July 04, 2006

An Angel, Ever Bright and Fair

Genuinely extraordinary artists are very rare in any time. I refer to those artists who very gently, and with unimaginable tenderness, wrap their souls around ours, who cause us to feel and reflect about those matters that are of greatest and even transcendent importance, and who make us remember, in the very deepest sense, what it is to be human. In her particular style and repertoire, Maria Callas did that. She did so repeatedly, in a series of unique and superlative performances, and in a way that was surpassingly dramatic and infinitely moving, as I have discussed in some detail.

In her own unique manner and in a very different repertoire, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson captured the same magic. And yesterday, in a deeply tragic loss to her family and friends, and to all those who cherish masterful artistry in any field, she was lost to us:
Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, 52, died of cancer on July 3 at the height of her musical and expressive powers.

Her last professional activity had been touring with the Boston Symphony in March, singing music by her husband, Peter Lieberson, before and after which she canceled many bookings.

Hunt Lieberson occupied a special place on the music scene due to the protean nature of her musical interests -- baroque to contemporary -- extraordinary gifts and the committed, spiritual aura both her presence and plangent voice conveyed.

San Francisco-born, she grew up musically as a violist, working with the San Jose Symphony. Her profound musicality sustained her in her first phase as a vocalist, initially as a soprano, in the Boston and Berkeley early-music worlds with which she never lost contact. Conductors Nicholas McGegan and William Christie introduced her to European festival audiences in Handel and Rameau roles.


Her career at the Metropolitan Opera proved typically quixotic: she first bowed as a sexy, tough Myrtle Wilson in Harbison's "The Great Gatsby" in 1999. With Susan Graham's Jordan Baker, she stole the show. That New Year's Eve, with James Levine accompanying, she limned the spiritual "Deep River" (a frequent concert encore) during "Die Fledermaus." Later, she improbably shared the bill with the Three Tenors at a 2000 gala, singing Act IV of "Carmen" opposite Jose Carreras.

Her incandescent Didon in Francesca Zambello's 2003 staging of Berlioz's "Les Troyens" will stay in the grateful memory of any attending the mere four performances she felt her resources allowed her.

New Met chief Peter Gelb had proudly announced her for Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" in May 2007, directed by Mark Morris with Levine conducting. Earlier she was to tackle another challenge: Mere Marie in Poulenc's "Dialogues des Carmelites" for Lyric Opera of Chicago. These shows may go on, though no one can replace Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in our musical life.
In the very best of times, this loss would be a terrible one, especially the loss of one at her artistic zenith and at such a comparatively young age. In the world of today, when unconscionable cruelties are defended in the debased name of "patriotism" and life itself is defiled and destroyed -- even when the particular lives in question were those of people who never did us the slightest harm -- the loss is almost unbearable. In a world that diminishes our humanity with each day that passes, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson added to our worth, and she brought beauty that no one else had conceived into our midst.

The title of this entry comes from a message to my favorite e-mail list of all, one devoted to opera. Some of the remembrances are very difficult to read. For example:
Such unbelievably sad news. I heard her sing the mezzo part in the Chicago Symphony presentation of the Mahler 2nd this past March -- they may have been among her last appearances. She was stunning and you could not tell how ill she was. I spoke to her after all 3 of the performances backstage and at one point shared with her that I, too, was a cancer survivor. She teared up and grasped my hand. It was moving and emotional and I suspected then she was more sick than she was letting on. But she didn't speak of it and I didn't ask. The eyes said all.

She was an incomparable artist and a superb human being. She will be so sorely missed. RIP.
The message that gave rise to my title is as follows:
I was absolutely floored to hear of the great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's passing. I have not had time to read the comments of my fellow members and will do so with great interest tomorrow -- so forgive me if I am repeating observations made already. I am listening to her singing "Angels, ever bright and fair" from Theodora from the marvelous CD she did of Handel arias with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. I remember her truly moving and superlative appearance at Carnegie Hall where she sang this aria and ... another Handel aria .... The point is her mastery of the Handel line, her incredibly rich and distinctive voice and her ability to communicate something at once ethereal and yet very accessible made her one of the true greats in my book. That night, she ran out of encores and decided to sing "Angels, ever bright and fair" a second time. We were thrilled to hear her do it again. I also recall her absolutely brilliant performance in "La Clemenza di Tito" at New York City Opera. I went to see her twice during that particular run and she was superlative both performances. The seamless coloratura, the majestic line -- she was tremendous in Mozart as well as Handel. To me, she will always be an "angel, ever bright and fair." Rest in peace.
That Handel aria will be found on this recording. I highly recommend this additional one, as well.

If you listen to these recordings and the others that are available of Ms. Lieberson's work, you will be deeply grateful, I am sure. Your soul will be replenished and refreshed. Your humanity will be enhanced, and your ability to feel in the most meaningful sense will be deepened. That is the incalculable gift all great artists give us freely, simply because they seek to express the true nature of their own souls.

"An angel, ever bright and fair." She was all that, and more -- and with the blessed gift of her recorded legacy, she will forever remain so.