Golden-voiced Golda Schultz finds common ground with dramatic songs by women composers

United StatesUnited States This be her verse: Golda Schultz (soprano) and Jonathan Ware (piano). San Francisco performances, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, 21.1.2021. (HS)

Golda Schultz (c) Dario Acosta

Clara Schumann – ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’; ‘Warum willst du and’re fragen’; ‘Am Strande’; ‘Lorelei
Emilie Mayer – ‘Wenn der Abendstern die Rosen’; ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’; ‘Erlkönig II’
Rebecca Clarke – ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’; ‘The Tiger’; ‘Cradle Song’; ‘The Seal Man’
Nadia Boulanger – ‘La mer est plus belle’; ‘Prière’; ‘Élégie’; ‘Cantique’
Kathleen Tagg (librettist: Lila Palmer)This be her verse: ‘After Philip Larkin’; ‘Wedding’; ‘Single Bed’

Still shy of 30, Golda Schultz has carved out a splashy career as an operatic soprano, including starring roles at the Metropolitan Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Glyndebourne and La Scala. In San Francisco, she beguiled opera audiences as Clara, the angel in the debut of Jake Heggie’s 2016 opera, A Wonderful Life.

Heggie was in the pandemic-trimmed audience for Schultz’s San Francisco recital debut, presented by San Francisco Performances, and he applauded enthusiastically. Recitals are rare on her calendar, but the evening made a strong case: she and her regular collaborator, pianist Jonathan Ware, made a delicious feast of a thought-provoking program of women composers over three centuries. Their intent was not so much to showcase less-heralded music as to focus on songs from a woman’s point of view.

Composers Clara Schumann and Emilie Mayer from the nineteenth century and Rebecca Clarke and Nadia Boulanger from the twentieth would be familiar to lieder devotees, even if these specific works may not.

The new commission was a three-song set by the South African pianist and composer Kathleen Tagg, a presence in the New York modern music scene. Her work, This be her verse, provided the recital’s title and whipped up a suitable climax. To lyrics by Lila Palmer, her collaborative partner, the verses delve into aspects of a modern American woman’s life. The first song, ‘After Philip Larkin’, reflects on how demands from others may keep her from her own ambitions. The centerpiece, ‘Wedding’, commiserates with a bride left waiting outside her COVID-limited wedding by the groom and his best man. The finale, ‘Single Bed’, declaims an anthem for a defiant, intentionally unmarried woman.

Tagg’s music makes evocative use of prepared piano. In ‘Larkin’, the pianist strums guitar-like chords on the piano’s strings and muffles a single-note ostinato in the bass range against a syncopated rhythm in both the accompaniment and the melody. A small silver chain resting on the piano strings in ‘Wedding’ creates a sound reminiscent of a muted trumpet, and a swaggering rhythm underlines ‘The men tumble outside./The bride seethes/with Royal displeasure’. The final stanza’s ‘You will always be waiting’ gave Schultz an extended melisma on the word ‘always’, giving the word the emphasis of italics. It also showed off her range both above and below the staff, and coloratura.

The program’s other music was a bit of a mixed bag for Schultz. She lavished lovely tone on songs written in 1840 by Clara Schumann, even if she did not quite find the subtle phrasing that a lieder singer needs to bring their details fully to life. The 1848 Mayer songs, with their more complex harmonies and interplay, came off better, especially in the gentle contrast between angst and their sweet endings.

As the music got more dramatic, the better it seemed to fit Schultz, whose stage experience paid off repeatedly with characterful portrayals. Four songs written in the 1920s and 1930s by Rebecca Clarke (among the first women to play in a professional orchestra in London) brought out Schultz’s flair for the theatrical, especially in two settings of Blake’s poetry. ‘The Tiger’ (‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright’) bristled with energy and pending doom, and the spooky ‘Cradle Song’ conveyed a palpable sense of mystery. Best, though, was ‘The Seal Man’, set to a John Masefield telling of the Celtic tale of a seal that can turn into a man to lure women to their deaths in the sea, and done from a woman’s perspective.

‘Lorelei’, Clara Schumann’s setting of Heinrich Heine’s narration of a similar female temptress on the Rhine, followed in similar form (but told from a neutral observer’s point of view), and the first half ended with ‘Erlkönig’ – not the famous one by Schubert but a less turbulent setting by Mayer. Written in 1870, it lays down piano triplets to underscore the words of the father and son and gives the Erl King a lyrical sweetness like a smooth-talking predator offering candy to a child. Schultz could have differentiated the father and son more clearly, but her narration was suitably suspenseful.

Nadia Boulanger’s four songs (from 1904 to 1910) wrap French lyricism and soft harmonies around spiritual poetry. The first, to Paul Verlaine’s ‘La mer est plus belle’, showed off Schultz’s floating legato beautifully, and the final one, ‘Cantique’, brought the set to a moving close with Maurice Maeterlinck’s words of love, suffering and consolation.  The encore was Amy Beach’s ‘I Send My Heart up to Thee’ from her Three Browning Songs (1899), the first lines of which seemed especially appropriate: ‘I send my heart up to thee, all my heart/In this my singing’.

While I was noticing how the music became more complex and varied as we moved forward in time from the mid-nineteenth century, and how it brought out more aspects of Schultz’s gifts, the evening had a more profound effect on my wife. She responded viscerally to the songs’ insights into how women can face the world differently from men, especially those by Tagg and Palmer. She is, like them, a modern woman.

San Francisco is the second stop on a tour that began last week in Philadelphia, taking advantage of Schultz’s off-days from her current role as the Countess in the Metropolitan Opera’s Le nozze di Figaro. The duo next takes this program to Berlin, Köln, London, Aix-en-Provence and Halifax (Nova Scotia).

Harvey Steiman

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