Richard and I went to a recital by English mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly and English pianist Joseph Middleton on 3/15/17. I've heard her at the Met twice and liked her a lot - - she was Annio (the lead guy's wingman) in Mozart's *La Clemenza di Tito* in 2005 and was the Composer in R. Strauss's *Ariadne auf Naxos* in 2010. And heck, I'll give myself half a point for seeing her in the HD broadcast of Strauss's *Capriccio* in 2011. She was marvelous in all three, has a lovely voice and a solid stage manner. She wasn't exactly on my radar, but I needed to fill out my Armory subscription, I don't feel like I go to enough voice recitals (aka I never go to any), and Richard was also interested. So why the hell not.
I think good things come from low expectations, because it was a glorious recital. As Richard said, the magic was twofold: the music and the setting. Let's talk about the setting first. The Park Avenue Armory is a huge barn of a place - - it fills the entire block between Lexington and Park and between 66th Street and 67th Street. It's like Macy's, it's impossibly huge. I've been to many cultural events there, always in what's known as the Drill Hall, the huge cavernous space that takes up most of the building. This recital was in the restored Board of Officers room, a lovely room in the front of the building on the side. Two of the smaller rooms were restored in 2011, and the Board of Officers room was breathtaking. They set up a platform at the front of the room, put the piano and performers there, and I would guess around 100 chairs, very comfortable chairs with smart dark brown leather slipcovers (who ever heard of a dark brown leather slipcover, they were divine). My favorite part of the room was the ceiling.
Now for the music. We sat down, opened our programs, and this is what I saw:
Robert Schumann: *Frauenliebe und -leben*
Hector Berlioz: *Les nuits d’été*
Francis Poulenc: *Banalités*
Aaron Copland: selection from *Twelve poems of Emily Dickinson*
Richard Rodney Bennett: *A history of the thé dansant*
I said to Richard, "If you were to make a list of the 25 most important song cycles ever, these three [pointing to the Schumann, Berlioz, and Copland] would be on that list." No American songbook trifles or Finnish premieres for this lady - - only works from the CANON! And I'm here to tell you, she sang them with such sincerity, beauty, and deep musicianship, it's like they were new.
The Schumann songs are the ones I know the best, though strangely I had never heard them in performance. They were just as lovely as they need to be, I'm sure Schumann would have been thrilled. The last song had an unexpected punch - - the cycle follows a love affair from start to finish, from the perspective of the woman. We follow it from meeting to dating to marriage to motherhood to the death of the husband. The final song is spare, stark, and full of heartbreak. The longish piano postlude starts by leading us out of the last sung line and then reprises the music of the first song, just the piano part, like a flashback. I've heard many recordings of this song and have always thought the postlude was warm and tender, but it was shocking in its impact, in performance. Maybe it was the way the pianist played it, or Connolly's silent embodiment of the music, but it really packed a punch, it was unforgettable.
Connolly is what Jane Austen would call a "handsome woman." She radiated warmth, intelligence, ease, and a sturdy sort of beauty. Her singing ran the whole gamut, I got the feeling she could do anything with her voice: high, low, and middle - - soft, loud, and middle - - tender, resigned, laconic, flaming, the whole megillah.
Middleton is adorable, with that crown of ginger curls. His stage behavior was a bit bashful, though his playing was NOT. He had poetry, dash, thrust. Like Connolly, he played without limits, technique at the service of artistry. And what else do you need?
The Berlioz was lovely. There were moments in the Berlioz and the Schumann when Connolly sang so quietly that it drew attention to itself, which made me squint a little. Just a few moments like that, and though this might not sound like it makes sense, I think that sort of thing has more impact in a bigger space. It would draw the audience in. We didn't need to be drawn in, we were twenty feet away.
The Poulenc was delicious, they had the perfect balance of sophistication and sentiment. I'll get to the Copland in a minute. I didn't know the Bennett and don't believe I'd ever heard of the composer, and they were delightful songs, a charming way to end the program. They did two encores: a song by a composer I don't know, and I couldn't quite hear what she said when she introduced it, but he's a composer for the National Theater. It was an OK song. The final encore was "Come to me in my dreams" by Frank Bridge - - oh LORDY what a gorgeous song. Blew me away. The audience was crazy for them, brought them back for many bows.
They did six of the twelve Copland songs. I'll list them with the numbers in which they appear in the full set:
1. Nature, the gentlest mother
2. There came a wind like a bugle
4. The world feels dusty
10. I've heard an organ talk sometimes
11. Going to Heaven!
12. The Chariot
They did not do:
3. Why do they shut me out of heaven?
5. Heart, we will forget him
6. Dear March, come in!
7. Sleep is supposed to be
8. When they come back
9. I felt a funeral in my brain
I was THRILLED that they passed on "Why do they shut me out of heaven?", I've heard so many lousy performances of that song. The second line is, "Did I sing too loud?", and my answer is always "Yes," with a heavy sigh. I would be very happy to never hear that song again. But "Heart, we will forget him" - - how could they leave that out? My favorite song in the cycle.
Two other random notes: the title of the Schumann cycle is *Frauenliebe und -leben,* which Kathy the Mezzo and I always refer to as *Frauenhissen und -pissen.* She (and others) has a problem with it because it's from a woman's point of view but the poems and music are written by men, and the songs are centered around the man in her life. Kathy said she would perform the cycle if I wrote a new song to conclude it: yes, the husband would die and she would be devastated, but then in the final song she joins Match.com and finds a new boyfriend. I'm paraphrasing.
Richard didn't like Connolly's dress. I loved it: it was a long black slip dress with spaghetti straps, a short-sleeved sheer black dress over it with long panels of off white floral lace stitched to it, and discreet little bits of sparkle here and there. I thought it was gorgeous and perfect for her and for the occasion. Richard said she looked like she was going to a luau.