NPR journalist Celeste Headlee recently moved to Atlanta and will be hosting a 9 a.m. radio show on GPB’s newly acquired signal 88.5 that launches in October 2014. I had an opportunity to meet Headlee earlier this week and we spoke about her musical legacy as the grand-daughter of esteemed American Composer, William Grant Still (1895-1978). Still’s opera Troubled Island – with libretto by Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey – premiered at New York City Opera in 1949 and was the first opera by a black composer to be performed in the United States. Still’s other operas include Blue Steel, A Bayou Legend, Highway NO. 1, U.S.A., Costaso, Mota, The Pillar, and Minette Fontaine.
The month of March prompts one to think of shamrocks, corned beef and cabbage, and a myriad of other Irish clichés like kissing the Blarney Stone and green beer. In the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps, Spivey Hall welcomed Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught and her pianist Dearbhla Collins to perform a recital on March 23. Erraught’s offering of Respighi, Brahms, Wolf and several opera arias, however, was anything but a cliché.
The 25-year-old Erraught, a native of Dundalk, Ireland, is a principal singer at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, where she has sung as an ensemble member for the last six years. Her distinction as a leading lady on the operatic stage has become evident this season as she sang the role of Kitty in Iain Bell’s Harlot’s Progress at the Theater an der Wien and the role of Angelina in La Cenerentola at the Bayerische Staatsoper. Erraught is garnering attention on this side of the pond as well, and will debut shortly at both the Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera.
The concert at Spivey Hall opened with Joseph Haydn’s “Scena di Berenice,” a Metastasio text from his libretto L’Antigono. The scena provided us time to admire Erraught’s intense, spinning top notes. A lyric mezzo with a rather sizeable voice, her instrument possesses the earthy timbre of an alto, but the range of a soprano. Her Bartoli-like melismas and long phrases showcased the utmost vocal freedom and an easy, pulsing vibrato that was stunning to hear. As the scena developed, Erraught became exceedingly involved physically and dramatically, piquing our interest.
After a melancholy group of three songs by Ottorino Respighi, Erraught told us that while there was no unifying theme for her repertoire choices, each song was a favorite — songs that she desperately wanted to do. The Respighi set included a gem entitled “Nebbie,” a song that the composer wrote without words even before encountering the poem by Ada Negri, which would eventually be assigned to it. The piece seems simple — a chordal accompaniment with a tonic pedal and predictable ascending and descending vocal lines that culminate with a declamatory statement, “Vieni! Vieni!” Yet the piece was incredibly moving. Erraught aptly conveyed elegance amid a text that is weighted with angst and despair.
Next, the Irish mezzo launched into selections from Johannes Brahm’s Zigeunerlieder. The eight Hungarian Gypsy songs were selected from some 380 songs that Brahms wrote during his lifetime and exhibit dance rhythms and strong accents. The final piece, “Rote Abendwolken ziehn,” is exuberant and gave us a first glimpse of the operatic scope and dynamic capability of Erraught’s voice. The Brahms set was immediately followed by Wolf’s “Mörike-Lieder.” The juxtaposition held a hint of irony as Wolf is reputed to be “anti-Brahms” as he strived for a perfect synthesis of words and music.
It’s always a pleasure to hear a formal song recital conclude with a few choice arias that exhibit a singer’s virtuosic capability; it’s like dessert after an incredibly satisfying meal. On this afternoon, Erraught and Collins gave us three unique arias — “Amour, viens render à mon âme” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, “Voce di donna” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and “Non v’è donna sulla terra” from Michael William Balfe’s Falstaff. The latter, composed in 1838, is so rarely heard that it was like the cherry on top of the sundae.
Erraught qualified Balfe as the “Irish Rossini.” This aria for Nanetta is characteristic of the bel canto vocal style of Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti. The double aria consists of both an andante cavatina section and a more energetic and showy ensuing cabaletta. Erraught displayed all of the bel canto characteristics one hopes for — a naturally beautiful voice and effortless delivery of highly florid passages.
And just as we were wishing that we had been in Munich in early March to hear Tara Erraught’s Angelina in La Cenerentola, she seemed to read our minds and bestowed upon us “Non più mesta” as an encore.