Music of the dark lady

I confess, I had a torrid affair this Valentine’s weekend. A threesome, actually — with Aviva and Dan: two terrifyingly talented performers who played songs of love, heartbreak, infidelity, and nostalgia at the Scottish Rite Cathedral Auditorium on Sunday. So what if there were 50 other people in the room? After an afternoon with the voice and guitar duo Audrey Babcock (aka Aviva) and Dan Nadel, you could have fooled me.

Just six months ago, Babcock appeared as Georges Bizet’s leading lady in the San Antonio Opera’s Carmen, dazzling audiences with alluring physicality and a fierce command of the monstrous work. For one night only she revisited San Antonio and the story of Carmen with a program of Sephardic stories and retellings inspired by the dark lady. We knew Babcock had a special penchant for drama, but on Sunday she topped herself as she jumped between a half-dozen personae, three languages, and countless styles. Together with Nadel, whose flamenco and classical guitar playing (not to mention his mind-blowing technique) were romantic and effortless, the combined artistry was unrelenting.

All fire and fervor, Aviva (Babcock’s recording moniker) entered wearing a black corset and deep shades of red for “Noches, Noches” and “Los Bilbilicos” — two longing Ladino (a mix of Spanish and Hebrew) tunes. Aviva slips in and out of languages easily with diction near perfect even in the Scottish Rite’s echoey space.

When Babcock gave background information between numbers, it was clear she has a tangible connection with not only Bizet’s Carmen, but the folklore of Carmen in all incarnations. Aviva and Dan took satisfying creative license throughout the performance, and as songs progressed through history, they were reinvented and thrust into a contemporary light. In a particularly stunning interpretation of Manuel De Falla’s “Asturiana,” Nadel began with eerie rumblings that crossed genres into something akin to Nick Drake sailing the Mediterranean. The piece was all of six lines of text, but any longer and its progressive harmonies would have erupted into an anthem.

Nadel shifted gears in a haunting “Nana,” or “Lullaby,” with fewer tremolos and more walking eighth notes that tiptoed across ghostly harmonics. Babcock soared to the top of her mezzo-soprano range elegantly in this sweet, lingering piece. At no point did she need amplification to fill the hall.

A set of three pieces by Reynaldo Hahn — a post-Bizet French composer and seminal writer of the telltale “French Mélodie” — was a delightful gem. Nadel speaks as many languages as his counterpart, completely changing his style to what can only be described as “oh, so French” — mischievous harmonies, irreverent melodies, and a ton of soul. Babcock nailed a sultry sustain in “Infidelité” and then moved into a strangely modern-sounding “L’Heure Exquise,” or “the Exquisite Hour,” whose arpeggiation harkens Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Finishing Hahn’s set was “Nostalgias,” and lyrics from all three leave you with the feeling of being kicked in the gut. And just in time for Valentine’s.

During the entire event, both performers’ execution was astonishing. No matter how challenging the finger-work passages, Nadel never made a misstep. Even though Babcock claimed to have woken up hoarse that day, the grit was nothing if not befitting.

And what would a performance titled “Beyond Carmen” be without a nod to the dark lady herself? Babcock and Nadel gave a spirited encore of more traditional selections from the opera.

San Antonio was lucky to have this award-winning vocal performer once before. Hopefully Aviva and Dan will make the Alamo City a home base as they continue their nationwide tour.