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Don't Cry for Her Argentina

April 8, 2008

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack comes from Buenos Aires, and her home is now in San Francisco, but her future is in the great opera houses and recital halls of the world. Her Schwabacher Debut Recital Sunday only confirmed what her Merola Program appearances last year — especially in the title role of La cenerentola — clearly indicated: She is a phenomenon.
Now a San Francisco Opera Center Adler Fellow, Mack has a rare, exciting combination of assets: a rich, warm, bright voice, with just the right amount of vibrato, great projection, effortless placement, flawless diction in English, Spanish, German, and French, and instant, compelling communication with the audience. In the acoustically treacherous Martin Meyer Sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El, she sounded equally well up close and, during the second half of the concert, from the top of the balcony. To boot, she presented an unusual, excellent program.

She opened with three fun-filled songs from Rossini’s La Regata Veneziana (The Venetian regatta) — more of an encore item than an hors d’oeuvre — then switched gears radically and smoothly with four sorrowful lieder by Walter Rabl (1873-1940). In the second half, Mack sang Debussy's Trois chansons de Bilitis, and songs by Argentina's Carlos Lopez Buchardo (1881-1948) and Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000). The single encore ("una mas!" she warned in advance) was "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," from Showboat. All told, the concert lasted less than 90 minutes, including a 25-minute intermission. For a young artist in her recital debut to put together such an unusual program and send the audience out wanting more showed self-confidence, and represented the attitude of a singer who is in charge and knows what she wants to convey.

At the heart of the recital were the Rabl lieder ("Four Songs," Op. 5), and their stunning execution. It's a mystery why this Viennese composer, who wrote all his music before turning 30, is not a staple of recitals. "Zu Spät" (Too late) is a perfect gem and utterly simple, its restrained yet deeply affecting drama about missed love and joy so musically rich and complete. Pianist Peter Grunberg and cellist Thalia Moore sustained Mack's straight-arrow interpretation, creating a few minutes of total bliss.

No matter how sad the songs — Vorbei! (Missed!), about "departed joy" and "faded roses"; Spielmannslied (Fiddler's song), about dying alone; Soldatentod (A soldier's death) — the mezzo kept it all quiet and "real," raising her voice only for a single soaring, heaven-storming phrase of regret and rage, "it could have been so different!" With a solitary exception ("hohen" for "höhen"), her German was clear and right.

And so it was with the French text when it came to Debussy, and "La flute de Pan" (The Pan-flute), "La Chevelure" (The tresses), and "Le tombeau des Naïades" (The naiads' tomb). Once again, Mack's restraint, sangfroid, and understated delivery were most impressive. The Argentinian songs represented merely "nice work" against the mastery and depth of Rabl and Debussy, but Mack's performance — warm, informal, unaffected — elevated them to a higher level.

Audience-pleasing as the opening Rossini songs were, I had a problem with what appeared to be the only instance of excess in Mack's performance during an otherwise artistically restrained and mature concert. Text and music for “Anzoleta” (Before the boat race / As the boats pass by / After the race) are so charming, Mack's voice and presentation so beguiling, that the "come hither" looks and gestures just pushed the whole thing over the top. Less would have been sufficient.

Perhaps coincidentally, the only time Grunberg sounded a bit too much was in the Rossini, otherwise providing a spirited, picture-perfect accompaniment all recital long, and cutting up just right in the Jerome Kern encore.

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