Soprano Phillips explores women through the centuries with impressive artistry
Over the past season, a number of singers have performed works that delved into the lives of women. Last April, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham presented “Frauenliebe und –leben Variations,” a musical exploration of Schumann’s woman, alongside works by other composers. And in January, Boston Opera Collaborative paired the same Schumann song cycle with Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf in eight intimately staged scenes.
Saturday night at Jordan Hall, in an event sponsored by the Celebrity Series, soprano Susanna Phillips presented “Women’s Lives and Loves,” an intriguing recital program that situated the Schumann cycle alongside songs by Schubert, Wolf, and Libby Larsen. The story of a woman’s life and trials, it was revealed, has been a prominent theme in musical history.
Phillips’ performances of these works showed why she stands as one of the most acclaimed singer-actors on the scene today. Since winning the Beverly Sills Award with the Metropolitan Opera in 2010, Phillips’ star has continued to rise. Her performances of lyric roles have won acclaim by critics, and she has recently starred in the Met’s production of Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin (only the second opera by a woman to have ever graced the company’s stage). The singer’s voice is full and bright with a hint of silver, and she is capable of coloring her instrument for dramatic effect. Phillips had a simpatico partner in the remarkable pianist Myra Huang, who conjured an ocean of images and emotions in each song.
The Frauenliebe und –leben cycle remains a popular concert item. Its subject matter for many though is dated. We witness Schumann’s woman become enraptured by the man she loves, and follow her story through engagement, marriage, motherhood, and, eventually, widowhood.
Phillips found the searching humanity of the character. Performances of this cycle tend to overstate the woman’s emotions. Instead, Phillips sang these songs with a hushed intensity. “Er, der Herrlichste von allen,” where the woman is enthralled by her soon-to-be-fiancé, had just the right touch of Victorian restraint. The singer’s breathy phrases in “Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben” gave a sense of heightened anticipation. “Der Ring an meinem Finger” was cast in quiet reverence, as if the woman was lost in thought. Phillips saved the greatest drama for the final song, “Nun hast du mir ersten Schmerz getan,” where the woman is heartbroken over the death of her husband. Phillips’ phrases were full of anguish and her final line, “Du meine Welt,” quivered on the edge of breaking.
The wives of Henry VIII lived troubled lives, to say the least, under the thumb of their husband and king. Libby Larsen’s cycle Try Me Good King, which Phillips performed Saturday night, captures the final words of each. In “Katherine of Aragon” Phillip’s character proclaimed eternal devotion to her king even in the face of death. But the piano accompaniment, played searchingly by Myra Huang, sounded her pending doom through cold, bare statements.
“Anne Boleyn” was defiant, with Phillips swelling her phrases into bursts of righteous anger. Similarly, “Katherine Howard” panged with regret over marrying Henry in the first place. Phillips’ powerful lines took her to the top of her range for statements that erupted like lightning. “Jane Seymour,” on the other hand, was tenderly lyrical, the woman delighted at the birth of her son. “Anne of Cleves” had moments of wry humor, which Phillips delivered with radiant tone and musicality.
In Hugo Wolf’s Mignon Lieder, women are caught in a world where they aguish over giving themselves fully to those they love. They are also pained from loss. The music changes moods on a dime, calling for the vocalist to unleash torrents of cascading figures. The harmony, unfolding in swilling chromaticism, sets a dark tone. In “Heiss mich nicht redden,” Phillips’ voice had soft radiance. Huang played the accompaniment with haunting mystery. “Kennst du das Land,” where the woman longs to follow the men in her life into parts unknown, is rife with operatic drama, which Phillips delivered resplendently. Huang’s piano figures crashed into a wall of dissonance to conjure a coming flood.
Schubert’s “Viola” tells of a young violet that loses its life in a winter storm. A metaphor for an innocent girl, the poem, written by Franz von Schober, conveys images of cold landscapes and spring thaw. Together, Phillips and Huang conjured those images with poignant sorrow.
One of Schubert’s most famous women is the young girl at her spinning wheel in “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” which Phillips offered Saturday night. The song muses on the loneliness brought on by death. Phillips, singing with a tone that glowed in the distance, captured the character’s emotional desolation. All the while, the spinning wheel, conjured by Huang’s piano figures, continued to turn.
Phillips and Huang broke the seriousness of the recital in their encore, the set of songs Do You Sing, Mr. Twain? by Gordon Myers. Each song is a witty aphorism. The final one, “On rules of writing,” sets the phrase “eschew surplusage” to extravagant Baroque clichés. Before sounding out the final chords, Huang shouted “Time to go home!” Before doing so, though, the audience showered the musicians with generous applause.
The Celebrity Series will feature pianist Igor Levit in music by Beethoven, Rzewski, and Shostakovich 8 p.m. Wednesday at Pickman Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617- 482-6661
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