It's not a common occurrence to incorporate a song cycle into an orchestral program, but if last week's performances by the Seattle Symphony, with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade singing Berlioz's Les nuits d'鴩, are any indication, the symphony can sell out the house any time it decides to do it.
Stade's voice does not have that faintly nasal quality that is typically French; she does have, in abundance, the expressive ability to convey the nuances Berlioz built into his songs. Berlioz's use of musical timbres to delineate shades of expression was a new idea at the time. He gives the performer rewarding melodic lines and phrases shaped so that the meaning of every word (of poet Th鯰hile Gautier) is enhanced by its musical context. The orchestral music surrounds and sets the stage, but remains a frame for the voice.
Benaroya Hall, March 28
Guest conductor Zdenek Macal and Stade made a superb team to undertake these six songs, the first and last lighthearted, the center four all to do with one loss or another. Theirs was a deeply satisfying performance. Stade's voice, even when singing softly or in her lowest registers, was always clearly audible. Macal watched her closely, and tailored the orchestra's entries and endings exactly to match. It was a startling achievement in the second song, Le spectre de la rose, to have a solo duet between voice and clarinet, behind her and apart by some 15-plus feet, sounding perfectly together. Stade has nurtured her voice. At 50, she is still in her prime—the top of her range easy, the low end amazingly deep and resonant like an organ. As is essential for anyone performing Berlioz, she sings with acute intelligence and attention to meaning.
Of the other works on the symphony program, the overture to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro sparkled, but Rachmaninoff's Symphony no. 2 was a performance to treasure: Macal drew an amazingly rich sound from the orchestra, but also paid attention to the bones of the work, so often lost in an excess of lush romanticism.