On Friday, February 4, La Maison Française (the Embassy of France) presented the latest in its new series of art song recitals. (See the Ionarts review, by Jens Laurson, of the first concert in the series last November with French baritone François Le Roux.) The guiding light of these concerts is Belgian pianist Mikhail Hallak, director of Theater of Voices, who put together the program of "Divas on the Edge: Women on the brink of a nervous breakdown" and who accompanied sopranos Christine Antenbring and Lyubov Petrova. Ms. Petrova made noted operatic débuts at the Met in 2001 (Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos) and in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor here at the Washington National Opera in 2002. (She will sing the role of Elvira in next season's L'Italiana in Algeri, with Olga Borodina and Juan Diego Flórez, in May 2006.)
After an introduction by the French Embassy's Cultural Attaché, Mr. Hallak presented his idea of the program, to create a song cycle—artificially, from the single songs of various composers—in a woman's voice. Of the grand song cycles, he said, only Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben was truly conceived from a woman's point of view, and there Schumann actually chose not to set the final poem of the set, leaving it incomplete. (Die Winterreise, although occasionally sung by women like Brigitte Fassbaender, is still a male cycle.) The two sopranos shared a selection of 22 songs in French, German, Russian, Swedish, and English, chosen according to six themes in a woman's life, "Youth and Anticipation," "Love, Fruition," "Betrayal, Loss," "On the Edge," "Motherhood," and "Reclaiming." What this program did not possess in unity, it made up for in variety of tone and vocal character. Ms. Petrova, not surprisingly, seemed most at home in the Russian songs (Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky), while Ms. Antenbring was apparently quite comfortable singing in Swedish (three songs by Sibelius in Swedish versions) and, in some cases, her native English.
The beginning of the program struck me as a little rough around the edges. This was not helped by the choice of a Gershwin song, The Man I Love, as the second song presented by Ms. Antenbring. This type of singer attempting to sing Gershwin is almost always unbecoming, and this was no exception. Happily, this somewhat disappointing first section was not indicative of the beautiful things to come. By the end of the second section, Ms. Antenbring's rendition of Sibelius's Den Första Kyssen and Ms. Petrova's rollicking waltz in Lehar's Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden were excellent examples of the emotional and vocal range of the two singers.
The largest group of songs was in the "Betrayal, Loss" section, with six songs where the others had at most four. At least since Ovid's Heroides, the subject of women cruelly betrayed by their lovers has proved fertile ground for artistic enjoyment, so it makes sense that this theme would be so prominent in the program. Although Ms. Petrova gave a strong rendition of Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade (with Mr. Hallak whirring away at the spinning wheel), her desolated emotional performance of Hugo Wolf's Das verlassene Mägdelein (The forsaken servant-girl, a poem by Eduard Mörike) was the high point of the first half for me. Of all the bereft women presented in this section, Petrova's servant-girl struck me as the most crushed.
The greatest musical interest came with the opening of the second half of this recital. The women "On the Edge," from which the program takes its name, are truly disturbed. Dominick Argento's War (From the Diary of Virginia Woolf) sets a partial entry in the journal of the British novelist. At the outbreak of World War II, she wrote, "I can't conceive that there will be a 27th June 1941." As Mr. Hallak related in his introductory remarks at the opening of the concert, within a few months of writing that, before the date mentioned arrived, she drowned herself. This piece is a dramatic monologue for soprano, performed movingly by Ms. Antenbring. The piano comments with a very sparse accompaniment, especially an agitated percussive tremolo in the high register that is not tonally related to anything else. Another motif in the bass reiterates sol-do constantly, the most predictable resolution in the tonal vocabulary, except that the song ends on sol at the lines quoted above, while the piano further annihilates any sense of resolution with its high-register tremolo. That sense of mortal fear is also found in Epouvante, with text and music by Olivier Messiaen. It begins and ends on a series of moaning syllables, playing around a half-step motif (as written, "Ha, ha, ha," it looks like laughter in English, but it is far from it). As in the Argento song, the piano comments with gorgeously complex Messiaen chords on a mostly unrelated vocal line, in which Ms. Petrova dramatically related the graphic text ("Don't pull, don't crease, don't tear. / The bloodiest shreds would pursue you in the dark / Like a triangular lump of vomit").
