Last night there was a special addition to the September schedule of the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church in the form of a recital by soprano Heidi Melton. Melton is well known in San Francisco as an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera; and her accompanist was John Parr, San Francisco Opera’s Head of Music Staff. Beyond our own Opera, Melton has built up an impressive array of operatic and concert appearances, including debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. When San Francisco Opera presents Francesca Zambello’s staging of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in June, Melton will be singing Sieglinde in Die Walküre and the Third Norn in Götterdämmerung.
For last night’s performance she prepared a program based almost entirely on German texts, including two English translations of German sources; and, if the overall program had a theme, it was that of modernism, beginning with its emergence in the five songs that Wagner set to poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, composed while he was working on Die Walküre and beginning work on Tristan und Isolde. At the other end of the temporal spectrum, she opened her recital with Samuel Barber’s Opus 45 collection of three songs completed in 1972, the last songs he composed. Between these “poles” we had a selection of songs by Richard Strauss and the seven “early” songs composed by Alban Berg between 1905 and 1908, probably the first product of his study with Arnold Schoenberg that satisfied both master and pupil. Kurt Weill was also represented in one of Melton’s encores, “My Ship,” from the musical Lady in the Dark with words by Ira Gershwin.
Taken as a whole, this was an impressive package of selections; and just as impressive was the confident certainty of pitch that Melton brought to this wide variety of convoluted melody lines, frequently embedded in rich harmonic ambiguity. The coupling of Wagner and Berg was particularly inspired, situating the two collections on either side of the intermission. While each of the poems set by Berg is by a different author, in contrast to Wagner’s single-poet approach, the two collections share an intense eroticism that must have played a key role in driving forward the inventiveness of their respective composers. Indeed, the overall level of emotion in the texts of Melton’s songs shared that same level of intensity, even in the cryptic surrealism of Czesław Miłosz’ translation of Jerzy Harasymowicz’ “A Green Lowland of Pianos,” the second of Barber’s Opus 45 songs.
Unfortunately, this intensity was rarely communicated effectively. Melton’s is an opera voice, and it has been well honed by her experiences in the War Memorial Opera House. However, in the intimacy of the sanctuary of Old First Church, there is no need to sing to an upper balcony that is not there. As I have observed many times, Old First is particularly conducive to both the subtleties of soft sounds and the contrasts of sharply differing amplitudes. Melton rarely sang piano (and may never have sung softer than mezzo-piano); and it seemed as if her softer moments served only to prepare for a crescendo, which usually felt more exaggerated than it needed to be.
Needless to say, this undermined the impact of almost all of her selections. What was missing was that fundamental principle that Pierre Boulez discussed in an interview with The New York Times before conducting Gustav Mahler’s eighth symphony in Carnegie Hall. The principle is that performance is always a matter of managing the climaxes, treating them as “heights” of different elevation. If the audience is not aware of where the elevation is at its highest, the overall effect is lost; and this is as true of a song as short as “Schmerzen” (the fourth in Wagner’s Wesendonck collection) as it is of the entirety of the final scene from Goethe’s Faust, set in the second movement of Mahler’s eighth. Melton seldom gave a clear sense of that variation in elevation, making for too much of a sense of uniformity across what was an impressively diverse selection. Ironically, she was at her subtlest in her first encore, her performance of “My Ship,” which she sang with the sensitivity of a lullaby. I can only hope that, as Melton acquires more experience singing in smaller spaces, that sensitivity will emerge in the rest of her repertoire.