Frederica Von Stade, With Verve and Vitality

Frederica von Stade, who appeared with Richard Stilwell on Saturday.
Frederica von Stade, who appeared with Richard Stilwell on Saturday. (1998 Photo By Patrick D. Witty For The Washington Post)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2005

Some great musicians are revered, others are loved; the mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade is both. The capacity audience that greeted her Vocal Arts Society-sponsored recital at the Terrace Theater on Saturday night would happily have listened to her for hours -- and then cheered for more.

Such is von Stade's capacity to convey ecstatic youthful energy (she was, by common consent, the world's finest exponent of Mozart's teenage Cherubino in "Le Nozze di Figaro" for more than 25 years) that it comes as something of a shock to realize that she has now passed her 60th birthday. And yet her mixture of patrician elegance and tomboy playfulness is unchanged. Moreover, she continues to sing with a direct emotional honesty that is just as unusual and affecting today as it was 30 years ago.

She shared the evening with the baritone Richard Stilwell, with whom she recorded Monteverdi's "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria" in the late 1970s. The two joined forces for an impassioned yet proportionate rendition of the final duet on Saturday, a moment of high nostalgia for anybody who came to know this wonderful opera from their performances.

Stilwell has now been before the public for more than 40 years, and, in all candor, it must be admitted that he doesn't really have much voice left. Yet he does a great deal with what there is -- his singing was suffused with character, intelligence and, when it was called for, abundant good humor. Other artists have brought more tonal luster to Gabriel Faure's song cycle "L'Horizon Chimerique." Still, Stilwell's caressing way with phonics and nuance was poetic in itself.

Von Stade paced herself carefully, generally placing an emphasis on music that showed off her dark, rich, plangent lower register, such as four poignant songs by Pauline Viardot. Yet she was equally convincing in Lee Hoiby's sprightly "The Serpent," a daffy, tuneful, agreeably elaborate song that sounds as though it might have been composed by Vince Guaraldi (he of the near-jazz in the Charlie Brown TV specials) as a sendup of highfalutin prima-donna ways. And Vivian LeWine's "Zeal" proved a morsel of charm and concision.

In some ways, the most touching performance of the evening was the duet "I Remember It Well" from Lerner and Loewe's "Gigi." For somewhat mysterious reasons, Stilwell decided to imitate Maurice Chevalier, who sang the role in its original production, with the result that we had the unusual case of an American pretending to be a Frenchman singing in English with an impenetrable French accent. No matter, Stilwell and von Stade added a new sense of compassion to this bittersweet number, in which two elderly lovers take turns "correcting" each other's memories of the past. In the film, the song comes off as a rather tart disputation. Here, it seemed nothing less than an affirmation of permanent and unconditional love for each other, in spite -- and, indeed, in defiance -- of failing powers.

Von Stade and Stilwell were accompanied by pianist Laurana Mitchelmore, who moved deftly to the harpsichord for the Monteverdi selection. There was worthy support from lutenist Howard Bass, viola da gambist Kenneth Slowik and flutist Julietta Curenton.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company