Simon Keenlyside

BRIAN KELLOW salutes the distinguished achievement of the OPERA NEWS Awards winner.

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Photographed by Beatriz Schiller as Hamlet in the Metropolitan Opera production of Hamlet, 2010
© Beatriz Schiller 2013
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It has often been argued that opera and naturalism are incompatible — that no matter how hard a performer may try, the physical and technical demands of singing work against absolute reality of appearance on the opera stage. That may be true to a large extent, but there is the occasional exception, and Simon Keenlyside is one. In a time that is exploding with gifted baritones, the rewards of attending a Keenlyside performance are singular. His beautifully trained voice is put to ideal expressive use, time and again; his work is never flashy, but it glows with intensity. It's a quality he shares with theater artists as diverse as Alice Coote, Ian McKellen, Jeremy Irons and Felicity Palmer — all of whom, not coincidentally, are British. Keenlyside has the same brand of fluent skill wrapped around a strong, un-showy intelligence that seems so quintessentially English. He's a deeply responsive ensemble player, but with a powerful sense of self as well. As with those other performers, when he's onstage, you can always sense him really listening. A lot of opera singers today carry on about the importance of being in service to the music, but Keenlyside doesn't just blather about it. He lives it.

In the numerous times I've interviewed Keenlyside, he has never been less than kind, reflective and funny. But there's something about him that's difficult to pin down; one senses that perhaps a certain sadness, a lack of trust, may nag at him. He does not relish discussing his early life as a choirboy at St. John's College School in Cambridge; one feels his regret over a compromised childhood and the ongoing pressures of constant tours and recordings with St. John's. Yet he seems to have had enormous trust in his own professional instincts. When he first came to the Met, in roles such as Belcore in L'Elisir d'Amore (his company debut in 1996) and Olivier in Capriccio, it seemed he might be straitjacketed into conventional lyric-baritone roles. But such an existence would be too confining for an artist with Keenlyside's degree of musical and intellectual curiosity. Slowly but steadily, he expanded his repertoire in surprising ways. In 2006, when he recorded Tales of Opera, a CD of baritone arias, many commentators feared he might be going down a dangerous path by programming Tonio's "Si può," Rodrigo's "Per me giunto" and Renato's "Eri tu" alongside more lyric choices such as Hérodiade's "Vision fugitive" and Hamlet's drinking song. But Tales of Opera proved a model of healthy singing, dramatic commitment and emotional restraint, winning a Gramophone Award for Best Opera Recital. 

While maintaining a certain ambivalence about English song (he once joked that the "tweet-tweet of the birds" held little fascination for him), he has kept up an enviable career as a recitalist. A program he performed with Angelika Kirchschlager at the Salzburg Festival's Mozarteum in the summer of 2002 was notable for its combination of musical inventiveness and emotional nakedness; particularly memorable was Keenlyside's straight-toned "Bei einer Trauung," Hugo Wolf's account of a couple petrified by their impending marriage. But he has also emerged as a compelling interpreter of some of the most dramatically complex and taxing roles in the opera repertory. Although he is quite critical of the recording, Keenlyside's Don Giovanni, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in 1997, with Claudio Abbado leading the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, was masterful for its potent sense of the character's chilling narcissism. The fact that you couldn't sense the vulnerability behind the Don's swagger somehow made him all the more tragic; while Keenlyside was a scrupulous member of the ensemble and didn't hog any of the scenes, he never allowed us to lose sight of the Don's supreme social status. 

Keenlyside's Macbeth, in Phyllida Lloyd's striking production for London's Royal Opera, was another revelation. He entered covered with blood — on his face as well as his clothes — and maintained the true fierceness of a warrior throughout, even during his hallucinations in the banquet scene. Keenlyside's Macbeth seemed to be a figure out of a nightmare, a luckless traveler lost on a night highway, his face emerging out of the oppressive blackness created by lighting designer Paule Constable and set designer Anthony Ward. This Macbeth never descended into pathos; his kiss for Lady Macbeth (the superb Liudmyla Monastyrska) just before "La luce langue" was one of the most genuinely erotic moments in opera in years, and the rage he expressed in "Mal per me" — memorably slamming his fist into the ground on the line "Accursed crown!" — offered a Macbeth who will be defiant until his last breath. 

For all the guiding intelligence behind Keenlyside's stage performance, the last thing that comes through is a sense of calculation. His characters announce themselves with the appearance of complete spontaneity. When performing songs, he has often said he doesn't believe in too-strenuous analysis. He looks at the poem, figures out what he thinks about it, and does it. Maybe this clean simplicity of approach is the reason we don't find ourselves dwelling much on the quality of his voice. Keenlyside always seems so fully present that we don't need to compare him, vocally, with anyone else. His performances are wonderfully there, as if they couldn't possibly have turned out any other way. Through his own artistic honesty, he has earned the profound trust of his audience. spacer 


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