Thinking back to more or less a year ago, I realize it's become a pattern: in early spring, get on the waiting list for a Tuesday Evening Concert featuring a mezzo I don't know as well as I could; luck out and get a great seat within bouquet-tossing distance of the performers; spend the evening listening raptly; blog about it afterwards. Last year it was Katarina Karnéus; this year it was Magdalena Kožená.
The program consisted of arias and ballet music by Rameau and Gluck, with some Jean-Féry Rebel for good measure; Les Violons du Roy were the orchestra. The gods of seat-assignment must have been smiling, because I was in the third row of seats almost directly in front of the stage. I love watching musicians' faces as they play. It's a sight I don't get to see often enough, given how many concerts and operas I've seen from the upper reaches of the balcony.* By the end of the evening, I felt as if I knew everyone in the orchestra.
And then there was Magdalena Kožená. To see someone sing at that close range is startling. You're not looking at a remote figure under the spotlights. You're almost near enough to touch another person whose voice seems almost too big to really be issuing from her. You wonder where it all comes from, this braided liquid current of song that contracts to an almost-whisper at some moments and then expands to fill the whole auditorium. She made it all sound effortless. She excels at pathos; she began with Gluck's Alceste and ended with Rameau's doomed Phedre from Hippolyte et Aricie. In her first aria, insisting that dying to save Admetus would be no sacrifice next to life without him — "Non, ce n'est point un sacrifice! .... Pourrais-je vivre sans toi?" — she laid out Alceste's grief and inner struggle and resignation so clearly that I had no need to follow the translation in my program. There was something moving even in the way she articulated the word "tombeau" in a short, sombre aria from Rameau's Castor et Pollux. The whole evening was full of moments like that.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the orchestral parts of the program, especially the music from Dardanus, which had everyone leaning forward. Also Rebel's Les Élémens, which started with an evocation of Chaos that sounded startlingly modern. In fact, if I have any complaint, it's this: as one of the people near me said at intermission, the orchestra got to vary the mood of the evening quite a bit, while most of Magdalena's arias were of the lamenting "Alas, cruel fate!" kind. But I was very glad to hear her in something closer to rage-aria mode halfway through the program. Her Clytemnestre (from Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide) showed that her clear, pure voice could conjure bolts of lightning as well as tears.
Sadly, there were no encores. I'm going to keep an eye out for her "French Arias" CD so I can hear her in something more recent for contrast.
* I've toyed with the idea of writing a novel whose first chapter takes up the points of view of a whole series of musicians at the same concert. Someday I may even write it, if I can ever decide where to go from there and how to avoid turning it into knockoff Virginia Woolf.