Sunday, April 25, 2010

Voi che sapete

On Thursday morning, I opened an e-mail from Carnegie Hall, detailing the concerts included in this week's student ticket program. The first listing was for that very evening: the farewell recital of Frederica von Stade. I called (no, they weren't sold out! your loss, other students of New York!), I went, I purchased. On the one hand, I felt a bit shy, as if I were trying to be part of something I hadn't earned by attending a tribute to a career I hadn't been around to follow. On the other hand... I knew her recorded Cherubino as a thing of beauty, and, in a carpe diem sort of mood, I decided that if there could only be one night when my opera-going and Frederica von Stade's singing coincided, then one night there would certainly be.

And a lovely, light-hearted night it was, of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art songs, with some popular songs (e.g. "La Vie en Rose") thrown in, all accompanied by Martin Katz; the full program is viewable here. Some tears were wiped away, but it was a night of joy: even Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" (which she sang so beautifully that I momentarily suspended my bitter dislike of it) couldn't depress the mood. The force of Ms. von Stade's legendary charm flooded the house; she sang with apparently inexhaustible verve, and clad in dresses which suited her admirably: black and white for the first half, a gorgeous black-and-teal taffeta affair for the second. I was impressed.

In a surprising twist, which I found myself liking despite some initial doubts, the program was organized loosely around themes from Ms. von Stade's life. Among tidbits learned was the fact that her father wanted to name her Sieglinde Winifred, "as if Frederica weren't enough of a challenge!" Jake Heggie, Ravel, Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland took us through her childhood; both "A Prayer to Saint Catherine" and "Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven?" I found especially affecting. The top of her range sounded a bit more exposed than I expected, but she sang securely and with dramatic sense throughout the evening. And the audience paid her the compliment of shutting up. I was terribly worried when the fading of the last chords of the first two pieces was drowned by delirious applause... but things actually did settle down, and appropriate silences were (mostly) observed, with the bravas being (mostly) reserved for the most effective pieces.

Quoting Dame Kiri te Kanawa as asserting that "you'd be silly not to" love Paris, Ms. von Stade gave several songs celebrating the city of light, including two from the "Jardins de Paris" cycle by Marc Berthomieu, whom I have resolved to discover (the program diplomatically states that his music "awaits rediscovery.") Just before the interval, Richard Stilwell and Samuel Ramey joined her for the sweetly melancholy "Some Other Time" from On the Town, with lyrics adapted for aptitude, and clear, contented rapport among the singers. Frederica von Stade stood between the two gentlemen, turning to them alternately... until, that is, Samuel Ramey, instead of gently taking her extended hand on his "turn," grabbed her by both shoulders and spun her to face him. "Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso, notte e giorno d'intorno girando!" The complicit pianist cheekily continued as she--and the entire house--recovered from breathless laughter. Above, the New York Times photographer captured her affectionately scolding him for the prank.

Gems from the second half of the program included "Lob des hohen Verstandes" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (connected with the audition process! ha!) and the utterly charming "Je suis dans son boudoir" from Ambroise Thomas' Mignon. "Connais-tu le pays" was also lovely; I just always hear the German in my head. A first-time musical discovery for me was Pauline Viardot's "Die Sterne." Gorgeous. Of course, there had to be encores. Two were planned: Kern & Hammerstein's "I've told every little star," and, as a duet with her daughter Jenny Rebecca, Chris Brubeck's tender "Across Your Dreams" (she has an album of the same title).

The third encore, given in response to prolonged stamping and shouting... was this:

Yes yes yes. The opening phrases had been quoted by Mr. Katz at several points during the evening, but when they began in earnest, here, they were hailed with delighted spatters of applause, brava, grazie... and she crossed herself (laughter), and sang. Thank you, universe! Sure, her voice isn't young, but I still felt it was a privilege to hear her inside a character, and with the music, which she knew and loved so well. The doors closed after that, but still more rowdy acclaim--including an enthusiastic "Vivat, Flicka! Vivat!"--brought "Ah, quel diner!" from La Périchole (which I did not recognize, and, not thinking to check Carnegie, spent several hours tracking down through combinations of keywords involving French operetta and intoxication on YouTube. Ah well, let no one say that hours spent in opera "research" are wasted!) Here she is singing it with great gusto for James Levine. And as if to offer final proof of high spirits she delivered it on this evening with exaggerated theatricality worthy of the Marx Brothers. And then, at last, too soon, the evening was over. Brava.

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