For Carole Farley, A Difficult Evening

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009

The last night of the 2008-09 season at the Library of Congress was an evening of the venerable and the struggling. Friday night's concert began with a statement from Susan Vita, chief of the library's music division, pointing out highlights of next year's season (including a new three-concert series of jazz and world music at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, a name that increasingly seems to denote "potential hip, young audience" to Washington's more conservative music presenters).

But Vita also pointed out that there will be about 10 fewer concerts in 2009-10. The decline of the financial markets has taken its toll, she said, although a few private donors had answered her appeal the previous week for help to present additional concerts, which run about $10,000-$15,000 each.

Unfortunately, the performance that followed Vita's remarks was anything but an incentive for potential fundraisers. Instead, the soprano Carole Farley gave a musical demonstration of the idea of struggle.

Farley is 62, and past her vocal prime. Her program was all French, with a handful of songs (Debussy's "Le Balcon," from "Cinque Poèmes de Baudelaire," and Ravel's three "Chansons Madécasses") in the first half as a prelude to the main event of the evening, a staged performance of Poulenc's "La Voix Humaine" (the human voice) -- all with piano accompaniment. It seemed that the point was to get through the songs for the sake of the dramatic wallop of "La Voix Humaine," a monodrama in which a woman conducts a telephone conversation with the lover who has just broken up with her. Farley has done the piece frequently (there is even a DVD), and it can be seen as a dramatic tour de force.

But the evening was a disaster. The songs revealed Farley's vocal estate to be so patchy as to be alarming, from nasal vowels to the choppy lines. One might overlook this if it came in the service of fine artistry, but her musical approach veered from cabaret-like crooning to a faux-little-girl brightness, sometimes within a single phrase. Her vocal failings were easier to overlook within the narrative through-line of "La Voix Humaine," but she interpreted this delicate, heartbreaking piece as grand opera. Every gesture was exaggerated, every little throwaway line turned into a grandiloquent statement, until she ended by strangling herself with the telephone cord. The general effect was one of caricature.

It was a sad note on which to end an impressive season. But it did leave one looking forward all the more eagerly to other performances -- like Sequentia's offering of "The Rheingold Curse," an early version of the Nibelung saga -- in the season ahead.

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