"Before this pre-game show ends," mezzo-soprano Susan Graham announced on Super Bowl Sunday, near the end of her joint Celebrity Series recital with fellow Metropolitan Opera diva, soprano Renée Fleming, "I guarantee we have sung every note live." Most of the packed house at Symphony Hall probably wouldn't have opted for the Super Bowl even if the Patriots were playing. This was an opera-loving crowd, and they obviously loved hearing these two stars in their glamorous gowns ("Two divas, four dresses" — Graham pointed out the obvious) in their selection of French songs, arias, and duets.
It wasn't all singing though. The concert actually began with the recorded voice of the legendary Scottish-American soprano Mary Garden, who in 1902 created the role of Mélisande in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. "You sing talking," she told her interviewer, and that's just what you hear on her recordings and those of her fellow English-speaking soprano, Maggie Teyte, another great interpreter of French music and Garden's successor as Debussy's heroine. Their sublimely beautiful and expressive singing sounds uncannily as if they're also talking, urgently conveying the feelings within every word.
Fleming and Graham are wonderful singers, with gorgeous voices that blend so lusciously you could make a case that they sound even better together than they do alone. But there's seldom the sense that they are also talking to us. Conveying verbal nuance is always secondary to the production of a creamy sound. If the bloom is slightly off Fleming's magical voice, it's still one of the glories of today's opera world. And if Graham isn't as soulful an artist, her voice still glistens, and she's a delightful performer. They've been colleagues for 25 years and their six-concert tour (last stop Boston) was a celebration of friendship as well as music.
For the most part, they chose repertoire in which the words didn't matter so much: pastoral ditties and love songs, laments and comic numbers. Fleming sang — even milked — Debussy's "Beau soir," a song in which the beauty of the evening heightens our sense of mortality, with a decided emphasis on the beauty. Neither she nor Graham chose any of Debussy's more devastating settings, with their complex ironies. A dash of bitters might have heightened all the sweetness.
The particular treat was to hear rarely performed duets by Saint-Saëns and Fauré, Messager's delightful "Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche" (twin sisters), and Berlioz's extraordinary La mort d'Ophélie ("The Death of Ophelia"), along with such more-familiar duets as Offenbach's seductive "Barcarolle," the exquisite "Flower Duet" from Delibes's Lakmé (the British Airways theme), the first-act duet from Così fan tutte (another duet for sisters, delectably sung despite the heavy mugging), and in the final encore, as brother and sister (in the only piece not written in French), Hänsel und Gretel's evening prayer.
Besides the singing, they read to us from a script — mainly gossip about the sex lives of composers and singers, but little about the music. So we learned of Fauré's voracious sexual appetite, but not that his enchanting Pavane duet was actually written for piano and chorus before he turned it into a purely orchestral piece. We were informed, incorrectly, that Berlioz's wife, the failed actress Harriet Smithson, left him, when it seems to have been the other way around. Graham chatted about Reynaldo Hahn's affair with Proust, and that he smoked, sang, and accompanied himself on the piano simultaneously.