For her January 26 Great Performers appearance, Dame Felicity Lott performs "Night and Day: Love Songs Around the Clock," a recital as simple and straightforward as its title implies: It's a program of two dozen songs moving through a day from dawn to dusk, ending with the eponymous Cole Porter classic.
"I was trying to find a lighter, mixed kind of program," explains Dame Felicity, "and I'd just recorded some of the songs with [pianist] Graham Johnson. I gave him a list of songs for a recital, and he jiggered with it and called to tell me that they fit into an interesting program. The first half is about daytime, ending with what women talk about at lunch [Oscar Straus's 'Warum soll eine Frau kein Verhaltnis haben,'] and the second half occurs at night."
What's most unusual about the "Night and Day" concert is not its linear structure but what Lott and Johnson chose: 24 songs by 24 composers. Lott says that, although it just fell into place that way, it was quite fortuitous: "Suddenly, if you had two by the same composer, it didn't work out as well. It's best to have just one by each." Her pianist for the evening, Malcolm Martineau, agrees. (A scheduling conflict will prevent Johnson from appearing.) "This pattern worked exactly, and it makes it more interesting," Martineau says, "like a meal with many small courses that add up to a most fulfilling whole."
Among the two dozen songs that comprise "Night and Day" are many by composers familiar to recital audiences‹Ravel, Mahler, Debussy, Strauss, Schumann, Brahms, Fauré, and Wolf‹but there is a most intriguing inclusion of vocal settings by, first, composers who too often go unheard in such settings (Vaughan Williams, Quilter, Barber, Bridge) and, secondly, composers whose names are barely known: the Englishman Graham Peel, the German Edmund Nick, and the Frenchman Maurice Yvain.
"Graham Peel was not terribly well known, but he wrote a couple of popular songs in the 1930s," Lott says. "I love the one of his we're doing, 'The Early Morning,' which was also one of my mother's favorite songs!" Martineau adds, "Peel is, unfairly, unknown to everyone, even his fellow citizens, since he was overshadowed by composers like Delius."
As for Nick‹a Munich music critic who also wrote film scores‹Lott has great enthusiasm for his work. "His 'Die Sprode' is a setting of a Goethe poem, and it's a lovely, lighthearted, operetta-ish little song." And Yvain? "He was a French operetta composer of the 1920s and '30s who wrote lots of things for Yvonne Printemps, along with Poulenc and Messager," the soprano explains. "'Je chant la nuit' is a sexy, nightclub kind of song that's a lot of fun to sing."
But the music itself is only half the story, as Lott knows only too well. "When we did it in Paris, friends of mine said that they saw it on paper and were surprised to be won over by it," she says with a laugh. "They're all such beautiful songs that Graham blended into this wonderful evening. It builds up quite a mood, a thrilling atmosphere. In the second half, the piano accompaniment in Hahn's 'L'Heure exquise' is mirrored in the Quilter song, 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal.' They all make up quite a singular entity, and they're not jarring at all‹there's lots of contrast in the dynamics."
Lott does admit to initially wondering if she could pull this off onstage, since, its theatrical conceit aside, "Night and Day" is no staged musical theater event, but rather a theme recital. "There's not really a break," she notes, "so it's an act of concentration to do the whole thing in one shot. It's terribly nerve-racking because there are so many words, and the swapping from one language to another is another act of concentration. It's not quite a theatrical experience, but I had to concentrate very hard at first to sing it for 35 to 40 minutes at a stretch, and without a break for applause. Now that I know what comes next, I'm getting used to it!"
Martineau is more effusive in his praise of his partner. "Felicity has a wonderful way with these songs," he says, "and doesn't need anything extra. She can make it as theatrical as she likes just by singing. The difficulty is doing Mahler, then Ravel, then Vaughan Williams‹24 different composers in all, but Felicity does it beautifully."
Lott will also be featured in this season's Great Performers operetta film series, From Vienna to Broadway, which opens on February 15 at the Walter Reade Theater with a filmed version of Offenbach's La Belle Hélène. The 2000 production at Paris's Théâtre du Châtelet featured the soprano in the title role.
"I had such fun doing it," she says. "It was a marvelous production with a great cast, and the producer had this marvelous idea that the woman was dreaming it all. It was an absolute riot in Paris, and they could have sold it out many times over. I don't think I've ever been in something quite so successful."
Lott even enjoyed the filmed record of her performance: "They got the atmosphere across very well, which doesn't always happen on film."
But what most satisfied Lott was performing the role itself: singing Helen of Troy in Offenbach's farce fit her snugly. "It was such a nice change for me," she admits, adding, "I've played the Marschallin, and the Countess in Figaro, endlessly, so to play this role was a real treat."
Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.