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Rachel Willis-Sørensen (soprano) Rachel
rec. July 2021, Fondazione Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa SONY CLASSICAL 19439968352 [77:31]
Recording companies and the operatic world in general are understandably always on the look-out for a new star and soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen is the latest singer to be launched in this debut album for Sony.
I am all for versatility and readily accept that some voices do not conform to any particular category, but I wonder if a note of caution needs to be heeded when a relatively young soprano – Rachel Willis-Sørensen was born in 1984 – is described only as an “American soprano” whose remarkable stylistic range extends from Mozart to Verdi, Dvořák, Puccini and Lehár, as per this recital. There have been great singers who had extended careers in which they continued to sing the music of diverse composers with great success; Gundula Janowitz springs to mind. There have, however, equally been singers who attempted to do so and ran into difficulties; I think it is fair to suggest that Cheryl Studer overstretched her range and thereby curtailed her career. While I am playing devil’s advocate, I would also observe that there are two features of Ms Willis-Sørensen’s voice which give me pause. The first is common to so many modern singers: a lack of development and resonance in her lower register; the second, an element of flap and windiness on loud, high notes. Both of those faults in combination with an over-ambitious repertoire can be warning signs regarding the longevity of a singer’s career.
The album is of course treated to the by now predictable marketing hype of the kind applied to issues from predecessors such as Renée Fleming: winsome, soft-focus, photographs with lots of pink and white, the cosy first-name title, a gushy introduction from the lady herself, larded with superlatives, and a guest appearance of one of her “vocal idols”, Jonas Kaufmann – “ever an inspiration” perhaps, but on the basis of his own vocal decline, hardly the best model, as his hoarse contribution to the Puccini duet bears witness.
My final reservation in what I know sounds like a sour and ungrateful reception of an album which will doubtless bring pleasure to many, is that there is nothing especially individual about the depiction of the personalities here; the greatest singers give their characters a “face” which lies beyond the notes.
Let me now switch hats and restore balance to this review by expounding on the many virtues of this album. First, a practical matter: the original texts of the arias are provided with English translations – but I always wonder why recording labels do not provide total timings on CDs; it’s basic courtesy to us reviewers and purchasers. My own calculation is above and if I were Sony, I would advertise how very well filled the disc is compared to some other, recent issues I have reviewed.
Willis-Sørensen’s voice is a large, flexible dusky-toned instrument often very similar in timbre to that of the aforementioned Renée Fleming. My favourite item here is her “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka, which is exceptionally deeply felt and cleanly sung, perhaps because she has sung the role live on stage in San Francisco and the music suits the sensuous elements of her voice. I was surprised that the recital begins with the excerpts from La Traviata, as I don’t think it best suits her voice; she makes quite heavy weather of the coloratura and high notes and nothing sounds very fluid or easy. That is followed by the lovely aria from Les Vêpres siciliennes which for some reason is taken more slowly than I have ever heard it sung and as such emerges as rather enervated. Nor do I much care for French whereby every “r” is trilled, although I know that is permissible when it is sung. Nonetheless, it is feelingly sung, even if the high notes could be cleaner. The ensuing excerpts from Don Giovanni are again indubitably well sung but I hear exactly the same character as in every other track; there is a distinct lack of variety here. I love the music of Verdi’s Otello and Desdemona’s desperate vulnerability always hits the mark, even when it is only adequately sung but Carlo Felice’s lethargic conducting here undercuts the undercurrent of menace prescient of her brutal murder. It is clear that the meatier Verdi roles best accommodate Willis-Sørensen’s soprano; she amply fills out the long lines of Leonora’s scene. Hanna Glawari’s “Vilja-Lied” makes a charming conclusion, complete with chorus and an authentic Viennese lilt.
Tenor Giovanni Sala makes pleasing contributions to two tracks; his sound, especially in the Mozart, is reminiscent of Stuart Burrows – which I hope will be received as the compliment I intend it to be.
I am aware that this review seems unappreciative of Ms Willis-Sørensen’s evident gifts but I am unable to resist evaluating any new recital in the context of a hundred years and more of fine recordings – and the “burden of the past” is cruel; I see no particular reason to choose this anthology of arias over dozens as good or better.
Contents Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) La Traviata
È strano - Follie - Sempre libera Les Vêpres siciliennes
Ami, le coeur d'Hélène Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Don Giovanni
Or sai chi l'onore
Non mi dir
Forse un giorno Giuseppe VERDI Otello
Willow Song & Ave Maria Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924) La Bohème
Si, mi chiamano Mimì
O soave fanciulla Antonín DVOŘÁK (1840-1904) Rusalka
Song to the Moon Giuseppe VERDI Il Trovatore
Tacea la notte placida - Di tale amor Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948) The Merry Widow