|Sarah Nelson Craft (photo by Chia Messina)
It is easy to understand how this engaging performer won the Audience Choice Award at the Metrtopolitan Opera National Council Auditions. It would be impossible to have heard her hour long Spotlight Recital last night without being swept along in a tidal wave of affection for the art of the song. It is rare to hear a recital without a single moment of boredom--usually a sign of loss of connection with the artists. The recital was part of The Song Continues, a weeklong celebration of the art of the song, initiated by the beloved Marilyn Horne, who was happily in attendance to introduce the program.
The Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall is perfectly suited to the vocal recital by dint of its intimate size and fine acoustics. Adding to the success of the recital was a perfectly chosen program and the choice of the estimable Warren Jones as collaborative pianist. There is usually one set of songs in a program that leaves us cold-- but not last night! We were serenaded in Venetian dialect, German, French and Spanish, but, thankfully, no English. We heard songs that were mostly familiar but presented in a manner that made them seem new.
Ms. Craft really knows how to get a song across and employs facial expression and gesture as well as vocal coloring. It is never excessive but always tasteful. She is a born storyteller and one can readily visualize the scenes about which she is singing. She truly inhabits the song and makes it hers, as if she were making it up on the spot.
The program began with the oft-heard La regata veneziana from Rossini's Péchés de vieillesse. These three songs give the singer ample dramatic opportunities as the lovely Anzoleta shows her stuff as the world's most supportive girlfriend. She has complete faith in her Momolo, the gondolier competing for the prize. The prize comes in the third song when she showers her Momolo with kisses.
There was an extraordinary moment in the second song while the regata is taking place and she is overcome with excitement. Momolo glances up and seeing her, puts forth the extra effort to move into first place. Anzoleta knows the effect she has had on him and Ms. Craft revealed this special moment by means of vocal color and gesture. The excitement of the singing was paralleled by Mr. Jones sprightly piano accompaniment.
In the three Schubert songs which followed, Mr. Jones' subtle modulations were finely tuned to Ms. Craft's fine phrasing. The melody of "An die Sonne" struck us as as being Mozartean in character. In "Gretchen am Spinnrade", the relentless piano took the place of the spinning wheel and seemed to symbolize the "hamster wheel" on which poor Gretchen was stuck. We noticed that Ms. Craft's German was beautifully calibrated--no American carelessness was in evidence, nor was there any exaggerated enunciation to give a "schoolbook" flavor to it.
A set of Mahler songs followed with the whimsical "Rheinlegendchen" being our personal favorite. The lighthearted nature of the texts, extracted from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, are supported by Mahler's novel harmonies, which have a special resonance for us.
Switching to some fine French, the artistic pair performed Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis. These songs were written by French poet Pierre Louÿs who claimed they were unearthed in the tomb of Bilitis, an ancient Greek courtesan, by a German archeologist. Pranking aside, the songs are lovely and so evocative of times long gone that we would wish to believe the fiction.
Again, the use of vocal color and dramatic expressiveness brought the songs to vivid life. The young woman in "La flûte de Pan" expresses joy over learning to play the pipes with her lover and anxiety over what she will tell her mother when she arrives home late. We felt as if we were living this scene along with her. Mr. Jones' playing was poetic in its delicacy, replete with the subtlety of the long French lines, evincing a gauzy Impressionistic flavor.
In the Ginastera set which followed, the piano and voice built to a frantic conclusion in "Gato", with some more delicacy in the lullabye "Arrorró". Ms. Craft's Spanish was as fine as her French, German, and Venetian.
As encore, the pair performed the spirited "Stornello" by Verdi, a song which gave Ms. Craft yet another opportunity to portray a character, a woman the exact opposite of poor Gretchen. The singer in this song is carefree and independent, not at all bound by exhausting passions.
Mr. Jones is, of course, well known to us. His gifts are prodigious but his modesty is legendary. He plays without a score and hangs on every breath the singer takes. He raises the lid of the piano to its highest point yet never overwhelms the voice.
Ms. Craft's sound is a lovely one with a pleasing vibrato. Although there is no lack of richness or strength in her middle and lower registers, the brightness in the upper register projects a soprano-y flavor. It would not surprise us if she goes on to tackle the soprano oeuvre.
(c) meche kroop