Somersaults and Sinatra: State of the Recital

At an overactive Salzburg Festival production of Gluck’s Iphig énie en Tauride last summer, the American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, singing

At an overactive Salzburg Festival production of Gluck’s Iphig énie en Tauride last summer, the American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, singing the demanding title role, was obliged to do everything except cartwheels. Afterward, I asked her how it was possible to sing one particularly high-flying passage while lying prostrate on the stage with her head dangling over the edge. “It was like jumping off the high- diving board at summer camp, ” she said. “It couldn’t have been more fun. “

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I grew up in an age when opera singers -apart from indulging in a few stock gestures and an occasional flashing of the eyes -pretty much relied on their vocal chords to create a sense of drama. One of the most glorious La Boh èmes in my memory featured Renata Tebaldi’s Mimi and Franco Corelli’s Rodolfo, who, during the Act I scene in which they’re supposed to be looking for Mimi’s key, kept their gazes fixed on their rival claques, which were seated on opposite sides of the Met. How different things are today. What distinguishes the current crop of top singers from their predecessors is a willingness to be pushed to the limit, not just vocally but athletically. In opera, it is the director, not the conductor, who increasingly calls the tune, and if he or she wants the diva to sing “Vissi d’Arte ” standing on her head, the diva will stand on her head. Moreover, as the Susan Grahams, Bryn Terfels, Dawn Upshaws, Ren é Papes, Karita Mattilas, Cecilia Bartolis and Ren ée Flemings have encountered one another again and again in the international opera world, they seem to have developed the sort of summer-camp competitiveness that prodded Ms. Graham to sing a high A while assuming the position of someone awaiting the guillotine. Since many of the characters they play are still, emotionally at least, in the throes of adolescence, this can produce startling effects. Watching Mr. Terfel’s rollicking thuggishness in last fall’s Don Giovanni appealed dangerously to the playground bully in all of us.

It has been widely observed that, as we moved beyond the age of radio (with its reliance on sound alone as the magic element) and into the age of television (with its premium on retinal stimulation), we have entered an age in which audiences -particularly younger audiences -will pay attention only when their eyes are as engaged as their ears. This may account for a phenomenon I couldn’t help noting during a recent spate of concerts and dance recitals: At the former, visually static events, the March-afflicted audiences coughed incessantly; at the latter, visually arresting events, they were as still as church mice.

So it’s not surprising that concert presenters are increasingly borrowing from the strategies of opera, theater, the art world and even MTV to “reach out, ” as they like to say, to “new audiences. ” (When was the last time anyone called them “listeners “?) Hereabouts, the pioneering force in theatricalized concerts was Harvey Lichtenstein, the lately retired guru of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mindful of his success in expanding B.A.M.’s demographics to include both the culturally restless great unwashed and the members-in-good-standing of Manhattan’s intelligentsia, Jane Moss, the head of programming for Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series, has led the way in encouraging the higher echelon of classical artists to flex their non-vocal muscles on the recital stage. A few weeks ago, an apotheosis of sorts was reached by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s account of two of Bach’s more poetically lurid solo cantatas, delivered not simply through her magnificent voice but through the boundary-challenged imagination of Peter Sellars.

To report that Ms. Hunt Lieberson -backed by a superbly sensitive Baroque ensemble, the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, conducted by Craig Smith -had no trouble ravishing the ear with what has become one of the noblest musical instruments in the world, will surprise nobody who has followed her luminous rise in Baroque and contemporary music. Like Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ms. Hunt Lieberson has the rare ability to convey not just an aesthetic but a moral radiance that seems to rise naturally out of her. I can think of no other artist today who so thoroughly inhabits a piece of music as she does, and with its rock-steady, sorrow-tinged depth of tone, her voice was the ideal vehicle for the self-scourging “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut ” ( “My heart is swimming in blood “) and the death-obsessed “Ich habe genug ” ( “It is enough “). But apparently, just singing this magnificent stuff wasn’t challenge enough, and so she and Mr. Sellars, longtime collaborators, decided to lend Bach a hand with body language and props that would give these pleas for spiritual release a little more, you know, punch. Thus the heart-in-blood imagery, so tellingly evoked in the music, was Sellars-enhanced by the spectacle of the singer endlessly entangling herself in a long pink scarf, like some mad Isadora Duncan with a boa fetish. And the longing for death was given Wit-like specificity by putting the singer into a flimsy hospital gown and woolly socks and having her writhe toward deliverance under a naked light bulb or lie on the stage singing to a snarl of I.V. tubes. That Ms. Hunt Lieberson managed to make all this seem a matter of genuine urgency was astonishing testament to her faith not only in Bach, but in Mr. Sellars. That the audience, during the two performances I attended at the John Jay College Theater, seemed to find it all either extraordinary in its novelty or extraordinary in its superfluity was not surprising. I came away decidedly of two minds -thrilled by the power of Ms. Hunt Lieberson and her eagerness to take risks, and reminded, once again, of how essentially dopey the Talented Mr. Sellars can be.

There could be no ambivalence, however, about another Great Performers recital a few afternoons later in Alice Tully Hall. This was given by the German baritone Thomas Quasthoff, who has been much in the media for having pursued an international career despite his having been stunted at birth by Thalidomide, but who has not been sufficiently recognized for possessing one of the most communicative musical personalities to emerge in many years. Sitting on a stool behind a music stand, unable to move about or use his hands to do more than turn pages, Mr. Quasthoff delivered the most riveting song recital I have heard in a long time in his accounts of Schubert’s last songs, the Schwanengesang, and Brahms’ Five Lieder and Four Serious Songs. Mr. Quasthoff is proof that the deepest art is born of necessity. I don’t know how, out of that tiny body, he can produce what must be the widest range of vocal colors available to any singer today -from the obsidian hollowness of Schubert’s “Die Stadt ” to the impulsive buoyancy of “Die Taubenpost, ” from the clarion yearning of “Stundchen ” to the shattered whisper of “Der Doppelganger. ” It would be wrong to suggest that Mr. Quasthoff is “reduced ” only to his pliant bear hug of a voice, his handsome, unusually sympathetic face and his keen eyes, which like a great storyteller’s so easily roam the faces of his audience. With only all of this, he creates a universe of feeling and perception unmediated by theatrics or athletics -anything extraneous to what he wants us to hear and feel. When he concluded the recital with an encore of “My Way, ” he not only banished the ghost of Sinatra but caused me to think, “Ich habe genug “-this is enough.

Somersaults and Sinatra: State of the Recital