HAROLD ARLEN (1905 – 1986), SAMMY FAIN (1902 – 1989), GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898 – 1937), GREGORY PEEBLES (born 1977), FRANCIS POULENC (1899 – 1963), OTTORINO RESPIGHI (1879 – 1936), and RICHARD RODGERS (1902 – 1979): Soprano Leah Crocetto in recital with pianist Mark Markham [North Carolina Opera, Fletcher Opera Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 3 March 2019]
Discussions of which qualities contribute to the evaluation of a singer’s significance rightly begin and end with the voice, but there is another integral component that answers to many names. Call it charisma, stage presence, or artistic vision: without it, even singing of the most astounding beauty can fail to make a lasting impression on listeners. Casting semantics aside, this thing that can be cultivated, refined, and reinvented but cannot be borrowed, duplicated, or taught is the essence of a singer’s artistry.
Stage presence is not always a guest at Art Song recitals, but soprano Leah Crocetto owned the stage of Fletcher Opera Theater in her North Carolina Opera recital with pianist Mark Markham as though Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts deeded it to her. Returning to Raleigh, where she has previously sung Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore and her rôle début as Bellini’s Norma, with an adventurous programme that provided as complete a survey of her artistic temperament as two hours of music could ever hope to do, this dauntless artist sang with the kind of candor that frightens some singers. Without the orchestra, costumes, and action of staged opera in which to bury insecurities, recitals furnish nowhere for a singer’s vulnerabilities to hide, sometimes prompting singers to choose the safety of music that challenges neither performers nor listeners. Crocetto might have garnered the admiration of her Raleigh audience with songs far less demanding than those by Respighi, Poulenc, Rachmaninoff, and Peebles that she selected as the cornerstones of this recital, but her objective was not to seek applause with vocal display. The voice was spectacularly displayed, but it was Crocetto’s daring, disarmingly intimate baring of her soul that made this recital unforgettable.
Now lauded more for his frequently-played tone poems and orchestral pieces than for his operas and other vocal works, Ottorino Respighi possessed a gift for melody that qualified him as a worthy exponent of the too-little-appreciated Italian song tradition furthered by Verdi, Puccini, and Toscanini. Markham’s passionate realizations of Respighi’s writing for the piano in the songs presented in this recital accentuated the Italianate slancio of the music and divulged that the composer’s vivid orchestral language translated easily into the piano’s dialect. The vocal control that Crocetto exhibited in her singing of ‘Stornellatrice,’ embodied by her perfectly-placed top A♭s, was a testament to her unflappable preparedness.
In ‘Nebbie,’ the singer’s lucid articulation of Ada Negri’s text culminated in a declamation of the lines ‘E mi ripete: Vieni, è buia la vallata’ that echoed the deep feeling exuded by her fortissimo G♯s. Dating from 1896, ‘Notturno’ is one of Respighi’s loveliest inventions in song form, comparable in quality to the finest of Richard Strauss’s Lieder of the same period. Markham’s playing yielded a broodingly dark soundscape in which Crocetto’s voice shimmered, her intonation formidably certain. The emotional intensity of ‘Mattinata’ unleashed subtle reminiscences of the soprano’s Aida. As confident in adversity as in triumph, the poet’s and composer’s voices took flight in Crocetto’s singing.
In reality, this recital introduced the Raleigh audience to several magnificent voices. The imposing but unaffected Tebaldi-esque Italian diva who voiced the Respighi songs was succeeded in the Poulenc selections that followed by a chanteuse after the fashion of Eartha Kitt. A singer of Crocetto’s abilities is expected to excel in performances of music as sumptuously written for the voice as Poulenc’s, but, supported by pianism that resounded with the hypnotic tumult of Paris, she sang these pieces with an ideal combination of sultriness and sophistication. The first three of the Poulenc songs chosen by Crocetto are settings of texts by Louise de Vilmorin, two of which were drawn from the composer’s 1939 work Fiançailles pour rire. Soprano and pianist phrased ‘Violon’ with a nonchalant elegance of which Catherine Deneuve would have been proud. Their performance of ‘Fleurs’ should have been chased with a glass of cognac, so chic was their handling of Poulenc’s sensual melodic writing.
