Last Monday night, Jamie Barton sang a recital in Zankel Hall, in the company of Kathleen Kelly, her pianist. Barton is a mezzo-soprano from Georgia (not the former Soviet colony). This was not her first recital in Zankel Hall, as she had sung one in the 2014–15 season (which I reviewed here).
On the more recent occasion, the hall was packed, including with the singer’s friends, colleagues, and well-wishers. They did a fair amount of whooping—and they had a lot to whoop about.
Barton sang an eclectic program, comprised of songs both familiar and un-. On the first half of her recital, she sang music by two American composers, Elinor Remick Warren and Amy Beach, and two Frenchwomen: Nadia Boulanger and her sister Lili, who died so young (twenty-four). She also sang the Haydn cantata Arianna a Naxos.
In the first song, by Warren, several things were clear. Barton is a generous singer. She has an obvious love of music, and singing, and performing. She also has excellent, clear English. And the ability to sing in tune. Frankly, she reminded me of Eileen Farrell, in this first song. The late star was a soprano, not a mezzo, but Barton reminded me of her in sound and manner. They share an unpretentiousness, for one thing.
Kathleen Kelly played capably, as she would throughout the evening.
The second song, by Lili Boulanger, had a significant fault, in my judgment. It did not beguile. And Barton’s French is no match for her English. If I were to pick at the next song, by Beach, I would say that, when the singer effected a diminuendo, her sound turned thin.
One could keep on picking, but, in whatever she did, Barton was likable—and likability is a special ingredient for a singer. You could ask Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato, among others. Likability goes a long way.
Haydn’s cantata is very “exposed,” and Zankel is an exposed hall. What I mean is, it’s a “loud” hall, in which faults are magnified—bare—and there is nowhere to hide. Barton sang her Haydn bravely. She also sang it well. There was a feeling of solidity about her. She sang both correctly and feelingly. She did not handle the music with sugar tongs—she did not treat it too delicately—yet, at the same time, she did not plow through it.
After intermission, she started with a new work by Iain Bell, an English composer born in 1980. Titled of you, it is a cycle of six songs on poems of E. E. Cummings. These songs are skillful and imaginative. And they are as exposed, I would say, as the Haydn. Once more, Barton showed excellent, clean English. She was straightforward, without a hint of affectation. Here was a confident, un-self-conscious woman, allowing us to hear the music rather than her.
Once the cycle was finished, the composer himself took the stage, for bowing. In addition to greeting and thanking the singer and the pianist, he gave a little salute—a literal salute—to the page-turner.
Barton and Kelly then turned to songs by Libby Larsen, the American composer. They did three of the five songs in Love after 1950. Barton let her hair down, and even got southern. Again, she reminded me of Eileen Farrell (though Farrell was a New Englander). Barton was perfectly natural and comfortable.
At some point in this second half, she talked to the audience, which was a mistake, I think. It took away from the magic of a recital. She said that she was singing old songs by women, and new songs, and songs about sexuality or whatnot. This was obvious. But, in recent times, musicians have insisted on saying the obvious from the stage. At least Barton was brief, and charming.
She ended her printed program with three very well-known songs—starting with Ravel’s “Chanson à boire.” It was très comique (even trop comique, in my opinion). Then came Duparc’s “Phidylé.” This was the most misguided effort of the evening. The song lacked its pulse, and it was warped by rubato. It had none of the coolness that makes the song hot.
The last song was Strauss’s “Cäcilie,” which was strangely unfree. It was earthbound, lacking its ebullience.
In any event, Barton sang two encores, both of which were superb. First came “Never Never Land” from Peter Pan: clean, fresh-scrubbed, utterly unaffected. Second came a dose of verismo—the aria “Acerba voluttà” from Adriana Lecouvreur. Quite simply, Barton sang the bejesus out of it. Marilyn Horne would have blushed and cheered.