Celebrity Series of Boston 2019 Review: Thomas Hampson & Luca Pisaroni’s ‘No Tenors Allowed’
Two Brilliant Artists Create Worlds Out Of the Simplest Means (And Someone Crashes The Party)By David Salazar
Watching how baritone Thomas Hampson and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni worked together in their recent “No Tenors Allowed!” recital at Jordan Hall as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston, one thing became quite obvious – a great recital might be a singing-actor’s best possible forum for expression.
For some context, I saw Pisaroni in the Met’s recent production of “Don Giovanni” and while there was a clarity in his intent regarding the character, there were moments that were compromised by all the other business happening around him, mainly a lack of directorial vision. In the forum of opera, the singing-actor, despite being a true creator of his own character, remains at the mercy of the stage direction and what it requires of him. It’s a director’s and conductor’s medium.
But the recital is not. The recital belongs to the soloist and his collaborators, usually a pianist. In this recital, Pisaroni and Hampson didn’t need big sets or costumes to tell the stories of their particular acts. They did it with their voices, their bodies, and together.
The concert had a strong arc that moved from comic to darker music and eventually back to getting the audience laughing like crazy. It started with the music of such Mozart comedies as “Le Nozze di Figaro” and Don Giovanni,” followed by music of Bellini, Leoncavallo, and Verdi. In the second half, the melancholy lyricism continued with more modern “lighter fare” that brought us closer to modern times and increased comedy.
The First Act – Pure Opera
In their Mozart selections, the two played up the contrasts of their respective characters. Pisaroni was Figaro and Leporello, while Hampson took on arias by Don Giovanni and the Count Almaviva. From the off, this established the concert’s own shifting tones while also allowing each artist to display what they do best with this music. In Pisaroni’s case, it is his ability to color each word for tremendous comic effect. This was particularly apparent in his “Maddamina, il catalogo è questo,” where he sang right to the audience and engaged them. He held a brochure for the Celebrity Series’ season and flipped through the pages as he mentioned Don Giovanni’s catalogue of conquests. When he got to the famous “Mille e tre,” he showed the audience what he had found – the photo that advertised the concert. This choice immediately sucked you into the moment and made you feel a part of it.
Hampson is a genius with words as well, but selections really explored the plush and confident legato phrasing that remains at the core of his arsenal. While his voice had a forceful potency in the “Hai già vinta la cuasa,” which he kicked off as Pisaroni was walking offstage, there was a gentle quality in “Deh vieni all finestra,” amplified by the repetition of the aria being sung with the softest fil di voce. All the while, he looked up into the balcony of Jordan Hall, seemingly singing to someone. It was enchanting.
The two then switched gears with three fascinating duets. On one hand there was “Il rival… suoni la tromba” from Bellini’s “I Puritani” followed a few pieces later by “Restate!” from Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” In both duets, the two characters find themselves at odds before discovering some sort of unity, a theme that the two played on throughout the recital. Before either of these, they sang a highly confrontation “Eh via buffone” from “Don Giovanni” in which they seemingly were at each other’s throats, moving closer and closer to one another to the point of singing in one another’s faces. There was a thrilling tension to this brief episode and it really paid off when Pisaroni took a program and slapped Hampson’s back with it.
The other two duets require different skill sets from the Mozart, but it was fascinating to watch how they brought these scenes to life, despite being out of context. There was increased tension throughout the Bellini, with Pisaroni growing increasingly frustrated with Hampson’s rejections of his call to action. Eventually there was an softening between the two that allowed for the penetrating “Suoni la tromba” to take flight. Here, the two artists coalesced beautifully, their voices packing the house with a blaze of sound.
