The world’s finest performers can conjure a circle of enchantment around any audience.
An enthusiastic crowd at Koerner Hall on Saturday night had the good luck to have that kind of experience at the hands of Texas-born mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and her piano accompanist, Malcolm Martineau.
For more than 90 blissful minutes, the singer took eager fans on two very different journeys in song. The first one was of wistful purity. The second was more earthy, darker, and just as compelling.
A great singer doesn’t need costumes, props, scenery or lighting to conjure mood and emotion while they tell a musical tale.
Graham, through the force of a large, flexible, honeyed voice and considerable artistry created once-upon-a-time worlds, delivering what amounted to a series of miniature, one-woman operas rather than a standard recital.
Throughout the Graham’s Toronto recital début, Martineau was the ideal musical butler, quietly, efficiently serving up just the right pianistic emphasis and punctuation.
Graham began the more wistful side of the evening with two dramatic monologues, the first by early Baroque English composer Henry Purcell (“Tell Me, Some Pitying Angel,” from The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation), the second La mort d’Ophélie (Ophelia’s death), by early Romantic French master Hector Berlioz.
With the sleeves of her white gown gently rustling, Graham became an angel of music.
The highlight of a set of art songs centred on the character of Mignon, who appears in Wolfgang von Goethe’s landmark novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (William Meister’s Apprenticeship), published in the late 1790s. The most moving of the songs was Franz Liszt’s setting of “Kennst du das Land” (Do You Know Where?), in which the piano became an equal interlocutor with the singer.
Singer and pianist had become one — and were to stay that way for the rest of the recital.
There were many more treats from Graham, the Bad Girl, who returned after intermission in slinky sequins and a dark, dramatic take on Lady Macbeth’s madness by Joseph Horvitz.
The official program ended with show tunes that included “Sexy Lady,” a funny, self-referential piece written for Graham by Ben Moore. Here, the singer could sink her chops into a piece that made fun of all the “trouser” roles mezzos are asked to sing in opera, clamouring for something more feminine.
It was a brilliant way to end a golden evening.
In the Liszt song, when Graham sang, “Knowest the house, its roof on columns fine? Its hall glows brightly and its chambers shine,” all present knew that it was Koerner Hall on a cold winter’s night.