Renée Fleming VOICES Recital with pianist Kathleen Kelly

The Kennedy Center

“Opera is full of female artists and important female roles, so it’s revealing — not in a good way — that celebrating women in a recital is still something unusual. On Saturday, the mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and pianist Kathleen Kelly did just that, in a program on Renée Fleming’s “Voices” series (rescheduled from March) that combined music by women, music about women, and at least one piece written by men for men to sing that Barton, as she put it, decided simply to take over for herself.

Each half of the program opened with music by women — music that should not be as unfamiliar as it is. Amy Beach, Lili Boulanger and Nadia Boulanger, three composers of the late 19th and 20th centuries who left significant legacies in different ways, are hardly unknown names today — Nadia Boulanger not least by teaching a goodly number of significant (male) 20th-century composers, from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass.

Barton picked individual songs by each of them to open the concert, after starting with the cheerful, slightly anodyne “Heather,” by 20th-century composer Elinor Remick Warren. Lili Boulanger’s “Attente” offered evidence of the immense talent of this very young composer (she died at 24, having won the coveted Prix de Rome), chromatic and thoughtful. Beach’s “Ah, love but a day!” (from a group of three settings of Browning) was a solid dramatic effort in the parlor-song genre, much better than it needed to be, which Barton invested with operatic power.

If all of these four songs were in a familiar, neo-Romantic art-song vein, Libby Larsen’s wonderful cycle “Love after 1950,” settings of five poems by women, mined the American idiom more closely, and fit Barton like a glove. Each text is telling, each song distinct, starting with Rita Dove’s “Boy’s lips (a blues),” which Larsen imbued with a bluesy feel that Barton brought across to perfection.

Barton in any case often showed a straight tone that opened out into operatic vibrato on long notes; the straighter sound was admirably expressive in some of the Larsen pieces, while her comic gifts showed in “Big sister says, 1967 (a honky-tonk),” to a text by Kathryn Daniels. Her sung English was so clear that it hardly mattered that the theater was too dark to read the printed texts.

Indeed, the misapprehension that opera involves bigger singing and recitals a more intimate approach was blown out of the water by Barton’s large-scale approach to a solo evening. Barton is a singer with a big comfortable voice, from solid low to ringing high C (as she demonstrated in the evening’s first encore, “Alto’s Lament,” by Zina Goldrich). She is also a singer who has made recitals a key part of her career from the beginning, even before she won the Met Opera auditions in 2007, along with Michael Fabiano, Angela Meade and several other singers who have gone on to solid careers.

On Saturday, she offered operatic drama in Haydn’s long monodrama “Arianna a Naxos,” in many ways the most conventional piece on the program, and in Ravel’s “Chanson a boire,” in which Barton channeled inebriation with comic aplomb, turning each high note into a hiccup. But she also turned Duparc’s “Phydilé” into a ravishing piece of shimmering gold. And Strauss’s “Cäcilie,” on paper a conventional recital closer, was a little slower, a little more significant and resonant than the usual breathless outburst, something underscored by the rich playing of Kelly, the pianist, an adept partner throughout.

This is not to deny that Barton brings an outsized personality to the stage, and she went into high gear for her encores, having the audience in the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater (well-stocked with fans, to judge from the raucous cheers and whoops) vote between two options. The winner was “Alto’s Lament,” a signature piece of Barton’s that has her showing off her range while bemoaning the fate of a person forced to sing harmony all night (amusing, though hardly accurate in Barton’s case). The audience was so excited after this that she also sang the second one, “Acerba voluttà” from Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur,” showing Italianate verismo fire, and power to spare.”
–Anne Midgette, Washington Post

