Dallas — This review, about the performance of mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade with composer Jake Heggie at the piano, courtesy of The Dallas Opera’s Titus Art Song Recital Series, has proven to be quite difficult to write. There is a collection of many discarded false starts: in an earlier age there would have been a pile of crumpled papers and another defiantly blank one waiting. The reason for this is that it was such a marvelous experience that the previous attempts at a review were little more than a thesaurus of superlatives.
Frequently, you will read a comment that the artist’s informality made you feel like you were in their living room. However, what happened on Sunday, Jan. 31, achieved something even more magical than that. Their informality never lost sight of the fact that this was still a concert. We never kicked off our shoes. Instead, the two artists turned Dallas City Performance Hall into a living room. The effect is hard to explain in words, but an inadequate metaphor might be that the atmosphere of the performance was similar to a house concert.
The concert, titled “A Life in Song,” is an autobiographical collection of her favorite songs from a career that spans 45 years and appearances in major opera houses and concert halls around the world. (That sentence comes from my interview with her about the concert.)
Her very personal narrative ran from serious to amusing and on to knee-slapping funny, but she wasn’t doing standup or cracking jokes. Au contraire, this was the humor of the human condition that we all experience everyday of our lives: triumphs and disappointments in equal measure. But, her ordinary life is also extraordinary. Von Stade held the title of Greatest Mezzo on the Planet for decades, a crown she symbolically passed to Joyce DiDonato in Heggie’s newest opera, Great Scott, commissioned by The Dallas Opera and premiered last year.
Heggie has been around for a lot of her life, both professionally and personally. He is blessed with a million-dollar smile and an equally easygoing manner, so the two old friends interacted with charm on both a musical and personal level. Most everyone in the audience wished that they were a part of that special relationship as well. And after awhile, as the concert progressed, we were easily welcomed in. It was quite remarkable.
They say that 70 is the new 40 (I certainly hope so) and von Stade is a proof of that postulation. Vocally, she doesn’t sound all that different than she did decades ago. Her rich mezzo is gorgeous and also unique: you can tell it is her after hearing just a few notes. She still exudes her universal flavor of charm that made her so completely believable as a boy in many pants roles, such as Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
The music on the program was not a “and then I sang” compilation of her hit arias. In fact, the two opera selections on the program were from relatively unknown operas. The better-known and heartbreaking aria is from Massenet’s Werther and the other is from the almost completely forgotten comic opera Mignon by Ambroise Thomas (who?).
One interesting fact is that the Mignon aria is sung by a mezzo-as-male; the only example on the program of her pants roles fame.
We can give her another gold star because every song on the program, except for the two arias and a song by Mahler, was written in the 20th and 21st centuries, with a strong representation of American composers. This extraordinary programming effort raised the concert to laudable levels before a single note was sung.
Von Stade has always been a valuable friend to composers, from the famous to the still striving, by singing their music and offering wise council about writing for the voice.
While the actual songs on the program were all terrific and represent the best of the best, any of the selections could have been changed out without affecting the impact of the concert. Well, except for one. Carol Hall’s “Jenny Rebecca” was released when her daughter was born and the title of the song became her name.
Most of the songs were by familiar composers, but the selections were mostly rarities. The Puccini song “L’uccellino” is new to almost everyone. Of course, there were a couple of excellent songs by Heggie (“Paper Wings,” “A Route to the Sky” and “Primary Colors”) and it is always revealing to hear a composer play his own music.
Some of the other composers represented are on the Who’s Who list: Ravel ("Tout Gai"), Rorem (“I Am Rose”), Poulenc (“Voyage a Paris”), Bolcom ("Early in the Morning"), Virgil Thompson (“Prayer to St. Catherine"), and Copland ("Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven"). There is little to be gained by discussing each one and what a marvelous job she and Heggie did. That would take me back to my list of superlatives.
However, here is something that sums up von Stade’s approach She sang one encore in response to the overwhelming ovation from the nearly sold out house. When she returned, she said something like “well, I only know one more encore and this is it.”
It can’t be true, of course, and everyone knew it.
We would have loved to hear either of Cherubino’s two short arias from Figaro and the wish list goes on and one. Her natural charm on exhibit telling us, in the nicest way possible, that one more was all we were going to get.