The superb mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is a mistress of drama in opera, but she knows that "There's a fine line on the concert stage, how far you can go‹you can't exactly collapse at the conductor's feet!"
La Mort de Cléopâtre offers a stellar dramatic display as the captured queen laments her broken grandeur, then chooses to die. Ms. Graham says, "I strive for a combination of beauty and text," so she will join forces with the music to evoke all the action, which is "literally heart-stopping." She notes: "At a very specific point, Berlioz tells you where the snakebite is. Right after Cleopatra says, 'A vile reptile is my resort,' you hear this slithery snake sound." Then there is a sharp, angular sound, played by the piccolo, where the snake bites: "You can't miss it," she says. The singer finds the final, short passage of music after her last word, "César," to be vital.
For the preceding four measures, the bass line has portrayed Cleopatra's "ever-beating heartbeat, ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump‹relentless. After she says 'César,' the beat gets erratic, has that last flourish; finally it just stops." La Mort has come.
"I have fallen in love with this piece," says Ms. Graham, who has read up on the fabled Egyptian ruler: "She was a leader in her own right, born into a lineage of queens. That makes it very easy to bring out the nobility of her and not the love-obsessed siren we have come to think of" through movies.
Susan Graham sings two high B-flats in Mort‹"Knock on wood," she quips. However, "It's a very rangy piece, it tips down pretty low at times. The thing I love so much is that it captures many of the moods in the beautiful lament aria. It's so much like Dido in [Berlioz's] Les Troyens, before she goes to die: the reminiscence, saying goodbye to her beloved city and people."
Ms. Graham has sung much Berlioz (and will record La Mort de Cléopâtre this spring with the Berlin Philharmonic) and notes that the composer was "much more broken out of the [Classical] mold, obviously, but he was so inspired by Gluck. With all these Iphigénies [the leading role in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride] I have been doing the past 18 months, I can see so clearly the connections between Gluck and Berlioz, that sort of drama within a framework." In the past decade, she continues, "I've come to a different place in my head and career‹this point in my journey is really exciting. This is not a piece often done, so I feel happy and privileged to bring it before the public."
The mezzo-soprano hasn't sung with the New York Philharmonic since 1997, when she performed Berlioz's complete Les Nuits d'été with Sir Colin Davis. That stint included what this basketball/baseball fan calls "a doubleheader:" a Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Mozart's Cosí fan tutte earlier on the day of one of the Philharmonic concerts. Her return to the Orchestra represents an introduction to Lorin Maazel‹almost. Their only previous musical encounter took place more than a decade ago when she subbed as Octavian in a rehearsal of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier in Salzburg: "I sat in the pit that day and sang it with the piano, with him conducting. He might not even remember."
"I love the New York Philharmonic!" this Texas-raised singer says. "I love walking on stage at Avery Fisher. It's the hometown band and a darn fine one." She adds, "This is the biggest New York season I've had. The only major venue I don't have booked is Yankee Stadium!" Next up, on January 24, she joins Sigourney Weaver in hosting the Opera News Awards (at which another Cleopatra, Leontyne Price, is an awardee). Ms. Graham feels that she and Ms. Weaver have something in common‹"she's famous for movies about aliens and I was born in Roswell, New Mexico! We'll have something to talk about!"
Jeannie Williams's biography of the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life, was reissued in paperback in 2007.