Palm Beach Opera has emerged as a sturdy regional company. Its annual gala, held this year at The Breakers hotel, is a landmark of the town’s social season. In addition to the standard cocktails and dinner-dance, it features a full recital by a singer of international acclaim. Past guests have included instantly recognizable names like Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming and, more lately, rising stars like the dramatic tenors Michael Fabiano and Matthew Polenzani and the lyrico-spinto soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. This year’s performer was the stentorian bass Christian Van Horn, who most recently sang the roles of the Doctor in the new production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera and the philosopher Colline in Puccini’s La Bohème at the same venue. He was accompanied admirably by the pianist Craig Terry, currently the music director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center.
Possessing a rich, charcoal voice that recalls the darkness of Cesare Siepi or Ferruccio Furlanetto, Van Horn has intelligently plumbed the grand depths of his vocal type and scored impressive successes in many of its best roles. His recital doubled as a lively study in career development, and the most enthralling selections accentuated his natural timbre and superb legato. The plaintive “Vecchia zimarra,” from Puccini’s La Bohème, is an old chestnut on which young basses cut their teeth, a veritable rite of passage. The aria is an apostrophe sung by Colline to his old overcoat, which he must sell to buy medicine for the terminally ill Mimì. Having sung the role for fifteen seasons, Van Horn conveys its plodding sorrow with great finesse. He moved from there to what he introduced, to applause, as “devil” parts, a repertoire in which he has enjoyed immense success. “Scintille, diamant,” from Offenbach’s Contes d’Hoffmann, may sit a bit too high for his voice (as did the evening’s opening selections from Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro), but he delivered the sorcerer Dapertutto’s ode to his enchanted diamond with purring menace. “Son lo spirito,” a marvelous cavatina introducing the cynical title character of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, rollicked more authentically, albeit without the whistling Van Horn had mastered for his memorable Met performances in the role last season. “Le Veau d’Or,” a frenzied aria for the same character in Gounod’s Faust, reached a maniacal pitch in its description of how the devil plays upon avarice.
The second part of the recital opened with an auspicious preview of potential future projects. The Everest of any bass’s career is without doubt the heartrending “Ella giammai m’amò,” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, which demands emotional as well musical intensity. Occurring at dawn’s first light, it conveys King Philip II of Spain’s painful realization that his much younger new queen never loved him. A hard truth for anyone, but Philip, arguably the most powerful ruler in the world during his reign, must reconcile this romantic disappointment with the fact that the blushing young bride has fallen for his son, a political rebel with whom he has just crossed literal swords. Van Horn put into evidence every sign of the musicianship necessary for the role and will, in time, likely be a fine heir to Siepi, but for now the aria sounded like something he still needs to grow into.
Van Horn’s pivot from Verdian vicissitudes into the lighter repertoire of classic Hollywood and Broadway tunes lightened the evening’s mood as the guests looked forward to dinner. It would be horribly unfair to criticize his approach as too “operatic,” a charge that has also been leveled at Siepi’s late career diversions into the great American songbook. In the hands of this young singer, treatments of Harry Warren’s “An Affair to Remember,” written for the 1957 film of the same name starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, and of Jerry Brainin’s rhumba-rhythmed title song for John Farrow’s B-list film noir The Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1948) were no source of disappointment. Neither was the final piece, “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific (1949), which resounded majestically with the accompaniment of participants in Palm Beach Opera’s Young Artists program.