Karim Sulayman: Songs of Orpheus
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Karim Sulayman: "Songs of Orpheus"

CD Button Apollo’s Fire, Sorrell. Texts and translations. AVIE CD A 2383

Recordings Sulayman cover 718


Critics Choice Button 1015 

RENAISSANCE OPERA can be intimidating, and some performers seem inclined to build barriers rather than bridges. But this new disc is an ideal way for a newcomer to try out the music of that era. Lebanese–American tenor Karim Sulayman and the Apollo’s Fire ensemble (under conductor Jeannette Sorrell) are ideal hosts: they get past the surface, so to speak, to the inner fire of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. The immediacy and heat they provide to scenes from that masterpiece outweigh any worries you might have about stylistic niceties. The details are not neglected, but they are made subsidiary to the emotion.


The packaging gets carried away with missionary zeal, applying titles to the three program segments that emphasize romantic themes in pop terms (“I Love You…,” etc.). But the repertoire offers a balance in which instantly appealing stand-alone solos (such as Monteverdi’s “Sì dolce è ’l tormento” or Stefano Landi’s “Canta la cicaletta”) help leaven the severity of the stage scenes. No single excerpt lasts for more than “song” length—less than four minutes, on average—and purely instrumental selections add atmosphere and variety.

Sulayman’s attractive tenor tone serves his dramatic instincts well, closely embracing the flow of Italian texts and musical line. He stands out from early-opera specialists by deemphasizing vocal ornamentation and delivering his selective ornate phrases in full voice. His version of Caccini’s “Dolcissimo sospiro” retains about half as many notes as the almost fiendishly embellished treatments from Cecilia Bartoli. (That song, like another here by Sigismondo D’India, is associated with female singers, and it isn’t ideal for Sulayman.)

But his discreet use of ornaments is very effective. He rarely employs extreme period touches, such as the stutter in place of a trill. His occasional inserted runs or tone clusters make emotional connections without any loss of momentum or focus. And he has other means of emphasis at his disposal, such as subtle rubato (in Orfeo’s up-tempo “Vi ricorda o bosch’ ombrosi”) and his discreet introduction of head tone to lighten the Caccini airs.

His Orfeo selections benefit from his experience with complete presentations of the work (also with Apollo’s Fire and Sorrell). His characterization emphasizes desperation with demonstrably forceful commitment. In opera and song, especially the aforementioned “female” selections by various seventeenth-century composers, some listeners will miss certain miniature effects. This tenor also lacks a truly distinctive mezza voce, a trademark among famous period specialists. At times, too, Sulayman’s tone seems a little frayed by the range of some of the music, such as the songs of Stefano Landi. Altogether, though, his operatic approach, abetted by apt pacing and orchestral color under Sorrell, gets to the heart of the matter—the grief-torn heart of Orpheus.  —David J. Baker 

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