“Michael Volle is not into bling,” begins an article in ACT-O, the glossy magazine of the Grand Théâtre de Genève. The piece goes on to describe Mr. Volle’s recent emergence as one of the world’s leading bass-baritones, who just last year made his Met Opera debut in Arabella and this season sang what I hear was a formidable Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. His performance was described as “tall, sturdy and commanding,” qualities necessary for a role like Hans Sachs but perhaps less associated with renowned exponents of the German lied.
Yet Mr. Volle arrived in Geneva—during a frenzied week here with the opening of the United Nations Human Rights Council and tense negotiations over the Iranian nuclear programme—for a contemplative evening of Schubert. He was accompanied by the veteran Austrian pianist Helmut Deutsch, a master of this repertoire (and Jonas Kaufmann’s loyal partner in recital).
Geneva is a unique town. Audiences are comprised of the upper echelons of the business and diplomatic communities, and they seem highly knowledgable about music. Yet in contrast to Paris—where patrons will stomp and cheer—they rarely offer the performers energetic feedback.
While their response to an enthralling production of Porgy and Bess here was somewhat tepid, they seemed to detect something special in this intimate evening with Volle/Deutsch. (Mr. Volle last appeared here ten years ago as Mozart’s Count Almaviva). And whereas Schubert’s song cycles have lately been subjected to innovative stagings, here in Geneva a bare stage more than sufficed to sustain our engagement.
The Geneva audience has been fairly spoiled on the Schubert front. Last year Kaufmann served up his brooding Winterreise, so Mr. Volle knew he would be performing for a crowd familiar with the sublime simplicity of art song. He chose the lesser-known cycle, Schwanengesang, which Schubert wrote just months prior to his death, and the ambitious, 20-minute long Der Taucher (“The Diver”). This latter piece—a Schiller ballad about a page who dives into an abyss to retrieve the king’s golden beaker—requires both dynamic flexibility and sprechgesang abilities, and Volle was able to put his operatic experience to good use. As usual he was gracefully supported by Mr. Deutsch, whose technique evokes the serenity of a slow glide in a kayak.
If Der Taucher suggests dramatic presence, Schwanengesang requires a more intimate quality, as well as a certain wisdom and gravitas—in sharp contrast to the curiosity of the protagonist in Die schöne Müllerin—which, as an aside, was the first cycle I learned when I began singing lieder. It changed my life.
Unlike Schubert’s other two cycles, this one combines the work of three poets. Volle began with six pieces by Heinrich Heine, from the sweet Das Fischermädchen to the self-castigating Der Atlas, all performed with sturdiness and sensitivity. Despite a heavy operatic load of Wagner and Strauss in his day job, Volle managed to scale down his voice appropriately and whatever may have been lacking in purity of tone and security of the higher tessitura was more than made up by his authoritative presence—no distracting mannerisms, physical or vocal—and mastery of his native tongue.
Following an intermission, we heard the three beautiful poems by Johann Gabriel Seidl, and then finally the most well-known set in Schwanengesang, the seven settings of works by Ludwig Rellstab. These include the ingenious pairing of the serene Frühlingssehnsucht, the seductive Ständchen, and the anguished Aufenthalt. These three pieces alone demand tremendous emotional and musical range, and Volle/Deutsch offered sublime interpretations. As Mr. Volle’s star rises in the opera world, we can only hope he will sustain his engagement in lieder.
On my way to Porgy and Bess at the Grand Théâtre de Genève—a tour production by the New York Harlem Theatre—I could not help but recall my first and last exposure to this monumental Gershwin work, Audra McDonald’s Tony Award-winning performance as Bess in Diane Paulus’ controversial Broadway production. The creative team behind that production found the original characters were not “fully realized” () and sought to ‘flesh out’ the dramatic personae of Catfish Row.
The team’s quest to “make the piece relevant for the 21st century” offended purists like Stephen Sondheim but was nevertheless an unsurprising strategy. A predominately “musical theater” approach will naturally put more emphasis on dramatic realism than an operatic rendition, as opera is an art form in which suspension of disbelief remains essentially non-negotiable. And while it is true that Paulus’ production featured unusually well-developed characterizations—and McDonald’s intense performance as Bess, a drugged whore turned loyal partner to a disabled man, remains one of the most unforgettable performances of my theatregoing life—the experience was hampered by a paltry orchestra and amplified voices.
Gershwin’s score is simply too great for the efficient eight-show-a-week treatment. So it was with considerable excitement that I attended Baayork Lee’s staging, with a cast of legit opera singers headed by Alvy Powell (who has sung Porgy more than 800 times ) and Indira Mahajan. The true strength of this production, though, was the boisterous ensemble, whose members form a giant force of communal conscience while each character has moments of emotional nakedness and musical expression.
Ms. Mahajan stands out in more ways than one when she arrives in African-American Catfish Row. Her singing was big—Aida seems to be the only other role she sings frequently—but also engaging. Mr. Powell’s unparalleled experience with the role of Porgy was evident and his performance was dramatically and vocally satisfying. Powell fully uncovered Porgy’s journey and this was reflected in his vocal trajectory—from cracking opening lines to a tremendous, colla voce, “Oh Lawd, I’m on my way.”
He and Mahajan made a rapturous pair in “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” a duet that never fails to move me with its Puccinian sweep. Mari-Yan Pringle’s “My Man’s Gone Now” was transcendent. While I enjoyed the mischievous Billy Porter-style charm of Jermaine Smith’s Sportin’ Life, his bright tenor simply did not fill the (fairly small) house.
At first I wondered how Geneva’s resident orchestra, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, would manage Gershwin’s jazz-infused score, but they were in fact touring the US, and the New York Harlem Theatre’s own orchestra filled the pit. They certainly understood the style and did not hesitate to swing in “There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York.”
While in the Broadway production I felt a stronger connection to the characters, this performance offered an opportunity to bask in the glories of Gershwin’s masterpiece as performed by a engaging cast whose comfort with one another and experience with their roles was highly evident.