Many persons occupied the stage of the Wolf Trap Barns last night. They all looked more or less like Donald Gramm, but their true characters emerged as soon as he opened his mouth.
At one moment, he was the Cyclops Polyphemus, driven to comic extremes of basso coloratura by the beauty of a young woman; a bit later, he was Michelangelo brooding that "All that comes into being must end"; Charlie Rutlage, a cowboy meeting an untimely death; a wide-eyed spectator at a circus parade ("Where is that lady all in pink? Last year, she waved at me, I think"); Don Pasquale planning a May-December wedding; Leporello reviewing the impressive statistics of Don Giovanni's amours; Miniver Cheevy getting drunk and dreaming of the Medici; Robert Frost watching the snow fall silently in a dark wood; Sir John Falstaff singing a rollicking drinking song; Horatio Nelson helping Brittania to rule the waves.
In effect, it was a dramatic recital of works by some of the world's greatest poets: Frost, Edward Arlington Robinson, Lawrence Durrell, Pushkin, Heine and others. It was both high art and superb entertainment.
There was also music--by Handel, Mozart, Donizetti, Tchaikovsky, Hugo Wolf, Charles Ives and three rather neglected American composers: Theodore Chanler, John Duke and Richard Cumming. It was glorious, from the opening trumpet tones of Handel's "Arm, Arm, Ye Brave" to the last encore: "I Bought Me a Cat." But Gramm's recital was most spectacularly a celebration of the word, of dramatic gestures and of eloquent facial expressions.
The music was merely perfect, give or take a half-dozen syllables that were not produced and projected quite as well as the others. And in this perfection, Gramm was neatly matched by pianist Donald Hassard, his recital partner since 1964, whose assignment included both spectacular acrobatics and fine details of phrasing.
Most singers neglect the splendid American songs that were the heart of this program, perhaps because few can perform them as well as Donald Gramm. In a country that knew and loved its own cultural heritage, Chanler's superbly ambivalent "I Rise When You Enter," Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and particularly Duke's magnificent set of variations to the text of "Miniver Cheevy" would be standard repertory items. We should hear them more often; in fact, a Gramm recital should become an annual event at The Barns, perhaps as the climax of a festival of American song.
Many young singers from the Wolf Trap opera company were in the audience last night. The experience should affect on their thinking about recital repertoire.