Queen of Romanticism Michelle DeYoung needs to expand her empire

By Manasi Vydyanath

The concert was a portrait of the exquisite importance and the excruciating fragility of specialization—Michelle DeYoung, the quintessential Wagnerian mezzo-soprano—sang Haydn, Debussy, Strauss, Mahler, and Weill in a chamber recital at Mandel Hall last Friday. The entirety of the evening can be encapsulated in the preceding sentence, for all its implications materialized unerringly. She was a fine operatic mezzo, with powerful yet supple inflections beautifully calibrated to the accompaniment of a full pit orchestra engaged in the passionate Wagnerian pathos, cantabile e fortissimo. Her lithe and dramatic vibrato was perfectly suited to the high seas of Romantic opera, but was utterly overwrought and almost bathetic in the context of the slightly stodgy Steinway and acoustically dry Mandel Hall.

As I have said earlier in these very pages, spectacular talent is often spectacularly narrow. DeYoung recently caused critics to blossom into effusive adjectives with her rendition of Sieglinde in the Ring cycle at the Lyric Opera—and after hearing her voice in concert last Friday, their reactions seem more than justified. However, brilliance is very much a function of context, and although a phenomenally talented singer, DeYoung is no recitalist. Her voice was too full of colotura, her vibrato had a span of almost a semitone in either direction, she utterly overwhelmed the piano, and she overlaid every piece with a dramatic tension that fairly caused it to disintegrate under the pressure. Her program choices seemed to reflect a remarkable unconsciousness of her core competencies; she chose to perform Haydn’s Ariadne auf Naxos and several of Debussy’s shimmering, mockingly dreamy morceaux before launching onto firmer ground with Strauss and Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. She closed with three pieces by Kurt Weill that were sung with virtuosic anachronism—Weill transposed into a frock coat with a pair of gilded opera glasses. She did all the things a superlative Wagnerian soprano ought to do—with the wrong pieces.

The Haydn piece was doomed from inception to conclusion, even before the first note was sung. The piece itself was banal, reflective of Haydn’s most trying compositional moods—prettily depicting the depths of passion, then infusing the heights of raw pain with an unpardonable quaintness. The piece was eloquent testimony to his ability to drape a jagged crag with lace and pink chintz. His work deals with Ariadne’s lament at being abandoned by Theseus—Haydn reduces the despair, the depths of blackness and betrayal, and Ariadne’s anger, which wavers on the knife-edge of roiling grief, to a series of quintessentially salon-like phrases, descending thirds and elegant resolutions. Just as the music would swell to a crescendo of unbearable agony, the piano would tinkle upward into a perfect 6-4 cadence, relegating the moment to the picturesque. The effect is akin to Saki attempting to write Les Miserables—the harmonies underpinning the wild words seem so out of proportion, so utterly homely and courtly as to create a sense of dislocation. Does one believe the music or the singer?

The situation was exacerbated by the fact that this piece was idiomatically antithetical to DeYoung’s artistry—after all, Wagner was known to ride upon the moment of overpowering emotional tension for whole arias, even whole movements. The concept of letting an appoggiatura represent the climax of an entire passage seemed alien to DeYoung—she kept trying to make up for the lack of drama in the music by increasing the dramatic intensity of her voice. At one point, she even reverted to the operatic device of approaching her cadential note from below its actual pitch, and then using her vibrato to “launch” herself into the actual note. This is exceedingly effective in creating a sense of poignant longing in the context of Romantic harmonies and orchestration—the dip in pitch and its upward resolution augment the tension engendered by the usual profusion of suspensions and dissonances in the cadential phrases. But in the face of Haydn’s uncomplicated harmonies, the device merely made the endings seem unclear. This artistic gulf was widened by the fact that the accompanist was superbly suited to Haydn—her phrases had a quintessentially Classical bounce, sparkle, and wit. Neither the soloist, the pianist nor the music could find any common ground, and the endeavor fell apart.

A similar phenomenon occurred with the Debussy pieces—she was stentorian where she ought to have been mysterious, and the hard-edged clarity of her voice was quite unsuited to the misty dreaminess implied by the harmonies underneath. She regained some ground in the Mahler pieces, managing the contrast between the seemingly ingenuous Ging Heut Morgen Ubers Feld and the desperate Ich Hab Ein Glhend Messer. Here, her voice had artistic licence to shine forth in all its glorious, dramatic colotura. She brought to the songs a luminous intensity and a concentrated fury that elevated them into epics.

Her rendition of Kurt Weill’s pieces were perhaps the most disappointing part of the concert—she could not unbend her timbre to mold to the mischief and the gaiety lurking in these pieces. They ended up sounding straitlaced and very, very classical.

Michelle DeYoung is a superbly talented interpreter of a certain subset of the Classical repertoire—she is specialized to the point of brilliance, but also to the point of consummate inflexibility. This is the heart of the triumph as well as the tragedy of expertise—upon the operatic stage, she would reign supreme. In a recital hall, the very characteristics that were her forte became her weakness. In many ways, she is the epitome of the modern artistic aesthetic. The days of the wonderful, colorful giants of all art like Rostropovich, Bernstein and Gershwin are past. In their place, we have a precise and superb specialization. A pianist who is a fiery, brilliant interpreter of the Classical canon, a singer who is the queen of Romanticism. Ought we to mourn? Ought we to rejoice? The jury is still out.