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A Singing Actress Takes the Stage

April 17, 2007

You could tell, from the moment she took the stage, that soprano Laura Aikin is accustomed to much larger venues than the 333-seat Florence Gould Theater in San Francisco's Legion of Honor. A quick glance at her bio confirms that she has performed at most of the world's major opera houses, from La Scala to the Opéra Bastille to the Metropolitan Opera. On Saturday afternoon she offered a modestly proportioned recital program, featuring song cycles by Richard Strauss and Ned Rorem, yet presented with all the bravura of an operatic coloratura.
None of the pieces on the program is particularly theatrical. The opening cycle, Strauss' Eight Poems by Hermann Gilm, sets quietly charged Romantic imagery to restrained, understated music. But Aikin transformed the cycle into a series of dramatic episodes. With obvious expertise, she captured the intimacy of the first song's interior monologue while simultaneously (and paradoxically) communicating it to a large crowd. It was evident that she had internalized the poetry, for she was bodily and facially reacting to its emotional nuances with the precision of a seasoned actress.

Throughout the Eight Poems, Strauss often mimics the rhythms of spoken speech. Recognizing the dramatic potential of such passages, Aiken performed them as if they were recitatives. (Indeed, her German diction was remarkably clear.) While she never wasted an opportunity to exploit the sheer musicality of Strauss' vocal writing — as when she effortlessly slid from chest voice to head voice at select moments — Aikin was not intent on merely singing; rather, she was communicating, even conversing with her listeners.

The second cycle on the program, Five Little Songs, again by Strauss, is even less operatic than his Eight Poems. Here the soprano's theatrics sometimes seemed excessive. The poetry, by Achim von Arnim and Heinrich Heine, often relies on ironic images that only facetiously call for the dramatic weight with which the singer invested them. The fifth song, tritely titled "Bad Weather," describes a "little old woman" come home from the market. Aikin called on her practiced histrionics, punctuated with wide-eyed and anxious head jerks, just to recount the woman's innocuous inventory of groceries — "Flour and eggs, I think / and butter," as the poetry puts it.

The humor of these poems was not lost on Donald Sulzen, Aikin's excellent accompanist. The fourth song, "Forest Trip," tells of "shadowy forms" that "hop and make faces / so mocking and yet so shy." The accompaniment provides superficially threatening dissonances, and Sulzen pulled them off with exactly the right mix of straight face and knowing smile. By contrast, Aiken chose sincere drama over ironic ambiguity and sang as if she knew for sure that these shadowy forms were goblins and not bunny rabbits.
More Performance Than Recital
Aikin's theatricality served her well in Ned Rorem's Last Poems of Wallace Stevens, a work for piano, cello, and voice. The addition of cello, played by Tanya Tomkins, helped to achieve the balance between introspection and drama that Aikin sought. Tomkins' dry expressivity was less compelling than those of the soloist and her accompanist, but the cello gave more depth to Aikin's dramatic reenactments, sometimes echoing her and at other times providing musical commentary of its own.

Sulzen's contribution was particularly impressive in these songs. The accompaniment frequently calls for mechanically precise figures, and Sulzen executed them without sacrificing expressivity. Of the three performers, Sulzen was easily the most emotionally immersed in the music, even in passages when he wasn't playing. By the end of the concert, which was presented by Chamber Music San Francisco, the audience realized it had been treated to a performance rather than a recital, and was quite thankful for it. Aikin is scheduled to take the stage of the San Francisco Opera next winter in Stravinsky's The Rake’s Progress. After Saturday afternoon's concert, I'll be eager to hear her in her true element.

Noel Verzosa is a visiting assistant professor at California State University in Sacramento.