MEPHISTOPHELES & OTHER BAD GUYS / GOUNOD: Faust: Le veau d’or; Vous qui faites l’endormie. BOITO: Mephistopheles: Son lo Spirito; Ecco il mondo. BEETHOVEN: Song of the Flea (orch. Shostakovich). Fidelio: Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!* MOZART: Die Entführung aus dem Serail: Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden; O, wie will ich triumphieren. WEBER: Der Freischütz: Schweig, schweig, damit dich niemand. OFFENACH: Les contes d’Hoffmann: Dans le roles d’amoureux langoureux; Scintille diamant. VERDI: I Lombardi: Sciagurata! Hai tu credeto. BERLIOZ: La damnation de Faust: Voici des roses; Devant la maison. GETTY: Mephistopheles to Faust. MUSSORGSKY: Song of the Flea (orch. Stravinsky). STRAVINSKY: The Rake’s Progress: I burn, I freeze! MEYERBEER: Robert le Diable: Nonnes, qui reposez. WAGNER: Das Rheingold: Bin ich nun frei? / Kevin Short, bass-bar; *Opéra de Marseille Male Chorus; Orchestre Philharmonique de Paris; Lawrence Foster, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC 5186 585
A great deal of information is given on Kevin Short’s background, the competition prizes he has won, the venues he has sung in and the conservatories he studied at, yet his principal voice teachers (except for his very first, Betty Ridgeway) are nowhere mentioned. This is a pity, because a voice this solid in production—not the slightest hint of unsteadiness—is so rare nowadays, especially among singers of his range, that had this teachers been mentioned I’d urge all of his wobble-sounding bass and baritone brethren to go running to them forthwith. And is this ever a dark-sounding voice! Short is perfect for roles of this type because he sounds, no joke, like an American version of Gustav Neidlinger with a touch of Jerome Hines (although, judging from the microphone placement, it doesn’t seem to be as huge of a voice as Hines’ was—but few are).
I was a bit disappointed, however, by some of the conducting in this set, particularly in “Le veau d’or,” where Lawrence Foster takes it at a rather slow pace—and, worse yet, introduces the old-fashioned ritard in the middle of the aria that singers like Pol Plançon and Marcel Journet used to do. Foster is also just a shade slow in Boito’s “Son lo spirito.” But no matter: Short makes you sit up and take notice. It’s just that good of a voice. His only deficiency is the lack of a trill, most noticeable in Gounod’s “ Vous qui faites l’endormie.” But no matter; someone (Pentatone, perhaps?) should record a complete Mephistopheles with Short, tenor AJ Glueckert and a soprano like Juliane Banse or Maria Bengtsson forthwith (possibly with a conductor like Marc Albrecht).
As for interpretation, he needs a little work. He sounds appropriately sinister in everything he sings, but it’s a generic sort of sinister, like a loving father who puts on a scowl and grumpily tells his son to eat his Brussels sprouts. Of course, nearly every aria in this collection is an over-the-top snarl-fest, and Lord knows that the late Boris Christoff also gave fairly generic readings of this kind of music, too. Short does modify his tone somewhat in “Ecco il mondo,” to good effect, and in an aria like Beethoven’s “Ha! Welch ein Augenblick,” subtlety goes out the window anyway. And he’s certainly a terrific Don Pizarro and Lindorf/Dappertutto. His Osmin in Mozart’s Abduction put me in mind of the way Gottlob Frick sang it (there’s another bass he somewhat resembles), except that “Wer ein Liebchen” seemed to me a bit too much shouted. Foster also conducts “O wie will ich Triumphieren” too slowly, as Beecham did, although Short does interpret this with appropriate subtlety and even more appropriate low notes, which many a bass simply cannot reach.
The two surprises in this collection, for me, were Beethoven’s Song of the Flea, a piece I didn’t even know he had written, and, of course, Gordon Getty’s song Mephistopheles to Faust, which is probably a fairly new piece anyway. Pagano’s aria from I Lombardi is also a piece not often heard, mostly because so much of the opera is sort of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other except for the most magnificent trio Verdi ever wrote. Short tries his best to soften his tone for Berlioz’ “Voici des roses,” but really should work on that a bit…it’s still somewhat too loud, though gloriously sung. (Listen to Mack Harrell in the famous broadcast with Toscanini or Gabriel Bacquier in the EMI studio recording with Prêtre for an example of what I mean.) By contrast, “Devant la maison” is just perfect (though, again, just a shade too slow). The Getty piece is superb—what a wonderful composer he is!—and Short is really in his element here, possibly because he is also singing in his native language. He also has some fun with Mussorgsky’s Song of the Flea. The last track, Alberich’s curse from Das Rheingold, reminds us once again of Short’s tonal resemblance to Neidlinger, the most famous Alberich of his day. It’s a very outward, angry reading of the curse. I would suggest that Short listen to Eduard Habich, the greatest Alberich of the past, as an example of how one can sing these words with more meaning.
No two ways about it, though: Kevin Short has the kind of voice that makes you sit up and take notice. A little coaching in subtlety, and he’d be fantastic as Bluebeard in Bartók’s opera, too. This is a terrific recital by any measurement.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge