We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Sunday, April 27, 2014


Brian Zeger, Evan Hughes, Susan Graham, Layla Claire
To augment their exhibit "The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux", The Metropolitan Museum of Art presented an all-French recital of vocal music by the 19th c. sculptor's friends and contemporaries--Georges Bizet, Camille Saint-Saëns, Ernest Chausson, Alfred Bachelet, Charles Gounod, Hector Berlioz, Ambroise Thomas, Gabriel Fauré and Léo Delibes. 

Judging by the large crowd who applauded wildly after each and every song, we gather that the audience comprised more lovers of art than lovers of chanson.  Perhaps they were drawn by the fame of the incomparable mezzo Susan Graham; we have a feeling that after hearing this fulfilling recital they will be just as likely to be drawn to recitals by the two phenomenally gifted younger singers--soprano Layla Clair and bass-baritone Evan Hughes.  The beloved Brian Zeger, who wears many hats, here wore his "collaborative pianist" hat, accompanying all three artists with grace and style.

At what point do we abandon the term "rising star" or "young artist" and acknowledge their arrival to full stardom.  It seems to us that these two artists have arrived.  They both captivated the audience with their vocal gifts, dramatic artistry and the ability to communicate to the audience the essence of each song.

Ms. Claire, who just had a phenomenal success in Toronto as Fiordiligi in Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, opened the program with a set of songs by Bizet.  The seasonal "Chanson dAvril" was the perfect choice.  Ms. Claire has a gorgeous instrument and employs it astutely with great attention to variety of dynamics and phrasing.  Our favorite was the Iberian-perfumed "Guitare" which allowed her to show off some gorgeous melismatic singing.  Mr. Zeger's piano made the most of the rocking currents in "Douce mer".  

Mr. Hughes possesses a warm and generous voice that can be stimulating or soothing and a lively onstage personality that seems to want to tell a story and to tell it well.  In the set of songs by Monsieur Saint-Saëns, the rhythmically energetic "Le pas d'armes du Roi Jean" provided an opportunity for the interpolation of a verse of sad quietude.  "Tristesse" showed a depth of melancholic feeling.  But our favorite was the humorous "Suzette et Sazon" in which our singer is torn between two women.  We enjoyed the rapid piano figures in "Tournoiement".

Ms. Graham next graced the stage with three delights; there is nothing to add to the wealth of praise she has received for her charming way of addressing the audience or her fine voice or interpretive skills.  But it needs to be said that singing "on the book" impairs the connection with the audience.  Every time the singer glances at the score or turns a page there is an interruption of contact.  We are more inclined to forgive this practice when a singer is a last-minute substitution and has not had time to learn the material.

That being said, we did enjoy the rapid-fire "Dance macabre" by Mr. Saint-Saëns which has been heard elsewhere as a violin solo.  Mr. Zeger made the most of the fluttering butterfly wings in Chausson's "Les papillons".

Mr. Hughes returned with some early songs by Fauré and we delighted in two songs in which one could feel the movement of water; "Barcarolle" impressed as a lovely partnership between singer and pianist and "Les berceaux" was filled with significance as the sailors of ships rocking in the harbor are pulled back from their adventures by the rocking of their childrens' cradles.

In a set of Gounod songs, Ms. Claire was at her best issuing a charming invitation to run barefoot through the dewy grass in "Viens! Les gazons sont verts".  The familiar "Sérénade" was given a tender but flirtatious reading with lots of trilling and melismatic singing to delight the ear.

Ms. Graham closed the program with the gorgeously melodic "Connais-tu le pays?" from Thomas' Mignon and Marguerite's lament from Le damnation de Faust--"D'amour, l'ardente flamme".  We were hoping that what she called "the operatic portion of the program" would be "off the book"; sadly, it was not.

The welcome encore was "The flower song" from Léo Delibes' Lakme.  We are not among those who listen to commercials so we never tire of this tuneful duet, here sung by Ms. Claire and Ms. Graham.  It was brilliant.

The recital has ended, the melody lingers on and the sculpture exhibit can be seen until May 26th.  It was organized by a partnership with the Musée d'Orsay.  Any excursion into the 19th c. is a welcome one for our eyes and ears.

ⓒ meche kroop

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