Kansas is proud to be the home state of two of the world’s most beloved mezzo sopranos: Joyce Di Donato of Prairie Village and Joyce Castle, who also happens to be on the faculty of the University of Kansas. Local audiences are accustomed to hearing them in recital through the Harriman-Jewel Series and at KU, so it must have been with some trepidation that the young Sasha Cooke took the stage at the Lied Center. She was on the visiting team with her accompanist Pei-Yao Wang, about to perform in a hall where a large number of young hopefuls from Joyce Castle’s studio waited eagerly to hear her.
Sasha Cooke sang a well designed program of pieces by Rossini, Berlioz, Mozart, Sondheim and Weill. She led with a set of delightful canzonettas Rossini wrote for his salon in Paris. La regatta veneziana: Tre canzone in dialetto venetian tells the tale in three parts of a young girl cheering for her lover as he races his gondola through the streets of Venice. The accompaniment has an impressionistic feeling as it rolls and races along carrying the singer with it. Cooke’s voice resonated startlingly well in the Lied Center. She has a warm and easy style with an underlying spirit that surprised me at times. She perfectly animated her role as if she were in an opera without sets or costumes. I felt that I was in Venice, cheering with her.
The selections she performed from Les Nuits d’Ete, Op. 7 by Hector Berlioz kept the audience basking in the sunshine. The piece, Villanelle, is a sensuous love song and Cooke gave each phrase just the right amount of radiance. The Ghost of the Rose, reminded me of the many songs written from the viewpoint of the flower. They all eventually fade and die juxtaposed against the beauty of an unaware woman. Cooke makes the demise of the rose particularly poignant. My favorite in this set was Absence. Here is Cooke at her best. Her strength is the ability to nurture long phrases with a legato, bel canto, style. She has an effortless sound and a broad spectrum of expressive color. The last piece in the set, The Unknown Island, asked the irresistible question, “Where do you want to go?” Tempting the audience with voyages to Java, Norway and the Pacific, she fulfilled my escapist wish to leave Kansas for warmer climes. Well done, Ms. Cooke.
After intermission, my favorite hormonal teenager, Cherubino, came to life. Singing the famous aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Non so piu cosa son, Cooke gave us a glimpse of what her interpretation of this iconic character. Sadly, he was kind of boring. In defense, many mezzos make the mistake of being cartoon-ish in their interpretation, but Cooke’s Cherubino was just a little too cool for my taste. Her passionate delivery of Deh per questo istante from La Clemenza di Tito more than made up for it.
“Crossing over” between pop and opera has been an ongoing fascination for opera writers. It is difficult for highly accomplished opera singers to wail like Alanis Morisette and some people think they shouldn’t even try. I believe singers should be able to freely interpret whatever genre or style they want, bringing their individual “voice” and skill to the music. Cooke does exactly that with the inspiring and thought-provoking Sondheim songs, Take me to the World and Losing my Mind. Sung with the full voice of a classically trained singer, these songs became more than what they were originally intended to be. Cooke elevates them to the level of American art songs. Unfortunately, she forgot some of the words in the Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill piece One Life to Live and had to reset in order to finish the piece.
The final piece How long after? was written by Kurt Weill while he was still living in Nazi Germany. The song, Cooke explains, can be interpreted two ways, as a woman lamenting the betrayal of her lover or Germany lamenting their betrayal by Hitler. She didn’t hold back when expressing the full range of feelings a desperate person might have had during that time in history. The piece is full of the great boozy chromatic melodies Weill was famous for but feels like something grander in Cooke’s lower register. The stride piano accompaniment paints the picture of the derelict German cabaret and Cooke even uses the accusatory “Weil-esk” shout to great effect.
Pianist Pei-Yao Wang is an amazing talent. Her attention to every detail and her own interpretive skill enhanced the program. She plays with a nuanced and highly attuned approach to her partner. I hope to have the pleasure of hearing her in solo recital someday.
The encore was William Bolcom’s well-loved Amore, which delighted the audience with its tongue-in-cheek narcissism. Overall, the recital was well-programmed, well-performed and well-received. Sasha Cooke has nothing to worry about in Kansas. She’s well on her way to joining the DiDonato/Castle pantheon of world class mezzo sopranos.
For MORE insightful reviews….check out www.kcmetropolis.org
"I am very happy with the ease and versatility with which I can share my content with my audience, clients and business partners alike."