'Good girl, bad girl," explained mezzo-soprano Susan Graham when she arrived on the Perelman Theater stage for the second half of her recital.
At first, her hair was up and the gown was an off-white dress. Second half, hair was down, the gown off-black and slinky. In effect, Graham's rescheduled recital on Thursday, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, had many of the add-ons that many recitals lack - glamour, humor, repertoire that was high art (and not so high), plus playful audience dialogue.
But she didn't need any of it. Underneath her beckoning appearance, Graham remains an elegant, disciplined singer whose meticulous attention to language assures that her full-bodied tone (with none of the opacity and lack of agility found in other full-throated singers) is never used for its own sake.
What's missing? A bit of ambition.
The program, with pianist Bradley Moore, was about women in love (aren't most programs?), with art songs from 17th-century Purcell on into the present, plus French interludes (her specialty) and her hilarious encore, "I Can Be a Sexy Lady."
Most enterprisingly, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Duparc, and Liszt songs were sequenced to create a composite portrait of the Goethe-created character of Mignon, an abused girl rescued from a traveling theater troupe, whose happy ending has undercurrents of inner damage that Graham explored with taste and empathy.
Later, Poulenc's Fiançailles pour rire had one incredulity-inducing tone color after another. In Joseph Horowitz's concert monologue Lady Macbeth, scenery wasn't chewed amid Graham's even-handed sense of theater, ending with her peering into the unseen forces around her.
The program was nearly identical to her Virgins, Vixens & Viragos disc that Graham admirers have no doubt been enjoying for months. But even though she's always better heard in person, I hoped for music not available elsewhere. Some of her contemporaries have worn out their welcome, but Graham leaves you wanting more.
As much as I loved her rendition of "Hello Young Lovers," her decision to spend part of her summer doing The King and I at Paris' Théâtre du Châtelet seems 10 years too early. Now at her vocal peak, she has much bigger fish to fry, such as Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (which she just memorably recorded in Zurich with conductor David Zinman).