Highs and lows of 'A Song by Mahler'

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano (in silhouette) sings Gustav Mahler’s “If You Love for Beauty” at the beginning of A Song by Mahler

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Lensic Performing Arts Center, Aug. 19

The subject of A Song by Mahler, a new music-theater piece by composer Marc Neikrug, is the devastating impact that early-onset Alzheimer’s disease has on a star classical music vocalist and, by extension, her accompanist-husband, who becomes her caregiver.

Its emotional impact on viewers will probably be determined as much by the extent to which they’ve experienced something similar in their own lives as by the intrinsic qualities of the piece. I found it alternately affecting and frustrating, the latter due to some artistic choices that ran counter to the gut-punch realism that was its aim.

The Gustav Mahler song the title refers to is “Liebst du um Schönheit” (“If You Love for the Sake of Beauty”). It’s the only genuine love song he ever composed, in 1902, for his young bride, and its message is direct: If you love for beauty, youth, or riches, don’t fall in love with me. (Gustav was neither good-looking, nor young, nor wealthy.) If you love for the sake of love, then do.

A Song by Mahler’s concept is that the audience is watching real people at the current moment. The two-person cast uses the first names of the mezzo-soprano and baritone engaged for the production, so here they were Jennifer (Johnson Cano) and Kelly (Markgraf). “Liebst du um Schönheit” is Jennifer’s final encore in vocal recitals, the “goodnight piece,” as Kelly calls it, which tells the audience the performance is now over.

Over the course of 75 minutes, Jennifer goes from totally healthy through worsening symptoms to an onstage death, followed by a dénouement in which she and Kelly reunite to convey the ultimate message that love endures forever. The vocal duo is accompanied by an onstage ensemble of clarinet and string quartet that serves an increasingly important dramatic function as the piece progresses.

In addition to the love song itself, there are three types of vocal performance in A Song by Mahler — a bit of pure dialogue, much more dialogue that’s spoken in a notated rhythm, and actual singing, usually in an arioso fashion that advances the action but isn’t memorably characterized. The most effective musical sections were Cano’s initial, glorious performance of the Mahler song and the nine instrumental interludes between the work’s short scenes, which amplified the emotional content of what had just occurred with the two characters and pointed towards each subsequent scene.

It’s hard to imagine a better cast or higher-quality staging for the piece than it received here. Director-designer Doug Fitch and lighting designer Nicholas Houfek created a simple, elegant set augmented with projections that fluidly depicted multiple settings. The instrumental music was expertly played by clarinetist David Shifrin and the FLUX Quartet. Cano was one of the Metropolitan Opera audition winners in 2008 and has since given more than 100 performances there. Markgraf has a resume deep in contemporary opera and musical theater. His credits include Paul Jobs in the Santa Fe Opera’s 2017 world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.

The theatrically effective aspects of the piece included its equal focus on the caregiver, not just the disease victim, and an early scene in which “Liebst du um Schönheit” becomes the subject of a master class by Jennifer and Kelly, an ingenious way to convey a great deal of information about it very quickly. When the song text returns in the final scene, it’s sung in English, which is a smart choice.

On the debit side, there’s some text that doesn’t quite ring true, such as Kelly’s response when Jennifer asks him to smell some curtain-call flowers she’s just received: “I’m smelling of them, darling, and of you and of love.” The rhythmically notated dialogue at times sounded unnatural, and the transition to the dénouement is a deus ex machina twist that comes right out of The Beggar’s Opera; “I hope you don’t intend that Macheath shall really be executed,” becomes Kelly’s “But we can’t finish like this. An impossible ending for you, poor audience,” a break-the-fourth-wall delivery at odds with the emotional content of the moment.

A Song by Mahler was commissioned by an impressive coalition of high-profile groups, including Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Oregon, the La Jolla Music Society, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, in addition to the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

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