Recently, a mhni-debate fired up over at the esteemable Lisa Hirsch’s Iron Tongue of Midnight about the widely varying published opinions on Susan Graham’s recent recital appearance in Berkeley. Lisa, Joshua Kosman, John Marcher and others all had weighed in on relative strengths and weaknesses of the show, part of her current U.S. tour, which will soon reach Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. But lucky for the debaters (and you dear reader), Ms. Graham and her accompanist Malcolm Martineau graced the brand new (and as of yet neither donor nor major corporation monikered) Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of CSUN, on Wednesday, allowing me to clarify things for them by providing the correct opinions about the evening. So let the healing begin…
To start with, Graham arrived in full-on mid-Century Hollywood glamour mode in a floor length plain white gown with plunging neckline and sparkly jewelry to match. I don’t know if Fred Leighton loans out to opera recitals, but they really ought to seize the kind of moment Ms. Graham could deliver. Overall, she was in splendid voice for the evening. She was certainly stronger and more assured than I recall in her last few fully-staged appearances (the Met’s last run of Iphigénie en Tauride and SFO’s revival of Xerxes). To be fair, in Northridge she wasn’t bothered with some overbearing and dull stage-direction to work around and she bloomed when left to her own devices dramatically. Someone should really be mounting more new productions for her.
The program started by playing to her strong suits with Purcell’s “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation” and Berlioz’ La Mort d’Ophélie. Her voice still holds up amazingly well in Baroque material and she delivered moments of Biblical warmth and clarity in both pieces. Her French is always flawless and she is a natural for Berlioz as well. These were followed by a collection of six different songs from as may different composers setting poetic scenes from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. Most interesting were three different settings of “Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen blüh'n” the first from Liszt that occurred half was through the set, a more comic twist from Duparc, and finally a strikingly more brutal and organic version from Hugo Wolf that demonstrated exactly what a difference a Wagner makes. Graham’s forceful cries of “Dahin!” in the final stanza were absolutely chilling.
Upon returning from the break, Graham switched gears by singing about “bad girls” in contrast to the romantic heroines of the first half as she announced from the stage. Now in black sequins and red lights, she sunk her teeth into some very different material. Sadly, some of this material let her down. First was Joseph Horovitz’s 1970 setting of Lady Macbeth’s dialog in a dramatic scene, Lady Macbeth. This came off as more recitative than actual music and was hugely disappointing in its lack of musical color. Also how these disembodied passages build on one another wasn’t clear. Graham made the most of it with her expressive acting, but there was so little musical meat on the bone everyone was soon starving. Poulenc’s witty Fiançailles pour rire came afterward and was delivered with a knowing smile and more lovely vocalism. Graham concluded the evening with a series of “bad girl” songs from Cole Porter and Sondheim including Ben Moore’s now familiar composition for her “Sexy Lady,” which lampoons her own image and place as a mezzo-soprano in the opera world. These songs do show off Graham’s incredible winning personality – one of the reasons that fans like me love her. But to be honest, even by conventional recital standards these days, it felt like rather a soft landing given how good the material in the first half of the evening sounded. There’s letting your hair down, and then there’s putting it up in curlers if you get my drift. Still I’d be thrilled to see her name on a season announcement for L.A. Opera or really anything out here in California, and this recital reminded me why that is.