A glance at Alex Esposito’s website reveals a young bass with a formidably wide ranging repertoire encompassing no less than fifteen Rossini roles but also parts as diverse as Nick Shadow, the four Hoffmann villains and Bottom in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His recital under the Rosenblatt Song Series banner clearly aimed to provide a snapshot of a very varied portfolio. His repertoire in this country has been mainly confined to the Mozart bass roles but on the evidence of this recital he is a genuine basso cantante. The voice, while not voluminous in the Ghiaurov / Christoff manner, has exceptional thrust and penetration allied to a cutting top range. In this respect he is more than a little reminiscent of Samuel Ramey. It is a voice ideally suited to Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and early Verdi roles such as Pagano, Attila and Silva. I would guess that he had not had quite enough time to acclimatise his voice to the uniquely intimate acoustics of the Wigmore as, especially early on in the evening, there was a tendency to sing as if filling a much larger venue. Also, nervousness may have affected his ability to relax into the lighter items. However, make no mistake; this is a very exciting talent
Cesti’s aria “Intorno all’idol mio” from his opera Orontea is usually sung onstage by the heroine. There is a particularly fine recorded version by Cecilia Bartoli and Joyce DiDonato includes the work in her Drama Queens album. However there is no reason why, on the concert platform, the rapt observation of Orontea’s sleeping love cannot be appropriated by a male singer (presumably watching over a sleeping female). To my ears this wasn’t an ideal start for Esposito – despite his best efforts the vocal line wasn’t hushed enough and we never had the feeling that I associate with the best performances of the work, of time standing still, hardly daring to breathe.
Carissimi’s aria antica “Vittoria, mio core” is more conventional bass territory and used to be a favourite of Hvorostovsky’s and has been essayed by artists as diverse as Gigli and Berganza. A search online also marks it out as a popular graduation work for young singers. It isn’t difficult to see why as it demonstrates the singer’s word colouring and line spinning in the slower central section and their coloratura abilities in the fast opening and close. This found Esposito in much more comfortable terrain – the ‘snap’ in the voice is perfect for the attack of the opening phrases and for the contained anger in “Da luci ridenti non esce più strale”. The aria contains numerous repeated phrases and Esposito nicely varies the dynamics and emotions without forcing the point.
Beethoven’s “L’amante impaziente” set to a text by Pietro Metastasio paints a situation familiar throughout the Lieder canon: that of the lover pining away while awaiting the arrival (or non-arrival) of a tardy beloved. In the more familiar arietta buffa Beethoven views the situation with a cynical eye – this lover is a good deal more likely to end up imbibing a few too many in the tavern than suffer a lonely death in a millstream! Esposito gave us the less familiar version in which the same text is allied to music shot through with solemnity and sorrow. Even so, the exaggerated sorrow of the protagonist is a target for a wry sideways glance from the composer and Esposito is fully alive to this aspect of the work with its heavy sobbing motifs. However the line “Oh come è lento nel corso il sole!” was sung with breathtaking power and force and there was no doubting the sincerity of the singer’s emotion.
Mozart’s concert aria “Per questa bella mano” was written for Franz Xaver Gerl who created many of his key bass roles including Don Giovanni and Sarastro. Originally conceived as a duet for singer, obbligato double bass and orchestra it may have created an interlude within another composer’s opera buffa. The work has since become a staple of the concert platform with or without the double bass part. The opening is more than a little reminiscent of the priestly music in Die Zauberflöte. The range goes well into Sarastro territory and, I felt, slightly beyond Esposito’s comfort zone. The notes were all there but lacked colour and punch. Despite this much of the singing, especially the piano sections, was beautifully accomplished.
Esposito’s Leporello is already a well known quantity, since he has played the role in addresses as diverse as La Scala, Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Bayerische Staatsoper. He sings the aria extremely well but I felt he really needed to relax into it and have more fun. The aura was far more Giovanni or even Méphistophélès than the cowardly, comic servant. I wonder if Esposito hasn’t been involved in too many overserious Regietheater “retellings” of the opera?
“Cade dal ciglio il velo” from Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto shows Pharaoh’s determination to keep the Jews in enforced bondage in defiance of the plagues wreaked on Egypt by the God of Israel. By all accounts Esposito enjoyed a considerable triumph in the role in Graham Vick’s controversial Pesaro production so it was good to hear a substantial excerpt here. This found the singer on top form with cleanly articulated coloratura and awe inspiring delivery of Pharaoh’s rage at the perceived deception of Moses.
“Vi ravviso” from Act I of Bellini’s La sonnambula calls for a rock solid legato line and typical Bellini endless reserves of breath. Esposito managed some beautiful quiet singing in this work but I felt if he had relaxed more he might have made it even more rapt. He was more at home in the exciting coda “Tu non sai”
Three Tosti canzone followed the Bellini. I am not usually a keen advocate of the lower voices taking on the Tosti rep as, on the whole, I feel it suits the sunny tones of a tenor or soprano. A dark voice can give an unwanted weight and heaviness to the works which they don’t require. The first “Malia” is a case in point – Esposito’s cutting tones implied a greater tragedy than is the case. That said he worked up a fine head of passionate steam in the lines “Freme l’aria per dove tu vai, spunta un fiore ove passa ‘l tuo piè!” (“The air quivers wherever you go, a flower springs at your feet as you pass!”).
Esposito found an ideal outlet in the almost verismo passions of “Non t’amo più”. The protagonist, in ever more intense tones, upbraids his former lover for her deceit and coldness. He then turns about-face and states he is glad that she is his love no more. However the passion of the music, often reminiscent of Leoncavallo and Cilea, contradicts his words. Esposito’s final hurling of the repeated lines “Non t’amo più” was genuinely thrilling.
“L’ultima canzone” is almost a tenor cliché so it was surprising how successful the piece was with Esposito’s dark tones. It is a mark of his success that one never wished for a lighter tenor voice and he crowned the account with a fabulous high climax followed by a hushed dying fall as the protagonist’s sighs die away in the night.
The final listed item in the recital was Duke Alfonso’s “Vieni la mia vendetta” (from Lucrezia Borgia) as he plots the murder of Gennaro whom he believes to be his errant wife’s lover. Actually the truth is even more bizarre, but let that pass. Esposito will sing this role opposite Gruberova at the Deutsche Oper this April and May. On this evidence it would be well worth the trip to hear him. I can’t remember hearing this aria so well sung since Ramey’s recorded account. He caught the strange mixture of jealous anguish and poisonous spite to perfection, as well as providing thrilling vocalism.
We were granted two encores – “Non più andrai” came first but the pick was an astonishing account of “Accusata di furto” from La gazza ladra. This aria which brings the anguished character of Fernando close to madness is a tour de force for the singer and an extraordinary fractured piece of writing with the line often coming close to complete disintegration. Usually singers save a couple of party pieces for encores but this piece was, for me, the highlight of the evening. Truly breathtaking.
Despite a few minor reservations this was yet another fine evening in the Rosenblatt series. I trust we will be seeing a lot more of Esposito over the coming seasons. I can’t wait to see him in some serious Rossini or Donizetti and I’d be fascinated to hear his Nick Shadow too.
Photographs © Fabrizio Fenucci