Crocetto brought the communicative immediacy of her singing of Elisabetta’s ‘Tu che la vanità’ in Verdi’s Don Carlo to her account of ‘Aux officiers de la garde blanche,’ finding in the song a close kinship with Poulenc’s and Cocteau’s Voix humaine. The words of ‘Les chemins de l’amour’ were penned by Jean Anouilh, one of France’s greatest Twentieth-Century writers, and if composer and playwright could have heard this performance of the song they would have immediately initiated a collaboration on an operatic adaptation of Anouilh’s Antigone as a vehicle for Crocetto. It is not without justification that Denise Duval’s interpretations remain the benchmarks to which performances of Poulenc’s vocal music are compared, and Crocetto earned a place alongside Catherine Dubosc and Mireille Delunsch as one of the few singers who share Duval’s thorough comprehension of Poulenc’s singular style.
Resplendent Raleigh recitalist: soprano Leah Crocetto (left) as the titular heroine in San Francisco Opera’s 2015 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller, with tenor Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]
Despite the increased focus on linguistic diversity that has broadened singers’ and opera companies’ repertoires in recent years, it remains unusual for non-Slavic artists to include Russian songs sung in their original language in recital programmes. Still more uncommon are performances by singers whose mother tongue is not Russian who enunciate the language as idiomatically as Crocetto did in her singing of four pieces by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Her singing of this music recalled the sensitivity of Elisabeth Söderström, the sincerity of Galina Vishnevskaya, and the vocal power of Elena Obraztsova.
In the first of her Rachmaninoff excursions, ‘Не пой, красавица’ (Opus 4, No. 4), Crocetto immersed herself in the recesses of the uniquely Russian mood of the music, its brooding and fiercely Romantic strains climaxing on a fiery fortissimo top A. The yearning, slightly enigmatic atmosphere of ‘Отрывок из А. Мюссе’ (Opus 21, No. 6) was heightened by the almost preternatural tranquility of Markham’s management of the song’s rhythmic figurations. Here and in ‘Здесь хорошо’ (Opus 21, No. 7), in which Crocetto rose fearlessly to the pianissimo top B, voice and piano disclosed an uncommon synchronicity between words and music, the pianist conveying the shifting colors of the text as meaningfully as the singing echoed the cadences of the accompaniment. The virtuosity of Rachmaninoff’s writing for the piano, particularly in ‘Какое счастье’ (Opus 34, No. 2), is predictably demanding, but Markham executed the most ferocious passages with imperturbable assurance. It was in this music that it was most noticeable and bothersome that the piano’s lowest octave sounded marginally out of tune. Crocetto’s top B♭ was on point, however, emerging like a thunderbolt from the surging vocal line.
Gregory Peebles is the rare contemporary composer who has experienced song as both a creator and a performer. His tenure with Chanticleer exposed him to music of virtually all eras, and that experience is audible in every bar of his 2013 song cycle Eternal Recurrence, given its first performance in North Carolina by Crocetto and Markham. More of a stream-of-consciousness meditation in several movements than a song cycle in the tradition of Schubert and Schumann, Eternal Recurrence employs texts from an array of sources including Gaius Petronius’s Satyricon. Beginning and ending with episodes entitled ‘The Void,’ comprised of an isolated note on the piano, Peebles’s music progresses into a contrapuntal labyrinth that briefly pays homage to Johann Sebastian Bach.
