Denyce Graves at Strathmore: Living -- if not singing -- up to her image

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The persona of a full-blown opera superstar took the stage at Strathmore on Sunday night. It took the form of Denyce Graves, Washington's favorite hometown mezzo-soprano, flatteringly lit with pink gels and side banks of lights shining into the audience's eyes.

Graves's recital, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society and rescheduled due to the winter storms, was called "A Woman's Life." It consisted of lieder, opera arias and American standards having some relation to the female experience (though the relevance of Handel's aria "Ombra mai fu," a love song from a king to a tree, is open to question).

This program showed more range on paper than it did in Graves's voice. The mezzo seemed to have two settings: operatic and down-to-earth. Anything in a foreign language -- even Schumann's song cycle "Frauenliebe und -Leben" (a woman's love and life) -- got the full operatic treatment: a great big sound, stentorian and slightly squeezed, with a rich low voice, erratic tempos and a sense of self-importance.

But with Gershwin's "The Man I Love," she pulled back, in the course of the first phrase, from a spread and rather rough opening to a more straightforward, slender sound. This set the tone for a final group of American songs that was far more accessible, in the best sense: lyrics comprehensible, sound more direct. Communication was happening.

It wasn't, particularly, in the earlier part of the program -- particularly not in "Frauenliebe und -Leben," which was somewhat slow and tedious. In the second song, when the singer is proclaiming love for the man who will become her husband, her "Er, der Herrlichste von allen" was so earnest as to be downright scary. Ladies, keep your hands off him. And her bittersweet announcement that she's pregnant, in the sixth song, sounded like full-blown tragedy.

Artistry was hampered by the irregularity of Graves's delivery. She played the traditional diva role to the hilt, not only in sporting three different dresses during the evening, but in her willful relationship to the tempo; Laura Ward, her accompanist, did a fine job of keeping up (apart from the moment before the final encore when, her focus perhaps rattled after an entire evening spent on her toes, she launched enthusiastically into the wrong piece). Phrasing was choppy; intonation, often uncertain. In Chausson's "Chanson Perp├ętuelle," for which Graves was joined by the Cavani String Quartet, her French vowels made for a couple of strikingly ugly baying sounds at the beginnings of phrases. The focus of the evening seemed more on form than on content: on playing a star role rather than on communicating the essence of the music.

But when the American part of the program started, the mood changed. Three songs by Ricky Ian Gordon (also accompanied by the quartet) led from romantic lovely lines ("Will There Really Be a Morning?") to the vernacular of "Coyotes," strongly reminiscent of "Hernando's Hideaway" ("The Pajama Game"), complete with castanets.

By the end, the audience was involved and primed for the encores. For these, Graves blended opera and entertainer mode with renditions of her greatest hits, "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" and the "Habanera," delivered with a certain amount of shtick, like favorite cover tunes. Graves may not be offering vocal luster these days. And she may not be as much of a superstar as she tried to present. But she is very good at playing Denyce Graves, and the crowd ate it up.

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