In his debut solo recital Saturday (Sept. 19), tenor René Barbera could do no wrong, and the sold-out house of opera lovers at downtown’s Balboa Theatre could not get enough of this young American singer.
Naturally, they adored his opera arias, from his superlative tenor show-off aria “Ah, mes amis” from Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment (the one with the nine high C’s) to his dreamy, aptly exotic “Je crois enterdre encore” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. Yet, they expressed equal enthusiasm for Alberto Ginastera’s witty, modernist song cycle Cinco canciones populares argentinas, a set of hyper-Romantic Italian art songs by Paolo Tosti and a trio of Fernando Obradors’ love-besotted Spanish ballads.
Barbera’s calling card is the sheer beauty of his voice, an unusual amalgam of that rich Italianate color thought to be owned by those heavy-hitting verismo tenors with the agility and coloratura brilliance of today’s amazing crop of fleet bel canto tenors. In his opening salvo, “Vieni fra queste braccia” an aria from Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra, Barbera’s dramatic fioritura electrified the room. But his rapturous legato touched our hearts as he evoked the exquisite pathos that underlies a more familiar bel canto gem, “Una furtiva lagrima,” Nemorino’s ballad from The Elixir of Love. Too often it is performed as a sweet love song, but Barbera elevated romantic ardor to the level of mystical communion.
Among Barbera’s three first-prize trophies from Plácido Domingo’s 2011 Operalia Competition was the Zarzuela prize, and he treated his Balboa audience to two selections from this repertory, “Non puede ser” from Pablo Sorozábal’s zarzuela La tabernera del puerto and “Bella enamorada” by the earlier zarzuela collaborators Reveriano Soutullo and Juan Vert. He deftly navigated the mercurial shifts from impassioned declamation to tender reflection in “No puede ser,” making a strong case for encountering more of this emotionally charged repertory.
The Ginastera song cycle from 1943 was new to my ears, but Barbera’s stylish, persuasive performance convinced me that this set of five popular Argentine songs is a worthy successor to Manuel Da Falla’s more frequently performed cycle of seven Spanish popular songs from the early years of the last century. Ginastera’s final song “Gato” displayed a witty, rambunctious vocal line carried on rhapsodic effusions from the piano; Barbera relished every vocal flourish and every textual innuendo. But he was most compelling in the song “Triste,” which allowed him to wallow artfully in the regret of hopeless love. Of course, were this theme removed from the canon of Spanish language art songs, only a handful would remain.
Accompanist Cheryl Cellon Lindquist proved an ideal partner, handling the most complex piano scores with understated panache that elegantly supported Barbera at every turn. Based in his home city San Antonio, her sensitivity demonstrated the virtue of a steady collaboration between performers.
Although Barbera closed his program with Augustin Lara’s popular “Granada,” a rousing art song with the irresistible appeal of a pop song, he offered a single encore, the Duke’s aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto, “La donna è mobile.” His audience pleaded for more, but I had the distinct feeling that even after a two-hour program, no amount of encores would have satisfied this eager audience.