Chamber Music at the Barns

Wolf Trap Opera

Opera-lovers often long for products of the old school. Jamie Barton, the mezzo-soprano who gave a recital at the Wolf Trap Barns on Friday night, is an example of the very best of the new one.

Let me explain. The “old school” of opera nostalgia is full-throated, emotionally volatile terrain staked out by adjectives such as “fierce” and “demented.” The new school leads singers through young-artist programs that seek to produce good colleagues and well-rounded multi-taskers who can produce a range of languages and repertoire with accuracy and enthusiasm. Often, these younger singers leave older opera-lovers a little wistful; Barton, however, leaves nothing at all to be desired.

Barton is actually a timeless singer, because anyone who can produce a strong, effortless, rich, expressive sound with such reliability doesn’t deserve to be limited by labels. But she is certainly the singer that American training programs are trying to produce, and not only because she has gathered in a whole armful of awards and victories: the Met auditions, the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, and most recently the Marian Anderson award, which she officially collected at a small but outstanding recital, with two other singers, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater a couple of weeks ago.

Her voice is operatic: big and dramatic, with a huge chest register she’s not afraid to open up and wallow in, and top notes that sound fresh and clear. However, as she showed on Friday, she’s also perfectly at home as a recitalist, sensitive to the nuances and scale of art songs, and able to sing idiomatically in different styles and languages, talk to the audience, and champion contemporary music — to the extent, on Friday, of making it the audience favorite.

Barton appears to be someone who satisfies everyone that she’s going by the book, while writing her own rules when she chooses. Little on the first half of Friday’s program took her off the beaten track: She offered a set of Brahms that was stentorian and formal, with a quality of plumminess; a set of Ives that was fresher, lighter and more spontaneous; and three songs by Rachmaninoff that she invested with ardor without, to her credit, succumbing to the quality of semi-hysteria that these songs seem to invite. The final song in the set, “All Glory to God,” was the rarity, a late piece left unpublished at his death, and it rang out in Barton’s voice, shining rather than ponderous. On the piano, Kim Pensinger Witman, the head of the Wolf Trap Opera (where Barton performed in 2009), matched both her ardor and her straightforwardness.

Barton then left the recital template altogether. The second half of the evening was devoted to “Bon Appetit” by the late Lee Hoiby who, for this one-woman, one-act opera, simply adapted an episode of Julia Child’s television show “The French Chef,” meaning that the singer, accompanied by a wind quintet and piano, actually has to prepare a chocolate cake. (Wolf Trap set up a full kitchen counter, stand mixer and all.) Barton’s performance was so note-perfect, and so genuinely funny, that it was easy to forget that the piece might be difficult for someone else to pull off. Hoiby’s music is quite wonderful, with the winds miming some of the actions in the text and offering their own flavor of plummy support. What came across was simple delight.

To top-notch musicianship and beauty of vocal tone Barton adds another undervalued ingredient: a sense of the enjoyment and fun of singing. Friday’s recital achieved the elusive goal of an experience like a well-balanced meal, with a variety of flavors, all served up with relish and thoroughly appreciated by all, and topped off, literally, by dessert: Wolf Trap followed “Bon Appetit” with truffles for all from L’Auberge Chez François afterward.
–Anne Midgette, Washington Post