Susan Graham is the mezzo representative of the generation of American singers, including Barbara Bonney, Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw and Sylvia McNair, who rose to prominence in the mid to late 1980s and distinguished themselves internationally with their superlative techniques, gorgeous lyric instruments, and impeccable professionalism. In this recital, Graham not only reminded us why she belonged to this set of artists, but also delivered a very interesting programme of material of particular personal resonance, occasionally sharing something very special indeed.
Purcell's The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation was staight-laced and stylistically impeccable, but lovely though it was, Graham's timbre didn't seem right for the piece, nor did she seem to get into character fully. Ironically it was this scena that made me think of Graham singing Wagner, with her huge cries of "Gabriel!" – surely she would make a superb Walküre Fricka at this stage? Her voice is astonishingly well preserved – still youthful and fresh-sounding, with a fast but free vibrato, and total control throughout the range – it remains a superb instrument. Her piano singing is wonderful too, using it here to magical effect on a seemingly endless melismatic cry of "oh" near the end of the song. Her warm, womanly middle register becomes covered and slightly unblended above the passagio, but it's an extremely glamorous sound which just oozes quality and style. Next came Berlioz's La mort d'Ophélie which was again beautiful, but despite her perfect command of French language and style, it seemed a little restrained and bland.
Her ease with languages was further demonstrated in the next set of songs, by five different composers, all on the character of Mignon as imagined by Goethe. Malcolm Martineau's sensitive accompanying came to light for the first time in the gorgeous opening of Schubert's Heiß mich nicht reden and also in Schumann's So laßt mich scheinen, both artists amply demonstrating their range and that they are both superb stylists. Again I have to say that though there was nothing to fault in Graham's singing, the German excellent, the phrases shapely and tasteful, I felt that she wasn't communicating enough of what was "behind the notes". This is nitpicking perhaps, but with an artist of this level it is important to notice the difference between very good and great singing. Next came Liszt's Mignon Lied, which marked a subtle but definite departure in the recital: immediately we felt that Graham was more at home in this slightly later Romantic repertoire. She delivered some meltingly lovely phrases here, her voice a silvered ribbon of sound, soaring through Liszt's proto-Straussian arcs of melody. Indeed the later the date of the piece, the better she seemed: Henri Duparc's Romance de Mignon (1869) was delicate, poised and completely delightful, and then best of all Hugo Wolf's glowingly lovely Kennst du das Land (1888), which also drew raptly flowing playing from Martineau.
After a rather serious first half, Graham cut loose for the second half (sauntering onto the stage, having changed into a sparkly dress), and this relaxation allowed her to deliver the best singing of the evening. Poulenc's Fiancailles pour rire ("Light-hearted betrothal") combine insouciance, open-eyed candour, arch campness and genuine pathos, and as always with Poulenc it is this peculiar admixture that gives the music its piquancy and poignancy. The music is extremely challenging to sing, but Graham easily rose to the occasion and delivered something extremely special here, the style occasionally knowing and exaggerated (appropriately so in the first song, "La dame d'André"), almost giving the appearance that it was "tossed off" – but her risk-taking here, and in the quieter numbers also, made her singing more immediate and intimate than it had been before the interval. I felt Graham finally revealing and communicating her true character and personality in singing of exceptional beauty in its hushed vulnerability, affecting colouring of the line, tenderness, and charming detail. I sorely regretted that she has given up the role of Octavian, as she demonstrated so beautifully here all the vocal and temperamental traits that made her the most remarkable Octavian of her generation.
Immediately before this we had heard Joseph Horowitz's Lady Macbeth – A Scene, which sets excerpted portions of Shakespeare's play in a dramatic monologue, mixing parlando, recitative and arietta vocal writing over a darkly brooding piano accompaniment. It cleverly doesn't get in the way of the text, keeping the rhythms of the speech in tact, and though it's pleasing enough, doesn't quite convince us of its pretensions to depth, or avoid the whiff of camp. After these piece, the floodgates were opened and the rest of the recital was an ocean of camp, with Graham striking poses, singing showtunes, dispatching witty repartee, puns, winks, double entendres, as well as thanking the audience for being there. Could anything have been more camp than the self-referential final selection? A specially comissioned song by Ben Moore called Sexy Lady, which charted the trials and tribulations of the working operatic mezzo (Cherubino, Octavian, always kissing girls, being a nun, strapping down her... etc. etc.) replete with cocktail piano, musical quotations, diva acting, and thankfully raising some genuine laughs, rather than the usual titters that are the stuff of the American songbook. Graham is an extremely likeable personality, and so happily avoided cringeworthyness or overindulgence – she had the audience in the palm of her hand, and seemed so happy to be sharing her art with us. An extremely enjoyable evening of truly world-class singing.
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