Thursday, November 6, 2008

Scintillating Susan

La Damnation de Faust
Music by Hector Berlioz
Conducted by James Levine
Directed by Robert Lepage
Starring Susan Graham, Marcello Giordani, John Relyea
Performances November 7, 10, 14, 18, 22, 25, 29, December 4, 2008
The Metropolitan Opera

Un frission fran├žais: A Century of French Song
Onyx Classics CD

Graham in the Met's La Damnation de Faust (photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Graham's new CD,
Un frisson francais
New Mexico native Susan Graham might well call the Metropolitan Opera her second home: not only has she sung the famed Mozart and Strauss roles there, but also two world premieres by American composers, Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy and John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. This month, the mezzo-soprano sings Marguerite in a new staging of Hector Berlioz’s great La Damnation de Faust by French-Canadian theatrical wizard Robert Lepage.

Graham took time out from her busy rehearsal schedule at the Met to discuss Faust, her love for Berlioz’s music, her new CD of French songs and a new side job–hosting opera telecasts, including the Met’s live HD transmission of Doctor Atomic on November 8.

Kevin Filipski: You’ve sung a lot of Berlioz, but this is your first time singing his Faust. Does Robert Lepage’s production overcome the fact that it wasn’t originally written to be staged?
Susan Graham: Even though it wasn’t written to be staged, this is the fourth staged production I’ve done! I think Robert’s staging is just brilliant–it’s tied together with such magic, such theatricality. He’s done such a marvelous job of imagining what could be and then making it happen. He says that the performers are sort of sandwiched into a cinematic world, which means that we have interactive technology. It’s really incredible–the visual images aid in the kind of otherworldly storytelling of this piece. The set is a vertical grid which becomes a giant screen at times–for instance, sometimes there’s a video overlay of a large house or a church. It doesn’t affect my performance at all, since I’m actually unaware of (all the technology). I’m giving the same performance of Marguerite that I would give anywhere, since 90 percent of what’s going on around me, I can’t see anyway.

KF: What’s so appealing about Berlioz’s music?
SG: His music has a great sense of drama, he was a master of orchestration and he was inventing new ways of using instruments that also gave us new storytelling tools. In Faust, when the devil appears, the horns of the orchestra make a kind of ghastly shriek–there’s always a forward momentum in his dramatic writing. He brings a beautiful lyric quality to my big heartbreak aria in the second act of Faust, as an English horn–which is the most plaintive-sounding instrument–first sings out the melody which I then sing.

KF: What does James Levine bring to Faust as conductor, and how is it working with your Faust (Marcello Giordani) and Mephistopheles (John Relyea)?
SG: James Levine knows every single note of the score inside and out. We spoke earlier about my part in my dressing room–and boy, it is obvious he loves this music! He treats it as music from the Classical period, not the big gestures from the Romantic era. There’s a correlation between Berlioz and Gluck, which is perfect for me since I just sang (Gluck’s opera) Iphigenia en tauride for a year throughout the world. It’s the first time that I’ve sung with John and Marcello, who is one of the greatest tenors of our time, and his voice is perfectly suited for Berlioz, who makes a lot of demands on a tenor, with his arching lines and very high ranges. And Marcello does all that beautifully. The way Berlioz has written Mephistopheles, he’s a devil with a lot of class, not a rough, gravelly kind of devil. Of course, John is very suave and seductive, with a lot of elegance and charm.

KF: You’ve started a second “career” as announcer and host, first during a Live from Lincoln Center broadcast from New York City Opera, then more recently during the Met’s Opening Night Gala and live HD broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. How is that going?
SG: I love it–I’m having the best time. It’s funny, because in the past when you picked up the mike and become an interviewer, people always associated it with Beverly Sills and other former, retired divas. But now there’s so much media around and they need somebody to host different events, so (Met Opera General Manager) Peter Gelb has done a great thing by asking those of us who are still active as singers to step out of that role and into another one, to interview our colleagues.

KF: After Faust at the Met, you’re returning for a New Year’s Eve concert with Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic. Any ideas on what you’ll be singing yet?
SG: Right now, we’re definitely in discussions for it–we’re still trying to nail down the repertoire and find a program that will really ring in the New Year in a very festive way. I know we’ll be performing arias from some operettas, which will be fun, along with other surprises.

KF: Your new recording, Un frisson francais, has just been released. It’s subtitled A Century of French Song–how do you compress 100 years of incredible composing into one CD?
SG: Yes, well, it is 24 songs by 22 French composers. (Piano accompanist) Malcolm Martineau called it a “tasting menu,” which was the idea, because it’s hard to pick just one songs by these composers. Also, we wanted to pick one of their lesser-known jewels–they’re all wonderful composers in their own right. When we having our original discussions about it, he’s such a genius with repertoire: “these songs will be a good group, those will be a good group.” I would tell him, “I love this song, let’s put this one in.” People think the pianist is just there to play while you sing, but he’s the driver of this bus. I’m there to push along his genius. When he suggested that we do Poulenc’s “La dame de Monte Carlo” as the big finale, I couldn’t believe it: “A seven-minute Poulenc song to end the program? I’ll never learn that!” But it’s such a great song that I just couldn’t say no.

KF: Out of 22 French composers on the CD, there’s no Berlioz. Was that intentional?
SG: The world has heard me sing so much Berlioz: maybe we need to hear me sing something else!

originally posted on

No comments: