It wasn’t so long ago that countertenors were considered a rare breed. No longer. With the likes of Brian Asawa, Jeffrey Gall, Derek Lee Ragin, Bejun Mehta, Andreas Scholl, Jochen Kowalski and David Daniels, this vocal category is flowering. The efflorescence may be attributable to opera house managers who no longer harbor reservations about booking countertenors for fear that the public won’t like an essentially female sound (a countertenor’s range is roughly equivalent to a contralto’s) emanating from the throat of a man.
Or it could be that many of these young singers simply couldn’t be neglected any longer. Certainly a singer like David Daniels can’t be ignored. Nor can it be ignored that he (along with some of his contemporaries) has expanded the countertenor repertoire. Countertenors used to be relegated to Renaissance and Baroque music, but Daniels sings 19th- and 20th-century repertoire — and sings it well.
Until a few years ago, Daniels, a graduate of U of M, was an Ann Arbor resident, but performances at the Met and other opera houses uprooted the singer. Daniels unleashed the vocal fireworks last year in a Virgin disc devoted to Handel arias, but in this new CD he turns to the intimate serenade. Although this kind of program could have led to a bland sameness, Daniels wisely covers the gamut, from the 17th to 20th century, in songs written in German, Italian, French and English. He has the least success in the German numbers; Beethoven’s “Adelaide,” for instance, is a bit too precious. However, Daniels imparts an exquisite weightlessness to Schubert’s “Nacht und Traüme.”
Daniels, of course, excels in the 17th- and 18th-century Italian songs, which are every countertenor’s bread and butter. Caldara’s slow and elegant “Selve amiche, ombrose piante” balances nicely with Lotti’s jubilant “Pur dicesti, o bocca bella.” Daniels nails the vocal embellishments down pat.
His foray into the English song literature is impressive, especially Purcell’s mood-shifting “Sweeter than Roses” and Vaughan Williams’ expressive “Hands, Eyes, Heart,” which the singer communicates with direct simplicity.
However, it’s in the French repertoire that Daniels shines brightest. His French diction is admirable, and his feel for the chanson seems natural. He contrasts Gounod’s searching, impressionistic “L’Absent” with the same composer’s joyous “Où voulez-vous aller?” He invests Poulenc’s “C’est ainsi que tue es” with delicate gradations of shading, and imbues the composer’s “Priez pour paix,” a contemplative prayer for peace to the Virgin Mary, with haunting beauty. Then he dives into “La belle jeunesse,” a profane ditty Poulenc set to music from a ribald 17th-century anonymous text.
Pianist Martin Katz, who teaches at the University of Michigan, accompanies Daniels with refinement and taste, ensuring that this is an artistic collaboration, not a battle of wills between accompanist and singer.
George Bulanda writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail [email protected].