Fans of vocal music have a bad habit of wallowing in memories - real or imagined - of the good old days, when great singers roamed the Earth in abundant numbers. Mention any artist today, and these nostalgia nuts invariably reply, "You should have heard so-and-so." But even folks with an uncontrollable fondness for the past would have to admit that the present sounds awfully good whenever Susan Graham sings.
Over the past few years, the American mezzo-soprano has moved quickly into the stellar sphere with her gleaming tone, sure technique and inviting personality. Those gifts were much in evidence during a recital Monday night in the Kennedy Center's intimate Terrace Theater, presented by Washington's invaluable Vocal Arts Society. From the choice and ordering of her program (two symmetrical pairings of German and French repertoire) to the delicious encores, Graham displayed a keen appreciation for the dying art of the voice recital. A lingering bit of throat trouble kept a few notes from emerging cleanly ("Thanks for indulging me," the mezzo said to the packed house at the end), but the intrinsic beauty of her voice and the intelligence behind each phrase never failed to register.
With Malcolm Martineau providing superb support as he summoned a full orchestra's worth of instrumental coloring at the keyboard, Graham moved assuredly from composer to composer, style to style. She explored the outer and inner passions of Brahms' Zigeunerlieder to telling effect; the tenderness she evoked in the seventh of these gypsy airs proved particularly endearing. The misty hues of Debussy's Proses Lyriques inspired such profound nuances that a single syllable had much to impart. In De Greve, with its images of chattering waves and "the delayed bells of floating churches," Graham's luminous singing and the pianist's evocative playing created a particularly exquisite, Monet-in-music effect.
The heavily perfumed poetry of Berg's Seven Early Songs, soaked in lush, post-romantic harmonies, inspired a rapt performance. Even allowing for a little unsteadiness in articulation, the mezzo's account of Traumgekront was magical. Martineau's handling of the overwrought accompaniment in Sommertage proved no less impressive. Balancing Berg's oh-so-serious mood was Poulenc's cheeky Four Poems of Apollinaire; to help make the change even more pronounced, Graham added a feather boa to her outfit. She brilliantly tapped the wit and fantasy of the verses, the pure fun of the music.
The recital closed with a sampling of light music from the French theater, natural territory for Graham, as evidenced by her terrific recording of French operetta arias last year. Her account of Andre Messager's J'ai deux amants, a funny number about the stupidity of men from the perspective of a woman with two lovers, was acted out as colorfully as it was sung. Same for C'est ca la vie from a 1934 musical by Moises Simons; the song has a melodic hook that can stay in the ears for days, and Graham made the most of it with an intoxicating mix of sultry and ironic inflections.
Following two French encores - Renaldo Hahn's Bach-like A Chloris was gorgeously spun - Graham and partner brought down the house with the premiere of a novelty song written for her by Ben Moore. It's in the same tradition of his witty "Wagner Roles,"- a lament about operatic typecasting. In this case, the complaint has to do mostly with being stuck so often in "trouser roles," performing as a man in operas by Mozart and Strauss ("I'm so tired of kissing chicks," Graham sang), rather than being allowed to show her talents as "a sexy lady." Great fun.
Fortunately, there really aren't any serious limits to Graham's career - or her talent.