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Great Voices Sing John Denver

By Singingscholar @singingscholar

Great Voices Sing John Denver

Placido Domingo & John Denver, ca. 1980

I associate John Denver with road trips: rolled down windows, long ribbons of asphalt, and a carful of untrained singers happily caroling "Take me home, country roads." I think of his singing as characterized by a simplicity redeeming a sentimentality that might otherwise seem oppressively earnest. The project of having opera singers interpret these open-air ballads was one I viewed with intense if somewhat skeptical curiosity. The undertaking was the brainchild of Denver's arrangers, and facilitated by the considerable influence of Placido Domingo (more details here.) I couldn't resist the opportunity to review the resulting album, especially since I'm currently staying with my mother, whose adolescence coincided with Denver's heyday, and who therefore led Denver sing-alongs on road trips. Her enthusiasm for the project was great; and so I undertook my critical listening with her helpfully at hand as a one-woman control group for my bias towards loved singers and potential indifference to Denver's lyrics. The album's attempt to find a meeting ground for Denver's music and operatic voices met with decidedly mixed results. Too many of the arrangements were dominated by sentimental strings wallowing in the predictable harmonies common to many classical crossover or pseudo-classical albums. I thought that allowing the participating artists to cross further over into Denver's musical language--or, indeed, simply a greater variety in the arrangements--would have been, on the whole, more felicitous. On the whole, I'm inclined to regard the disc more as a curious conversation piece than anything else, but my mother enjoyed listening to it enormously (including the heckling of misfires), leading me to the conclusion that it may be more successful with John Denver fans than diehard opera lovers, for situations where those two categories don't overlap.
In setting out to review this album, I've been hampered by enduring ambivalence. With a couple of exceptions (the insistent crescendos of "The Eagle and the Hawk" and the guitar-less "This Old Guitar," with Rod Gilfry inexplicably crooning with intense seriousness) I didn't feel that any of these rather unexpected ventures were outright failures, but the album as a whole left me somewhat cold. Some of the finest voices on the album (Dolora Zajick, Denyce Graves) seemed mismatched with their material. The pleasing tenor of Daniel Montenegro was better-matched with "Goodbye Again." Danielle De Niese took "Rhymes and Reasons," which she performed with excellent diction, making me wonder about the possibility of Gilbert and Sullivan in her future. "Perhaps Love," with Placido Domingo duetting with Placido Domingo Jr., was shamelessly schmaltzy, but I found myself willing to forgive it much. Having heard Rene Pape swagger successfully through "Some Enchanted Evening," I was expecting and hoping for more Broadway-style self-assertion in "Follow Me," but it wasn't sluggish. Matthew Polenzani also acquitted himself nicely in "For You"; the gratuitous translation into Italian was utterly inexplicable to me, and best passed over in (comparative) silence.
Shenyang's cheerful, lilting "Shanghai Breezes" was a nice tonic to the CD's tendency towards excessive seriousness. Thomas Hampson's refreshingly assured, comparatively light-hearted take on "Sweet Surrender" was possibly my favorite, helped by a comparatively light arrangement. Patricia Racette's brassy cabaret style really works for me As previously noted, I like Patricia Racette's brassy cabaret style, and her unapologetic "Leaving on a Jet Plane" left the schmaltz to the string section (and had my mother humming along.) I double-checked the booklet to make sure that it was indeed Stuart Skelton singing "Fly Away"; he didn't sound like Siegmund at all, but seemed to have a fine sense for the song itself. I wish the rest of the album had been as successful.

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