06 August 2012

Santa Fe Opera 2012: “Susan Graham & Friends’

Susan Graham and Friend.
Photo by Susan’s sister, using WVM’s camera.
All other photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

While still a student at the Manhattan School of Music, presided over at the time by John Crosby, founder of Santa Fe Opera, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham thought she was a shoo-in for the company’s prestigious apprentice artist program. However, as it turned out, she told us on Saturday night, “I auditioned twice. I was rejected twice.”

That was quite likely the last time Santa Fe Opera ever has or ever will reject Susan Graham. On Saturday, Susan made her triumphant return to the Santa Fe stage in a gala concert, the mere title of which — “Susan Graham and Friends” — pretty much demanded my presence. With Susan our witty, charming mistress of ceremonies, the program offered an opportunity to catch up with several singers appearing in those operas I didn’t get to hear this season, as well as a selection of numbers that showed off Susan’s greatest strengths as an artist. Indeed, it seemed as if each number was a personal gift to this listener, an ongoing demonstration of her uncanny ability to connect with her audience, and this audience in particular.

Susan sings ‘Vilja.’ Oh, how I love the expression on her face here.

Following conductor Kenneth Montgomery’s elastic-tempo reading of the overture to The Magic Flute, Susan offered Mozart’s concert aria, “Ch’io mi scordi di te” (That I should forget you, with conductor Frédéric Chaslin on piano), a mini-opera of contrasting emotions and a dazzling display of Susan’s fluid, agile mastery of the composer’s style. “Every special occasion ought to include a little Mozart,” she observed, and she got no argument.

Almost a decade ago, I travelled to Paris to hear Susan sing Didon in Berlioz’s Les Troyens; she’ll sing the role for the first time at the Met next season, and she gave the Santa Fe audience a sampling of highlights of what is, for this listener, one of the most memorable interpretations he’s heard from anybody. First came the sensual love duet, “Nuit d’ivresse,” with tenor Bryan Hymel, whom I’d never heard before but whose grasp of French lyrique style is wholly admirable. Then came Didon’s swan song, “Adieu, fière cîté,” in which (here as in Paris) everything Susan has learned as Didon, everything she has learned about Berlioz, and indeed everything she’s learned about music and life seem to come together. In Paris, this was her moment of “going to 11,” and so it was in Santa Fe; the audience awarded her with a thundering ovation.

In the second half, Susan gave us “Vilja,” and here as sometimes in concert performances before, she called for audience participation: we were all supposed to sing along, and in fact her colleagues came out and joined in, too. Honestly, I’d rather just listen to Susan in this melting, bittersweet aria from The Merry Widow, but who am I to deprive others of fun? And baritone Mark Delavan, in particular, was having a high old time of it.

For her final solo, Susan returned to one of the highpoints of her recent recital tour, Stephen Sondheim and Mary Rodgers’ “The Boy From…,” in which her assurance in comedic material — she never, ever oversells a joke — took the spotlight. I half-expected a number from La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, such as “Ah! J’aime les militaires,” as a special preview of coming attractions, but even greedy as I am, I was indisputably content.

For the “Friends,” the first half of the program was almost too serious, such that, when Delavan joined soprano Erin Wall, they gave us the death scene from Thaïs. I’m not complaining: I’ll always love this opera, Delavan was a much-valued stalwart at New York City Opera*, and this was my opportunity to hear Wall, the talked-about leading lady of Strauss’ Arabella at Santa Fe this season. The duo provided such a dramatic reading — lacking only a little of Thaïs’ dying frailty and Athanaël’s frustrated fury — that I’ve begun to hope to see them in a fully staged production soon.

Une nuit d’extase infinie: Susan and Bryan Hymel exult in Berlioz.

Most of the singers incorporated a good deal of acting in their arias, such that bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni’s account of Méphistophélès’ serenade (from Gounod’s Faust) was almost jarring in its detachment, which was that of a recitalist and not of an ironic Devil. No matter: he sounded great, we know he can act, and he showed more involvement in the duet between Luisa and Wurm from Verdi’s Luisa Miller, opposite soprano Leah Crocetto, a little later.

Soprano Erin Morley sailed through Meyerbeer’s coloratura extravaganza “O, beau pays de la Touraine” with dazzling ease and flavor, and with comparable mastery and ringing high notes, Hymel returned to close the first half with “Asile héréditaire” from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, backed up by the gentlemen of the Apprentice Singer Program.

The second half opted for lighter fare, beginning with tenor William Burden’s ingratiating “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (a Richard Tauber specialty, from Lehár’s Land of Smiles) and a series of Broadway numbers that were designed for (or don’t battle with) classically trained voices. The exception was Delavan, who threatened to kill us all in Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany,” but both he and Susan assured us that his true intentions were entirely peaceful — and this was a welcome souvenir of his fiery interpretation of Sweeney at NYCO several years ago.

Pisaroni gave us a perfectly calibrated, freshly imagined reading of “Some Enchanted Evening,” and Hymel managed to make Romberg’s “Be My Love” seem like something far truer than the kitsch it’s usually taken to be. Baritone Nicholas Pallesen unveiled a passionate “If Ever I Would Leave You” (from Camelot), then joined Wall for “If I Loved You” (from Carousel) of irresistible charm.

For this audience, soprano Leah Crocetto is the “discovery” of the Santa Fe season, and her account of Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” demonstrated not only her luscious tone but also tremendous feeling and an admirable ability to color English text. Tenor Zach Borichevsky, who’s appearing as the headstrong Matteo in Arabella, brought the evening to a close with “Make Our Garden Grow,” from Bernstein’s Candide, bringing many in the house to tears. As the song grows from sadder-but-wiser solo to full-blown chorale, soprano Lindsey Russell sang Cunegonde’s lines with crystalline sweetness. (That’s not a mixed metaphor: think of rock candy.) Ultimately, all the soloists and apprentices joined in, and Susan chipped in Pangloss’ closing line, “Any questions?”

My only question was, “When can I hear more?” Next season, Susan will sing her ninth role with the company, as Offenbach’s Grand Duchess of Gérolstein, a role that may have been written expressly for her. When I first heard about this, I levitated half a foot off the ground. I don’t know yet how I’ll get there, but I know I’ll be coming back to Santa Fe next year. Anyone care to join me?

How could I possibly forget you? Susan sings “Ch’io mi scordi di te,” with Maestro Chaslin on piano and Maestro Montgomery on the podium.


Michael said...

Susan Graham gave a most wonderful cocnert at Wigmore Hall in london last month. Such a lvoely voice and a natural rapport with the audience. Her encores were her trademark A Cloris, and then I wnat to be a sexy lady which was hysterically funny. What a star

Sarah B. Roberts said...

Thank you for this! I'm so sorry I couldn't be there for this one. I'm so glad to read a first hand report. Susan looked so gorgeous in the photos. Nobody gives a more satisfying performance than Susan. Love!

William V. Madison said...

At the risk of overstating the obvious -- I agree with you both, Michael and Sarah!