Is this the best opera singer you've (probably) never heard of?

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Is this the best opera singer you've (probably) never heard of?
Ann Hallenberg, the mezzo-soprano, in Seville, Spain, Feb. 10, 2020. Hallenberg, celebrated in Europe but little known in America, is making a rare New York appearance in concert. Gianfranco Tripodo/The New York Times.

by Christopher Corwin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Although she’s one of Europe’s most acclaimed and sought-after artists, Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg’s appearances on this side of the Atlantic have been surprisingly few: Her New York debut came just three years ago.

But she will return Thursday for an ambitious program of early-18th-century arias: “The Swedish Nightingale,” joined by the Venice Baroque Orchestra at Zankel Hall. A richly expressive and candid approach to the quite formal style of that period of music has made her a beloved Baroque diva and one of the greatest singers you’ve (probably) never heard of.

The avian moniker of the title was initially attached to Jenny Lind, the celebrated 19th-century Swedish soprano who toured America in grand style, presented by P.T. Barnum. Hallenberg, on the other hand, made an unobtrusive American debut in the mid-1990s in Minnesota with “Solitaire,” a new opera by Björn Hallman, and reappeared a few years later as Dejanira in Cavalli’s “Ercole Amante” at the Boston Early Music Festival, her only appearances on this continent in staged opera to date.

In this century, Hallenberg appeared in the U.S. in 2013 to perform Pergolesi’s intimate “Stabat Mater” in the most incongruous space imaginable: the Hollywood Bowl. And, in 2017, New Yorkers at long last got to hear this vocal phenomenon in the dazzling role of the eunuch Vagaus in Vivaldi’s oratorio “Juditha Triumphans.”

The upcoming Zankel concert will feature Hallenberg, 52, in eight arias from works composed between 1716 and 1738, a remarkably rich period for opera and oratorio. That an artist could achieve renown in this specialized repertoire was unimaginable a century ago, when even Handel’s stage works remained unperformed. But the inauguration of the Göttingen Handel Festival in Germany, in 1920, propelled a momentum that has resuscitated a flood of pieces from the decades before Gluck and Mozart.

Although Hallenberg started out singing roles like Rossini’s Rosina (in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”) and Isabella (in “L’Italiana in Algeri”), and even Bizet’s Carmen — which she performed over 50 times earlier in her career — the time was right for her emergence as an early-music “Swedish Nightingale.” In 2003, she replaced Cecilia Bartoli at the Zurich Opera on just one day’s notice as Bellezza in Handel’s “Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disignanno.”

That last-minute triumph came a year after I first encountered Hallenberg’s artistry. On a day off from the Berlin Staatsoper’s “Festtage,” during which 10 Wagner operas were being performed, I attended Handel’s “Hercules” at the Konzerthaus. The poster outside announced that the mezzo originally scheduled for Dejanira had been replaced by Hallenberg. Her thrilling account of the demanding role — a hero’s jealous wife, driven to madness — alerted me to a new star.

Despite the work’s title, Dejanira is the one who dominates the action, evolving through seven arias from impatient wife to imperious virago to despairing murderer. Biting into Thomas Boughton’s text with relish, Hallenberg revealed all those conflicting facets through her regal presence and opulent, seamless voice, which rose from earthy lows to brightly ringing highs. One of the most remarkable features of that evening was her fluent coloratura, which, in “Begone, my fears,” was free of the intrusive aspiration to which so many singers resort in the hope of coping with the demanding roulades found so often in Handel.

After those high-profile substitutions, Hallenberg was embraced by an important champion: pioneering American conductor Alan Curtis, who, with financial support from mystery novelist (and Baroque enthusiast) Donna Leon, was recording some lesser-known Handel operas. Soon listeners around the world were discovering Hallenberg in the title roles of “Ezio” and “Tolomeo,” and on a whimsical disc accompanying “Handel’s Bestiary,” a charming book by Leon.

