Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Amy Dodington's "Touch of Old"

What better way to round off “A Perfect Day” than with a recital by Amy Dodington, accompanied by Doreen Uren at the piano? The Gravenhurst Opera House, dating from 1901, is a perfect venue for a merry mixture of Elizabethan, baroque, folk songs, Broadway musicals and Edwardian parlour music.

Right at the beginning of this review, I have to admit a certain partiality for Amy’s voice and finely crafted programs. My first draft clearly registered an overall 15 on my usual scale of 10 when reporting a performance. I decided to take a deep breath, set the gush-o-meter down several notches and make a new start in the morning, for the sake of coherence and objectivity.

The next day, instead of grabbing the pen right away, I stopped to analyze the effect on me of seeing, first on the program, a song from Purcell’s Fairy Queen that I have sung myself, at a Grade Ten Conservatory exam. It is not a cherished memory. While my accompanist struggled as if tackling a Himalayan mountain top without enough sherpas or equipment, my clenched teeth ensured that my intonation would get sharper and sharper. How I got a passing mark, I have no idea. Perhaps it was Mozart’s hymn to the Blessed Virgin that saved me.

A happier memory intervenes - a strawberry tea on the lawn of the Michelham Priory in Sussex, England, after a full performance of The Fairy Queen. I remember the strawberries and cream better than the music.

Now I come happily back to the Gravenhurst Opera House on the evening of 14 July 2012, when I at long last heard the Purcell aria as I would have liked to sing it - in fact, as I had not yet heard it sung to my satisfaction. “A Touch of Old” opened with Purcell’s triumphal flourish dedicated to the first Queen Elizabeth of Britain. The piano introduction flowed easily in the hands of Doreen Uren, wafting us lightly into a land of enchantment, where pleased cupids clapped their wings to the rhythm of a voice drenched in magic - Amy Dodington’s. She had a lot of fun with those cupids.

A cluster of art songs followed, Brahms expanding on the elusiveness of poetic inspiration, Reynaldo Hahn’s inspired setting of a poem by Verlaine, Barber’s ditty on The Monk and His Cat and Schubert’s setting of Gretchen’s spinning wheel song from Goethe’s monumental “Faust”.

Verlaine’s “L’Heure exquise” has encapsulated the essence of French Romantic poetry for me and my husband, who kept it on the wall above his desk. This was my first hearing of its evocative musical setting by Reynaldo Hahn. Before attempting any commentary, I went to youtube to listen to several singers' interpretations, and was amazed at how many of the greatest and the best of them fall short of evoking the scene painted by the poet's words. In general the singer was content with intoning the notes in a mellifluous voice.

What about the mystery and the beauty of moonlit woods, where the profound mirror of a pond reflects the silhouette of a black willow and a vast and tender tranquility from the heavens enfolds the scene? Amy Dodington’s voice has a visionary quality, breathing in magic and breathing it out again in “L’Heure exquise”. She seems to be experiencing this poem from within, and inviting the listener into Verlaine's woods under his moon.

Here I would like to highlight another of Amy’s outstanding performances: Gretchen am Spinnrade, an outpouring of enraptured love accompanied by the relentless rhythms of the spinning wheel. In this homely setting for unquenchable passion, Gretchen is on her way to ruin and madness, the victim of Mephisto’s wiles, with Faust as the engine of her undoing.

Glazounov’s “Oriental Romance”, the Irish folk song “She Moved Through the Fair” and the Scottish, “There’s Nae Luck About the House” completed the first part of our travel through space and time. Both Amy and her sister Victoria Banks are gifted unaccompanied singers of Irish songs. I could listen to them all night.

The second part of the program featured tuneful Broadway melodies, including “Edelweiss”, “If I Loved You” and a mischievous “Once in Love with Amy”. Then a costume change was in order from the diva dress to an heirloom outfit dating back to the parlour songs of the early 1900’s. Amy’s flexible voice revives the pathos, the joy and the courage of these nearly forgotten gems. She has unearthed a whole collection, like “When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day”. Her three encores were also of that charming vintage.

Amy sings Margaret (or Gretchen) at the Spinning Wheel

Amy sings: If I loved you

Gravenhurst Opera House: http://www.gravenhurstoperahouse.com

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