It is much to be regretted that song recitalists stick to the tried, the true, the excessively familiar when the repertory of song is so vast, so full of treasures ready for the light. It is delightful when a dusty wing of the mansion of song is opened up for inspection and a guided tour by sympathetic and gracious guides.
On Sunday afternoon, Vertical Player Repertory, one of Brooklyn’s most venerable small opera companies (nearly twenty years at it!), presented such a program at their headquarters on Court Street. “If Women Will Not Be Inclined” included some two dozen songs by four brilliant but neglected composers who happen, by curious coincidence, to have been women, and they were sung by eight sopranos and mezzos.
The composers lived in different eras and countries, were noteworthy for musical and other abilities and, on the evidence presented, were the equal of their male contemporaries, each one in sync with her place and time.
Maria Malibran, one of the most mythic of bel canto divas, wrote songs to display her talents at grand salon concerts where she was often a star. Pauline Viardot, her much younger sister, was a famous singing actress of the heyday of grand opera, but then and for the rest of her long life (she died in 1910), she was herself the hostess of one of Paris’s great musical and literary salons—where she often introduced music (including chamber operas) to entertain hordes of cognoscenti.
Lili Boulanger, the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, died tragically young and full of promise in 1918. Amy Beach was a child prodigy in the United States, restrained from public performance by first her mother, then her husband. After his death, with a solid repertory already prepared, she spent the rest of her life performing whenever she liked and becoming a mainstay of the MacDowell Arts Colony.
The program at VPR, researched and curated by Thea Cook and presented as a benefit for the New York Anti-Violence Project, was not arranged in any tedious chronological way but darted about among the four composers and many styles, rendering its surprises all the more surprising.
The title of the program was taken from one of Beach’s songs, a setting of one of Dr. Watts’s hymns, in this case urging women to cultivate their minds. Since the pompous Watts was no feminist, the light tune seemed to have a touch of irony that was not neglected by VPR’s impresaria, Judith Barnes. Beach, better known for her virtuoso piano and orchestral works, also provided the program with comic fables and impressionistic song-scapes.
She cut loose, however, with “Meadow-larks,” an aria of operatic range and grandeur (is there an orchestrated version? There should be) that took Beach’s usual, perhaps American optimistic view of nature: I was reminded of a Winslow Homer seascape. Ellen Teufel cut loose, too, her sweet soprano gaining force and vigor that suited the music perfectly.
Boulanger’s output tends to melancholy: dying lilacs and violets, doves huddling in a cold wind (was this a fable of lesbian love? It could have been), a ghostly mother returning to a cemetery to serenade her child. The melodies recall Fauré and Duparc and Hahn, the best of her contemporaries.
The morbid “Dans l’immense tristesse,” which Hayden DeWitt’s stirring mezzo put over with dark, moody fervor, struck an especially chilling note, but Katya Gruzglina, in “Les deux ancolies,” used her strong, certain instrument to give the doves’ survival a touch of triumph.
Malibran, Bellini’s muse, was a showoff prima donna—the sort who so enjoyed singing Rossini’s Desdemona that she insisted on singing his Otello as well, in other performances. She dashed songs off in her odd free moments, and the varied selection here showed how many aspects of her talent were worthy of display.
Her melodies are distinctly Italianate, and Francesca Mondanaro, who sings Verdi’s Abigaille and Lady Macbeth, put the melodramatic “Addio a Nice” across with flare and fire, then became humorous for the yodeling fioritura of “Le montagnard.”
Viardot, whose life was so long and happy, composed in a dozen styles for a dozen performers. Some were party pieces, such as arrangements she devised of Chopin and Brahms piano works. Teufel joined Margaret O’Connell, in “Séparation,” set to a Chopin mazurka, and in “Les Bohemiennes,” to one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, reminding us of the sensual pleasure of mingling voices. “The Night Sea” permitted DeWitt and Barnes to do the same with one of Beach’s scene-paintings
Andrea Reichenbach, charming in Malibran’s lilting “Il Mattino,” was also persuasive in Viardot’s “Hai Luli,” a folkloric lament at the imagined treacheries of a missing lover. O’Connell did for Viardot’s “Madrid” what Mondanaro had done for Malibran’s Nice.
Barnes sang a Cossack lullaby and Mal Harrison “Le Retour,” an unwontedly gentle Boulanger fantasy of Ulysses’ thoughts with Ithaca at last on the horizon. DeWitt confessed to us that she could not manage the rapid-fire French of Viardot’s “Aime-Moi,” and therefore had translated it herself into a more singable language—Italian. The result was a delectable folk-song-like aria.
The most astonishing number of the afternoon, however, was the last, “Scène d’Hermione,” Viardot’s setting of a tirade from Racine’s Andromaque. The play is the source of Rossini’s Ermione, which Viardot probably did not know—that languished in the archives since its premiere, before she was born, and the song she wrote has never been orchestrated. But even with only the expert piano of Doug Han, it was clear that this was a work of blistering intensity.
In Mondanaro’s performance, it was thrilling and shattering music-drama. No doubt Viardot, as restrained as her sister had been headlong, was wise not to attempt to compose a grand opera, but after such a performance one could only regret this. Surely her friends, Gounod and Halévy and Saint-Saens and Turgenev, would have encouraged her to go for the gold.