|Susan Graham (photo by Benjamin Ealovega)
What strikes one the most about mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is an unaffected quality that brings the audience closer than one would usually feel toward a major star of the opera world. One feels as if one could sit down over coffee and have a delightful personal chat.
Having revelled in Ms. Graham's public performances countless times (we will never forget her hilarious performance as the eponymous heroine of Offenbach's La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein at the Santa Fe Opera or her Octavian in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier) we were thrilled to our toes by the opportunity to hear her up close and personal for a most original program.
The circumstance was a benefit for Classical Action: Performing Arts Against Aids (an arm of Broadway Cares: Equity Fights Aids); Chris Kenney of that organization introduced Ms. Graham and told a bit about all the good things these organizations accomplish. This particular series was underwritten by the Michael Palm Foundation established in honor of Mr. Palm who supported the cause with private house concerts.
As to the program for the evening, what made it original was a concept devised by Ms. Graham and her irrepressible collaborative pianist Malcolm Martineau. They wanted to present Robert Schumann's 1940 Frauenliebe und Leben (one of our favorite song cycles) but with variations, the variations being the interpolation of a variety of songs from the repertory which fit in with the various stages of a woman's life as represented in Schumann's cycle.
In her most engaging manner, Ms. Graham explained the work thoroughly for those in the audience who may not have been familiar with the cycle. She introduced a fact that was unknown to us--that the subject of Adelbert von Chamisso's 1830 poetry was, in fact, a governess who married "above her station". This seems to shed new light on her position of disbelief that the exalted man would fall for her. As the Italians might put it..."Si non è vero è ben trovato".
We generally don't care for "concept" but in this case it worked well, thanks to Ms. Graham's heartfelt delivery and Mr. Martineau's seamless pianism. The cycle begins with the wild excitement of a young girl over a presumably older man in "Seit ich ihn gesehen" which was well complimented by Edvard Grieg's charming "Møte", the excitement of which was felt in both piano and voice, without loss of phrasing or tonal quality.
"Er, der herrlichste von Allen", a paean to the beloved, was paired with John Dankworth's somewhat jazzy setting of the Shakespeare sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?". The young woman's incredulity was expressed in "Ich kann's nicht fassen, nicht glauben" matched with Grieg's "Jeg elske dig". Although we are unfamiliar with Swedish, Ms. Graham's delivery sounded convincingly Nordic.
And now came the fun part! In "Du Ring an meinem Finger" Ms. Graham let loose with her dynamic dramatic skills and told the tale just as we wished to hear it--and even more so in Mahler's charming "Rheinlegendchen" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. We were grinning from ear to ear as she mowed the wheat, cast the ring into the water, laid out the fish on the king's table, found the ring and put it on her finger. This was the ultimate delivery of one of our favorite songs that will always be remembered just as she performed it.
The wedding day song "Helft mir, ihr Schwestern" was followed by Ravel's "Tout Gai" from his Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques. As far as the honeymoon period, von Chamisso sort of left that out but Ms. Graham and Mr. Martineau filled in the sexual gap, so to speak, with two intensely erotic songs: Henri Duparc's "Phidylé" was given a shimmeringly subtle interpretation which was quite different from the other three times we heard it this week alone. And Debussy's "La Chevelure" from Songs of Bilitis was performed better than we have ever heard it.
Now we return to the remainder of the Schumann cycle with "Süsser Freund, du blickest mich" in which the husband is made to realize (by voice and piano) that he is on his way to fatherhood. Tchaikovsky's lovely "Lullabye", which was new to us, paired well with "An meinem Herzen an meiner Brust" in which the woman is ecstatic over her new baby. (We wonder how Heidi Stober missed that one in last week's recital. See preceding review).
The cycle ends sadly when the man dies. There are no songs about married life! She has a baby and he dies--hopefully not in childbirth. Wisely, that very sad song was withheld until the end with two other songs interposed. Hector Berlioz' "L'absence" from Les Nuits d'Été was a wise choice as it suggests perhaps a period of illness, and likewise Enrique Granados' "O muerte cruel" from Tonadillas en Estilo Antiguo which sort of prepares us for the shocking chord of the widow's anger in "Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan". Just hearing the color Ms. Graham gave to the word "lehr" was enough to make one weep. It is a complex song filled with emotions of bitterness and grief but ending with a postlude in the piano which reflects the melody heard at the beginning of the cycle, bringing the evening to a satisfying conclusion.
Lest the audience leave the recital in a state of deep depression, our artists gave us two delightful encores. Not to disappoint those of us who know of her fame in French, Ms. Graham sang Reynaldo Hahn's "À Chloris" with overwhelming beauty of tone and phrasing. Finishing off the evening with joy, we heard Artie Butler's "Here's to Life". Indeed!
These two gifted and generous artists gave of themselves without reservation and that is exactly the spirit in which the audience received the gift.
(c) meche kroop