> Choral and Song
"Here/After: Songs of Lost Voices"
Music by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer. Trevigne, DiDonato; Costello, Gunn; Heggie, piano. With Wincenc, flute; Alexander String Quartet. PentaTone
Classics PTC 5186 515 (2)
A two-disc set of music by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer offers a further look, in some cases with new artists, at song cycles that had their premieres in the past six years.
Camille Claudel: Into the Fire (2012) explores the French sculptor few knew much about before a 1988 biographical film called attention to her romance with Rodin and its impact on her work. In Scheer's poems, Claudel addresses her sculptures while preparing to leave for the mental asylum where she would spend the next thirty years. A haunting, sentimental haze permeates the cycle, the hothouse atmosphere of its many fading waltzes punctuated with more straightforward songs. "The Gossips" lays out a fascinating carpet of string texture reminiscent of Vivaldi, but rather than invoking Ravel's Chanson Madécasses, the modal squareness and dainty wails of the faux-indigenous "Shakuntala" are right out of The Lion King. Joyce DiDonato, for whom the cycle was written, applies her customary emotional rigor and linguistic point with vulnerability and vocal transparency, but one can't help feeling that some of the material, particularly the pop-song sequences of "La Petite Châtelaine," doesn't warrant her bracingly honest delivery.
More successful, and lacking any classical pretension, is Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston, commissioned by Houston Grand Opera to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, with a focus on local reactions and particularly on victim Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas. Cultural misunderstanding characterizes "Lessons," in which a strumming guitar and clapping hands evoke the exotic, while accusations of "you people" are hastily hurled at a Muslim teacher "on that morning." The Sondheim-inspired "Phone Calls" is a dud, and Nathan Gunn's quivery singing doesn't help. Gunn sounds better, but seems curiously detached, in "That Moment On," a pop ballad that overlays the familiar trope of personal items retrieved from Ground Zero with the sentiment "And we all belonged to each other / From that moment on." Talise Trevigne brings a lovely openness and innocent sound to "Beyond," but even quotations from a Bach cello suite can't elevate the trite closing song, "An Open Book."
Friendly Persuasions, four snapshots of Francis Poulenc's musical and personal circle, is an attractive work, and not just because of Stephen Costello's splendid, star-quality singing. There's a dry, terse wit, sharply focused, that pays real homage to Poulenc in such moments as the sour opening of "Wanda Landowska." While Poulenc is obsessing over a crush, the pioneering harpsichordist is fretting over the concerto he's supposed to be writing for her. In "Pierre Bernac," the baritone gasps in horror as Poulenc tosses a freshly composed song into the fire. The expansive phrases of "Raymonde Linossier" allow Costello to open up his handsome, virile voice most thrillingly.
The 2007 cycle Rise and Fall takes four museum pieces as inspiration, with the rippling piano writing of "Water Stone" conjuring up a shimmering Noguchi water sculpture in an appealingly elusive song. Trevigne is sensitive to words and atmosphere, and her voice glows with an alluring personal intensity, but Heggie's facile style returns in the tribal-infused "Incantation Bowl," with its annoying refrain "Ar-duck, ar-duck." Another exotic song, "The Shaman," begins with nifty extended vocal techniques involving resonance and echo effects, but the song quickly deteriorates into a jazzy wail overlaying Scheer's uninspiring "I cannot protect you, baby…. Oh baby," and on and on.
More visual art, this time from the Dallas Museum, sparked A Question of Light, a cycle given its premiere by Nathan Gunn for Dallas Opera's 2011 gala. Gunn returns for this recording and makes an easy transition — as do the songs — from art song to cabaret style, although he can sound foggy and unsteady when singing off the voice, especially in the final song, "Watch." "Yellow Roses in a Vase" is a dreamy evocation of the painting by Gustave Caillebotte, but "Eccentric Flint" (a Mayan crocodile canoe carving) just sounds like academic Sondheim. The best part of the hectic "Place de la Concorde" (Mondrian) is the catchy refrain, "Somethin's 'bout to happen / On the Champs-Elysées."
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