We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Jamie Barton --photo by Stacey Bode

When an opera singer gets a lengthy standing ovation with whoops and shouts, the world must sit up and take notice.  This generation has not seen the likes of mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton whose stardom is assured.  If folks outside of the opera world got to hear last night's recital at Zankel Hall, Beyoncé might be knocked off her perch.

When we speak of a complete artist, this is what we have in mind: a thrilling instrument, perfect technique, compelling stage presence, engagement with the material and rapport with the audience.  All this Ms. Barton has in spades.  Her richly textured voice reminds one of a chocolatey porter; it is as smooth and weighty as burnished brass.

The remarkable feature is that every song sounds different as Ms. Barton seems to channel the intent of the poet.  This was particularly evident in the set of Schubert songs, each a very particular setting of poetry by Goethe.  Schubert chose the texts wisely, as wisely as Ms. Barton did in selecting them for her program.

The ballad "Der König in Thule" was a chance to tell a story whereas "Gretchen am Spinnrade", (with Bradley Moore's piano keeping the spinning wheel spinning obsessively), is more of a mood piece, reaching its desperate apogee with the words "sein kuss" lapsing into rapture. On this phrase, Ms, Barton opened up her voice and gave us goosebumps. "Schäfers Klagelied" was imbued with a lovely lilting waltz feeling while "Rastlose Liebe" was, well, restless. It was a stunning set.

No less stunning were Ernest Chausson's elegiac chansons, all delicacy and tenderness.  We loved all three: "Le colibri" was so effective that we saw the hummingbird drowning in the cup of the hibiscus.  The charming "Hébé" speaks of lost youth and "Le temps des lilas" speaks of lost love and the irreversibility of time.  All this was captured by this gifted artist and her fine collaborative pianist Bradley Moore.  The long lyric lines were typically Gallic in character. What memorable melodies he wrote!

Readers will recall how fond we are of Spanish music and can imagine how thrilled we were to be introduced to Joaquín Turina's Homenaje a Lope de Vega comprising three songs marked by classical technique and folky melodies.  Although the first canción "Cuando tan hermosa os miro" addressed romantic disappointment, the second "Si con mis deseos" was filled with spirit, and the final "Al val de Fuentes Ovejuna" told of a knight determined to win over a reluctant beauty.

Antonín Dvořák's Gypsy Songs are deeply emotional and convey all the freedom of gypsy life that we fantasize about.  We have heard them many times in German but this was the first time we heard them in the original Czech of Adolf Heyduk.  It was fascinating to hear the melody follow the sound of the language, even though we don't understand a single word of Czech.  There is much sadness in these songs as well as the thrill of the dance, not to mention the nostalgia for the poet's learning to sing from his elderly mother. The emotional sweep had a huge impact as Ms. Barton dug deeply into her feelings.

Contemporary composer Jake Heggie wrote a cycle entitled The Work at Hand, sung without break, a setting of poetry written by Laura J. Morefield who was struggling with cancer.  In the text there is courage, grace, joy and hope.  The audience seemed to love it and Ms. Barton was accompanied by cellist Anne Martindale Williams as well as piano. The piece was written for Ms. Barton and last night was its world premiere. She will also premiere in the orchestral version with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

The work opens with some punchy nervous music and the cello plays some strange ascending scales while the voice enjoys some lovely melismatic passages.  We preferred the music in the latter part when the piano played a gentle tinkly theme on the upper reaches of the keyboard.  We did not find the vocal line particularly musical but Ms. Barton invested it with meaning.  Every now and then we caught a few words but, like most singing in English, not very many.  Still, the free verse did not seem to lend itself to a melodic vocal line and, for our taste, did not thrill as did the rest of the program.

For encores, Ms. Barton sang two spirituals: "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" and "Ride On King Jesus".  How interesting that every word was clear!

ⓒ meche kroop

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