Chamber Music Festival, Aug. 7
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham has a big personality and is well known for her success in corresponding opera roles, such as Prince Orlofsky in Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus and the title role in Jacques Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, both performed here in recent seasons.
There’s another side to the Roswell-born singer, who is also highly regarded in smaller-scale, more intimate settings, such as the songs by Gustav Mahler and Hector Berlioz, which she and pianist Jon Kimura Parker performed on Wednesday, Aug. 7, as part of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s new Music at Noon Wednesday series.
Graham’s many virtues were on almost full display: a warm and inviting stage presence, elegant phrasing, a facility with language and excellent diction, and the ability to convey text and story with simplicity and restraint. Her command of French musical style, in particular, is impeccable. Her voice has retained much of its mellow, attractive timbre and strong presence in her lower and middle registers.
Graham’s upper register hasn’t fared as well, however, sounding frayed on several climactic passages in both sets of songs and occasionally landing underneath pitches. (She also seemed to be suffering from some type of vocal discomfort, coughing subtly at times and clearing her throat more and more often as the program progressed, which may have impacted her singing.)
Berlioz and Mahler share a reputation for outsized musical canvases, but both composed beautiful, expressive songs for solo voice and piano. The program opened with Mahler’s five Rückert Songs, so titled because they were set to Romantic-era poems by Friedrich Rückert, whose works are little known today but were extremely popular with composers ranging from Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann to Richard Strauss and Alban Berg.
Mahler clearly identified with the situations described in the poems he selected and delighted in Rückert’s puns and rhyme schemes. “Don’t Gaze into My Songs” might best be translated as “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” à la the Wizard of Oz. The song is a warning to look only at the artist’s creative output, not the artist himself, which Graham portrayed with bemusement and a sense of regal indulgence.
“I Inhaled a Gentle Fragrance” is one of the very few sonic depictions of an aroma, as a lover breathes in the scent of a linden branch. (The composer clearly had in mind Alma Schindler, the 22-year-old aspiring composer with whom he was madly in love and soon to marry.) Parker’s wispy piano textures and Graham’s rapturously closed eyes were very effective here.
“If You Love for Beauty” was composed as a wedding gift for Alma. Rückert’s text suggests the speaker isn’t much of a catch — not beautiful, not young, not rich — all of which describe Mahler’s self-image. Unfortunately, the song proved to be prophetic. Within a few years, Alma started having an affair with the younger, more handsome architect Walter Gropius, whom she subsequently left for author Franz Werfel. (Another excellent song about her, “Alma,” was written in 1965, after Tom Lehrer read what he said was “ the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read.”)
Graham’s difficulties with higher-register singing meant that “At Midnight,” with its depiction of spiritual exhilaration, wasn’t very effective, especially at its soaring finale. She fared much better with the autobiographical concluding song, “I Am Lost to the World,” which encapsulates Mahler’s resignation and acceptance of the true romantic artist’s fate — to be appreciated in death more than life.
No one knows why Berlioz chose the title Summer Nights (Les nuits d’été) for the set of six songs written to poems by Théophile Gautier. A friend of the composer, Gautier was a journalist, dramatist, and arts critic best known today for having written the scenario of the ballet Giselle. Summer Nights isn’t as closely integrated as a traditional song cycle, which typically has a single narrative viewpoint and a true dramatic arc, but it does have a compelling emotional trajectory as it explores the life and death of a love affair. The theme may have resonated strongly for Berlioz because his once-passionate relationship with Harriet Smithson, inspiration for his famous Symphonie fantastique, was in its final stages.
Graham brought a charming sense of young love to the first song, “Villanelle,” which celebrates springtime and the optimism that passion will last forever. Her light, bright tone darkened impressively in the three following pieces. “The Ghost of the Rose” portrays a dream in which a girl is addressed by the rose she wore to a ball the previous night. The death of the flower, which expired on her breast, is one “of which every king will be jealous.”
“On the Lagoons: Lament” depicts a Venetian gondolier fated to sail again and again after the death of his lover, with singer and pianist nicely varying the repeating anguished refrain. Graham was especially persuasive in “Absence,” a plea for a lover’s return sung with disarming simplicity over elegiac, slow-moving harmonies.
The glimmer of hope in “In the Cemetery: Moonlight” was matched by a slightly brighter vocal tone and the effectively conveyed picture of a bereaved lover haunted by memories at the loved one’s tomb. The agitated vow never to return suggests a distancing from the past which is born out in the concluding and very lively song, “The Unknown Isle.” Here, the voice is that of a proud mariner, a character well-captured in Graham’s swaggering portrayal, offering to take the lover anywhere she desires. The requested destination is “the faithful shore where loves last forever,” which the mariner finds ironic — “My dear, it’s almost unknown in the land of love” — but he agrees to set sail anyway.
Graham and Parker offered a wholly winning rendition of Reynaldo Hahn’s lovely “À Chloris” as an encore. In her spoken introduction, Graham gave us a glimpse of her larger-scale personality, amusingly describing the Santa Fe origins of her wardrobe and festival artistic director Marc Neikrug’s preference that performers not talk to the audience — “I’ve waited all this time, and you know how hard that is for me!”