Great storytellers know how to mimic without seeming to, using the slightest modulations of voice to suggest disparate characters. Art song is a kind of storytelling, a form that requires one person to take many voices and enter into a kind of double-agent pact with the audience: I know that you know that this is a carefully crafted bit of artifice, but let's play along anyway.
That bargain has to be struck in very intimate spaces, where the singer's voice, face and body are under close scrutiny. Too much demonstrativeness becomes camp; too little, and the small drama of each song is lost.
Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who sang a program of English, French, German and Czech songs at La Maison Francaise Wednesday night, didn't find that balance until his last set of songs, all by the American composer Aaron Copland. Language, or cultural foreignness, seemed to be the problem. In French songs by Maurice Ravel and Ernest Chausson, attentiveness to pronunciation backfired, creating a sense that each word had been memorized from a flashcard--well learned but not integrated into an idiomatically fluent and naturally inflected sentence. The results were too precious and studious, despite fine mastery of the musical line.
Three songs by the English composer John Dowland were, of course, sung in English, yet despite a well-produced tenor voice that was light but full, they were strangely unaffecting. Dowland, a sophisticated Elizabethan composer, wrote dense songs that sound superficially like folk tunes. But the texts (and the musical settings) are not of the folk but of worldly people, educated and hypersensitive. They require finesse. Griffey took a scrupulous approach, enunciating consonants with exaggerated care, yet the poetry's coyness and light insinuations were lost in the reading.
In songs by Dvorak (translated into English) and Copland, he explored two more direct art-song takes on the folk-song tradition. Dvorak's "Gypsy Songs," Op. 55, and Copland's arrangements of American folk songs share some of the same lusty peasant themes, but it was only in the Copland that the singer finally came to life. Here, one heard Griffey's true calling, the art song and sophisticated popular song of his native country.
Griffey has a bit of the Broadway showman in him, which came out, unaffectedly and easily, in Copland's hilarious "The Dodger" and "I Bought Me a Cat." He finally seemed comfortable. His foot tapped, he moved more easily onstage and he brought greater color and variety to his vocal sound. In Copland's setting of the old Shaker song "Simple Gifts" he found the sincerity and spareness that one yearned for in his Chausson.
Griffey, who was raised in North Carolina, is a young singer exploring the world of music as if each composer or nationality were an item on a smorgasbord. But songs of one country may speak to a singer more than songs of other lands, and Griffey does seem more genuinely and personally involved in the music of this country. No singer is limited to his native songs, but the European songs on Wednesday's program need to be lived in, felt and understood more deeply.
Griffey was fortunate in his accompanist. Pianist Warren Jones, a veteran of the song recital circuit, played impeccably.