On Monday, May 6th, Pamela Dellal, mezzo-soprano, and Christina Guibas, piano, made their debut at the Lifetime Learning Series. The program was titled “Utopia: Music for a Perfect World” and was comprised of selections from opera and art songs in both English and French. All of the songs were united by a common longing for a more desirable world, or in other words, a “utopia”. Apart from meaning “a perfect place devoid of problems”, “utopia” can also be defined as “a place that does not exist”. The program highlighted this double meaning by showing the desirable image of utopia as well as its elusiveness. As beautiful it might be, utopia is always inherently “unattainable”.
The concert began with an impressive opening of Purcell’s “Music for a While” from his incidental music to “Oedipus”. Following Ms. Guibas’ delicate piano introduction, Ms. Dellal’s rich mezzo-soprano voice instantly changed the atmosphere, drawing the audience into her world. She sang John Dryden’s verse which hopes to console Oedipus on his wretched journey, even though we all know that he is beyond saving. Oedipus seeks but does not find his utopia, something which parallels the rest of the program.
Guests were offered “program notes” at the door which included substantial commentary about the music as well as texts and translations of the songs, done by Ms. Dellal herself. These notes and translations were a wonderful resource for further learning, both before and after the concert. Some audience members diligently followed along in real time, while others preferred to close their eyes and deeply listen to the music. Aside from the written materials, Ms. Dellal gave us short introductions for each set of songs, which helped give context to the poetry of each song.
The second set of English songs showed the universality of “utopian yearning”. Henry Purcell, a baroque composer from the 17th century, and Samuel Barber, one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century, have nearly 300 years between them, and yet they both explored the human desire for utopia. In Purcell’s famous aria, Dido’s lament from the opera “Dido and Aeneas”, Ms. Dellal’s anguished cry expressed the queen’s despair and made our hearts bleed. In the next piece, Barber’s “The Desire for Hermitage”, Ms. Guibas’ piano eloquently depicted the unwritten and perhaps unrecognized feelings of desire during the interlude. Another song by Barber, “Sure on this Shiny Night” shifted the focus to a more pleasant view of utopia. One which gave the listener sensations of hope and trust in nature’s bounty where “all is healed, all is health”.
The latter half of the program showcased two sets of French art songs from the end of the 19th century, diving into the human psyche once again.
In “Troi Chansons” by Debussy, we experienced the three songs consecutively, which represented the beginning, middle, and end of an ideal relationship. Ms. Dellal’s deep mature voice recited the story as if she were remembering a distant memory, effectively providing contrasts between the various climaxes of each song. Ms. Guibas wove out the exquisite impressionist harmonies of Debussy as Ms. Dellal acted out the story.
The final set was Gabriel Faure’s “Cinq Melodies de Venise” which set music to words by Paul Verlaine, whom Ms. Dellal called the “the quintessential poet of longing.” They are not easy poems to read, and even harder yet to translate. They almost feel as if the poet was rambling, unsure what exactly he was longing for. Ms. Dellal’s English interpretation was aligned with her vision of “utopia”. This sensual song cycle closed the program with some ambiguity, leaving a lingering sensation in the room.
Throughout the concert, Ms. Dellal produced each word with accuracy and nuance, thoughtfully shading words and verses which repeated, so they would take on new meanings. Ms. Dellal also had the challenge of switching between speaking and singing as not to break the flow of the performance, but thanks to her partner Ms. Guibas, who expertly set up the accompaniment for Ms. Dellal every time, and followed the singer with a keen ear, the entire presentation felt like one cohesive experience. The duo showed the power music by presenting a vast array of feelings surrounding the central theme of “utopia”.