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Elīna Garanča, At Last!

April 9, 2013

Elīna GarančaIt has taken 2.5 years, following her cancellation in San Francisco Opera’s Werther, for mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča to sing in the Bay Area. But, thanks to Robert Cole’s programming acumen, she at last made it as far as Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. In a major programming coup, Cole and the folks at the Green Music Center managed to engage her for one of only two U.S. recital dates, the other being at Carnegie Hall.

In many ways, Garanča’s art song recital in acoustically superior Weill Hall, accompanied by gifted pianist Kevin Murphy, confirmed her reputation as one of today’s leading mezzo-sopranos. Her sound is remarkably even throughout her wide range, quite beautiful, and produced with supreme assurance.

That assurance extends to her ability to masterfully shade and color her tone, and control dynamics in response to music and text, as well as to her onstage persona, which is exceedingly warm, gracious, and relaxed. Her low tones may not possess the weight or gravity of many mezzos current and past, but the way she deploys her instrument, and its beauty, confirm her reputation.

Peering Beneath the Cover

In some ways, Garanča’s dress and deportment could serve as a metaphor for her approach to art song. In the first half, she wore an exceedingly tasteful gray gown whose line, while highlighting her fine figure and gorgeous face, expressed classicism, and whose sparkles suggested life. In the second half came a lovely blue, over the shoulder gown whose hue, while lively, again expressed a certain classical reserve.

So went the recital. Not a word was uttered other than the text itself, not even to announce the encore, Brahms’ “Meine Liebe ist grün” (My love is green). Nor did Garanča go beyond a certain point in her interpretations.

The latter was most apparent in Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs). As a prime example of late romanticism, these love songs are about as naked hothouse as you can get without a visit to Wagner’s mythological Venusberg (Tannhäuser) or Salome’s playpen. A singer doesn’t have to get as down and dirty as Anna Moffodid in a concert performance of “Depuis le jour” from Louise, but when singing about the naked passion of the love bed in “Liebesode” (Lover’s Ode), it would have been nice to have broken down a bit of the classical reserve and reflected, in the voice, what the song made explicit.

This is not to say that Garanča did not do many beautiful things in her Berg set. She floated numerous high notes without edge, especially in “Schilflied” (Song of the Reeds) and at the start of “Liebesode,” and gave us gorgeous full-throated highs in “Die Nachtigall” (The Nightingale). She was especially superb when expressing the intimate emotions of “Im Zimmer” (In our room). But when asked to open herself as well as her voice, she held back.

Life and Love

The same could be said of the high point of her recital, Schumann’s great cycle, Frauenliebe und leben (A Woman’s Life and Love). The only place in the program where, because she sang without pause, Garanča and Murphy successfully silenced audience members intent on clapping after every song, Garanča seemed to settle into her deepest emotional groove.

Employing rubato (tempo elasticity) and dynamic shading as music and text dictated, she pulled back her voice to become especially intimate as the cycle progressed. With indications of youthful naivete, her soft ending to “Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben” (I can’t grasp it or believe it), one of the cycle’s many songs that express a young bride’s total devotion to her spouse, was simply gorgeous. In the next song, as she gazed at the ring on her finger and pledged to serve and live for her spouse, her voice was filled with feeling. And at the end of the final song, as Murphy played the extended postlude with great sensitivity, the way Garanča masterfully acted her way through her final glimmers of hope to broken-hearted emptiness.

Nonetheless, a disturbing pattern, first demonstrated in her opening set of four Schumann songs, began to emerge. Whenever Garanča needed to open her voice fully, higher in her range, she suddenly dropped out of character. The sound, even the facial expression at those moments, was that of a warrior. The sounds were nailed, triumphantly, and then she returned to the business of expressing the emotions of the song at hand. During such moments, the veil was lifted, and the technician emerged.

Let it Go

For such reasons, the closing set of Strauss songs was an extreme disappointment. The low notes in “Leises Lied” (Whispered song) were quite winning, and Murphy’s accompaniment, heard close to the stage, provided the lightest and most marvelous down cushion imaginable. But, in addition to several soft notes that became a bit dry and lost point as Garanča attempted to float them, the less than sweet love warrior destroyed the ecstatic intimacy of “Allerseelen” (All Soul’s Day). A similar refusal to open up to rapture failed to serve the climax of her final song, “Heimliche Aufforderung.”

I do not wish to shortchange Garanča’s considerable artistry. Even though she occasionally substituted words, as though she did not fully understand the German text, her sensitivity to meaning and her elasticity of tempo immediately identified her as an extremely intelligent and well-prepared artist. Nor is everyone in top form every night, especially when they’ve just flown 2500 miles after presumably giving it their all singing in Carnegie Hall. But, when all is said and done, the ability to drop everything you’ve learned, and to sing your heart out with total devotion and abandon, is the mark of a great recitalist. Far too often, Garanca stayed within her comfort zone, and gave us only so much.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.