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Opera News Album Review: From the Diary of Sally Hemings

- August 1, 2010

It would have been fascinating had Sally Hemings actually left behind a diary; a first-person written account by Thomas Jefferson's famous slave/paramour, who quite probably bore him children, would be illuminating, not to mention historic. No such document exists (to the best of our knowledge), but playwright Sandra Seaton created an imaginary one for William Bolcom, at the composer's request. Bolcom in turn had been asked to compose a song cycle on Hemings by mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar. Quivar sang the premiere of the cycle in 2001; the current disc, featuring soprano Alyson Cambridge, is its first recording.

Seaton's texts are, as she herself puts it, a product of the imagination, within the bounds of historic possibility. Most significantly, her Sally Hemings is a woman "whose intellect and taste were limited neither by her legal status nor racial categorization." As a teenager, Hemings accompanied Jefferson to France for his tenure as American envoy there. Seaton's Hemings is permanently affected by the enlightenment this experience offered in terms of cultural and societal awareness. It also gives Bolcom, who studied with Darius Milhaud, the opportunity to provide an appealing dash of French influence to the music. By contrast, Bolcom, who is celebrated for his skill at combining classical and popular idioms, steers mostly clear of any obvious African–American musical references, such as jazz or spirituals. This is decidedly an art-song cycle, reflecting Bolcom's skill at text-setting and his seemingly bottomless wellspring of inspiration. The music teems with vitality, even in the slower numbers, and melds seamlessly with Seaton's libretto to create a rich, multi-hued inner life for this intriguing figure.

Cambridge is an elegant, exuberant Sally, who handles the challenging music and colorful text with ease, providing a thoughtfully conceived, engaging characterization. Some of it seems a tad oversung, with Cambridge often allowing her creamy sound to pour out voluminously at the expense of putting across the words more directly. Cambridge's beauty of tone is never in dispute, but the voice of Bolcom's earthy, flesh-and-blood protagonist is sometimes overwhelmed by the polish of the opera singer. The impressive pianist Lydia Brown is a fully equal partner in this powerful performance, giving vibrant, flawless accounts of Bolcom's kaleidoscopic and frequently dense piano parts.
JOSHUA ROSENBLUM

Full Article: http://www.operanews.com/operanews/templates/content.aspx?id=16487

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