Lee Hoiby’s 20-minute monologue opera “Bon Appetit!,” drawn from Julia Child’s 1970s television cooking shows, is becoming a staple of Atlanta Opera’s community outreach. With soprano Susan Nicely in the role, it first performed the mini opera in November, as a benefit at Cook’s Warehouse, a kitchen supply store in Midtown. (Before that performance, I interviewed composer Hoiby and librettist Mark Shulgasser; Hoiby died in March.)
The opera returned to “Bon Appetit!” last week at another Cook’s Warehouse, this one in Decatur. (The store’s management had asked the opera’s general director, Dennis Hanthorn, if they’d be willing to perform it in each of the chain’s retail stores across metro Atlanta.)
If you think about it, there are many ways to play a campy pop icon who sings while she bakes a chocolate cake in real time. Reprising the role, Nicely’s lovely soprano — with Brian Cray accompanying on an electric piano — brought out the opera’s bubbly charm. The vocal lines flow in a semi-sung parlando style, with neither snags nor soaring lyricism, and the score is tonal, quick-witted and non-judgmental. Musically, it does not dictate Julia’s persona, which is left up to the singing actress to create.
With precise diction and sharp acting, Nicely made the part her own. Short and chubby, she doesn’t try to mimic the towering Child, whose famous voice evokes, in timbre, the opening bassoon squawks from “The Rite of Spring.” Instead, Nicely plays it innocently and literal, with a devilish twinkle — perhaps the Southern Belle version — as she casually cracks eggs, beats them in a copper bowl and splatters them on the floor, spills chocolate sauce on the counter and, pretending no one is looking — except the millions of TV viewers — scrapes it back into the bowl, and polishes off a bottle of red wine left on the counter as a prop. This highly amusing and short opera is a delight.
Saturday night at Spivey Hall, revered French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard (above) made his local debut in a mind- and aesthetic-bending search for truth and spirituality. Among local venues, only Spivey would risk such an evening, and then pull it off with nonchalance.
More of a priestly incantation than a typical recital, Aimard’s program was centered on the late, weird, barely tonal hallucinations of Franz Liszt. The evening moved from piece to piece without a break or applause. You could almost smell the burning incense.
With a page-turner by his side, Aimard opened with Liszt’s dense “La lugubre gondola I.” He played it as a thick wet coiled rope of music, after rot has set in. It was hard to tell where threads ended and began; the aromatic decay found its own aesthetic, a Gothic beauty.
The pianist then moved immediately into Richard Wagner’s rarely performed A-flat Major Sonata, subtitled “Fur das Album von Frau MW,” a reference to Mathilde Wesendonck, a married woman and the composer’s muse and possible lover. With Frau Wesendonck stoking his passions, Wagner wrote the ecstatic “Tristan und Isolde.” Yet the piano sonata, composed a few years before “Tristan,” is earthbound and conservative, with themes that are idiomatically Wagnerian but in a harmonic language from earlier generations, reminiscent of Beethoven. It’s as if the master of a new musical world was suddenly tongue-tied. In this context, however, even Wagner’s second-rate sonata blazed with a deeper meaning, connecting past and future, trying to suspend time.
Aimard next silently segued into “Nuage gris,” another late Liszt work, short, quiet, all abstract atmosphere and mood. The pianist is a fastidious player who drew a rich, almost chocolaty tone from the well-worn Steinway nicknamed Emilie. He offered Alban Berg’s masterful Op. 1 Sonata — influenced by Liszt, Wagner and Scriabin — with chiseled cool on the surface but molten heat just below. It was as comprehensive a reading as I’ve ever heard live. Then it was back to Liszt with “Unstern! Sinistre, disastro,” played as a short, diabolical, unstable ode to the end of world.
(A note on Spivey Hall’s pianos. For years Emilie was considered the finest concert piano in metro Atlanta, but her best years have passed. The hall’s executive director, Sam Dixon, recently secured $150,000 for a new 9-foot Steinway. Friends and patrons have been scouring New York, Britain and even Italy in search of the perfect Spivey instrument. For local piano mavens, the new instrument’s arrival will be major news.)
Throughout the recital, Aimard blurred notions of artistic progress and linear history, where Liszt, Wagner, Berg and a Russian, Scriabin, with the massive complexities of his “Black Mass” Sonata No. 9, all fed into one another. Time isn’t an arrow but a circular pool, where strong ripples from the center collided with the fading ripples rebounding from the edge. Impressive in its intellectual scope, moving in its sincerity and emotional lucidity, Aimard’s program felt like a week’s worth of music — rather than just the first half of the program.
After intermission came one longer work: Liszt’s bombastic, fiercely restless B minor Sonata, a transitional work from the youthful showman (who did not make an appearance on this program) to the visionary mystic. True to form, Aimard’s B minor Sonata was explosive but remained within boundaries. There was a formality to his fierce roars, an inner tension. A series of gentle cascading notes in the middle were gorgeous and poignant, more serene than usual, and the final chords seemed entirely celestial and not of this world.