With exceptional, often world-class vocalists in town for Spoleto’s operas, it’s become a cherished festival tradition to offer a regular vocal recital as part of the Intermezzi series, giving us the chance to hear outstanding singers do their sonorous thing in the realm of aria and art song. This year’s event featured two of the singers filling leading roles in the festival’s headline opera, Philip glass’s Kepler: mezzo-soprano Leah Wool and bass Matt Boehler. While I didn’t get to see them in Kepler, both struck me as major talents.
The program began with Ms. Wool’s glowing and spirited rendition of the three songs of La Regata Veneziana (in Italian), by bel canto opera master Gioacchino Rossini. The subject is a Venetian gondola race; the singer is the apparent sweetheart of one of the competing gondoliers. By turns, she sang of pre-race excitement, the thrill of the actual race (that her lover wins) and her pride (and congratulatory kisses) after it’s over.
Later in the program, she delivered another winning three-song cycle, this time by French impressionistic master Claude Debussy: Chansons de Bilitis, setting sensual French poems mostly about pastoral scenes involving pan-pipes and water-nymphs. But the central number, “La chevelure,” was a frankly erotic account of the act of love. The music was lovely and image-laden, enhancing the texts wonderfully well. Toward the end of the program, she pleased us mightily with three American standards by Cole Porter (“So in Love”), Irving Berlin (”You’d be Surprised”), and George Gershwin (“By Strauss”). Wool owns an absolutely gorgeous mezzo voice, with burnished, even tone from top to bottom. She demonstrated, amid exceptional stage presence, the ability to make every listener think she was singing straight to him or her.
Mr. Boehler’s numbers, all in English, were interspersed between Wool’s sets, and began with dynamite arrangements of four familiar folk songs: “Blow Ye Winds,” “Waly, Waly” (better known to some as “The Water is Wide”), “Shenandoah,” and “The Boatman’s Song.” His interpretations were characterized by great energy, swagger, and (where called for) tender sweetness. He later delivered Samuel Barber’s Three Songs, Op. 10, with a similar array of qualities. His final set included three songs — two of them quite funny — by William Bolcom (“Murray the Furrier”), Persis Parshall Vehar (the grief-stricken “Spring Swan”) and Richard Hageman (“The Donkey”). Boehler’s rolling, vibrant bass voice was a joy to the ear, and his stage presence and ability to engage his audience were also exemplary.
The printed program included only one duet between them: Cole Porter’s “Tale of the Oyster,” a hilarious account of a social-climbing mollusk that learns its lesson the hard way. But their audience’s enthusiastic response prompted a pair of lovely encore pieces: Argentinian composer Carlos Guastavino’s nostalgic song (I’m not sure of the title) about missing his home village, plus Irving Berlin’s tongue-in-cheek song of a lovesick couple, “I Wonder Why.” Thus ended another totally delightful Intermezzi vocal recital.