Her name - Susan Graham - says it all, or should . On March 24, the great American mezzo-soprano gave a recital at Duke, in Page Auditorium, for the University's Virtuoso Series (which becomes "Duke Performances" on July 1). She's toured the program - and the three encores she sang in Durham - in other cities, garnering rave reviews, and she's unquestionably one of the finest singers appearing today, anywhere, and her work is well known from her many performances in opera and concert and recitals and from her superb recordings*. She's so wonderful that our colleague Marvin J. Ward drove from Raleigh to Wingate to hear her several years ago, when she was touring her "Kitchen Sink" program , and it's a good thing he wasn't around for her Duke debut, or we might have come to blows over who got the assignment. In Durham, her program was somewhat less wide-ranging, but it nonetheless encompassed some rarely heard songs and arias, and by the time she waved goodbye to the enthusiastic crowd, she'd conclusively demonstrated her many skills in three languages.
Her partner was Brian Zeger, the distinguished pianist and vocal specialist whose voice is familiar to millions of opera lovers from his frequent appearances on the Met broadcast intermissions. He happens also to have preceded Durham's Nicholas Kitchen as Artistic Director of the Cape and Islands Chamber Music Festival in Massachusetts. His work with Graham was exceptional in all artistic respects, and the partnership the two artists clearly enjoyed was gratifying to hear and witness throughout the program, but there were times when more piano would have been welcome, and when it would have enhanced the overall effect to have lifted its lid off the short stick on which it rested all night. There were, alas, minor noises in the hall, too, that intruded on the softest passages - noises from the ventilation system and, in the first half, what sounded like a bit of PA system hiss.
It was a German and French night, mostly. Graham began with Brahms' solo-voice-and-piano version of the Op. 103 Zigeunerlieder , written for vocal quartets and sometimes sung by four-part choirs. The eight numbers given form the "standard" recital edition; three numbers in the original are not included. The singer warmed quickly to the music, and by the start of the fifth song, it was apparent that we were in the presence of greatness. American singers sometimes manage better diction in foreign languages than artists from the countries of origin do. Graham's German and French were of native-born quality, and she put across the words so well that the texts and translations were hardly needed. Generally speaking, too, mezzos do better with words than the higher voices. Graham sang a whole lot of words during the concert - the notes and texts occupied 13 pages in the program insert - and there were probably less than half a dozen that weren't crystal clear. (Bravo to the presenters for leaving the lights up enough to follow along!)
Debussy's Proses Lyriques date from the time of Pelleas and "Afternoon of a Faun" and sound like it, too. Graham's performances of Debussy's settings of his own somewhat strange lyrics were even more impressive than the Gypsy Songs , for they allowed her more room to project wide-ranging emotions. Only mental comparison with old recordings left by Maggie Teyte might have given senior listeners pause. For the most part Graham's renditions swept aside even those thoughts, and Zeger proved as adept as Moore and Cortot, who partnered Teyte in 1940 and 1936, too.
The concert began around 8:07 p.m. and the first half ended at 8:41. There was then a long intermission, during which the visitors' work seemed to be the primary topic of discussion. The concert resumed with seven songs by Alban Berg, whose name might have caused minor heartburn among some (and whose presence on the program might have held down attendance, too - it's hard to believe the place wasn't SRO for an artist like Graham). Anyway, the operative word in the title of Berg's  Frühe Lieder is "frühe," for these are really early songs, written when the composer was in his 20s and, apparently, in love (although the texts, by seven superior poets, could serve as the basis of a dissertation on the soon-to-be Second Viennese School master's psyche). Like Schoenberg's early Cabaret Songs , these are richly romantic and readily accessible pieces, and hearing them "cold," one would be hard-pressed to ID their source.
Graham added a burgundy boa to her all-black attire before completing the program, which was markedly lighter than the rest of it. She tossed off Poulenc's saucy 1931 songs to poems by Appollinaire with relish and enthusiasm, practically crawling over the lid of the piano toward Zeger in the process. Two delicious arias from operettas by Messager - "Vois-tu, je m'en veux," from Les P'tites Michu , and "J'ai deux amants," from L'Amour masque - doubtless made some regret that his music is not better known. The composer of Veronique was highly respected by Debussy and Fauré, and a piano duet that pays homage to Wagner, "Souvenirs de Bayreuth," often attributed to the latter, seems to have been at least partly by Messager himself. He was admired for his performances of Mozart, and he was also a critic(!).
"C'est ça la vie," a Carmen take-off by Moises Simons (1889-1944?), from Toi c'est moi , was the final "aspect of love" in the formal program, but Graham and Zeger returned for three encores: Reynoldo Hahn's "À Chloris," Gershwin's "Someone to Watch over Me," and the amusing "Sexy Lady," a send-up of lovelorn singers who are cast in trouser roles, written by Ben Moore for this mezzo, who is glamorous by any standard, whether she's cross-dressing or not. It was a stunning evening, anyway you cut it.
*Among Graham's recent CDs is a marvelous collection of rare Berlioz items with the Montreal Symphony led by Dutoit. With the same skill and artistry she displayed in Durham, the mezzo sings two of the Eight Scenes from Faust , recorded in 1995. Her contributions are all by themselves sufficient reason to purchase the CD, which happens to be the last of Dutoit's recordings with the orchestra from which he was driven away several years ago.