Ann, Frank, and I heard Aprile Millo in recital at Zankel Hall on 1/30/19, with pianist Inseon Lee. The recital was presented by the New York City Opera and they posted this video on the Carnegie Hall website:
Millo's parents were both opera singers and her father sang at the NYCO in its early years. She was groomed as an opera singer from her early years and won many competitions in her early days. This recital was a tribute to her parents.
Millo was a headliner in the 80s and 90s, she sang lots of performances at the Met and elsewhere, with Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti and lots of other top drawer singers. She sang 161 performances at the Met, always in leading roles in 19th century Italian operas. Her Met schedule was full force from 1984 to 1999, then petered off - - she's only sung 13 performances since the turn of the century.
I heard her as Tosca in 2005 and loved her whole persona. The NY Times published a profile of her the day of her recital and used the word "seance" to describe what she does, and I do remember, watching Millo as Tosca on the stage of the Met, feeling like I was actually seeing Renata Tebaldi on The Bell Telephone Hour sometime in the early 60s. What Millo did was resolutely, defiantly old fashioned. To quote Martin Balsam in the movie *Breakfast at Tiffany's,* "She's a phony. But she's a REAL phony. You know why? Because she honestly believes all this phony junk that she believes."
We got to the theater early and looked at the program. No surprises there, but then the printed program bore only a passing resemblance to what she actually sang. I found it curious that there was no bio for the pianist (though the harpist, guest baritone had bios) and no translations. I also found it curious that there was a teddy bear onstage, along the front edge, in the center, facing the stage.
The general director of the City Opera, Michael Capasso, came out onstage at about 7:45 (aka fifteen minutes late) to welcome the audience. He mentioned how pleased he was to be part of the NYCO, which offers "operatic alternatives in New York City." That raised my eyebrows. He finished his little speech by saying that in 1982 the City Opera heard an impressive audition by a rising young singer, and they've been trying to line up their schedules ever since!
Millo came out onstage and the audience went coo coo nutty. Many people stood up. She was wearing a gorgeous gown, cleverly structured for a full-figured gal: it was green, dark green in the bodice, sleeves, and down the center, with lighter green panels on the side of the skirt, and with sequined lace sewn into a large V, from the shoulders down the front, to a point at the hem, giving the illusion of slimming. Genius. Her hair was red curls.
She spoke quite a lot throughout the night, and I couldn't always hear what she said. She introduced the teddy bear, I think she said he had heard over 50 performances of hers. She put on her glasses and started to sing. She used music throughout the recital, but generally only looked at it about 20% of the time, so I wouldn't say it got in the way of her communicating to the audience.
The audience applauded after every song, but she didn't seem bothered by that (though I was). The first set presented her voice, which still sounds like Millo, though the opening songs didn't make any demands on her - - no high notes or low notes, nothing too loud or too soft. Her breath felt a little short, but she seemed more confident and at ease when the first set was over.
Donaudy: "O del mio amato ben"
Donizetti: "Me voglio fà na casa"
Bridge: "Love Went a-Riding"
Her pianist was Inseon Lee. Millo mentioned that she was disappointed that Lee's bio wasn't in the program, and said that Lee had performed at La Scala, said a few other things I didn't hear. I wasn't wild for her playing, she didn't bring much to the table. She was capable and supported Millo, but there wasn't much artistry in her playing, and the active songs sounded muddy.
She did not do the next songs printed in the program, Cimarosa's "Entro quest'anima" or Verdi's "In solitaria stanza." She went straight to a set of traditional Irish songs: "The Rose of Tralee, "The Kerry Dance," "Bendeemer Stream," "Danny Boy." Most of them were performed with harpist Merynda Adams. This set illustrated one of my issues with the recital: she alternated between being homey (chatting with the audience, being cute) and being grand (looking up in an imperious manner, using commanding gestures). It's hard to reconcile or alternate between those two ways of being, and she wasn't always a success in that. "Danny Boy" was a highlight of the program because those two attitudes worked together in a way that made sense.
She was supposed to do "Io son l'umile ancella" from*Adriana Lecouvreur* by Cilea, but she said that she'd just heard Anna Netrebko do it, and she sang it so beautifully that she wanted to leave it alone. Now I thought, seeing it on the program, that she chose it BECAUSE Netrebko had just done it! To show the people that she can do it just as well or better.
Instead she did the death scene from *Cecilia* by Refice, a role written for Claudia Muzio in 1934. The scena was made up of three different things: one third was grand emoting while the pianist played the interludes, one third was singing, and one third was reciting the text. She seemed to really let loose in this. This was the most Grand Manner thing she did, and it was the most satisfying performance of the evening.
I looked downstairs during the intermission, hoping to see a few famous faces. I did not. Frank predicted that she'd be wearing a different gown for the second half, and I predicted that it would be blue. We were both right! It was sapphire blue, with a velvet bodice, lots of crystals around the front and sleeves, and a crystal-encrusted filmy cape along the back. Millo did a cute thing, she did a 360 turn while looking over her shoulder, sort of saying, "The gown, it's good, right?"
She said that Russian mezzo Irina Arkhipova had encouraged her to sing Russian songs, so she did a set. She apologized for her Russian, she said it probably sounds more like Czech. It didn't sound like much of anything in particular to me, but her voice sounded better than maybe anything else that night. Something about those songs really lined up her voice, it sounded full, rich, and incisive. BTW in these songs she was looking at the music about 78% of the time.
There were five Russian songs in the program, and she only sang three of them. I don't know which. She sang two of these four songs:
Rubinstein: "The Rose"
Rachmaninoff: "The Lilac," "In the Silent Night"
And she closed with Rachmaninoff, "Spring Waters." There were a few high notes in this song that caused a guy in the row in front of us to rock back and forth. He was WAITING for those high notes and thrilled to hear them.
She introduced the next number, Gounod's "O ma lyre immortelle" from *Sapho,* by saying, "Do you ever hear something and love it, want to sing it, but it's for a mezzo and you think people will worry?" Her voice didn't really open up on the bottom the way you would want, but she sang it with grace and style. I was annoyed that the harp part basically doubled the piano. Why not cut out the piano, or have it play something else? C. Collins Lee did a nice job with the violin solo (he also played something in the first Russian song, whatever that was).
The last thing on the program was by Verdi: "Ciel, mio Padre!" from *Aida.* This is the duet for Aida and her father, and the role of the father was sung by Kevin Short. He was a little woofy, he sounded like Samuel Ramey on a bad day. And his Italian was vague. Millo was fantastic. She'd sung many, many performances of the role, so it's no surprise that she took off her glasses and sang from memory. She sang with a greater confidence and authority than she had in the rest of the program. It's like she was saying, "I still got it."
Her encore was a medley of two Italian songs - - she opened with one I didn't know, "Core 'ngrato," and ended with "O sole mio." The first song had a violin solo by Lee again, and they had to start it over because he didn't quite know what he was doing. That was a little embarrassing. But they got on track, and Millo conducted the audience in singing the chorus of "O sole mio," also indicating when they should STOP singing to let her sing. I would have sung along, but don't know the Italian lyrics, and I don't think anyone wants to hear me singing "It's Now Or Never."
Frank and I both thought she'd do at least one more encore, an aria or two. I hoped she'd do "Tu, tu, piccolo iddio" from *Madama Butterfly.* She did not do any other encores, but about fifty people came to the front of the stage giving her flowers. That was a performance in itself.
This sort of extreme diva adulation is similar to what I experienced at the Anna Netrebko recital in December, but it didn't feel creepy for Netrebko. In that case, it felt like we were worshiping who she is now and what she was doing right now. With Millo, it felt like the audience was honoring what she did in the past, and grateful for what she's still able to do. It made me feel a little uneasy. It has more to do with the audience than it does with her, and nothing to do with the music.
Here's Millo in her prime, singing "Morrò ma prima in grazia" from Verdi's *Un Ballo in Maschera.*