23 March 2013

Joyce Castle Works the Room at Café Sabarsky

Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!
Photo by WVM, taken with my phone, which I really don’t know how to use.

The program that Joyce Castle brought to the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky on Thursday night started out aptly enough as a (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) tribute to Vienna, with Gershwin’s “By Strauss!” followed closely by a couple of operetta numbers by Oscar Straus. Soon enough, though, it became clear that simple Gemütlichkeit was hardly Joyce’s goal.

In so far as there was a theme to this cabaret act, it was simply this: what spells “fun” for Joyce Castle? And as she sailed through numbers by everyone from Flanders & Swann to Friedrich Holländer, she proved that what’s fun for Joyce is fun for the rest of us, too. She scooped us up in her arms, and together we followed her bliss.

Much as she did last year at this venue, Joyce demonstrated her absolute and utter command over the audience. Elsewhere in Opera World, probably only Anna Russell in her prime could compete with Joyce’s comic timing, and of course dear Anna isn’t around any more. Joyce had us in stitches merely by observing that “March is Women’s History Month.”

With the richness of her voice, scaled back for the tiny room, and with the clarity of her diction in English, German, and French — and with her frequent collaborator Ted Taylor on piano — she elicited both laughter and tears. I can’t tell you how she does it. I’m barely aware that she’s doing it, until I realize that she’s done it.

As Yvette Guilbert in Belle Epoque, Lincoln Center, 2004.

So mixed in with Yvette Guilbert’s saucy saga of the Boudins and the Boutons, we got three of Hanns Eisler’s Hollywood Elegies, troubling tales of nightmares in Dreamland. (Joyce sang both the Guilbert and two German-language Elegies in evocative English translations by Michael Feingold.) A Lied by Alma Mahler was cut short by a rendition of Tom Lehrer’s irreverent ode to Alma. And Weill’s lighthearted “One Life to Live” (from Lady in the Dark) met a haunting account of Poulenc’s “Les Chemins d’amour,” Joyce’s encore, which found the ever-inspired Ted Taylor drawing an array of orchestral colors from the keyboard.

Naturally, I loved the new act. And in my case, this was an occasion to reflect on the ways in which our tastes overlap, whether because of preexisting affinities (Kurt Weill!) or because I have been listening to Joyce long enough that her tastes have informed my own. Sure, I knew a lot of these songs, but several were songs to which she’d introduced me, such as the Guilbert song (which Joyce performed in Martha Clarke’s Belle Epoque at Lincoln Center in 2004). And it was Joyce who introduced me personally to the composer of “Lady Luck,” the great William Bolcom, clearing the way for me to interview him and his wife, the singer Joan Morris.

I started out on this path one lucky day in the 1980s, when I decided that Joyce Castle was intriguing, and I ought to go to hear her at the New York City Opera — and, ultimately, at opera houses from Boston to Fort Worth. She helped me to hear in a new way music that I knew well (notably Sweeney Todd, Candide, and Mahagonny), and to discover music that I might have missed (Menotti’s Medium and Consul, Britten’s Turn of the Screw), or might never have heard at all (von Einem’s The Visit of the Old Lady, Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale, both stunning).

In sum, I’ve been listening to Joyce work a room just this expertly for many years, no matter the size of the room or the material she’s performing. She may have been born with the instincts, but by now she’s honed them to precision. And she’s still casting new spells. After noting that younger singers exasperate her when they attempt Weill’s wry, almost world-weary “September Song,” Joyce herself gave it a whirl — for the first time ever, she told us.

You’ve got several chances in the coming months to catch up with me and to experience Joyce’s magic for yourself. She sings the Marquise in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment at Fort Worth Opera this spring, alongside Ava Pine and Darren Keith Woods. Beginning in June, she takes up another signature role, Klytämnestra in Strauss’ Elektra, with Des Moines Metro Opera. In October and November, it’s Daughter of the Regiment again with Seattle Opera. And in March 2014, she’ll take on a new role: Mme Armfeldt in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Houston Grand Opera. With any luck, I’ll see you there.

As Klytämnestra with Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera.
Was this 2008? I think so.

No comments: