29 October 2011

Joyce Castle at the Café Sabarsky

Until such time as I can get regular access to a working scanner, we’re going to have to settle for pictures from other sources.
I drew this caricature for Joyce following her performance as Lady Jane in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience, at Glimmerglass in 2004. It’s posted (like all the other pictures in this entry) on her indispensable website.

Versatility is among the qualities I most admire in the mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle — understandably, I guess, when you consider some of the roles I’ve seen her play, from the Old Lady in Bernstein’s Candide to … the old lady in Einem’s The Visit of the Old Lady. I’ve heard her sing songs from the 19th century, as well as songs so modern the ink hasn’t dried on the page. There’s really nothing she can’t do.

High among her other admirable qualities is the ability to scale her performance to the room, big opera houses and small, “straight” theater and the recital hall. She’s got such a sure sense both of her craft and of the crowd that she knows, as if by instinct, exactly how much she needs to do in order to get her point across — as if she were standing next to you.

“Speak Low”: On this night, it wasn’t just a song title.

Thus my expectations were high when Joyce announced that on 27 October she’d be performing a cabaret act in the Café Sabarsky, at New York’s ganz chic Neue Galerie, the Fifth Avenue museum specializing in German art. The whole building is narrow, and the café takes up only part of the ground floor: Joyce would be communicating on a scale wholly new to this audience, at least.

In the event, I was all but sitting in Joyce’s lap, or she in mine: anyway, I was in the front row. And by golly, she who can make the heavens tremble, when she wants to, now delivered a performance as intimate as a personal conversation.

Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was among the very first roles I saw her perform (here, with the great Timothy Nolen). Imagine my pleasure Thursday night when, after all these years, she launched into one of the numbers from that show:
Good things come to those who “Wait,” indeed.

Joyce has experimented with cabaret before, including collaboration with the evening’s pianist, Ted Taylor, whose estimable contributions to the Sabarsky evening included a couple of ingenious medleys. The material was, for Joyce, typically wide-ranging, embracing three languages and including Yvette Guilbert’s “Je suis pocharde” (Joyce portrayed Guilbert in Martha Clarke’s Belle Epoque at Lincoln Center in 2004), one of William Bolcom’s great cabaret numbers, and a Jake Heggie song from Statuesque, a cycle he composed especially for her.

Joyce also sang a couple of Hanns Eisler numbers and lots of Kurt Weill, a composer whose work means a lot to both Joyce and me, and in whose archive she and I met, many years ago. I was delighted to hear her incarnate the goddess of love once again, in numbers from One Touch of Venus, especially a soulful “Speak Low,” and I thrilled to hear her searing rendition of “Is It Him Or Is It Me?” from Love Life.* The warmth and feeling of her voice are ever wondrous.

My personal favorite of Joyce’s stage roles, the hard-living Claire Zachanassian in Gottfried von Einem’s The Visit of the Old Lady, New York City Opera, 1997.
Please direct your most special attention to Joyce’s upstage leg.

That’s a powerful number, as a wife looks over the remains of her failed marriage: in the confines of the café, how easy it would have been to overplay the drama. Joyce offered restraint that, in the context of the song, became all the more compelling. She respected the song’s bluesy roots, too. Not every opera singer can do that, you know.

Joyce can be hilarious, too, and her flawless diction is perhaps never more valuable than when she’s singing a comic number, whatever the language may be. Flanders and Swann’s “The Gnu” and “Je suis pocharde” had me in stitches — and in both these cases, Joyce’s ability to mug hoisted the comedy even higher.**

Since Joyce celebrated her fortieth season in opera last season, it stands to reason that this is her forty-first. As her career moves ever forward, what empires remain to conquer? Before Thursday night, I might not have known the answer, but I’ve got one now.

As Sally Bowles would say, “Come to the cabaret!”

Joyce as Klytemnestra in Strauss’ Elektra. Is it possible that she’s such a nice person offstage because she gets all the nastiness out of her system when she’s onstage?

*NOTE: I hadn’t even told Joyce that Follies had given me a yen to hear Love Life. Really, her artistry is uncanny.

**She’s equally funny in her own material, as in her account of “Opera Songs,” Volume Seven of The Scribner Radio Music Library, which she’s performed elsewhere. Given her distinguished track record in Sullivan and in Wagner, Joyce could be the next Anna Russell whenever she sets her mind to it.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Now this is a love letter with content as well as emotion! Bravo, Bill...and, obviously, brava Miss Castle...