23 July 2010

The Grace of Her Eyes, the Mercy of Her Voice

Road Show: Susan and Malcolm stopped off in London
on their “Frisson Français” tour in 2009.

The mezzo-soprano Susan Graham celebrates her birthday today, and I celebrate Susan. I’ve written about her frequently on this blog, including this account of her recital in Brussels, in June 2009.

Susan’s singing of Reynaldo Hahn’s “À Chloris” brought me to tears that night. She sang it the night we met, sealing my love for her, and each time she’s sung it since, it’s seemed a special gift offered directly to me. Her repertoire is vast, yet if she never sang anything else, the way Bianca Castafiore sings nothing but the Jewel Song, I’d be content. Susan’s connection to this music — and through it, to me — is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed, the most vivid demonstration conceivable of the tender mercy of song. But this was the first time that her “À Chloris” made me cry.

Irresistible Susan
(Apologies to Malcolm, who is much handsomer in life than this in picture.)

I share that performance with you now: although I’m morally conflicted about such unauthorized recordings, I’m selfishly grateful, too, that this souvenir of a precious moment endures and can be attended by people who weren’t present. At the time, I had no way of knowing that I’d ever be able to return to this performance, but I understood it as special: among the many voices you hear in the audience, murmuring with recognition and pleasure as Malcolm Martineau plays the opening notes of “À Chloris,” you may hear my voice, too.

I savored each second, clinging to the notes as if to a lifesaver. I use the metaphor with cause: more than once, Susan’s various renditions of this song have gotten me through rough times, and that night in Brussels was one such a time; it’s possible that, had she never sung “À Chloris,” I wouldn’t be here today.

That’s what the song is about, after all. A love song from a man who has suffered and who dared not expect anything but more pain in return for his love; and yet he has found in another man a happiness that not even kings may know.

“This is not the time for death to take me, to exchange my good fortune just to satisfy Heaven! All that men say of ambrosia can’t match the fantasy inspired in me by the grace of your eyes.”

The Met’s production of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust
featured projections of Susan’s face; some were three stories tall.
Now that’s my idea of scenic design!

You hear in Susan’s voice that transcendent serenity that comes from the gratification of a wish long deferred, but also the hush of a voice almost fearful that the spell will be broken and the present happiness taken away. After all, the song begins with a conditional: “If it’s true, Chloris, that you love me — and I hear that you love me well….”

That’s very much the way I feel while Susan sings “À Chloris”: blissfully happy, and yet almost too much so, then wary that something will go wrong. A cell phone may go off; somebody may cough, or blow up the theater. The world may end and I may die, without ever hearing the rest of the song. “This is not the time for death to take me!” But Susan keeps drawing me nearer, not letting me think about anything but the music, sustaining the bliss and compelling me to follow it until, in the amber of her voice, I am still.

When she was done that night in Brussels, I sat unbreathing, motion­less but for the tears streaming down my face. A lot of us seem to have been transfixed this way: you hear the beginning of the applause, rather modest, but the clip ends before you can hear what came after: a building roar, a joyful noise from every man and woman present.

I realize now that this was the answer Chloris must have given to his lover: what matters is that we shared this beauty. On this night, in this place, in this lifetime, we were together. Whatever happens after, we have shared this.

All of us were connected that night to Chloris and to his poet, Théophile de Viau; to the composer, Reynaldo Hahn, and his lover, Marcel Proust; to Susan and Malcolm; and to each other. Even those of us who have no voice had joined in the song by listening, and what each of us had felt, we all felt. We were better for it.

This is why we need art, and more specifically, this is why I need Susan Graham.

A birthday toast to Susan!


Michael Leddy said...

I just ordered her album of RH songs. Thanks for pointing the reader (or, me) to her music.

William V. Madison said...

I'm so glad, Michael: I think you're in for a treat listening to the Hahn album. She's recorded "À Chloris" two other times since, and her interpretation has deepened: really, the longer she lives with the song, the richer the expression becomes. But that first recording was already aces -- and it's joined by so many other delights, too.