Canadian soprano Sharon Azrieli is a natural to cross over from opera and classical music to pop. She has, always, a naturalistic freshness in her voice, which makes it easy – or sound easy – for her to shunt aside opera’s tendency to call forth the mannered and the over-the-top, and sing with balance and grace. Following up 2019’s Sharon Azrieli Sings Broadway, her new album Frankly Sharon is devoted to songs by Broadway/pop composer Frank Wildhorn. It features lush arrangements by Jason Howland, Wildhorn himself on piano, and Azrieli’s own translations of most of the lyrics into French, Italian, and Hebrew. The result is a pleasing if tame concoction of pop-Broadway sweetness and benign passions.
The album opens with two of its best tracks. A French-language version of “Storybook” from one of Wildhorn’s best-known shows, The Scarlet Pimpernel, feels like a carousel ride in Edith Piaf’s Paris as Azrieli stretches the rhythms with louche charm. A skillful arrangement of “Finding Wonderland” (from the forgettable musical of that name) finds the soprano at her most limpid, though the lyrics aren’t any less syrupy in French than they were in English. Throughout the album her phrasing is that of a top-drawer cabaret-jazz singer.
The material has its limits. Yes, Julie Andrews sang “Living in the Shadows” (from Victor/Victoria) originally, but it still sounds to me like cheap Disney-esque fare. French lyrics and a torchy arrangement don’t improve much on Linda Eder’s faux-soulful original version of “I’ll Forget You,” and “Anything Can Happen” (from Alice) closes the album leaving a regrettable worm in the ear. The schmaltz gets too much at times, too. An over-assertive arrangement drowns out delicate singing in “Come lo fai rimanere (How Do You Make It Stay).” Operatic Italian accents can’t lift “Sogni e svegli (Dream and Awaken)” from the treacly depths.
On the flip side, Azrieli’s softly impassioned phrasing is exquisite in a French version of a song called “If There Is Love,” nicely framed by extravagant orchestration that clicks just right. Another highlight is the smoky-dark “Achshav (Now)” sung in fluid Hebrew, flavored with evocative woodwinds, and culminating in a wistful high note. “Tu devrais bien m’aimer (You Must Have Loved Me)” becomes an appealingly energetic tango as Azrieli channels a bit of Uta Lemper.
The arrangements are full of nice touches. Spanish-style guitar sets up “On danse tous seul (We All Dance Alone),” a song with echoes of Balkan and Jewish music. (It’s from a musical called Carmen that doesn’t appear to have ever played in an English-speaking country.) And there’s rich instrumental counterpoint in “Ne me fais pas t’aimer (Please Don’t Make Me Love You)” from Dracula.
Everyone has their own level of tolerance for the Frank Wildhorn music machine. Sharon Azrieli engages full-tilt with it, and it’s hard to imagine Wildhorn fans won’t be pleased – especially if they’re ready for a change from the glittery emptiness that characterizes some performances of this material. At its best, this disk proves that substance and musicianship will out.