One of the immediate joys of the Washington, D. C. area is the ability to have up, close and personal encounters with artists who in other places may otherwise not be as accessible. Legendary Metropolitan Opera soprano Carmen Balthrop’s appearance in concert at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre at Artisphere with the National Chamber Ensemble not only gave the public the opportunity to share intimate space with a world-class artist, but also in many ways served as a platform for greater exposure for the exciting new ensemble led by Leonid Sushansky.The program itself was a tastefully tailored musical palette, with something for everyone to enjoy. In a recent interview with The African-American Voice in Classical Music, the soprano shared about her fascination with “blurring the lines” and how the program would be a trading of places between the voice and instrumentalists.
One must make mention of Ms. Balthrop’s regal stage presence, entering with her wondrous accompanist José Cáceres. Wearing a shimmering silver gown, Balthrop was greeted warmly by the audience. Opening the program was the lovely “No, no non si speri” by Carissimi. Balthrop was in fine form, singing with beautiful tone, selecting the perfect piece not only to show off the quality of the voice, but also the agile estate of her instrument. “Se tu m’ami followed, providing yet another opportunity for Ms. Balthrop to enthrall the audience the listeners with the remarkably youthfulness of her tone. In “Dolce amor bendato Dio” by Cavalli, a few unavoidable vocal imperfections crept in that caused a bit of separation in the legato of the line. Admirably, Balthrop used this as an opportunity to serve as the perfect model of professionalism by continuing on with the piece, unfettered by the possible determent. Pergolesi’s “Confusa smarrita” from Catone in Utica added the first spark of operatic flair to the program. Supported by Cáceres brilliant accompaniment, Balthrop’s voice now commanding in power, was marked by richer depth, especially in the decadence of her lower register.
Cellist Lukasz Szyrner joined Balthrop and Cáceres in Montsalvatge’s “El cant dels ocells” The exquisite warmth of Szyrner’s cello intertwined with the soprano’s voice likened the branches of the finest of vineyard grapes. Violinist and artistic director of the National Chamber Ensemble Leonid Sushansky made his first appearance of the evening in Massanet’s “Médiation” from Thäis. After speaking briefly about his introduction to the piece, Sushansky played with great passion, executing the work with exceptional phrasing and impeccable intonation. The final heart piercing note was one of gem-like beauty. Ending the first half was the entire ensemble, in two movements from Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor for Two Violins and Orchestra, F. 1, no. 177. What was truly unique about this performance was that Balthrop sang the second violin part of the piece. The duets between Sushansky’s first violin and Balthrop were moments of musical ecstasy. Cáceres and Szyrner likewise were integral to the work, playing with great sensitivity and accuracy.
Following the intermission, Sushansky was accompanied by Cáceres in the “Carmen Fantasie” by Bizet. Midway through, Balthrop entered on stage, now in a beautiful off shoulder gown, seductively as Carmen. Balthrop and Sushansky traded back and forth on the familiar melody of the aria with a hint of intrigue and seductiveness. Cáceres was thrilling throughout in the manner in which he gave the piano a totally different sound in all of the represented musical styles. Balthrop’s voice took on a sultry character that was ideal for the piece. This was certainly among the crowd pleasers of the evening. Violinist Leonid Sushansky, pianist José Cáceres and cellist Lukasz Szyrner then offered the delightful Yates work “First Waltz”from Café Music. Two opera arias rounded out the program. Catalani’s “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” and Puccini’s "Quando m’en vo soletta." In particular, the Catalani was a jewel, showcasing Balthrop’s voice in top form, soaring, confident high notes, well delivered with a dramatic grandeur that hearkened to the spectacle of the grand opera stage.
Following several encores, Ms. Balthrop was showered with several bouquets of flowers and greeted the audience members at a wine cheese reception that followed in the foyer.