Stober makes pleasing impression in generous recital at Weill Hall
It is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing. Soprano Heidi Stober gave a recital in Weill Hall on Friday night, covering a wide swath or ground–too wide, in fact. Her singing was excellent and her interpretations mostly compelling, but in the end her program, more than two hours, with songs by nine composers from four centuries, lacked focus.
Stober has a lovely instrument. She produces a consistent, clear, amber time of considerable weight, with an even and pleasant vibrato. There is just the slightest hint of a dry patch toward the bottom of her middle voice, but she largely avoided it by picking repertoire that sat comfortably in her upper-middle range.
The soprano opened with a set of three Haydn “Canzonets,” and exhibited, in addition to a natural sense of the music’s sighs, superb diction. You could easily have transcribed her English, which is not only rare, even for native speakers, but is especially important in recital. In a recital setting we don’t have dramatic action to watch. The poetry of the text, which is generally three or four steps above your standard opera libretto to begin with, takes on an increased importance, and to hear the words land so clearly and with such connection to the music gave them immediate power.
The major flaw in Stober’s performance of the Haydn songs had little to do with her singing, and cropped up now and again in her later selections, as well: she had a hard time getting out of “opera mode.” She wanted to act out every song, often gazing into the open piano as though over a precipice, and making little sighing noises over Craig Terry’s playing when she wasn’t singing, as though to remind us that she was still there. These may have had some dramatic significance to Stober, but to the listener they were extraneous, and even intrusive, verging on ill-advised mugging. Terry did his best pianistic work in these songs by not trying to imitate a harpsichord nor allow the accompaniment to become muddled.
Her Schubert was less self-consciously dramatic, which was fortunate. Her first selection, “Gute Nacht” from Winterreise, is of course a gem, but one that can be easily oversold. That was not the case here, as she declaimed the song with poise, retaining her composure even as her singing became intensely passionate in the third verse.
Stober introduced the Schubert by saying that she had wanted to construct a narrative; the sorrow of “Gute Nacht” grows into the passion of Die schöne Müllerin’s “Am Feierabend,” bringing on the wistful pining of “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” before the tragic events depicted in “Der Zwerg”; the arching “Im Abendrot” served as a denouement. In the event, the musical arc was more convincing than the narrative.
Five Strauss selections were chosen around another theme, motherhood, inspired by Stober’s two-year-old son. “Ich trage meine Minne” showed off some powerful, blazing top notes, but its most effective moment was the reprise of the first stanza, which Stober revisited with a spellbinding calm. She unleashed consming passion in “Mein Auge” and tempered it afterwards with the charming chatter of “Muttertändelei.”
The least successful portion of the program came in Stober’s French selections, four songs from Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées. These were more taxing on her lower register, but more to the point, she seemed to have less of a grasp of the idiom. The first, “C’est extase,” was not. Her singing was intelligently phrased, but showed little hint of sensuousness, or of the “fatigue amoureuse” referred to in the text.
Jake Heggie’s From the Book of Nightmares, a four-song cycle drawn from the poetry of Galway Kinnell, showed Stober’s voice at its clearest, giving her opportunities to soar above the uncomplicated accompaniment of piano and cello (Metropolitan Opera Orchestra veteran David Heiss, in less than his best form). The heroic crescendo of the final song in the cycle, “Back you go,” was exhilarating to hear.
The Heggie cycle really felt like what should have been the home stretch–the recital was already sprawling by this point, but one more set remained, four selections thematically tied to Stober’s native Wisconsin. She sported a gorgeous, focused soft voice in Cécile Chaminade’s “Chanson de neige” and a lighter color in Max Reger’s “Die bunten Kühe.” Henry Leland Clark’s “Of Cheese,” with another cameo appearance by Heiss, was a grinning, silly number that set up a toe-tapping rendition of Alec Wilder’s “Milwaukee.”
A single encore sufficed: Thad Jones’s “A Child is Born” (lyrics by Alec Wilder), sung with endearing simplicity.