BWW Review: Live from the Crypt, It's Baritone Lucas Meachem

BWW Review: Live from the Crypt, It's Baritone Lucas Meachem
Lucas Meachem in the Crypt. Photo: Kevin Condon

The Crypt Sessions, which take place in the stone chamber beneath the Church of the Intercession on West 155th Street in Manhattan, might conjure up visions of horror, though it bears no relation to HBO's long-running anthology, "Tales from the Crypt." Add that the center of attraction for the recital of the powerfully expressive baritone, Lucas Meachem, was Mahler's KINDERTOTENLIEDER, which translates to the grisly sounding (but actually elegant) "Songs on the Death of Children," and one might be forgiven for thinking so.

The result, in fact, was about as far from that as possible. Rather, it offered a tantalizing evening of music from Gluck and Tchaikovsky to Copland and Elvis and, of course, Mahler, from the velvety, polished singer and his marvelous accompanist (and very pregnant) wife, Irina. The singer provided a narrative between the pieces, giving the audience some insights into his personal and professional path from the Appalachians of North Carolina to some of the world's great opera houses.

He started the evening with a pair of arias that could have nicknamed him "the accidental star." He began with Gluck's "Le calmer entre dans mon coeur," which he first sang to much acclaim when he was parachuted into Chicago Lyric Opera's IPHIGENIE EN TAURIDE as Oreste to replace a baritone who cancelled. (His introduction to the company was thanks to an accidental meeting and karaoke session in Paris with mezzo Susan Graham, who was singing the title role.) In the crypt, he proved from the get-go that the opportunity was no fluke, with a commanding performance that could have, ahem, wakened the dead.

He was an Adler Fellow when he made his San Francisco Opera debut as Onegin, also stepping in for an indisposed colleague. His rendition of "Kogda bï zhizn domashnim krugom" Thursday night--Onegin's aria following Tatiana's "Letter Scene"--was very fine indeed, showing off a full-bodied (yet nuanced), lyric voice and keen dramatic sense. John Corigliano's "They Wish They Could Kill Me" from THE GHOSTS OF VERSAILLES--a version of the last part of the "Figaro" trilogy--not only showed off his comic chops and fine vocalism but gave glimpse of his well-traveled BARBIERE Figaro, with a patter song that's a modern take clearly related to "Largo al factotum."

BWW Review: Live from the Crypt, It's Baritone Lucas Meachem
Lucas Meachem and Irina Meachem.
Photo: Kevin Condon

The Mahler song cycle is set to texts by Friedrich Ruckert, who was considered a minor 19th century German poet except for when he was inspiring composers--Brahms, Schubert, Liszt and Strauss, among them, but particularly Mahler--to new heights.

The cycle's history is as sad as the songs themselves: Ruckert wrote the poems as catharsis after the deaths of two of his children, while one of Mahler's daughters died several years after it was written. (Mahler's wife, Alma, had been superstitious about his taking on the project and tempting fate.)

Meachem used all the colors of his voice as he luxuriously wove the regrets of the five songs (plucked from over 400 poems by Ruckert) into a penetrating and affecting tapestry of hope, ably accompanied by Irina Meachem.

The baritone wasn't content to stay in the classic side of his repertoire for the entire concert: Despite successes on the opera stage, he remains a country boy at heart, it seems. He chose selections from Aaron Copland's OLD AMERICAN SONGS, dreamily singing "Shall we gather by the river..." as he began "At the River," bringing out a soft lushness in his voice, while his version of "Boatman's Dance" was as jaunty as could be, with great body language as well as floating high notes.

His encores included the extremely pleasurable American folk song "Oh Shenandoah" and, for good measure, "Can't Help Falling in Love" (based on the French love song, "Plaisir d'amour") in a version that even Elvis Presley--who made it famous in BLUE HAWAII--could have appreciated.

Meachem appeared at the Met this season, in LA BOHEME and the IOLANTA/BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE pairing; one hopes for much more of him in the near future, for a baritone of his quality and charisma is hard to find. Meanwhile, it was great to hear him in the intimate crypt, presented by Unison Media and Andrew Ousley. Watch out for other "songs in the Crypt" and its sister series, "The Angel's Share," in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery next summer.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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