Christine Goerke with pianist Craig Terry
Christine Goerke with pianist Craig Terry recording their "at home" recital | Credit: 

Vocally and dramatically, Christine Goerke can fill an opera house of any dimension. A commanding presence in prodigious roles at the Metropolitan Opera (Brünnhilde, Turandot), San Francisco Opera (Elektra), the Lyric Opera of Chicago (Brünnhilde again), and elsewhere, the American soprano gets shrunk down to screen size in a Cal Performances at Home virtual recital, streaming through June 30.

Audiences will soon find that nothing is lost or diminished in translation. Seen and heard in close-up, from an Art Factory Studios warehouse loft in Paterson, New Jersey, Goerke delivers a powerhouse performance, her formidable voice and ebullient personality in full bloom. The woman could conquer in any medium, including one as small as cellphone video screen or as spacious as an amphitheater.

This is not to say that the Cal Performances program, with pianist Craig Terry as her partner, is full of steady thunder and wrenching emotion. Yes, she sings some Strauss — and how could she not, as she kids herself in one bit of patter — along with a knockout number from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and a positively scarifying invocation of the Furies from Handel’s Rinaldo.

But the menu also features Italian art songs by Paolo Tosti, Pietro Cimara, and others; some Bernstein and Cole Porter; and a droll volley of Half-Minute Songs by the American Carrie Jacobs-Bond (1862 – 1946), who, we learn, was the first woman to sell a million copies of a song (“I Love You Truly”). Goerke doesn’t just entertain in the 75-minute bill. She informs and amuses along the way.

With an invitingly mobile face that registers rage and ecstasy, jealousy and irony with comparable clarity and immediacy, Goerke connects with a viewer directly. It’s the voice, of course, that delivers the goods, whether in deeply rooted chest tones or pinpoint high notes, deft ornaments, or magnificently sustained long notes. The diction is both lucid and natural, with an especially alluring German that seems perfectly fitted to her voice. No surprise for a Wagnerian of her stature.

Goerke’s Handel is full of percussive, spitting ferocity. In Strauss’s “Die Georgine” (The dahlia), she sings with evocative color — we can almost see the dahlias she conjures — and a conjoining of pain and delight. The recital may reach its emotional zenith in Brahms’s “Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen” (To visit you no longer), with its fearless plunge into despair and funereal resignation. She follows it, as if in consolation, with a lustrous account of composer’s “Botschaft” (A message).

Christine Goerke with pianist Craig Terry
Christine Goerke with pianist Craig Terry

As for the Italian section of the program, Goerke isn’t about to settle for caressing charms. If anything, and sometimes to a fault, her voice is a roof-rattler. But if her rendering of Ottorino Resphigi’s Nebbie (Fog) might bear down a little hard, a cart-and-horse number by Federico Ricci that comes rattling along a few minutes later is full of jaunty, tough-girl pluck.

The mood changes keep coming, with Mascagni’s “Voi lo sapete” polishing off the Italian section with alarm-bell high notes and a wounded voluptuous tone throughout. A rain of “Bravas!” is the only thing missing.

Goerke and Terry lighten things up as the concert heads for home. Three songs by the African American composer Robert Owens (1925 – 2017) bring out Goerke’s poetic side, over rippling and pictorial accompaniments. A warm spring night and clanging bells emerge amongst gently gliding phrases.

Those Half-Minute Songs by Jacobs-Bonds, most of them shorter than 30 seconds each, play as musical one-liners in Goerke’s drily bemused delivery. Some of them caper along, Others careen into waltzes. There’s a dig at reviewers among the japes. Pleased by it all, Goerke ad libs that she’s become like her father: “I’m laughing at my own jokes.”

She goes on to laugh at the “dated” sentiments in Bernstein’s “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man,” from Wonderful Town, even as she stirs in some winning female poses of sassiness and faux innocence. After a nostalgic “The Last Mile Home,” by Walton Kent and Walton Farrar, and a Cole Porter throwaway “Why Can’t You Behave?” from Kiss Me, Kate, Goerke and Terry have one last treasure to unwrap.

It comes in an encore — Jason Robert Brown’s gorgeously poignant “Hope.” “I sing of hope and don’t know how,” goes one line, redolent of our wary pandemic-times optimism. Yes, there’s fear and even a kind of paralysis. But as long as there’s music, this beautiful and touchingly performed capper to the recital reminds us, “The work begins.”

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