Susan Graham Makes Title Role Debut in Regina at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
This spring, Grammy Award-winning mezzo Susan Graham revisits her signature interpretation of Ravel's Shéhérazade in performances with the San Francisco Symphony under Yan Pascal Tortelier (April 19-21). She then makes her title role debut in Marc Blitzstein's Regina at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (May 26-June 24), in a production that marks the 30th anniversary of her company and leading-role debuts. After three glorious decades at the highest echelons of the opera world, there is still, as the New York Times put it, "no more satisfying singer than this eminent mezzo-soprano, with her rich, even voice, exquisite musicianship, and warm presence."
One of today's foremost exponents of French vocal music, Graham has been recognized with the French government's prestigious honorific "Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur," and Time Out New York calls her "unbeatable in French repertoire." Her recording of Ravel's Shéhérazade, made with Seiji Ozawa for Decca, scored a five-star review in The Guardian, while Gramophone declared her performance "magically sensuous." In an interview with the same magazine, the mezzo explained the song cycle's appeal for her: "This is such a great story to tell, because it has so many colours and textures and sensualities. It's rich in text painting and tastes and flavours and smells, images and drama, killing and brutality and gruesomeness. There are so many opportunities for me." This spring, Ravel's masterpiece takes her back to the San Francisco Symphony, where her recent appearances include partnering Renée Fleming at last season's opening-night gala, and headlining a "mesmerizing La morte de Cléopâtre ... [that] was nothing short of riveting" (Mercury News).
The Texas native is similarly celebrated for her way with homegrown fare. She created leading roles in the world premiere productions of American operas Dead Man Walking, The Great Gatsby, and An American Tragedy, and just last month, her star turn as Dinah in Trouble in Tahiti proved "the high point" of Lyric Opera of Chicago's star-studded celebration of the Bernstein centennial. The Chicago Tribune reported: "Graham brought off [the title song] hilariously well. The charismatic mezzo-soprano made Dinah truly touching through the warmth of her singing and her subtle way with Lenny's lyrics." Bernstein's one-act opera is dedicated to Marc Blitzstein, who composed his own opera Regina just four years earlier, and the two works have often been likened to one another in terms of style. Where Trouble in Tahiti offers a satire on suburban marriage, however, Regina makes a strong statement against financial greed, depicting struggles of class, gender, and morality within one Southern family in the aftermath of Reconstruction. Adapted from Lillian Hellman's groundbreaking play The Little Foxes, Regina is as demanding dramatically as musically; its scheming but fascinating heroine has been portrayed by such icons of stage and screen as Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, and Elizabeth Taylor.
For her first performances in the role, Graham will be joined by veteran bass-baritone James Morris and Broadway and television actor Ron Raines as Regina's two brothers. Opera Theatre of St. Louis' production will be directed by Artistic Director James Robinson, with Stephen Lord, in his first engagement as Music Director Emeritus, on the podium. The presentation marks the 30th anniversary of Graham's house and professional leading-role debuts; it was in 1988 that she sang Erika in the company's production of Samuel Barber's Vanessa, another mid-20th-century American classic. More recently, the mezzo dazzled St. Louis audiences with a recital in the "Guest Artist Series" at Washington University. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Graham's instrument is rich and dark, and even with a slight cold, it did her bidding. The range of colors she discovered in the melodies and texts, and the trove of emotions she called forth, from the realization of falling in love to the joy of having a child, from intense passion to profound grief, held the listener rapt."
After these spring engagements, the mezzo looks forward to a similarly high-profile summer. She will headline Caramoor's season-closing concert with selections from some of her most celebrated Handel and Mozart roles with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and principal conductor Bernard Labadie (July 29), before heading to Tanglewood. There she reunites with the Boston Symphony and music director Andris Nelsons to reprise their interpretation of Mahler's monumental Third Symphony (Aug 24), which was proclaimed "unsurpassed in BSO annals" (Boston Classical Music Scene) this past January. The following day, she rejoins the orchestra to grace the "Bernstein Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood" in company with a host of her fellow luminaries of the music world, Yo-Yo Ma, Audra McDonald, and Michael Tilson
Photo: Dario Acosta