We saw Susan Graham a about three weeks back as she disported herself in a queen-sized bedroom frolic with Renee Fleming, as co-stars in Der Rosenkavalier at Lincoln Center in New York. We were watching from the dress circle which is not exactly New Jersey, but it is a good city block from the stage (my favorite location, as it happens, but that is another story). We saw her last night at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis, from a distance of about 110 feeet. Let's just say that you notice the difference.
First point: as U Utah Phillips liked to say, the dude is big-- an easy six feet, pretty much of a head taller than anybody else in her company. We were watching from the third row, so I guess you could say ten feet out plus six feet up, and if I remember my high school geometry, that's actually about 11.6 feet from her eyes to mine, though she missed a chance to lock on. But it brings me to my second point: the dude is loud, in the sense of having enough vocal power to lift the roof off and spin it around a coupler of times. Not quite Joan-Sutherland loud, but that's not entertainment, that's grotesque. Just a naturally powerfull (or unnaturally well-trained?) voice, that cazn command an audience all the way to the dress circle.
The particular item on display was Handel's Dido and Aeneas, which has enchanted me since I first heard it when I was 19 (although come to think of it, I'm not sure I ever saw it live before). And the intimate quarters allowed a third insight. that is: she had a superbly well qualified supporting cast, but not one of them had the belt-it-out power of the star. So you could just see that, for all their talent and training, they were doomed to smaller halls and more stingy paydays than the diva. I felt particularly sorry for Cyndia Sieden who played Dido's sister Belinda: she had to stand right next to Graham and open before her, and I think that would be enough to throw any but another diva a bit off-stride.
Clearly Graham has a lot of raw natural ability, but I don't mean to dismiss her as a mere animal act. She's a meticulous preparer, and we've seen her now in half a dozen different roles, about as different as you could hope for--aside from Strauss, we saw her first as the lead in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride; later in Handel's Ariodante and Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. Mrs. Buce also saw her as Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni and anyway, the point is--put that together with Dido and you've got a tremendous range of material, forgetting about all the stuff we haven't seen. A first-rate talent at the top of her game; something to remember.