Soprano Clarissa Lyons, June 2, 2013

Carmel Music Society winner returns

By Scott MacClelland

Soprano Clarissa Lyons has come a great distance since winning the Carmel Music Society’s 2012 vocal competition. She returned Saturday night to honor the award with an ambitious recital at Carmel’s Sunset Center. Partnered with pianist Bretton Brown, also in the early years of an obviously substantial career, the singer plainly had worked out her interpretive ideas in terms of the texts on offer set to music, an essential foundation for any serious vocalist. But her partner was in no way relegated to the role of accompanist. The second set of songs, Debussy’s Proses Lyriques, put Brown through extraordinarily challenging paces. These rarely programmed pieces, for which Debussy wrote both words and music, came as a real surprise to local fans of the singing voice. With striking musical imagery, the set of four songs explores a dreamy fantasy, ocean waves just offshore, the colors of flowers as metaphors for human moods and emotions, and an almost-childlike evening reverie.

Lyons’ is a robust soprano, rather than delicate, though flexible of mood and color. Operatic implications came through many of these inherently more intimate pieces. At louder moments she tended to drive a bit hard, and, though not glaringly, pitch sometimes slipped away from true while passing to the next note of destination. (These are solvable technical matters that more experience will almost certainly rectify.)

Lyons opened her program with three well-known Schubert settings of Goethe verses, Suleika I, Heidenröslein and Gretchen am Spinnrade. The first Schubert found her a little tight, not surprising at the start of a big program. By its end, she had already noticeably relaxed. However, she needs to rethink her approach to Gretchen. Schubert paints a harrowing picture of a terrified young girl, pregnant and unmarried, in the grip of hysteria. As the spinning wheel, the piano drives the drama with frightening energy. Even in the middle section, when Gretchen muses on the man she loves, and in the finale, where her terror turns to despair, panic underlies the entire song. That cutting edge was missing from Lyons’ performance.

An entirely different piano sound from either Schubert or Debussy inhabits the set of four songs by Sibelius: “The First Kiss,” a seductive romance; “Little Lass,” a charming folksong with dark corners; “Was it a dream,” a heartbroken love song with a great surge of feeling, and “The Girl came from meeting her beloved,” wherein the girl lies to her mother about her passionate trysts until his betrayal fill her with thoughts of suicide.

Folksong settings by Britten found the composer teasing the verses with almost merciless piano parts, a kind of contrapuntal mischief that made them both quirky and beguiling. Cabaret songs by William Bolcom made a big hit, including the ill-fated love song, Toothbrush Time, the breakup disaster At the Last Lousy Moments of Love, another love bubble that bursts Over the Piano, the waiting-for-love hymn Waitin’ and the everybody-loves-me Amor.

Lyons was at her most assured in the three operatic scenes that completed the evening, Rusalka’s ode to the moon by Dvořák, Mimi’s farewell to Rodolfo from La bohème and Csardas from Die Fledermaus.