Whilst the Opera Tattler attended the sold-out performance of Takács Quartet in Berkeley last Sunday, the Last Chinese Unicorn was over in San Francisco for Elza van den Heever's recital presented by San Francisco Performances.
* Notes *
My biggest complaint today when it comes to opera singers is that nobody is willing to take risks anymore. Everyone wants to play it safe for fear of cracking or screwing up a note, so they stay within their comfort zone and manufacture one sterile, cookie-cutter performance after another. I quote the character of Florence Foster Jenkins in play Souvenir: "Nothing is more detrimental to good singing than this modern mania for accuracy...You say the notes are absolute, but what are they, after all? Signposts left by the composer to guide us."
I heard Elza van den Heever sing this past Sunday and the girl has a gorgeous voice. But singers with lovely voices are a dime a dozen. What sets Elza apart from the rest of the herd is that she is fearless. She understands that singing is not just about producing beautiful, precise notes, but about putting oneself out there even if it means being vulnerable and exposed. Elza is not afraid to relinquish a bit of control and allow the music to take her (and the audience) on a journey, potentially into unfamiliar territory. I have noticed on several occasions that she tears up during pieces and asked her how this affects her voice. "It is a give and take situation. You can either disconnect from the meaning to maintain that clear beautiful sound, but I really have no choice but to be in the moment," she says. "Whatever happens with the meaning of the poetry or the libretto, I am there. For me, staying truthful to the poetry and the message is most important and I just work with my voice as the emotions come and the music happens." Yes, the tears may interfere with her breath and distort her sound at times. She does make mistakes, but she just laughs them off nonchalantly in such a charming and endearing way that the audience cannot help but laugh along with her. Watching Elza's performance made me think about the origin of the word "Bravo," which literally means "brave" or "courageous" in Italian. Elza van den Heever is one soprano who is definitely worthy of that praise.
Elza opened with two Handel arias from Rodelinda and Alcina which, in my opinion, does not belong in her repertoire. Her voice, while perfectly suited for the long sustained phrases of German opera and lieder, lacks the agility to handle the fast-paced scales and ornamentation of Baroque music. In "Mio caro bene" and "Ma quando tornerai" Elza's breathing was somewhat labored and the long runs were a bit choppy. The accompanist, John Parr, was disconnected from the singer and appeared lost in his own little bubble of oblivion with his head stuck in the sheet music. Not once did he look at Elza or offer her a little support when she required slight adjustments in the tempi. However, even though the Baroque was not her forte, Elza's delivery was packed with emotion and sincerity, you could tell she knew exactly what she was singing about.
Elza seemed much more relaxed as she shifted gears and entered the realm of German lieder where it was evident that she was in her element. Strauss' Wiegenlied, one of my favorite songs, was beautifully executed with crisp clarity and nuanced coloring. Her Frauenliebe und - leben, a song cycle by Robert Schumann that documents a woman's passage through love, marriage, motherhood, and the death of her beloved, required no translation. Especially moving was her interpretation of "Du Ring an meinem Finger" and "Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan" where her breaths turned into grieving sobs as her character mourned the loss of her husband. The set of Afrikaans songs was a rare treat. Elza sang these songs that depicted the beauty of her homeland with such enthusiasm and nostalgic melancholy that the smells, sounds, and sights described in the text became almost palpable to the senses. She gave two encores, both by Brahms: "Botschaft" and "O komme holde Sommernacht."
* Tattling *
There was an error in the program notes. The text printed was for the wrong Wiegenlied that was written by Strauss in 1878 with the text by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallerslebenthat that starts "Die Ähren nur noch nicken." The one that Elza performed was Wiegenlied, op. 41, written in 1899, with the text "Träume, träume, du mein süßes Leben" by Richard Fedor Leopold Dehmel.