Choosing repertoire for a voice recital is like hosting a dinner party and planning a multi-course meal for a hundred of your closest friends. Or, in this case, a nearly sold-out house at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall, where world-renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and pianist Malcolm Martineau performed a recital of Purcell, Poulenc and Porter on Sunday.
In the American song recital tradition, a singer will typically begin with music from the 17th or 18th century and proceed chronologically, in order to warm up her audience’s ears. Graham whet our appetites with an aperitif of Purcell, singing his scena “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation,” which reveals Mary’s thoughts when Jesus has gone missing during the holy family’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Graham’s declamatory and full-voiced depiction of Mary’s remembrances — a wondrous birth and the ensuing flight to Egypt — was rousing in conjunction with the easy fioratura that followed.
Graham’s style in recital is refined and pure, which made the opening scena very fitting. Dressed in a stunning white gown, our hostess was unpretentious and gracious, essentially allowing herself to be a vessel from which flowed German lieder and French mélodies. And while many opera singers will indulge their audiences with operatic fare, Graham and Martineau instead offered an extended song by Berlioz, “La Mort d’Ophélie,” and a thoughtful song group based on Goethe’s tale “Wilhelm Meister.” We heard six songs by various composers — Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Duparc and Wolf — that portrayed the laments of the Gypsy girl called Mignon.
The singer incorporated tasteful ornamentation within the young Schubert’s “Heiss mich nicht reden” and infused heartfelt conviction into Schumann’s “So lasst mich scheinen, bis ich werde,” a song often criticized for its halting melody and interruptive piano interludes. Perhaps Goethe interceded to show his disapproval of Schumann’s text setting, for the hall went completely dark after the last note of the song. (Later the power outage was blamed on the Sturm und Drang outside.)
The song recital is an art, and Graham proved that she has mastered it, defying cultural tell-all trends and denying the audience witty interjections between song groups. She merely sang, with a vibrant and sumptuous timbre that seems to come naturally. Even within the stunning “Lady Macbeth” by contemporary composer Joseph Horowitz, she sang through clenched teeth and spat out the wordy text, “Infirm of purpose … give me the daggers!” She held nothing back vocally or dramatically.
Yet, as musical styles progress, audiences hope for a more personal connection with artists, and Graham remained modest. Her performance was a paradox in that way … until dessert.
Fancy French desserts are indulgent and rich, as was her rendition of Poulenc’s “Fiançailles pour rire.” Here we were at last (a nod to Etta James) granted access to Graham herself, and it was evident that every sigh, every portamento that she offered was for our delight. “Il vole” was positively operatic.
In 1997, I saw Graham sing in Tim Abery’s Munich production of “Ariadne auf Naxos”; she sang the aria precariously hanging off of a ladder, holding on with one hand. To my mind, her Poulenc at Spivey Hall was the emotional equivalent of that risky staging, Martineau’s supple piano sustaining every vocal maneuver. “Violon” stood out in particular. Graham’s throaty mezzo truly evoked a smoky Paris café and enabled her to play the part of an elegant lady who is taken by the Gypsy violinist nearby.
The singer’s comedic side showed itself during the encore pieces at the end. Each was delightful in its own way, but her singing of Stephen Sondheim’s bossa nova — “The boy from…” — really took the cake.