So many musicians today perform with a newscaster's permanent vaseline smile that it's almost disorienting to encounter the soprano Christine Schafer--a sweet but dour and starkly modern presence on the recital stage. Schafer appeared at a Vocal Arts Society concert at La Maison Francaise Wednesday evening, part of a U.S. tour that is receiving mixed reviews.
There's a lot of buzz about Schafer, especially in Europe where she has made the majority of her career. She has recorded some very fine Mozart and appeared (to great acclaim) in the title role of Alban Berg's "Lulu" at Glyndebourne and Salzburg, a role that seems especially suited to her temperament. But while her European appearances have been a string of successes, her current North American tour is attracting adjectives like "cold" and "severe."
On Wednesday it seemed she was still in character for Lulu, the alluring schemer who works her remote charm to questionable personal advantage. Her stage presence was a fascinating mix of apparent shyness and musical self-confidence; she was as awkward in high heels as she was effortless in high notes. She stood with an austere and inward grace, yet she fixed an almost accusatory gaze on the audience, like a cabaret singer sending searing looks through a haze of blue cigar smoke.
Schafer sings, much of the time, with a smallish, slightly breathy tone, an effect that sounds childlike, hesitant and somehow deeply honest (the way that the asides during a prepared speech always sound more authentic than the speech itself). There's no doubt that the voice is all there--when she moves to the top register, the instrument is larger, focused and almost without vibrato--but she clearly relishes the spoken-style expressiveness of her lower and middle register. Schafer's approach seems almost casual at times, as if the song were already happening in her head and her voice is a mere transcription of it.
Wednesday's program was devoted to songs of Hugo Wolf, the sadly loopy, Wagner-inspired song master of the late 19th century; early songs by the Schoenberg disciple Alban Berg; and music of America's own psychedelic modernist George Crumb. Each composer is weird. Wolf's songs take Wagner's notion of music directly reflecting speech down to the most minute detail, with multiple changes of direction and tone throughout each piece. Berg's early songs (from 1905-08) push the envelope of tonality without ever abandoning lyrical commitment. And Crumb's "Apparition," from 1979, is a dismembering of Walt Whitman's Lincoln elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
Each composer is more than adequate to supply a little otherworldly edginess to a recital. Taken together, they created a bewildering succession of mercurial emotions, deep-felt loneliness, desperate spirituality, moments of transcendence and bottomless woe. In short, a particularly grim piece of art song angst.
Schafer is not one to seduce the listener into her world. You come by your own choice and at your own peril. In the Wolf songs, based on haunting poems by Eduard Morike, she captured the particular moment, or crux, when Wolf and Morike exhaust the demonstration of sentiment and turn, finally, to God or some equivalent principle of spiritual power.
Her voice hovers, expectantly, above these crucial moments, accentuating their power and mystery.
Although she took a long time to warm up, by the second half of the program her Berg songs were fuller and more vocally fleshed out. In "Traumgekront," with its text by Rilke, her voice bloomed in the upper register, hinting at the possibility that she had been keeping her full resources in reserve.
Crumb's "Apparition" was a disappointment, in part because it goes on longer than necessary, in part because Schafer kept the music's theatricality under wraps.
Schafer's accompanist, Ted Taylor, was a deft player more than adequate to the extensive technical demands of all three composers. One wished only for a bit more--the piano is no mere accompanying instrument in these songs, and Taylor could well expand his contribution to something more theatrical and scene-setting.
CAPTION: Soprano Christine Schafer: Edgy, expressive and very modern.