The return to New York of Aprile Millo, on an unbelievably frigid night, was both recital and celebration, where the packed-house audience soon forgot their shivers, radiating so much warmth towards the artist on stage.
Millo’s highly anticipated recital – produced by the always-interesting New York City Opera — was her first concert in the city in nearly a decade. Wonderfully accompanied by Inseon Lee on piano, as well as Merynda Adams on harp and C Collins Lee on violin, Millo performed a wide-ranging program consisting of songs by Rachmaninoff, Donaudy, Tosti and Bridge, as well as arias by Verdi, Gounoud, and, a definite rarity, Licino Refice.
A Historic Artist
Interestingly, Millo auditioned for New York City Opera in 1981, and current company director Michael Capasso mentioned that it “Took us this long to finally book her!”
But it was another opera house that would be most connected with Millo’s remarkable career.
The singer made her historic debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Amelia in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra,” on December 1984, as a last-minute replacement. That debut launched her amazing career, as critics hailed her as a “a new Verdi star.” With the Met Opera as her “home” for over 20 years, Millo would go on to perform and triumph at the major opera houses worldwide.
But this rare recital was important, not only for bringing the great soprano, at age 60, back to New York, but for a very personal and powerful reason that Aprile talked about from the stage.
Her father, Giovanni Millo, had performed with the New York City Opera in its first years between 1944-1946. Millo’s parents were both singers and they shaped her life as a performer. She made sure to emphasize this fact throughout the evening.
As the singer interspersed her performance with comments, both comic and serious, it turned out that, in a rather remarkable way, the audience too became part of a dialogue. From an initial shout of “You’re gorgeous,” to the stream of “bravas” that greeted each song, accompanied by whistles and even stomping of feet.
It was a truly diverse performance with a wide range of arias and songs, from the plaintive works by Tosti such as ‘Sogno” and “Ideale,” to the spectrum of Irish songs sung. All were performed with a subtlety and emotional power. Her performance of “To del mio amato ben” by Donaudy was a masterclass in phrasing, and the singer, with near echoes of Verdi’s Act four Desdemona in “Otello,” soared during key passages, revealing that the decades have not removed Millo’s ability to move an audience with sheer power and beauty.
Feeling At Home
From the start, the audience warmly received each piece. She said at the start that she wanted the audience to feel like this was an evening at her home, in her living room – and the relaxed, even joyous feeling inside the concert hall had that intimate feeling.
The audience took those inviting words to heart, living every moment of the recital. And with a piece such as the beautiful aria and scene from Licino Refice’s opera “Cecilia,” one could imagine the singer on a different, larger stage this night, not far from 57th Street, at the Met itself. Even as the moody music played alone, she responded to its ebbs and flows as if a staged performance.
And when, in that aria, the silence was broken, her voice again soared, filling the acoustic gem that is Zankel Hall with her lush soprano. And at such a moment, there was only that great voice on stage, an artist, making the unfamiliar music come alive.
Similarly, Donizetti’s “Me voglio fa na casa” provided an additional showpiece for the still-shimmering beauty of her soprano as well as moments for Millo to swell in passionate volume, taking all of us with her.
The diversity of the program not only showed Millo’s incredible range, but also was nod to her mixed Irish-Italian heritage. With the plaintive sound of the harp, she performed four Irish songs, telling the audience that her father – when he struggled to begin his career as a singer – worked in a bar, and would mesmerize listeners (and drinkers) with his singing the same songs.
And while everyone probably knows the song “Danny Boy,” imagine it performed by such an expressive soprano, the sound swelling with the bittersweet lyrics and maintaining the piece’s melancholy balance between a mere whisper to a stunning fortissimo. And at the end of “Danny Boy” the audience, already lost to their love of the concert and the singer, rose to their feet, again with more stomping, whistles, the recital turned into full-on celebration.
The audience, by the way, could also be vocal about other things. At one point an audience member asked Millo to lower her music stand so they could see her face as she sang. With a smile and joke, she complied. Remarkably, the whole wonderful recital had just that air of informality and intimacy.
Of course, for both those older people in the audience who have listened to Aprile Milo for decades and so many young people eager to hear a true legend, no recital would be compete without Verdi, and in this case, something from “Aida”.
After being joined by C Collins Lee on violin for two Rachmaninoff songs, it was time for the soprano to at last return to a touchstone of her singing life.
Her “Cielo, mio Padre!” from Act three, sung with the powerul bass-baritone Amonasro of Kevin Short, reminded us all why she was truly the Verdi soprano of those decades, and what a gift it must have been to have seen her Aida with good friend, Luciano Pavarotti.
This recital was an emotional, personal and musically wonderful part of Millo’s incredible legacy. I imagine the cheering, nearly raucous audience can only hope that she will return soon, either under the guise of New York City Opera – or perhaps for another winter recital, to again chase the icy winds away.