GRAHAM in recital proves, hands down, that:
a great singer, a versatile artist; and
b.) Octavian/Cherubino "can be a sexy lady!"
At her company
debut with the Los Angeles Opera last April, Susan Graham
did just that. As soon as she made her way to center stage
of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, all towering 6' feet of
her attired in a dark rose gown, the audience broke into welcoming
applause all but certain that they were in for a special evening
it turned out to be. Though perhaps aware of her reputation
as the quintessential Octavian (the mezzo-soprano pants role
in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier which has become
her calling card), most of the audience members probably had
never heard Susan Graham in a live performance. With Malcolm
Martineau's exquisite piano accompaniment, this recital showcased
the extraordinary range of both her voice and her repertoire.
Could there have been a better way to find out what makes
"America's favorite mezzo" tick?
off with Francis Poulenc's light-hearted Quattre
poémes d'Appolinaire (Four Poems by Appolinaire),
charming the audience with her delightful delivery of
this humorous and witty cabaret-style song cycle as she switched
with ease from her perfect legato in "L'anguille"
(The Eel) and "Carte-postale" (Postcard)
* to the near-staccato, rapid-fire patter of
"Avant le cinéma" (Before the cinema)
* and "1904."
the LA OPERA
song cycle and a half from the French repertoire - love songs
for the most part - completed the first half of the program.
With piano, flute (Heather Clark), and cello (Rowena Hamill)
accompaniment, Ms. Graham communicated the impassioned, exotic
eroticism of "Nahandove" and "Il est dous"
and the implied violence of the anti-colonialist "Aoua!"
in Maurice Ravel's Chansons madécasses
(Songs of Madagascar - poetry by Evariste Desire de Forges
Parny). With three relatively familiar songs - "Villanelle",
"La spectre de la rose" (The ghost of the rose),
and "L'ile inconnue" (The unknown isle) from Hector
Berlioz' beautiful Les nuits d'été
(Summer Nights - based on poetry by Théophile Gautier),
she concluded the French part of the program, evoking
the varied emotions of romantic love - in style and diction
as French-perfect as a Gallic songstress could possibly be.
It wouldn't have been surprising if she left many a listener
in the audience wondering: "Could Susan Graham have been
a French chanteuse in an earlier life?" But it can be
said with certainty that the French people appreciate her
significant contribution to French culture - she was recently
named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, France's
highest cultural award.
The second half of the program was in part a coming home to
one's roots. It highlighted the modern American art song,
a genre that has become a significant part of Ms. Graham's
concert repertoire and recording career.
A few years ago in an opera, "I became a nun," she
said, referring to her acclaimed performance as Sister Helen
Prejean in JAKE HEGGIE's
successful if somewhat controversial opera against
capital punishment, Dead
Man Walking, which San Francisco Opera premiered
in 2000. It was a straightforward introduction to Heggie's
recent composition (for voice, piano and flute), The
Deepest Desire: Four Meditations on Love. The
song cycle, based on four free-verse poems written by Sister
Helen Prejean ("The Call; More is Required; Love",
"I Catch on Fire", "The Deepest Desire",
and "Primary Colors") is a direct offshoot of the
composer's search for the core of Sister Helen's spirituality
(and indirectly his own). Needless to say, Ms. Graham, for
whose voice the music was written and for whom the words clearly
had meaning, gave gentle power and magnificence to Sister
Helen's deepest desire (aka God's will), and to Jake Heggie's
lean, melodic lines. It is a collaboration that one hopes
will bear more fruit.
... to the light-hearted (as in "1,2,3" - perhaps
the shortest song there ever was)
... and sentimental - as in "The Things Our Fathers Loved"
** and Memories (B - Rather Sad)
... and funny - as in Memories (A - Very Pleasant)
... and dreamy-nostalgic - as in "From the Swimmers"
and "The Housatonic at Stockbridge"
... to five distinctly American/Yankee songs by Charles Ives
- from the songbook that in 2005 won her the Grammy for Best
Classical Vocal Performance. Clearly at home with these songs,
Ms. Graham sang them all with ardor and, when the song called
for it, a genuine sense of fun ("Memories - A. Very pleasant").
** (P.S. As you can hear, she's not only a great
singer; she's a good whistler too!)
from Gustav Mahler's wonderfully melodic cycle of songs based
on folk poetry about nature, life and love, Des
Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn),
were a fitting finale in place of the three opera arias listed
on the printed program. The audience was in awe as Ms Graham
sang four songs that stirred a variety of emotions - from
the bright and lively Rheindlegenchen (Rhine Legend)
and Wer hat dies Ledlein erdacht (Who thought up
this little song?) to the sad and melancholy Wo die schönen
Trompeten blasen (Where the beautiful trumpets blow)
and the profoundly tragic Das irdische Leben (The
Earthly Life). Her beautifully nuanced singing earned her
warm thunderous applause, no doubt an appreciation of the
certainty that the foremost specialist of the French art song
will soon be known as a leading interpreter of German Lieder
as well. It was an exceptional evening of pure song.
For encores, Ms. Graham sang the moving love song "A
Chloris" (drawn from La
Belle Époque her album of French
songs that may very well have immortalized the composer Reynaldo
Hahn), and then to the audience's delight and her first concession
to opera for the evening, spun out her first "Habañera"
from Bizet's Carmen ever (She said so herself from the stage:"This
is the first time I'm singing this." A portent of roles
to come? One wishes!) With the riotously funny "Sexy
Lady," a spoof on her signature trouser roles composed
just for her by Ben Moore, she sent the audience home laughing
hard but convinced that Octavian (or Cherubino or Giulio Cesare
or...) is in truth a "Sexy Lady" - and boy! can
she sing it all!
- ©CG/FanFaire 2005
Following the performance, Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau
signed autographs and exchanged pleasantries with fans at
the lobby of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
- indicates audio clip
* clip from her CD Susan
Graham at Carnegie Hall (CLICK to BUY the CD)
** clip from her CD Ives:
Concord Sonata; Songs (CLICK to BUY the CD)