Arias by Donizetti, Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini. Keri Alkema, soprano; Rachel Andrist, piano. 12 p.m., Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre, May 22, 2018.
Now that the last song has been sung in the 2017-18 COC Vocal Series, I can honestly say it has been a very memorable season of concerts. Since the opening of the Four Seasons Centre in 2006 when these free noon-hour concerts started, it has attracted a loyal following. Any time I’ve attended, it was always full to overflowing. And what better way to end the season than with a recital given by the excellent Giovanna Seymour in the current run of Anna Bolena, American soprano Keri Alkema?
Alkema is no stranger to COC audiences, having already sung three roles the last few years with the Company — Giulietta in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito, and the title role in Tosca. It was also over these years that she made a successful transition from mezzo-soprano to soprano. In the noon hour recital today, the RBA audience got to experience her artistry up close and personal, in a program appropriately called A Journey of Transformation.
It wasn’t your typical diva star turn, with the haughty prima donna standing and delivering without uttering a word. Alkema — (she quipped “Singers love to talk about themselves!”) — couldn’t have been more different. Given her endearing persona and generous spirit, the soprano poured her heart out to an appreciative RBA audience, in a charming, humorous, and disarmingly candid way, in an account of her personal journey. She spoke about growing up in Florida, singing in church, trying out the French horn and piano before settling into voice studies, and about her teachers and mentors who guided her in her career. One gets a real sense that what you see is what you get – there’s no pretense from Keri Alkema.
She spent fifteen years as a mezzo, and eventually making a transition into the soprano territory. The five arias chosen for the recital were all significant signposts in this transition. She began with Sara’s “All’afflitto e dolce il piano” from Roberto Devereux, an example of the typical, high mezzo repertoire that used to be her domain. While her timbre today is without a doubt that of a soprano, she has not lost the solidity of her middle and bottom registers. Perhaps not quite warmed up at this point, her lively vibrato was unusually pronounced, but it soon settled down for the rest of the recital. What was evident from the start was her extraordinary facility with high pianissimos, underscoring her excellent control of her instrument.
The Donizetti was followed by Donna Elvira, a swischenfach role often taken by both sopranos and mezzos. Her aria “Mi tradi” showed off Alkema’s admirable agility and long breath-line, requisite for a fine Mozartian. Next up was a Verdi heavyweight, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, a spinto (or even a dramatic soprano) role. She spoke candidly about her little mishap at one time with the exposed top C in the aria, an experience which she learned from. Well, the C today was strong, clear, and completely on pitch! She also sang with a great deal of dramatic intensity, her “Morro, ma prima in grazia” was full of pathos.
This was followed by Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria. (Somehow the latter was omitted from the program.) Taken at a very slow tempo, it would have fallen apart in the hands (or should I say vocal cords) of a lesser singer. Alkema held it together brilliantly, with bone-chilling intensity in the dramatic outburst at the end of “Salce, salce.” Her pianissimo high A-flat that ended the Prayer was exquisitely soft. But she saved the best for last, an extremely intense and lyrical outpouring of “Che tua madre,” Butterfly’s monologue in Act 2. Alkema seemed genuinely involved in the drama, singing with abandon, something that very few singers would dare do in front of an audience.
Through it all, at the piano was the ever-reliable, and rock-solid, playing of Rachel Andrist — one of the most experienced pianist/coach working in Canada today. After the arias, instead of an encore, Alkema opened the floor to a Q&A, answering all the questions with endearing charm and disarming honesty. A wonderful way to end the 2017-18 Vocal Series. Let’s hope Keri Alkema will return to the COC in the future — we need more genuine artists like her.