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Renée Rapier and Anthony Reed Set The Woods on Fire

April 11, 2017

San Francisco Opera

A woman walks into a gin joint and starts to sing. And why not, since it’s karaoke night at the Woods Bar?

That was the enticing setup and premise of Sunday afternoon’s Schwabacher Debut recital, featuring mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier and bass Anthony Reed, at San Francisco Opera’s Taube Atrium Theater.

Reed played the bar owner in this absorbing 50-minute “rom-com recital,” which stitched together 21 numbers by, among others, opera and art songs composers Thomas Pasatieri and Ned Rorem, American songbook stalwarts George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and musical theater headliners Cy Coleman and Stephen Sondheim.

The result, under Adler Fellow Aria Umezawa’s deft direction was a light-fingered narrative showcase for these two well-paired singers, one a current Adler (Reed) and the other an alum (Rapier spent 2010–11 in the SF Opera Center program). What began in The Woods as a polite encounter between barkeep and patron led to some demure flirtation, a few friendly songs up on the karaoke stage, a spontaneous music-driven kiss and a Sondheim farewell duet — the wistfully gorgeous “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George.

Rapier, looking both stylish and a little desperate in a scoop-necked blue dress, entered singing Pasatieri’s “You Know” into a cellphone. “You long for me,” she lamented to her husband, “but you never touch me.” Rapier’s weighty, huskily textured tone gave the line an urgency Reed, wiping the bar across the room, couldn’t help but overhear.

He held his tongue, as the agitated mezzo picked up the what-the-hell insouciance of William Bolcom’s altogether apt “Tears at the Happy Hour.” Partnering with pianist John Churchwell, who was excellent from start to finish, Rapier sounded a little stiff at first, but by the time Churchwell sang a few harmonizing lines from the keyboard, she seemed ready for almost anything.

Reed, tall, straight-backed and casually scrupulous in jeans and untucked plaid shirt, murmured a few Rorem internal monologues, his voice warmly inviting, before he trained his attention on his unhappy customer with Virgil Thomson’s “Let’s Take a Walk.” The bass’s nimble charm came through in his supple phrasing and dynamic shading of Kenneth Koch’s lyrics. Both singers, as was soon apparent, showed off diction that was both clear and natural, without any straining to articulate. It played and felt like what it was meant to be — a pair of solitary souls brought together by happenstance and finding a connection.

A spilled drink, his hand brushing hers and a funny quotation from “Che gelida manina,” in an uncredited Puccini clip, opened things up. Rapier, who never entirely lost a certain formality that tamped down the humor in George and Ira Gershwin’s “Blah-Blah-Blah,” hit her stirring emotional peaks in Dominick Argento’s “Who Could Have Known?” and a tenderly, exquisitely carved account of Pasatieri’s “The Kiss.”

Reed, who showed a broader, easier expressive range, tore into Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “Real Live Girl” with amusing gusto, landed the aching intervals in Rorem’s “Poem for F.” and used the purring pianissimos of Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s brief “For Me” to suggest his own understated heartache.

The duets had mixed results. Gershwin’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You” was cleanly and crisply done, but lacked a certain seductive shimmer. Better and richer in every way was John Jacob Niles’s lovely setting of “Careless Love.” They made the driftaway line “Where lovers will kiss and part ... ” feel poignant and not too ponderous.

Rapier’s voice turned a little porous on “Enough,” Esther Cooper’s slow-motion setting of Sara Teasdale. That might have been a number to cut. The full-voiced mezzo rallied in “Moments in the Woods,” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods, even if she missed some of its wry worldly wisdom. All was redeemed and then some in the luminous “Move On” that sent Rapier off into the night again, to solve or not, the dilemma of a marriage she came to the Woods Bar to both escape and explore.

At once witty and wide-ranging in its musical and emotional effects, this Schwabacher Sunday repurposed a duo recital into something fresh. The audience would have been perfectly happy and well-served to hear a conventional stand-and-deliver program. But in spinning out its slight but suggestive storyline, The Woods made the songs vibrate off each other and matter more. The listeners didn’t just care what Reed and Rapier sang, but what might have happened to them as characters after their short time together was through. 

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.