It is certainly safe to say that the greatest singer ever to grow up in Georgetown -- and to set off cherry bombs in the Georgetown Theater -- is Frederica von Stade. And, today, it would go almost equally uncontradicted that she is one of the greatest singers anywhere she chooses to go.
So her return home last night in a benefit recital at Georgetown University's intimate Gaston Hall -- a benefit for the medical school -- was bound to be an event. But for all von Stade's famed vocal and physical beauty, her innate musicality and her charm (she is arguably the finest actress in opera today) the magic that results when all these traits come together is more than just an event. It is enchantment.
In a brief period that has seen superb concerts here by two of von Stade's most distinguished contemporaries, Kiri Te Kanawa and Jessye Norman, one is aware that there is a certain consistent finesse about a von Stade recital that neither of those singers quite matches. Each can be more brilliant vocally than von Stade -- as in Te Kanawa's Handel or some of Norman's Schubert. But each can be interpretively uneven.
There was nothing uneven -- and nothing hackneyed -- about last night's concert. The program was imaginative, all displaying the diversity of the singer's talents, full of little-known music of great quality. And it was beautifully constructed to play off one mood against another. Four wistful French songs by Faure' opened, followed by the bel canto poignance of Desdemona's "Willow Song and Prayer" from Rossini's "Otello." Then came three passionate and romantic Richard Strauss lieder.
After the intermission, there was a set of often hilarious American songs, four of Canteloube's dreamy "Songs From the Auvergne" and, finally, three delectable Scho nberg "Cabaret Songs." The encore was the Queen of Babylon's fiendishly difficult coloratura aria from Rossini's "Semiramide," stunningly executed. Gillian Cookson accompanied her on the piano.
One of the keys to the mezzo's assurance on a recital stage is that her acting skill in opera pours over into her concert manner. She really knows how to project a mood -- from the hazy equivocalness of Ives' little "Serenity" to the tragedy of Desdemona's imminent death.
There is also her humor. She lashed with incomparable gusto into the wonderful opening of Copland's "Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven? Did I Sing Too Loud?" Even funnier was the opening of Pasatieri's "Vocal Modesty": "I just love my voice . . . " The capacity audience roared both times.
Von Stade talks a lot to the audience, explaining songs that are in foreign languages. She recited the end of Scho nberg's aria about a sexual affair from "The Mirror of Acardy": "I'd jump around the room/ My heart, pressed close to hers in sport/ Would pound out boom, boom, boom . . . " Then she explained, "You see, the song is X-rated."
At times the way von Stade colored the voice, which is not by nature a particularly sumptuous one, was remarkable, as in another sensous song by Scho nberg, "Galathea" (what a ravishing piece of music).
She also has outstanding steadiness of vocal line, especially in slow songs, like Faure's sad "At the Cemetery" and in the Ives. And von Stade shares a trait that Te Kanawa showed here as well, an unwillingness to distort the music by cutting off early a note that is getting a little gritty.
Georgetown may have lost on Monday in Lexington, but it sure came out a winner last night. Viva von Stade!