Review: A Singer Scales Back Her Grand-Opera Voice

Posted December 19, 2017 5:22 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who won the Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award this year and recently received accolades for her portrayal of Adalgisa in the Met’s production of Bellini’s “Norma,” is riding a wave of popularity. Her vocal style, which can be steely but also malleable and even vulnerable, is ideally suited to grand opera.

For a listener not always in tune with the adoring audience at Barton’s recital in the intimate Zankel Hall on Monday evening, the sheer scale of the performances made for uncomfortable moments. Yet fine artist that she is, Barton generally tamped down the volume in a thoughtful and deeply satisfying program.

In partnership with the pianist and coach Kathleen Kelly, Barton devised and presented an evening of works mostly by or about women. Which is to say that the points of view were often male. Barton said between numbers that she wanted to “challenge the idea of sexuality” in music.

“Who can sing what?” she asked.

Such questions are much in the air. Over the weekend, Trinity Wall Street’s annual presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” posed similar provocations, as soprano soloists exchanged roles with tenors, altos with basses. (Barton will presumably have no such freedom in her “Messiah” with the Philadelphia Orchestra this week.)

The recital opened with strong, unhackneyed songs by women: Elinor Remick Warren, Lili and Nadia Boulanger, and Amy Beach. Barton and Kelly then created real drama of love, loss and betrayal with Haydn’s little cantata “Arianna a Naxos.”

The second half brought wondrous variety, starting with “of you,” a new cycle of six songs by the British composer Iain Bell, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and set to poems of E.E. Cummings. Bell’s settings rival the Cummings poems in pointed terseness, and Barton’s performances matched them in coloristic subtleties.

She caught the flavor of “suddenly a smile, shyly obscene” with a delicious sensuous tinge that served equally well in the first of three songs from Libby Larsen’s “Love After 1950”: “A boy’s lips are soft as baby’s skin.” Barton shifted gears cannily in the sardonicism of the second Larsen song, “Big Sister Says,” as Kelly made light work of an ingenious piano part that somehow married honky-tonk with the beastly finale of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata.

Barton was delightful as a tipsy Don Quixote in the “Drinking Song” from Ravel’s “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.” Both performers were sheer loveliness in Duparc’s “Phydylé” and Strauss’ “Cacilie.”

For encores, Barton fell back on two comfort zones. She first took the stage, she said, when she was 6, with a song from the musical “Peter Pan.” Here she drew on the same show with “Never Never Land.” And she ended in prime operatic territory with “Acerba voluttà” from Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur.”