Last night’s concert in the San Francisco Performances Salon Series at the Hotel Rex featured soprano Marina Harris, mezzo Laura Krumm, and pianist Robert Mollicone, all concluding their respective tenures as second-year Adler Fellows with the San Francisco Opera (SFO). The program featured two opera duets, two arias, and a fascinating selection of art songs in French, German, and English. The result was a highly engaging valedictory experience as three promising talents prepare themselves to rise to the next level. (For Mollicone that level will be a staff position for the next SFO season.)
While both vocalists have spent the last two years specializing in the performance of opera scores in the demanding setting of an opera house stage, it was their approach to the art song repertoire that was particularly outstanding. To some extent this may have been due to the fact that Mollicone got to be the piano accompanist, rather than a surrogate for an orchestra. However, it also allowed those of us on audience side to experience ventures into texts that were far more literate than those of most opera libretti.
Krumm led the way with Chansons grises (grey songs), settings of seven poems by Paul Verlaine composed by Reynaldo Hahn. Hahn was born in Caracas, but his family moved from Venezuela to Paris when he was three years old, meaning that, for all intents and purposes, French was his primary language. He began working on Chansons grises at the age of twelve and completed the set over the course of three years. His sensitivity to Verlaine’s words was impressive for one so young, particularly when it was reported that the songs moved Verlaine himself to tears. In addition, his approach to chromaticism in several of the songs suggested that he was still subjected to Latin American influences; and there are “pre-jazz” qualities that would echo into the twentieth century through composers such as Michel Legrand.
The warm sultry tones of Krumm’s mezzo voice were perfectly suited to Hahn’s rhetorical approach to these songs. Not only could she capture the poignant sensuousness of the text through her secure command of the score; but also she reinforced her musical interpretation with body language that kept her “in character” from one song to the next. These were performances that communicated, even for those who could not follow Krumm’s solid command of her diction in French.
Harris was similarly effective in her power to communicate. In her case the poems were Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, set by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, also in his early teens. Eichendorff has been a favorite for composers of art song extending all the way back to Franz Schubert. Here, again, Harris could capture the imagery of the words based only on a brief verbal introduction and without written accounts of the texts in either German or English translation. In this case, however, one sensed that Korngold was not content to accompany the singer with only the resources of a piano; and, even as a teenager, he showed signs that he could not wait to get his hands on a full orchestra.
The relationship between pianist and vocalist was more convincing in Harris’ account of two of the songs from Jake Heggie’s Natural Selection. This is a setting of five poems by Gini Savage; and the two that Harris performed were “Animal passion” and “Alas! Alack!” The first of these is a paean in praise of uninhibited sexuality for which Heggie came up with a musical language that captured the raw qualities of every one of Savage’s salacious phrases. Harris had no trouble shedding any trace of inhibition with a command of diction that made sure that the listener did not miss the slightest detail in Savage’s vivid text. “Alas! Alack!” was a clever bit of reflection on opera clichés, given an equally clear account by Harris; but “Animal passion” will always be a tough act to follow.
Less effective were the selections in which Mollicone was filling in for an orchestra. This was particularly evident in Harris’ decision to perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 505 “Ch’io mi scordi di te” (were I to forget you). Harris introduced this as an aria originally intended to be sung by Idamante in the K. 366 opera Idomeneo; but the music is far from a factory reject. Instead, in its original form, it is a stunning example of how Mozart could turn an aria into a sinfonia concertante by adding one or more obbligato solo instrument lines. In K. 505 that instrument is the piano, and the aria amounts to a movement from a concerto for piano and voice. Because Mollicone had no good way to separate the piano solo from the rest of the accompaniment, the full musical impact of this aria never really registered, even with Harris’ capable interpretation of the dramatic text.
Krumm’s Mozart selection, Sesto’s aria “Parto, ma tu ben mio” (I go, but, my dearest, make peace again with me) from the K. 621 opera La clemenza di Tito (the clemency of Titus), also had this sinfonia concertante logic. In this case, however, the solo instrument was a clarinet; and Krumm explained this in introducing the song. It was thus easier to be aware of the clarinet line while listening to Mollicone’s accompaniment, meaning that Krumm’s sympathetic account allowed for a better appreciation of Mozart’s qualities as a composer.
The Salon program began and ended with the only two duet selections. The opening was “Ah, guarda sorella” (oh, look, sister), the duet for Fiordiligi and Dorabella from the second scene of the first act of Mozart’s K. 588 Così fan tutte (thus do all women). This was a musically solid account enhanced with a minimum of staged gestures and posturing. Nevertheless, the subtleties of the dramatic substrate could not be given an adequate account when this duet was extracted from its proper context. Thus, the primary service of the music was to introduce the admirable qualities of the vocalists before they undertook their solo duties. On the other hand the “Flower Duet” from Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly fared better, in part because the overall dramatic structure of that opera is not as sophisticated but also because that duet serves up some truly stunning virtuoso moments. Harris and Krumm could not have picked a better choice to “sign off” this valedictory recital.