Saturday, May 16, 2015

Stephanie Blythe and Haiku

Heard Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano, with LW at Carnegie Hall. The last time I heard her, she was singing Fricka, Wotan's wife, at the Met Opera. Last night's program was very different, a night of French mélodie and chansons, and English cabaret numbers. The moment she walked on stage, even before singing a note, the audience gave her a round of warm applause. She thanked us and said that everyone should have the same experience as she just had.

Then she launched into Francis Poulenc's Poèmes de Ronsard (1924-1925). I enjoyed the art songs, or mélodie, but liked the next set even more. It comprises Léo Ferré's "La vie antérieure" (1957) and "L'invitation au voyage" (1957), both based on poems by Baudelaire. According to the concert program note, Ferré (1916-1993) set out to challenge the distinction between mélodie and his chansons (lyric-driven French songs). I especially loved Blythe's magical rendering of "La vie antérieure." It was the best thing of the evening.

After Ferré, we heard three songs by Jacques Brel (1929-1978). "Les pieds dans le ruisseau," about a boy daydreaming by the river, was enchanting in its innocence. "Ne me quitte pas," a series of pleas to a lover not to leave, each one more self-abasing than the one before, was sung with much feeling. The next song "Amsterdam" was completely different. Blythe rendered the song about the sailors of Amsterdam and their eating and drinking and whoring with requisite gusto and appetite.

 The English came on after the intermission. The difference in national temperament between the French and the English was never brought home to me so forcefully as last night. Benjamin Britten's Cabaret Songs and Noël Coward's songs from his operettas and shows are witty, ironic, and sentimental. They don't begin to touch the depths of even the French chansons. Cabaret Songs (1937-1939) comprise "Calypso," "Johnny," "Tell Me the Truth About Love," and "Funeral Blues." The last two are based on Auden's poems. From Coward, Blythe sang "Zigeuner" from Bitter-Sweet (1929), "Nina" from Sigh No More (1945), "Mad About the Boy" from Words and Music (1932), "Mrs Worthington" (1934) and, to cap a beautiful evening, "The Party's Over Now" from Words and Music. She did oblige, however, with three encores. For the last one, she got us to join her in singing Irving Belin's "Always" (1925), which he wrote as a wedding gift to his wife.

Blythe was accompanied on the piano by Warren Jones. Before each set, they recited the English translations of the lyrics. Blythe was a good reader of poetry too.


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in the yiddish songs
on public radio
i hear my father's hymns

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