Irish folk songs, princess gowns, a harp and 20 bouquets: The soprano Aprile Millo’s concert on Wednesday at Zankel Hall, her first solo program in New York in 10 years, had it all, and then some.
Ms. Millo, 60, who has rarely sung in public recently, says she still has her heart set on a return to the Metropolitan Opera, where she was among the reigning Verdi singers of the 1980s and ’90s. So this was something of a trial run, and for the raucously adoring audience it was an exposure to an artist — beloved as a keeper of the old-fashioned flame of Italian opera — that most people at Zankel hadn’t heard live in years.
[Can the diva who once ruled the Met make a comeback?]
Joshua Barone and Zachary Woolfe, two of our classical music critics, were at the event, presented by New York City Opera, and they compared notes on the unique experience.
WOOLFE So this wasn’t your average song program.
BARONE I couldn’t tell whether I was at a rock concert or a recital, with the cheers of “Millo, Millo!” and “We love you, Aprile!” It began with a rose thrown to the stage, and I counted no fewer than five standing ovations from her (very vocal) fans throughout the night. What throwback glamour!
WOOLFE Throwback glamour, too, in her gowns, which for the first half rendered her an emerald-color, Isolde-type medieval Irish queen and, after intermission, made her a sapphire vision out of “Frozen,” complete with glittery cape. She coughed; she drank from a water bottle; she cracked jokes; she announced that she was cutting the scheduled first-act aria from “Adriana Lecouvreur” because “Anna Netrebko sang it so beautifully I’m going to leave it to her.” And the crowd ate it up.
BARONE Her charisma certainly goes far, even if the banter pushed the evening to just over two and a half hours. And it made her all the more endearing that she wore reading glasses to read music from a stand, because, as she said, “Mother’s memory isn’t what it used to be.” But did you notice a disconnect between her ease speaking to the crowd and the palpable tension in the opening numbers, six Italian songs she assembled for a rough narrative about the arc of a relationship?
WOOLFE I don’t like speculating about what artists are feeling, but I can imagine that, after so many years away, she was a little nervous, to say the least. So no, I didn’t think that opening set really bloomed vocally. Throughout the evening, actually, her breath wasn’t ample enough to fill out long phrases; her tone in the middle was a little grainy, the low register cloudy. But there was some big, velvety sound in what I’d call the upper-middle range, and wistful eloquence when she went soft. The traditional Irish songs were lovely; I think everyone got the poignancy of “The Kerry Dance,” “gone, like our youth, too soon.”
BARONE Those four Irish tunes, delicately accompanied by the pianist Inseon Lee and the harpist Merynda Adams, were the highlight of the night, or at least when her allure as a recitalist was at its peak. Like a cabaret singer, she blended Irish-American family history and song — “The Kerry Dance” was even more moving because Ms. Millo said her mother used to sing it to her at night. In “Danny Boy,” her voice was raspy and not completely at ease in the lower range of the opening verse. But it blossomed, gloriously, into a moment out of Ms. Millo’s salad days, rising from a fine quiet into a lushly phrased climax: “I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow.”
WOOLFE I also thought there was steady passion in a set of Rachmaninoff songs, which she dedicated to the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who died in 2017. She offered another tribute, to old-school italianità, with a spirit-seeing monologue from Licinio Refice’s “Cecilia,” a vehicle for the great soprano Claudia Muzio.
BARONE These tributes throughout the night were reminders of Ms. Millo’s former colleagues and another time, when she was the diva du jour at the Met Opera and accumulating the passionate fan base we saw screaming in support of her on Wednesday. The big question, of course, is whether — after being away from the Met for more than a decade — she’ll sing there again.
WOOLFE I don’t know if that’s in the cards; the soprano-baritone duet from Act III of “Aida,” while expressive at Zankel, didn’t make me confident that there was an evening-length leading role in her voice, at least not right now. But who cares? She could bring a lot of joy to people doing concerts like this. There is clearly an audience hungry for her charm, her phrasing, her sincerity, the community she’s gathered around her. (Her encore was a singalong “O Sole Mio.”) Those things can sometimes feel missing from the New York opera scene these days, and Wednesday conjured the art form as it’s meant to be: scrappy but also transcendent, both informal and grand. And brava for that.