Minnesota Opera favorite James Valenti made his Schubert Club International Artist Series debut Saturday night at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. It was the first tenor recital in the series in 42 years. In balance, it was a satisfying experience.
It was a particularly well-designed program. The first half was in French and the second in Italian. It’s unusual, for these kind of recitals, to include opera arias amongst a program of art songs, but these proved to be the highlights of the evening.
Things got off to a rough start. In a set of songs by Venezuela-born Parisian composer Reynaldo Hahn, Valenti revealed a voice with a warm, almost baritonal quality. But it seemed disconnected from his upper register, and he strained to reach some high notes.
The best thing about a set of songs by Henri Duparc was the performance by pianist Danielle Orlando. She played a luscious, impressionistic accompaniment.
It was in the opera arias that Valenti was most at home. With “Le rêve,” from Massenet’s “Manon” and “La fleur” from Bizet’s “Carmen,” he seemed more to the manner born, full of effusive romantic passion. Vocal problems continued to break the spell his stylish singing was trying to weave.
He closed the first half with “Pourquoi me reveiller” from Massenet’s “Werther,” in which Valenti starred last year at Minnesota Opera. It was here that he finally sounded warmed up. He perfectly embodied the romantic hero. Orlando equaled his passion, without overpowering him.
He opened the second half with “Quando la sere al placido” from Verdi’s “Luisa Miller.” Here he took the performance to a whole new level. His larger, more open-throated sound thrillingly captured the drama.
By contrast, he performed a series of songs by Tosti, the 19th-century Neapolitan equivalents of pop tunes, with panache, including a beautifully floated pianissimo.
The rest of program was never far from opera: songs by Bellini, Verdi and Puccini. With Bellini’s cantilena, he showed off some fine legato singing. He brought a great sense of humor to a comedy number by Verdi.
Valenti cut a dashing figure, leaning rakishly against the piano. He will star as the title character of Argento’s “The Dream of Valentino” next season with Minnesota Opera. He seems ideally cast to play the romantic movie star.
William Randall Beard writes about music and theater.