A soprano who inhabits the music

Yulia Van Doren sang Sunday with lutenist Stephen Stubbs.
Yulia Van Doren sang Sunday with lutenist Stephen Stubbs.
Posted: January 31, 2012

Technology utterly failed Philadelphia concertgoers on Sunday. For all the advances in communication, we still can be in only one place at a time - and that's just not fair when the same Sunday slot has recitals by violinist Tasmin Little (German Society), pianist Peter Serkin (Curtis Institute), and the early-music singer Yulia Van Doren (Trinity Center).

I chose what I knew the least - Van Doren, 28, the Moscow-born, U.S.-raised soprano with a curiously Dutch name. She has sung opera at the Boston Early Music Festival and was presented here by Astral Artists in a Philadelphia recital debut with the formidable lutenist Stephen Stubbs - an association that comes with an implied endorsement.

The program centered on early-baroque music by Claudio Monteverdi and Barbara Strozzi, with arias from Agostino Steffani's opera Niobe and excerpts from Purcell's The Fairy Queen, King Arthur, and The Indian Queen. The appropriate voice for this repertoire might be anything from the clear, clean soprano of Emma Kirby to the darker Iberian tones of the recently deceased Montserrat Figueras.

Van Doren was closer to the latter. Though she may not have the pathbreaking temperament of her predecessors, her recital showcased a hugely appealing, obviously important talent, and not for typical vocal reasons.

The timbre didn't have a lot of surface glisten - all the better to accommodate her fine shades of vocal expression, often with little or no vibrato. It must be said that unadorned surfaces aren't necessarily artless. Pitch, enunciation, and other basics were rock-solid. Without a larger vibrato to help maintain momentum in the vocal line, her coloristic choices weren't directed so much at individual words as at the longer line.

One tends not to realize how often singers bring the repertoire along for the ride until hearing someone like Van Doren, who is startlingly subservient to the music at hand, inhabiting it so completely that she gives the illusion of barely thinking about her voice. Never does one sense a separation between the written vocal line and the voice singing it. With this comes an easygoing magnetism that attracts the ear rather than reaching out to it.

Often, the greater technical challenges fired her fantasy the most. Conversely, a sameness set in with some of the less-imposing works. At her age, one can't hope for an endless emotional point of reference. Yet just when I thought I'd heard most of what she had to offer, she found an incredibly confiding vocal color in Purcell's "She Loves and She Confesses Too."

Stubbs, who is co-artistic director of the Boston Early Music Festival, had his own solo moments, playing modern and Spanish baroque guitars as well as theorbo, and in some pretty tasty repertoire, such as the West African-influenced Cumbees by Santiago de Murcia. Is it too much to hope that this could be the beginning of a cultural exchange with that Boston festival? After all, Philadelphia has better theaters.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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