Monday, April 28, 2008

A "Debut Recital"

Having seen Sheri Greenawald, Director of the San Francisco Opera Center, "in action" giving a master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I suspect she would forgive (if not sympathize with) me for beginning by shamelessly ripping off Jane Austen: It is "a truth universally acknowledged" that any aspiring vocalist (not to mention the seasoned ones) "must be in want of" good recital opportunities. As she explained after yesterday's intermission at Temple Emanu-El, the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series is run (under the auspices of the San Francisco Opera Center) to serve that truth. From my own point of view, this series is particularly important because, where matters of performance are concerned, a vocal recital is a significantly different beast from an opera; and any vocalist serious about making a career must be prepared to excel in both environments.

The difference between the two has less to do with repertoire than with scale. A recital does not belong in the "grand" space of today's large opera houses. If it has been set there, then the motives have more to do with selling lots of tickets than serving the music on the program. The recital is the "moral equivalent" of chamber music for vocalists. In the absence of the proper "chamber," neither music nor performer is well served. The best vocal recitals I can remember were experienced at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, and Greenawald is fortunate that Temple Emanu-El has an auditorium on a comparable scale. All this should be taken as a preface to considering the recital that soprano Heidi Melton gave yesterday afternoon with John Parr as her accompanist.

Melton is a current Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera, and she has already made much of her tenure in that position. Most importantly she had the privilege of creating the role of Mary Todd Lincoln last fall in Appomattox, which meant, among other things, that hers was one of the first (and last) voices we heard in this still-memorable premiere. She has also sung the role of Marianne, Sophie's duenna, whom we hear only briefly in the second act of Rosenkavalier but whom we hear negotiating those breathless passages that Richard Strauss composed so well as the two of them anticipate the rose-bearer's arrival; and, during that same spring season she sang the disembodied voice of Diane, who resolves all the plot tensions in Iphigénie en Tauride. (Given the way I felt about the staging of this opera, being disembodied may have had some advantages.) All of these roles demand a strong and clear voice that can establish a well-defined presence in a space like the War Memorial Opera House; and Melton did not fall short in any of them.

However, the reason for my extended preface is that the Temple Emanu-El auditorium is a far cry from the War Memorial Opera House. Having established her "street creds" at the latter, Melton still has a bit more to do with the former. Thus, to stick with the music of Strauss, for all the Sturm und Drang in "Frülingsfeier" (both Strauss' music and the text itself by Heinrich Heine), this is not the final scene from Salome; and its performance requires a more attenuated intensity to deliver the right impact in a chamber setting. Similarly, Melton did not seem to find the right level of intimacy for a Strauss setting as sensitive as "Meinem Kinde," even though I fully believed her introductory remarks about how much this song meant to her at a personal level.

To be fair, Melton set herself some serious challenges in selecting her program. Wrestling with Arne Garborg's Norwegian texts for Edvard Grieg's Haugtussa ("Mountain Maid") song cycle without also having to take on questions of how to approach Grieg at all (which I had been struggling with, in my own modest ways, about a year ago). Particularly in light of the specific texts, it is no easy matter to get beyond Michael Flanders' old "more sherbet than Schubert" quip and tap into the "cultural bedrock" of this music (the motivation behind Robert Mann's advice about understanding a composer by understanding his folk music). As I had written, the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer eventually helped me find that bedrock; and it would not surprise me to learn that Melton may still be prospecting.

Similarly, the Grieg was preceded by beginning the program by skating onto thin ice (an appropriate metaphor for Grieg's Norwegian influence). Johann Sebastian Bach was listed as the composer; but, on the basis of current scholarship, this was true of only the third of the songs performed, "Dir, dir, Jehova, will ich singen." The second, "Bist du bei mir," was by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel; and both of these songs are included in the 1725 Klavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach. The first, "Komt, Seelen, dieser Tag," like the third, is from a Pietist hymnal edited by George Christian Schemelli; however, in this case current thinking is that Bach took his melody from some other source, rather than composing his own. The Pietistic movement in German Protestantism involved a very personal and expressive declaration of faith. Putting aside the question of how appropriate this was for the auditorium of a synagogue, they provide a good example of that lack of "attenuated intensity," since, however overtly expressive these hymns may be, their level of expression is definitely not that of the nineteenth-century opera house!

Melton was much more in her comfort zone after the intermission, with art songs by Johannes Brahms and Strauss, as well as a "cabaret assortment," which included Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, and Benjamin Britten. The Britten, set to a text by Wystan Hugh Auden, was probably the most effective, particularly with a concluding gesture of staging that involved accompanist Parr. I have a personal affection for Weill's setting of Bertolt Brecht's "Barbarasong," composed for Die Dreigroschenoper, since it provides such a sharp-edged reflection on just-say-no morality. Still, that edge requires scrupulous dramatic attention to each successive delivery of "Nein" in the text that I felt was missing in this particular performance.

Having laid my critical cards on the table, I should conclude by observing that this was a Debut Recital Series. As I have already observed, Melton set some major challenges for a "first time out" offering; and, had she not selected the composers she did, I might not have been drawn to her recital in the first place. Thus, while she is far from the student performers about whom I wrote on Saturday, hers is still very much a world of the "lifelong learning" I cited in that post. Therefore, I shall continue to follow her progress at the San Francisco Opera at my same level of enthusiastic appreciation and would be only to happy to hear her next recital to take stock of her personal learning experiences.

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