In the world of art songs, it's sometimes necessary to apply the "Summertime" test, an informal measurement that charts a soprano's ability to bring vibrancy and finesse to the familiar George Gershwin number from "Porgy and Bess."
The bluesy melody draws a soprano to her limits, with notes so brilliant and transparent that it's impossible for singers to hide behind vocal pyrotechnics if they don't have the chops.
Nicole Cabell, who served a residency with the Lyric Opera of Chicago before being dubbed the BBC's 2005 Cardiff "Singer of the World" this past June, took the number's final trill to its apex, her voice then falling like drops of dew rapidly descending a gossamer thread with a shimmering luminescence.
Cabell not only passed the test, but set a new performance standard. The 150 people who gathered at the Madison Masonic Center for Sunday's "Opera Up Close" recital rewarded her with enthusiastic applause, but by then it no longer mattered. The 28-year-old soprano had already won our hearts.
Sunday's event was one of a series designed to provided greater access to opera and song and broaden the Madison Opera's three-show season. Those who turned out for Cabell's art song recital can congratulate themselves for the wisdom of attending so personal a performance by opera's next great star on the eve of her career.
Cabell focused almost solely on an art song repertoire, noting the difficulty of such performances during a later audience talkback session. Unlike an opera, art songs require mastery of many different styles, composers and even languages. Ably assisted by the Lyric Opera's Elizabeth Buccheri on piano, Cabell covered 24 numbers in five languages, conquering them all with her magnificent tone and control.
The singer opened with the sprightly "Canciones Clasicas Espanolas," five popular songs by Fernando Obradors. The numbers allowed Cabell to warm the audience with lively Spanish rhythms, while demonstrating a variety of vocal techniques that would serve her well throughout the afternoon.
Cabell followed with Samuel Barber's "Knoxville, Summer of 1915," an operatic representation of writer James Agee's memoirs of his youth in the Tennessee town. The number's inherent nature required a much different rendering from Cabell, who later said she'd like to record the work for Decca, a label that has lately put her under contract. The touching presentation brought tears to at least one audience member's eyes, something he shared during the talkback session.
The "Zigeunermelodien" or "Gypsy Melodies" of Antonin Dvorak, seven numbers that drew on the composer's Eastern European roots, followed a brief intermission. "Cinq Melodies Populaires Grecques" by Maurice Ravel followed that, and it was here that Cabell rose to some of her finest moments, particularly during the elegantly rendered "Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques."
Five numbers from the great American songbook, including "Summertime" and "Someone to Watch Over Me," both by Gershwin, closed the formal performance.
Then came a magnificent encore performance of the "O mio babbino caro" aria from "Gianni Schicchi."
Her performance of Puccini's work, like the rest of the afternoon, was sublime.
January 23, 2006
Michael Muckian The Capital Times