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A Beautiful Müllerin

February 5, 2008

Schubert’s song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin may be the richest treatment of a simple story in all music. Young man loves the miller's daughter, she prefers a hunter, young man drowns himself in the brook — and that's all there is.
And yet, for some 70 minutes, there is a universe of variety and beauty unfolding before the listener. Given a masterly singer, Müllerin can displace a major opera. Tenor Philippe Castagner accomplished this feat on Saturday at the San Francisco Opera's Schwabacher Debut Recital Series, opening its 25th season, in Temple Emanu-El. The 2002 Merola Program alum sang the cycle with effortless grace, great passion, and musical and emotional intelligence. After a noisy opening, Ken Noda, the accompanist, settled down to a responsible partnership with many high points and only occasionally used too heavy a hand.

Singer and pianist are now both associated with the Metropolitan Opera, where Castagner made his debut as First Prisoner in Fidelio six years ago, and Noda is an assistant to James Levine. (Noda's biography contains a curious fact: Born in 1962, he had a concert career, from which he "retired in 1990." That's an awfully young age to end a career.)
A Fully Matured Artist
During his Merola year, Castagner didn't call much attention to himself. I remember only his Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor. ("He produces a beautiful sound in some midrange notes and hits high notes head-on, but legato is still under construction.") Tonight, the wished-for legato was perfectly in place, the "beautiful sound" prevailed, and the tenor exhibited a magnificent, authentic involvement with the work.

He started "Das Wandern” (Wandering) casually, everything about the voice — pitch, timbre, volume, projection — exactly right. I have heard young singer after singer overdo it in the Meyer Sanctuary’s barely adequate acoustics, but not Castagner. His exemplary German diction, the slight, desired edge on a gorgeously lyrical voice, and his unerring sense of the space combined for consistent excellence in communication.

Castagner supplied effortless singing in "Halt!” (Stop!), which was almost, but not quite, drowned out by the piano, spun elegant legato in "Danksagung an den Bach” (Giving thanks to the brook), with Noda's portrayal of the water in the music rising and ebbing well. The dynamic contrasts in "Am Feierabend” (In the restful evening) were exactly right. "Der Neugierige” (Curiosity) sounded delicate and winning, singer and pianist coalescing in the prayerfully quiet line "O Bächlein meiner Liebe" (O little brook of my love).

It was disconcerting to see Castagner pace up and down the stage before "Ungeduld” (Impatience), but instead of posing, he used that bit of stage business to get into a "state" logically and believably leading to a musical explosion, which climaxed in the repeated glory of "Dein ist mein Herz" (My heart is yours) — sung with remarkably abandoned ardor. From there, the singer shifted instantly into the genteel admiration of "Morgengruss” (Morning greeting). But his performance hit a "dip" when he came to "Tränenregen” (Rain of tears). There was a sense of monotony instead of the quiet desperation of the song.

"Mein!” (Mine!) was a high point, Castagner's voice imbued with a multitude of colors as he ecstatically lived the momentary delusion of winning the beloved’s love. "Pause" was the correct transition back to reality, followed immediately by the burst of anger toward his rival in "Mit dem grünen Lautenbande” (With the green lute-ribbon) and "Der Jäger” (The hunter). By "Die böse Farbe” (The hateful color), wrath has turned into realization and resignation, the cycle soon reaching its heartbreaking conclusion as the brook whispered good night.

There might have been one or two in the audience before the recital thinking about the Super Bowl taking place at the same time, but in the end, the only football association possible was to consider Castagner a victorious underdog Giant.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].