Live from the Cullen: Sasha Cooke and Kirill Kuzmin. 2021. Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Kirill Kuzmin, piano. HGO Digital. Contents: Giovanna d’arco (Gioacchino Rossini), Frauenlieben und -leben, op. 20 (Robert Schumann), “Self-Portrait with Disheveled Hair” (Missy Mazzoli), “That Night” (Hilary Purrington), “Dear Colleagues” (Rene Orth). Digital stream (56:41), www.houstongrandopera.org/. Free with registration.
During this challenging time for the performing arts, it is a welcome respite to watch a recital performed and produced at such a high level. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and pianist Kirill Kuzmin provide such an escape in their recital for Houston Grand Opera’s “Live from the Cullen” recital series. The varied program includes Rossini’s Giovanna d’Arco and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, as well as three world premieres commissioned by Sasha Cooke.
Cooke chose the Rossini cantata Giovanni d’Arco to honor her connection to Houston Grand Opera. Written for the courtesan Olimpia Pélissier (Rossini’s future bride), the operatic cantata celebrates the vision and determination of the young Joan of Arc with vocal fireworks that would challenge the best bel canto singers. Cooke presents a strong and confident Joan, singing the difficult coloratura with ease. The mezzo-soprano excels when singing long-spun phrases, her rich sound blooming at both the top and bottom of her range.
Cooke delivers a mature and expressive interpretation of Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben. Although the saccharine text—from the standpoint of a woman, but written by a man—can be grating to some, Cooke is sincere and joyous in her depiction of the narrator’s memory of her husband and their life. The voluptuous nature of Cooke’s sound and the maturity of her artistry make the mezzo-soprano the ideal singer for this beloved song cycle. Kuzmin deftly supports and encourages Cooke’s sensitive use of rubato, stunning colors, and detailed use of language with his generous playing. His performance of the final postlude brought the journey full circle, reminding us of the innocence of the beginning colored with the weight of a life well lived.
In response to the challenge of the pandemic, Cooke commissioned sixteen composers for a collection titled Songs in a time of silence. Three of these commissions, all written in the fall of 2020, are included in this program. A reflection on Rembrandt’s numerous portraits, Missy Mazzoli’s “Self-Portrait with Disheveled Hair” (text by Royce Vavrek) is a haunting song that ventures into the jazzy and expansive lines typical of Mazzoli’s compositions. “That Night” by Hilary Purrington (text by Mark Campbell) reflects on the joy of a perfect night out in the city. The combined gusto of the rhythmical piano with the sultry vocal line remind us of all we have to look forward to when life returns to normal. The last song, “Dear Colleagues,” by Rene Orth (text by Colleen Murphy), is perhaps the most viscerally relevant to our time. A charming, and relatable song, “Dear Colleagues” gives us a window into the challenges of a working-from-home parent. The song brilliantly depicts the impossible situation parents continue to live through. Ms. Cooke’s impeccable diction and sincere interpretations provide convincing world premieres for these three songs.