The Salome side of womanhood, in a sense, was represented by Richard Strauss's Frühlingsfeier, on Heinrich Heine's beautiful poem, which has as a refrain the frenzied cry of Venus, "Adonis! Adonis!," when she discovers her lover gored by a wild boar. Ms. Antenbring was at her best in this song, and in the one that followed it as well, Kurt Weill's cabaret song Je ne t'aime pas. This piece played nicely to Ms. Antenbring's dramatic strengths, leading up to a very emotional final line, shouted, which is the title of the song. This led, somewhat incongruously into the "Motherhood" section of the program, beginning with Rachmaninov's beautiful but perhaps overdone Vocalise, sung by Ms. Petrova. Since this piece has no text, it could be grafted onto almost any meaning, and it worked quite well as an expression of the joy of motherhood. (It was also the exact reverse of the nauseating wordlessness of the earlier Messiaen song.) Ms. Antenbring followed this with the best find of the concert, at least for me, Leonard Bernstein's Greeting, whose text he also wrote:
When a boy is born,Perhaps it is because I am the relatively new father of a boy and a girl, but this poem and song moved me deeply. The vocal part is introduced by a series of lush, soft chords that incarnate that "American sound" which may or may not have been invented by gay composers (as argued by Nadine Hubbs and disputed by Anthony Tommasini, among others). You can say what you want about the irrelevance of modernism, but that language, dissonant and only nominally tonal, is now as normal to our ears, I think, as Mozart. This was matched by an equally lush Tchaikovsky Lullaby, which ended with Ms. Petrova's excellent, pure, high floating tone. As Mr. Hallak announced in acknowledgment of the concluding applause, "When you have two sopranos, you need two encores." Ms. Petrova obliged us with an unannounced Rimsky-Korsakov song, followed by Ms. Antenbring's performance of Bernstein's boogie-woogie I Can Cook, Too.
Femmes au bord de la Crise de nerfs, and then some: the evening's recital's ambitious aim was to achieve what men have not achieved over the last 30,000-some years: to understand and capture the essence of women. Despite the title that had women on the brink of a nervous breakdown, the actual concert as it was finalized by Mr. Hallak, the young director of the Theatre of Voices concert series at the French Embassy and accomplished pianist, was changed to include not only that thin line of despair and anguish, ecstasy and love, but also everything in between. The sections of the recital, grouping 22 songs from 14 composers from 7 countries into 6 subsections, reflected the nature of this survey of women. Of course it was, save for the two sopranos and 3 ½ female poets (by my counting), an all-male undertaking. Not entirely inappropriate, methinks, because it tends to be men who strive so hard (if, alas, in vain) to understand and observe women... only to be baffled. Women, not claiming that they don't indulge in self-reflection, simply are.
This was the second concert of the Theatre of Voices, and after the first one, despite the formidable François LeRoux, was sparsely attended due to the elections that night, this concert was sold out to the last seat.
The singers were the young Russian Lyubov Petrova and Canadian Christine Antenbring, a recent "Joy in Singing" award winner. They shared the songs between them, Mlle. Petrova taking the Russian and most of the German songs, while Mme. Antenbring sang the lion's share of the French and American songs, as well as three songs by Sibelius in Swedish. Lyubov Petrova started with Rachmaninov's Lilacs, with a natural, not very big tone that had plenty of dramatic tension to it. But only by her second Russian song did she warm up and filled the auditorium at La Maison Française with her voice, now audibly an operatic instrument. Not surprising but obvious, especially after the preceding Richard Strauss Säusle Liebe Myrte!, she felt much more at home in the Russian repertoire. Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade exposed her voice as not being a Lieder voice with a very operatic presentation and room for improvement with the German pronunciation. Still, if you are young and cute, "Hartz" instead of "Hertz" has a sort-of endearing quality. Her Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden by Lehar (culled from Paganini) was full out, gorgeous, beautifully noisy.
