Not since the 1998 debut recitals here by Anna Netrebko and Joyce di
Donato has there been such a sensational event in the Schwabacher series
as tonight's concert - a debut every bit as promising as those by the
earlier two, who have since gone on to fame and fortune.
Elza van den Heever - an Adler Fellow, much talked about around here,
ever since her arrival from South Africa eight years ago to study at the
San Francisco Conservatory, through her switch from mezzo to soprano,
and her Merola Program participation - is tall, imposing, with a royal
bearing that makes her look more mature than her 25 years.
Supported by an admirable accompanist, the Opera Center's John Parr, van
den Heever presented an ambitious, varied, demanding, and well-rewarding
recital, prompting the full auditorium at Temple Emanu-el to give her
several ovations, including one in which San Francisco Opera general
director David Gockley was among those on their feet.
Even at her relatively tender age, the soprano is not a "young talent."
She performs as an accomplished artist - with power that will stand her
in good stead in Wagner roles, and with beauty of tone and a brightness
that at times - as in Berg's "Die Nachtigall," on the words "wildes Blut"
- brought Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to mind. Van den Heever is also an
intelligent singer, and a sensitive one, who understands and conveys the
innermost meaning of the music (and the text) she sings. Add to that a
warm, informal personality, superb communication with the audience, and
a genuine, almost childlike enjoyment in performing - and you have a
star aborning. She has a good high register, outstanding low notes and,
most importantly, she nails everything in the middle voice. Almost alone
among young singers performing in the Martin Meyer Sanctuary, van den
Heever managed not to create eddies of excessive volume to bounce around
the hall; although her voice is huge, mostly she sings instead of SINGING.
Unlike most recitals by young artists, usually starting with difficulty
or "cold" or getting the feel of the place, van den Heever opened the
concert in full flight, at the top of her form, with two difficult Purcell
songs, "Sweeter than Roses" and "The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation."
Except for hit-and-miss diction (which turned out to be her only liability
throughout), the performance was brilliant, the long line of "all is
love to me" cascading effortlessly, the echoing repetition of "Gabriel!"
haunting and powerful.
Next, a delightful "French set," beginning with Berlioz's "Le spectre
de la rose," spinning *almost* out of control, but equilibrium quickly
regained, and continued with the best rendition of Debussy's "De fleurs"
I have ever heard, Parr's accompaniment melting into the singer's superb
legato phrases. And the best was yet to come: Duparc's "Extase," supremely
simple, heartfelt, and on the line "Mort exquise" with uncanny perfection.
Youth will out, however, and van den Heever rushed into the next song
instead of allowing the Duparc linger, and... neglecting to take a
breath. As she hit the opening high note of Faure's "Fleur jetee," she
realized she cannot go on, so wisely, she stopped Parr, said "sorry" to
the audience, and started again. The huge applause the followed the set
was both in admiration and sympathy.
Except for that little mishap, although singing without a score
until the last set, the soprano had no other trouble with text or music.
Berg's "Sieben Fruhe Lieder" unfolded with gorgeous phrasing, although
the singer - whose dual mother tongues are English and the Dutch-based
Afrikaans - was as inconsistent with German as with English. Consonants
soft, some last letters of words merged into what followed, diction is
a clear candidate for improvement. Once again, Parr's pianism was both
effective and affecting.
With all that went on before, van den Heever's Brahms set was probably
the evening's high point. "Wie Melodien zieht es mir" (even with the
missing "f" in "Duft" and "ruft"), "Am Sonntag Morgen," the thrillingly
quiet lyricism of "Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer," the amazingly
"right" interpretation of "Von ewiger Liebe," "O komme, holde Sommernacht,"
the utterly charming "Die Mainacht" - the singer becoming as one with
the doves cooing behind the leaves, and "Botschaft" - went from triumph
Although she didn't need to look at it, van den Heever brought out the
score for the first time for the concert-closing Walton "A Song for the
Lord Mayor's Table," a devilishly difficult and perhaps not entirely
rewarding cycle of five songs, the soprano's powers almost imperceptibly
diminishing at long last. With the impossible challenge for good diction
in a wacky musical setting, van den Heever nevertheless made "Wapping
Old Stairs" work by sheer power of personality. It's impossible to
resist her own enjoyment of the humor in the song... even if it takes
a reading of the text to figure out what it is.
For encore, she sang a beautiful old South African song, in Africaans,
and the crowd erupted in ovation for the last time in the evening. The
end of the concert, however, more significantly signaled an opening
milestone in a great career to come.
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