All told, Hallenberg has quite possibly sung more of Handel’s music than anyone since the 18th century: at least 20 works onstage, in concert or on disc. Her “Hidden Handel” collection of previously unrecorded arias, with Curtis, particularly glows with her infectious enthusiasm. Although she doesn’t appear so often in staged opera, her portrayals of the title roles of “Ariodante” and “Agrippina” (an early masterpiece currently enjoying a run at the Metropolitan Opera) have been acclaimed. Hallenberg’s splendid recording of arias drawn from 10 rarities, all featuring Agrippina as a character, is an ideal supplement to the Met’s production.

Nearly all examples of opera seria composed during the first half of the 18th century, including Handel’s, are mostly constructed from “da capo” building blocks. Da capo arias contain three discrete sections, with the first part returning after a contrasting middle — not verbatim but with decorations showcasing a singer’s prowess.

All but one of the eight da capo arias Hallenberg will perform at Zankel were written for castrati. As mutilating young boys for musical ends mercifully died out in the late 1800s, Hallenberg’s exceptionally wide-ranging, ruby-color mezzo, with its serene legato and jaw-dropping coloratura, has inevitably made her a go-to artist for revivals of such long-unperformed works.

The celebrated castrato with whom Hallenberg has been especially associated is Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi — known as Farinelli. Over the past decade, she has toured extensively with Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques performing arias composed for that singer (recently the subject of Claire van Kampen’s play “Farinelli and the King”). For her tribute program, Hallenberg has donned fanciful masculine 18th-century theatrical garb, including a golden helmet crowned by an explosion of long blue feathers.

Anyone undertaking music written for Farinelli must marshal an instrument capable of sustaining the longest lines and negotiating the most elaborate fireworks. One recent Farinelli exhumation in which Hallenberg participated was as Farnaspe in Veracini’s long-ignored “Adriano in Siria,” which contains the exceptionally demanding “Amor, dover, rispetto,” available on a live recording of the opera’s modern premiere.

The aria covers well over two octaves, often descending to unusual repeated low acuti, and requires near-superhuman agility to negotiate an astonishing run of 136 consecutive 16th notes! Another florid Farinelli showpiece, “Son qual nave che agitate,” composed by the castrato’s brother, Riccardo Broschi, will close the program at Zankel.

One striking feature of Hallenberg’s artistry is her rare ability to transform a da capo aria into a musical and dramatic jewel. Like her mezzo predecessor Janet Baker, Hallenberg uses the embellishments of the repeat for more than just vocal display. The listener experiences the journey from A to B and back to A as revealing the complex depths of a character.

In the celebrated “Alto Giove” from Porpora’s “Polifemo,” Hallenberg raptly intones Aci’s ravishing prayer of thanksgiving to Jupiter for bestowing on him the shepherdess Galatea. For the contrasting middle section, she brightens her manner to dote on the precious gift of his mistress, while in the repeat of the A section she urgently adds graceful ornaments to intensify Aci’s avowal, culminating in a softly ecstatic cadenza of blissful gratitude.

Not that there’s any lack of flamboyance in the decorations she adds; they always display an inventive stylishness likely conceived alongside a live-in collaborator: her husband, musicologist Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg. Their grandest achievement together has been the two-disc collection “Carnevale 1729” (2017), which sprang from the idea of bringing together selections from operas that premiered in Venice during a single Carnival season, excavated by Schmitt-Hallenberg.

The spellbinding results make up one of the most satisfying vocal recitals of recent decades. Unknown but bewitching pieces by Geminiano Giacomelli and Giuseppe Orlandini are placed back to back, each splendidly showcasing Hallenberg’s seemingly effortless bravura. Some selections are dotted with more perfect trills than other singers will voice during their entire careers.

To suggest that Hallenberg’s artistry has been limited to the heroes and heroines of the Baroque, however, would be unfair. Over the past few years, for example, John Eliot Gardiner has made her a favorite, leading her in works by Mahler, Berlioz, Schumann and even Verdi’s Requiem. Her fame may not yet equal that of her former classmates in Sweden, Nina Stemme and Peter Mattei. But Hallenberg’s instantly identifiable mezzo and keen, searching musical intelligence will hopefully, finally, be widely embraced by the American public, just as Lind was.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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