Christine Antenbring, mature beyond her young age and a recent mother, sang Debussy, Sibelius, Gershwin, and Wolf in a husky, whiskey-hued voice that betrayed the former mezzo soprano. Anyone with young infants will know how much sleep mothers get. I myself must guess, but I venture to say: close to none. It could be heard, too, in that the voice was at times veiled and the high notes gone. The difference in voices, though, even accounting for sleep deprivation, was interesting. Mlle. Petrova's was sharp and crystalline; Mme. Antenbring's beautifully warm and broader, like cutting hard with a dull knife.
Mikhail Hallak, as coincidence would have it, also a recent father, also sleep-deprived, pulled off his usual disappearing act. He achieved, save for the Sibelius songs in which he was up front with his sound, to have the audience forget his presence in full view and audibility—by all means a compliment. He was as sensitive and successful an accompanist as the performers could have hoped for.
The second half, starting with the "On the Edge" section, was full of gems. War, Dominick Argento's setting to the Virginia Wolf diary excerpt had fiendishly difficult unaccompanied passages for Antenbring's voice. And if that voice wasn't quite in perfect shape yet, the song and felt interpretation made it a delectable discovery... and very different from the more mellow, gorgeous Casa Guidi with Frederica von Stade. Petrova's Epouvante (Messiaen) was "on the edge," indeed: it was piercing, wide- and wild-eyed, fatefully determined and half-demented, making her colleague's following Frühlingsfeier (R. Strauss) rather a disappointment.
But if I had thought up until that point that this recital was a lopsided affair in favor of Petrova, I was set straight by Kurt Weill's Je ne t’aime pas. This was Weill and Antenbring at their very best, and the only initial response I could muster was "Wow." In its French reincarnation, the song becomes a powerful love song, and it was delivered with all the dramatic gusto that one can hear in Piaf recordings, only with a finer voice twice as big. It changed the dynamic of the evening, and of all the troubles that had audibly plagued Mme. Antenbring so far, nothing could be heard.
Petrova stepped up to the challenge with a wonderful, if slightly short-breathed Rachmaninov Vocalise, a legato (and pronunciation) reminiscent of a Sutherland aria. Her Tchaikovsky Lullaby was relaxed and comfortable, with some of those fine pianissimo heights she can muster, but it reminded me of Hallak's quizzically related comment about Petrova's wish to sing songs about motherhood: "A woman... not yet, motherhood... ?" It was indeed not a lullaby of a mother to child, but of an opera singer to an imaginary child. Which, unless you are the imaginary child, isn't necessarily a bad thing. (Still so different from what makes Jessye Norman's Wiegenlied one of the most amazing moments in music: audibly an 800-pound gorilla, holding and singing to a child with utmost tenderness. You can hear that she could sing the infant into the stratosphere and yet controls herself completely.)
Petrova's Neue Liebe (Wolf) was very well done, and her encore, a short Rimsky-Korsakov song, was sung totally delighted and delighted totally. It must have been fun to sing, no doubt; fun to hear: certainly. But even ending on such (forgive the pun) a high note, it was topped by Christine Antenbring's a julia de burgos from Julia de Burgos's Songfest, set to music by Leonard Bernstein. Listening to that, and the completely ravishing, funny, mildly raunchy Bernstein encore I can cook, too!, made everyone understand why she had won a "Joy in Singing" prize.
The enthusiastic applause made clear that, for whatever individual flaws and despite the (too?) challenging program, the evening as a whole was an unqualified success. And, if the names Jennifer Larmore and François Le Roux weren't convincing enough, it set me drooling in anticipation for the Theatre of Voices Gala Concert at La Maison Française on Thursday, April 14th.
Upcoming events at La Maison Française (4101 Reservoir Road NW, in Georgetown) worth your attention include the French Baroque group Le Poème Harmonique (Friday, March 11, at 8 pm), and a Theater of Voices gala concert featuring Jennifer Larmore, François Leroux, and Mikhail Hallak (Thursday, April 14).