Les mauvaises filles sont toujours plus divertissant

Susan Graham: Photo by Dario Acosta

Perusing the program as we waited for the lights to dim, Isabella quietly said, "You always take me to see such fluff."

"Filth?" I replied, my misunderstanding of her words surely based on her lack of appreciation for the genius of Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, which I had been watching earlier in the evening.

"Fluff," she replied, with a wry smile.

The lights dimmed and Susan Graham strode onstage dressed in a form-fitting, an almost blindingly white dress which made her look simultaneously sexy and angelic. Accompanist Malcom Martineau followed behind her in white tie. She smiled, graciously acknowledged the audience's applause and they immediately went into Henry Purcell's "The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation (Tell Me, Some Pitying Angel)"- a scena published in 1693. Next came Berlioz's "La Mort d'Ophelie (The Death of Ophelia)" composed in 1842. Both of these selections are familiar territory for the mezzo and she sang them with vivid expression and conviction.

She followed with six songs with texts drawn from Goethe's Wilhem Meister composed by Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Henri Duparc and Hugo Wolf (performed in that order). Liszt and Wolf used the same text and the contrast in musical styles was telling, with the latter providing a much more dramatic interpretation of "Kennst du das Land (Knowest thou where?)."

Intermission followed. Up to this point the performance was absolutely first rate, and I was especially impressed by Martineau's accompaniment. However, it wasn't exciting nor illuminating. One expects a singer of Graham's stature to be able to sing these kinds of works extremely well, and she did just that, pleasing the audience to be sure, but offering little beyond exhibiting her already known and established formidable talents. That's certainly not a bad thing, especially given the ritualistic nature of the format followed by opera singers, but recitals I've attended in the past year by Hvorostovsky, Kaufmann, Blythe (and what I heard about Mattila's) have raised the bar on what excites me.

For the second half, Graham came onstage in a dark, sequined gown, cut to bare her right shoulder and arm. She looked elegant... and hot. There's no other way to put it, and the audience let her know it. She responded by vamping it up a bit as she made her way toward the piano and though an explanation of the sartorial juxtaposition was really unnecessary, she gave us one, speaking to the audience for the first time to explain the first half of the program was about "good girls" and the second would feature music about women with "a more dubious moral compass." Needless to say, I found this pleasing.

She began with Joseph Horovitz's Lady Macbeth, composed in 1970 using texts from the Scottish Play. After Martineau played the introduction, Isabella whispered "Iambic pentameter" in my ear- an observation about the music I would have missed otherwise. Graham delivered it with relish, giving an excellent performance dramatically and vocally and here the recital became something special.

She followed with six songs by composed by Poulenc in 1939 set to poems by Louise de Vilmorin and collectively called Fiancailles pour rire ("Engagement for Laughs"). These poems, about desire, love, and death were quite beautifully sung and Martineau concluded "Il Vole (He Flies)" with a witty flourish.

The program noted "More Songs about 'Ladies' to be announced from stage" and Graham introduced the first by speaking the title in French, prompting Isabella to laugh. I turned to her, puzzled. Graham then said the title in English, "I have two lovers" and said something else in French about the song , causing Isabella to laugh again, then whisper in my ear, "This song's about you." Graham then translated the gist of the song for the audience as "men are beasts."

"You speak French?" I asked, surprised I hadn't known this before as we've spent a significant amount of time together these past months.

"Mm-hmm," she replied.

The song was Guitry and Messager's "J'ai deux amants," which she followed with Cole Porter's "The Physician." Graham ended the second half with a parody written for her by Ben Moore called "Sexy Lady"- a fun piece of kitsch bemoaning her inability as a six-foot-tall mezzo to land the sexier operatic roles. Moore's written similar parodies for other singers, including "Wagner Roles" for Deborah Voigt.

She and Martineau returned for three encores: "Connais-tu le pays" from Mignon; a witty version of Sondheim's "The Boy From..."; and concluded the performance on a high note with what she described as her favorite song, Reynaldo Hahn's "A Chloris."

The concert was part of Cal Performances' Koret Rectial Series. Graham mentioned how much she liked performing for the Berkeley audience, thanked Director Matias Tarnopolsky, and said she hoped to be "back soon."

The series continues with pianist Kirill Gerstein on February 12 in a program of Bach, Mozart, Knussen, Weber and Schumann. The series also presents recitals by baritone Wolfgang Holzmair in March and soprano Sandrine Piau in April.  Graham's twelve city tour of North America continues on January 18th at the new Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge, California before heading east to Morrow, Georgia, Toronto, Carnegie Hall and D.C's Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Check her schedule for more information.