Michelle DeYoung review: Heavy going

Wagnerian mezzo soprano attacks subtle song repertoire with a blunt instrument

by KATIE TAYLOR

After hearing Grammy-winning mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung’s art song recital last Sunday, I was frankly baffled by her success.

A video of her singing the “Liebestod” (Love Death) from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde shed some helpful light. I’ve sung this aria myself, and was struck by how completely personally obliterating it is. You feel like you’ve been hooked up to an industrial milking machine that won’t stop until 40 gallons have been withdrawn. You can bring nothing to it as an artist or an interpreter — it’s an unyielding, merciless force that molds itself around you and forms you into The Thing That Sings “Liebestod.” DeYoung does a fantastic job with it. But the same strengths that make her a great Isolde make her a terrible art song interpreter.

Friends of Chamber Music brought DeYoung and Murphy to Portland. Photo: John Green

Friends of Chamber Music brought DeYoung and Murphy to Portland. Photo:

A song recital, even in a larger hall, is a very intimate and nuanced experience— the polar opposite of a Wagner opera, with its beast of an orchestra, god-scale sets and costumes and performers whose entire will and energy is taken up with handling the vocal demands of the music. DeYoung approached her March 6 recital at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall like a Wagnerian singer, and without all the trappings of a Wagnerian opera, it was distracting at best.

The program was mostly heavy and German. If something required a very slow tempo, long sustained phrases, somber delivery and powerful high notes, DeYoung knocked it out of the park. If not, the results ranged from underwhelming to disastrous.

A tall, blonde goddess, DeYoung cut quite a figure on stage. Unfortunately, most of the time, she appeared unconscious of anything other than the quality of the tone she was producing. Her face contorted and her hands drifted purposelessly out in front of her, grasping and fumbling as if she were trying to pick up a pair of invisible figurines. The first half of the program was redolent with bad or nonexistent acting. It was impossible to understand the emotional content of a song without reading the program.

Out of the gate, with her initial set of Brahms songs, DeYoung’s voice puzzled me. She seemed to be artificially darkening it with a strange and distracting tendency to “moo” her vowels, skewing them toward a drawn-in “oo” or “o” sound, particularly at the bottom of her range. As a result, her sound seemed hooded and overly controlled — as if it would be brighter and more carrying left to its own devices. She sounded like a singer attempting to sound Wagnerian, but who might not actually have that big a voice – like a mezzo soprano or even a darker soprano trying to sound like a contralto.

A voice student I spoke with at intermission said he heard DeYoung as Venus in Wagner’s Tannhauser and assured me that she had no trouble cutting through an orchestra. Together, we formulated the theory that she may have been trying to take it down a notch to suit the venue and the material. I noticed the moo less in the Strauss, Mahler and Marx sets, but in the Brahms and a later set of songs by Manuel De Falla, it drove me crazy.

The set of Gustav Mahler songs that kicked off the second half (Songs of a Wayfarer) were also vocally strong, but showed DeYoung’s slip a little more. The brittle, ironically cheerful “I Went This Morning Over the Field,” with its merry chirping Disney birds and effusions of good will, was played straight and delivered at a leaden tempo, lacking any sense of spontaneity. “I Have A Red-Hot Knife (in my breast)” excited DeYoung into a confusing effort to act (pulling her shawl around herself, as if cold). The song was vocally thrilling, however, and she seemed to connect with it viscerally— not a frequent occurrence in this recital.

The performance of pianist Kevin Murphy was unfortunately in keeping with DeYoung’s. While a pianist in a song recital is a collaborator— a co-conspirator— a pianist accompanying an operatic diva is all too often a servant, obliged to support the whims of a singer who is not always motivated by the best dramatic or musical choices. Unfortunately, DeYoung’s accompanist Kevin Murphy assumed the latter role for this performance. He played with exquisite precision and restraint but little dynamic range or expressiveness. He followed DeYoung with skill and sensitivity, but she didn’t give him much to work with most of the time.

The high point for both DeYoung and Murphy was a fluid, sensitive rendition of Richard Strauss’s death-laden “Ruhe, mine Seele” (Rest, my Soul). Like Wagner, Strauss takes care of the expression for you, if you have the pipes to swell his endless phrases, but this type of song — vastly still, slow and grave — also seems to be DeYoung’s natural habitat. She poured her voice into the music and it fit like a bespoke suit. She also seemed to relax, and sang with more ring and clarity.

The real low point of the evening came in the second half with a performance of De Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs. I can’t fathom why DeYoung thought these songs would suit her. Sinuous and fiery, they require light, nimble delivery and rapid turns in dramatic direction and expression.

Any singer, regardless of age or vocal girth, needs to channel a light, giddy, hormonal teenager to pull these songs off musically and dramatically — the way you’d adopt an English accent if you were cast as Winston Churchill in a play. Between the two of them, DeYoung and Murphy suffocated the songs with a lifeless and heavy performance. In a set of songs that is quintessentially youthful, DeYoung’s sluggish tempi and labored delivery made her sound like an old lady (and not the sexy kind, like Helen Mirren).

To be fair, Murphy had some virtuosic moments during this set, particularly in the “Seguidilla murciana,” “Asturiana’ and “Polo,” but with the exception of the last, his delivery was muted and passionless. DeYoung deployed excellent breath and dynamic control and some vocal agility in “Asturiana” and “Nana,” but they weren’t enough to save the performance. As elsewhere, she sounded like she was bludgeoning the songs to death with grand opera.

Murphy gave a surefooted, really beautiful performance in a pair of songs by late impressionist composer Joseph Marx, which offered him some lengthy solo sections to stretch out in. His fluid handling of the ornate piano parts made me want to hear what he’d do with French repertoire. DeYoung sang loudly and tediously, filling the songs up wall to wall with her ringing tones. She is great at pumping out sound in long, legato phrases, and this material allowed her to do that in spades — but maybe she should have saved it for the “Liebestod.”

If this recital ended this season of Friends of Chamber Music’s ambitious and wide-ranging Vocal Arts Series on an unfortunate low note, exciting things are afoot as the series approaches its tenth birthday. In her pre-concert welcome, Executive Director Pat Zagelow shared with the audience that next year’s series would include four performances – up from three this year – with guests including world renowned operatic mezzo soprano and song recitalist Susan Graham. Subscriptions go on sale April 1.

Katie Taylor is a Portland-based writer, opera singer, director and librettist, and the Producing Artistic Director of Opera Theater Oregon.

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3 Responses.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    studied, deep, informed – perhaps the best OAW music review I’ve read

  2. Edgard says:

    It’s their version! Relax!

  3. Jeff Winslow says:

    Not being a singer myself, I can’t comment on the specialized criticism. But in general, and despite the encouraging things I wrote in the preview here on OAW (some of which I now regret), I have to pretty much agree with the substance of this review.

    I was particularly disappointed in the unequal relationship of piano and voice. I think there was just one moment in the entire program when the piano rose above mezzoforte, and that, of course, was when DeYoung wasn’t singing. And to what end? There was no chance he was going to drown her out. If the voice, wonderful as it was in many ways, was mismatched to the program, at least he could have put a bold face on it.

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