Baritone Discovery – Joshua Hopkins

Maybe I'm late to the game on this, but I've just "discovered" the young Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, and I am enthralled — as I always am with a wonderful new singer discovery.  This was a double-barrel discovery, since by coincidence I bought his debut recital CD just days before hearing him sing at the NY City Opera in the new production of Leonard Bernstein's opera, "A Quiet Place."  So I have had the opportunity to hear and see him perform "live," and to immerse myself in his carefully prepared debut recital CD.  Both experiences were terrific.

But first, a bit about "A Quiet Place." This production was its first professional exposure in New York.  The opera has never been a success, and it is easy to understand why.  The story is really rather grim, and the parts where it seems to come alive, really, are when "Junior," the gay son, does his thing — and when Bernstein flashes back, in Act II, to one of his exciting early creations, the one-acter "Trouble in Tahiti", which is used to introduce the younger versions of the characters who are "Junior's" parents.  The opera strikes me as Leonard Bernstein sitting on his shrink's couch and letting it all hang out – the dysfunctional relationship of his parents, the odd relationship with siblings, the struggle to discover and understand his sexuality, and etc., and etc…  It's all a bit too much.  Christopher Alden's production works well as theater, and all the performers struck me as well prepared, properly involved, and up to their parts.  But the opera itself was alternately involving and off-putting.

The standout performance, as far as I was concerned, was Joshua Hopkins' turn as "junior."  From the moment he comes on stage– as the later arrival to his mother's funeral — he grabs attention and doesn't let it go.  He has a deep, warm expressive voice and knows exactly how to use it for dramatic effect.  He was stuck with an awful hairpiece – perhaps to signal how this man-boy was trapped by his mental condition in perpetual adolescence – but it couldn't obscure the handsome man underneath the long hair and makeup, and the sheer musicality and intense involvement that radiated from him.

After experiencing this performance at the Saturday matinee, I was primed to hear the recital disc on Sunday morning — and I was positively blown away from the first words of British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams' song cycle, "Songs of Travel," setting verses by Robert Louis Stevenson.  This is an old favorite from my first exposure to the great recording by Benjamin Luxon and David WIllison on Chandos.  I was so captivated by this piece – especially the song "Let Beauty Awake," a title appropriated by Hopkins for the entire recital – that I have sought out many alternative recordings. I don't think I've ever heard a better rendition than Hopkins gives on this recording.  From the picture of the young man on the booklet cover, one doesn't quite expect the voice one hears.  Mr. Hopkins seems to have a great talent for adapting his style of pronunciation and enunciation to the period of the songs, and in this case what comes out is a proper Edwardian art-song singer, with a big voice, robust pronunciation of consonants (love those rolled r's) and a bit of a British accent.  In style, this is more like the older performances in my collection, reflecting links back to the time of composition a century ago.

For the next item in the program, a song cycle titled "South of North – Images of Canada," by the Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick, the voice is a bit lighter, the accent more the flat tones of the Canadian heartland.  Then we have our American entries — Blue Mountain Ballads by Paul Bowles and Three Songs, Op. 45, by Samuel Barber — and again the voice is carefully modulated to the dramatic needs of the songs – a hint of southern mountain accent for the Bowles, and the more refined tones of the Philadelphia musician who was Samuel Barber in his origins.  I don't know how much this is intentional on Hopkins' part or whether he just naturally falls into the different styles instinctively due to the demands of music and text, but either way it works tremendously well.  This recording is a definite "keeper" and has already been migrated to my ipod for repeated listening with pleasure.

The recording is issued by the ATMA Classique label.  Hopkins' keyboard collaborator is Jerad Mosbey, who does a great job here, and the technicians have also done a great job, capturing that big, warm voice in an appropriate acoustical surround, with an excellent balance between singer and piano.  This is a high class production all around, with excellent notes and full texts, as well as a URL that will take you to a blog in which Hopkins provides a detailed acount of the making of the recording, which is fascinating in its own right.  OK, OK, here it is:

I can't wait to hear more from him.  There are some clips of performances on youtube, but I am particularly excited to note that he is scheduled to participate in a recording of Bach's St. John Passion soon…

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