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Wallis Giunta lets Rufus Wainwright's classical music shine

For the last few years, the Canadian singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright has been trying to establish his bona fides as a classical composer. In this, he faces quite a challenge, as popular musicians are rarely welcomed into the classical fold with open arms. On the contrary, there might as well be armed guards patrolling the border.

So far, his quest for classical acceptance has been less than entirely successful. His opera, Prima Donna, has been performed in Toronto, Manchester, Melbourne and, most recently, New York to reviews ranging from lukewarm to overtly hostile.

However, he's evidently won over mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta – an Ottawa native in her mid-20s who's currently completing her operatic training at New York's Metropolitan Opera. She took such a liking to his 12-song cycle, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, that on Thursday night at the Jane Mallett Theatre she gave over the first half of her recital to the work.

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It all began on a flight from Toronto to New York, when Giunta asked Wainwright for permission to sing the songs, to which he readily agreed. Her performance on Thursday, for Music Toronto, was a premiere of sorts: It was the first time anyone other than Wainwright himself has performed the whole cycle in public.

The combination of Giunta's impressive talent and her admiration for this music virtually guaranteed a fine performance. And it was about as fine as it could have been, as the mezzo tapped into the emotional content of the songs – composed in 2010 as Wainwright's mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle, was dying of cancer. Except for three songs, which are settings of Shakespeare sonnets, all lyrics are by Wainwright – and he wears his heart on his sleeve.

Yet at the same time, this performance highlighted ways in which these songs sometimes fall short of the mark as classical repertoire. One of Giunta's greatest assets is a wide vocal range, strong in all registers – yet a few of the songs, such as the opening Who Are You New York? exploited only a narrow portion of her range.

Furthermore, Wainwright's piano writing has its limitations. Too often he was content with monotonous chordal accompaniments – while at other times he filled pages with relentlessly busy filigrees.

Fortunately, there were also some admirable highlights. Whenever Wainwright saw fit to write something that a classically trained singer could really do something with, Giunta went to town with it. In the ninth song, The Dream, she was able to use her range to give it a lush and expansive performance.

The most "classical" of the songs was the penultimate Les feux d'artifice t'appellent – the only one with a French text. Here, Wainwright created a tender and introspective world, with long vocal lines that once again allowed Giunta to soar.

The second half of the recital was a selection of English-language works spanning four centuries and loosely built around the idea of women in song.

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In From Silent Shades and the Elysian Groves, written by Henry Purcell in the 17th century, Giunta was clearly at home with the overt theatricality of the text. As well, her baroque ornaments were a nice touch.

With her selections by Frank Bridge, John Musto, Noel Coward, Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber, Giunta offered an appealing cross-section of 20th-century song. All were sung with sure-footed aplomb – except when she and pianist Steven Philcox came unglued in Coward's Alice Is At It Again, and the song had to be restarted.

Finally, Jonathan Dove's Adelaide's Aria was a delightfully over-the-top romp through the mind of a bride-to-be, as she rages about her wedding preparations.

Wallis Giunta, mezzo-soprano

Steven Philcox, pianist

  • At Jane Mallett Theatre
  • In Toronto on Thursday
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