“In four opening songs, Barton bathed in lush, late romantic harmonies, and Kelly wielded a full sound at the keyboard in support of the singer’s broad, plentiful voice. Barton initiated phrases with a cushioned, soft attack, spinning them out in velvety legato. Surprises came in Haydn’s dramatic solo cantata Arianna a Naxos, where Barton produced a silky pianissimo sound relatively free of vibrato. Kelly mirrored her soloist with an equally subtle touch at the piano, which helped the duo create a wide range of dynamics and dramatic shading in the lengthy recitative sections. Early music is not something one would associate with this ample a dramatic voice, but Barton’s control and finesse could change one’s mind.”
–Charles T. Downey, Washington Classical Review

When opera singers turn to the rarified domain of the song recital, the results too often prove disappointing. The perceived need to prove one's bona fides across a range of repertory—German lieder, French chansons, contemporary songs—can lead to a program that dutifully checks all the boxes but fails to generate excitement. It can all feel too academic, too impersonal, and too constrained, neglecting to capture the individuality of the artist.

No such concerns, however, arose with Jamie Barton's recital at the Kennedy Center Family Theater on May 4, when the American mezzo-soprano delivered her trademark powerful singing but also, just as importantly, offered repertoire with a distinctive point of view.

Sensitively partnered by pianist Kathleen Kelly, Barton called the program "a celebration of women": music by female composers, music written by men about women, or music traditionally sung by men that Barton decided to take on and make her own. The evening proved to be a celebration not just of female voices in the abstract but also of Barton's own artistic voice—expressive, inquisitive, and intensely communicative.

From the very first entry, Elinor Remick Warren's "Heather," she showcased her assured dramatic and musical strengths: rich tone, seamless legato, elegant phrasing, and the technique to make it all look and sound ever so easy. She further demonstrated, on the two songs that followed—Lili Boulanger's "Attente" and Amy Beach's "Ah, love but a day!"— that sweeping grandeur does not have to come at the cost of intimate characterization.

The most substantial work on the first half of the program was Haydn's dramatic solo cantata, Arianna a Naxos. Supported by Kelly's crisp, limpid accompaniment, Barton elegantly captured the meditative mood of the opening recitative and aria before unleashing the full operatic force of her character's anger and despair. She essayed the tragic emotions of the opening section of the final aria in her glorious, richly colored lower register, while delivering the concluding presto with blazing intensity.

After intermission, Barton and Kelly turned to Love After 1950, a deliciously sly song cycle from 2000 by Libby Larsen. Setting texts by five contemporary English language poets, Larsen created what she has called "little real-life dramas" that portray the interior life of women experiencing love, longing, and the pressures of modern society.

The cycle proved an ideal vehicle for Barton, who vividly captured the distinctive voice of each song: the languorous self-possession of "Boy's lips (a blues)"; the teasing tartness of "Blonde men (a torch song)"; the brassy theatricality and sauciness of "Big sister says, 1967 (a honky-tonk)"; the hints of ruefulness that underlie "The empty song (a tango)"; and the subtle word-painting of "I make my magic (Isadora's dance)." It was a tour de force of musical characterization that was unmistakably contemporary in feel.

The program concluded with three songs originally written for or arguably ideally sung by men. Ravel's "Chanson à boire" was comically over-the-top; after all, if a mezzo is going to take on the persona of a drunk Don Quixote, a slice of ham may be necessary. In Henri Duparc's "Phidylé," Barton exquisitely rendered the pastoral scene-painting with voluptuous phrasing and delicate shadings, while bringing to bear a vocal weight in the song's rapturous climax that eludes many female interpreters.

For her encores, Barton pulled a minor bait and switch. She offered the audience a choice of either "Acerba voluttà" from Adriana Lecouvreur, or Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler's "Alto's Lament." The musical theater novelty song predictably won the audience's straw poll, sending one veteran music critic racing for the exit. That was unfortunate for him, as Barton and Kelly returned to the stage for a second encore and delivered what was for me the evening’s highlight: the aforementioned aria from Adriana Lecouvreur, sung with fiery authority and supreme technical command. Coming at the end of an ambitious song recital that ranged across a wide swath of musical idioms, it was a powerful reminder that Barton is a natural creature of the operatic stage and one of its brightest stars.”
–Simon Chin, Musical America

Beth Stewart