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Susan Graham: winter and spring 2010

Susan Graham – dubbed “America’s Favorite Mezzo” by Gramophone magazine – is every vivacious inch a girl from the Lone Star State. Yet she voices the Gallic repertoire as if it were her mother tongue, something the French government recognized by honoring her fluent virtuosity with the title “Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur”. One of Graham’s signature French roles is Marguerite in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, which she opens at Lyric Opera Chicago on February 20. The mezzo-soprano is also an acclaimed Handelian, and she returns home in April to take the title role in the composer’s Xerxes at Houston Grand Opera. Graham then caps her stellar season with more French repertoire: Chausson’s orchestral song sequence Poème de l’amour et de la mer, with the New York Philharmonic in June.

Graham’s album Un Frisson Français: A Century of French Song, recorded with pianist Malcolm Martineau for the Onyx label, was among the nominees this month for a 2010 Grammy Award. (She was also featured in Berlioz’s La mort de Cléopatre on another Grammy-nominated album this year, by the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle. Graham already has a Grammy trophy on her shelf: the 2004 Best Classical Vocal Performance award for her Warner Classics album of Ives songs with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.) Graham and Martineau toured the repertoire from Un Frisson Français last year, including a recital that brought down the house at the Verbier Festival in French-speaking Switzerland. Dominique Dubreuil, writing for, enthused over the “the radiant voice of Susan Graham – and the obvious joy she herself clearly has – interpreting the words, phrases and inflections of what seems to be her second native language.”

Bringing her singular Marguerite to Chicago

Starting on February 20, 2010, Graham will sing Berlioz’s Marguerite in La damnation de Faust at Lyric Opera of Chicago – her second new production of the work in two seasons, following one at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. That all-star production was transmitted internationally in the Met’s hugely popular “Live in HD” series and celebrated as one of the biggest hits of 2008-09. The Associated Press review singled out Graham as having “the ideal voice for Berlioz – a mezzo with a dark richness that blossoms into lush soprano-like tones – and she’s a perfect instrument for the devil’s seduction of Faust’s pure soul.” Anthony Tommasini, in his New York Times review, wrote that Graham “sounds terrific. She was especially fine in ‘D’amour, l’ardente Flamme’ … Ms. Graham brought a lovely blend of rapturous richness and elegant restraint to this wistful aria, with its elusive melody and soothing, almost Wagnerian orchestral backdrop.” The Chicago production, which runs until March 17, will be conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and directed by Stephen Langridge, with Paul Groves as Faust and John Relyea as Méphistophélès.

Returning to Houston in Handel’s Xerxes

Graham enjoyed tremendous success in her 2008 performances of Handel’s Ariodante in San Francisco. The Wall Street Journal wrote of her Ariodante: “There can be few living singers who can do such spellbinding justice both to Handel’s stark emotions and his heavenly music as Susan Graham. . . She was totally compelling both in romantic ecstasy and in abject dismay.” At Houston Grand Opera, starting April 30, 2010, she takes on another great heroic Handel title character: the Persian “king of kings” Xerxes (Serse, in the Italian). Serse opens the opera with probably the most famous non-religious aria in Handel’s vast output, sometimes known as a love song to a tree: “Ombra mai Fù”, the melody long referred to in instrumental arrangements as Handel’s “Largo”. The Houston production, which originated at English National Opera, runs through May 14 and features countertenor David Daniels as Xerxes’s brother and romantic rival, Arsamene.

Singing Chausson with the New York Philharmonic

Graham closes her 2010 season with the New York Philharmonic under Sir Andrew Davis, performing Chausson’s lush orchestral song set Poème de l’amour et de la mer on June 3-5. She recorded the half-hour work as part of her 2005 Warner Classics album with the BBC Symphony and Yan Pascal Tortelier, Poèmes de l’Amour (which also included orchestral songs by Debussy and Ravel). For his selection of the disc as a monthly Editor’s Choice in Gramophone, James Jolly wrote: “Chausson’s Poème de l’amour is one of those overwhelmingly romantic outpourings that is seldom heard in the concert hall and not frequently enough on record. But with a version of such sumptuous colour … Chausson’s work receives a performance that some of us have only dreamed of.” In its glowing review, BBC Music magazine added: “In his song sequence, Chausson became the ultimate musical poet of adolescent splendors and miseries. Susan Graham charts the progress from hope to quietly desperate loss with merciless emotional truth and fine sensitivity to nuances of language, darkening her timbre as anticipation turns to dismay, and intensifying at the approaching ‘inexprimable horreur’.”

Already this season, Graham has triumphed in Mahler’s Rückert Lieder with the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas (with the performances recorded for future release in the orchestra’s Grammy-winning Mahler series). In the fall and again with the New Year, Graham reprised one of her most popular trouser roles: the love-struck youth Octavian, in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera. She also co-hosted the annual Opera News Awards in New York for the second time with Thomas Hampson. And Graham toured the West Coast as the Queen of Carthage in concerts of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and conductor Nicholas McGegan. Her portrayal of Dido on the 2004 Virgin/EMI recording of the opera – with Ian Bostridge as her Aeneas – was lauded by London’s Daily Telegraph for its “controlled intensity and richly burnished tone.”


Susan Graham: winter and spring 2010 engagements

February 20 and 24; March 2, 5, 8, 13, and 17
Chicago, IL
Lyric Opera of Chicago / Sir Andrew Davis
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust (Marguerite)
April 30; May 2, 8, 12, and 14
Houston, TX
Handel: Xerxes (Serse – title role)
Houston Grand Opera / William Lacy
June 3–5
New York, NY
Chausson: Poème de l’amour et de la mer
Avery Fisher Hall
New York Philharmonic / Sir Andrew Davis

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© 21C Media Group, February 2010

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