The “Don Carlo” duet was arguably one of the best moments of the night with Pisaroni showcasing a role he has yet to sing against Hampson’s iconic Rodrigo. The power dynamics were established quite potently in this light with Pisaroni playing a firm and rigid Filippo while Hampson pried and pried with each declamation. When it came time for the famous “Orrenda, orrenda pace! La pace dei sepolcri,” the baritone’s sound completely enveloped the space in hair-raising fashion. Pisaroni’s stoic visage suddenly looked fearful, though he battled to retain his composure. As the duet came to a powerful close, Pisaroni’s utterances of “Ti guarda dal Grande Inquisitor!” became increasing aggressive, the last “Ti guardi” vicious in its approach. They weren’t wearing costumes and we hadn’t seen the rest of “Don Carlo,” but that was as rich and vivid an interpretation of that duet as I’ve seen in recent memory. It would be a thrill to see them do an actual “Don Carlo” together.
Part Deux – A Tenor Breaks The Mold
The tension built during intermission as one of the audience members fell ill and parademics were dispatched to aid her. As he came on to kick-start the second half, Pisaroni acknowledged the situation and wished her well. He initiated the second half with a lush interpretation of “Gastaldon’s “Musica Proibita.” Here was his moment to showcase his endless legato line and he delivered the piece with a glorious expansiveness. There was similar delicacy of phrasing in “I’ve got you under my skin,” the bass-baritone’s sound irresistible.
Hampson came on to counter with a hilarious rendition of “O Vaterland,” from “The Merry Widow,” a piece he has performed many times. It must be said that throughout the recital, the two artists’ way with language was so precise that the program, which included translations to everything, felt superfluous. “O Vaterland” was one of the best examples of this as Hampson’s way with the German was crisp; you knew exactly what he was saying even if you didn’t know much German. Hampson followed that with “Where is the Life I led,” which drew just as many laughs as anything else in the program.
Pisaroni changed things up for himself with a fun play on words in “Just another rhumba” that mirrored his work in the Mozart, before Hampson put on what was arguably his most powerful interpretation of the night, “Roses of Picardy.” You could practically feel the roses described in the piece, the melancholic approach emotionally searing. The baritone’s sound grew more delicate over the course of the piece, drawing you deeper and deeper into his spell; each reiteration of “But there’s one rose that dies not in Picardy, ‘Tis the rose that I keep in my heart” increasingly poignant; the final one he delivered with the full power of his voice, creating a truly cathartic effect. Hampson barely moved throughout this piece, nor did he need too. Every small gesture with his hand and face was infused with purpose, making every single beat, word, and note full of enormous expression.
The two gave one another ample opportunity to spar yet again in a series of increasingly entertaining duets that climaxed in “Anything you can do,” from “Annie Get Your Gun.” The banter was quite spectacular throughout with the two artists looking to one up another with such quips as “Any note you can hold, I can hold longer (Hampson won that, by the way).” But the best moment of the duet came early on when they argued over, “Anything you can sing, I can sing higher.” In the midst of the back and forth, a figure in the audience stood up and said “Guys, none of you can,” climaxed with a High B flat. The person in question? Tenor Brian Jagde. The audience went wild for the tenor’s party crashing (he told OperaWire after the performance that it had been a dream of his to be THE tenor that broke the rule of the program’s title). As soon as the applause settled down, Hampson and Pisaroni shouted out in unison “No Tenors Allowed!” which drew even greater laughs.
Watch two different angles of the moment below.
After this piece, the duo presented the famed duet from “Don Pasquale,” with pinpoint pattering that drove the audience into one final frenzy.
The unsung hero in all of this was pianist Kevin Murphy, who provided not only great support, but incredible musical quality to the proceedings. In a recital where anything could go at times, Murphy was right there with them, an equal in every respect. He got the opportunity to get the spotlight (literally) in two solo excerpts: the Intermezzo from “Pagliacci” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” both impassioned and gloriously lyrical in their approach.
This recital is one of those experiences that is not only tremendous entertainment, but also a great artistic display. All three artists showcased their fantastic showmanship but also incredible attention to detail and craft. This was a masterclass in gripping storytelling by artists that can create worlds out of the simplest means.