03 November 2017

Colombia's Best-Kept Secret

It would be pretty difficult to get further away from Singapore than Colombia.  That, certainly, is a fair reason why most Singaporeans know so little about that South American country.  But in today’s world, with its ease of travel and communications, there is no excuse why one of its most impressive treasures remains largely hidden from international view.

Colombian singer Betty Garcés made her Asian début last night in Singapore, and while a large enough audience of Colombian expats and Singapore vocal students and teachers had assembled, few, if any, were quite prepared for what followed.

This was a stunning voice, a magnificent performing presence and a consummate artist.  The standing ovation which she received after her 90 minute recital was entirely deserved, as was the level of perplexity voiced by so many at the post-recital reception about why it was this astounding talent had not already made its mark on the wider world.  In short, voices like Betty Garcés are sufficiently rare for them to be deserving of the widest international attention.  A quick series of emails and calls to friends in the business around the world have reinforced the picture of a voice nobody seems to have encountered; it’s not just Singapore which has been basking in ignorance of this astonishing talent.

With immense power, consistency and monumental presence, her voice filled the hall and could have easily filled a space several times as large.  Diction was fabulous, and the delivery was such that we did not need texts or translations (just as well – there weren’t any) to know exactly she was singing about.  Minimal hand actions and discrete facial expressions were all that was needed to support a vocal instrument of this superb quality.  One or two very top notes, perhaps, felt a trifle strained, but in matters of pitch, projection, control and expression, there was nothing to explain why this voice has not joined the pantheon of great sopranos in demand the world over.

Accompanied by fellow-Colombian Alejandro Roca, who gave a couple of brief introductions, Betty Garcés’ programme fell neatly into two halves.  The first was devoted to songs from the early decades of the 20th century. 

Opening with a selection of five songs from Joseph Marx (1882-1964), she instantly captured hearts with her sumptuous and beautifully poised voice, revelling in the intoxicating world of Marx’s opulent post-Richard Strauss harmonic palette.  And, as if to reinforce the almost incredible impression she had made with the opening songs, a performance of the indescribably beautiful “Marietta’s Lied” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt was itself indescribably beautiful.  Puccini seems very much her thing – one could imagine this voice as the ideal Mimi – but it was not La bohème here nor indeed anything operatic.  Instead, Garcés chose three rare Puccini songs – Sole e amore, Sogno d’Or and Morire – and sung them with such purity and sincere affection that one can only hope she will get round to recording them one day.  I know two of them, at least, from a recording with Kiri Te Kanawa; and I would not like to say which of these two singers is the better in this repertory.  A bit of true Italian opera did creep in with Adriana’s aria from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur and it was only to be expected that Garcés sung it with total and complete assurance and conviction.

If, in the first half, she had established the fact that she was an exceptionally gifted and sensitive soprano, in the second she paid homage to her homeland – or, at least, her home continent.  Some Villa Lobos and Ginastera were impressive.  Spellbinding would be a better word for Francesco Braga’s Engenho Novo.  Not a song I had ever encountered before, the demands it places on the tongue (rattling off syllables at a rate of knots) the lungs (never apparently pausing for breath) and the brain would seem virtually insurmountable.  Yet Garcés delivered it with effortless fluency, bringing humour and joy into what must have been an extremely challenging two-and-a-half minute sing. 

She offered a lovely selection of six songs by the Colombian composer Jaime Léon (1921-2015) which, as Roca had suggested, would almost certainly have been the first time they had been heard in Singapore.  Garcés certainly sold the songs on us, so compelling and beautiful was her performance of them, and as for the last one, Letra para cantar al son del arpa with its spectacular harp-like piano glissandi, tossed off with great relish by Roca, if this does not find itself in the repertory of at least one of the Singapore vocal students in the audience I would be very surprised.

Garcés proved to be a brilliant ambassador for Colombia’s musical life.  She also showed herself to be one of the great sopranos of our time.  Perhaps it’s time the world got to know it.

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