Photos by: Sachyn Mital, © Lincoln Center
Jeanine De Bique is one of the most exciting sopranos to catch onstage these days. Animated, joyful, and technically flawless, the Trinidadian vocalist with the light, starry voice that soars before landing on audiences’ ears like a musical meteor shower.
While De Bique does staged productions, she throughly enjoys singing in concert format. In a 2019 OperaWire interview, De Bique said of her penchant for the concert stage, “I really enjoy the direct connection I have with the audience when performing in concert. The gap between their seats and the stage and the gap of the pit where the orchestra sits is closed, and there is now a direct magnetic link between us. It feels almost like their acceptance of my invitation to engage with me and be a part of my personal story.”
The Mostly Mozart Festival audience felt that direct attention on July 30, 2022 at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center where De Bique was the featured vocalist in a program spotlighting music from Beethoven to Copland, and, of course, Mozart.
De Bique Returns to Mostly Mozart
This was De Bique’s second turn on the Mostly Mozart stage, having appeared during the 2019 edition. While vocal music didn’t get as much time as the symphonic works, she was someone who the crowd was there to see, with the brevity of her appearance making the evening that much more special.
Backing De Bique brilliantly, and performing stunning renditions of the symphonic works, was the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra under the baton of Berlin-based American conductor and 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award winner, Roderick Cox. The maestro put on a show of his own, displaying a highly animated and energetic technique that electrified the orchestra. But it wasn’t all about the big gestures. Cox commanded the band with quiet leadership, and when sharing the stage with De Bique, deferred to her, allowing for breathtaking colla voce passages.
The July 30 concert was the second of two. Conductor, instrumentalists, and vocalist had a live performance under their belt and the level of understanding among the artists was clear right from the start when the Orchestra opened with Beethoven’s wild Coriolan Overture. Beethoven wrote the work in 1807 for the 1804 play by Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s tragedy, “Coriolan.”
The piece is chock full of powerful, syncopated tuttis that punched hard. Tightness and timing are crucial; it’s edge-of-your-seat stuff for audiences that leaves the heart racing, and the “mind-meld” between maestro and orchestra was near supernatural. If you’re unfamiliar with the piece, it’s a knockout, but after experiencing the work live, a recording will pale in comparison.
De Bique entered, greeted Cox warmly, and glowed as the audience welcomed her enthusiastically to the stage to perform Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” based on a prose poem by James Agee. The richly worded prose became the preamble to Agee’s posthumously published novel, “A Death in the Family.”
Barber’s excerpts capitalize on Agee’s dreamlike description narrated by a young boy. In a 1949 radio interview, Barber commented on the nature of the piece, saying, “… it expresses a child’s feelings of loneliness, wonder and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.”
There’s no story within “Knoxville,” just musings on what the narrator observes. “Parents on Porches: rock and rock. From damp strings, morning glories hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.”
Eardrums were enchanted, but not by the noise of locusts but by the marvelous voice of De Bique as she moved through the 500-plus words comprising the text. She floated notes like an untethered helium balloon atop music as lush and open as the American prairies. An example of this is when De Bique sang the highest note in the piece, a pianissimo high B flat within the molto espressivo section, “Now, is the night,” De Bique let hang like a gentle breeze.
Audience encounters with De Bique often include lightning-fast baroque arias, and hearing her more placid side, particularly in the more lyrical, less declamatory passages. Whatever they may have heard De Bique perform in the past, “Knoxville” sent the crowd into a frenzy of endless applause.
The second symphonic work of the evening was “Lyric for Strings,” by American composer George Walker. Walker originally composed the piece while pursuing a master’s degree at Curtis Institute. Originally titled “Lament,” the work comprised the second movement of Walker’s String Quartet No. 1 (1946).
Long, legato passages set your mind upon gentle waves of notes on a luxuriant bed of strings. Maestro Cox performed an elegant ballet on the podium, coaxing the music gently from the army of strings.
What’s Mostly Mozart Without Mozart?
Is there any music De Bique doesn’t sing as if second nature? De Bique returned to the stage to perform “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben (Rest gently, my lovely life)” from Mozart’s unfinished “Zaide,” begun in 1779. (The opera is missing its Overture and Act three.)
“Zaide” was one of Mozart’s first entry into the world of opera, and “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben” is an Act one aria sung by Zaide when she finds Gomatz sleeping beneath a tree. Zaide, in true operatic fashion, falls head over heels in love. The aria is one of Mozart’s most beautiful pieces.
De Bique treated the piece with loving care, reflective of the amorous nature of the text. She exuded calm elegance with the showcase piece singing high Bs with graceful ease. The vocal line is serene, and its melismas share that quality—they’re nothing to rip through, rather, they are notes to be savored for their beauty, not their speed or range. There was a regality in both the orchestral and vocal lines as voice and oboe held conversations, each smooth as molten chocolate.
The soprano remained on stage for her final number, “Crudele?… Non mir dir,” from “Don Giovanni.” In this Act two aria, Donna Anna asks that her betrothed, Don Ottavio, stop talking marriage considering her father’s murder. It’s not that Donna Anna doesn’t love Don Ottavio, she simply feels she should postpone their nuptials.
De Bique made her Donna Anna role debut during the 2018-19 season, singing the part in the Opéra du Rhin. Das Opernmagazin wrote of her performance, stating, “Her coloraturas nestled agilely to the sound of the orchestra…”
That’s exactly how she sounded during the concert presentation. De Bique and Cox were utterly collaborative and voice and orchestra formed the warp and weft of the musical tapestry.
Vocally, De Bique put forth an ephemeral sound, and executed the runs with flawless precision. It was an excellent selection for closing out the vocal section of the program.
Music as Open and Stirring as the American Landscape
The concert concluded with Copland’s masterpiece, “Appalachian Spring,” a defining work of 20th century American classical music. With an orchestra as gifted as the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, under the direction of Cox, delivered a spine-tingling rendition, bringing out the hidden gems within this diamond-laden piece. The brass lines are some of the most stirring in music, the winds gentle and evocative, and the strings are the wings upon which the work stretches across the American landscape. When Cox opened the Orchestra wide, the sound could fill the hollers of Appalachia many times over. Played live, it’s a devastatingly remarkable piece.
Jeanine De Bique and the Mozart Festival Orchestra delivered a striking program. Such concerts are best absorbed and not over thought. The job of the audience member is nothing more than to sit back and be moved and revel in the miraculous sound of a virtuosic voice and equally skilled instrumentalists as they bring out music’s power to lift our minds and hearts.