Caramoor ended its summer festival with a special treat for opera lovers, a concert with Susan Graham, accompanied by the always-fabulous Orchestra of St. Luke’s, led by Nicholas McGegan.
Once again, the weather on the leafy estate of Caramoor, with its sumptuous gardens and grounds, was a perfect match to the delightful and intriguing program.
The first part of the recital featured the music of Handel, specifically the overture and gavotte from his “Ariodante,” followed by two arias from the opera. Then, the overture from “Alcina,” also followed by an aria.
After an intermission, gears shifted to the music of Mozart with a breathless rendition of the overture to “La Nozze di Figaro,” followed likewise by arias from that work and (after a Mozart symphony!) an aria from Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito.”
The music was totally Graham’s, as was, quite clearly, the audience. Amidst the beautiful, expressive singing, Graham was playful, clearly enjoying performing.
And there were many standout moments to be found in both halves of the concert.
First Half – Handel
Conductor Nicholas McGegan led the forces of St. Luke’s with a jaunty precision that, in the “Ariodante” overture, contains hints of Vivaldi and the vocal excitement to come in the opera itself. He (like the soloist Graham) radiated a joy in conducting this music with the regular Caramoor orchestra.
Graham’s first aria, “Scherza infida,” immediately brought to mind why she is one of the most in-demand mezzo sopranos world-wide. Her mezzo voice, while having depth and power, also features a specially lush and warm sound (even when she sings as a woman scorned).
Part of what was so especially transporting about her performance in this first piece was how Graham seemed to effortlessly send notes flying up to the skies above.
It was magical singing, and the audience responded with an applause that rocked the great Caramoor tent.
Graham followed this with “Dopo notte,” also from “Ariodante,” which, as Graham joked, “here’s the happy bit…” And in the spirit of the piece, she played with the music and her presence on stage, even singing her words of a boat disaster averted with a puckish quality, the voice and notes effortlessly sliding up and down.
After McGegan and the orchestra gave a lively performance of the “Alcina” overture, with McGegan’s precise movements buoyantly in control, Graham returned for a shimmering performance of “Sta nell’Ircana” from the opera.
Vocal and dramatic gears shifted with the dark words of the aria and matching music of this piece. That dramatic tension called on her to sing with a fierce expression that not only showed the wonderful range of this great mezzo voice, but how smooth and comfortable a performer she is, responding to the fierceness of the lyrics.
Second Half – Mozart
The second half of the concert began with a racing and bracing overture to Mozart’s “La Nozze di Figaro.” This gem of a classical overture never sounded more effervescent, and McGegan, a baroque expert, seemed to be enjoying the sudden shift in music.
Graham returned for two well-known arias from the score – “Non so piu” and “Voi che sapete.” Again, like the Handel selections, these arias presented a sharp contrast, each displaying a different side to the mezzo’s magnificent singing.
Graham captured the breathlessness of the first aria, instantly summoning Cherubino, by turns excited and dramatic. In “Voi che sapete,” Graham’s warm, expressive was an ideal match to what has to be one of Mozart’s most sublime songs.
Change of Pace
Interjecting the compete Symphony No. 36 (“Linz”) by Mozart into the middle of the second half of the concert initially struck me as an unusual bit of programming. With the back and forth of overtures and arias, the pattern seemed set, and the “Linz,” majestic and certainly at the top of Mozart’s many symphonies, was definitely a “change of gears.”
And yet with McGegan, it was easy to drift into the spell of the “Linz,” a pastoral work which prefigures Beethoven’s own similar bucolic symphony, the sixth. Mozart uses the horns in this work with a subtlety, careful not to overwhelm the mood, and McGegan elicited the perfect balance of strings, brass and bass.
The symphony also balances a playfulness with power, the music shifting, even within the four movements. And it’s important to remember that Mozart, caught without any music to perform for Count Thun as a guest at the olde Thun Castle, composed it in a mere five days. Back then, they did not use the word “genius” lightly.
The audience’s response was massive, and for a lesser artist than Susan Graham, a return to the stage and that arena might have been a tad intimidating.
But no worries. Graham finished powerfully with “Deh per questo istante” from “La Clemenza di Tito.” The theme of the aria, with its air of remorse, and its pliant, pleading words matched to appropriate dramatic music, provided a brilliant, last showcase for Graham’s range.
Graham easily slid from whispery, anguished moments, with thoughts of death and despair in the air, to hope that Tito would show mercy. Graham’s perfect mezzo could shift beautifully and believably from those to moments where, as Sesto, pleading for his life, to moments of hope where her voice, quite simply, soared.
Total magic. We were all graced with one last aria as an encore – Handel’s gentle, delicately beautiful “Ombra ma fu” from “Serse”. The audience was rewarded with one final gorgeous moment in the presence of a truly extraordinary singer. The audience responded, all quickly to their feet for a thunderous, and so richly deserved, standing ovation.
Then, like a true mid-summer’s dream, it was over.