Let’s not Mentz words

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week -

The rich-voiced mezzo-so­prano Su­sanne Mentzer, as­sisted by pi­anist Brian Con­nelly, pre­sented a world-class recital Tues­day evening at United Church of Santa Fe (un­der the aus­pices of the Santa Fe Con­cert As­so­ci­a­tion), dur­ing which one was re­minded why it has of­ten been easy to take this mar­velous singer for granted. Her ca­reer has been su­perla­tive, lead­ing to a busy sched­ule of ma­jor roles at the Metropoli­tan Opera (where she made her de­but, in 1989, as Cheru­bino in Le nozze di Fi­garo), La Scala, Covent Gar­den, the Vi­enna State Opera, the Opéra de Paris — the list goes on. Yet, through it all, she has never earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a diva, at least not in the neg­a­tive sense. It’s hard to think of a singer who seems less daz­zled by the os­ten­ta­tious trap­pings of the clas­si­cal vo­cal world. For her, the sing­ing al­ways seems to be quite enough, thank you — so long as we un­der­stand that “sing­ing,” in her case, goes far, far be­yond mere vo­cal pro­duc­tion and seam­lessly em­braces lit­er­ate in­tel­li­gence, dra­matic ex­pres­siv­ity, sen­si­tiv­ity to bal­ance and con­trast, and other ba­sic at­tributes that too many singers heartily en­dorse in the­ory and just as heartily ig­nore in prac­tice. Her in­ter­pre­ta­tions are com­plex but do not come across as com­pli­cated. A num­ber of singers have been touted by their man­agers as re­sem­bling “the girl next door” and have worked hard to make good on that de­scrip­tion. To Mentzer, it ap­pears to come nat­u­rally, al­though she would be a girl next door who up­holds high artis­tic stan­dards and sees no rea­son why you shouldn’t, too.

For some Santa Feans, Mentzer ac­tu­ally has been the girl next door, or at least down the street. She did part of her grow­ing-up here and got hooked on the lyric stage as a teenager, while work­ing as an usher at Santa Fe Opera. She grad­u­ated from St. Michael’s High School (Class of 1974; you do the math). At this point, her voice re­mains in en­tirely healthy con­di­tion, thanks in large part to her crit­i­cal self-aware­ness and her wis­dom in se­lect­ing roles that are ap­pro­pri­ate to her voice as it evolves. Early in her ca­reer she sang a good deal of bel canto reper­toire and tri­umphed in sev­eral of Mozart’s florid mezzo-so­prano parts. More re­cently, one has heard her in­stead in Mozart’s char­ac­ter roles, such as De­spina — as, for ex­am­ple, when she raised the bar for the cast that sur­rounded her in Così fan tutte here at Santa Fe Opera in 2007. A spe­cial­ist in “trouser roles,” she was an ir­re­sistible Cheru­bino; this com­ing April, when she ap­pears in that work at Hous­ton Grand Opera, it will be as the more ma­tronly Mar­cel­lina.

Through it all, she has ex­celled as an in­ter­preter of art song, and it is in that ca­pac­ity that she ap­peared for this con­cert, which opened with a set of seven lieder by Schu­bert, all of them very fa­mil­iar yet not se­lected willy-nilly. Mentzer con­structed this pro­gram with Santa Fe specif­i­cally in mind, and she went to the trou­ble of elu­ci­dat­ing this in writ­ten pro­gram notes and through brief com­men­tary dur­ing the recital. Pre­sented thus, Schu­bert’s ul­tra-Ro­man­tic songs about moun­tains and moon­light took on added rich­ness. In­deed, Mentzer sang two of Schu­bert’s fa­mous Shake­speare set­tings, “To Sylvia” and “Hark, Hark! the Lark,” not in the Ger­man trans­la­tions Schu­bert used but rather in Shake­speare’s English, be­cause it was in that form that she was in­tro­duced to them by her pi­ano teacher in Santa Fe back when. Then fol­lowed an in­fre­quently en­coun­tered set of Richard Strauss songs, his four

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