Before the November 12 George London recital at the Morgan Library I had a few minutes to peruse a heart-stopping exhibit, "Anne Morgan's War: Rebuilding Devastated France 1917-1924". The daughter of industrialist Pierpont Morgan, Anne Morgan found her life's purpose in mobilizing aid for the dispossessed of northeastern France. The Great War's unprecedented and shocking destruction, which reduced Picardy to rubble and the country folk to a life of unimaginable hardship, is vividly documented in photographs, video, and written accounts. Gazing at heartbreaking pictures of children among the rubble of their ruined homes, I revised my previous dismissive opinion of Claude Debussy's sentimental 1915 song, Noël des enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons. As a Baby Boomer I'd always found World War I historically remote and felt no connection with its viscissitudes. These artifacts clarified the shock of the conflict which more than decimated the French population and changed the national psyche forever.
With these charged images fresh in mind I attended the season's first George London recital, which featured former Foundation winners Elizabeth Futral, soprano, and Kyle Kettelson, bass-baritone singing French music as well as operatic excerpts. Futral, accompanied by pianist Philip Lasser, opened with four late songs by Gabriel Fauré. Lasser, who has a long association with French musical life (he runs a summer music school in Fontainebleau), established good Gallic style with refined pianism, though Futral's voice overwhelmed the 225-seat hall and her French wasn't the clearest. Kyle Kettelson, accompanied by the estimable Ken Noda, was more successful in scaling down his operatic voice to mélodie with Ravel's three songs of Don Quichotte à Dulcinée; there was more core to his tone and the French more idiomatic. Nonetheless, his remaining material, arias from Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Gounod's Faust, seemed better suited to his big voice and the scale of characterization he brought to the music.
The main reason I wanted to hear the concert was to hear Futral sing the rarely performed Fiançailles pour rire. Years ago I had studied singing with with Geneviève Touraine, the soprano who premiered the work in 1942, and I could still hear her proud and wistful demonstrations of these songs that were so important to her. Poulenc had written the cycle, he said, as an excuse to think of his dear friend Louise de Vilmorin, author of the poetry. who had just moved to Hungary with her second husband.
A digression about de Vilmorin, as I'm in the middle of reading her rather juicy biography: A generation younger than Anne Morgan, Louise lived an equally privileged but comparatively constrained life, home schooled (along with her 5 siblings) in the family chateau outside of Paris and bedridden for two teen years with bone tuberculosis that left her with a permanent limp. But the intelligent and fascinating Louise attracted many prominent and powerful admirers, among them Antoine de St.-Exupéry, André Malraux, and Jean Cocteau (who wanted to marry her!). Briefly married to an American investor (the founder of Las Vegas) and later to a Hungarian count, she left her mark on French letters (with the encouragement of several close from the world of letters) with a quantity of poetry and several successful novels — Max Ophuls's The Earrings of Madame de… was based on her 1951 eponymous novel.
Poulenc's cycle gains resonance with a bit of knowledge of de Vilmorin's life, as the texts are typically (for Poulenc) enigmatic, but Vilmorin's fanciful charm informs these very feminine, delicate, and often ironic sketches from a woman's life (one could almost put names to the subject of each song). The mélodies reflect her characteristic gaiety but at the same time suggest a private melancholy behind de Vilmorin's fanciful surrealism. Futral's reading was perhaps a bit more girlish than womanly, but she performed with a generous lyricism too often missing from the performance of mélodie.
Futral also sang four songs from Lasser's les Visages de l'Amour, composed for the soprano and heard here for the first time. These songs lie firmly in the French art song tradition, with a neoclassical and largely tonal musical language that reminded me most of Fauré. The songs are written with deep understanding of the voice, and the texts (including a sonnet written by the very young Lasser) were always easy to understand. They suited Futral very well and she clearly connected to the words.
An extended duet from Lucia di Lammermoor gave the audience a succulent operatic dessert. I'm not a fan of excerpts performed to piano accompaniment but appreciated hearing these two voices in their ideal fach, even as the voices overwhelmed the tiny hall.
The next George London Foundation recital, on December 12, will present tenor Marcello Giordani and soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, accompanied by Craig Rutenberg, performing Italian songs and arias. Miss Di Giacomo will sing the premiere of a new song cycle by Thomas Pasatieri.