In celebration of Shakespeare’s 445th birthday, soprano Susan Gundunas takes the stage with a fun, theatrical, and at times awe-inspiring performance and recording of scenes, sonnets and songs from Shakespeare in a “mashup,” of sorts, with six centuries-worth of composers inspired by the Bard. A “mashup,” according to Bruce Avery, professor of English Literature at San Francisco State University and one of the dramaturges for this performance, occurs when “the vocal track from one song is layered over the musical track of another.” The juxtaposition creates “fresh insights into meaning and emotion.” Gundunas’ version of a mashup sets Shakespeare’s words atop the music of different composers from the 16th-21st century.
Agreed, this compilation is fresh and meaningful, and comprised in such a manner that not only takes the listener on a Shakespearean journey loosely based on “The Seven Ages of Man,” but also through the evolution of classical music. Gundunas begins with a theatrical, recitative delivery of Jaques’ famed monologue, “All the world’s a stage…” adopting the natural rhythms of ordinary speech in order to set the pattern for the songs to come.
And so we move through the seven ages, from the infant to the schoolboy, the lover to the soldier seeking the elusive “bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth.” From the justice to the pantaloon, and then back to the beginning, in so called “second childishness,” although packed with the wisdom of the ages.
Gundunas appropriately begins with a rich and vibrotic rendition of “Where the Bee Sucks” (The Tempest, 1611), composed by Robert Johnson. Johnson, an English composer and famed lutenist, scored a number of songs for the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s playing company under James I) between 1610-1617, and is the only known composer whose music is proven to be directly connected to stage performances. This piece showcases Gundunas’ mature voice as well as Shakespeare’s words, leaving music, at this point, tertiary in rank. The songs that follow include such composers as Joseph Vernon, Thomas Morely (speculation has it that Morley may have also composed for Shakespeare’s stage), and John Caulfield, and Gundunas plays each part sparklingly well. But the final stage—the seventh age—is stunning. Going back to the beginning with “Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies,” another piece from The Tempest and also by Johnson, Gundunas gives depth to the words by matching their meaning with a voice that is breathtakingly beautiful.
Celtic harpist Diana Rowan and Daniel Lockert on harpsichord (and later piano) accompany Gundunas throughout. During “The Early Settings,” as well as “The Seven Ages of Man,” Rowan and Lockert follow suit with the appropriate measure of music at the time of composition. The accompaniment follows strophic form, in which each stanza is very similar to the next, and while both are lovely and charming to the ear, at this point, the music is secondary to the words.
And then the genesis of great opera begins in the Baroque period with Henry Purcell and, granted, a questionable setting for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. (It’s believed Purcell only used the first line of this soliloquy in his composition, but who am I to be “a snapper up of unconsidered trifles?") Gundunas delivers the opening lines, “If music be the food of love” in a call and release with harpsichord and harp before exhibiting her vocal range with ornate scales and extended tones suitable for the era, the evolution of opera apparent as Gundunas shows us what she’s made of.
Lockert is permitted the opportunity to exhibit his prowess on the piano when the program journeys into the late Classical period with Franz Joseph Haydn. The piece, “She Never Told Her Love,” from Twelfth Night, is a standout, as Gundunas’ voice reaches that soft, sweet spot of longing and loss, the words too beautiful to be left unsaid:
She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm in the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek…;
She sat, like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.
Vincenzo Bellini brings us into the Romantic period followed by Richard Strauss, who transitions us into the 20th century with “Drittes Lied Der Ophelia.” Gundunas introduces this heartbreaking piece by delivering Ophelia’s soliloquy, “Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown…” Finally, Verdi’s Othello enters the scene with “Ave Maria” and Gundunas is immaculate in delivery. The Romantic period seems to have been made for Shakespeare and his tragedies. These composers tackle the passion, the fire, and the fury of Romeo, Juliet, Ophelia, Othello and a cast of others, establishing mood and setting and unleashing the passions of the text. And in the 20th century, we have an audience who is ready and eager for more. This is the time when words and music just aren’t enough, and somehow, someway, these composers tap into the psychology of Shakespeare, at times reaching into the darkest depths, expressing sights previously left unseen.
But just as Shakespeare knows when to offer his audience a moment of comic relief, so Gundunas gives her captivated audience a much-needed laugh in the midst of Shakespearean tragedy. Gundunas is both adorable and theatrically impressive as she plays both Juliet and Nurse as Juliet waits for and receives news of Romeo’s intentions of marriage. Gundunas proves her stock on this stage as a seasoned soprano, opera diva, and actress.
And Shakespeare proves his stock as well—over and over again. The final part of the performance guides us through the 20th century, introducing each segment with a sonnet. Sonnet 23, “As an unperfect actor on the stage...” precedes Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Orpheus With His Lute” (Henry VIII), showing yet again the precision in creating this compilation of music as the two pieces communicate with one another with imagery of eyes and ears: hearing without seeing. Williams’ piece also makes sense because of its patriotic undertone (Orpheus is considered the first legislator of mankind), and the nationalistic trend in music at the time. Williams’ music was rediscovered and finally appreciated after his death, and he can be credited with reestablishing an English approach to Shakespeare-inspired music.
But this journey would not be complete without bringing Shakespeare to the present day, and it’s clear the Bard’s in good hands with San Francisco Bay Area-based composer Alva Henderson. Henderson brings us into that realm of “second childishness” with a beautiful composition of Sonnet 30, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought.” The piece is in rhythmic, ¾ time, and breathes in and out a rocking motion, combining the angst and comfort of the words expressed. Gundunas is gripping and the piece is one of sweet remembrance.
And to close the show, Henderson offers a somewhat Weberesque composition of “Sigh No More Ladies,” showing us once again that Shakespeare plays remarkably well on any worldly stage, but don’t let the title of the final play fool you. This compilation is hardly Much Ado About Nothing; rather, it's just As You Like It, and this review is merely the icing on one very good (birthday) cake.
To purchase a CD of this performance, featuring soprano Susan Gundunas, Daniel Lockert (harpsichord/piano), Diana Rowan (Celtic harp), with thanks to producer and sound engineer Scott Barta, visit susangundunas.net. (Expected release date for "All the World's a Stage": 6/1/2009)
This celebration was recorded at Seventh Avenue Performances, housed at the Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA, and headed by Managing Director J. Jeff Badger. Seventh Avenue Performances is dedicated to bringing “diverse professional performances to the Inner Sunset Community of San Francisco.
For more information on upcoming events at Seventh Avenue Performances, visit sevenperforms.org.