Measha Brueggergosman is a trip. A statuesque soprano with a larger than life personality, her eye-catching hair, nose ring, huge smile, and propensity to perform barefoot toy with us as if to say, "Here I am, boys and girls. Accept me on my own terms or be on your way."
What better way to assess Brueggergosman's facility with songs in French, German, Spanish, and English than by hearing her in the relatively intimate confines of UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall? If only more people who had read recent features by Joshua Kosman or Georgia Rowe, and/or had heard Brueggergosman in her two appearances with the San Francisco Symphony, had chosen to attend.
Visually, Brueggergosman did not disappoint. Her Grace Jones-style flattop traded for a huge Afro bouffant, the diameter of which dwarfed that of Archangel Michael's halo, she entered in a long, red rust velvet dress complete with foot-hiding train. Also trailing behind her was self-effacing accompanist J.J. Penna, who doubled as gracious water boy when the soprano needed a swig of aqua in the middle of her second set of songs.
Then there was the voice. Open, free, and glamorous, hers is a big, complex sound, its self-possessed grandeur as striking as the physical gestalt. As stunning in recital as it was with the Symphony last November, it is not an instrument one would expect to lend itself to three charming, disarmingly simple songs by Reynaldo Hahn. Brueggergosman pared it down as much as possible for À Chloris (To Chloris), but nonetheless draped Hahn's elegant restraint in a surfeit of luxury. Save for an appropriately winning smile in Les Fontaines (The fountains), and an extremely beautiful radiance in L’Heure Exquise (The exquisite hour), Brueggergosman did little to rival the claims that singers as different as Susan Graham and Maggie Teyte have laid to this repertoire.
Brueggergosman’s vocal glamour and rarely repressed sensuality were far more at home in Ravel's song cycle Shéhérazade. She did a wonderful job capturing wide-eyed excitement at the start of "Asie" (Asia), expressing the basic mystery of "La Flûte enchanté” (The magic flute), and depicting the seductive dance of passion in the final “L’Indifférent” (An indifferent man). While her attempts to swell in the first song briefly resulted in an incongruous vehemence, the performance was lovely. Those seeking more than generalities, however, hoped for better things to come.
After intermission, Brueggergosman opened with four songs from Hugo Wolf's Spanisches Liederbuch (Spanish Songbook). There were some lovely touches, most notably the "Ach nein!" at the close of the oft-performed "In dem Schatten meiner Locken" (In the shadow of my tresses), and the breathless excitement of "Geh, Geliebter, geh jetzt!" (Go, beloved, go now!) There was also a curious close to "Bedeckt mich mit Blumen" (Cover me with flowers), which sounded as though the singer were engaged in argument rather than in the throes of rapture. Alas, a young singer who has not (yet) developed the gift of subtle nuance has little chance of winning over listeners familiar with recordings and performances by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Lotte Lehmann, and others. Applause was polite.
Victoria de los Angeles sang Xavier Montsalvatge's Cinco canciones negras (Five Black songs) early on, even before the composer orchestrated them in 1949, and recorded them with orchestra. But Brueggergosman rarely captured the insinuating, quintessentially Spanish, dancelike rhythms of the songs, focusing instead on their sensual core.
She did her best at the end of songs, stunning listeners with a colloquially voiced, "Yankee 'Yes'" in "Cuba dentro de un piano" (Cuba inside a piano), humming wonderfully in "Punto de Habanera" (Habanera tune), and capping "Chévere" with what to these ears again sounded like anger. While the famed lullaby "Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito" (Cradle song for a little black boy) was distinguished by wonderful, hushed tone and exemplary legato, Brueggergosman sounded as though she was far more intent on seducing her baby than lulling it to sleep. This is not what Montsalvatge had in mind.
The concert concluded with five Cabaret Songs by William Bolcom, to texts by Arnold Weinstein. The soprano had a ball with "Surprise!" startling members of the audience by screaming out the opening. There were many cute touches, including a conflicted and pouting ending to "Toothbrush Time." Most disappointing was "George." A song about a gay man with a penchant for drag impersonation, operatic heroines, and one-night stands, its unexpected tragic ending, especially after four lighter songs, is a shocker. From Brueggergosman it seemed less than that, the irony and bitterness so evident in words and music missing from the voice.
Tapping into her seemingly inexhaustible supply of sensual energy, Brueggergosman had a ball with the sole encore, Bolcom's droll "Amor." In some ways, it was the best performance of the afternoon. Given that she's not yet 30, and endowed with vocal gold, one hopes Brueggergosman will grow considerably as an interpreter. Perhaps her contract with Universal Classics will bring a Walter Legge into her life. Even Elly Ameling, one of the finest recitalists of the last forty years, was known far more for radiant sweetness than interpretive depth in her early years. There is time.
Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.