Sasha Cooke: "If You Love for Beauty"
The Colburn Orchestra, Gilad. Works by Adams, Chausson, Handel and Mahler. Texts in French, Italian, German and English. Yarlung Records 14148
Mezzo Sasha Cooke made a striking impression as Kitty, the wife of J. Robert Oppenheimer, in the Met premiere of Doctor Atomic five seasons ago. The high point of her performance was her seductive love duet with Gerald Finley's Oppenheimer, which included her aria "Am I in Your Light?" Cooke leads with that piece on her excellent debut solo CD, If You Love for Beauty,in which she is sensitively accompanied by Yehuda Gilad and the Colburn Orchestra.
Cooke's attractive, erotic stage presence struck plenty of sparks in Doctor Atomic, but without question she also delivers the vocal goods. She possesses a firm, fruity mezzo, straight-toned in quality, which allows the listener to luxuriate in her unerring sense of pitch. And she has a strong yet subtle interpretive ability, one that draws the listener in. She doesn't play to the balconies; she makes you come to her, as did the much-lamented Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Still young, Cooke has not yet settled into any specific fach; this CD includes music by Adams, Chausson, Handel and Mahler, and she took on Magnolia in Show Boat for Houston Grand Opera this season — so it will be interesting to see where her talents lead her as her career progresses.
The CD's title is taken from Mahler's Rückert-Lieder, which conclude the program in their five-song version. Cooke's performance is an exercise in simplicity. In "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft," she floats a beautiful mezza voce as soft as the linden fragrance she is describing. "Liebst du um Schönheit" is sung with hushed intimacy, and "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" comes wrapped in a quiet, confessional tone of resignation and introspection. "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder" captures the correct rapid-fire, gently comic air of frustration. In the stark "Um Mitternacht," Cooke rises movingly from the depressive episode depicted in the opening to the great epiphany of the final lines.
Cooke lightens her voice considerably for the two Handel selections, "Scherza infida," from Ariodante, and "Ombra mai fu," from Serse. In the latter, she gives the opening note of the verse a glorious sustained crescendo. Both of these arias are rather methodically paced, so it's not clear whether her voice has the flexibility for Handel's brisker, more highly ornamented passages.
Chausson's heartfelt Poème de l'Amour et de la Mer is a magnificently over-the-top work, one that can be hugely effective when performed by a singer of Cooke's intelligence and restraint. Some occasional rough French vowels aside, she does not disappoint the listener, and her voice rides beautifully atop Chausson's churning Symbolist score.
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