The music of Francis Poulenc, Gabriel Fauré, and Charles Gounod are done time and time again. So much so that they often become stale and underperformed by singers wanting to pass them off as a few sets of art. But when they are sung by an artist who breathes new life into them, that is when they become exciting and new again. Such was the case last night at Zankel Hall by Alice Coote and Graham Johnson at the ivories. Though imperfect at moments, Ms. Coote and Mr. Johnson managed to dust off the scores and ignite the air with magical musical revelry.
As she took the stage, Ms. Coote wore a simple black silk blouse paired with black pants and black high heals. But she was draped with a creamy white sheer coat with black abstract swirls splashed upon it. And every time she left the stage, the coat got more dramatic in its design. The beginning of the second act found her in solid dark plum while the final article was pitch black; an absolutely genius idea, and a visceral visual example of how a singer can use something simple and create a greatly profound effect.
The effects continued as Ms. Coote also showed she was not afraid of a pianissimo as a device to draw the audience into her rich, earthly tone, which, again, worked perfectly. Particularly in her first piece by Reynaldo Hahn, “L’heure exquise.” She has at her command a very unique voice that is both brash and beautiful.
But she also has the happy talent of interpretation. To watch her sing these songs was akin to watching a good actress transform herself into a great one. The level of pathos that she reached in Ernest Chausson’s “Le temps des lilas” was unparalleled to any such attempt this season. A level that reached its fevered pitch in Hahn’s “Fumée.” Her voice broke in this piece, but smoke is not a solid object. It has holes and is transparent, and spaced with nothingness. That was not merely a vocal hiccup, that was a perfect imperfection.
Ms. Coote could then emerge from depths of drama to a high arch of gayety as she skillfully did ending “Le temps des lilas,” and segued seamlessly into Fauré’s “Fleur jetée.”
Even though there were moments where her voice caught on a note or two, and though she sang from music at a stand (which she used as a crutch from time to time), these misgivings can be overlooked when the quality of the voice is as brilliant as hers, and when the interpretations are as connective as hers. In Alfred Bachelet’s “Chère nuit” she drew her breath into the phrase “Ah! Lève” which gave it great color and emotion.
Ms. Coote possesses this inexhaustible energy that explodes on stage and illuminates the audience from entrance to exit. One hopes New York will see many more entrances in the seasons to come.
Her final effect came at the very end of the recital when as the final chords fell on her final piece, they began again the very first song of the evening. It was an absolutely brilliant final trick from up her short, colorful sleeve.
For more information about Carnegie Hall, click here.
For more information about Alice Coote, click here.
For more information about Graham Johnson, click here.