Monday, March 5, 2012

Opera San Jose: Betany Coffland, mezzo-soprano

Solo Recital
March 4, 2012

Running the madcap patter of Sondheim’s “I’m (Not) Getting Married Today,” Betany Coffland flubbed a line – and then stopped. She turned to her pianist, Simona Snitkovskaya, and said, “Let’s do it over – I almost got it that time!” On the second attempt, she got it.

I’ve long lamented the compulsion of opera singers to go Broadway (even the best have released some awful albums), but Sondheim’s a good match, and it’s nice to hear his songs without that sinking feeling that the performer might not have all the necessary notes. Coffland recruited baritone Daniel Cilli and soprano Erin Temel to give her finale a full-cast feel, and brought operatic power to bear on “Children Will Listen,” the haunting thesis of Into the Woods.

Knowing Coffland’s intelligence and taste (are mezzos really smarter or do they just have to work harder?), her ability to assemble an intriguing recital is no surprise. She began with Handel’s lovely “As With Rosy Steps,” backed by a string quartet. The piece gave her a chance to display the touching lightness of her bel canto approach and offered her audience a pleasing old-school appetizer.

From there it was straight to a living, breathing (and actually in attendance) composer: My Little Wicked Ways, a cycle of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems written for Coffland by Daniel Felsenfeld. The composer’s eccentric, fetching intervals brought a sense of peril to Millay’s sultry lines, giving Coffland a chance to show her darker, more somber tones over an energetic piano accompaniment that often climbed into the upper registers (played with great expression and interplay by Veronika Agranov-Dafoe). The cycle also made excellent use of unaccompanied phrases, especially the final line, “Till I become accustomed to the dark.”

Another paradigm shift to Five Lewis Carroll Poems by John Duke, beginning with the operetta dance of “The Lobster Quadrille,” ending with a setting of the infamous “Jabberwocky” that was playfully eerie and comically sincere. Coffland did a good job of deadpan acting, which is not always easy when you’re singing phrases like “frumious Bandersnatch.”

The program also featured The Curlew by Peter Warlock, based on four poems by William Yeats. The work gives equal time to singer and sextet, including some lush, compelling parts for English horn (Jesse Barrett) and cello (Lucinda Breed Lenicheck). It was the most operatic of the day’s offerings, and gave Coffland a chance to show some power. The first half of the final song, “He Hears the Cry of the Sedge,” was unaccompanied, a stunning effect beautifully delivered.

The recital was completely in English, which placed an emphasis on the singer’s affection for poetry and skill with diction. The first of the three Sondheim songs, “On the Steps of the Palace,” returned Coffland to the role of Cinderella, which served as a pleasant reminder of her performance in Opera San Jose’s Cenerentola.

Opera San Jose’s next performance is Gounod’s Faust, April 21-May 6. 408/437-4450,

Photo by Elena Generally.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the novel Operaville, available at

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