Search This Blog

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Norman Conquest

More from the Vault Dept.: In an earlier piece I posted today, former Proctor’s Theater artistic director Dennis Madden noted (in 1987) that his pursuit of a recital by opera star Jessye Norman “was a three-year project. I wanted her ever since Musical America yearbook named her Artist of the Year. She doesn’t do a lot of recitals.” She sang at the Schenectady theater on Mon., Feb. 2, 1987. In the week leading to her recital, even as she was performing to full houses at the Metropolitan Opera, ticket sales were abysmal. Two days following her Proctor's appearance, Norman was scheduled to repeat the program at Carnegie Hall, which sold out well in advance, and with such demand that another hundred seats were sold onstage. And Carnegie Hall is the same size as Proctor's. Ultimately, something like 600 tickets were sold. And 600 smart people enjoyed the program I describe below.


JESSYE NORMAN IS A POET. She proved it in the course of her song recital at Proctor’s Theatre Monday night. Sure, she’s a top-ranking soprano – but you don’t get up to be a brigadier general in the opera world without something in addition to a fine voice.

With Norman, it’s simple and obvious. She adores the songs she sings. She explores them, crawls into the viscera of each and discovers truths that aren’t apparent on the page.

And then she woos and captures her audience with her insights.

If local opera fans had any problem with the recital, it was in the programming. Not designed to win the heart of the aria fanatic, it featured a diverse collection of songs by Mahler, Berg, Poulenc, Quilter, and Ives.

Such a program really is a relief from the “Best of” line-up you get on big-deal television shindigs; unfortunately, there isn’t as keen a following.

Pianist Geoffrey Parsons deserves a big slice of the credit for the success of Norman’s recital; from the first number, Haydn’s “Arianna a Naxos,” he proved to be a skilled equal partner in the conception and delivery of every song.

Norman swept onstage with all the dignity and none of the hauteur of a diva, gorgeously draped in a colorful, diaphanous gown.

She has a multitude of shadings with which to color the selections, a technique that not only served to distinguish the various episodes of the Haydn cantata but also to shape each song in the Mahler-Berg set.

Four selections from Gustav Mahler’s “Des Knabes Wunderhorn” were deftly twined with five songs by Alban Berg, and it was in the latter’s work that Norman was most surprising. Beginning with a setting of Rilke’s “Liebe,” she proved that there need be nothing austere about Berg interpretation. The styling she gave it was reminiscent of a German cabaret of the 20s, sassy and rhythmic. “Schliesse mir die Augen beide,” on the other hand (in the first of two settings she sang) was a delicate lullaby, in contrast to the atonal version Berg wrote almost two decades later.

The second half began with four Poulenc songs, the first, “Voyage à Paris,” sung with the kind of humor you wish you could find in a tour-bus guide. The set wound through the slow (“Montparnasse”) and contemplative (“La Grenouillere”) before zipping out in a patter song (“Avant le Cinema”).

To intersperse songs by Charles Ives and Roger Quilter is to prove how Victorian Quilter’s settings really were: the contrast to the more free-flowing Ives was astounding.

A haunting selection from “The Incantation” was magical; “Memories” ran a gamut from the broadly comic (“Very Pleasant”), to wistful song (“Rather Sad”) so unabashedly sentimental that there were a lot of eyes being discreetly dabbed, mine included.

Quilter, on the other hand, gave us such sturdy thoughts as “Blow, blow thou winter wind” and the concert closer, “Love’s Philosophy,” a kind of secular “Onward, Christian Soldiers” that resulted in a standing ovation.

The three encores, insisted upon by the happy house, included Norman’s trademark “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and the up-tempo spiritual “Great Day.” 

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, February 3, 1987

No comments: