Two Performances

960On Thursday, I finally got a chance to see Hamilton, the hit musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Overall, it lived up to the hype – which is a significant accomplishment!  I enjoyed the music more than I expected, and loved how intricate the text could be because of the freedom of rap. Wayne Brady performed as Aaron Burr – a surprising choice that ended up working incredibly well. The best thing about the libretto is the depth of  Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. While Hamilton is of course the hero of the story, we are shown some of his flaws: hot-headedness, arrogance, limitless appetite. Similarly, the supposed villain of the show, Aaron Burr, is presented as a Salieri-esque character, a la Amadeus. He was meant to be a success, but was overshadowed by a younger, more brilliant replacement before he ever got to make his mark. It’s an interesting contrast in today’s political climate as well – the man with strong principles who is unwilling to compromise for political advantage, versus the man who compromises so much that his beliefs are unknown.

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The Schuyler sisters, performed by Karen Olivo, Ari Afsar, and Samantha Marie Ware. Photo credit to TimeOut Chicago and Joan Marcus.

The performers were of course incredibly.  Karen Olivo stood out at Angelica Schuyler, especially in her performance of “Satisfied.” The role of Angelica is overshadowed by that of Eliza, but it she is a much meatier character; a woman who gives up one type of love for another, and who can engage with Hamilton on his politics. Eliza, performed by Ari Afsar, never really grows beyond her first meeting with Hamilton when she confesses herself “Helpless” over her love for him. Both women had strong voices, but I preferred Ms Olivo’s less strident tone. Miguel Cervantes was excellent as Hamilton, giving a convincing performance throughout.  Jonathon Kirkland stepped out during intermission, leaving Carl Clemons-Hopkins to replace him as George Washington.  While he got off to a rocky start, he showed off his gorgeous voice in the closing of “One Last Time” and finished the show on key. Thomas Jefferson, played by Chris De’Sean Lee (who also played Lafayette), was a hit in his elaborate purple costume. But King George, brilliantly acted by Alexander Gemignani, stole the show with each of his entrances. Attired in a red suit with ermine-trimmed robe and a crown, and brandishing a scepter, he carried himself like a ballet-dancer, tip-toeing from one part of the stage to another.  His first number, “You’ll be Back,” is full of inherently funny lines: “I’ll send a fully armed battalion, to remind you of my love.” Delivered in manner that was simultaneously serious and campy, King George was portrayed as a bumbling and dim leader who could not see history staring him in the face.

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Miguel Cervantes as Hamilton, and the Chicago cast. Photo credit to TimeOut Chicago and Joan Marcus.

Then on Friday, I attended an altogether different type of concert: an evening of art songs, performed by Sandrine Piau (soprano) and Susan Manoff (piano).  The program, Apres un reve, focuses on dreams and love. It is inspired by her recent CD of the same title. Ms Piau’s soaring voice was simultaneously intimate and powerful, stylized and natural.  Her perfect technique, round sound, and controlled vibrato was all the more stunning after seeing Hamilton (which is not to say that the performers in Hamilton were unskilled – they are completely different art forms and, in many ways, incomparable). What I loved most about the concert was the apparent friendship and obvious communication between Ms Piau and Susan Manoff, the collaborative pianist. When a cell phone rang at the end of Romance (Debussy), Ms Piau and Ms Manoff exchanged grins and laughs.

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Sandrine Piau

Throughout, each song was delivered directly and conversationally. The audience recognized the humorous moments by Ms Piau’s delivery, without needing to read the texts. Ms Manoff’s piano playing was virtuosic. She perfectly balanced supporting a primary vocal line with artistry and life. This was especially evident in the show-stopping Hexenlied by Felix Mendelssohn.

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Susan Manoff

As a soprano, I had major repertoire envy, especially for La courte paille (Poulenc), a fun collection of child-themed songs. I was also jealous of Ms Piau’s comfort and impeccable technique.  Throughout her range, her tone remained so even and round. High notes floated and rang in the large hall. Vowels were so solid that I felt I could reach out an touch them.

They changed the order of the final set of Poulenc songs, choosing the start with the cabaret-esque (and oh-so-very-French) Les chemins d’amour, and closing with Sanglots, whose texts speaks of the unity of humanity, and the despair that comes from forgetting this. It made less sense musically, but politically was an interesting choice.  The thunderous applause caused them to return for two encores, however: Fantoches from Les fetes galantes (Debussy), and Sleep (Ivor Gurney). Sleep was especially moving; at the conclusion, there was a gap of silence as the entire audience breathed before breaking into applause.

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Most of the program can be heard via Spotify on the album Apres un reve by Sandrine Piau and Susan Manoff. I especially recommend Hexenlied and Nachtlied (Mendelssohn), and Les chemins d’amour (Poulenc). I also particularly enjoyed La courte paille (Poulenc), and Wasserrose (Strauss), though I can’t find recordings of these by Ms Piau.

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