If tonight was the first time you heard her or if she caught your attention
a few years ago at the SF Conservatory of Music, the impression was the
same: Elza van den Heever, a young mezzo from Johannesburg, is a great
talent. She has a big, well-placed, beautiful voice, powerful projection,
and palpable intelligence in much - if not all - of her interpretation.
And yet, there was a gnawing question about both her performance and the
entire evening at the San Francisco Opera Center's concert in Temple
Emanu-El. Why is it so difficult to sing quietly?
Every single performance by van den Heever was at a high volume in the
relatively small Martin Meyer Hall, as if she were in the War Memorial.
Baritone Lucan Meachem oversang song after song, until near the end of
the evening. Soprano Jane Archibald would have made an impressive
Brunnhilde if only that was the task before her. Jeremy Little was the
most restrained among them, using an appealing lyric tenor with restraint
Here's the deeper mystery about the evening: Created, directed and
accompanied by the incomparable Steven Blier, the fascinating program
was entitled "A *Delicate* Drama: The Songs of the Opera Composers."
(Emphasis mine, not Blier's.) Where was the promised delicacy when Meachem
launched the evening with an overpowering rendition of Gounod's "Aimons-nous"
("Let us love one another"), virtually shouting Jules Barbier's words,
"The stream flow into the river, and river into the sea..." Why the
Were tonight an opera audition, the three Adler Fellows (and former
Merola Program participant Little) would have easily assured placed for
themselves with just about any big house - and one hopes very much that
they will soon be heard in the War Memorial. But one kept missing what
differentiates songs from arias - the delicacy promised in the program
title, the intimacy of chamber music vs. opera's large scale.
Van den Heever's delivery of Saint-Saens' song to Hugo's poem, "Si
vous n'avez rien a me dire" ("If you have nothing to say to me"), was
striking with its power and meaningful phrasing, but besides minor bits
of awkwardness here and there, she "didn't sing to me." Her performance
of Verdi's "Stornello" was muscular to a fault.
Archibald kept hitting high notes superbly (even against Blier's
announcement that "our Canadian soprano is afraid of being a Phlemish
singer now, recovering from a cold"), providing exquisite phrasing in
Wolf-Ferrari's "Rispetto #1," cutting back on volume in this for the
first time, but large sound, large gestures, a large form was evident
throughout - at variance with the very essence of the art song.
Lusty, clever, bravura pieces - Archibald singing Massenet's "Sevillana,"
the soprano joining van den Heever in an overblown Rossini "La regata
veneziana" ("The Venetian Regatta") - lacked charm in their "big and
strong" presentation. Donizetti's "La gelosia" ("Jealousy"), with van
den Heever and Meachem, turned to warfare; Archibald belted out Donizetti's
"La Zingara" ("The Gypsy Girl").
A fly on the wall backstage during the intermission might have overheard
possible counsel by Blier to his young charges (if only it came before
the concert!) because Meachem, the worst offender - even in Gounod's
"Venice" to de Musset's text - actually put the breaks on at the end,
with a fine performance of Meyerbeer's "Sie und ich" ("She and I"). Van
den Heever preceded that with Wagner's "Tout n'est qu'images fugitives"
("Everything is but fleeting images"), with the song's prominent use of
one half of the "Tannhauser" aria to the "Evening Star."
Yes, Wagner with French text and Meyerbeer with German, the two next
two each other - Blier's hilarious and illuminating mini-lecture about
"pairing" the two was well worth the price of admission alone. Little
sang his best at the end, a charming, quiet, simple performance of the
Gershwins' "Till Then." The evening closed with a fascinating head-scratcher:
John Musto's "Calypso," to Auden's poem, with its concluding message of
"For love's more important and powerful than / Even a priest or a
politician." The puzzle was in the music, accessible and dense at the
same time, something that seems to come in layers, demanding to be heard
again, even if it may also be regarded as a simple, bouncy piece.
Pulling no punches in the advocacy of the composer, Blier addressed SF
Opera officials in the audience directly, saying that Musto's new opera,
"Volpone," would be just the right thing for San Francisco.
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