When is a recital not a recital? Perhaps when its materials and its assembly begin to outgrow that narrow definition, to resemble something bigger and more exciting; so it would seem on the basis of Wallis Giunta’s program Sunday March 24th as part of the Canadian Voices Series, in collaboration with pianist Ken Noda.
Giunta’s choices seem to reflect the same creative breaking-the-mold approach to assembling a concert program seen lately in the area. It’s not enough to be a brilliant performer in the astonishingly competitive Toronto market, not when small opera companies are laying claim to rep outside their usual purview (something I’ve talked about so much recently that I won’t beat a dead horse by naming names).
It’s handy that we recently saw a version of Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins presented in the city, to have some idea of the originality of the concept. Instead of two Annas and family, we had Giunta singing some of Weill’s songs in a cavalcade of the sins, followed by other materials ranging wildly in an all-out investigation of various aspects of sin, at least as commentaries or echoes of one another. Without even addressing Giunta’s performance, this is one of the most amazing programs I’ve ever seen, for example,
- Weill’s languid “Youkali”, Poulenc’s luscious “Hôtel” and then Flanders & Swann’s “The Sloth”
- Weill’s “Stolz(Pride)” with Britten’s “The Plough Boy”
- Weill’s “Zorn(Wrath)” with Montsalvage’s “Cuba a Dentro de un Piano” and Monteverdi’s “Addio Roma” from L’Incoronazione di Poppea
- Weill’s “Unzucht (Lust)” with Chapi’s “Al pensar en el Duno de mis Amores” and Porter’s “Love for Sale”
And that’s just the first part of the concert.
I came expecting something intelligent, having been keenly impressed by her work (last month) as Annio in the COC Clemenza di Tito, channeling Michael Cera’s character in Juno. The gorgeous red-head was unrecognizable (it took me about 10 minutes to realize who she was, even though i had the cast list and knew the opera well), transformed into the sweet & gormless youth, as instructed by her director.
And so Giunta’s approach was as varied as the compositions. For “Addio Roma” Giunta sang much of the aria facing into the piano, making both a curious acoustical effect and a fascinating visual. For Foster’s “Old Folks at home” –a song bundled with Schubert’s “”Der Zwerg” and Weill’s “Neid (Envy)”or in other words, a problematic song laden with potential irony—Giunta gave us the utmost directness & simplicity, sitting at the foot of the stage, and singing half the song unaccompanied. For John Lennon’s “Imagine” (a song that drew spontaneous applause at its conclusion), she came fully downstage, but looking directly out. Some songs called for something physically outgoing, as in the lust-set, while the sloth set were matched by a far more low-key movement vocabulary. Each number wasn’t simply sung, as you’d expect in a recital, but fully realized.
I wish the concert had been video-taped, as there’s much there to unpack and explore, that I am sure I missed on this single encounter. The program was sufficiently complex that Giunta decided to ask for an introduction, smoothly delivered by Eric Domville, giving us some of the contexts for the works we encountered.
At times, particularly in the two songs that are also on Theresa Stratas’s Weill album, I was aware of the way some other singers come at this material, songs that are as daunting in their way as Everest. For the mountain, there’s a well-annotated history of people who approach it from the north or the south; for these songs it’s more a matter of whether one comes at them with the direct and intense presentation of text as by a cabaret performer (thinking of Lotte Lenya, or more recently Toronto’s Lindsay Sutherland Boal for instance), or the pathway via pure voice (thinking of Stratas, who in my opinion didn’t always really manage the songs), or some other set of choices entirely. Giunta’s young voice has all the beauty of Stratas but with a better integration of upper and lower registers, so that one doesn’t suffer (take that literally if you wish) the disconnect between the sounds that Stratas made at the top and bottom of her range.
Let me add a brief parenthetical rant while I am on this topic. Giunta really gets how to sing popular music without insulting the material or the audience. While this was not a young crowd, I suppose the oldest among us are still baby-boomers, fluent in rock n roll or jazz. It’s wasn’t fake that “Imagine” won the applause. Singing Cole Porter, her line had a fluidity you didn’t hear in the Schubert, a way with pitch that was like a gentle tease, which we also heard in “Youkali”. This is, in miniature, the issue one often encounters when opera singers take on popular music, the pretentiousness of a Carreras singing West Side Story or Placido Domingo and John Denver singing an embarrassing duet. So long as one knows what one’s getting –suspending judgment of a great artist, the way we suspend our judgment of our children or our grand-parents—there’s no harm I suppose. Giunta’s venture outside classical rep is always clever & brilliantly conceived, with no hazard to anyone’s sense of taste.
So in other words it was one of the greatest vocal recitals I have ever seen, wonderfully eclectic but purposefully so. Ken Noda brought lots of emphasis with no loss of clarity to his contribution from the piano. If Giunta plans to repeat this program somewhere, I’d ask her to please capture it on video.