Let’s not Mentz words
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