In a generous program that was at once stylish and nostalgic (with several dollops of whimsy), beloved mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade bade farewell to New York at Carnegie Hall on April 22. Born in 1945, von Stade still retains plenty of the vocal luminescence that catapulted her to worldwide fame in the 70's. Yet it was always her personality – an alluring combination of charm, wit, intelligence, and gentleness – that attracted admirers and cemented her position among the greatest singers of her generation.
Von Stade and her superb long-time collaborator Martin Katz concocted a semiautobiographical program that mixed spoken narration (Von Stade – amplified – sharing anecdotes drawn from her life and artistic legacy) with music from a broad range of genres that included songs suitable for cabaret, salon, and recital, as well as opera arias. Given her longstanding appeal as an icon among trouser-role mezzo-sopranos, it was gratifying to hear two selections from Ambroise Thomas' Mignon, including a remarkable, wistful account of his 'Connais-tu, le pays', though her signature role, Cherubino from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, was notably absent from the main program. Surely, most of the packed house hoped for a glimpse of her indelible impersonation of the impetuous, post-pubescent teenager, and indeed, rapturous applause rang out when Katz lovingly played the first few notes of 'Voi che sapete' for the third encore. In this brief aria – one that Von Stade has doubtlessly sung thousands of times – her singing was at its best: even, lilting, throbbing with feeling, and with an absolutely firm vocal line.
Elsewhere, the quality of her singing was variable, but only the most curmudgeonly of listeners would dare to quibble, as most of the flaws were minor and the inevitable result of time passing. The audience was full of luminaries, including composer Ned Rorem (nearing 90) who was on hand to hear his own compositions 'I am Rose' and 'Early in the Morning'. Lee Hoiby was also present and joined Von Stade on stage to accompany her in an impressive account of his 'The Serpent' (written for Leontyne Price). And one of the most moving moments of the evening was hearing Von Stade talk about her daughter Jenny Rebecca and then sing the song of the same name by Carol Hall, who was also in attendance and stood to be acknowledged by the audience.
Von Stade also invited a few friends to join her on stage, including baritone Richard Stilwell and bass Samuel Ramey. Having recorded perhaps the finest version of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande under Herbert von Karajan, Von Stade and Stilwell have a long artistic association, and it was fitting to see them together again. Ramey has also enjoyed a long career – he is probably the most recorded bass of all time – and his friendship with Von Stade is equally enduring. The three combined forces for a song (re-written as a trio with heavily adjusted lyrics) from Bernstein's On the Town. It was a tremendously poignant moment in the program, seeing these three giants of the opera scene, all in the twilights of their respective careers, but still sharing their love of music and professional camaraderie.
The formal program closed with two highlights. First, Von Stade invited cellist Emil Miland to join her and Katz in a rendition of 'Die Sterne', by seldom-heard bel canto era singer-composer Pauline Viardot. Second, Katz and Von Stade offered a surprisingly restrained version of 'Send in the Clowns' from Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Seeing this in the program, I was prepared for an intensely emotional reading from Von Stade, yet, more in keeping with her typically cool, contained manner, she offered a vivid and sober account, as if to say "Yes, this is good-bye, but let's not get too carried away. I've had a great career!" Indeed, after a few poignant encores, her final offering was Offenbach's 'Ah, quel diner' from La Périchole. This drinking song – also somewhat of a 'signature' aria for Von Stade – put the perfect exclamation point on an evening of farewells, gratitude, lessons learned, and most of all: fun!
Photo Credits: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times