Monday, March 31, 2008

Necessary Relief

Both Joshua and I have been exceedingly busy at work for the last few weeks, but at least we got to do a few things this past weekend, providing both of us with some necessary relief from work.

On Saturday afternoon, we went with my parents to Saint Paul to see the National Touring Company production of “The Drowsy Chaperone”. None of us had seen this show, although we had talked about seeing it in New York several times during its Broadway run.

The show was slight but charming, a series of inventive twists on typical theatrical devices from musical comedies of the 1920’s. We all liked the show very much.

The production was in tip-top shape, which pleased us no end. In the last couple of months, we had attended immensely disappointing National Touring Company productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “My Fair Lady”, productions that were tired, ragged and unappealing. “The Drowsy Chaperone” touring production, by contrast, was fresh as paint. A couple of theater-goers whose opinions I respect told us that this touring production was the equal of the Original Broadway Production, even though only one member of the Original Broadway Cast, Georgia Engel, participated in the national tour. I am pleased we decided to see this show. It was a delightful afternoon’s entertainment.

On Saturday night, we all went downtown to see “Sabrina Fair” at Theater In The Round. Although all of us had seen the Billy Wilder film based loosely upon the same material, none of us had seen the original 1953 Samuel Taylor play, a comedy of manners we found to be surprisingly durable. Why is this play so seldom revived?

The stage play does not depart significantly from the later film script, although Billy Wilder disliked Taylor’s play and film script so vehemently that Wilder had Taylor thrown off the film project and rewrote the script himself. (Taylor is best-known for his work for Alfred Hitchcock; Taylor was associated with several Hitchcock films, for which he was sometimes credited as screenwriter and sometimes not.)

“Sabrina Fair” is dated, naturally—it is a “well-made play” very much of its time, with all the negative and all the positive connotations that phrase suggests—but it makes for a highly enjoyable evening in the theater if performed with style and conviction. I thought that Theater In The Round’s production was about as good as such old-fashioned material can expect these days, and I am pleased we elected to see this show, too.

On Sunday afternoon, Josh and I went back downtown to hear soprano Kathleen Battle in recital. We had never heard Miss Battle in person, and we thought this might be our only chance to hear this singer who has almost disappeared from view.

The recital was excellent, which slightly surprised us. When Josh and I bought tickets, we were not quite sure what to expect, since Miss Battle has not appeared regularly in major venues for many years.

On the basis of Sunday’s recital, Miss Battle should still be singing in the most prestigious concert and recital halls everywhere.

Her voice is small, but focused. Her sound easily carried in the large hall (Orchestra Hall, capacity 2500 persons), although I am not confident that she could have been heard if accompanied by full orchestra.

Her sound remains lovely. The voice retains bloom, light and color. Her diction was exemplary. Her musical phrasing was intelligent, individual but unmannered. Miss Battle was, quite simply, one of the finest singers I have ever heard.

It was hard for me to believe that I was hearing a singer almost sixty years old. The voice was not dry. Intonation was pure all afternoon. Sustained notes were clean and sure of pitch, free from flattening or sharpening and free from wobble. These are not qualities one necessarily expects in a singer only months away from her 60th birthday.

Miss Battle was careful in placing a few notes, and no doubt her repertory had been chosen to present her to advantage. Nevertheless, this was a recital at the very highest level, and I would go hear her again in an instant.

Miss Battle began the recital with Purcell songs, and I thought she sang them as well as I have ever heard them, on disc or off. She followed with Schubert and Liszt, creditably, and Mendelssohn was the highlight of her German offerings. Her treatment of “On Wings Of Song” was magical, if not divine.

She also sang a group of French songs, followed by a couple of Spanish songs, and these selections, too, were above reproach.

Miss Battle ended the recital with a group of spirituals, and her treatment of these songs was simple, personal and deeply moving. I have never heard these songs so beautifully realized, not even on a Barbara Hendricks disc from the mid-1980’s I have cherished for years.

Miss Battle is a supremely musical singer, one of the most musical singers I have ever encountered. It is easy to understand why Herbert Von Karajan adored her.

Given how much voice she retains, it is regrettable that Miss Battle has been absent from concert platforms for so long. I hope her current round of appearances signals a permanent return to the concert stage.


  1. Wow. This makes me want to go hear her. I wonder what the New York critics will say about her upcoming Carnegie date.

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful review of Ms. Battle's recent Minneapolis Concert. I am blessed to be able to attend the Carnegie Hall recital next week.

  3. Thank you for your review of Ms. Battle's performance. She'll be singing in Austin next Monday April 7th, I can't wait! Only one correction to your review: Kathleen has never stopped performing. She's been giving recitals both with orchestra and piano all these years. True, she has not performed in a full opera since 1994 but she's been all over the world with her voice.

  4. Late again, as always. Sorry.

    Andrew, I was told by someone who would know that her Carnegie Hall recital was nowhere near as good as what you write about her Minneapolis appearance.

    Was Battle not as good in New York? Were New Yorkers merely being snarky? Were you being too charitable?

    Just curious.