On the afternoon of May 4, in the A. J. Fletcher Opera Theater of the BTI Center, Frederica von Stade gave her recital, postponed from last fall, on the NC Symphony's Great Artist Series. She began by thanking the audience for coming back, but the audience had already thanked her by greeting her with "Brava!"s as she walked out onto the stage with her collaborative pianist, Martin Katz, whose name did not even appear in the printed program, yet another of the less-than-bare-bones affairs that this series has been plagued with. At least this time we were given an insert with virtually all of the texts and side-by-side translations (most, though not all, uncredited, alas) for those not in English, even if the formatting required page turns in the midst of some songs. A member of the audience commented that he thought it had started to rain the first time he heard the rustling of the paper as they were turned!
Von Stade opened with a set of five songs by Gabriel Fauré, each from a different group or cycle, almost a "top five" of his mélodie output, except that there are far more than five that rank at that level. This is the repertoire for which von Stade is especially well known and for which she has received recognition by the French government - and in which she far surpasses most American singers in the naturalness of her handling of the language. The color she gave to her voice was especially appropriate and impressive in her interpretation of "Prison," Op. 83/1, to the sad text by Paul Verlaine, and her expressiveness in "Mandoline," Op. 58/1, to a text by the same poet, impressed equally. She was dramatic in her movements and gestures in "La fée aux chansons," Op. 27/2, the concluding number in the group.
There followed a group of four songs by Gustav Mahler, two from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and two from the Rückert Lieder . Von Stade increased the degree of dramatization for these, particularly in "Rheinlegendchen" and "Lob des hohen Verstandes," the Knaben Wunderhorn songs that opened and closed the set, because they tell stories that invite exaggerated gestures and interpretations. The first half closed with a set of four mélodies by Maurice Ravel, including two arias from operas, "Toi, le coeur de la Rose," from L'Enfant et les Sortilèges , which was given an interpretation that was almost ethereal, and Concepcion's aria, from the comic one-act L'Heure espagnole , for which she gave a plot summary.
After intermission, von Stade returned in a different outfit that signaled lighter, less formal fare. She opened with a group of five 20th-century American songs, one each by Ned Rorem, Leonard Bernstein, Jake Heggie, Aaron Copland and William Bolcom, the last "Amor," from Vol. 1 of his Cabaret Songs , which this reviewer heard the composer's wife Joan Morris (for whom it was written) present last fall. This led to another group of three French numbers: the Habañera ("L'amour est un oiseau rebelle"), from Bizet's Carmen , which she acted out as if on the stage, Francis Poulenc's "Les chemins de l'amour," and Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose." The concluding set was a selection of three of Arnold Schoenberg's Brettl Lieder (Cabaret Songs).
The key words around which the recital seemed to be organized and the selection of songs made were "l'amour"/"Amor"/"Liebe" and "Rose." One or the other occurred in many of the works: Fauré's "Les roses d'Ispahan" that opened the program, Rorem's "I am Rose" to a Gertrude Stein text, Mahler's "Liebst du un Schönheit," and "Amor" as Cupid in "Gigerlette," the second Schoenberg selection, for example, among those not mentioned above. Although it was like a clever leitmotiv running through the program, not every song used these words or concepts. Heggie's "A Route to the Sky," for example, was set to a text von Stade wrote herself about a childhood experience, which she portrayed dramatically as if reliving it before our eyes. It paired nicely with Copland's "Little Horses" that followed it.
Von Stade just loves to sing, even after all these years; it shows in her interpretation of every work she presents. The audience just loved hearing her, too, applauding after each song in spite of the printed groupings. She adopts each song she sings to the point of summarizing its content or plot from the point of view of its speaker, rather than in the third person, as many singers do, and then loses herself in the song as she performs it, both of which, to this reviewer, are marks of a consummate artist. Katz was equally consummate in accompanying her; he even played the Bizet from memory. They make a terrific team.
The audience rose and shouted many more "Brava!"s at the conclusion of the program, and the artists rewarded us with two encores: Jerome Kern's "I've Told Every Little Star," and the "Griserie" aria (sung by a woman who has had more that a bit too much to drink at a gala dinner), from Jacques Offenbach's La Périchole , in which von Stade really let loose in the acting domain, to the delight of the hall. We'd have loved yet more. Local soprano Catherine Charlton, who sang with the NC Symphony in Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" just this weekend, told me in the lobby after the performance that she considers von Stade the best recitalist singing today. There's a reason, and it lies in the variety of her expression and dramatization and the mastery of the material to the degree that she inhabits it, in addition to the great voice itself, of course, that is still there after all these years, too. There were way too many empty seats in the hall for an artist of this caliber, something else this series has been plagued with!