HEGGIE The moon’s a gong, hung in the wild
By his own admission, Jake Heggie is a theatre composer who can make a drama of a song text, a journey of any poem: ‘Sometimes physical journeys,’ he says, ‘and always emotional ones.’ Those last words go without saying for anyone who has experienced his work in opera and song – and anyone who has read my previous writings on him in these pages. Heggie has a nose for theatre and a need for fantasy and, as I have said before, he isn’t afraid to embrace the great legacy of American song and musical theatre. He writes tunes as readily as he invokes atmosphere, and if the spirit of the song suggests a foray into jazz or blues or even pop culture, he’s there, following his nose, his instinct. Above all, he’s grateful to sing – singers (many of them) like Frederica von Stade, Joyce DiDonato and now Angelika Kirchschlager and her sympathetic pianist Maurice Lammerts van Bueren are drawn to his work.
But it needs careful, finely nuanced handling if the operatic elements of songs like these are not to appear overly ripe or self-consciously ‘arch’ – and that’s the issue I have with Kirchschlager. She enunciates with care out of her native language; and though she is clearly a stage animal, whether on concert platform or opera stage, these performances, for my taste, are always inclined to feel overworked – too big, too primary for the intimacy and delicacy of the settings. It’s tough striking a balance when the natural inclination of an operatic voice – and indeed an operatic personality – is one of projection rather than inwardness.
In Statuesque (words by Gene Scheer, a regular collaborator), the sculptural curvaceousness is there but the ‘living statues’ (there is a kinship here to the dramatic Camille Claudel cycle Into the Fire which Joyce DiDonato has so made her own – Pentatone, 1/14) are distinctly operatic in manner and I can’t help feeling that I would like to hear them sung by a singing actor as opposed to an acting singer. Equally, the characterisation in the wonderfully inventive and quirky Songs to the Moon does not slip effortlessly into the musical vernacular of the settings, particularly when Heggie so casually courts with jazz.
In The Breaking Waves – three songs to words by Sister Helen Prejean, she of Dead Man Walking, Heggie’s much-admired and successful opera – I don’t feel a natural empathy with gospel singing which is so integral to the settings. It needs to be felt rather than imitated. The rather chilly hall acoustic of the recording doesn’t exactly draw one in, either.
Kirchschlager is at her best when she stops ‘playing’ the drama and relaxes into a vocal line, plain and simple. Winter Roses typifies Heggie’s natural way with melody, and hearing him ‘frame’ the traditional folksongs – ‘Barb’ry Allen’, ‘He’s gone away’ and ‘Danny Boy’ – reminds me of Britten in that the arrangements are at once respectful and freeing. ‘White in the Moon’, the final AE Housman setting, sets the seal on what we knew all along – that Heggie has a way with words.