

Karen Vuong, soprano (5)

Christian Mark Gibbs, tenor (5)

Michael Fennelly, pianist

Composer Huang Ruo and librettist David Henry Hwang served as MCs.

In the same week Lincoln Center focused attention on operas of Asian ambience, the Met reprising Madama Butterfly after a two-week-plus hiatus and Lincoln Center's American Songbook series returning to live performance with a showcase of Huang Ruo's operatic output over a decade, with the week's second Butterfly falling the exact same evening as Dr. Huang's program.

(Commentary on that week's earlier Butterfly performance of Tuesday 04/19


commentary on two stirringly Italianate renditions of the Pinkertons' Act I love duet.)

This evening Huang received the biggest boost a living opera composer could ask for: a group of singers who individually and collectively performed his music with conviction. Vibrant soprano Fang-Tao Jiang was in her element in the rising-and-falling, occasionally melismatic writing of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (the libretto of which is in Mandarin and Cantonese); in excerpts from An American Soldier and Bound (both libretti in US English), she was ready for the frequent leaps into and beyond the passaggio, but her words were hard to catch.

Partnering her for the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and American Soldier sets, Tianchi Zhang sang with easy warmth and sweetness—one gained the charming impression of an «Irish tenor» of Asian heritage—though some of his vowels as the American Soldier title character were more UK than US.

An interpreter of whom composers must dream to champion their works graced the beginning, middle, and closing sets with her heartfelt communication of maternal angst. Nina Yoshida Nelsen embodied the mater dolorosa of all three scenarios by virtue of her deep-dish true mezzosoprano instrument carried on diction which kept the audience hanging on every word, all infallibly guided by an intense sensitivity.

Joseph Lodato appeared in the final three sets, most notably as the antagonist in something like a brutish scherzo from Bound and as disgraced diplomat René Gallimard from M. Butterfly. No hesitation in his phonation: Lodato's is a manful sound jointly commanding easy projection and keen focus, undaunted by Bound's relentless quick articulations—both rangey patter and surprise leaps. Yet in Gallimard's heartsore barcarolle—the plainest instance of Huang's inspiration taking sustained melodic flight—Lodato offered vocal balm, creating cabaret-like intimacy without compromising his operatic technique.

The concluding set taken from Rift introduced the final two artists. Electric tenor Christian Mark Gibbs vividly embodied a Vietnam veteran's struggle to keep his traumatic war experiences at bay, his instrument responding promptly at every point of his range, taking in stride the upward leaps and surprise onsets in his top register.

The evening's final word was entrusted to Karen Vuong. Hers is a plangent lyric soprano with an uncommonly warm central register and throbbing top tones; hers is also a fighting artistic spirit, tenaciously communicating her character's every turn of phrase and mood all the way to her concluding acuto furioso, which she cut off with more than a touch of verismo americano!

Appreciating these artists' valor through an arduous program, one couldn't resist imagining them in standard repertoire—off the top of the head, Mr. Zhang as Ferrando and Rinuccio, Ms. Vuong as the Contessa and Tatjana, Mr. Lodato as Enrico and Renato, Ms. Nelson as Azucena and Carmen…

post scriptum: or Mss. Vuong and Nelson pairing off in the Pergolesi Stabat mater

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