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"The kitchen sink program" - these were the words mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, international opera star and recitalist, used in a post-concert conversation to describe her January 14 program at Wingate University, given in the three-year-old, 550-seat McGee Theatre in the George A. Batte, Jr., Fine Arts Center, which was about two-thirds full. The program included selections from her various CDs, as well as some other items that she has not recorded. There were strange popping noises during the evening, and I wondered if they were from the HVAC system, but was informed that they came from the expansion and contraction of the roof caused by outdoor temperature changes. What a pity in such a lovely hall as this is! Acoustics seemed to be excellent, although I did not listen from the back of the hall. The building also houses a 175-seat recital hall, shaped much like Raleigh's Meymandi but with no balconies, whose acoustics are also said to be excellent.
Graham wore a stunning and elegant, paisley-patterned, gold lace dress with a black lining, tiny black beads and sequins, and a short train, and matching gold shoes, an attire that seemed particularly well-suited to the repertoire of the first half of the program. She opened with three numbers from Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été: "Villanelle," "Le Spectre de la Rose," and "L'île inconnue." Her French diction is of native-speaker quality, better and more natural in this reviewer's opinion than some found on native-speaker Véronique Gens' recent CD featuring this song cycle. Her dynamics, facial expressions and gestures fitted the texts perfectly, immediately revealing an artist who truly understands them and the various moods they evoke which she effectively created both with her voice and her stage presence.
She followed with four songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn: "Rheinlegendchen," "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen," "Das iridische Leben" and "Wer hat dies Liedlein...." What was said for the performance of the Berlioz could be repeated for the Mahler. Graham was appropriately a bit more animated and dramatic in her gestures for these.
Then followed a group of six songs by Reynaldo Hahn, who Graham said was her favorite art-song composer: "À Chloris," "Quand je fus pris au pavillon," "Le rossignol des lilas," "Fêtes galantes," "Si mes vers avaient des ailes" and "Le printemps." Her accompanist, Scotsman Iain Burnside, popular in Great Britain as a broadcaster as well as a pianist, and particularly committed to the song repertoire, noted that "Si mes vers." was composed when Hahn was only 13. He commented that it became his most popular song, to his regret because it was always requested over the others that were forgotten, as Hahn himself has largely been since his death in 1947. Graham's rendition literally took the audience's breath away. Every word of all of these brief songs was crystal clear, perfectly understandable. It's easy to see why she was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
She returned after intermission with three Mozart arias from trouser roles which she has sung, apprising the audience each time of whom she was playing and advising how to imagine her dressed, and telling what is going on in the story when the aria is sung. They were: "E amore un ladroncello" from Così fan tutte, "Non so piu" from Le nozze di Figaro, and "Parto, parto" from La clemenza di Tito. Her Italian diction was as impeccable as her French and her German as she nearly acted them out.
This set was followed by a group of seven songs by Ned Rorem: "I Strolled Across an Open Field," "Orchids," "For Poulenc," "The Lordly Hudson," "Sometimes with the One I Love," "O You Whom I Often and Silently Come" and "That Shadow, My Likeness." No need to follow the texts provided to understand! Original language texts were not provided for the songs in foreign languages, however; only translations.
Graham concluded the evening with a group of five Gershwin songs: "The Man I Love," "I've Got a Crush on You," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Fascinatin' Rhythm." No texts were provided for these. Here she really loosened up as she interacted with her accompanist and the audience, which rose to its feet before the last note of the last song had died away. She consented to an encore, Gershwin's "Summertime," and the audience rose again.
Graham interprets, almost performs art songs, just as she did the opera arias; she doesn't just stand before the audience and sing while making artificial gestures. She creates a mood and weaves a spell, a different one with each and every song. Yet all of this appears natural and utterly effortless. She controls her breath and her dynamics with unbelievable ease, producing some of the most perfect and incredible sustained pianissimos I've ever heard. She communicated well with her accompanist, too. This was their first performance together, but you would never have guessed it. At the reception, Graham cracked that they "threw each other curve balls all through the evening"; facial expressions gave them away, but not a beat was missed! In the encore, a strange draft across the stage kept threatening to carry away from the piano a sheet of Burnside's score; Graham simply reached over and held it in place while the performance went on, joking with him along the way: "Are you through with this one now?" "Yes, I am!"
No performance attains absolute perfection; singers are human and make mistakes, too. There were a couple of misspoken words, a nearly premature entrance, and a missed one necessitating a repeat of a couple of measures on the piano, a near-miss of a note here and there. But the evening was nonetheless perfect enough for me because of Graham's consummate artistry and engaging personality. Everything you've ever heard about her being personable and connecting with the audience is 100% true. She was magnificent. I felt as if I were sitting in the front row of seventh heaven. Let's get her here, in the Triangle. I'd like another kitchen sink!