Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham Favors the Risqué

United StatesUnited States Susan Graham in Recital: Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano), presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California at Berkeley. 14.1.2012 (HS)

No one can accuse mezzo-soprano Susan Graham of programming recitals with overly familiar music. Her program Saturday night at Zellerbach Hall, for example, began with Purcell’s The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation and Berlioz’s La Mort d’Ophélie, and included a scena by the contemporary Austrian-born British composer Joseph Horovitz on Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth, not to mention a set of slightly racy French songs by Poulenc. Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim appeared in a final set and encores.

Even a set of six songs featuring such vocal recital staples as Schubert, Schumann and Tchaikovsky cobbled together one from each composer on texts from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. Not your usual stuff.

Graham displayed the musical acumen to deliver such a wide range in idiomatic style. She deployed a creamy tone, pinpoint pitch and articulation and breath-defying phrasing to create a distinct mood for each piece. Pianist Malcolm Martineau laid the foundation for each one with his usual evocative playing, and Graham built gorgeous structures of sound on it, emphasizing words without losing any of that purity of tone.

As she pointed out before launching into her final set, the first half of the program was about good girls — the Blessed Virgin, Ophelia, and the lovestruck lasses lamenting their swains’ deaths in Goethe’s poetry. Graham invested each one with tenderness, even if after awhile a certain sameness – a similarity in the slow pace – made me wish for something a little livelier.

The second half took care of that, beginning with Horovitz’s emotionally wrought and increasingly dramatic setting of five Lady MacBeth speeches from Shakespeare’s play. The music followed the arc of the character, from an early expression of her ambition for her husband, through to the aftermath of their conspiracy to murder the king (“Out, damned spot!”). The final phrases (“What’s done cannot be undone…to bed”) came off as chilling, yet somehow sweet. Graham made a stellar drama into song.

Poulenc’s songs, Fiançailles pour rire (“Whimsical Betrothal”), based on texts by Louise de Vilmorin, look at romance, flirting and getting a little naughty from a woman’s point of view. It’s also very French, and Graham invested the songs with a knowing wink — the wistful “Dans l’herbe” (“In the grass”), the mad dash of “Il Vole” (“He flies,” which ends with the line “I wish the thief would steal me”), the condescension that underlies “Violon” (“Violin”) and finally, the sheer beauty of the long, arching melody of “Fleurs” (“Flowers), which wafts in the air like the scent of the arresting woman who just left the room.

Graham loosened up considerably for that set, and moved close to cabaret in the final group of songs. She sang “J’ai deux amants” from an operetta by André Messager with insouciance. And if she missed too many of the wordy jokes in Cole Porter’s “The Physician” with uncharacteristically uneven diction, the final song, “Sexy Lady,” written for her by Ben Moore, gave her a chance to lament the operatic mezzo soprano’s lot of portraying mostly male characters and quote some of opera’s most famous mezzo music.

Encores included a pert rendition of “Connaie-tu le pays,” Mignon’s nostalgic aria (based on the same Goethe poem as two of the songs before intermission) from Thomas’ opera. A sassy “The Boy From …” sent up 1960s bossa nova with words by Sondheim. The final encore, the Reynaldo Hahn song “À Chloris,” which might be this singer’s signature, was lapidary, gleaming, sustained and sensuous in its crystalline beauty.

Harvey Steiman