Archive for September, 2012

Nathan Gunn at the Kennedy Center

My mother has always had a soft spot for Lancelot’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” because of Robert Goulet. I half-remembered the early 1980s HBO broadcast of Camelot, but I’ve never quite liked the musical as much as Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady or Gigi. I was influenced heavily by the movies and unfortunately the movie Camelot is nowhere near as dazzling to my young eyes.

In 2008, the Lincoln Center did a semi-staged version of Camelot, featuring Gabriel Byrne as Arthur, Marin Mazzie as Guinevere and Nathan Gunn as Lancelot.  I was left wishing Arthur had been written as good a singer as Lance or Gwenevere. But the speech singing is part of the Lerner & Loewe style and I imagine it was written with Richard Burton’s abilities in mind, so there you have it. With this production, Gabriel Byrne was a serviceable enough Arthur, but not particularly musical. Marin Mazzie had a lovely rich and creamy voice I could have listened to for hours.

But I proved I am my mother’s daughter in some ways, because Nathan Gunn had me from the opening notes of “C’est Moi”. The black leather pants helped a little too. For an opera singer, he did a damn good job hanging out in musical theatre. I wasn’t that familiar with his opera career, so I hadn’t known he was as known for his good looks as his baritone voice. I did manage to find both of his albums. American Anthem was filled with Americana like “Shenandoah” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” while “Just Before Sunrise” veered more light pop, closer to Audra McDonald or Kristen Chenoweth’s albums, picking either lesser known songs or newish songwriters. But I still I regretted I hadn’t really heard him in his element singing opera, even in a recital setting.

I was presented such an opportunity when Nathan Gunn appeared at the Kennedy Center on Sunday afternoon. Washington National Opera (WNO)’s Celebrity Concert Series featured Nathan Gunn performing along with tenor William Burden and soprano Emily Albrink.

The day was gorgeous. I went outside to the terrace during the intermission into the sunny warm September late afternoon. I could see the spires of Georgetown’s Healy Hall in the distance and a ship cruised down the Potomac.

A ship cruises down the Potomac. View from the Kennedy Center terrace

First I need to mention the seats. When I picked them, I was thinking off-center orchestra would be fine, it’s not like I’d looking over set decorations. What I hadn’t realized was how close I was – only four or five rows back! Sometimes I was looking around the cello section or I was seeing entirely too much of the concertmaster’s crotch, but otherwise I had a dynamite view of all three singers. They moved around quite a lot, either to interact with each other or the audience. If you imagined a dry recital with a singer standing behind a podium, that was not the case here.

Nathan Gunn entered to Rossini’s “Largo et factotum” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Barber of Seville). (Those whose opera knowledge is limited to Bugs Bunny might recognize it as the “Figaro” song in “Rabbit of Seville”.) What struck me was his natural charm and humor, playing off the audience throughout, lighting up when a knowledgeable member knew the response. Then he performed the first duet with Emily Albrink, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program alumna dressed in a bright red paneled strapless ball gown.

Then Gunn took the microphone to explain a little about the program he’d put together, a little of opera mixed with a little American musicals. He wanted to show their similarities, how they dealt with big epic stories and torturous/unrequited romances. Each section was organized along certain lines, so the opening had the Barber of Seville and the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The back half showed a lot of royalty and Shakespeare and princes (and a knight!). Gunn sang the lovely “Johanna”, while Albrink trilled through the darkly ominous “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”. I’d heard both years ago during that “Sondheim at Carnegie Hall celebration”. The second one sounded like a perfectly innocuous little operatic song until you listen to the words about caged birds.

The Kennedy Center terrace at intermission with patrons enjoying the sun.

I was not as familiar with most of the operatic pieces included in the show, nor do I have technical expertise to offer a real critique. I didn’t really care for the selections from Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”, but enjoyed “Don Giovanni” quite a lot. If I had a gripe with Gunn’s voice, he didn’t seem to fill the arena as much as I expected; the Kennedy Center Opera House is a big place. I have to wonder how it would have sounded from the upper rafters. I was hearing it fairly close in.

Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” aria from Romeo et Juliette wasn’t supposed to be a comedy exactly, but it wound up one unintentionally with the lights suddenly going out on stage, leaving the orchestra in the dark. Gunn lightly admitted that this had happened to him in several performances already. The lights went on, they tried again, and the lights still had problems, giving us some weird spotlights. The house manager apologized but apparently the lights were on computer timers, so they were managing as best they could. Gunn tried to keep it light bantering with one audience member that joked about it being the Phantom of the Opera. (I checked for a chandelier, just to be sure.)  Maybe it was faeries, but eventually they made it through that aria.

The standout of the evening, besides Gunn, was possibly William Burden. A silver haired tenor, Burden was indefatigable, bouncing off Gunn with ease. Their duets were delightful. The “Lily’s Eyes” duet from Secret Garden was quite moving. But it was outdone after the intermission when they did the “Agony” duet from Into the Woods, featuring Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince. I adore Into the Woods; I’ve seen it twice live and have memorized great gobs of the lyrics. Now the Princes are usually played by nearly identical looking men in the stage performances I’ve seen, so it was odd casting at first, like seeing the Prince singing opposite the Narrator, but Burden took care of any doubts I had. Burden played Rapunzel’s Prince to the utter limit, especially mimicking her ahahaahaa singing. In some ways, Gunn was more understated as Cinderella’s Prince than as say Lancelot. Then again Lancelot is actually more noble than that Prince.

Of course I was pleased Gunn included both “C’est moi”and “If Ever I Would Leave You” from “Camelot” in the program. While he performs the romantic pieces quite well, I think he’s better in the lighter fare. “C’est Moi” and “Largo et factotum” let him showcase his charm and personality more. It was a little hard to see how he handled the big dramatic roles he does on stage.

The singers and orchestra received a standing ovation, prompted the most unusual of encores. At some point in his life, Nathan Gunn had gone through a phase where he’d developed a love for American cowboy songs. His wife Julie Gunn arranged them in a set so we heard classics like “Don’t Fence Me In” and “Home on the Range”.  The show ended with more hearty applause.

All in all, the concert was well worth the money. I heard Gunn perform some favorites, along with some operatic pieces, which was more than I could have hoped for.