With Crocetto’s entrance in the ‘Vivace, Naïve’ section, the music’s psychological potency began to take shape with gripping profundity. The probity with which the soprano sang ‘The curvature of light beckons toward ancient horizon’ prepared the listener for the riveting honesty of her delivery of ‘The one I’m not, I’d rather be doing’ in ‘By Chance.’ Peebles’s penchant for taking the voice to extremes found an expert champion in Crocetto, whose vocal solidity encompassed all of the music’s complexities. The sonorous proclamation of Pyrrhic victory of ‘I reconquered my mattress continent and found its sheet-fields lonely’ in ‘Hollow’ was answered by the wrenching resignation of ‘Call me what you will.’ Singer and pianist made the composer’s instructions in ‘Liquide, molto rubato’ palpable, siphoning the listener into the cascading swell of the music.
Peebles’s directions in ‘Largo, proud’ were also followed with great fidelity, with Crocetto’s statement of ‘If my heart had a flag, its noble crest would be a passport the color of new jeans’ suggesting a Kafka-like juxtaposition of the everyday and the metaphysical. The Latin and Greek words of the text attributed to Petronius lend the ‘Verklärt’ movement an element of archaic authority, inspiring Crocetto to intone them in this performance with the prophetic mystery of an oracle. The ‘Playful, leggiero’ designation of the final vocal sequence is at odds with the sentiment of ‘Every language is the hardest,’ sparking a debate between music and words that was resolved by the unity of purpose that allied Crocetto’s singing with Markham’s playing. The finest music responds to the stimuli of different artists with new dimensions of emotional connectivity, but it is difficult to imagine a more viscerally moving performance of Eternal Recurrence than it received from Crocetto and Markham in Raleigh.
The singer introduced the American standards with which she closed the recital as favorite souvenirs from a time before the ‘Leah Crocetto, soprano’ phase of her career. There was no doubt that these songs were old friends, but these performances were not remembrances of things past: these were spontaneous experiences of genuine, raw feeling that eliminated any spiritual distance between performers and audience. Written for the 1924 revue Lady, Be Good, George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ was sung by Crocetto with a directness that metamorphosed the euphoric ache of love into a tangible thing that could be felt with each note that caressed the ear. Harold Arlen’s and Ira Gershwin’s ‘The Man That Got Away’ started its life in the 1954 film A Star Is Born, and this star singer shone in her quietly wrenching performance of it.
The collaboration between Crocetto and Markham achieved its apex in their exquisitely personal account of ‘Falling in Love with Love’ from Richard Rodgers’s and Lorenz Hart’s musical The Boys from Syracuse. The trust between them was manifested in musical expressivity that seemed to stop time, everything else in the world swept aside by these few minutes of bittersweet regret. Crocetto opined that Sammy Fain’s and Irving Kahal’s 1938 song ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ needed no introduction. This is also true of singing of the quality with which she gifted the piece to the audience. Singing such as this cannot be found in all the old familiar places, but the fortunate listeners in Raleigh will surely always remember this singer that way.
For their encore, Crocetto and Markham gave a performance of ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ from Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Showboat in which every smile and sigh in Edna Ferber’s novel suffused the song. As in all of the music included in this recital, they forged their own path to the heart of the piece, finding sass, humor, refreshingly original wit, and incredible insight in its refrain.
There is no instrument that is more versatile than the human voice. With a finite range of tones, it can rage, revel, comfort, and cajole. With the simplest of tunes, it can change minds and win hearts. The best vocal recitals are those in which the listener feels that music was not merely performed but lived. Leah Crocetto’s and Mark Markham’s North Carolina Opera recital was an event in which music was a medium, not an outcome. It was The Judds who sang that ‘love can build a bridge,’ but Leah Crocetto and Mark Markham encircled Fletcher Opera Theater with musical orange barrels and launched a construction project of their own.
Poet of the piano: pianist Mark Markham, fellow traveler in soprano Leah Crocetto’s recital journey with North Carolina Opera, 3 March 2019
[Photograph by Jean-Luc Fievet, © by Mark Markham]