Great Operatic Arias

Gerald Finley, baritone; LPO/Gardner (Chandos CHAN 3167)

7 June 2010 4.5 stars

FinleyCanadian baritone Gerald Finley is one of the most versatile artists currently active on the world's stages. As a robust, lyric baritone, he is perfectly poised in a hybrid vocal category that easily encompasses traditional operatic roles, the intimacy of the recital platform, and even musical theater.

Thus, his new recording on the Chandos label – 'Great Operatic Arias in English' – provides a particularly suitable glimpse of the sheer breadth of his talent at bringing to life music from widely disparate genres. As a keenly intelligent singer, Finley is in demand for modern works: he has created several roles in contemporary operas, two of which are represented on the present program.

In addition, there are roles from the more traditional baritone repertoire, and also a few rarities. Like previous singers in the series, Finley has taken the opportunity to spread his wings a bit, and offer a few selections that he would be unlikely to sing in the theater. And as always with discs in this on-going series from Chandos, there are both advantages and disadvantages of having everything sung in English translation: further elaboration seems unnecessary. If you're a stickler for 'original language', you won't be purchasing this disc.

To some extent, the homogeneity of Finley's vocal production can work against the individual flavors of the music he sings, though to be fair, part of this also can be attributed to the language factor. The opening track on the disc is an excellent example of this effect. Robert's aria 'My only beloved Mathilde I claim' from Tchaikovsky's Iolanta makes for a bracing opening to the disc, with brilliant orchestral surges and robust, earnest vocalism. Still, the combination of Finley's vocal technique (smoothly mellifluous and somewhat lacking in point and angularity) and the slightly arch sound of the English translation gives an unwelcome feel of musical theater to the glowing embers of Tchaikovsky's melody. Yet, these very same attributes work to opposite effect by invigorating the following selection from Weber's Euryanthe. Finley's performance of Lysiart's 'What refuge here?' is a true tour-de-force, impressively showing off his extensive range and immaculate coloratura. His clean, concise diction helps keep the vocal line well-delineated and he makes good sense of Weber's angularly instrumental, exceptionally difficult vocal lines.

In the third track, Finley steps up to an altogether higher level of accomplishment, holding the listener mesmerized with his rendition of Oppenheimer's 'Batter my heart' from John Adams' Dr. Atomic. Finley's traversal of this staggeringly difficult aria is reason enough to acquire this album, and deserves the highest praise in every respect. He handles the unrelentingly high tessitura with aplomb – never letting the slightest strain slip into his singing – and conveys the intensity of the character's emotions with startling lucidity. I'll admit it: I listened to this track seven or eight times before letting it go and moving on with the program. It is sensational. The music fits Finley's voice like a glove – no surprise as he created the character – and his extensive experience with the role at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere pays handsome dividends. Another contemporary role created by Finley is Harry Heegan in Turnage's The Silver Tassie. Here again, Finley negotiates difficult vocal lines with seeming ease. If the overall impression is less viscerally exciting than in the Adams excerpt, it must be admitted that Turnage's music simply falls less gratefully on the ear. There is much less body to the vocal line: there is less inspiration for the listener's imagination to take flight.

Among the remaining selections, Wolfram's two arias from Wagner's Tannhäuser, the duet 'Là ci darem la mano' from Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Antonio's aria from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix are all ideal for Finley's lyric voice and suave vocal production. Conductor Edward Gardner could have elicited more shimmering sound from the mostly superb London Philharmonic Orchestra in both of the Wagner excerpts – particularly the latter 'Look down, oh gentle evening star' – but Finley's contributions are beyond criticism. The orchestra is likewise a bit too straight-laced in the Mozart duet, where a more lilting and playful approach would have been welcome. Soprano Lucy Crowe is an excellent, full-bodied and voluptuous sounding Zerlina. Finley's strong, stylish assumption of Antonio (Linda di Chamounix's father) makes one regret that bel canto baritone roles are so often sung by heavier, Verdian voices. Finley's lyric amplitude is precisely what is called for in this music.

As mentioned above, Finley has also included selections from roles he would be unlikely to assume on stage. He is mostly successful, with the only major mis-fire being Escamillo's 'Toreador Song' from Bizet's Carmen. Escamillo requires a true bass-baritone: baritones always have trouble with the low end (as Finley does here) and basses struggle with the top. Finley adds several interpretive straight tones as well as a few 'shouting' effects, all of which mar the flow of the music and don't really convince the listener that he is the swaggering toreador who becomes the object of Carmen's sexual desire. Iago's 'Credo' from Verdi's Otello is given a beautifully nuanced reading with suave, sculpted vocal lines, but he's not really quite evil enough, nor can he muster the requisite power at the climaxes. Finley offers a handsome, youthful Hans Sachs from Die Meistersinger, though he is undermined slightly by Gardner's somewhat flat, faceless conducting. The Geoffrey Mitchell choir sound magnificent here – critical to the success of the scene – just as they do in Carmen and Puccini's Tosca, where they are especially thrilling. While there can be no question that Finley's basic sound is too lyric for Scarpia, this recording has captured him on stunning form, and the 'Te Deum' packs the tremendous punch that Puccini surely intended. It's a lot of fun.

In closing the album, Finley includes 'Some enchanted evening' from Rodgers' South Pacific, and it is a perfect fit for him. Here, his naturally smooth, virile sound pours forth with sincerity and an utter lack of applied effects. In other words, Rodgers' rolling melody suits Finley's strengths as both a singer and an interpreter, and the result is refreshingly direct and emotionally involving. All the qualities that make him such a profoundly eloquent and probing recitalist are shown to perfection here, and it's a fitting conclusion to such a successful disc. Several singers in this series of recordings have recorded multiple volumes, and I hope this will be the case for Finley. He is at the height of his powers and such indelible artistry should be captured on disc to be enjoyed by as many listeners as possible.

By David Laviska