Arte Lyrica presented Café Parisien, French art song, cabaret songs, and more, on Friday evening, November 5 at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge. The estimable performers were mezzos D’Anna Fortunato and Susan Cooke, baritone Tom Curry, pianist Yoko Hagino, and narrator Lisa Mullins, who between songs read an entertaining text researched and written by Cooke. We heard about Paris’s renowned salons and cafés where, from the latter part of the 19th century on, artists of all types from around the world discussed and critiqued trends in visual arts, music, and literature. Perhaps for greater authenticity in future, the narrator might be coached on foreign-language pronunciation, as a number of French names and terms were regrettably Americanized.
The opening song was by the sole living composer on the program, Ned Rorem, a former “American in Paris” who has more than 500 songs to his credit and, at eighty-seven, continues to compose. Early in the morning sets an English text by Robert Hillyer, reminiscing, in a Parisian outdoor café, about being twenty, in love, “and in Paradise to stay.” Tom Curry sang with a faraway look in his eye and an attractive, wistful tone.
Such wistfulness progressed into more melancholy yearning with the well-known torch song Feuilles mortes (Autumn Leaves) by Joseph Kosma. Cooke sang Jacques Prévert’s poem affectingly, highlighted by some beautifully attenuated pianissimos; then after an impressive solo piano interlude by Yoko Hagino, we got the English version by Johnny Mercer, with less detailed imagery than the French but capturing its essence. Later in the program the same performers gave us a more hopeful type of yearning, full of optimistic expectation, in George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”
The lion’s share of the classical selections were given to D’Anna Fortunato, beginning with Reynaldo Hahn’s À Chloris, a song whose Classical-inspired text perhaps led Hahn to set it in neo-Baroque fashion. This declaration of love was a paradigm of simplicity and sincerity in Fortunato’s and Hagino’s hands. Later they performed Green by Claude Debussy to a Paul Verlaine poem. (He gave it an English title.) Hagino played the piano part, one of Debussy’s more challenging, with lightness and fluidity; Fortunato provided a vivid contrast — the breathless arrival of a lover with the languorous ecstasy following “the good storm.” (In the latter 19th century even the French sometimes had to euphemize.) Debussy’s Le faune, heard later in the program, composed less than twenty years after Green, sounded as if by a different composer. Though putatively tonal, it neither begins nor ends with any indication of a tonic key, and it sets an equally enigmatic text (also by Verlaine). Fortunato and Hagino conjured up a trancelike atmosphere, perhaps impersonating the inscrutable terracotta faun of the title.
The single French duet, Gabriel Fauré’s Pleurs d’or (Tears of Gold), text by Symbolist poet Albert Samain, seemed a less than ideal match of music to words, given Fauré’s lovely but conservative musical language and Samain’s vague if evocative imagery. There are ten references to tears in a dizzying array of contexts within a single poem. It is, nonetheless, a beautiful song and was sung passionately by Fortunato and Curry, lacking only an occasional easing of intensity. Pianist Hagino sympathetically rendered the falling teardrops.
When Curry got his single cabaret song, Cole Porter’s In the still of the night, he made the most of the opportunity. The opening smoldered, fires banked; but restraint was thrown to the wind at “Do you love me, as I love you . . .” In cabaret fashion, we got another virtuoso solo piano interlude courtesy of Hagino and a vocal reprise from the full-throated climax to the end. It was the first time we heard Curry’s sizable voice in unforced full cry, and the audience was clearly impressed.
No program with French cabaret songs would be complete without at least one Édith Piaf standard, and Cooke chose La vie en rose. Wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve is surely de rigueur for anyone attempting this piece, and she did not stint, fully inhabiting the amorous text by Piaf. Hagino delivered a final stylish and showy solo bridge, following which the audience had been invited to join in on the English text (not translation) by Mack David. They did so with steadily increasing confidence, if not great skill.
The performance concluded jovially with Gioachino Rossini’s Cat Duet, rendered by the two mezzos and Hagino. Featuring surely the most concise song text (“Miau”) outside of a vocalise, this bonbon is custom-made to be turned into a comic scena, as it was here. Two rival queens (in the feline sense) spar vocally, complete with miniature cadenzas, coloratura, and, in this performance, amusing choreography. The ladies admirably balanced vocal display with comedy. For the final section Curry made a silent cameo as, ostensibly, a tom (pun intended), to diverts the females’ attention from each other. He turns out to be something quite unexpected: he barks after the final cadence.
In a nod to Parisian salons, we were invited then to converse with the performers and each other over coffee and pastries in the adjoining space, a gracious and fitting coda.