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Opera singer Susan Graham at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Sept. 15, 2011. (The Globe and Mail)
Opera singer Susan Graham at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Sept. 15, 2011. (The Globe and Mail)

Music: Concert review

Susan Graham brings iconic women to life Add to ...

Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau At Koerner Hall in Toronto on Saturday

Some recitals by opera singers feel like exercises in delayed gratification. The star sings a short, dutiful collection of concert numbers, possibly dusted off from student days. Then the extended encore set begins, full of the opera arias that everyone was hoping to hear.

Not so with Susan Graham. This wonderful American mezzo-soprano’s current recital tour (which started in Quebec City on January 6 and finishes this week at Carnegie Hall and Washington’s Kennedy Centre) features a carefully curated, thematic program, and no opera arias, not even in the encores.

Graham’s idea was to present a portrait gallery in song of female figures who have resonated through literature and other arts. Her dramatis personae included Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Goethe’s Mignon and the Virgin Mary.

“It’s completely new music for me,” she told me in an interview last spring. “The working title for it is Girls, Girls, Girls, because it’s all about iconic female characters.”

That title didn’t appear in the fat Koerner Hall program, nor unfortunately was there any word about what Graham was up to. Some people in the audience may have been puzzled as to why she grouped together six songs by as many composers writing in three different languages. The answer is that all were settings of Goethe’s four Mignon poems, from his influential novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.

These made for a fascinating study of what talents as dissimilar as Franz Liszt, Henri Duparc and Hugo Wolf could make of a single text ( Kennst du das Land). And, of course, it gave us a chance to witness Graham’s stunning versatility, as she shifted from one language and style to another.

Her voice was in fabulous form, strong and clear throughout her range, and full of colours that could change in an instant. It was thrilling to hear that focused, entirely natural-sounding voice fill up the hall through a big crescendo, and also to hear how much she could convey in sotto voce. Her clear diction made the most of the hard edges and soft surfaces of each language, including Russian, which she had never sung before assembling this program.

She’s a dramatic singer through and through. Even if you had never seen her in a costumed role, you would know from this recital that she’s a great singer-actress. It helped that she chose items such as Henry Purcell’s Tell Me, Some Pitying Angel, a real-time portrayal of unease whose dynamic mixture of recitative and formal song seemed astoundingly forward-looking. In Berlioz’s understated La mort d’Ophélie, Graham’s fluid performance of a single syllable (the melodicized “Ah!” that ends the song) seemed to show Ophelia’s voice becoming one with the rippling water figures in the piano.

Lady Macbeth, a recent monodrama by English composer Joseph Horovitz, was a stern and vigorous setting of peak episodes in the character’s Shakespearean incarnation, made even more vivid by Graham’s marcato accents on each syllable of “there’s knocking at the gate.” In the six songs of Francis Poulenc’s Françailles pour rire ( Engagement for Laughs), Graham beautifully parsed the composer’s subtle transits between lightheartedness, sensuality, and the cool yet sensitive feeling that ran through numbers like Mon cadavre. She gave the louche waltz in Violon a terrific sexy langour, changing gears immediately for the final song, Fleurs, which like the earlier Dans l’herbe brought a trace of stately religious feeling to a secular text.

Pianist Malcolm Martineau partnered her with extreme care and alertness even when silent, as in the dramatic suspension of breath that occurred midway through La mort d’Ophélie. At times a bit more piano wouldn’t have crowded the star, and sometimes Martineau's tone was thin, for example in the first keyboard outburst in Wolf’s Kennst du das Land (which the program mistitled, by the way).

Graham’s six encores included sparkling Broadway numbers by Cole Porter, Vernon Duke and Stephen Sondheim, as well as (I Can Be a) Sexy Lady, a song written for her by Ben Moore, about the trials of spending most of your stage career in trouser roles. The loveliest of the postprogram numbers was Reynaldo Hahn’s faux-baroque A Chloris, which suited Graham so well, it might also have been written for her.

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